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Friday, November 27, 2009

Reflections on self-branding on Eid

You like it or leave it, the moment you step out of the country, you unknowingly become the accidental spokesperson on behalf of your country, religion, customs etc. Although you might not ever have taken (or cleared) the BCS (Bangladesh Civil Services) examinations and thus never was placed as the Bangladeshi High Commissioner through the Foreign Services to represent the Red and Green on foreign territories.
Nevertheless, the way you look, your name, gestures and ofcourse the green passport oblige (or burden?) you with this unavoidable job of being the brand ambassador of Bangladesh (and sometimes that of Islam, incase you have an Islamic name). I have countered questions on issues such as sharing of natural gas between India and Bangladesh and how it could escalate in case of the latter’s refusal and what are MY views on this, why many Bangladeshis still support a particular country’s teams in cricket (even when playing on Bangladeshi soil) with whom we had a bitter past history and what do I think about it? Also questions if I know or not much about micro-credit or Dr. Yunus, especially after he brought Bangladesh to some positive global limelight, refreshing change from the typical branding of the land of floods, famines and fundamentalists. Say today I came wearing a Panjabi Payjama on Eid at work much to the bemusement of my colleagues who were enlightened by my short speech on the essence of this day, why Muslims do what they do on this day etc. etc. etc. However, the key question that came from the audience: Why are Eids not as visible and as more like a social festival (like Christmas, Diwali etc.) rather than strictly a religious one? Stay tuned for my next post on 'Branding politics and religion'.

So even if I liked it or not, I have discovered myself unknowingly in situations over the last 10 years, where I had to be equipped with the basic knowledge of a spokesperson to counter questions on culture, politics, religion concerning Bangladesh. Which again reconfirms the fact that all my identities exist (Bangladeshi, Bengali, Muslim) and they are NOT mutually exclusive, but exist in that order of identity preference.

So inspite of your personal qualifications and earnest efforts to naturalize (or hide, deny etc.) yourself to host country environments, chances are that you might encounter situations where you happen to be the only spokesperson for the Bangla brand around, so pretending not to exist, saying ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t care’ are expensive opportunities lost to convey a positive message about the country brand. As foreigners think of you as the face of the stories (mostly negative) they read about Bangladesh, about Muslims in general in newspapers, TV, online etc. So whether you would add garbage to the already distorted image or would promote it with a mix of your personality and knowledge, is entirely your decision, but albeit an important one. Just keep in mind that whatever you say, does have an effect on your fellow community member. And since the digital media, social networks are bringing down physical borders and allowing the globalisation Tsunami, you are no more just an ordinary individual sitting at the comfort of your lounge at home or abroad and trying to be everybody everytime. Even though you are not a BCS cadre of foreign services, you are in a good position to do the job those civil servants-turned-bureaucrats-turned-airheads were supposed to do any ways, but they never did.

Moral of the story: If you have a strong country brand, you are benefitted personally and professionally too on global stage, especially abroad. If it’s the opposite, your personal accomplishments are prone to be generalized and stereotyped. Solution: Brand yourself, don’t forget the country too. Speak and carry yourself like a brand ambassador, not like a politician or a religious guru. EID Mubarak!!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bangladesh Brand Forum opens Knowledge Center

Bangladesh Brand Forum has recently launched a Knowledge Center with a view to 'advancing the knowledge with the assistance of vast resources of business wisdom'. Read here to know more.

In first impression, I am full of hope that this initiative will work towards showcasing, documenting, archiving valuable business knowledge generated everyday in the growing business sectors of Bangladesh. Its high time that we start celebrating our business heroes, our budding business leaders and start branding ourselves first. To that respect, Bangladesh Brand Forum's Knowledge Center seems to be a good step in the right direction. I am sure knowledge exists not only in the corporate dominated urban settings in Bangladeshi businesses, but it also exists in the rural areas of the country where majority of the Small and Medium Enterprises operate. So an effort to bring this knowledge in a central repository for use by other businesses is no wonder a commendable initiative.

