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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Work-life balance, French-style: No after-hours work email

If you liked the 35-hour workweek, then you'll love the ban on after-office-hours email which has become law in France this week (actually it is an agreement between business and union which as such as the force of law.) Since there is little doubt that many employees are overworked and stressed out  anything that could restore a healthier work-life balance can only be applauded. Few people realize that France, supposedly a worker's heaven, is also home to frequent corporate suicides.

There is clearly a cultural bias here. Whereas in Europe in general, and in France, the country of la joie de vivre, in particular, work-life balance is seen as enhancing workers' rights, in the United States, the country of 24 x 7 business, it is considered  a cost on business.

First, let us clarify what this new policy is all about. It does not apply to all French employees, only to those working in consulting and technology companies, therefore at most one million employees. Actually, when you take into account executives (cadres) who do not have a strict work schedule, probably just a few hundred thousand employees will be impacted by this law. Of course, nothing can prevent the current administration from extending the law to all French employees, say, before the next election, when it is desperate to emerge from the abysmal approval ratings it has sunk into.

Second, enforcing this law is not going to be easy. Actually almost impossible. There are so many ways to circumvent it that one wonders why they even bothered to adopt it. For example, even if you are one of those employees prevented from sending email after 6 pm, nothing can prevent you from copying  on a thumb drive any documents you need, go home, work from there and then shoot an email from your private email address. People have been doing this for years, and will now be encouraged to do it even more.

Then, there is the case of those road warriors, especially when traveling across time zones. It may be 6 pm in Moscow, but because France is a couple of hours behind it means you still have a few more hours to shoot that criminal message before your email server goes dead.

And, of course, nothing can stop you from writing zillions of messages offline, and the next morning, as the email server wakes up, it'll find itself busy dispatching tens of thousands of messages which  will create even more anxiety, pressure and workload on the recipient workers.

So, why is the government (in France no labor agreement happens without the state's blessing) bothering about a law which for all practical purposes will not protect burnt-out employees, but can work as a disincentive for foreign investors in France? The problem is the disconnect between politics and business/technology. No matter how fast you adopt a law, it always lags behind technological advances which are so much faster.

Controversial or pioneering? France goes where others fear to tread

If government bodies had any idea of what the business world REALLY looks like and how disruptive technology can be, they would not stop at email. What about social media? Government should also stop corporate employees sending business-related tweets, or updating information on LinkedIn. And yet, none of this is contemplated.

And what about business software? A lot of the work that people do now is done through ERP-type systems many of which can be accessed via the cloud anywhere, anytime. As a manager, you can still finalize a performance appraisal after having served dinner to your children. You could check on the recruitment status of some job vacancies in your team after having watched your favorite TV show. Again, the law does not  even seem to realize that such technology use is even more prevalent than email and can impact a worker's work-life balance even more significantly.

Worse, as I mentioned earlier, this new policy could have an adverse impact on workers by reducing the number of jobs available to them. Just as I have never known in my adult life France with a balanced budget, I have rarely seen an unemployment rate lower than 8% or 9%, it usually hovers around 10%. This new law is not going to encourage companies to hire more workers in France; and, honestly, what kind of work-life balance are we talking about here when we know that without work you don't have much of a life?

In summary, this new law won't change much. It will just add more compliance costs to companies, deter foreign ones from hiring in France and put even more pressure on employees to do more within the 9-to-5 work  schedule, thus achieving the exact opposite of what it set out to do.

Oh, mon Dieu! I am posting this business column on a Sunday. I am in full violation of French labor laws that forbid work on  the Lord's Day. If you don't hear from me in the next couple of weeks, that will mean that the Labor Inspector has knocked on my door and I am languishing in jail for contempt of the laws of the Republic.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

America and France: Two countries united by failed military payroll

“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” ancient Romans
used to say. It is not only good to die for one's country,
but payroll software requires you do it for free
Last month saw France's president pay a state visit to the United States. Among the various topics on offer for Presidents Obama and Hollande  one could mention the drop in foreign investment in France (due to the French government's idiotic policies), the impact of the NSA spying scandal (due to the US government's idiotic policies), both leaders' marital woes (alleged in Obama's case, true in the case of Hollande who regaled the nation with two First Ladies, one official, one hidden), the various crises around the world (Syria, Ukraine etc.) However, there is one topic which the two leaders probably didn't get to discuss: how their respective military failed spectacularly in implementing a payroll system for their armed forces.

The U.S. tries first... and fails first
As in so many other cases, the U.S. was a pioneer in the use of package software to run its HR and payroll operations. In the late 1990s it adopted the HR software leader of the time, PeopleSoft (which had developed a specific Federal product) to integrate over 90 different systems into a state-of-the-art HR/payroll system. Several hundreds Department of Defense (DoD) contractors  and employees worked on the project which was supposed to go live in 2006. I will spare you the the details of this soap opera which comes with epic cost overruns and deadlines missed, but suffice it to say that in 2010, that is TWELVE years after project kickoff, DIMHRS (Defense Integrated Military HR Systems as the acronym goes) was announced dead on arrival (the system integrator  was Northrop Grumman.) Oh, and it only cost $1 billion, by the way. Quite a lot for a payroll system that was never used.

The solution was...to go back to the 40-year old system (written in Cobol) and it did not fare markedly better as it results in countless payroll errors for many of the 2.7 million active-duty personnel: many soldiers get shortchanged on their pay, others get overpaid and then have to do with abrupt paycuts as DoD recoups the monies, which is hardly the best way to motivate troops who put their life on the line all over the world. In some cases deserters continue to be paid for years. Retirees who are rehired to find themselves in a bizarre situation: a glitch in the system often results in retiree records being updated to "dead" with condolence letters sent to the  family of an otherwise quite healthy soldier. This happened to none other than the U.S. Army Chief of Staff.

It is quite mind boggling that an organization like the Pentagon which uses the most sophisticated technologies in the world can be defeated by something quite humdrum as payroll software.

Where the US leads, its oldest ally, France, follows
The French military is smaller in size than its U.S. counterpart (300,000 troops half of which in the Army) but it is proportionately as maddeningly complex, if not more. As in the US every branch of the military uses a different HR/payroll system, each originally custom-built and with pleasant names such as Concerto, Rh@psodie, Symphonie. Starting around 2005 each branch decided to move to a package software based on SAP. As the below diagram shows each branch had its own version of SAP HR which was interfaced to Louvois, a new custom-made payroll system, to be replaced in 2016 by ONP, an HR Access-based payroll system for all French government employees. Unfortunately for French servicemen and taxpayers Louvois, like its US counterpart, was an unmitigated disaster. Costing north of half a billion euros, with several hundred million more in overpayments, compensation paid to tens of thousands of military families who got shortchanged and additional implementation/maintenance costs to fix the issues, the French military will probably end up paying even more than the Pentagon for the same result: a failed payroll system. At least we French has one consolation: in one area, failed military payroll projects, we outdid the Americans.  The French Minister of Defense had to recognize the failure since it was on such an epic scale and promise to build a new payroll system by the end of next year before it was to be replaced by ONP. Even the CEO of Steria, the IT company which built the system, appeared on TV for a prime-time attempt at damage control. And now the bombshell: I have it from confidential sources that even the ONP project  will be scrappped: another half a billion dollars are thus being simply thrown out the window with this second  project failure by the same government. Two spectacular HR IT  failures two years in a row. Who can say that we in France don't do things better than in the United States?

What went wrong? 
- Too many obsolete payroll and accounting systems which do not communicate with one another and HR systems. This issue has more than academic results: for instance, a soldier who is the beneficiary of payroll errors is wounded in Afghanistan and sent back to a hospital back home. According to the rules he should be forgiven all debts related to payroll errors. Except that since HR systems take for ever to be updated and when they are they are badly interfaced to payroll, our soldier finds himself without a "wounded warrior" status and he and his family have to go through unjustified financial hardships. Hardly the best way to reward someone who almost lost their life for the country.

- Absurd number of manual workaround and paper-based processes: staff data has to be written on a form, then physically sent to another location where it is manually entered into another system, by yet another employee.  In 2014, when organizations are moving their HR operations to the cloud such an antiquated way of doing business is unbelievable

- The complexity of rules, pay levels and status types in both countries is mind-boggling. In the US the multiple basic pay/entitlements/housing allowance/re-enlistment bonus often results in a soldier's pay changing several times per day. The creativity of French legislators and bureaucrats is no less astounding: for instance, the Navy pays a €300 allowance to every single mother whose child has  been recognized by one of the Republic's sailors whatever port city in the world she can be found in. Many Navy personnel have recognized up to 10 children. A senior naval officer even told me that he knows of one case where a sailor owned up to ...20 children! The French government, ever understanding (and generous with taxpayers' money) when it comes to such shenanigans, coughs up. And every payment has to comply with the tax rules of every country the child was born in. Only a particularly robust HR and payroll system  can handle such complexity. It is obvious that some rules have to change, and Congress and Parliament will have to make the necessary changes. But many processes are not mandated by law: they are just the result of a decades-long practice of using paper and manual processes. These can be streamlined much more easily, and should have been done so. Why weren't they? Incompetence is one answer, and the vested interest that system integrators have in maintaining the staus quo: after all, the more complex the requirements are, the more need there will be for customization. Here, as we have seen in other industries, what is good for an SI is not good for the customer and, ultimately the taxpayer.

