Friday, November 28, 2014

The Self-Destruction of Modern Britain

Speechwriters never get the credit they deserve, but they have changed the course of history more than once. The metaphor of an 'iron curtain' or the uncertain promise of a 'tryst with destiny' etched in people's minds a concept that would become permanent by the power of imagery, even if the reality may have suggested otherwise. Fast forward to the society of ours where sound bites and TRP points trump any real experience, the speech writers are enjoying unprecedented powers to change destinies of nations: This comes with a huge responsibility that most are not even aware of. 

So, for the future speechwriters, following the case of the person who would have made the Leader of the Conservative Party in Britain, David Cameron, promise to bring down immigration to 'tens of thousands' might be beneficial. Exploiting the resentment about immigration when an open-door policy had resulted in a surge of migration to Britain and the economy had just turned south was a smart political strategy; even Britain's gaffe prone Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was trying to champion 'British jobs for British workers' then. The genius of Cameron's speech-writer was to go beyond the vague promises and to distill the discussion down to a number range, which sounded reasonable. It was satisfying to all: It had a 'rivers of blood' smell in it but none of its nastiness, as well as a certain tangibility packaged with an appropriate vagueness. It was one of those triumphs of rhetoric against which no claims of logic, as many did dismiss the promise as an impossible target in a modern open rich economy, would ever hold. It captured the resentment of the people, the usual tortured anguish of any people faced with globalisation, and allowed them to indulge in a reasonable xenophobia.

After he won the election, Mr Cameron set out to make good of the promise with all the sincerity of a politician who owed his success to rhetorical flourish. He went after soft targets, international students, and made tough gestures, like putting up a stern-looking (though utterly inept) Home Secretary. He sponsored mobile billboards in black and Asian neighbourhoods offering voluntary deportations: The meaningless of the exercise being irrelevant in the context of TV crews it attracted. He promoted a vision of a British society with horses, pubs and ales, consistent with his native Oxfordshire country, but a far cry from London's working class suburbia. And, it did work - as the international students were suitably discouraged from coming to Britain, allowing some of the other country's education systems, like Malaysia's, get some unexpected windfall. However, the overall migration number refused to budge, just as the critics said it won't.

So, came desperate times and desperate measures: The idea of a 'Fortress Britain' was a slippery slope, much easier for any opposition to exploit than anyone on government. Mr Cameron's TRP sensitivity was a great boon for more xenophobic opposition, who did not have to necessarily maintain the dignity and political correctness of a Prime Minister. The fact that Mr Cameron made it a game of mere rhetoric, and not of any principle or practise, suited them very well: They embraced the horses, pubs and ale Britain, true to Mr Cameron's vision, and left him to play the catch up game with London's famously multicultural Square Mile as his baggage. 

The migration numbers kept rising, despite all the sternness of the Home Secretary and increasingly desperate tone of the Prime Minister, who seemed to be forever in the search of new villains. The South Asian students were replaced by the Romanian Gypsies, and in time, even the Polish, Spanish and Italian workers came to be blamed. After the students, the government tried to stop the refugees, despite indulging in various interfering wars in different parts of the world, which invariably left the humanitarianly assisted countries in more inhuman conditions, and encouraged even more people to leave. The government then zeroed on economic migrants, claiming they come to Britain for benefits, not for jobs. Indeed, none of the migrants coming from outside the European Union have any easy access to benefits, and as one thing leads to the other, Britain is now threatening to leave the European Union and to risk it alone in an uncertain economic world where size matters over most things.

This may be the story of self-destruction of Modern Britain. This can be perhaps seen as a jurney fro one speechwriter's glory to another: The vivid imagination of the Iron Curtain made Britain relevant even with its dwindling imperial assets; the clinical precision of 'tens of thousands' may now return it to a certain kind of deserved senility. As every society around the world ponder over globalisation, the seize of Britain from inside should serve as a cautionary tale; and indeed, every politician beholden to television would strive hard to avoid being a prisoner of campaign promises such as Mr Cameron's. And, perhaps those who care for Britain would desire that Mr Cameron sought some counsel from his deputy, Nick Clegg, who managed to renege everything that he ever promised and still kept a straight face. For Britain, that abominable position may be infinitely preferable than letting a speechwriter wreck its future.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Beyond Colonial Education: Why Revisit Tagore's Ideas?

Rabindranath Tagore got a Nobel for Literature in 1913 and became institutionalised as a poet and a mystic. His ideas about education remain largely unknown, outside the scholarly work that appears from time to time. True, his educational practise gets some prominence because of Viswabharati, the university he created, but the fact that this has since become a Central University subsumed in the bureaucracies like any other university obscures most of its foundational principles. Instead of being an expression of the creative and integrative spirit that Tagore wanted his institution to represent, the university today is little different from any other than the curiosities such as its open classrooms and its annual rituals.

The education in India, however, has come to a full circle. The doctrine of Higher Education in independent India did not draw much from Tagore's thinking, but rather depended on the technocratic ideals of the West and aimed at creating an elite who could assume leadership of a modern economy. India built great technical institutions and few elite universities, but failed to translate the success of this educated elite either into common well-being or advancement of the concept of India. Rather, as time progressed, Indian elite became a disconnected class, unresponsive and even dismissive of the plight of their own people, and effectively carried on the Colonial ideal of distinction between the ruling class and the ruled.

The recent adventures in mass Higher Education in India follow the same pattern. The recent developments in Indian Education focused on expanding higher education without any other agenda than to create a class of consumers to power on the modern economy, very much in line with the predominant neo-liberal thinking of the global elite. However, this, just like the colonial education system that went before it, goes without a theory of education: The educational enterprise today is devoid of a purpose, or at least has no greater purpose than the other instruments of consumer society, such as expansion of credit, for example, has. In this backdrop, Tagore may appear very relevant, not just for his educational practise, but rather more for his educational theory.

For me, a definitive starting point in Tagore's educational theory is a compendium published almost thirty years ago (and not reprinted again, to my knowledge) which put together selections of writing related to education from Tagore's massive oeuvre. Tagore scholarship has moved on significantly since the 80s, particularly in terms of collection and publication of his letters, and indeed, much has been published about Tagore's educational practise and the history of the institution he created. But, perhaps tellingly, research on his educational philosophy remains quite limited, promoting a somewhat unbalanced view that promotes the man as a creative and imaginative practitioner of education whose work may impact a special group of people in a particular setting, but not a consistent and insightful education theorist, who may have much to say about the whole system of education which may impact policy. Yet, as the consumer education as promoted in India increasingly pushes us towards a crisis of identity, a void that may increasingly thrust us to a ritualistic and unthinking allegiance to an imaginary past, it may be worthwhile to revisit Tagore as an education thinker.

In many ways, Tagore's position here is distinct both from the proponents of the Colonial education system and from its adversaries. He indeed shared the idealism of the Bengali enlightenment thinkers that a Western Education system might dispel some of the rituals and constraints of the backward looking and stagnant system that India had at the time of colonial takeover, and yet he saw colonial education for what it is - not a system of broadening the mind but an instrumentalist chore limited to production of obedient workers. He pointed out that this colonial system may have an objective - producing clerks - but no purpose: No one needed to ask what education was for if the goal was to create the workforce to keep the empire running.

Tagore's argument was that this could hardly form the basis of a viable national system of education. He conceded that there would always be instrumentalist goals that individual students may pursue in education, but disagreed that this should become the organising principle of an education system. As in colonial education, he saw an education system organised solely around instrumentalist goal would produce incomplete human beings, who might be technically capable but deficient in carrying out their lives, social commitments and civic responsibilities.

Instead, his conception of a viable national education system was built around three organising principles. 

First, any education should be constructed hand in hand with a theory of being, of what kind of people one is aiming to be. The starting point of an education is to adequately answer the question of purpose and motivation, and such purpose should go beyond just how much money one should earn at the end. Rather, it was about what kind of a person one should become, and what values such a personhood should represent.

Second, this system of education can not be constructed without taking into account the national ethos, the considerations of society around. Otherwise, all education remains shallow, a bucket to be filled, and will fail to transform the whole person, the fire that was to be lit. Education, for Tagore, isn't a cloak one wears, but something one becomes - and if this is something one does not easily fit into, this would cause alienation and disconnection.

