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31 Mar

Keeping your ear to the ground

Every time a new way to do something emerges, there is a lot of ambiguity surrounding the new method. There is a learning curve involved, which is based on how complex the newer method is or different it is from the usual way of doing the thing.

For instance, there will be a world of difference in how we search on ChatGPT instead of Google. It will involve learning how to search better.

And often, such advancements cannot be preempted. Once introduced, we learn to deal with them.

We improvise, overcome, and adapt, as one would say.

But before jumping to hasty generalisations about change being constant and good, let’s discuss some nuances.

MGNREGA attendance via a mobile app

MGNREGA is a demand-based employment scheme that has been operational in rural India since 2005. It guarantees 100 days of paid labour.

Until December 2022,  the attendance of labourers was recorded in a physical muster roll where mates (admin staff for execution) marked their presence or absence on a daily basis. This physical record was then submitted to the programme officer of the block office on a weekly basis for the disbursement of wages.

In December 2022, an app was introduced to mark attendance. Here’s what happened —

“Khess and Kumar live in the forested Remhala village of Chhattisgarh’s Surguja district. They are both “mates”, the first point of contact for labourers working in the employment guarantee scheme, which assures 100 days of work to every rural household in the country. Accurately recording attendance is key for workers to receive their daily wage of Rs 204.

But the new National Mobile Monitoring Software app has made this an uphill task in villages like Remhala. Made up of nine hamlets spread over a hilly region, the village is bereft of a single bar of network. Many settlements are on hilltops, often with no motorable road. Since January 1, when the central government made it mandatory to use the app, Kumar and Khess have been keeping up an arduous daily routine.

Around 8 am, Khess rides on his two-wheeler to a plateau of land just outside the village where phones are able to catch some cellular network. There, Khess downloads the muster roll, a record which shows the labourers due at the worksite under his charge for the day. He then heads back to the work site by 9 am and makes note of the presence of workers in a register. “Then, back at the plateau before the 11 am deadline, I feed in the data, hit submit, and hope that the data has indeed been uploaded correctly,” said Khess.

This whole cycle is repeated at least twice a day – to enter data in the evening once the shift ends as well.”

— Natasha T., in How NREGA attendance app is derailing life in a Chhattisgarh village, published by

Moreover, the introduction of the attendance app now requires two “time-stamped and geo-tagged” photographs of the labourers to be uploaded onto the server before their attendance is recorded.

But there are additional constraints to getting the task done —

1. In order to ensure transparency, the app does not allow photos to be uploaded from the phone's gallery.
2. There is a time limit within which the attendance should be recorded. And if the attendance doesn’t get recorded, it causes the labourer to lose out on that day’s wages.
3. Internet connectivity and tech glitches fail to process the attendance

The mates responsible for uploading this data work around these issues by uploading pictures of the ground and travelling to and from a part of the village that has better connectivity twice a day, adding to their workload.

But there is also a definite logic for the government’s introduction of this system.

The government's rationale behind implementing the app-based attendance system was to ensure transparency and monitoring of the scheme.

It was believed that tracking through geo-tagged photographs of work sites was believed to be an effective method to detect duplication and address corruption allegations surrounding the scheme.

However, this is a top-down approach to resolving the issue of transparency and duplication of work.

A top-down approach to problem-solving is a method in which decisions are made by the higher authority, such as the management or leadership, and then communicated to the rest of the organization to be implemented.

It is characterized by a hierarchical structure and a centralized decision-making process, with the assumption that the leadership has the necessary knowledge and expertise to make the right decisions for the organization.

Another instance of a top-down approach was the implementation of Aarogya Setu.

Aarogya Setu, a contact tracing app that was launched by the Indian government in April 2020 to help contain the spread of COVID-19.

The app was designed to track the movement of users and alert them if they had come into contact with someone who had tested positive for the virus. The app was made mandatory for government and private sector employees and was also recommended for all citizens to download.

Initially only available in English, the app required smartphone internet connectivity — making it inaccessible to a large population in India, particularly in rural areas.

There were concerns about the effectiveness of the app in controlling the spread of COVID-19. Contact tracing requires high accuracy and precision, and there were concerns about false positives and negatives generated by the app.

The major difference between the two cases cited above is the question of timing.

During the pandemic, the government had to be prompt in responding with the next steps for tackling the virus.

A top-down approach, in that case, was perhaps the only option.

However, in the case of the MGNREGA attendance, ample time and relevant context were available, based on which the app could’ve been created.

