Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Of measurement and measures

You have to love the fact that we are obsessed with numbers and calculations.  Just about everything revolves around them and rare is a zikr that doesn’t mention a number and its significance. 

Since measurement is the business of attributing numbers to objects and events, it was no surprise that Moula advised us all to measure and be measured in everything we do in his waaz mubarak on Syedi Hasan Feer Shaheed’s urs, on Moharram 23, 1436:

Moula’s kalemat are meant for all walks of life but for now let us apply them to the world of business especially since we are witnessing a scramble to be data driven across enterprises of all sizes and kinds.  

The importance of measurement

First let us be clear that Moula is not talking about measuring because it is fashionable to do so these days.  Decades before the current data revolution our Moulas were advising and preparing us to profit from science and technology and to learn to be measurement-oriented to advance ourselves.  In an address to MSB on Saffar 8, 1427 Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin elucidated:

As Burhanuddin Moula states, the use of modern tools and technologies––provided they are beneficial and in sync with our ethos––provides a solid and fitting foundation for an education system.  And that foundation, as Taher Saifuddin Moula underscored, includes the learning and use of exact sciences which, according to the dictionary, are defined as “field[s] in which accurate quantitative techniques are used and there are accurate means of testing hypotheses and repeating results.” 

It is hard to dispute that a foundation built using scientific principles and calculations is more robust than one that is built using approximations, anecdotal evidence, and untested beliefs.  Burhanuddin Moula illustrated this concept with an example addressing architects and engineers although the universality of the message will not be lost on anyone:

Similarly, a business in which fundamental decisions are made in a scientific fashion, i.e., using accurate assessments and knowledge derived from facts and data analytics, always perform better than businesses in which management relies on intuition, opinion, and unverified theories about customers, competitors, suppliers, products, emerging technologies, and so forth.  This idea is captured in the following infographic:


The business of measurement

For an entrepreneurial people, looking to start and expand our enterprises to capitalize on the relationship between risk and return, it is especially important for us to be data-driven as we assess the competitive landscape, evaluate new business ideas, introduce new business lines, launch new products, target new customer segments, and enter new markets.  In another bayan Burhanuddin Moula, talks about this:

Moula’s advice is timely.  We live in a world where the business landscape continues to get more competitive, businesses models are continually challenged, and businesses are adapting owing to globalization, disruptive innovation, and creative destruction. 

It is therefore more important than ever to realize that business does not have to be a zero-sum game.  A constructive and pragmatic approach is to productively differentiate oneself from the competition instead of in a cut-throat manner (for example through self-destructive means such as price wars or unethical activities such as spreading misinformation about competitors, etc.), and to take on calculated risks. 

Interestingly, being data driven achieves both goals simultaneously.  Businesses that employ data analytics to run themselves not only use that approach to differentiate themselves from their competitors, they also outperform their competitors as shown below:

On this topic world-renowned entrepreneur and philanthropist Bill Gates says:

A business has increasing profit as its primary goal. Management decides the actions—such as improving customer satisfaction or adding new product capabilities—that will drive profit and then develops a system to measure those on a regular basis. If the managers pick the wrong measures or don’t do better than their competition, profit goes down. Business magazines and business schools analyze which measures companies use and which companies have done particularly well or poorly. Other companies benefit from these analyses, learning from the performance of their competitors which tactics and strategies work and which don’t.

A natural corollary to the above arguments is that a measurement-oriented approach in business is forward-looking in two crucial ways. It (1) allows you to capture emerging opportunities and prepare for upcoming challenges, and (2) helps you learn from past experiences and mistakes to avoid them in the future.  As Moulana Ali said: 

Simply put, the role of measurement in business is to quantify and track progress, business opportunities, and potential challenges, and use those measurements to profitably grow revenues and customers and manage operations, costs, procurement, compliance, and in the process distinguish yourself from your competitors.

The measurement of business

It has been argued that not all businesses can be measurement-oriented because not all have either the data or the tools or the capabilities to analyze them. Unilever can spend millions collecting and analyzing its sales data to understand consumer purchasing trends. But how is Shabbir bhai Sabuwala selling soap at a corner store in Sidhpur to effectively collect data and measure his performance to forge ahead?