- The various HR systems used do not provide for an efficient way to track personnel and allocate them swiftly. The U.S. Marines are in an altogether different one. France, as shown in the previous diagram, replicates the madness: does it really make sense to have each branch with their own SAP implementation? Wouldn't have it been much more efficient to streamline HR processes first, arrive at a common set of requirements and then implement just one instance of SAP HR for all military personnel, something they will eventually have to do. And why spend years and hundreds of millions developing Louvois if it is to be replaced, upon implementation, by yet another payroll system? The strategy does not make sense at all.

- Change resistance by  a reluctant bureaucracy and competing priorities are not helping, either. Change management was rarely given the importance it deserves, and the decision-making process was at best byzantine with defense committees and appropriations sub-committees fighting for control: this is hardly the hallmarks of success.

What to do about it? 
Although some of the issues seem to spring from the unique circumstances of government organizations, most can be encountered in any industry, regardless of size or geography. Before some start  hysterical attacks on the wastefulness of government, they should be reminded that failed IT project (whether HR or ERP) are prevalent in all industries: I know several well-known brand names whose HR systems are a shame, so let the company that has never known a failed IT project cast the first stone. However, in the case of government's failed projects one difference stands out: we taxpayers are paying for it. If a private business mismanages its HR budget, well, it's only the shareholders who are losing money; when government does, it's all of us.

- Reduce the complexity of rules. Sure, government is unique, but do you think that multinational companies that track and pay hundreds of thousands of employees (for some) across several time zones/dozens of currencies/scores of different legislations are easier to manage? If they can, whey can't Defense? When reengineering your processes, trace every requirement to a law or a policy; everything else should not be in the system. Ensure that there is a single point of contact to facilitate decision-making. When too many cooks fight in the kitchen, the result is rarely a great broth.

-Beware of requirements creep: a tendency seen in all industries, but particularly prevalent in the public sector is, in the absence of an agreement as to requirements, to revert to As-Is which undermines the whole business process reengineering exercize. Using a requirement-tracking tool is another great advantage in enhancing the quality of the requirements, something that few defense organizations do comprehensively.

- Realize that unlike wine, Cobol lines of code don't improve with age. Documentation, when available is long gone, as are those who created both. It is high time to move to the 21st century.

- Go vanilla! Eschew customization, one of the greatest ills to have been inflicted on corporate IT. The decision to go with off-the-shelf software was the right decision, however the military organizations decided to atone for it by customizing the software out of recognition (especially in France) and in the case of payroll, and some other HR functions, even use home-made software. In both the US and France, going back in time and re-adopting the old custom-made system is another grievous mistake.

- Build up your resources: government organizations tend not to be the leanest organizations with the availability of high-tech skills lagging other industries. They should set up Centers of Excellence (CoEs) and transfer knowledge from HR/IT vendors as soon as possible so that by the time the system integrator is gone, everything does not go down the drain or deplete state coffers by resorting to expensive contractors.

- Improve planning and be fast: I know it is a challenge to circumvent government bureaucracies, but decision-making should be sped up as much as possible. Because technology changes much faster than government bureaucrats can countenance, try and break down these huge projects into smaller ones based on relatively easy to define HR processes and sub-processes.

- Develop KPIs about progress, success factors, user satisfaction and ensure these are measured adequately: all deviations should be explained and accounted for. It is nothing short of scandalous that when French Defense Minister Le Drian was asked who should be blamed for the fiasco, he replied, "it is a collective responsibility," meaning that since everybody was guilty, then nobody was. And so far, not a single head has rolled reinforcing the culture of impunity so prevalent in the public sector. Are key product features missing from the HR and payroll products? Then how come that we didn't ask the vendors to include them in their roadmap? And if we did, how come that SAP/Oracle/HR Access didn't deliver them? And if they didn't when they were supposed to, then how come they are not held accountable and being asked to pay the hefty penalties that should have been part of the contract? If the issue is one of configuration and customization, then all eyes should turn to Northrop Grumman, Steria, HR Access: did they implement the system according to specifications? If not, then they should be held accountable. Were specifications provided in a clear, thorough and timely fashion to the system integrator? If not, then government employees and contractors should be held accountable. And who took the decision to unplug the older systems which worked and replace them by the newer ones which ended up not working? As we all know, a new payroll goes live only after several parallel processes are run and all issues are fixed. Somebody must have taken that decision. Who? Why?

- Learn from others: Defense may be unique within every country, but since its roles and activities are replicated throughout the world, learning from others can yield great benefits, especially when comparing oneself with similar armies such as members of the NATO alliance.

- Start looking at the cloud: one advantage of being a laggard is that you can learn from others without paying the price of being a guinea pig. Some HR functions can be safely moved to the cloud with cost reductions and quality gains, others will require strategic product decisions by SAP, Oracle and Workday. So far none has seem ready to move their public-sector products to the cloud. A nudge from the customer would go a long way.

In summary, taxpayers, that is you and I, are right to wonder why in the private sector (well, the better managed businesses at least) to produce a payslip costs a couple of hundred dollars per year , whereas in the military the figure is closer to $1,000...when it works! How can our troops win the wars of the future (especially knowing that they will increasingly be IT-related) when they are defeated by a mere software? These are hard questions for which so far very few cogent answers have been provided.

(Note # 1: As in all posts in this blog,  text, charts and diagrams are Ahmed Limam's intellectual property. They cannot be used without his written authorization.

Note # 2: The blogger's advisory and consulting experience covers all industries, including government, both national (such as defense)  and international (such as EU institutions and UN agencies- he worked five years for the latter in New York and Madrid.)

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Bereft of actresses and heroines, a sadder, poorer world awaits us

An article in this week's edition of The Economist made me hit the roof. The famous British weekly referred to Scarlett Johansson (pictured here) as a "Hollywood actor." I don't know this person intimately but I have seen her in enough movies to state with quite some confidence that she is a woman. In that case she should be referred to as a "Hollywood actress", right?

21st-century, post-modern Anglo-Saxon society, especially the American variety, is driving politically correctness (PC) to absurd levels. For the sake of sexual equality we are asked now to erase all signs of sexual differences, even in language. This is crazy. As there are boys and girls, cows and oxen, roosters and hens, so are there actors and actresses. What is wrong with that?

Gender-equality advocates, the looniest of PC freaks, make the case that here we are referring to positions or roles, and a position can be held by either a man or woman, therefore there should be just a single word for it. Otherwise we would be perpetuating the notion that some roles are still confined to a sex.

This approach is simply wrong for various reasons.

First, English is already largely a gender-neutral language. Player, director, dancer, executive etc. are used equally to refer to a man or woman in that role. This is the result of the language's natural evolution and gender-equality proponents should therefore be happy enough and shut up.

Second, why don't English speakers come out of their self-centeredness and check what is happening in other cultures and languages? Whether Arabic, German or Latin languages, over one billion people have a masculine and a feminine for all these roles. Actually, Latin languages such as French, Spanish and Portuguese have gone the other way to further equality between the sexes: they are insisting that a word which traditionally only existed in the masculine form (French "Président" and Spanish/Portuguese "Presidente") now have a feminine as well since a woman can also hold the position of "President". We now have "Présidente" and "Presidenta", although there are still organizations that refuse to use the term (the French Academy, a refuge of old farts disconnected from everyday life, still insist that a woman elected to the highest office in the land  be called, absurdly "Madame LE Président") and Brazil's most read daily O Globo refers to Dilma Roussef as "Presidente" - check  my blog post on this topic). Sure, there are some languages such as Turkish which don't distinguish between the masculine and feminine genders, but English is not one of them, so why force-engineer a linguistic change which, let's face it, is not going to change facts on  the ground per se? It can't have escaped you that several Latin and Muslim countries have already had female presidents while the US is still waiting for one.

Third, PC freaks are so obsessed with their nutty crusade that they don't realize that their proposal for gender equality perpetuates the old male-dominated system when they insist that the masculine term should be the neutral one. If we wanted true equality, then we should say, "OK, from now on only one word for both. For words X, Y & Z it will be the masculine one; for words A, B & C it will be the feminine one." But no, they want everybody to become actors and heroes. If a woman can be referred to as an "actor" then why can't a man be referred to as a "heroine"?

Fourth, common sense has been completely lost in this fight. If ambassadress is to disappear, Jewess no longer used (which it was as some terms naturally become obsolete), director has always be the only form  for both male and female holders of that titles, are we going to rewrite history and refer to Russia's Catherine the Great as "The Emperor Catherine"? Should Elizabeth II, a monarch in her own right, insist that, for equality's sake, she now be known as King Elizabeth ? Most people would agreed that is absurd, and yet if gender-equality advocates value consistency they should propose this.

By the way, I have nothing against feminists. On the contrary. I believe that women (among other groups) have been historically discriminated against and that should stop. Yes, I believe in women's rights but also in the right of language to evolve naturally and not become deformed based on any lunatic group's ideals .

Can we come back to our senses? There are many more serious issues in this world (global warming, wars, drought, hunger, Aids etc.) Can we focus our energy on these and not waste our time on prepostrous fights? We would do everybody, including good-prose lovers, a great favor.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Mourning the passing away of a unique political leader: Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

I was 26 years old when Nelson Mandela was freed . I will never forget that day. I was living in the United States then and, watching the news on TV, I was shocked when I realized that he had entered jail before I was born, meaning that he had spent an entire life, a generation, behind bars. And why? Just because of his principles, mainly that all human beings are equal.