Third, a viable system of education must be forward looking and celebrate the idea of human progress, engaging with the world with an open mind and seeking out new ideas. This is where Tagore's idea departs from the usual nationalistic rejection of anything Western, and finds common space perhaps with the pragmatists. 

This discussion, framed in the context, in fact in response, of the colonial education, may still have relevance in the face of the expansion of commercial system of education. The mere instrumentalist focus of our educational policies, aimed at making Engineers and Managers, come out in sharp relief against such frameworks: Its limitations quite starkly exposed when examined against the greater purposes of education pursued with conviction as in Tagore. I find a lot of common ground between Tagore and the pragmatists, who would reject grand theories including that of national pride but will maintain an unwavering commitment in progress. Pragmatists are enjoying a revival in America, as the social realities make their thinking more, and not less, relevant: My argument is that Tagore's educational ideals deserve a similar reassessment in India.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Professional Society and Its Limits

Has the professional society reached its limits?

One way to see the development of western societies in the last hundred years, as Harold Perkin indeed did, is to see it in terms of the growth of the professional society. A society increasingly built on expert knowledge, independence and recognition of the professions, has emerged as an unique structure in the West, creating a 'viable' class structure, and providing a certain kind of legitimacy other than power and coercion. 

The key to the maintenance of such social structure was the underlying meritocracy, that everyone has a chance. Professional society was, and always will be, antithetical to the social structure where one is 'born' into privilege, rather than having to work for it. In an age when enlightenment and scientific inquiry undermined the claims of authority derived out of divine will, ability and expert knowledge as defined by 'professions' became the new claim for social leadership and progression. 
However, it seems that there are at least three social trends which are rapidly undermining the professional ideal, and indeed, exposing the limits of professional society.

The first is the undermining of the meritocratic ideal. In a society which is increasingly unequal, that everyone has a chance become an untenable claim. Increasingly, private education, better healthcare, etc., create an unassailable advantage that accrue to few of the well-endowed. That such inequality always existed is besides the point here: That such inequality deeply undermines the professional ideal is what we should worry about. Such privileges rob the legitimacy of the class society we have now taken for granted.

The second is the nature of expert knowledge. In one hand, knowledge is becoming ubiquitous and everyone can access it: But this also means that the nature of expert knowledge required to produce value is changing. It is no longer the access to knowledge that matters, but the means to produce the knowledge that matters. This is creating a few Information Elites tasked to curate, and advance knowledge, whereas the usage of knowledge is all but commoditised. This may be portrayed as professions reaching its idyll, but eventually the changing nature of knowledge hurts the professions, because such production of knowledge, under the current economic structure, means undermining the professional autonomy that was the basis of the creation of a professional society. The control of the means of production of knowledge (a self-consciously erroneous extension of a Marxian concept) lets us into a financier society, and undermines the professional ideal.

The third is the change of the underlying social contract, as manifested in political structures sustaining professional society: Democracy. In one way, a successful professional society rested very much upon a political meritocracy, structured around the ability to win and maintain popular support. However, the advent of broadcast media, which changes the game by making the medium the message, undermined the meritocracy in many ways, and winning elections for whoever has more money. The 'professional' political class conveys to us only the wrong idea of the 'profession'.

Professional Society may be at a point of historical decline, may be irreversibly. No one may be mourning it yet, obsessed as we are with our technological progress. This, however, shows our historical myopia at its worst, because our progress stands on history and not in spite of it. The professional ideal made the world we know possible, and its absence may mean a breakdown of the 'social contract' we have been thriving upon so far. Indeed, we are too intent upon tearing down the institutions that made the professional society possible, such as free universal education and healthcare. These areas are usually seen as newer areas of public services which can be privatised and money can be made there, but their foundational role in maintaining a professional society, creating wider perspectives on knowledge and maintaining democracies are intentionally overlooked. The more we take our progress for granted, the more likely we are to undo it.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Building Global Business: Five Sideways Reflections

Talking global is easy. In fact, it is not easy NOT to talk global. In this age of Internet, Facebook, Venture Capital, WTO, scale is the mantra: And, global is the only scale that really matters. 

When I started working in England in 2004, I worked for a couple of interesting E-Learning companies for the first few years. They had good products and good people. I was greatly impressed by what they did, and with the sophistication of their technology and approach. They had large projects covering their cash flows, and were strategically poised to expand. But when I brought up the question of going global, given that I had first hand experience globally and thought these services would be quite compelling, the answer I got was "No Thanks!" These companies did not want to go global but rather service the small e-learning market in the UK that they knew well. They did not see the benefit of taking on the extra complexity and was afraid of 'global'. At that time, new in England, I treated this as a very English peculiarity. I got wiser afterwards.

In fact, soon afterwards: I was doing well in my job but I couldn't resist when I was solicited by an Irish businessman who wanted to set up a global training and recruitment chain. I jumped at it, because, at the time, that was what I really wanted to do. Looking back, that might not have been the wisest career decision I took, because I loved the technology environment and did not enjoy the culture of a recruitment company. But, since then, my work was almost always very globally focused: Its theme almost always was about taking concepts and ideas to new markets. And, unlike my experiences prior to 2004, when I worked for a large company going global, these were medium size firms and start-ups, who were in pursuit of scale. Some of these projects worked and became very successful: Others did not.  But nonetheless, they all held lessons, which I now summarize along five broad themes.

But, before I talk about those five lessons, a personal note: I am at a point of time in my career that the novelty of air travel has truly worn off. Now, I claim, I get global. I have only worked in a handful of countries and not in all regions of the world, but I have been an eager student and now I know what works when someone is trying to get into a new country. My repertoire has some basic things, like respect, empathy and honesty, and I see that working everywhere. I am still fairly deficient in my global skills (when I can pause my life again, I would go back to reading Polish novels and practicing eating with chopsticks) but at least know what they are. I have come a full circle, falling in and out of love with the conversation about 'scale', the silicon valley way! From my experience, I know that the only way one can really 'scale' is by scaling one's mind, but that is almost impossible because global talk is, strangely, inimical to global thinking.

And, as I try to go local, here are the five lessons I learned while trying to play global:

First, Global Talk is usually reflected arrogance. While companies accept that the cardinal principle that all product development should start with the customers, they implicitly mean that this only applies to their home country customers. Large companies may have learnt the perils of this approach, but smaller companies, who need this even more because of their weaker brands, believe that such an approach is a large company thing: Being flexible hampers their dream of achieving scale quickly enough. Instead, they get into the missionary mode, and make the assumption that global customers don't know what they want. But without the magic and marketing budget of Apple, that's one wrong lesson to take from Steve Jobs.

Second, it is difficult to be Global. This may offend all those pursuing global dominance, but my favourite data point is that only 7% of S&P 500 directors are foreign-born. Given that we are talking about multinationals with huge global businesses here, this may surely reflect the difficulty of being global. In the small company setting, this is even more acute: The strength of familiarity that allow founding teams to work effectively also bars diversity. And, indeed, it is a strange phenomenon that while companies can't globalise internally, they constantly talk about global dominance outside. This mindset indeed comes from the mindset of capital, where a few elite bankers can dominate the global capital flows, but real businesses are far more messy than the value-neutral business of investing. 

Third, some businesses are inherently more global than others. Capital flows are a great example, which can, under the current setting, can flow across borders pretty easily. Money has no colour, indeed, though most will want to keep it green. However, other real life businesses are different. We already know products may have to be different: McDonald's only succeed in India by designing a new range of products. Sometimes, it comes at the cost of efficiency: Subway creating separate counter for Vegetarians in India surely breaks their usual business model but they made that trade-off because they won't have a business otherwise. The businesses that require people may have to understand the cultures fairly deeply, including, as Devdutt Pattanaik will claim, the mythologies of the place, the 'subjective truths'. And, some of these businesses, including Education which I am involved in, is value-laden: Here globality is actively resisted. This is not just about cultural difference alone: Deep down, people don't want an education which clashes with their other values. Cultural mash-ups are easier to do than value mash-ups, and education, as it invariably becomes about values and attitudes, reaches an intensely local territory.