Now, although these two cases are political in orientation, analyzing them could still inform our approach on how to build systems within a business context.

Take, for example, the recent changes Substack is introducing in growing their product.

Day before yesterday, quite a few Substack authors sent an email sharing how the business has helped their independent publishing careers and breathed new life into what is possible.

Many of the writers have therefore chosen to invest money in the business because Substack reached out to the writers on the platform with the following aim —

“We are serious about building Substack with writers, and this community round is one way to concretize that ideal. We’re doing this because the dynamics of a platform like Substack change if the people who are building their businesses on it are owners of it too. And we’re doing it because it not only provides something good for our company but also presents an opportunity for the people who use Substack to participate in the benefits that come from building this network—including the financial upside.”

This, my friends, is the opposite of a top-down approach to solutions.

A bottom-up approach is a management strategy that involves empowering individuals or groups at the lower levels of an organization to make decisions and take action based on their experiences and expertise. In a bottom-up approach, ideas and initiatives come from the ground level, and managers or leaders support and facilitate their implementation.

Substack’s bottom-up approach to building a product exhibits a meaningful intent to keep the team’s ear to the ground.

Ted Gioia, a Substack newsletter author, explains why he is glad to invest in the product:

“In some careers, this kind of thing is very common. Look around and see it everywhere: employee stock ownership, co-ops, stock options, profit-sharing, etc. But not in the writing business.

I’ve published a dozen books and thousands of articles, and I’ve never been invited to become an owner of the business. When you think about it, that’s a little odd. Why shouldn’t writers — or musicians, photographers, or workers on a film crew, etc. — also be owners of their creative enterprises? Wouldn’t that be a good thing? Substack is trying to turn that into a reality, and I’m excited to be part of it.

But I do need to emphasize that investing my cold hard cash in Substack is not a financial decision. I’m doing it as a matter of principle.

I’d love to live in a world in which the major record labels were owned by musicians. Or the Hollywood film studios by cast and crew. Or those five huge publishing businesses were controlled by writers. I’ve said as much to the folks at Substack.

A few months ago, I got a chance to meet the founders of the company while they were visiting Austin. Since that time I’ve come to know them and trust them. But even at that first meeting, I said that if they ever listed Substack on the stock exchange, I would buy shares. I meant it.

What I never anticipated was the possibility of becoming a shareholder even before a public listing. But today, the company announced a new program that will let writers invest in Substack and own a piece of the company.”

Now, let’s look at why I am making this connection in the first place.

Stakeholder management, in essence, is the string that connects the MGNREGA case discussed in the article with what we, as business operators, could learn about building businesses, too.

In the case of the government’s scheme implementation, a bottom-up approach, although a tad time-consuming, could make the process efficient in the long run. It would ensure how a new tech solution can best marry the visions of the scheme to its execution on the ground.

By spending time arriving at a bottom-up solution, the organization (government) could become aware of the unknown variables or externalities and design the solution accounting for the same.

It would also have a better buy-in from those impacted by the execution because the implementation would make room for their limitations.

“Keeping one’s ear to the ground” is an idiom that’s repeatedly used when discussing political changes and events.  

We could technically borrow from the democratic ways of politics while we design business solutions too, which means decentralizing and attempting to create solutions from the ground up.

You see, even in places without big money rewards, people will still participate if being open offers great chances for good ideas to grow. The open-source world of software is also proof that different ways of creating new ideas work best in open places where ideas can move freely. When ideas are tightly controlled and centralized without information about what's happening on the ground, it's hard for them to grow, to connect, to combine.

However, in open places where ideas are sourced in a more decentralized and bottom-up fashion, these new ideas can easily form and spread.

Finally, Gareth Morgan’s thoughts from Images of Organisation mimic the parallel I wish to draw in the piece.

“The political metaphor can also be used to unravel the politics of day-to-day organizational life. Most people working in an organization readily admit in private that they are surrounded by forms of "wheeling and dealing" through which different people attempt to advance specific interests. However, this kind of activity is rarely discussed in public. The idea that organizations are supposed to be rational enterprises in which their members seek common goals tends to discourage discussion of political motives.

Politics, in short, is seen as a dirty word. This is unfortunate because it often prevents us from recognizing that politics and politicking may be an essential aspect of organizational life and not necessarily an optional and dysfunctional extra. In this regard, it is useful to remember that in its original meaning the idea of politics stems from the view that, where interests are divergent, society should provide a means of allowing individuals to reconcile their differences through consultation and negotiation.”
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