In a world ruled by corrupt, incompetent, rotten and often illegitimate rulers, Mandela stood apart: a political leader motivated only by his people's interests, with zero ambition for himself. This was made  even more obvious when, at the height of his popularity, basking in his people's and the world's adoration, he refused to seek a second mandate and retired.

For his funeral world leaders will congregate to praise the great man. How hypocritical that neither Obama, Putin, Hollande, Cameron, and certainly not Mugabe, will follow his example but will continue to serve only themselves and their corporate and banking friends with total disregard for their citizens.

Goodbye, Madiba. The world was made a better place by your presence. It is made worse by your absence.

It will take generations, if not centuries, for a man of your caliber to appear amongst us.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

"Custo Brasil" or the Absurdly High Cost of Living in Brazil

How The Economist magazine
saw Brazil's prospects in 2009...
I have been visiting Brazil for ten years now, spending half of the three years between 2010-2012 in this city, and I am constantly flabbergasted at how ridiculously high the prices have become.

For my daily pleasure of reading O Globo I used to pay just R$1.00; I have now to fork out R$2.50, that is a 150% increase. In the same period of time its Paris equivalent Le Monde has only known a 50% increase. A Rio Metrô ticket costs now R$3.10 the exact equivalent of €1.00 whereas in Paris it costs...almost the same price: €1.10, and a subsidized price (for workers, students, senior citizens, unemployed) costs just half that. Yes, you have read right: a basic good such urban transportation costs 50% more in Rio (which knows of no subsidies or daily/monthly passes)  where average income is one-third that of Paris. This is complete madness and explains that riots broke out last June because of the bus fare hike.

In January 2003 when I arrived for the first time in the Marvelous City taxi rides were so cheap that it never crossed my mind to use buses. A taxi ride to Galeão international airport would cost as low as R$35. Now you'll be lucky if you can get it for less than R$100. A restaurant meal was so affordable that I rarely bothered to go to per-weight joints, a Brazilian institution. Now, a single dish at a buffet restaurant would cost you easily a  whopping R$15. Eating in New York is much cheaper, and what makes it even more scandalous is that Brazil is blessed with an efficient agriculture and a land where everything grows and is raised effortlessly. 

Currency exchange rate fluctuations are to blame in only a tiny proportion: when I arrived in Brazil in 2013 US$1 bought close to R$4, by last year it was down to R$1.6, now it has inched back to a more reasonable R$2.2. The euro has followed a similar pattern (the euro is now worth around R$3), making the country extremely expensive for foreigners. But even with a stable real, inflation and price levels are outrageously high for the locals as well (if not more so, since their income levels are much lower than foreigners'). This can be seen from the below table on the price increases I have witnessed over the years.

The only thing growing at double-digit figures in Brazil are prices

There are several reasons why prices are so high: poor infrastructure, red tape, high taxes, low productivity. I would single out two of these: high taxes and low worker productivity. High taxes are not in and of themselves a bad thing. If Brazilians were getting Scandinavian-level public services, that would be fine. But the sad truth is that Brazilians suffer the highest tax burden of any emerging economy and are rewarded with pitiful health care, education and infrastructure. Where does the money go, then? Ask the politicians, among the most corrupt in the world. Compounding the situation is the low productivity of the Brazilian worker. Now, I never expected a Protestant work ethic in Brazil the way we know it in Northern Europe or in the United States, but still, I  am flummoxed by how poorly educated, trained and motivated Brazilian employees tend to be. Of course, there are pockets of excellence here and there, but overall the average Brazilian employee has to wake up at 5 am every morning, spend an average of two hours to get to work, fearing to be mugged on the way. By the time the poorly educated Brazilian arrives at their poorly paid job, they are exhausted, and have only one thing on their mind: get through the day and head back home where a host of problems (violence, not enough money to make ends meet etc.) await them Are you surprised then that discharging their duties efficiently, optimally and with respect for the customer (a notion alien to most Brazilian companies) is not exactly their top priority?

But let me continue with my whining about insane prices. A broadband internet connection at one of the four major operators (Oi, Vivo, Tim, Claro) will cost you on average the equivalent of US$40. And that is for just the connection which, in many parts of the country, and even in Rio, is a haphazard affair. For the same price in the US and Europe you get true broadband connection, unlimited phone calls to fixed lines all over the world,  high-definition TV channels, a cell phone number with a monthly credit for calls and text messages. It is mind-boggling to see how much Brazilians are paying for so little. And still putting up with it. 

If you are an expatriate settling in Brazil, one of the first things you will do is make sure you have a decent health plan. And, here, you will have the shock of your life, especially if you hail from Europe. Sure, you can always rely on the Brazilian government's health service knows as SUS (probably short for SUCKS) but it is so dreadful that anybody with some discretionary income buys a private health plan. Brazil has world-class hospitals (such as the Sirio-Libanês in São Paulo or the Samaritano in Rio de Janeiro) but they don't come in cheap. And to ensure you get developed-world standards you'll need to pay premiums in  the range of hundreds of dollars per month. The best healthcare can even cost you north of US$1,000 per month! And health plans in Brazil do not cover medication which you have to pay out of your own pocket. 

For Americans and Europeans used to reasonable airfares, especially by low-cost companies, flying from Rio to São Paulo (roughly a 350-mile distance) will easily set you back between US$300 and US$1,000. A Paris-London airfare (covering a similar distance between the two most important European capital cities) can be found at a fraction of the Brazilian fare. And Europeans are way wealthier than Brazilians! There are times when it is cheaper to fly to Paris from Rio than to São Paulo.

One key difference between subway transport in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo and their equivalent in New York, London or Paris is the number of people who use the ride to read newpapers, magazines or books in the northern hemisphere. In Brazil, a book-reading subway rider is a rare occurrence. That is due to the overall population's high illiteracy rate and the high cost of books. Go to any bookstore chain, such as Saraiva or Livraria da Travessa, and you'll be hard pressed to find a book costing less than R$30-40, if not more, which makes it way too expensive for a majority of Brazilians. (On the other hand, you can find true bargains in second-hand bookstores, or sebos as they are called in Brazil. Mere stalls on the sidewalk will offer you even better deals, another reflection of the law of supply and demand: with so few Brazilians used to reading, the only way book peddlers can sell their wares is by offering low prices - probably the only low prices you will ever find in Brazil!)  

You will purchase domestic appliance (pots and pans, irons, blenders, etc.) in Brazil only under duress. You will then grab the item and leave the store screaming at what can only be called highway robbery. And when you realize that the coffee maker you bought a few months ago suddenly stopped working and is good for the scrap heap, you will understand the pain of most Brazilians who can afford these high-ticket items only through credit which, in addition, they have to repay at punishingly high rates. (Another Brazilian oddity is that most people who buy on credit repay it through monthly installments - I was bewildered when at a McDonald's restaurant I was asked in how many months I wanted to pay my hamburger. Yes, prices are so high in Brazil and people's incomes so low, that the only way for some to afford a hamburger is to pay a few cents per month for the period of a year!) 

Rio's 5-star hotel rates are higher than in Paris, London or New York. And as for residential real estate, prices have skyrocketed to reach the surreal. Prices in the city's South Side (Zona Sul) have been going up by 30-40% per year for the past four years. For instance,a small one-bedroom apartment in Copacabana, shoddily built, with wires hanging out, hot because buildings are all built next to one another with no ventilation - and we are in a beach district!) will easily make you poorer by an astounding $8,000-10,000 a sq meter! And maintenance charges have gone through the roof: for a similar apartment expect to pay hundreds of dollars per month! (Property tax, though, is still affordable.) One of the reasons housing maintenance costs are high is due to another Brazilian oddity: the need for every residential building to have several doormen working different shifts to ensure 24 x 7 availability. And with wages shooting up (if only to offset inflation) homeowners have only one option: cough up ever more. (Add to that yet another Brazilian oddity: coop board presidents are exempt from paying maintenance so their share is picked up by the other homeowners pushing their home maintenance bill further up.)

The latter is clearly the result of a bubble in the making similar to what we saw in Spain and in the US. Those who are selling now are those who bought cheap several years ago and are cashing in now quietly before moving their money away. Real estate buyers are fools, paying today before weeping tomorrow.

...and how it sees Brazil now

In general one can summarize the absurd prices in Brazil the following way: first-world prices for third-world quality. I am afraid that when that statue of Christ the Redeemer  falls back to Earth, it will not be on its pedestal on top of Corcovado but further down, trodden and trampled. The day after the hangover will be painful for some.

(The blogger has shared many aspects of his Brazilian experience in several blog posts: on Brazil's colonial towns, Lula's "third" victory at the polls,  and his thoughts on the country, HR and technology.
He has also published in Portuguese a blog on HR systems in Brazil.)

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Thoughts on India, its HR/technology space and the latest on Oracle

Wipro's HQ in the Electronic City district of Bangalore
The last few few weeks have been hectic as I crossed half the globe to visit the center of the universe, a.k.a. Bangalore, heart of the Indian IT industry before heading back to Europe for a 10-day training on Workday in London. (Interesting how one's center of universe tends to change over time: for a decade when I worked for US software powerhouses PeopleSoft and Oracle it used to be San Francisco, now that I work for an Indian company it 's as far east as I have ever been.)
Working for a systems integrator makes me realize how imbalanced is the perception of users and other observers: an IT project is almost always called an SAP project or an Oracle project when sometimes the SI's involvement is such that it would warrant to have its name tagged to it. After all, user organizations use the same standard software, the difference and consequently success (or lack thereof) hinges on how well (or badly) it has been customized/configured, which falls within the remit of the SI.