Fourth, being global means accepting variability of regulations. The globalisers usually treat regulations as an annoyance, a distraction, preferring to take a direct-to-consumer approach. This is indeed borrowed from the culture of capital, and the thinking system it has created. However, regulations are there for a reason, and in a large part, they may reflect a collective preference, though not an active choice. My favourite example is India's Foreign Education Providers' Bill, which has not got passed for over 15 years. This piece of legislation does not get passed because no one really wants it: It is not legislatively important, it does not change anything much for the students wanting education. Also, Britain's draconian immigration rules, which has affected the education industry there, broadly reflects people's social attitude. The Chinese censorship exists because the Chinese mind it less than we do. And, I am sure people in Dubai know how to access porn though we may be blocked out of them through filters. Law in many countries stand for different things than it would be in Europe and North America, and the right response isn't to dismiss the legal structure and focus on  bypassing it. For me, being global is not about bypassing or dismissing the regulations at all, but understanding and respecting them - which may not necessarily mean following them blindly - and pragmatically adapting for them in the design of the business.

Finally, to put all of this together, being global means accepting the business model as a conversation. Business model, by definition, is not a spreadsheet, but a way of creating value and capturing a portion of that value for profit. Since the mechanics of creating value is different in different markets, the learning and conversation becomes of paramount importance in global businesses. And, as I see it, the world is converging on one plane, the culture of money, whereas diverging in other, the culture of living. Acknowledging this diversity, internally, in product design, in assessing the nature of the business and creating responsiveness to local regulations, are primary building blocks of successful global businesses.

So, in conclusion, the point is not to say that small businesses can't be global or global universities aren't possible (though I pretty much said that here). Indeed, one could argue that to follow the above suggestions would mean bidding good-bye to scale: However, to achieve 'scale' one has to 'scale' one's thinking. It remains perfectly possible to create a network of local engagements and relationships based on common values and weave it together in a global model: That, indeed, remains the only sustainable and scalable model of global business, one that's based on listening and engaging, and not preaching.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Indian Education: Revisiting The National Culture

If one has to go by the shelf space a writer gets, one of the most popular writers in India is Devdutt Pattanaik. A physician-turned-leadership consultant, he seemed to have caught the imagination of both the Indian Senior Executives as well as the aspiring young ones. A self-proclaimed mythologist, he is intent on discovering, and talking about, the Indian approach to leadership.

This has been done before. This is a well-healed American model, epitomised by, among others, Steven Covey, who recycled biblical wisdom into self-help advice. In Mr Pattanaik's work, which has somewhat taken off from his initially successful attempt in Business Sutra, the Indian mythology is intertwined with management wisdom to say some pretty obvious things. But, like Mr Covey and the likes of Robin Sharma, he says things well, and it is sticking.

Mr Pattanaik's success, I believe, is no fad, but rather a trend. This is because I see a number of people catching on to it. Mr Pattanaik is a prolific writer and he is indeed making the best of his popularity by writing on everything from Hindu Epics to Indian Calendar Art, but he also has lots of people jumping in the fray with their own mythological self-help books and management theories. It is no longer about a smartly written book - and indeed Mr Pattanaik primarily writes in English - but a widespread aspiration to find a model as something does not seem right. The senior managers who would have bragged about having received Franklin Covey certificates are now quietly burying them in the shelves behind Bhagwad Gita and copies of Mr Pattanaik's work, whereas the desperate souls of Franklin Covey franchisees are now having to tie up with Indian skills training providers to take their wisdom to the bottom of the pyramid market. Something has indeed changed!

That something is the emerging middle class we all love. One could say that the phase one of their evolution is now about over, and the conversation is turning, from EMI (equal monthly instalments, which was such a hot topic during India's consumer boom that an eponymous movie was made) to culture. Angela Merkel was so upset with India's winding down of the German language training programmes in many of its universities, and replacing it with Sanskrit, that she brought it up in G20 summit. But, indeed, this is rather irreversible.

I am not sure this is connected anyway with the ascendancy of the Hindu Nationalist party to power, but my feeling would be that this is natural self-assertion of a maturing middle class. So, if this is linked to BJP's rise, that is not a cause-and-effect relationship; both were symptoms of the same phenomena. This is that point when Indian businesses are thinking that something is not right, and the American models don't work very well in the local context; this is when Indian executives, including those fully exposed to the western thinking models and permanent residents of English language bubble, are thinking that they need better concepts than just hand-me-downs. And, Mr Pattanaik's popularity is just one of the many things that are changing in the conversation, even if that is the most prominent.

Personally, this may mean that the attractiveness of foreign education may actually reduce in India, and the Foreign Education Providers' Bill, as I long predicted, has no chance of passing. Indeed, there will always be students traveling to other countries to study, but a realignment of India's education will happen. In fact, it may be already underway, with brand new universities with world class ambition coming up, and quite a handful talking about reviving the gurukul tradition and classical training. So the days when the British counsellors coming to India used to get mobbed may be limited, which is partially because Britain has also been so unwelcoming to Indian students. 

Indeed, this is too optimistic and India's education system is still badly broken. However, I see a change: That there is a new-found social purpose of education and there is talk around it. The new talk is not in the old line of India being the largest English speaking country in the world (which it is not anymore, as the Chinese has overtaken it) but rather about it being a civilisation, and not merely a nation that was conceived at Independence. National culture is back - perhaps irreversibly - and the country is somewhat rejigging itself into greater alignment with some of its prouder Asian neighbours. 

India is, however, that country for which, whatever we say, the opposite will also be true: So don't bring up another anecdote proving me wrong, because I shall be able to find its opposite anecdote easily. I am not claiming India has changed based on airport bookshelves: All I claim is that in my personal conversations, I see a profound shift of attitude. And, I am not distressed about it: In fact, I welcome it. While I am no apologist for parochialism and going back in time, nor I particularly admire any national chauvinism, I believe India needs to start thinking for itself. And, while Mr Pattanaik may or may not be doing a good job (I did not read his books), it is time to have a conversation about what India really stands for (and it does stand for more things than just Hindu mythologies). We have lived in a bubble endowed by our colonial masters for far too long.


Education-for-Employment: Qualifying 'Project-Based' Learning

I wrote about the futility of the much-loved 'demand-led' approach to education (see here): The essential argument is that no one really knows, and can't know, what the demand will look like even over a short time horizon. This is indeed due to globalisation, which has exposed even the most localised of the economies to the ups and downs of the global economy. And, globalisation wouldn't mandate that all economies follow a predictable path to industrial revolution and beyond: Rather, it only stands for constant churn, ordering and reordering of economies, with movements of global finance, which is affected by zillions of factors outside anyone's control, including unfettered greed of some individuals as well as callous fraud (as we saw in Libor or Foreign exchange scandals).

I argued that project-based approach to education, where the learners are exposed to real life work, is an alternative, and a better approach, than 'demand led'. This is the free market alternative to the demand planning, and this allows the learners to prepare with the implicit skills of survival, which is turning out to be the most important skill of all. Within the given context that we have very little control over our circumstances - you can be sent home despite working very hard because your factory is closing because of someone manipulating the exchange rates - understanding the dynamic of work is perhaps the best way to have a fighting chance.

Some of the correspondents indeed did not see the distinction between the two, however. In their view, Project-based learning is a pedagogical strategy that goes hand in hand with the philosophical approach of 'demand led' learning. However, while this may look like a good theory, the 'demand led' approach is an instructional strategy in practise, wherein the curriculum is designed based on employers' skill requirements, shared in advance with the educators. Various national governments try to facilitate this through the formation of Sector Skills Councils, who do not only stop at identifying the skills requirements of a sector, but also closely define the certification standards. And, the philosophical approach of 'Project Based' learning is not based on meeting the skills requirements of the market, but to develop a closer appreciation of the practise of work, in its messy unpredictability and uncertain dynamism. This stands in stark contrast with the supposedly neat world of demand-led collaboration between industry and academia.