A few simple questions can help Shabbir bhai capture the power of measurement and data:
  • What are Shabbir bhai's monthly sales by soap brand?
  • What are his profits by brand?
  • What brands are most in demand? 
  • What brands does he not carry and why?
  • What brands are not carried by other stores in the area and why?
  • Are there months in a year when sales are chronically lower?  What can be done to boost sales during that time?
  • Describe customers who buy the brands that are (i) most (ii) least profitable?
  • What do customers consider when buying soap? Brand name, smell, color, size, ingredients, celebrity endorsements on packaging, shape of bar or bottle?
  • Customers purchase soap for personal nazafat. What other products can Shabbir bhai carry that complement and enhance this experience and allow the customers to more effectively achieve their objective of staying clean?

Answering the above questions will give Shabbir bhai a scientific and measurement-oriented view of his business.  The information gleaned will help him decide what soap brands he may want to focus on, what customer segments are most profitable, how he can differentiate his product offerings, and how he can expand his product portfolio, and use his knowledge to sell more product and more profitable products to his customers.

In conclusion

Moula’s timeless words in Denmal about measurement were a reminder that he aims to keep us in sync with the best that the modern world has to offer and to keep us on top of the game be it deen or dunya.    

Organizations across the world are investing time and money in using data to measure their success and counter their challenges.  The return on investment is that they always outperform their competitors.  Peter Drucker, one of the great management thought leaders of the twentieth century, couldn’t agree more.  As he famously said:

What gets measured gets managed.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

When polls mislead

I am surprised that the Hindustan Times and the Mumbai Mirror recently chose to publish statistics from an unknown poll, targeted at an ambiguously defined respondent population, and conducted by an anonymous group with a spokesperson who identifies herself only by her first name.  (Hindustan Times: “Ordinary voices: Findings from a Bohra online poll,” September 12, 2014 by Manoj Nair and Mumbai Mirror: “Disquiet among Bohras,” September 12, 2014 by Jyoti Punwani.)

Due diligence would have quickly verified that the poll results are absurd at best and insidious at worst.  Combine that with the fact that the articles do not give voice to the Dawoodi Bohra head office in Mumbai and one would be forgiven for wondering whether the poll is part of a deliberate effort to defame the head of the Dawoodi Bohras, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin.

Be that as it may, it is worthwhile to dissect the reported results and let facts emerge.

Incongruence among poll statistics

Given that both newspapers are covering the same poll, a first glance shows some glaring dissimilarities in the results across the two newspapers.  Consider these wildly different statistics:

Respondents who:
Hindustan Times
Have given oath freely to Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin
~ 75%
Believe Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin is the successor
~ 20%
Believe Khuzaima Qutbuddin is the successor
< 20%
Stay in community out of fear
~ 12%

Even if we are to ignore the disparity of results between the two articles, there is cause to question the validity of the responses as stated within each newspaper. 

According to the Hindustan Times, the vast majority of the participants, approximately 75%, have freely given their oath to Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin but only 20% appear to actually believe in him as the rightful successor.  This implies that 55% of the respondents freely gave their oath to someone who they do not believe to be their leader, a result that is obviously erroneous.

Similarly, the Mumbai Mirror reports that 77% of respondents stay in the community out of fear implying that 23% are doing so out of free will.  Yet at the same time the newspaper reports that 38% have given their oath freely to Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin.  This leaves us with 15% of the respondents who were inconsistent by choosing both fear and free will as a reason for their oath implying that the survey language did not make the tradeoff clear enough.

The discrepancies between the two newspapers and among the statistics reported within each newspaper article are indicative of polling issues that can plague the best-intentioned of polls, never mind those that appear to have an ostensible agenda.  A robust approach has unfortunately been shown the door for the sake of expediency.

Lack of a scientific approach in the poll

The first thing a statistician will tell you about polls is that their results are completely dependent on the randomness of the sample, the sample size, and the phrasing of the questions.  This particular poll fails to deliver on all of those accounts.

The pollsters confess that because the poll was posted online it reflects the views of only the “educated and the computer literate.”  But the confession does not go far enough because no details are provided on how the respondents were actually selected.  Was there a random selection from a current community mailing list?  Was it done via social media?  Or was it based on the pollsters’ own networks? 