Bangalore is a good epitome of India, encapsulating all the chaos, historical layers, mix of first and third worlds in a single place (albeit of subcontinental proportions, since the city is home to 10 million people.) Whereas other Indian cities have adopted their local names  (Madras/Chennai, Calcutta/Kolkata, Bombay/Mumbai)  Bangalore, which is locally known as Bengaluru, still retains the British-era name of Bangalore even officially. Actually, I was surprised at how much of the old Raj is still present in downtown Bangalore, with its British-style clubs, parks and inevitable statue of Queen Victoria.

The blogger doing some sightseeing at a Hindu
temple in Bangalore
One thing that India has in common with another emerging country, Brazil, (more below) is creaking infrastructure and the challenges to bring it up to global standards. And yet an impressive surprise awaited when I landed at Bangalore airport. In the five years that have elapsed since my last (and first) visit to the place, a brand-new airport has sprung up. (Let's see whether the Brazilians manage to upgrade their poor airports,especially in Rio and São Paulo on time for the World Cup and the Olympics.)  On the way to your destination a fascinating mix of thousands of years of history meets you (Hindu temples, British-era army barracks, Muslim mosques, Christian churches, sacred cows strolling about, gleaming IT campuses, maddening traffic, glitzy bars where expatriates and the local elite meet.) During my stay the monsoon started and I was caught unawares on MG Road, one of Bangalore's thoroughfares. The street soon turned into a flood and I was lucky there was a railing I could grab otherwise I would have been swept away (I still had to waddle knee deep in the water and was copiously splashed by passing cars.)

Queen Victoria, the first and last Empress of India, still stands guard in
 Cubbon Park, an oasis of peace in the hustle and bustle of Bangalore 

Some characteristics of India's HR and technology landscape:

  • First you have to realize that India's 10-million-strong civil service may not be overall the most efficient in the world (there are some pockets of excellence, though) but it is one of the oldest, even predating the US Civil Service by several decades.
  • Just as in Brazil, a country I know well having spent there part of the last couple of years, India's labor laws are quite complex. The federal government imposes no less than 55 labor laws and the states another 150... at least! Dismissing an employee, as in the South American giant and co-BRIC fellow, is quasi-impossible if your company is of a certain size.
  • Although the buyer of any HR system remains the head of HR, s/he is often unable to justify the investment which gives some power to the CTO/CFO/CEO in the decision-making process.
  • The numbers of HR players is quite astounding, with few national ones and many local ones, in addition to the global ones ("SOP") catering to multinationals' local subsidiaries. Ramco is India's best-know HR and payroll vendor with a presence in the whole Asia-Pacific region.
  • HR is still not considered strategic by most Indian companies, payroll automation being the key driver for many.
  • The wide availability of IT capabilities in India means that companies tend to over-customize some HR processes rather than rely on standard software.
  • One trend that will affect the global IT workforce: according to ILO, a UN agency, soon three out of 10 of the world's new workers will be Indian.With labour cheap in India the impact in developed countries will be felt, especially as India's software companies move up the value chain from lowly technical work such as integration and data conversion to higher value tasks such as configuration and business process analysis.    
  • Most unexpected is that India, despite its red tape, is, according to Forbes, the most tax friendly country in the world. Considering that France is at #14, maybe I should talk to my employer about relocating to Chennai, Pune, Gurgaon or the very Bangalore. 

Just when I was about to start adopting an Indian accent, local quirks of speech ("Kindly revert to me after the needful has been done"") and nodding my head quickly from left to right, it was time to cross several time zones and a half (another Indian oddity) it was time to fly to London for an 8-day product training session.

Back to the world of software, Oracle announced this week that it has missed its quarterly targets for the second time in a row which sent its shares to plummet by almost 10%. and Reuters published an article about it yesterday, largely in line with I have previously wrote in my blogs.

Some great excerpts that hit the nail on the head:

  • [Oracle's CEO]  "is struggling to fit his ageing IT giant into a newly cloud-centric world - a hard scramble."
  • [Oracle's] rivals have grown, winning business from corporate and government customers seeking cloud-based software that is cheaper and faster-to-deploy than traditional offerings housed in massive inhouse datacenters.
  • "They [Oracle] spent the last four years focusing on engineered systems when the bigger industry trend was the cloud," JMP Securities analyst Pat Walravens said. "They now have a structural problem."
  • "Emergent (sic) business software providers such as Workday started from scratch by focusing on ease of use and simpler interfaces, while old-school IT giants like Oracle have been hampered by legacy systems and software products that they were slow to re-tool." "This is causing a real disruption in Oracle's business," said Tim Ghriskey, chief investment officer with Solaris Group."
  • A great one on the futility of Oracle's cloud strategy based on faux SaaS: "The inevitable is the inevitable," Goldmacher said. "You can get as many tummy tucks and face lifts as you as want, but it doesn't make your heart and liver and kidneys any younger."
  • And my favorite, a reminder of how Larry Ellison is trying to rewrite history: "What the hell is cloud computing?" Oracle Corp Chief Executive Larry Ellison said during a diatribe against the whole concept at an investor Q&A in 2008... the software giant's head said he had no idea what people were talking about when they referred to cloud computing, describing it as "nonsensical" and those writing about it as "insane".  (Here is the full article.) 

Exciting times when we are witnessing the passing away of the old guard (or dinosaurs as I call them) and the emergence of a new model of corporate computing. There are few things as satisfying as seeing history unfold before your own eyes. And being part of it.

(For those interested in India and partial to great prose, some of the world's best contemporary literature has come from Indians, residing in the sub-continent or belonging to the diaspora. I would strongly recommend the following:

  • Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things: this first novel, which deservedly won the Booker Prize, tells the complex story of a family by shedding layer after layer of secrets until the shocking truth is revealed.
  •  Two other terrific books also tell the story of modern India but with slightly different messages: Vikas Swarup's Q&A (made into a film as Slumdog Millionnaire) seems to imply that to make it in India today you need luck while Aravind Adiga's brilliant The White Tiger (another Booker Prize winner) suggests crime will do the trick.
  • Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance and Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy are two other great
  • If you don't have the patience to go through a book but can spare a couple of hours watching a movie, my favorite Indian films  include  Salaam Bombay (the most powerful and authentic of the lot), Lagaan and Devdas (the latter a Bollywood movie with Aishwarya Rai, India's answer to Angelina Jolie.) 

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Glory of "Downton Abbey"

The British stately home that is the location of one of
the best TV series in recent memory
A couple of weeks ago going to a meeting at La Défense business district I decided to ride the metro since it is just a straight line from my home in the Bastille area, with no need to change trains. I settled into my seat (quite a feat to find one in the overcrowded trains) and set about tuning out the various audio attacks Paris metro riders have to contend with:

- The incessant PA messages about the inevitable problems facing travelers: traffic signals, breakdowns, sick passengers ― only in Paris can sick passengers bring the whole transportation system to a screeching halt.

- Panhandlers who seem to have graduated from the same school since their whining speech is uniformly similar: "Sorry to bother you, mesdames et messieurs, but I have been unemployed for a year and have no place to go. I'd be grateful for a lunch voucher or a coin so that I can eat and sleep without having to resort to any illegal activity"― quite articulate come to think of it, only in Paris are bums so classy!

- iPod/iPhone-toting commuters who firmly believe that the rest of mankind has only one dream and one right: sharing whatever loud noise that calls itself music and comes out of their mobile devices, and the louder the better; or those who carry on mind-numbingly vacuous cell phone conversations.

- The loud noise of train brakes, especially as they enter metro stations: I can't understand that with modern technology we are still unable to, if not develop silent trains, at least reduce the din they produce.

- Gossiping people who punctuate their remarks with hollering loud laughter.

Try as I might, I found it impossible to tune out the two female chatterboxes. The fact that they were sitting one on each side of me and addressing one another across my face and, unfortunately, ears was a major factor. I plodded along resolutely, trying to engross myself in my book but couldn't help overhearing their conversation as they gossiped about what was obviously friends and family relations.

"I don't know what's wrong with Mary. Why is she dating that boring and snobbish guy when Matthew is so cute? And he's going to inherit the property."

"Unsure of that, isn't ...(train brakes piercing my left ear drum) having a child who could be the heir? Oh, and what about that old bitch? The grandmother "

"I love her! She may be a conniving and nosy woman, but she has her family's interests at heart. The one I can't stand is Elsie "

"My favorite is Anna. She's so sweet, and I think there is something cooking with Bates..."

By then I had pricked up my ears. There was something oddly familiar about the people they were gossiping about. And then it suddenly hit me. They weren't gossiping about friends or family or co-workers. They were commenting on the latest developments of the British TV drama series, Downton Abbey!

I soon put down my book and joined the conversation as we heatedly exchanged our views about this fascinating series, each one of us having our favorites among the show's characters, our ideas about future plots developments (I was several episodes ahead of my fellow riders.)