However, like all other things in life, first thing I did when I learnt about this project, was to Google it. That led me to the third party newspapers website from where you get the news report on this. To know more, I thought to check out the Bangladesh Brand Forum's website and experienced 'mild disappointment' with the state of the site there. In my opinion, its equally important to brand this initiative (and the BBF) through strong web presence, which should include interactive and active social media presence too (so that foreign audience know about it too). I could not find any information on latest activities, even information on latest issue of the magazine on the website. A topic for the owners to look into with utmost urgency.

Coming back to the 'Knowledge Center', I think it would be better if we could find out who all are the target audience of this initiative is and how they can participate. Do they need to pay any membership fee to become a member? What facilities will they avail? Also, the vast majority of emails I receive in this blog's email account concern with queries from job seekers, who are frantically looking for employment opportunities in Bangladeshi companies (even in this blog). Not to mention a good number of students who are even looking for part time work opportunities are also there. Will this Knowledge Center somehow cater to unemployed youth, women, students who might be looking for jobs? Or this will be just another 'blue collar' initiative only to cater to the 'corporate elites' of Bangladeshi business domain? Knowledge should be made available to all, in some form or the other, to all who might use it to advance their situation. The ability to pay/subscribe better not be a deciding factor in the long run to make this venture acceptable and popular across all strata of the business audience (students, job-seekers, executives, managers etc.)

Then I am keen to know if this Center will somehow encourage, help entrepreneurs or not? I myself am a private sector employee and have nothing against salaried employment/employees. But I have a special 'Respect Center' in my heart for entrepreneurs, business innovators, leaders. Bangladesh Brand Forum itself being one of this type, might do a great service to those who might be thinking of setting up some sort of a business in Bangladesh, but just don't know how to. BBF's elite panel of business think-tanks might provide valuable guidance and directions to budding business buddies of Bangladesh to help them set up their tiny money making ventures. What do you think?

While its important that we educate our executives the importance of branding, we also should take into account informing those who are in rural settings. So will this Center, in near future, make its service accessible, available to people who live outside Dhaka? Will there be material available in Bangla too? These are perhaps some of the key aspects the drivers of this initiative might consider, incase they already haven't.

Finally, knowledge is multi-directional, where Bangladeshis working abroad might also feed into this process with their ideas, expertise, experience etc. So does the Knowledge Center take into account 'importing knowledge' from Bangladeshi workers abroad?

Well, even if the answer to a lot of these questions is 'no', it does not mean that the initiative is short-sighted in any ways. Rather I am very optimistic that if nurtured well, this might very well turn out to be a center of excellence for Bangladeshi best business practices, case studies, general knowledge etc. So good luck with this.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Learning English the BBC Janala way

The need for being multi-lingual to gain an edge in the global business stage has been mentioned in this blog before. Its good to see some signs of innovative teaching mechanisms to spread the language learning drive. This time its BBC who has come up with a bi-lingual website to help learners of the English language in Bangladesh to take lessons over internet, mobile phones etc. Read here to know more.

Some initiative is better than no initiative at all, so hats off to BBC Trust for thinking how relevant digital technologies in the Bangladeshi context can be applied to provide language education. Some constructive observations and feedback though.

1. I think its important to segment and identify the learning audience. When you arrive at the website at, there is no clear navigation to identify myself with any learning group. For example, say I am a housewife, kid (minor), graduate, business executive, businessman (or woman) etc. Users online would like to identify themselves with any of the services being offered, as every user's needs are unique. So BBC Janala could look into the issue of segmenting the audience and tailor made their language courses accordingly. It is expected that the English learning needs of a housewife might be different from those of a business executive who encounters English speaking people almost everyday. So 'English for housewives' and 'English for businesspeople' can be packaged to cater to two different groups.