Given that several of the polled were “former Bohras who left the community” it is clear that the respondents were not selected from a current community mailing list which would by definition not contain former Bohras.  Can one then truly check the pulse of a community by polling those who do not belong to it?   

Additionally, the Mumbai Mirror asserts there were 659 responses of which 69 were disqualified and 195 did not complete the survey yielding as many as 399 responses.  No explanation is given as to why the 69 respondents were disqualified and why the 195 individuals may not have answered all questions.  Given the 395 respondents who were qualified and completed the poll, using 399 responses opens the door to the possibility of pollsters cherry picking among the responses to support their cause.  For all we know these 264 respondents did not agree with the pollsters and therefore chose to not participate or drop out after beginning the poll.  Put another way, the pollsters ignore a likely self-selection bias in their poll. 

Another characteristic that jumps out is the lack of information that makes a statistic meaningful (or in technical terms provides insights on the statistical significance of the quoted numbers).  Say I were to tell you that a poll shows that 50% of all people believe there is life outside earth.  What scenario would be more compelling: a poll of 2 persons or one of 2,000?  Surely you would agree that the poll with 2,000 respondents is more likely to be accurate (i.e., have a low margin of error). 

Thus, it goes without saying that a well-executed, scientific poll must state for each statistic: (1) the actual number of respondents, and (2) the resulting margin of error.  Neither of these metrics has been provided by either newspaper leaving the reader no basis by which to interpret the numbers.

As for survey phrasing, how the questions were worded is anyone’s guess.  My requests to both the Hindustan Times and the Mumbai Mirror for the questionnaire and the raw data—since the responses were anonymous there should be no issues with public disclosure—remain unanswered. 

That said, Farida, the single-named spokesperson for the polling group, reflects their obvious bias: according to her the poll was in response to the “turmoil and unease after the split in the leadership. People were talking, but only to friends and family. We wanted to capture that.” 

In other words, instead of beginning with an unbiased hypothesis such as “to what extent is there turmoil and unease?” the pollsters chose to begin with the belief that there already was turmoil and unease that needed to be captured by a poll.  No surprise then that the pollsters found themselves in an echo chamber.

Poll results are not upheld by reality

Let us for a moment assume the poll results to be true.  According to the Mumbai Mirror, close to two thirds (62%) of respondents are “reluctantly” tied to the leadership of Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin out of “fear” whereas close to half (46%) support the claimant Khuzaima Qutbuddin.  Yet these numbers are not in sync with past reports published in both the Mumbai Mirror and the Hindustan Times. 

Mumbai Mirror’s article on January 18, 2014 “We’ve lost our father today” reported on the hundreds of thousands of Dawoodi Bohras who filled up Mumbai’s streets from Malabar Hill to Bhendi Bazar to attend Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin’s funeral and to express their condolences to Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin. 

The Hindustan Times in its coverage of the event published the following photograph on January 19, 2014 with the caption “More than one lakh [100,000] people were part of the funeral procession that started from Saifee Mahal at 9 am and ended at Saifee Masjid in Bhendi Bazar around noon.”

The funeral, let us be reminded, was led by Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin and the only noteworthy no-show in the sea of grievers was Khuzaima Qutbuddin.  If there was a gathering of an equal or larger magnitude at Qutbuddin’s residence in Thane to mourn the demise of Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, neither the Hindustan Times nor the Mumbai Mirror deemed it important enough to cover it.

It is also illogical to think that an overwhelming majority (77%) of the Dawoodi Bohra population continues to remain in the fold because of “family, cultural identity, and fear” and “most are suffering in their private corners, fearful of what’s going to happen to them.”  Any Dawoodi Bohra will tell you that the cultural identity of the community is defined by the incumbent head.  Does it not seem ironic that so many respondents would have an affinity for the cultural identity created by a leader who they do not accept?

Also, is it really credible to think that such a large majority should have to fear social boycott from a minority?  United by its common fears and suffering, one would expect this allegedly oppressed majority to quickly come out of its private corners and regroup and create an independent social and cultural order its constituents so covet.