Back in the 1970s and 80s British TV was second to none. I, Claudius based on the eponymous Robert Graves novel, is still the best Roman drama ever produced on the small screen (with HBO's Rome, a close second, though,) with other great BBC fare such as Yes, Minister to be followed in the 1990s by House of Cards, before it crossed the Pond in a  popular show currently being broadcast, and Rumpole of the Bailey, based on the excellent books by John Mortimer. ITV's Brideshead Revisited was the pinnacle of British television.

But in the late 1990s and going into the new millennium, quality moved to the US with a flurry of great series such as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under or, more recently, Mad Men. However, with Downton Abbey, whose first episode aired in late 2010, it is obvious that the British are fighting back with what they do best: period drama of the highest quality.

In case you have no idea what Downton Abbey is about, it is set in an English castle, the stately home of the Earl and Countess of Grantham, and portrays the relationships between the aristocratic family and their servants, between the members of each class, and how the outside world (WWI, sinking of the Titanic etc.) does from time to time come and knock on the door to remind this self-contained universe that there is another world outside, often a nasty one. Sure, you can criticize the rosy view of master-to-servant relationships, the paternalistic attitude of the aristocrats and the deferential way the staff serve their lordships and ladyships. But there is no ignoring the sheer power of an excellently written script, brilliant dialogues and terrific performances.

Written by Julian Fellowes, who has made a name for himself as the expert in depicting the British upper class (starting with a similar Academy Award-winning script in the Robert Altman movie Gosford Park), every character, down to the most insignificant kitchen maid or footman, is so subtly drawn that you can't help becoming addicted. As they grow more complex after each episode, helped in no small way by the amazing quality of the cast (only Elizabeth McGovern as the American-born Countess is a bit of a letdown; Maggie Smith is proving, if need be, that she is one of the world's greatest living actresses), and the nice setting and costumes, along with the archaic traditions, every season just grows on you to the point that it becomes completely natural to be discussing it with perfect strangers on the Paris metro.
The blogger, at age 20, in another famous British stately home:
Glamis Castle, the Scottish seat of the Earls of Strathmore
since the Middle Ages and childhood
home of the late Queen Mother

So, if you haven't heard of or watched Downton Abbey, don't waste any more time. You don't know what undiluted pleasure awaits you in what is simply television perfection.

The blogger inside Glamis Castle which is also the setting for
Shakespeare's "Macbeth"

Thursday, January 10, 2013

An HR Leader's Top 10 New Year's Resolutions

As an HR leader it is my responsibility to make sure my company has the best tools experience can provide and budget can buy. Here are therefore my New Year's 10 resolutions as pertaining to technology without which there cannot be any HR.

1.      I will make a thorough inventory of my HR systems: What works,  what doesn't   what needs to be enhanced, what needs to be discarded.
I will link every HR policy and HR technology to  my company’s overall business objectives: If I can’t show how that new learning system  is going to affect the bottom line, then I will not waste time on it.

   I will insist from my HRIS team to have relevant metrics at my fingertips, such as why I have to spend more on training new hires or why our turnover is always above x% in some areas: If I can’t have these metrics, then I will NOT authorize any spend on any new system.
          I will assert myself more forcefully versus IT to ensure that the final say on HR systems rests with me, not with them: IT is here to support my work not lord it over me and my team.

    I will make sure my HR people have a sound knowledge of technology: They don’t need to become IT geeks but they should understand how systems work, what benefits they bring, what their limitations are and be trained on all facets of the products, especially to help Resolution #3.
I will stay clear of fads and the latest buzzwords: Unless proven otherwise, Big Data will have to be big somewhere else, not here.
I will NOT have a systems integrator get involved in system selection: I am sick and tired of vendors who nudge me into selecting a system that fits THEIR needs and not mine.
I will make sure that at one click I  have access to the actual, real-time  figure of my global headcount. If I can’t, then back to Resolution #1.
I will make sure I have at my fingertips a description of the skill set of ALL employees in my company.  If that is not the case, then back to Resolutions # 1 and 2.
I will harmonize all HR processes and  unify systems across all subsidiaries in my global organization, unless there is a good business reason NOT to. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

1992-2012: My 20-year Affair with Spain

From the blogger's collection, a painting of the
Alhambra's Courtyard of the Lions in Granada.
When Boabdil, the last Arab ruler in Spain, was
expelled from Granada he cast a last glance at
his palace and shed a tear.  To which
his mother said, "Weep like a woman  over
what you couldn't defend like a man."
Twenty Christmases ago, almost to the day, I bade farewell to four years in the United States, boarded a Spain-bound flight which delivered me to a new life in this town. I had never been to Spain, did not speak Spanish, had no home, no friends or family there and was starting a new job with a company I knew little about, except that it was the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO.) *

I was to spend the next three years calling Madrid home before moving to the country I was born in and where I still have my main residence (for how much longer is a legitimate question, though.) For the ensuing 17 years I have been visiting Spain, and especially Madrid,  for either business or pleasure, at such frequency that it still feels as if I have not left the place.**

And yet so much has changed, and so much remains the same, and so much have I learned about it, that this anniversary is a good opportunity to share my views of Spain then and now.

The country I had landed in had just been celebrating the double-whammy 500th anniversary of the Reconquista paving the way to unification and the discovery of the Americas, as well as the twin events of the Universal Exposition  in Seville and the Olympic Games in Barcelona. After the nation's long decline culminating with the loss of most of its colonial possessions in the 19th century, and the long night of the Franco dictatorship (1939-1975) there was clearly a feeling that the country was finally on the right track. Just 10 years ago Spain had joined the European Union, money galore was flowing into the country which was setting about developing large-scale infrastructure projects and there was a clearly perceptible sense of optimism.

In one respect, things don't seem to have changed much. When I arrived in Spain the unemployment rate was around 23%, going up to 40% for under-30-year-olds. Most of the friends of my age that I was to make were still living with Mom and Dad, making me an oddity with my own apartment (something which of course was completely normal in the United States I had just left.) Fast-forward 20 years and things seem not to have changed at all. The sad reality of Spain is that unfortunately things had changed: the jobless rate steadily declined to an unprecedented single digit before, thanks to the financial meltdown first and then the debt crisis, moving back to those horrible  levels that we all thought belonged to the past.

Town hall meeting Spanish-style. Protests on the
Puerta del Sol in the summer of  2011.
Occupy Puerta del Sol, if you will.
The true measure of the Spanish tragedy is that human nature is such that we can live without something for a long time (back then rarely did people demonstrate against high unemployment) but take away from us something we had gotten used to and we feel particularly bad about it, which explains the constant protests these days.

As a reaction to the current crisis, Spanish labor laws have been overhauled so radically that trade unions are still too dizzy to react. Much of the employee protection (especially in the firing department) that had been in place from time immemorial is gone and with salary levels frozen, the workforce is about to become competitive. Whether this will be sufficient to put a dent in the unemployment rate remains to be seen since some inherent Spanish workforce problems are still present, in particular low productivity levels. Spanish companies (or the various government training schemes) will have to invest massively in  bringing their employees' skills up to speed to what is necessary to turn the economy around. One area where Spaniards tend to be particularly bad are in sciences and languages. Unlike their fellow Iberians in neighboring Portugal, most Spaniards are only fluent in their own language. Many, especially young graduates, are  looking at job opportunities abroad, especially in Germany or the UK, but are hampered by poor linguistic skills. And Spain's political leadership is not leading by example: the four Prime Ministers the country has had in the past 20 years have had one thing in common - bad to no command of the English language, or any other for that matter.

The blogger with friends celebrating  Bastille Day 1995 at
a garden party held at the French Ambassador's residence
The latter point comes a bit as a surprise since in the 20 years I have know Spain it has become markedly less parochial. The first years after I arrived in Madrid I still felt I was a guiri since foreigners were very rare and everywhere you went you only heard Spanish or saw Spaniards (how unlike the city I had just left.) You rarely saw blacks or Arabs and as for Latin Americans they were not any more visible. A decade later  and foreign-born residents had risen to 10% of the country's population. Walk down any street in Madrid and you are bound to see people who manifestly hail from Spain's former American colonies something unheard of when I lived there. Some Spanish companies have become true global giants such as Telefónica, whose foreign revenues exceed what it makes at home home or Spain's wunderkind Armancio Ortega's Inditex whose Zara brand of clothing is ubiquitous all over the world and is consistently profitable, even in recession time. Santander, who was my first Global Payroll customer when I was at PeopleSoft, is Europe's largest bank and well-established in Latin America, especially in Brazil where it is one of the two foreign banks of consequence.

One of the most impressive companies to have come out of Spain and gone global was an improbable software company, Meta4. Spain is well-known for many things but the Silicon Valley it sure ain't. And yet in the 1990s, literally out of nowhere, came this HR software company with modern object-oriented technology, great user interface and a very seductive knowledge-management product. It was soon to become the leader in its home market before expanding to other European countries (mainly France) and Latin America (in particular Mexico, Argentina and Colombia where large government organizations and private businesses run their HR processes on Meta4.)

Madrid as the nation's capital and foremost business center reflects that global outlook. Starbucks is everywhere; Broadway musicals,  something unheard of when I lived there, are popular with currently The Lion King and The Sound of Music on offer at some of the several theatres on the Gran Via, Madrid's main thoroughfare. Foreign cuisine has also made its entrance. Last time I was in Madrid I walked down Calle Lavapiés to go the square of the same name. I was stunned to see both sides of the street lined with Indian and Pakistan restaurants. Hangers-on also offered me another, illicit type of nourishment.