2. It might be a possibility that this service is promoted in the rural areas through various telecenters spread around Bangladesh. Since they are working with Grameen Phone (along with all other telecom operators) any ways in this project, might be possible to promote the service through the Grameen Phone Community Information Centers (GPCIC).

3. The fact that the lessons can be listened to through mobile phone sounds good but the cost associated with it (3 taka for a 3 minute audio lesson) still remains a bit high in my perspective. No doubt that the service shall never be free. But at the same time, we need to keep in mind that the vacuum the service is trying to fill is a failure of the overall education system of Bangladesh which somehow does not take into realistic consideration the need to be able to converse in fluent English (also not other languages). Also, if someone just decides to call up a friend or a person who happens to possess better knowledge of English then the whole point of having these lessons available through airtime becomes less useful. In my opinion, I really don't envisage many people to call up this service spending 3 taka for 3 minutes just to know English from perhaps an automated machine response, so better need to look at the alternatives available and how to make this service exclusive.

4. Finally its very important to demonstrate and make explicit references to real stories of real people on how knowing English aided someone in their personal, professional lives. Unless I know why or how or when exactly learning English will provide me visible benefits, chances are that I would still remain a bit doubtful in becoming a loyal and long term user of the BBC Janala service.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Effective Bangladeshi Diaspora network for economic transformation of Bangladesh (The Diaspora Project)

The Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI) in Partnership with the Asian Tiger Capital Partners (AT Capital) has initiated a year long project on establishing an effective Bangladeshi Diaspora network for economic transformation of Bangladesh (The Diaspora Project). The project purpose is ‘To identify the impact of Bangladeshi Diaspora in Economic transformation and leveraging its Diaspora in terms of knowledge and skills transfers and improving its global commercial interface. To establish an effective Diaspora Knowledge Network (DKN) of the British Citizen with Bangladeshi origins.’ The DKN aims to provide various online tools which will: (click read more)

• Help the non-resident Bangladeshis (NRBs) to source and identify the skills and expertise they need from the network;
• Facilitate online communications with other NRBs globally; Submit proposals / issues which other NRBs can contribute and assist, depending on their level of skills and interest;
• Promote successful NRBs on a monthly basis from the network and provide a short profile on the website; and
• Leverage on the NRB network by sharing consultancy projects and other issues in Bangladesh that requires professionals’ advice and guidance which can be received from the vast knowledge network.

Seems to be a good initiative to channel back the good experiences, expertise gathered on foreign soil back to the roots. You can download the form to join from here, download Mr. Ifty's presentation here and the strategy document here.

I attended one of these events in London last week arranged by the bobNetwork and I was priveleged enough to have taken a short phone interview of Mr. Ifty Islam earlier today. He was asked the following questions and you can hear more about his views in the embedded phonecast.

1. Why do you think NRBs have a role to play in investment opportunities in Bangladesh?
2. What are the exact ways (how exactly) can they do it?
3. Is the role same for all NRBs in all countries or NRBs in some countries have more role to play than those in others?
4. What are the key challenges in Bangladesh now hindering the contribution and involvement of NRBs?
5. Please tell something about your partnership on this project with BEI.
6. What is your opinion on country marketing, do you have any plans for that to promote this project sustainably over the next few years?

Also have a look at his views on the financial sector of Bangladesh here

We hail this effort at the Bangladesh Corporate Blog and express our intentions to spread the word of mouse and word of mouth to make this venture bear fruit for Bangladesh.


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Beggars can be choosers, in Dhaka atleast

So you must be knowing about Sports Zone in Mohakhali, Export Processing Zones (EPZ) outside Dhaka and Chittagong, the diplomatic zone in Baridhara, you have also heard about O-zone (that is Ozone layer in the atmosphere) and some of you might be ardent fans of Boy Zone too....but now lets give it up for the new 'zone' in town...yet another product of some creative brains in the national the form of nothing other than our very own and only 'begging zone' for the Dhaka city! Yes, I am also wondering like you whether to laugh, cry, frown or sigh at this, can't make up my mind yet.

