Many of you would know that our Honourable Railways Minister Mr. Lalu Prasad (the ‘Yadav’ part seems to have been given a miss deliberately, for reasons I am blissfully unaware of) paid a visit to the Mecca of Indian Management Education; yeah, the IIM of A. He was here to talk about the turnaround of Indian Railways from a loss making public behemoth to one that now surprisingly has approximately 12,000 crores of surplus cash (give and take a few crores).You might wonder what all of this has got to do with the rather odd title for this article. There is. There certainly is.I did not do a research project on Indian Railways. Nor was I part of the 90 odd students who sat through the 3 hours of ‘intensive’ discussion with Lalu on the now-famous Railways story. However, prima facie, it seems that the man at the helm of affairs did something that no one else, who graced the office before him, ever thought of doing. Even if he did not do anything, why not just give him the benefit of doubt? After all, the dying (well, almost) public company started rolling after he assumed office.
Lalu rather sarcastically said in his address to the IIMA community that the ‘Corporate THINKTANK’ had almost written the Railways off saying that it was unmistakably heading for disaster. ‘Kuchh nahin ho sakta’ (nothing can be done) was a phrase he often heard from the ‘intellectually’ superior quarters. But, deep inside, the man believed that there was some way out, without raising the passenger fees.
To give you a perspective of what he did, before I come to what all this have to do with Google, Lalu (let’s for a moment submit ourselves completely, at least for ease of description if for nothing else, to the fact that everything good that happened to Railways was done by the man himself) increased the per wagon load, stopped under-loading and under-charging, increased the number of wagons per train, gave goods trains priority, sped up loading and unloading at the bays, ensured that the wagons did not lie idle. This dramatically improved the capacity utilization, brought back shippers’ goodwill, reduced costs and what not! What an ‘Operations Management’ genius he was! Lalu said that before you do anything to the Railways, you need to know what goes on daily at the loading bay, in the life of the gang man, the fourth grade Railway employee, the daily-wage worker, the challenges of being a stationmaster, a track man, the life of a Ticket Checker, the poor farmer who takes his milk daily to the city for selling and the man who can no more afford the travel if you hike the fair even by a rupee.
How much of the problems plaguing Railways do you think, assuming for a moment that you are a management student, or a consultant for that matter, you could have unravelled had you been given a task to study the Indian Railways and suggest ways for its resurrection? Honestly, I have fairly dim hopes on that front. If my hopes were not well placed, the turnaround story would have happened much earlier given that we do not have any shortage of ‘Management’ talent in this country.
Given such a task, all we would perhaps do is pull the chair to the keyboard straight away and start frantically hitting the keys on the Google search box. ‘Indian Railways problems’, ‘Indian Railways way out’, ‘Indian Railways this’, ‘Indian Railways that’ and what not. As results start popping up on the screen in 0.000045 seconds (I still do not understand if that has any significance at all) one would be happy that the research is going on the way ‘expected’.
After amassing a fair number of PDFs, opening up a screen-cluttering stack of internet explorer windows and going through them cursorily, as management students we would then look for ‘hardcore’ data. We have been taught from CR1 to CR10 that management decisions should be supported by numbers, because ‘numbers’ do not lie. We have learnt the complex statistical data analysis methods, the techniques of projection, of regression, of extrapolation and of course, manipulation!
So, the natural next stop would be all those industry statistics sites on the net that has loads of ‘data’. The keyboard comes to life again; ‘railways 10 years’, ‘railways revenue profit’, ‘indian railways 2006’ and there goes the string of search strings, desperately pushed from the keyboard to the mother of all information, the almighty of database. Her face, the glowing rectangular window of pixels with little ‘go-stop-back-forward’ buttons, blinks at us and unloads right in front of our eyes all the information of the Universe, filtered by our desires, for she knows everything. Rows and columns peer down from the screen, graphs rise and fall, get skewed. Lines get curled, get kinks. We just got all the data to make decisions!
Oh yeah, the rest of the story flows like a Hindi film climax. Chaotic but predictable. Data gets mixed and matched, pieces are torn from here and there, graphs are lined up on the report with due acknowledgement to the source (We never forget to do that, because intellectual people are sensitive towards ‘Intellectual Property Rights’), projections are made, regressions done and voila! We just proved the hypothesis right. And you see, quite expectedly, the data supports it unequivocally, like VHP supporting every atrocity on the minority community. Indian Railways was such a hopeless entity after all. Man, I never knew research was that simple!
I could be called a cynical. A skeptic without reason. I am fairly well aware of the fact that I have exaggerated certain things beyond my comfort. Beyond others’ comfort. But I think (or rather more politically accurately, IMHO i.e. In My Honest Opinion) there is a problem somewhere. Numbers do lie. And do so quite often. What we are building on is what someone else has failed to see. The numbers we juggle around are plain dead figures, not the kicking, vibrant reality. Numbers are lifeless. They do not tell you a story.
Reality lurks behind the sleek power point presentations. Beyond the multi-coloured charts and the three-dimensional steps of the bars. In the Times of India, a student of some business school once naively said, “The world has two kinds of people. Those who know how to Google and those who do not”. It is not that simple after all. Google catches a netful of fish for you in the vast ocean throbbing with millions of marine lives. Information does not always flow from computer screens. It is there around us.
In stories of lives of people that never gets uploaded. And never appears on Google searches. It’s in those stories that the world moves. Our lives move. It’s in those stories that the real data lives. Get out.