Although IT budgets are tight and the decision-making process longer than usual, Spanish companies could benefit from renewed investment in technology, in particular more modern HR systems. Here are some of the Spain-specific drivers and issues:

     § The new labor law and regulations (Estatuto de los trabajadores) put in place by the current (center-right) administration mean that HR admin and payroll systems are in for a big overhaul. Updating the various systems is a project in and of itself and could be the opportunity to launch into other higher-value projects.

     § Of these, a comprehensive competency-based model and learning system would go a long way to solve some of the productivity and low-skill issues of the Spanish workforce. Spanish companies have always had a vested interested in training if only to solve some of their endemic health and safety issues. To improve their H&S record what better way than invest in training, with online training becoming the default choice.

     § Spanish payroll, although a  bit simplified by the new laws, still remains, like most payrolls, complex to implement, although I would not rate it as complex as in Italy or California. It is also the cornerstone of most HR systems. This explains why local vendors such as Meta4 or Grupo Castilla still lead the pack of HR vendors (Meta4 dominates in the Ibex35 roster of large Spanish companies), followed by global vendors such as SAP and PeopleSoft who took a long time to understand and adapt their products to Spanish requirements (Oracle never managed to have a localized offering for Spain.) Here are some quirks of Spanish payroll:  parallel payroll process, peculiar retro calculations, the multiplicity of labor agreements which cover every aspect of a worker's with their employer.

     § Spanish companies have yet to fully leverage the functional value and financial advantages of SaaS- based HR systems, especially in the talent-management space. As for moving their entire HR system to a cloud-based model that will take a bit longer, when the economy stabilizes and true SaaS vendors like Workday decide to enter the Spanish market. If I have one recommendation to make to Workday and similar vendors it is not to waste any more time to establish a local presence. The best moment to start planting the seeds of  future growth is when things are rough.

     § Not only is the SaaS model slow to take off in Spain, but another key ingredient of a modern corporate IT system is going to be a drag on its modernization: the corporate mobile revolution is not going to take place soon. Blame the deep recession for this backward trend. In 2011 Spain was the country with the highest cell phone penetration rate in the world, with 96% of Spaniards owning a mobile device. This year a whopping 2 million mobile phones went off the air as both consumers and companies reduce their costs and cancel their mobile contracts. That is 5% of the country's population deciding to forgo going mobile. Meaning that BYOD (Bring Your Own Device)  is one trend that Spanish companies will not have to deal with soon.

     § Hard times may be pushing Spaniards away from cell phones, but the internet is as popular as ever and unleashing their creativity in unexpected ways. Some of them are using the Web to express their frustration at the recession and the results can be hilarious and insightful like Españistán, a brilliant graphic novel published last year by a Barcelona cartoonist. The popular web series Malviviendo (Living Badly) is quite revealing of a down-and out youth which tries to find comic relief on the internet. Its dark humor is shared by other Web comedies like Las asqueadas (The Disgusted Ones) and the self-explanatory Parados (The Jobless) and are much more revealing about Spain's economic distress than any lengthy report by the IMF or the European Commission. This also shows that this lost generation is quite talented, come to think of it.

     § Recruiting (which in Spain usually goes by Selección de personal) should be a hot area for both suppliers and user organizations. If you think this statement is counterintuitive considering the recession in Spain, think about the following: a high unemployment rate means that a higher number of candidates are sending in their applications. Without a modern talent-acquisition tool, of which many Spanish companies are in sore need, it will be challenging to deal with the increase in workload. So, even if you are going to turn them down, at least you owe it to them to do it speedily  and correctly, something which antiquated systems do not allow.

     § The larger number of foreign-born workers I mentioned earlier, means that for the first time Spanish employers are dealing with a new HR reality: diversity in the workplace. Tools, processes, corporate culture will have to change to reflect this new dimension.

     § As for which global HR technology vendors are best equipped to handle Spanish companies' requirements, here is my league table. It is based on functional depth, localization quality, number of references, resource availability, quality of support and strategy.

The avid reader I am means that in these two decades that I have practised Spain I have read dozens of works by Spanish writers or foreigners writing about Spain. Here is a list of the ones I have enjoyed and strongly recommend:

     § As soon as I became fluent in Spanish one of my colleagues at WTO lent me Antonio Larreta's Volavérunt. A historical novel set at the early 19th century court in Madrid, it won the Premio Planeta, one of Spain's major literary prizes, in 1980.  I was lucky that for my foray into Spanish literature I was regaled with a great novel on two quintessential Spanish historical characters, painter Goya and the 13th Duchess of Alba (see more of her namesake and distant heiress below under Art.)

     § Anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes is a delightful picaresque novel from the mid-16th century, before Cervantes wrote Don Quixote. I only read the latter in its full edition last year and was captivated by it. I now understand why the opening line, "Somewhere in La Mancha, whose name I do not wish to recall...", have become immortal words. Grahame Greene's latter-day take on the story of the Knight of the Sad Countenance, Monsignor Quixote, is a brilliant tale of 1980s Spain.

     § La regenta, by Leopoldo Alas aka Clarín, is another classic Spanish novel, from the century of great novels, and is Spain's answer to France's Madame Bovary or Russia's Anna Karenina. While reading it I found myself several times checking its publication date: I could hardly believe it came out in the late 19th century so modern is the treatment of the story and characters.

     § Reporter-turned-writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte has been Spain's best-selling sensation for as far as I can remember, writing thrillers and historical adventures. My favorite is The Flanders Panel (La tabla de Flandes in its original title) of which a movie was made under the title Uncovered. I do not recommend to see the movie before reading the novel since I found the movie a big spoiler, even if well made. The Club Dumas, similarly set in the world of antique booksellers, is also pretty good.

     § Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind is a page-turner set in post-war Barcelona, and became  the best-selling Spanish novel of all times (and the second one in the Spanish-language.)

     § If you ever wondered what would happen if writers decided to stop writing, then read Enrique Vila-Mata's Bartleby & Co, a brainy and erudite disquisition on the power, or mania, of saying "no."

     § For lighter fare, especially of the crime variety, Barcelona-based Manuel Vázquez Montalbán's novels featuring Pepe Carvalho are great, authentic reads.

     § Finally, Cuban-born but Madrid resident José Carlos Somoza wrote a unique book, The Athenian Murders (La caverna de las ideas in Spanish.) It is actually two parallel stories, one being the echo of the other in the form of footnotes which grow into a full-fledged plot until the story's dénouement when the two storylines merge. Imaginative and creative, it is truly astounding. A virtuoso achievement.

     § Although not Spanish, Washington Irving has probably done more than anybody else to publicize the country's number one tourist attraction: the Alhambra (see the above painting.) With his romantic Tales of the Alhambra, the  American writer contributed to rescue from neglect and decay the splendor of Arab Spain in the city of Granada. When I visited the palace in the early 1990s it was still a mundane affair. Now, you need to book your ticket weeks in advance. Question: which royal dynasty has reigned the longest in (and not over) Spain? Answer: the Ummayads in Cordoba for 300 years, whereas the current Bourbons have barely reached 250 years.

     § French writer George Sand wrote a travelogue covering part of Spain and mainly the island of Majorca. At times condescending, her book is a great read to get an idea of what tourism was like 200 years ago. Traveling from France to Spain, now a simple hour-and-a-half flight, then felt like visiting another planet. A Winter in Majorca (Un hiver à Majorque in the original French) actually says more about her (yes, George Sand was a female writer) than about  Spain or Majorca.
From the blogger's library some great books by Spanish
writers (and a couple of foreigners writing about Spain)

Spain has been blessed with some distinguished filmmakers.

     § Luis Buñuel's Viridiana  (1961) with the great actor Fernando Rey is loosely based on a novel by Pérez Galdós, a great 19th century Spanish writer. Banned by the Catholic Church and Franco's regime (yes, in those days there was a list of films and books which Catholics were forbidden from watching or reading under threat of roasting in Hell's eternal flames), it went on to win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film festival. And deservedly so as this subversive tale of old Spain is a true masterpiece. The dinner party with the beggars taking over  the masters' home is a piece of cinema anthology.

     § Made in the early 1970s but set in 1940s rural Spain, The Spirit of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena) is a spellbinding movie about the mysteries, anxieties and fears of childhood.

     § Bigas Luna's comedy  Jamón, Jamón was the first Spanish movie I saw after arriving in Spain where it had just been released. It served to introduce two young actors, Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, years before they were catapulted to Oscar-winning  super-stardom status and became husband and wife. 1992 also saw another good Spanish movie with Ms. Cruz, Belle Epoque. When its director, Fernando Trueba went to pick up his Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, he stated: "If I believed in God, I'd thank him for this. But since I don't believe in God, then I'll thank Billy Wilder." By then there was no Caudillo Franco or Catholic Church Index to cast aspersion on him and his movie about the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War.

     § A terrific talent since his film debut, Thesis, (1996) is Alejandro Amenábar. His third (English-language) film with none other than la Kidman, Gothic thriller The Others, (2001) established his global filmmaking credentials (the ending will leave you speechless) which were further enhanced by the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film for his next project, Out to Sea (2004) with an astonishing performance by Javier Bardem. I met Alejandro in Madrid a couple of years ago and he struck me as a most relaxed and normal person which, for somebody who works in the film industry, is quite a feat.

