Research, Essays, Commentaries – Inspired by the Social-Cultural-Political Thought of Sri Aurobindo (PLUS a bit of photography too!)
The very nature of the age of reasoning is dependent upon individual enlightenment and discernment. Unrestrained use of personal judgment without any checks and standards could be dangerous and could lead to continual difference of opinion, perspective, possibly even a chaos of ideas instead of a progressive and harmonious unfolding of the truth of things. To overcome this shortcoming Sri Aurobindo proposes two supreme desiderata that Reason must fulfill:
“It must find a general standard of Truth to which the individual judgment of all will be inwardly compelled to subscribe without physical constraint or imposition of irrational authority. And it must reach too some principle of social order which shall be equally founded on a universally recognisable truth of things; an order is needed that will put a rein on desire and interest by providing at least some intellectual and moral test which these two powerful and dangerous forces must satisfy before they can feel justified in asserting their claims on life.”[i]
Though the book Good to Great was published in 2001, it is even more relevant today because it set the standard for how Collins (the author) used research and analysis to identify the most crucial patterns that shape organizational success. Collins used the metaphor of a bus, the bus driver, passengers and destination. The bus is the company, which is at a standstill (conventional stage), and it is the business leader’s responsibility to get it going. He is the driver who needs to decide where to go, how to get there, and who is going. Leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. The “right people” team is one that “consists of people who debate vigorously in search of the best answer, yet who unify behind decisions, regardless of parochial interest.”[ii] This is the resulting action of the “right people,” whose primary psychological characteristic is that they believe in some general standard of Truth which they are “inwardly compelled to subscribe without physical constraint or imposition of irrational authority” (Sri Aurobindo). This general standard of Truth could simply be the belief that if you have the right executives on the bus, they will “do everything within their power to build a great company, not because of what they will “get” for it, but because they simply cannot imagine settling for anything less. Their moral code requires building excellence for its own sake, and you’re no more likely to change that with a compensation package than you’re likely to affect whether they breathe. The good-to-great companies understood a simple truth: The right people will do the right things and deliver the best results they’re capable of, regardless of the incentive system.”[iii]
We refer back to the example mentioned in our previous paper, that of Aravind Eye Care, which was founded in 1976 by Dr. G. Venkataswamy (a man known to most simply as Dr. V). In an eleven-bed hospital manned by 4 medical officers, he saw the potential for what is today one of the largest eye care facilities in the world. Over the years, Aravind has evolved into a sophisticated system dedicated to compassionate service, serving as a model for not only India but rest of the world. Applying Collins’ analysis, we may say that this organisation’s success is mainly attributed to two factors: the individual illumination of Dr. V., and the total commitment of his core team, the “right people” who believed in Aravind’s mission to become something greater than the individuals working there and its core mission of eliminating needless blindness. Or using Sri Aurobindo’s terminology, we may say that this core team had “subscribed to the general standard of Truth to which the individual judgment of all [was] inwardly compelled to subscribe without physical constraint or imposition of irrational authority.”
The second desideratum, according to Sri Aurobindo, is that Reason will be effective only when it is based on some principle of social order which shall in turn be founded on a universally recognisable truth of things. This principle of social order has the potential to rein in the individual tendencies of personal desire and self-interest.
Uncontrolled desires, interest and myopic vision have had devastating effecting on the companies. Kodak is best known for photographic film products. During most of the 20th century Kodak held a dominant position in photographic film, and in 1976, had a 90% market share of photographic film sales in the United States.[iv] Steven J. Sasson, an electrical engineer who invented the first digital camera at Eastman Kodak in the 1970s commented on his invention, “My prototype was big as a toaster, but the technical people loved it, it was filmless photography, so management’s reaction was, ‘that’s cute — but don’t tell anyone about it.”[v] In 1981, Vince Barabba, the then head of market intelligence at Kodak, with the support of Kodak’s CEO, had conducted a very extensive research which looked at the core technologies and likely adoption curves around conventional film versus digital photography. The results of the study produced both “bad” and “good” news. The “bad” news was that digital photography had the potential capability to replace Kodak’s established film based business. The “good” news was that it would take some time for that to occur and that Kodak had roughly ten years to prepare for the transition.[vi] In spite of these findings, Kodak management failed to realize that digital photography could serve as a disruptive technology for their conventional film business. And instead of marketing the new technology, the company held back for their interest in protecting their own lucrative film business, well after digital products were reshaping the market. In January 2012, Kodak filed for bankruptcy.