Furthermore, newspaper coverage of Dawoodi Bohra events shows that Dawoodi Bohras have only continued to increase their attendance counts in community events after June 2011 when Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin publicly declared Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin as his successor in Raudat Tahera in Mumbai.  It should be remembered that after this declaration, all events presided over by Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin had sermons delivered by Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin.

In fact, in its last year’s report on the annual event of Moharram the Hindustan Times stated on November 14, 2013:  70,000 Dawoodi Bohras came to Mumbai from other countries such as North America and Australia, while about 30,000 Dawoodi Bohras have come in from across the country. The rest [100,000] are Mumbaiites [who are attending] the discourses by the Syedna’s heir apparent Syedi Mufaddal Bhaisaheb Saifuddin at Saifi Masjid in Bhendi Bazaar.

A year later covering the annual event, on October 27, 2014, the Times of India (owned by The Times group that also owns the Mumbai Mirror) reported:  2.5 lakh Dawoodi Bohras from across the country and abroad have descended on [Surat, Gujarat] to attend the ‘vaiz’ (religious sermon) to be delivered for nine continuous days by [the] 53rd [Dai al-Mutlaq] Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin.

It would be difficult to argue that the ever-growing crowds congregating to Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin year after year from all over India and the world are doing so out of coercion or fear.  If we are to resort to statistics to back an argument or a person, the strength of attendance counts quoted by the very newspapers in question only confirm Dawoodi Bohras’ unwavering commitment to Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin and their unshakable belief in and support for his chosen successor Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin.

Capturing reality

If the Hindustan Times and Mumbai Mirror are serious about understanding the truth about Dawoodi Bohras I urge them to resist the temptation to rely on mysterious and sensational polls and instead visit Dawoodi Bohra neighborhoods in Mumbai, be they in Bhendi Bazar, Mazgaon, Fort, or Malabar Hill. 

There they will be hard pressed to find any disquiet, turmoil, or unease.  If anything they will find exactly the opposite.  Our peace of heart and mind comes from knowing that Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin chose Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin as his successor in a ceremony that is engraved in our collective memory.  Every single Dawoodi Bohra man, woman, and child witnessed it either in person or via video relay on that fateful day on June 20, 2011.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

لَكُمْ دِينُكُمْ وَلِيَ دِينِ

And to you your faith, and to me mine. (Al-Quran, 109-6)

By all accounts it appears that January 17, 2014 was the day Khuzaima Qutbuddin had been waiting for.  Within a couple of hours of Moulanal Muqaddas’ demise, the Qutbuddin coterie went into a frothy frenzy making tall claims and mounting a bevy of falsehoods upon the 53rd Dai al-Mutlaq, Moula Mufaddal Saifuddin (tus). 

On March 19, Khuzaima Qutbuddin’s son Abdeali went on record in an Indian tabloid saying that “since [the nass] three years ago the community has become regressive... My father, on the other hand, wants to bring the true identity of the community back.”  

Interesting.  We are left to wonder whether in the last three years it has been the drive for tanazzuf that has made us regressive.  Or has it been the planting of trees and the development of urban gardens.  Or the distribution of food to every mumin household every single day of the year. Or the call to be dressed appropriately so that we are judged by our intelligence and not by our appearance.  Or the ambition to have at least one Hafizul Quran in each family.  Or the encouragement of mumin men and women to pursue education to live lives abuzz with entrepreneurship, constructive activity, and industry instead of being enslaved by unsavory employers or being afflicted by the malaise of doing nothing.  How very regressive of governments and organizations around the world who are funneling billions of dollars to encourage many of these very initiatives among their populations never mind with a much lower success rate than Moula (tus). 

Abdeali Qutbuddin’s outrageous statement not only went against any grain of truth and reality there ever was, it loudly echoed the ideology of the “reformist” camp who as we well know have tried in vain for decades to undermine the Dawat.  The declaration also instantly aroused the media’s continual intrigue with Islam and its perceived ill-alignment with progress.  It was a quick and calculated way to guarantee that the upcoming weeks would be tainted with constant media battering of our faith and to harangue and harass Moula (tus) in a time of loss and grief.  And given that everything in the last three years happened with the raza and rida of Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin (ra), Abdeali Qutbuddin’s insidious statement was only a poorly veiled attempt at questioning Moula Burhanuddin’s legitimacy as the 52nd Dai al-Mutlaq.