     § None, of course, approaches even remotely the astonishing international success of Pedro Almodóvar. When I arrived in Spain, the movida madrileña was in full swing. The term refers to the explosion of freedom  in the arts (see below), nightlife, music and movies  following the 40 years of repressed life the country had endured under Franco's dictatorship. No one epitomized the movida more than the irrepressible Almodóvar who has dominated Spanish cinema for the past 30 years becoming one of the best Spanish global brands abroad (I should have added him to the list above next to Zara et al.) With a unique style mixing kitsch, melodrama, screwball comedy (especially in the early movies), irreverent humor and unconventional, graphic sex, Almodóvar has managed one feat that few have in contemporary cinema: remaining true to his national roots. *** All his movies are grounded in Spain, with Spanish themes such as the downtrodden housewife and the return to one's pueblo (or rural origins). My favorites are:

          ¤ Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1989) is a hilarious film that ranks among  the best comedies ever shown on the big screen. It is up there with the works of Lubitsch and Cukor.

¤ High Heels (1991) with a terrific rendition of the song Piensa en Mi by Luz Casal      which sets every string of my soul aquiver with emotion, the way Joaquín Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez does. (Spanish popular songs are a hallmark of Almodóvar's films.)

          ¤ The Flower of My Secret came out as I bade farewell to Madrid. Maybe that is why I am so fond of it, but there is no denying that Almodóvar matured with this movie.

          ¤ With All About My Mother (1999) Almodóvar reached even higher critical heights. The movie, a paean to past actresses such as Bette Davis (the title is inspired by one of her most famous movies, All About Eve) received Oscars, Cannes prizes, Golden Globes and other awards galore.

          ¤ Bad Education (2004) about child abuse, drugs, sexual transgression is particularly well-written with plots and subplots that seem at first confusing until you realize the point the writer-director is trying to make.
Penélope Cruz, one of Almodóvar's muses,
 is Spain's answer to Italy's Sophia Loren.
Volver was another great success by the Spanish
director and won a Best Actress award for the
entire female cast at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival 

      § Although made by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro and a Mexican studio, Pan's Labyrinth (2006) is set in 1940s Spain and includes a largely Spanish cast (Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Ariadna Gil). It is a stunning dark fantasy tale which won a host of awards (including several Academy Awards) as well as enthusiastic critical reviews.

Finally, the film buff that I am can only be saddened by the relentless pace at which movie theatres are closing in Spain, especially in Madrid, where the main drag, the Gran Via, is seeing almost all of its cinemas closing one after the other. The Palacio de la Música, one of the grandest of the film palaces, will now be turned into a store. I have counted them and since my days in Madrid and now, 10 movie theatres on Madrid's answer to Broadway have closed: Along with the aforementioned Palacio de la Música, the Azul is going to be made into a restaurant, the Luna has been closed for a while and makes a sad sight, the Avenida is also closed and it is unclear what it will become etc. Sic transit gloria cinemae...

The year of my arrival in Madrid was also a vintage year for the arts. Until then if you were into arts you headed for the Prado Museum where you could admire some of Spain's greatest works of art by the likes of Goya, Velázquez, Zurbarán housed in a lovely 18th-century building. One of my favorite painters is Hieronymous Bosch whose Garden of Earthly Delights still amazes me. Whenever I visit the Prado I always make sure I go check it out. Great as the Prado is it was basically the only truly great museum in Madrid until 1992 when two terrific museums opened: the Reina Sofía galleries, dedicated to more modern fare, and the Thyssen Museum which houses the private collection of Baron Thyssen who, to Spain's luck, married a Spanishwoman. The Baroness made sure that their awe-inspiring collection remain in her native land**** and the result was that Madrid over the years has developed what is now known as The Art Triangle.

If you are visiting Madrid over the Christmas/New Year's holidays through next spring, I cannot recommend enough checking out the marvelous expo "Legacy of the House of Alba" housed in the wedding cake building of what in my days used to be the main Post Office.

Apart from Britain, Spain is the only country in Europe where the aristocracy not only is recognized by the government but has also retained  much of its fortune in the form of large estates and grand palaces. Of these great Spanish aristocratic families the House of Alba is second to none. Headed by the 18th Duchess of Alba (unlike Britain, Spain's titles are passed to women), who is one of the most colorful (some would say eccentric)  people in Spain for as far back as one remembers, the House of Alba has been accumulating riches and patronizing the arts for over half a millennium: the third Duke, in the 16th century, was   viceroy of Naples (then a Spanish possession), brutally suppressed the Dutch (Dutch children are still being scared out of their naughty ways by being threatened with "Be good or I'll call the Duke of Alba") and conquered Portugal, among other minors feats. The 13th Duchess, in the 18th century, was the most famous woman in Spain and had her Madrid home (Buenavista Palace) right across from where the exhibit takes place (before she sold it to the Spanish government who turned it into the army HQ) and was the heroine of that first book I mentioned earlier.

A portrait by Goya of the 13th Duchess of Alba
adorns the cover of the exhibit catalog,
a copy of which is now part of
the blogger's library
The current Duchess, who as a child was a playmate of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II in London where her father was ambassador, is a direct descendant of the Stuart kings who reigned over Scotland and England (the short version of her last name is Fitz-James Stuart y Silva) and her great-aunt was none other than the (Spanish-born) French Empress Eugénie (Napoleon III's consort) who went to live with the family after losing throne, husband and son (respectively.) She died, in 1920, at the family's Madrid home (Liria Palace) and bequeathed to them all her possessions. You don't get more blue-blooded than that - literally: according to  the Guinness Book of Records the Duchess of Alba holds more titles of nobility than anybody else and her wealth is estimated at around €4 billion. As the saying goes, "the Duchess of Alba is the only person who can travel from the north to the south of Spain without ever leaving her lands."  

With such a pedigree, history and cashflow you can expect amazing works of art to grace the family's multiple homes (the three best known ones are in Madrid, Seville and Salamanca.) Because they are part of a  private collection they are rarely seen in public so when an exhibit like the current one is put together  it is an opportunity not to be missed.  Since I was in Madrid during the 20th anniversary of my first arrival in Spain, what better way to celebrate it than visit an exhibit which celebrates an even great longevity? Here are amazing works by Titian, El Greco, Rubens, Fra Angelico, Goya, Chagall, medieval manuscripts, letters and maps made by Christopher Columbus himself (the Duchess counts the Great Discoverer of America as one of her ancestors and inherited many of his personal papers.)

Should you be visiting Madrid and looking for a great hotel experience, my favorite is the grand Palace Hotel  smack in the middle of the Art Triangle. It occupies the spot where used to be the home of another leading aristocratic family, the Dukes of Medinaceli, and is also celebrating an anniversary this year: its 100th. I recommend getting a room with a view on the leafy Paseo del Prado and the Neptune Fountain (right across is its competitor, the Ritz.) Having a drink or coffee under its dazzling stained-glass cupola is a religious experience. I used it as the setting of a scene in my book, High-Tech Planet. Among the rich and famous who have stayed there is Madrid lover Ava Gardner. The legendary screen goddess would come back in the wee hours of the morning after having danced the night away in a tablao flamenco often accompanied by a torero, as bullfighters are known. Not bad for the daughter of a South Carolina sharecropper. (In an interesting twist on how art imitates life, one of Ava Gardner's best-known roles, in Joseph L. Mankiewizc's The Barefoot Contessa, is that of a Madrid flamenco cabaret dancer who rises to Hollywood fame before her life ends in tragedy.) A word of caution: don't ask a Madrilian, not even a cabdriver, for the Westin Palace (as it is officially known now that it is part of the Starwood Hotels family.) You are likely to draw a blank before they reply, "Oh, you mean el Palace!." For us Madrilians, whether native or adopted, it will always remain the Palace.

Since I speak several languages fluently, I am often asked what my preferred one is. The Emperor Charles V  was in Renaissance times the most powerful man in Europe of which he owned large chunks, including Spain whose first king he was (and as such he rests for eternity in the magnificent royal necropolis at the Escorial, just outside Madrid.) To manage such diversity of people, he found it convenient to be a polyglot and used to say: "I speak Italian to ladies, French to men, Dutch to horses, German to soldiers and Spanish to God."

I don't necessarily agree with the great man (great because being master of the world, he abdicated of his own volition to finish his days in a remote Spanish monastery) but I find English a flexible language, French a precise one, Arabic very flowery, Portuguese (especially the Brazilian variety) colorful and Spanish friendly. By that I mean that I enjoy using the Spanish language (usually referred to in Spain as Castilian) in informal settings. I feel particularly relaxed using it.

Every language has its own quirks which reflect the national characters of its people. Some Spanish words have always held a particular spell on me.  Here are some of them:

     § Spanish is the only language that I know of which has a specific word for "fingertips" ("yema"). All other languages use compound words to refer to the tip of one's fingers so it has always captivated me that Spaniards would "bother" to create a specific word for it. It is noteworthy, though, that whereas French has orteils, English toes and German Zehe, Spanish uses the same word (dedo) to refer to the digits of both hand and foot.

     § "Asomarse" is used to refer to someone appearing at a window or balcony, but never at a door. Other languages don't make such a distinction: if you come out of your house, does it really matter whether you do it on the porch or a top floor? Obviously it does in Spain.