Read more here to find out how the government's Disabled Welfare Foundation had outlined an action plan to rehabilitate beggars so that "they can't create nuisances or tarnish the country's image". A survey is planned led by a 'top TV star' and charities are also pretty much vocal on the roots and reasons of why there is a huge influx of beggars in the capital. Honestly, I don't see how effective this 'special zone' would be to reduce the miseries of these beggars, some of them are 'happy-go-lucky beggars' any ways and have decided to join this 'business' voluntarily or due to family traditions. Now for the real victims of natural calamities, acute needs a greater planning to re-establish them in the society, or to convert them long term into some sort of a workforce. Following the principles of cause and effect, we always come up with knee jerk reactions and 'measures' to prevent the 'effects' and the by-products, comfortably procrastinating to remedy the root causes that cause the eventual not-so-good effects i.e. floods of beggars in this case.

I wonder how this special begging zone would be. Some questions begging to be answered are...
1. Will there be any physical boundary to demarcate this zone?
2. Which areas are likely to be labelled as this unfortunate zone?
3. How the residents of that area would feel? Would they be termed as beggars too?
4. Will the property prices go down/up in that special zone?
5. What kind of nuisances would the beggars be allowed to create inside this zone? Please give examples.
6. Can someone apply to become a beggar and get some sort of a permit to start begging in that zone?
7. Will the government introduce similar schemes especially right after Eid holidays when non-Dhakaiyyas go to their native district towns/villages? From now on, those who were born out of the capital would require special 'zone permits' (visas?) to stay, work, live inside the 'zoned' Dhaka city? Who knows the administration might think such fantasy schemes would help reduce the traffic jam and over population of Dhaka city. So rather than addressing the problems at the root, they might do some stunt here too.

I have heard that there had been some 'begging businessmen' who had been begging professionally for decades around the religious hotspots in Dhaka and are proud owners of multi-story flats in the capital. I used to confront the seriously out of rhythm 'sufi begging tunes' of a band of five beggars beside the Australian High Commission in Gulshan-2. Then there was the young ones who used to follow a 'trick or treat' approach in the traffic intersections. They used to assume how long-lasting your relationship will be if you happen to be sitting with your wife/girlfriend in the CNG (auto-rickshaw) and give you blessings, provided you pay some quick cash. Failure to do so sometimes followed with abuse too from safer distances. Personally I always avoided the too young and mischievious ones, the young, single moms with new borns who refused offers of working at home as maids or in any garments company. Not to mention the yearly fracas that takes place on the day of Eid ul Azha with women, children fighting over the 'third portion' of the meat and eventually reselling it and reselling it and reselling it. So much so for religious purpose. I preferred to pay some extra to the old rickshaw puller or to the ferry-wallahs who turned sweat to money everyday to meet their minimum living needs.

Certainly the act of begging is not something to be ridiculed, rather the reactions to tackle this problem is worthy of serious scrutiny and sarcasm. Like many other important problems of governance, this issue was never thought of. I hope whatever we plan now lasts beyond 5 years. A troika partnership among NGOs, private sector and government agencies is a must. Also we need to keep in mind that we as a nation has a tendency to go 'palms up' especially to donors and foreign aid agencies. That certainly trickles down to bottom, so we need to weed out those who prefer to beg just because its easy, requires no or little 'hardwork' and because the government is providing 'free zones' for them to beg and continue their trade.


Monday, November 2, 2009

What are you smiling for?