The others objected to the projection of 'project based learning' as a silver bullet for education-to-employment gap. Whichever name we use, 'project-based' or 'competency-based' learning, this has been around for at least forty years (and indeed, if we count the apprentice system, this is centuries old) and this has hardly proved to be a panacea. In fact, the modern research-led higher education, in professional trades such as medicine, business and the law, came at the expense of the more primitive forms of project-based learning. Surely the practical knowledge is needed, but have we not already traversed the path and know that the sole dependence on practise may create limited perspectives and become inimical to the development of 'judgement', both in moral and pragmatic sense, they asked.

Indeed, I very much see project-based learning as work in progress, and did not intend to project this as a final answer of any kind. While practical learning is needed, the sole reliance on this, and replacing all opportunities of liberal learning with practical work, may make one a prisoner of practise. This was always a problem with apprenticeships, and this is why, despite their apparent practical usefulness, higher education emerged as a separate area of learning, focused on advancement of knowledge. It is an apparent paradox that we return to the prescription of 'competency led learning', as, among others, Christensen Institute project as the future of Higher Education, just when the requirement of knowledge and creativity at work has become paramount. When the tasks are complex, future is unpredictable and the trades are facing unprecedented challenges to their moral legitimacy and practical usefulness, the requirement of judgement seems paramount: And, yet, it seems we see the best way to train our workforce through the old practice of work-based learning. This is where I thought I needed to qualify my enthusiasm about project-based learning.

The point about project-based learning (henceforth, PBL) is that it is not just different from the predictability of demand-led learning, it is also distinct from the apprenticeships. If a distinction of this sort can be allowed, this is about understanding the culture of practise rather than the practise itself. Indeed, this is a nuanced challenge for the instructional designer to turn experiences into 'teachable moments', but a good implementation of PBL is not just about immersing the learner into practise, as apprenticeships will do, but also allowing enough reflection opportunities for seeing the practise from outside. At one level, PBL may enhance the employability of the learner by teaching them the language of work; but if one stops at that, sooner or later, that model falters, as the learners' careers stagnate after an initial good start. The sales-oriented models of for-profit higher education may look no farther than ensuring the learner a job immediately after the course and boasting about the pay-back, but their investors will soon understand that this is not a long term or scalable model unless such education create career longevity, which the sole focus on practice may not. Besides, professions, as distinct from trades, are territories fraught with the risks of moral failure, and demand more than just practical knowledge: The task of PBL, therefore, when applied to modern professions, is to ensure a broad view of setting this profession in context, rather than getting consumed by the tradesperson's myopia.

There is indeed no silver bullet for anything, and PBL isn't a silver bullet, just a distinct approach with practical possibilities, which was my whole point in the previous post. One must even see beyond the rhetoric of PBL, because in its practical avatar, it often stands for poor, and non-existent teaching, and very commonly, de-professionalisation of teaching (as, some of the PBL proponents surmise, teaching is not needed). But, carefully constructed, PBL still stands for one of the best approaches to initiate the learner to the world of practise, one of the most potent ideas to develop practical judgements, and if one cares, development of the learner as a grounded individual rather than some sort of snob disconnected from the real world.


Saturday, November 15, 2014

Education-For-Employment: On 'Demand-Led' Education

The policy-makers conceiving grand vocational education schemes in developing countries often talk about 'demand-led' education. While their policies are almost always focused on the supply-side - the provision of money, creation of infrastructure, curriculum and teachers - the dream is that the employers would join in and indicate what kind of people they need. Consider India's 'skilling' initiatives: Millions of dollars were spent for 'capacity creation' before figuring out whether and what vocational training is needed, and then, creation of 'sector skills councils', apparently to work with employers to project skills requirements, happened. It was an afterthought, indeed, but seen as the panacea: A 'demand-led' approach will solve the 'education-to-employment' gap.

While this may sound common sense, this is as much a good thing as centralised five-year plans would be in today's world. It indeed makes sense for educators to prepare people after knowing the employers' needs to solve the education-to-employment gap, just as it was a good idea to direct resources to national priorities before the age of globalisation. The problem today is that employers have a limited perspective, and the students' lives are too dynamic. So, regardless of the appeal of the idea, demand-led model has not taken off. I would often meet policy-makers who will blame the apathy of employers; in fact, I have now come to equate the two - those who complain that employers don't want to engage in education are usually trying to take a demand-led path.

I have indeed seen this play out at the individual enterprise level. Ever so often I meet vocational education companies whose great strategic leap-forward is to create a 'demand-led' model, where they train towards employers' specifications. Indeed, these models don't work too, even at that small scale. At that level, things go wrong differently: Employers may indeed engage and give the specs, and the training company may indeed turn around quite quickly, by recruiting learners and training them over a relatively short period, but it falls apart thereafter. Often, after the training, the learner discovers that she does not like the job. Other times, employers discover that they were not adequately trained. 

The employer apathy that one complains about and the failure of 'demand-led' models to deliver the goods should be naturally linked, but this is not the way officials think. Indeed, the whole proposition that the government can effectively do the skilling is informed by a 'planning mindset', even if the approach is fully endorsed by the anti-planning World Bank. That the economies will follow a certain predictable path is inherent in these policies, and they overlook the incident of globalisation altogether. On the other hand, for the World Bank type policy-makers, who are only too keenly aware of globalisation, such predictability stem from fixed models of the world they work with, in which the developing countries would follow the path of industrialisation and development following the classical models seen in Europe and North America. For them, globalisation is supposed to ensure such staged model, rather than allowing variation, and they forget to take into account local aspirations, which may often veer away from the predictable path. So, we return again and again to this elusive quest of planning, of establishing the shape of the demand, but no one really knows what the demand for skills will be 12 to 36 months from now.

Long before I got interested in education policy, and when I worked in recruitment, I tried and failed in combining training and recruitment businesses (See my earlier post from 2009). The reason, plainly, was that the time horizons for training and education are evidently different from those of recruitment. There was no silver bullet for getting a person trained. Recruiting to train on a mandate often meant bad recruitment and bad training, because of the time horizon mismatch. And, education, which is expected to prepare people for a longer period of time than just a job requirement, is completely out of sync with this model. 

So, the 'demand-led', to me, seems like a misdirected rhetoric, creating an illusion of control for the policy-makers and an illusion of strategy for individual firms. A more sensible strategy to bridge the education-to-employment gap is to try to bring them together, through project-based learning. This is what I do now. This is about achieving educational outcomes through completion of real life employer projects - the opposite of the demand-led model - and in doing so, exposing the student to the language and the practices of the employers. This is the free market approach as opposed to the central planning of demand led approach, involving no guarantees but allowing a dating process through which the students may find the best opportunity and the employers the best students. The trick here is to reduce the stake of the employers - making this a low-exposure involvement rather than one where they have to commit significant resources to design projects for students, and to take that responsibility as an instructional design opportunity. Surely, the challenge of this model is that it can only work at a scale, one needs many employers and many projects for this to be sustainable (so this model may be born-global by definition) but this is indeed more in sync with globalisation than the 'demand led' talk that we are so much in love with.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Education Problem: An Alternative View

The education problem is obvious. There are more than 550 million school-age children who don't have access to school. There are more than 400 million adults, most of them in South Asia, who can't read or write. In some countries, majority of children coming out of primary school, over 90% in some cases, can't read or write. Bad Higher Education is wasting whole generations in countries like India, affecting close to 100 million people. Graduates can't get jobs in Europe because their education isn't good enough, and they are not paying back their loans. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa note that they are not doing much in college either. It looks pretty bad all round.

This looks so bad is because we talk about it. In fact, we are talking about it more and more, even more than things like safe drinking water, which affects more people, because of two reasons. 

First, the wider economy is feeling the impact of the education problem. The fact that someone does not go to school affects the economic structure we are building because they don't participate in it; they don't buy the things, they don't read our messages, they don't even feel deprived the way we think they should be feeling. In short, they remain outside the structure of our control. We fear this and we see a brave new world at the same time. They are not at the bottom of our pyramid: They are not even building the pyramid, and we can build a taller pyramid once we get them to participate in it. The consumer economy needs growth and they are our canon fodder. 