     § There are few rules you can make about languages, but one that in my opinion and experience holds true is that the most common words tend to be short ones, just one or two syllables. Thus the English hole is trou in French, qar in Mauritanian Arabic, buraco in Portuguese, an even shorter buco in Italian but a four-syllable word in Spanish: agujero. Same thing for acantilado (cliff) or ordeñar (to milk an animal) which tend to be just one or two syllables long in other languages but three or four long in Spanish. Why so long?

     § "Desasosiego" means "uneasiness, disquiet" and like its English equivalents it is also created by using a negative prefix. Except that the Spanish root word is sosiego so in desasosiego we have two negative prefixes as if to reinforce the condition being described. Are Spaniards particularly anxious people?

     § "Ensimismado" is another fascinating Spanish word. It means "deep in thought" or "pensive." Created from en si mismo it literally means "into-oneselved." 

I have witnessed so many changes over the years in Spain in general, and in Madrid in particular, that it would take a book to cover them all. In addition to some comments already made above, here are some, most on the plus side though.

My first reaction when I arrived in Madrid over Christmas 1992 was how loud, chaotic and smoke-filled a place it was. It is such a pleasure now to be able to go to bars, restaurants, clubs and not having to start coughing after a while before going back home with stinking clothes. I remember parking my car on the sidewalk between the Calle de Alcalá and the Gran Via before a night out: no qualms about it since everybody parked anywhere. That is now a thing of the past, thank God. And my favorite is the large pedestrian-only areas that grace the city center: Calle Fuencarral, Calle Arenal all the way to the Opera House and the Royal Palace. It allows you to sit outside and enjoy the lovely spring/summer weather and the great quality of light. (How retarded Paris is that we still have cars contending with passersby in those narrow streets of the Marais.)

The infrastructure program the government embarked on when I arrived in 1992 has delivered stunning results: the Madrid metro has become one of the best I know (unlike the dreadful one we have in Paris or the antiquated London Tube) allowing you to go from downtown to the airport in 20 minutes and at the cost of a few euros. Bullet trains now link the two major cities of Madrid and Barcelona (it used to take me half a day at least to drive between the two cities) thus obviating the need for the puente aéreo air shuttle (Brazilians would be well inspired to go ahead with their plans to do the same between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.)

Spain, whose kings carried the title of Most Catholic Monarchs,  has undergone one of the most amazing social changes in modern times. Divorce, abortion and gay marriage have come so fast you could barely utter "amen!" Already in the 1990s I was surprised to see that every small town in Spain had its gay bar, which was quite a big change coming from the conservative (some would say intolerant) United States.

Politically, the country has wisely alternated between left and right, having had until last year only three Prime Ministers in 20 years, ample proof of the strong social and political consensus which was so lacking in the 1930s. Hard to believe that just the previous decade before my arrival Spain suffered a coup attempt that threatened to send it back to military dictatorship. Hats off to King Juan Carlos who stood firm and managed to rally people, political parties and  most of the military command to his side to protect the democratic system (the King was luckier than his brother-in-law, King Constantine of Greece, who faced a similar crisis but was outmaneuvered by the Greek Colonels.) Few people realize that Don Juan Carlos is the world's only political leader who once held absolute power and willingly let go of it to allow democratic government. During all the time I lived in Spain, and for years afterwards, the King was highly respected and never criticized but recently, due to the economic crisis, people have become more critical of the royal institution as they have of all other institutions.

You can't stop change, it comes one way or another. Last week saw the demise of Banesto, one of Spain's oldest banks. Wonder what will happen to its grand head office on Calle Alcalá. Another Madrid institution, the Preciados department store, was also gone by the end of my stint there. Only a street remembers its name. The Prado has built an ugly annex next to the medieval Jeronimos church. Somebody ought to be shot for having defiled that gorgeous church. Four giant towers have sprung up north of the city. They are now largely empty, a testament to real-estate speculation gone completely berserk and responsible for the crisis the country finds itself in. (Boom is a great tell-all novel by insider Laura Anguera who reveals in it all the mechanics and shenanigans of the real-estate boom-and-bust cycle in Spain.) And yet nobody has been prosecuted for the mess. Total impunity seems to be the rule in Spain and most of the Western world as far as the culprits are concerned.

Spaniards may have accepted to put an end to their public smoking addiction, but there is one tradition they are clinging to ferociously: keeping late hours. There seems to be no way they will adapt the "decent" lunch and dinner times that most of the rest of the world keeps. I still find it hard, and even more so as middle age has relentlessly crept up, to get used to having lunch at 3 pm and dinner at 10/11 pm. Going out for post-prandial drinks or some partying means coming back home at a "normal" 4 or 5 am time, especially on weekends.

Since New Year's Eve is upon us, another reflection of how things have changed. In 1992 young people still dressed up for the Nochevieja partying: tuxedos and bow ties were ubiquitous in clubs, something you are hardly likely to see now. Also, pop music ruled the waves in those discos but, suddenly, the DJ would play something completely different: sevillanas (a type of flamenco dance) and everybody, young and less young, would start making the elaborate moves on the dance floor. Intoxicating. Nowadays, unless you go to a specialized flamenco joint, you are as likely to see people dancing sevillanas in Madrid clubs as you are to see Mayoress Ana Botella selling her body on the street.

Speaking of which, one street in Madrid has barely changed in 20 years. Calle Montera has become a pedestrian-only area, but is still home to streetwalkers who tout their wares and ply their trade in full view of everybody. Whereas in other world cities it would be considered shocking to see prostitutes in the city center, in Madrid locals and tourists walk by with utter indifference. One evolution, though, reflects the extent to which Madrid's ethnic make up has also changed between 1992 and 2012: back then the ladies of the night on Calle Montera used to be old and ugly and mainly Spanish, before their ranks swelled with Africans and Latin American immigrants. Now, they are mainly young, pretty and from Eastern Europe. The national origin may change, but the business remains the same.

Pelasperras chicas and sábanas are also gone as Spaniards
enthusiastically  adopted the euro a few years
after I left. They are now wondering
whether they did the right thing.
As for Spain's ethnic makeup, I am still impressed that the country has gone quickly to absorb large populations of foreign-born residents (Arabs, Latinos, black Africans, Eastern European) and yet you never see riots and tensions between native and immigrant groups the way you have them in Paris, London and other large European cities. Xenophobic, far-right political groups are unheard of in Spain, another proof of how tolerant and open modern Spanish society is. Even now, with the country in deep crisis, native Spaniards have yet to show any hostility to foreigners or to blame them for their economic travails. Quite impressive.   

Another major Spanish tradition, bullfighting, which was huge in 1992 is losing in popular appeal and coming under attack. Just as I could never make sense of American football, in spite of four years in the States, I could never understand the love that Spaniards have for corridas. I love many Spanish traditions but find goring bulls quite resistible.***** This being said, banning it altogether as they have done in secession-prone Catalonia smacks more of political score-settling than any true consideration for animal rights. In other less controversial sports, Spaniards keep on excelling, especially at tennis and soccer where they have become the undisputed masters. That is a legacy of all the preparation and investment that went into the 1992 Olympic Games.

Finally, on the foreign-policy front, one issue remains as strong now as it was then: the dispute with Britain over Gibraltar. Here I disagree with my Spanish friends since (a) a democratic country cannot seriously countenance forcing a territory which has been ruled separately for three centuries to join you if the overwhelming majority of residents are against it, and (b) why do you insist on granting yourselves this "unification" right which you refuse to Morocco with which you have an identical dispute?

I expect the country will go through many more changes this decade, none probably so wrenching as the ones triggered by the current economic tragedy. But one thing is unlikely to change: my bond with the country.  Of all my love stories none has been deeper, more intense and more enduring than the one with Spain, its people, its land, its culture and its language.

*Back then this UN agency was simply known as WTO until, a couple of years later,  a rival, Geneva-based organization (World Trade Organization), decided to have the same English-language initials, thus obliging the older, Madrid-based organization  to change its acronym by adding UN to the initials.  

**I was in charge of the localization of the PeopleSoft HR product line for Spain for a couple of years in the early 2000s before I moved to Oracle where, as director of Business Development for the European region for 5 years, I regularly traveled to Spain to further develop the equivalent product line. Then between 2007 and 2009 as vice-president with Fidelity HR Access, I regularly worked out of the office in Madrid, city which I still visit several times a year. Annual vacations in Madrid, the Costa Brava or other places also contribute to tie me to the land, although since I went freelance in 2009 Spain has had to contend with Brazil for my time, both professional and personal. 

***Almodóvar also tends to be loyal to his cast, such as Carmen Maura, Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas, Rossy de Palmas. Look out for Chus Lampreave, a delightful (now elderly) actress who typically plays the role of  a "portera".

****Margaret Thatcher, whose government was trying to lure the Thyssen collection to Britain, is said to have asked her advisors, "Couldn't we find an English girl for the Baron?"

*****It is worth reading Vicente Blasco Ibánez's, Blood and Sand, the classic torero rags-to-riches tale set in early 20th-century Spain. Several movie versions were made, of which the best are the 1941 Hollywood film with Tyrone Power and the Spanish one in 1989 with Sharon Stone and strikingly handsome Christopher Rydell in the role of the bullfighter Juan Gallardo (Rydell looked so convincing - as was his dubbing in Spanish - that I initially thought he was a Spanish actor until I found out he hailed from the U.S. of A.)

NOTE ON PICTURES: All, except the "Volver" poster, were taken by the blogger