I would admit that when I walked into the Banani branch of Standard Chartered Bank in Dhaka, I was not expecting that the lady at the reception would smile and greet me in. As a reflex I also did smile back, quickly lost eye contact and moved on to fill up the pink slips, still thinking in the back of my mind, 'why did she smile at me? Am I looking funny? Does she know me? Do I know her? Have I seen her before somewhere? Which mela? Which mall? Pink City? Bashundhara Mall?'
Nevermind....I noticed slyly if she was extending the same smiling service to all customers who walked in or was I special, or was she suspicious? My brief 'participant observation' established the fact that she was naturally and willingly smiling at almost every customer walking in, depending on her preoccupations from time to time at her workstation. On the other hand, I tried to notice how the 'smile struck' customers were reacting to this smiling receptionist. Majority of the customers who walked in during my half an hour stay were male, students, business men, young and middle-aged men mostly. Other than a handful of them, most of the king customers either remained indifferent or just pretended as if she did not exist in that side of the room. However almost all of them, like me, didn't forget to throw a sly glance at her from different corners of the office space...probably posing the same questions as I did..trying to figure out the mystery of an unknown Bangladeshi woman smiling at unknown men, who she could be, what could be her family background etc. and all those unquenched curiosity, never realising just simply that its the very basic a staff at reception can, which does not cost anything...every company in the world asks, trains, teaches, preaches their staff to do their customers....but many of them just forget to do it...or just don't do it because of some peculiarities on ground.

Female staff are deliberately kept at receptions not only in Bangladesh but around the world for variety of reasons. Having a sexist discussion would be something to discuss in a different post perhaps, but it is argued that you don't see many female staff smiling at you 'for nothing' when you walk towards the reception at any office premises in Bangladesh. Most of the time I have found staff at reception, both male and female, rather indifferent, cold, uninterested towards whoever is walking in to them. Many times, female staff are not very interested to make eye contacts too...perhaps wary of me smiling at her 'for nothing' :). Well I have heard arguments from both sides on this. Men say that many female staff think that they nearly were crowned Miss World in last year's beauty pageant but due to a twist in fate, they ended up at the wrong place of doing this job at the front desk or at the bank counters. Many also claim that some female executives carry the notion that some male customers might fall in love at first sight if they prefer to smile, act nice and easy with all of them. So to pre-empt and fend off any unsolicited advancement, the female cadre prefer to remain cold and appear as much formal, emotionless as possible.

Female staff on the other hand also argue that due to some peculiar perceptions towards women at work place in Bangladesh, most of the male customers, even colleagues are not 'properly' oriented with how to deal with female staff, colleagues etc. So many of the male customers, colleagues, who sometimes happen to be 'part time losers and lovers in their own right', try to express overflowing emotions of interest, mating and dating in the very first or few instances of receiving so called 'hints' from their female counterparts in the form of smiles, eye contact, showing signs of being comfortable etc. Women at workplace even in developed economies carry an extra burden of consciousness and identity, its no exception in Bangladesh, infact they perhaps carry a heavier load in that respect. However all these are mere hearsays which brings us to ask if there exists or not any research on 'gender issues while providing customer services' in Bangladesh..may be I will ask Parveen Apa.

Have a look at this article which I came across recently which discusses how women can crack the gender code at work place. Its a pretty interesting piece of work where highlights include when the author recommends women to 'dress for success, not for access' at work place (LOL)...also contradictory to what I have been trying to say in this blogpost...the author however advises working women 'not to smile too much' at work place. Not sure if you would agree with all this or not, but its worth giving a thought.

In fine, I think some men at work should realise that there is a right place for everything and every thoughts in the back of the mind...professional environment is perhaps best suited for work related issues better take a casual 'professional' smile as its supposed to be. On the other hand...some women at work better accept the fact that not all approaching men wear dodgy looks and creepy its advised to ease up. In the end of the day, it all falls on how one carries oneself...a 'smile' is harmless enough to cause any major trouble...but powerful enough to create that first link of 'putting at ease' with the customer. So smile, smile back and move on. :)))))))))))))))))))))

Image: That is a 'ficture' of a 'bideshi issmiling afa' taken from here