Second, there is money to be made in this. We have lately discovered how. These human beings may not have any money, but being human, they have some time. And, we have enough sophistication in terms of debt instruments which can monetise their time. In short, instead of living in an existence outside the consumer pyramid, we can use education to create the needs and wants which will make them give up the time they have. They may give up the idle, poor, hopeless life they are living in their villages, and will come to a city slum to live a stressed, poor, hopeless life, seduced by the consumer symbols that we have created. The little piece of land that his father gave it to him to live will be traded in, which we will convert later in an economic asset, and his time, for the years he would manage to live, will go into servicing the debt that he would incur in educating himself into wanting to buy the good life we will tell him about. 

That some resist such good intentions and invitation to productivity, and our profit, is indeed surprising, and that is indeed the core of the education problem we are facing. Every person in a nation must do their bit for national well-being, which is GDP growth as we define it, and that these poor, without an idea of a nation because they have not been educated, would rather cling to their barren plots of land, unproductive time, and diseased life, is a wholly intolerable idea. The national missions to educate, along with national missions to evict, and national missions to exploit (in a productive way), must be formulated in sync to get these poor people to do their bit to contribute to enhance the wealth, of a few moist eyed, smoothly articulated Davos-type industrialists. They are indeed all in the mission: Because good education that converts the poor moron into a consumer and a debtor is absolutely key for their continued business expansion. We are all in it, facing up the education problem. Wish us luck to change the world!   

The Global Univerity Projects: What Have We Learned

One of the persistent dream of the flat world thinkers is the making of a great global university. In fact, it is not just an ambition, but it is an essential part of the flat world thinking, for globalisation to succeed, the universality of a certain kind of aspiration, arguably a consumer aspiration, must be established first. Geography may have proved unassailable to the military experts and business planners, but educators, it was hoped, would become the flat world pioneers.

But, so far, it has failed to happen. The blame was squarely heaped on the various regulatory agencies that intend to maintain their own fiefdoms. However, the big reason really is that geography still matters. The global university may one day bring the flat world, but so far, the starting point of the university makers was the flat world, which is indeed a Western rhetoric than a global reality. The globalisation we have so far achieved is the globalisation of money, but not of people. Or, put in another way, we may have achieved globalisation of desperation, that people start feeling bad about themselves whatever they are, but are nowhere near the globalisation of aspiration. And, in this setting, global university projects have some huge barriers to scale.

I am conscious that the argument that we haven't achieved globalisation of aspiration may not sit well with those who sees the 'Chinese Dream' or 'Indian Dream' essentially as copies of the 'American Dream'. But, as I argue, the 'Indian Dream' (if it is possible to conceive any such thing, rather than the different 'Gujrati Dream', 'Tamil Dream' or 'Bengali Dream') may include the Aging Parents and all the extended family, and the 'Chinese Dream' may be to be accepted as valued member of the community, quite distinct from the American dream of a city life, nuclear family, a job and a car. And, indeed, the 'American Dream' may already be no more, as middle class life there vanishes, and the 'American Dream' thing is like a trademark without its contents. 

Given this, Global University projects have a difficult starting point. Their assumption that everyone wants a similar education is fundamentally mistaken. Oftentimes, the silicon valley funded Change The World start-ups braved the area, and proved, instead of the solution, the problem: That global universities aren't feasible. In most cases, they have become finance organisations, instead of universities more like an education bank, such as Laureate, which bankrolls a global education empire based on its credit ratings at home and the value of the property portfolio abroad. The others have proved the case of what I shall call 'Global Desperation': The wanting of a fantastical rootlessness of a global paradise (defined by, using the slightly dated and politically incorrect reference points, with an American salary, a British home, a Chinese cook and a Japanese wife) which, in reality, may indeed appear as the global hell (using similarly indulgent parameters, with a Chinese salary, a Japanese home, a British cook and an American wife).

I ponder a lot about these limitations, as my work covered the full arc from enthusiasm about universality of aspirations to a realisation about the parochial nature of all institutions. The way I see it is that while the idealistic form of the university is constructed around internationalist ethic, that is only the rhetorical part of the project, superficial and insincere; the true driver behind global university projects is the expansionism of certain ideas and values of domination, a dynamic of power aimed at limiting the possibilities of target territories rather than unleashing them. In short, it is the creation of global desperation, rather than enabling the possibilities of people. In such form, the projects of global universities are essentially opposed to its own rhetoric, and based on the already failed faith in being able to fool all the people all the time.

The failure of most current projects to get traction is therefore good news: It should force a rethink of the ideas involved. That money does not necessarily ensure a flat world comes only when the money starts running out: Other issues, such as the nature of commitments, engagements with local values and ideas, the aspirations and motives of students, emerge in sharp relief only when the disco lights of global talk dimmed. I see many projects, as I mentioned earlier, which only prove the problem but are unable to provide a solution: The only solution they ended up providing is to settle for a multi-local form, usually around the clusters they are most comfortable, proclaiming the globality of their parochiality. I shall argue that these failures stem from inside, that while imagining global universities the founders usually rely on existing process based value chain forms, and fail to change their paradigm of university making into user network thinking (see my post on Universities as User Networks) and make a real humanitarian commitment. And, that indeed is my final argument, that the idea of global is essentially based on humanism, faith in some common human traits, not commonality of our race, religion, linguistic preference or consumption habits, but our values, beliefs, ideas of goodness and commitment to each other. The value-neutral global university, as it exists today, only exists as a clearing house of global power, as enticing a prospect but as temporal as its sponsor really is.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Universities as User Network: An Update

I wrote about universities as user networks earlier (see post). Since then, I have engaged into several projects attempting to challenge the existing models of Higher Education, and it is worthwhile to clarify the concept farther.

The key argument that the universities of the future will look different from those today because their business model is likely to change remains intact. The framework of this argument draws upon Clayton Chistensen's work, and view organisations through the prism of three distinct business models: Solution Shops, Value Chain and User Networks.

Solution Shop business models are employed by Professional Service firms, which, as in a Law Firm, assemble a team of experts to solve each individual problem. Their business model is to create value through providing solutions to complex problems, and the key value determinant remains the expertise of the individuals involved.

Value Chain business models, in contrast, create value through a process, which transforms the raw material input into a processed output. It is obviously the business model of the factory, and by far, the most popular modern form of business. The ability to create value resides, for these organisations, in the strength and relevance of their processes.

User Network business models derive their value from the network, by connecting 'stakeholders' (a cliched but perhaps the most appropriate term). This is the business model of telecom companies, for example: No one would want to subscribe to a network of one. The business model depends on creating a platform by providing infrastructure for users to come together, and value is created through the number of nodes, or connections. This is the reason why everyone wants an Open network, rather than a closed one: Because once you are a network business, the value comes from not from the excellence of your processes, but how many people you can connect.

Now, the modern university, state funded and process driven, is very much a value chain business. It takes the young students and attempt to turn them into citizens, employees and consumers. But it was not always so. Before its modern institutional form emerged, it was very much spaces led by a 'Guru' who instructed rich kids to solve the problems of life. The value of the university came from the expertise of the people involved (in some cases, it still does): So it operated more under a solution shop model than the value chain. It was only through a complex set of social changes, the rise of professional management and large scale industrial enterprise, the creation of welfare state, a professionalised academic class, and the rise of standardised testing and textbook industry, that the universities emerged as process driven, multinational entities that they are now. In essence, they did not choose the 'Value Chain' business model: It was the most relevant form that emerged corresponding with the industrial civilisation.

Several reasons why that is now changing. Businesses are getting smaller, work is more varied and entrepreneurship more common, both inside and outside an employment. Content is no longer king in the age of Google, context is. The welfare state is receding and the modern consumers are born indebted more or less. Technologies are transforming the nature of the communities, where, the value of personal relationships notwithstanding, keeping in touch is increasingly easier. The intense intellectual connection still matters, but what's new is the ecosystem of shallow connections that sustain our ideas and enterprises today. Globalisation has thrown new challenges to our industrial forms, leading to a sort of disaggregation and rise of aspirations at an unprecedented global scale. So, if we view the modern university as a fundamental social technology enabling the creation and functioning of modern society, time to change has perhaps come.