Another form in which an organisation’s self-interest or desire may manifest is in the falsehood of wanting to continue in the same line of existence, ignoring the call of the changing times which may require a creative destruction for the company’s renewal and continued success. Bajaj Auto Limited (Bajaj Auto), a leading Indian manufacturer of two wheelers in India, provides a relevant example of this. Right from 1945 onwards, Bajaj Auto was the market leader in the Indian two-wheeler industry till late 1990s. Chetak (one of its premium models, named after the legendary stallion of the Rajput king Maharana Pratap) was well-known for its reliability and sturdiness and used to have a waiting list on delivery for many years. For 40 years the model and design of Chetak and other Bajaj two-wheelers remained almost unchanged except for a few cosmetic modifications. But the sale or the demand never diminished, keeping the brand name Bajaj in leading position. The consumer remained satisfied because the brand name carried a lot of trust owing to the vehicle’s strong body, low maintenance and good mileage, as compared to the next available alternative.[vii]
In late 1990s, the scenario changed. After the liberalization of the Indian economy in 1991, foreign players began to enter the Indian two-wheeler industry with their innovative products and sophisticated technology. Bajaj leadership could not visualize the impact of these changes on their market share. In spite of rising competition, Bajaj neither upgraded its scooter models, nor focused on the rapidly growing motorcycle segment. It is said that during this time the company’s efforts were directed more toward influencing the government against opening of the Indian economy, instead of focusing on research and product development, which might have helped it keep its position. The company lost its leadership status in the scooter segment to Honda Motorcycles and Scooter India (HMSI). Finally, in December 2005, Bajaj discontinued Chetak and since then has been out of the scooter market though scooter sales have continued to increase at a steady rate.[viii]
Science, according to Sri Aurobindo, seemed to fulfil impeccably the two supreme desiderata of an individualistic age of Reason. This is because Science does not depend on any doubtful scripture of fallible human authority. Instead, it relies on the fundamental truths of Nature herself which are available for all to uncover with patient and persistent observation, and intellectually honest judgment. In his words:
“Here were laws, principles, fundamental facts of the world and of our being which all could verify at once for themselves and which must therefore satisfy and guide the free individual judgment, delivering it equally from alien compulsion and from erratic self-will. Here were laws and truths which justified and yet controlled the claims and desires of the individual human being; here a science which provided a standard, a norm of knowledge, a rational basis for life, a clear outline and sovereign means for the progress and perfection of the individual and the race.”[ix]
He concludes that the individualistic age of Reason is characterized by an attempt to “govern and organise human life by verifiable Science, by a law, a truth of things, an order and principles which all can observe and verify in their ground and fact and to which therefore all may freely and must rationally subscribe.”[x]
Encyclopedia Britannia defines Science as “any system of knowledge that is concerned with the physical world and its phenomena and that entails unbiased observations and systematic experimentation. In general, a science involves a pursuit of knowledge covering general truths or the operations of fundamental laws.”[xi] Since it is also a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions, therefore, the discoverable truths are “inwardly compelling to individuals without physical constraint or imposition of irrational authority,” according to Sri Aurobindo. These truths also serve to rein in individual desire and interest by providing at least some intellectual test. Momentous progress, growth and prosperity of the mankind can be attributed to the application of physical sciences. Based upon this success followed the development of scientific management movement.
[i]Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Volume 25, p. 19.
[ii]Jim Collins, p. 13.
[iii]Jim Collins, p. 50.
[ix]Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Volume 25, p. 20.
[x]Sri Aurobindo, p. 20.