Some of us thought at first the smear campaign might run out of steam before too long.  But it seems that the greed-fueled onslaught has barely just begun.  Society’s insatiable thirst for sensationalism and gossip combined with the omnipresence of social media ensures that the squeaky wheel does indeed get the grease.

And so this is no longer the time to watch silently on the sidelines.  Moula’s magnanimity and forbearance must never be misconstrued as weakness.  The day has come for us, the followers of Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin (tus), to wear our hearts on our sleeves, beat the drums, raise our voices, and make sure our loyalties are heard loud and clear and show the naysayers that our lives, our livelihoods, our relationships, and our souls are so much the better for no other reason other than our association with Moula (tus).

Consequently and understandably, we mumineen have begun to defend ourselves against these baseless allegations designed to defame Moula (tus).  And we must do our utmost to shine light on the idiocy emerging from the fringes of Mumbai. Thought-provoking and well-articulated essays have gone viral on the blogosphere and excellent rebuttals to Khuzaima Qutbuddin’s defenseless claims are being widely shared not to convince us for we don’t need convincing but to let fact and truth speak for themselves.

In all of this discussion, we must also consider whether we are being inadvertently led into the trap of judging our sense of self or our progress and liberation using an external, foreign perspective.  We know that Khuzaima Qutbuddin’s kith and kin have sold their souls to embrace a cherry-picked paradigm that delivers pure convenience.  Will our arguments on Islam and progress and liberation then ever persuade an audience that has pre-conceived, ill-informed, and deep-seated biases?  Are we channeling our energies to bridge a gap that may or may not ever close?

As we go down this road, let us remind the self-proclaimed bastions of progress that progress and liberation is widely understood to be the presence of equal socioeconomic rights and opportunities.  What these rights and opportunities are have not been defined in absolute terms by society.  If the last century is anything to go by, we know that progress is temporal and continuously in flux as society has and continues to debate resolutions over slavery, women’s suffrage, racial segregation, abortion, and gay marriage. 

So unlike the Qutbuddins we don’t need to clamor to show the world we are in congruence with its transient ideas that are here today, gone tomorrow, and condemned the day after.  We are not going to waste our time trying to steer a boat whose direction changes with the prevailing wind.  Nor are we willing to abandon our morals to prove that our beliefs converge with the inscriptions drawn on the shifting sands of popular public opinion of the day.  We’d rather as quickly focus our energies on our pride that comes from knowing our lives conform to a timeless philosophy anchored in solid ground, one that has come from Allah through Rasulullah (saw) and is espoused by Aimmat Tahereen (as) and their Duat Mutlaqeen (sa).

Unfortunately for them in their pressing need to reconcile themselves with the world the Qutbuddins have jettisoned the true liberation that comes from our connection with Moula (tus).  Moula Mohammed Burhanuddin would often talk about the concept of real progress and liberation.  As he once said:

Today Moula Mufaddal Saifuddin (tus) is reminding us of that very philosophy lest we get carried away by some ephemeral currents to rocky shores.  Unlike Khuzaima Qutbuddin, Moula (tus) has his fingers on our pulse, he understands our aspirations, predicaments, and fears so well it is uncanny how he responds to them preemptively.  How many of us have sat through a waaz or bayan and been taken aback by how Moula (tus) confronts issues that deep down within us hound us, create conflicts, and raise questions.  How many countless times has he liberated us from our own demons?

But one wouldn’t expect the Qutbuddins to understand this basic idea.  Those who have chosen to take off (among other things) the qiladas of Imamuz Zaman’s ghulami must not, by definition, believe in the idea of true progress and eternal liberation.   

So let us stand tall and declare that our progress, liberty, dignity, strength, and our true identity comes from our Mawali Kiram who have defined these ideas. Let us scream from pillar to post that we are proud of who we are, the clothes we wear, the food we cook, the language we speak, the education we receive, and our way of life because all of that comes from our Moula (tus).  And let the Qutbuddins know that we will do as our Moula (tus) wants and desist as he deems fit and we would only expect the standard bearers of progress and liberation to defend vigorously our right to our beliefs.