There is another reason why universities as user networks may make sense. Whenever the case of universities has to be argued, the golden days of universities as knowledge communities are usually invoked. Critics and advocates of university life both seem to agree on this one point, that the rise of modern bureaucratic university has undermined what the universities were meant to be, a place of conversations and connections. Indeed, the dogged historians of university life would justifiably claim that this was only an idealistic view of what universities were (and usually say that universities were always a collection of different things), but even if this is idealistic, this reflects a deep and consistent desire of what the universities could be. The tyranny of the processes, couched in the vacuous claim of 'quality', often ran counter to the community, the collegiality being subordinated often to the committees of various hues. The disjuncture, that the society has changed and is demanding the transformation of the university, may result in several different things, but transforming the university as a meeting place, a social infrastructure to enable conversations among the various shaping forces, may reclaim the university ideal all over again.

This is the shape that seems to be emerging. I see the creation of an open system of education, freed up from the artificially erected barriers of what can't be done, into one where employers, educators and communities can all contribute. I see that the change of the nature of knowledge, from the received truth to knowledge-as-conversation underpinning a new system of learning engagement, where learners come together to explore and to connect, and to join global communities united by interest rather than accidents of geography or social or linguistic groups. I see commercial and community interests in alignment and in contrast, but together shaping a dialogue that enables a new form of education. And, I see new universities as the container, an enabler, a social infrastructure, to provide a safe and productive space for such interactions to be had. That I see as the university of the future, at ease with the society as well as its own ideal.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Training in India: What's Next?

The once world class Indian Training industry is in quite a sad state right now. Battered by the rise of private Higher Education since 2004, when degrees became a commodity and everyone flocked out to buy one, it eventually destroyed itself by selling its soul to skilling. Once the government, driven by the political agenda to be seen to be doing something, announced millions of dollars of bonanza, they all fell for it. That this was not a bonanza, except for those few large companies which would eventually make this money disappear, and a system of consultants and officials who would create an institutionalised 'speed money' system to earn 10% to 40% on every transaction, that did not matter much. The skilling initiatives in India had nothing to do with the poor, nothing to do with skills and nothing to do with training, except that it provided some sort of superannuation for those who were left in the industry and did not bail out early enough for the other sunshine industries like Banking, Telecom and Retail.

But, in any case, the skills mission was a death-blow to the training industry in India. When it reached its peak in the 1990s, NIIT and Aptech, its market leaders, were truly world class, except for the fact that they lacked world class ambitions. They settled down to 'capture' the market, rather than develop it, depended more on the immediately available bounty of Indian semi-urban markets than competing for the rapidly emerging aspirations of the urban youth. Their business models depended more on money power, and they were quick to get into India's stock markets, and less on innovation, which was constrained by their being listed in stock markets. Though an early ecosystem of innovation was spawned in the 1990s with the advent of Internet and lots of people leaving the mother-ship companies and staking it out to create new formats of training, this was quickly extinguished as Indian mafia got into the act, and unrestrained by the government, perpetrated massive scams defrauding both students and employees who fell for it. The scam was national, high profile and bitter: It destroyed smaller training companies in India as the students became too afraid to trust anyone they didn't know. This might have worked for incumbents in the short run, but this also deprived them of the kind of innovation ecosystem that world-class companies thrive on.

So, the world class Indian companies never really became world class. They couldn't innovate, they lost their best people to all the new industries, and ran out of steam in the international markets, where, after a good start, they just couldn't compete. This story is remarkable only because of its contrast with some of the other Indian industries, which came from nowhere and built world-beating companies and successfully competed in the global markets. Training, by contrast, enjoyed a huge domestic market - which one could have turned into a base to leapfrog into global prominence - but the market leaders failed to make it. And, in a way, this is not for the want of anything else but ambition, which is also the key reason behind the abject decline of the once mighty companies into the current lamentable state, where they are more concerned about pleasing various district officials and forgot all about their students.

But, even then, we should be optimistic about the future of this industry as a whole. This is a time of breaking, and the innovation ecosystem is rising again. The new innovators are not coming out of the leading training companies, because these companies have an anti-innovation culture and have not had a single good idea for last ten years: The new training entrepreneurs are coming from other industries which prospered since the 90s. These people were at the edge of innovation and global competition doing various new and interesting things, and know first hand the challenges of finding competent people in India. Their global exposure gives them capital, technology and ideas of doing new and innovative things, and they are uncorrupted by the state of degeneration the training industry is in. 

Within this innovation ecosystem, the buzz word is 'employability' at this time. India has lots of young people coming out of education and looking for jobs, and these new entrepreneurs all want to solve the problem. Their solutions are new and various, and some of them are trying to draw on their global connections for ideas. They are throwing all the things they know of - technological sophistry, licensed content, good infrastructure - towards the problem, creating entrepreneurial businesses all over the country. And, they are experiencing failure, massive failures, to make anyone employable who was not. They are discovering the fundamental truth that all shrewd educators knew all the while, the key to secure student employability lies in selecting employable students, and all else, technology, content, infrastructure, have very little impact on the outcome. The new entrepreneurs are going through a familiar cycle: They respond to the opportunity, they blame the existing providers for not doing a good job, they create enterprises bringing together all the best things they saw in the world and then they fail, and blame the consumer. Indeed, the incumbents laugh at them at this stage, they claim that they alone know the formula that works in India (which, going by their practices, is about oiling the palms of officials) and they feel more secure in their ability to keep the markets cornered. Yet, I shall claim that these innovative training offerings are changing the industry.

I heard a prominent businessman once say that the Facebook or Google of Education should come from India. That hope rested upon India's huge market size and the entrepreneurial energy of its people. It is commonsense to think that this can happen: Just see how Infosys or Wipro took on the world, first as a good-enough provider and then at the top league, and changed the game. That was a formula that combined the vast reservoir of manpower and entrepreneurial energy: The training companies have the advantage even of a huge domestic market (which also played a role in the emergence of Indian IT; IBM's departure from India in 1977 certainly helped). The global ambition that these new entrepreneurs are bringing to the mix is the enabling ingredient that was needed - and among many failures, some winning enterprises will emerge. And, if someone is studying the failure of these well-meaning training businesses, one could perhaps discover the elements of the business model that can eventually win.

For example, one could learn, from studying these businesses, that 'employability' is not a thing that can be injected in someone through a couple of months training. This is a bigger project of complete transformation of the person and it needs time. Now, indeed, no one will sign up for a long employability programme, because one only looks for these programmes when looking for employment and India is a land of quick fix: So this whole mantra of personal transformation have to be enmeshed early into their education. In short, it is time to go back to the 1990s, and reinvent the professional training model, part time, sophisticated and world class, built around solid brands and great staff. These need to be professional skills which are needed now and in the future, and these need to be clearly mapped to the markets. 

Now, this business is one of capacity creation, both in terms of infrastructure and a high visibility brand, but also in terms of culture. NIIT's success, as I know first hand, was based on its culture, the strong bond that tied people together, the sense of belonging, the pride one felt about her job. Culture is useful not just because it unifies the message, but it also acts a tool of self-selection. Training industry's early success depended on attracting great employees, and it could do so because it was operating in a vacuum: In the 1990s, there were not many alternatives of private employment a smart person would have had. The recruitment game is totally different now, and it is the culture, which needs to be carefully constructed, that may help attract great employees. 

There is indeed business in personal transformation, but it is a deep thing. It needs work, it needs capacity, it needs engagement. It is not just about talking the right language, which many of the employability programmes are focused on, but being the right person, adaptable, always learning, perceptive about changes in the environment etc. In a way, like fashion, this is training industry's moment of reset, of going back to the 90s, and start again.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The Business Of Thinking

This did hurt because I still remember it after a good seventeen years. As a young professional, appraisals meant a lot to me. This was my first year at a big brand company, and we had come through a difficult year with flying colours. And, I thought I did particularly well. Starting at a point when we were definitely trailing the competition, the business in my territory had a remarkable turnaround, expanding geographically and posting impressive like-for-like sales. Personally, I fought it out too: I was competitive and did everything I could to ensure that we trounce the competition. We worked well in teams, and my team won the best team awards in the company through the season. So, I was expecting a grand review, a promotion etc.

The review was good and I did get the promotion. Senior Managers came and complimented me, and one of them told me something that became a permanent fixture in my vanity, that I was the best Marketer in the country. But I did not get the blank sheet that I expected as far as the improvement areas are concerned (yes, I did expect to hear that I was perfect when I was young). It came with a single observation, almost as if my boss had to write something to balance out all the praises, but a potentially damaging one: Tendency to philosophise at work needs to be put in check!

