Read the Strong and Weak signals

I picked this headline from a recent webinar talk by Prof Vijay Govindarajan of Tuck School. He was speaking about the future of education in the context of Covid-19. He also said that one cannot plan the future but it is possible to prepare for the future. And to do so, we need to read the strong signals like Covid-19 with its global ramification, and also try to pick the weak signals and read them. Govindarajan’s words has been rankling my mind for last few days, as I am trying to find and figure out the weak signals looking beyond Covid-19, to get some clues to prepare for that future. Trust me it is hard to find and the feeble signals are even harder to decode.

This morning I had an hour-long conversation with a young friend who is also a serial small scale entrepreneur. He started his entrepreneurial career as a ten-year old student who in his spare-time, hawked newspapers, initially to add to his pocket money, and later, assisted shopkeepers in sales and accounts, adding enough money to play with stocks. He rose steadily in his career starting in sales and rising to the level of CEO of a small Media Company and then one day, he pulled himself out from employment of another to become a full time entrepreneur, creating jobs for others. He tried and tested several SME business models running department stores, interior design consultancy, media production and advertisement consultancy simultaneously. He experimented with building business from scratch and then turning it over to franchises, pulling out from direct running. For a decade and half that I have seen and known him, he is a fighter and he has never given up against any adversity including life-threatening illness he had to go through several times. I heard him worried and anxious for the first time. He spoke about the plight of SMEs who are unable to restart as the labour they had supported generously for two months have all gone with no sign of their early return. Today, he asked me to decode the weak signals for him and tell him the future. I couldn’t.

As a student, I had often heard of a quote, “History repeats itself”. But as a student of history I have never seen the facts getting repeated over time. I remember a Professor who solved this mystery for me with a plain explanation. “History is full of lessons, and a deep study of history helps to decode the lessons as warning bells, signals to be picked up and acted upon, in time so that similar fate could be avoided”. He said no army in history has been able to win a war against Russia in the winter season, yet greats of the likes of Napoleon and Hitler have failed to read these signals. I think, the answer to the future after the Covid-19 catastrophe lies in the lessons of great economic depression that shook the world economy as a whole in the post Industrialisation era, and in the answer that came from the new deal policy of President Franklin Roosevelt, that brought the wheels of economy back into motion after coming to a grinding halt from 1929 to 1932. The physicians might be trying to read the signals from Ebola or Spanish Flu, in their research laboratories, but we as managers of business and leaders of society need to look beyond the laboratories. There is the second great economic depression looming over our heads. Its time we turn to the pages of history.

The New Deal Policy was written by Frances Perkins, as Labour Secretary and the First Woman member of President Franklin D Roosevelt’s cabinet, 87 years ago. The New Deal restored the health of American economy and made the US economy, the leader of the World. At the end of the second world war the USA emerged as the first Super Power of the New World Economic Order. Such was the force of reforms unleashed by the New Deal Policy. President Roosevelt became the only President of United States to get elected for four consecutive terms and Lady Frances continued to serve in his cabinet till his death in 1945. In 21st Century, Lady Frances could have easily made it to Presidents office for what she did for America. She appeared on the cover of TIME magazine in August 1933. Her nomination to the cabinet was opposed by the mighty labour unions, but her stature grew with that of US Economy and the unprecedented prosperity it brought to the working people in America. If one leader in history has done more than anyone else for the working people in the world, it was Frances Perkins. I read the signals of post Covid-19 world, for both the questions and answers, in her work, in the New Deal Policy with a caveat of reinterpretation along the times we live in today.

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  1. Prof Ashok Sar says

    Signals, both weak and strong to aid preparedness for the uncertain future.

    1. B S Pani says

      Super reading. Thanks. Attended a webinar of CEOs of top manufacturing organisations of Mumbai-poona region on the threshold growth reate that could pull their industry and national economy off the current slide. Interesting, they were all looking at the obvious stroger signs of lack of liquidity, tax burden, collapse of supply chain, vanished market, China issues etc.
      The weaker signals like HR disruption, technological obsolescence, training and retraining of new and old manpower were all ignored.
      Also, while North and Western India and SMEs are worried about the labour force that has abandoned them (obviously with bitter memories), Govt of Eastern states of India have the opposite issue of utilising/employing the lakhs of migrant labour they have at their hands.
      Signals are mixed and too meshed up! Prof. Mohapatra, your reading of the issues is apt and critical.

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