I am a native of New Delhi, where the Uber rape incident occurred last Saturday. I lived there until I was an adult immigrant to the U.S. The incident is very, very troubling at multiple levels. There are a lot of people who are focused on the political and legal issues. But let's focus on the business view. Let's take a look at all aspects of the incident and the business problems it highlights.
First, you should know I'm an Uber user in the United States. In fact, on Saturday, when the incident occurred in India, I was taking an Uber here in the U.S. I also take taxis when they are available. Why is a service that works well in the U.S. running into a mega-problem in India? In my humble opinion, it was an incident almost waiting to happen--for clear business reasons.
1. The world is flat, but it's still very curved
Yes, as Mr. Friedman says, the world is flat, but it is not so flat that cultural and local-environment factors are irrelevant. In fact, in an era where national pride is perhaps at its peak in recent history, it is actually not flat. When McDonald's goes to India, it needs to consider the fact the beef is not acceptable as a food item to many Indians. So it serves chicken and vegetarian burgers in India, while in the U.S. it simply would not even think of avoiding beef. Why? Because the world is not so flat.
When Uber entered India, I wonder how much attention was given to the issues of women's safety in transportation.
From what I understand, the Uber office is a set of hotel rooms and Uber did not contact the woman or the driver after the incident occurred. Are these indicators of a well-thought-out country-launch strategy and properly staffed operation, or are these indicators of charging ahead with growth, growth, growth?
2. Innovation requires checks and balances
The whole point of the "apps economy" is that transformative and innovative mobile technology enables amazing new services through apps. But if innovation in an app is blind to the target environment where the app will be used, then problems will occur. It's hard to imagine otherwise. And innovation had basically been ignored in this particular case.
Leaders need to evaluate the environment where they will operate and adapt the technology to that environment very, very specifically. If the environment has higher risk factors, then a great app would be adapted to deal with that through extra checks and balances needed in that environment.
I wonder how much thought was given before deploying the Uber app and service in India to the extra risk factors in safe transportation. From what I understand, the driver was able to turn off the GPS on his mobile device and there was no consequence.
3. There's much more than just being big
It's hard for me to opine on the legal issues involved here. I'm not the expert at all. However, it is safe to say that ethics demand a well-run company try to address its customers' core issues in the domain of the services it provides. In the U.S., Uber is about a polite driver who quickly shows up and takes you from point A to point B. In India, Uber should be about a trusted and polite driver who safely takes you from point A to point B.
From what I understand, Uber does driver background checks in the United States, but not in India. It was probably a "tough nut to crack." I wonder if because of that, it was simply not cracked, despite the obvious problems it creates in addressing customers' core requirements in India.
Uber just raised money at a huge valuation for expansion globally, especially Asia Pacific. Getting Big Fast. That is important. But raising money is not enough. Technology-enabled services need be deployed to actually solve real problems in societies the company enters, with careful consideration given to local-environment issues, technology adaptation, and ethical issues. If Uber, or any other app-based service, is to be a great company, not just a high-growth company, it will pay attention to these three gotchas going forward.