In those years of runaway growth, in a company which was growing fast and was adored by its customers, the tendency to philosophise was a cardinal sin. Everyone simply acted. We did not have time to think about the social, ethical or even practical long term implications of what we did. To ensure that we trump the competition, I did create an extensive system of corporate espionage, knowing competition's every move well in advance, and even at some point, through a business partner, had access to their entire customer list. I did run an advertising campaign which was ethically borderline, justified only by the fact that the competitors were doing the same or worse. We congratulated ourselves that we won because we were smarter, which we certainly were, and never really thought about what we were doing. Being smarter, ruthlessly efficient, being in control, were the values that we appreciated, and being a philosopher could not have sounded worse.

I indeed protested, somewhat justifiably because I thought I was fiercely competitive: My boss somewhat conceded the point that I was competitive, but nevertheless won't budge on the observation that I tend to think too much about my actions. I was told that rather than trying to prove the allegation baseless, I should focus on the next year, which commenced already. It was a Catch-22: If I didn't protest, I accept that I philosophise; if I did, I proved it.

As life moved on, I would live a very action-oriented life: I would start businesses, migrate to another country, go back to school, build networks from scratch. I shall also discover the word 'reflection' and pride myself to be a 'reflective' professional. Indeed, my reflective practise will grow into a full-scale enterprise in my blog, which started as a creative writing exercise but wouldn't have been sustained for the ten years it did if I didn't turn this into one long conversation about my work. But that infamy of being accused of 'philosophizing' remained with me. I shall bring it up many years later in a conversation with my former manager when I saw her again, who had by then forgotten all about it. When I confessed to her how touchy I still was about this, she complimented me, as if to console, that I was the most intelligent person she had ever worked with; and then, as if to relive the past, she added that I should remember that intelligence was a double-edged sword. It was deja vu all over again!

But this is more than my personal story. Over time, as I travelled, saw several businesses from inside and outside, I came to see my personal predicament as a part of a general paradox. To put it simply, that while businesses claim that they want their people to think, they don't. Business is supposed to be action-oriented, at least in its current popular American-inspired version. In fact, the precise value the business form of organisation brings to the society is its ability to get things done. This is the underlying reason when public services such as hospitals fail, we clamour for privatisation and put our faith on businesses sorting it out. This is the sense we convey when we say something is business-like, or not. This is what Vice Chancellors in universities today want to adopt, and be action-orientated, and discard the traditionally valued Socratic styles.

But, at the same time, I have seen, particularly because I worked in start-ups and businesses going global (and sometimes both), that such an approach is decidedly inadequate. The first problem is that when the outside world is complex and uncertain, focusing solely on doing leads businesses into deeper holes. This is the sort of attitude that many of the commentators observing global businesses coming into India or China (read Rama Bijapurkar, for example) complain about. Because they have no license to think, the only question they ask when entering these markets is how to fit the market into their strategy. They have no time to lose pondering about strategy, and then they lose all the time and money because they entered, as in markets like India and China, a 'never-before world' (Ms Bijapurkar's term).

Indeed, I generalise: These companies entering new marketplaces have very sophisticated strategic planning departments which do indeed work on the plans. And, here is perhaps my broader point. All companies want their people to think, because thinking is as much as an essential part of business as doing, but the currently popular model is that thinking is done by a brain-trust inside the company. This was indeed the case of the company I worked for seventeen years ago: Their specially designated R&D departments did some of the most esoteric thinking that were way ahead of its time and only getting traction now; their senior managers went out every quarter to discuss strategy and came up with clear plans. Yet, they failed, as do many other businesses, to spot shape-shifting trends in the market, just as the companies entering India and China spend millions of dollars in crafting strategies in mountain resorts of Switzerland, that do not work. And, this is because, I have come to believe, that thinking is not an isolated activity.

So, this exclusive brain-trust for thinking is an unthinking model in itself. This may have been good for, to use a cliche, twentieth century tasks with predictable outcomes, but completely out of sync with twenty-first century tasks where creative abilities are the key. To give an example, if I did what I did to thwart the competition seventeen years ago, I would expose my company to a far greater reputational danger than I did then: I am not denying it was edgy then, but today they may unleash a Facebook furore. My company was better off me thinking, and contributing into their thinking, then; it would be absolutely suicidal not to do it today.

I usually plead to the businesses I know to create a thinking culture all across the company, and integrate their hiring, doing and reviewing models around the same (and to make 'ability to philosophise' a good thing in appraisals). However, there remain two significant paradigmatic issues in achieving such a culture. The first is that an execution culture is antithetical to thinking: We want our people to do rather than think, businesses often say. Second is this brain-trust model, that some people are good at thinking and they should do all the thinking, rather than everyone chipping in. But both of these insurmountable problems on the way to a thinking culture are connected to our inherent model of thinking, represented best perhaps by Rodin's Thinker, who is solitary, inactive and self-absorbed. However, in real life, most of our finest thinkers are within people, doing the work and soaking up ideas from other people: We have numerous expositions, in academic research and business culture, which point that thinking is a social, active and creative occupation. And, once we accept this model of thinking, we may start accepting that the people most qualified to think are those who are closest to work; or, if that offends the inherently hierarchical idea of human civilisation some people may have, even they should accept that if possible, if those doing the work could do the thinking, it would produce the best outcome.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Conversation 21: The College Project

I often talk about creation of a brick-and-mortar college as a part of my future plans. However, my current work is all about online, as was most of my past engagements. Therefore, the question that I often face is why I think Brick-and-Mortar college is a good idea: In fact, whether I think brick-and-mortar colleges have any future at all, in this age of dramatically improving education technology.

The starting point for me is that I see a college as a community, first and foremost. It is a community of teachers and of learners. We have systematically undermined this community aspect over the years, as we promoted individual success over collective goals and reduced the education proposition to the mere degrees and college brand names. The community of teachers was undermined by increasing managerial domination over academic life, as well as by disconnecting academic life from the life on the main street. What was left - as many of the proponents of the online college point out - is three years' of partying. But as partying is the only form of community life known to the current form of human civilisation and college should not be faulted alone for promoting that idea of life.

The presumed decline of the college, I shall argue, is not because the college has fallen out of sync with the realities of our life by promoting a falsely idyllic life, but because it has failed to have a purpose, by being too pliantly a part of the unrestrained individualism which undermined all our institutions which sustained community life. The college as a tool of globalisation, one that promotes solely the ideals of consumer individualism, is a form of entertainment, a sort of chicken soup for the career-minded. This is what made party-life central to college experience, and led to the academic drifting that Richard Arum so convincingly portrayed (or evidenced in Rebekah Nathan's work) and other various complaints about the value of college life.

However, this one reality, consumer globalisation as the moral direction of history, is not the only one we should live by. In fact, this looks different from different vantage points, more so from the point of view of economies such as China and India, who are not only in the quest for national prosperity, but to sustain it, they are also searching for culture that can sustain such prosperity. A close reading of any of the developing societies will perhaps reveal the struggle to eclectically combine industrial progress with a sense of identity and community, the very things consumer globalisation essentially undermines. In summary, the college still has a role to play.

The online technologies of information and communication have made great progress in the last decade or so, and tipped to replace the college, but only in its reductive form of a place of information dissemination and credentialling. In fact, online colleges may only seek to create credentialled individuals who have nothing to do with the community membership, who are, at best, somewhat akin to footloose global bankers and, at worst, a rootless nomad. Its promise of bringing people together has been subverted into the business logic of pushing people apart. Tragically, the college itself, by trying to play its part in the same consumer quest, has made itself amenable to online disruption, but perhaps not in the societies which are seeking to build its communities at the same time. This is my primary start point for imagining a place-based college.

