15 February, 2009

The 80-20 rule of institutional reputation

In my profession, it is quite common to see name-droppings happening everywhere. Basically using the weight of one's affiliation or recognitions to push their agenda across. Often times these represent institutions and groups where "smart" people are hosted or recognized.

No doubt these institutions are indeed great. But there is one 80-20 pattern that seems quite universal when it comes to institutional reputations. 80% of the institutional reputation is due to 20% of the folks. Analogously, a small 20% are "producers" who contribute to the institutional reputation while a majority 80% are "consumers" who derive their own prestige from the institutional reputation.

This phenomenon is very wide spread in India as almost everything here reduces to a game of social hierarchy. I remember reading a PhD thesis about work practices in India by a Dutch researcher in which there was this telling statement (sic):

"In India, affiliations and workplace designations carry more weight at home and social circles than at work."

A cubicle warrior from an MNC carries a much bigger chip on his shoulder in wedding receptions and parties than the humble scientist in a government lab who genuinely wants to bring about fundamental improvements to our society, or perhaps someone who joins a startup genuinely interested in an idea and willing to take up challenge.

This reputation game has extremely strong currents and it takes enormous effort to get out of it and to not be affected by it. Especially in family circles.

Often times I use a simple technique when I see people going a bit too far and littering my space with all their name droppings. I ask them do they know "TransMeta Networks." Mostly, the answer I get is "no." I then tell them that it is the company where Linus Trovalds works, whom they all invariably recognize. (For those non-CS folks, he is the guy who started Linux). I use this to drive home the point of a counter-example, where an organization is known because of who works there, and the person is known because of his creation.

And them I tell them that I look forward to hearing from them next when their company is reputed -- for the right reasons of course -- because of them, and not the other way round, and they are known, not for their antecedents but because of what they create.