Thursday, September 4, 2014

Contextual Intelligence: A conversation with Prof. Tarun Khanna, Harvard Business School

I recently had an interesting online conversation with Prof. Tarun Khanna, Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor at Harvard Business School and director of Harvard University's South Asia Institute. This was with reference to his September 2014 Harvard Business Review article : Contextual Intelligence

The author has opined about how intelligence - including market and business related can be contextual (he spoke about it being influenced by the country of operation) and how new technologies developed elsewhere (beyond the "context") are slow to diffuse. I had a slightly differing view and we had a great dialogue.
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      Interesting article. I found the title "Contextual Intelligence" to be somewhat of an oxymoron. Isn't all intelligence contextual? If not, then it is not intelligence but stupidity.
      The author has limited the context to countries in a global context but in real life the concept is infinitely extensible even from a business/marketing perspective - regions within countries, cities within regions, localities within cities and so on. One size/shape does not fit all. Most successful corporations/businesses have allowed variations in their "uniform" strategies to support/leverage these contextual nuances.
      I am surprised by the assertion : "Robust research shows that countries take decades, on average, to adopt new technologies invented elsewhere." I would think the underlying research even if robust is likely to be outdated. Cellphones are just the tip of the iceberg as far as disruptive technologies which have exhibited explosive growth and acceptance much beyond the shores where they were invented. That seems to be the norm rather than the exception for most modern technologies. I was surprised to see a newspaper image from India showing a cop readying a drone to go airborne to monitor a riot when similar use of that technology is still being debated in the US. I also hear about drones being used to photograph weddings and cultural events in India. Just an example of how the absence of rules or legislation in some cases helps the proliferation of a new technology rather than hinder it.
      I would like the author to revisit some of his assertions in light of emerging trends from within the last decade (given the fast pace of change even a decade could be too long a horizon) rather than basing it on research from an earlier time-frame.
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          hi Deepak
          thanks for this. on the first point, i couldn't agree more; country is merely a (n imperfect) proxy for context. finer-grained geographic subdivisions, social communities, differing industry contexts, might all be relevant proxies for context in the sense of this article.
          On the speed of diffusion, the assertion is a large sample, statistical one, spanning multiple decades and multiple countries and multiple technologies (for example, as analyzed rigorously by the econometrician Diego Comin at Dartmouth in recent years). No one disputes that cellphones diffuse fast, as do other easy-to-spot technologies, but there are numerous others (again, over past decades) whose diffusion has been super-slow.
          ultimately though its an empirical point. you might be proven right that diffusion has sped up (when someone analyzes it rigorously) and will continue to do so. never say never, i say to myself! :)
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              Thanks Tarun! Appreciate the feedback.
              Contextual Intelligence reminds me of the premise of the ancient Indian Jain doctrine of “Anekāntavāda” – doctrine of non-absolutism or non-one sidedness or non-exclusivity . A classical elaboration of the doctrine has been the parable of the Six Blind Men and the Elephant where each man depending on where they touched the elephant described it as a spear (tusk), snake (trunk), wall (side), fan (ear), rope (tail) and tree (leg), with none of them able to visualize the animal itself.
              Similarly depending on the context ("country") the same elephant ("cement industry") may have many different manifestations - highly efficient/inefficient , consolidated/ fragmented etc. Maybe a stretch of the logic but that's what I was reminded of.


          Anonymous said...

          Hi Deepak, interesting to see how Tarun has nothing to say but surrender to your comments, at the same time disappointed for watching such a no encounter argumentation. I would say that the fundamentals of 'contextual intelligence' as Tarun wrote are true in several contexts that still exist in current time. While technology is something less contextual, it is different in acceptance in several types of technology. For example; in US/Europe, maybe more than 90% households have washing machines and dish-washing machines, both have been in existence for more than 3 decades, but in Indonesia, less than 10% households using them. It is not because of institutional context or culture, but I think because of the social context (the households that can afford to buy those machines have maids to wash things)
          The biggest difference in context until now I think is cultural contexts. I can see how Western people have difficult time to understand the preference of local people here, and I (even though Western educated) have some difficulties to understand the preference of Western countries population.
          For me, contextual intelligence is the other name of adaptability, a Darwinian key word.

          Dr. Bayu Prawira Hie

          Jakarta, Indonesia

          Deepak Seth said...

          Thanks Dr. Bayu Prawira Hie for sharing your feedback. Your washing machine example is an interesting case study.

          I like the way you summed it "contextual intelligence is the other name of adaptability, a Darwinian key word."

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