In the college I imagine - and I can't but stress that this is only a long term plan to be realised over a period of time - several departures must be made from the current model of the college. Indeed, this must be an administration-light college, where information technology and student participation should be brought together to replace the prohibitive costs of administering such an entity. This should also be about rigorous learning and intellectual work, rather than academic drift, and should be sustained by teaching communities. I can see the possibilities of technology in creating an wider community of experts worldwide who may still be part of the community without necessary having to locate themselves in it: In short, my model is based on the opposite of an online college, where the students will be in one place but teachers could be anywhere. Indeed, my conception is to create this whole model around intense connections with practice, in fact co-locating the learners with practitioners as far as possible, and informing the process of assessment as closely as possible by the real life work situations.

This is work in progress, and all that I do, study, learn, feeds directly into developing the details of this idea. I reach out to people in different professions and places, looking for serendipitous connections which lead to the evolution of this idea. And, this blog is a record of those evolving ideas, which, hopefully, even with all the confusion or contradiction that must be part of such a conversation, represent progress.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

The New New Sales

Sales seems to be a hateful career, if you go by the daily pleadings of the desperate salesmen that we are subject to everyday. However, nothing moves other than sales, people need to be persuaded, nudged or educated to try out anything new or give up something harmful, and indeed, as Daniel Pink contends, that while the 'sales' is dead, everyone has to sell these days.

I meet a lot of young unemployed graduates who want a 'desk job', which essentially means that they want a process-based job and don't want to have anything with sales. I would usually tell them that this is a mistake, as process-based jobs, a direct casualty of office automation, are somewhat in short supply. And, that, sales does not have to be the desperate, short term sales jobs that is our usual image of such a profession. Today's salesman is strategic, knowledgeable, often an expert and often an entrepreneur. The people who have to do most sales are those who believe in something, the value driven ones, rather than the slick lot who believed in nothing and were called salesmen. 

Despite its obvious importance to any organisation, sales is shunned in academia: Its posher cousins, marketing and leadership, get a lot more attention. However, whichever name you call it, without sales at the core, there is no marketing: Advertising isn't abstract art, but rather a tool for selling. Leadership is similar: Leaders need followers and should be able to sell their visions all the time, even to adversaries. If sales is hateful, none of that really will happen.

Sales indeed gets its bad name because of those desperate people trying out rather silly tricks. I get a lot of those in education: A new industry of sorts, I meet a lot of people coming into it from all kinds of industries along with their 'best practices'. So, we get the overtly aggressive, narrowly result oriented and completely revenue driven sales model, which, despite its slickness, often does not produce the results. This is because education sales has its unique quirks: It is relationship driven in the most part, brands matter but the experience has to live up to the brand perception to the minutest details (which education marketers often ignore) and it is usually a purchase for a lifetime, unlike most goods and services. There are many education salesmen too focused on the cost of a degree, because that matters, yet the most expensive education one can buy is the one that does not work. Besides, education marketplace is peculiar too: The leading education brands are not those which has the most students but those which reject most students. 

Daniel Pink in fact argues that sales need to change, and one reason for this transformation is the rise of 'Ed-Med', the twin industries which are leading job creation. The shape of change, in his view, is a more expertise-driven sales, a more nuanced approach than the legends of the used car salesmen. The whole point indeed is that customers are infinitely more informed today, infinitely more connected today and sales is often the last mile in their decision process than being the first mile. Desperate salesmen trying to win one over offering trinkets (or a $5 discount if one signs up right now) is often driving the customer to the reverse direction, because people too often buy for relationships, and they already know that you have jacked up the prices.

Indeed, one could claim that this is not strictly true, as with the enlightenment of the customers, the sophistication of the sales side has increased: They also have more tools, more information and greater ability to persuade. But this is exactly the case for sales 2.0: It is not about the process-driven 1 minute-per-prospect call, but a more informed, strategic approach zeroing on interested people and swaying them through unbeatable relationships.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

The Project of 'Global Education'

One of my key interests is to study 'global education' and what impact it has on developing societies. Like my other projects, this is a conversation in progress, and therefore, much better covered, at least at this stage, as blog posts rather than in any other form. This interest also sits in the intersection of my work, which is about using the possibilities of technology to broaden access to education and to connect it to the needs of a modern service economy, and my political beliefs, which, being Indian, is of mixed feelings about modernity itself. 

The claim that globalising education, among other things, brings a greater capacity to think critically is of immense interest to me. The components of this claim itself are worth studying: That the Indian education is traditionally based on rote learning, and the Western scientific education is based on critical questioning of the world, is presented as an absolute starting point of this discussion - and by definition evades critical assessment - shows some contours of the nature of this debate. Through the prism of this definition, learning Upanishads, or Koran, or Budhdhist Texts, are rote, because one is engaging with a text and memorising it perhaps. On the other hand, learning the history of one's own country with reflections on authoritarian regimes of the past, such as Stalin and Hitler's, perhaps guards one against buying into the same authoritarian propaganda in one's own time. These examples are powerful, but evades questions such as, whether memorising Budhdhist texts s about knowing the words, or about reflecting and discovering the deep unity of the universe, and whether, despite the apparent otherworldly nature of that learning, this unity could be understood without connecting with everything else. Seen that way, anyone with even the rudimentary knowledge of those texts will know that they are not achieved through rote. On the other hand, one could perhaps see that the choice of examples of authoritarian evil is always quite deliberate: Stalin's collectivization and Mao's Great Leap Forward are always cited as great examples of cruelty and barbarism, but the deliberate diversion of food from Bengal by the British administration under Churchill's instructions or indiscriminate bombings of Vietnamese citizens are usually kept out of the discussion. Similarly, we may talk about Hitler or Polpot's massacres, but never that of Suharto or Pinochet. And, yet, it is critical consciousness that a global education brings, if only by claiming to bring it.

Someone indeed told me that the Critical Consciousness of the type I am talking about isn't necessary. All the people should care about is to find ways to solve their problems, and that limited use of critical 'reasoning' is what makes a better life. Yet, most people don't know what their problems are, and one of the key jobs of modern consumerism is to actually make people realise that they have a problem, to make them unhappy. One perhaps didn't know that one needs a BMW , nor that one's wife should have been more beautiful or smarter, before an alluring advertising was shown to him on telly. Identifying these false problems at least should be part of a person's repertoire in modern economies. Only focusing on critical engagement that helps solve a problem, which will basically depend on process-based evaluation of the options (may be it be of huge variety), which is exactly the kind of education one receives in a business school, structures a life lived on the command of others. And, indeed, those who claim that global education will bring critical consciousness to all the developing country learners never let it out that their agenda is really to trap the learners withing the 'cage' of modernity, forever solving the problems set by other people, within the options and parameters set by other people.

Yet, this is what global education is for, not to encourage resistance to modernity, but to create a framework of obedience based on presumed requirements of consumption, mostly of commodities and services coming out of the metropolitan centres of the world, or the commodities or services produced by near-slave labour based on designs, formats and ideas shaped at those metropolitan centres. This is about as much critical consciousness as an Indian worker will require to get a job that pays $500 a month (while that job may cost $5000 in the US) because now she can afford things which her parents could not; but this critical conscious should not go as far as to let her question why her time is one-tenth as valuable to that of the US worker (and by implication, her life is less valuable) and whether she should seek to challenge the rules, set by the system, and to change this. In fact, the 'global education' project can be seen as one massive scheme of bringing people to modern consumption and move them away from politics; at its core, the proposition of 'development', which is a formula based on growth in consumption and credit, and which must not be questioned on such grounds such as social or environmental impact. In a way, the project of 'global education' perfects General Suharto's 'Floating Mass' formulation, a body of people who must not spend time in politics of groups, but focus themselves on economic advancement.

The question that I pursue, however, is whether this will result in greater welfare, or even achievement of the promised goal. The 'globals', which is very much a legitimate label in studies by consultancies such as McKinsey, may actually not just destroying all opposition but even the ground they stand on. Buying into the neoliberal rhetoric, they are, at the same time, undermining and using the state: Their corrupt control is undermining the state authority, yet it is the state's authority the legitimacy of their ways, which is often quite violent and exploitative of all other groups, is based on. Besides, they are tending to cite the state as the problem, after the lessons taught in global schools, and yet their very existence is so precariously dependent on the state, as exemplified in countries such as Tunisia.  

So, to rephrase a very famous line - the project of global education seems full of triumphant calamity. My quest is to understand the dynamics of this in the Asian context.

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"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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