Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Consequences of Immortality

First things first. Be rich or be human? This rhetorical question isn't meant to be a moral one, but rather a practical one raised by Paul Saffo, formerly of Institute for The Future. His point is that with access to biotechnology innovations, the rich may soon become a different species. This is similar to other predictions made by scientists recently, the American scientist Ray Kurzweil in particular, that, with the advancement of nano-technology, immortality may be possible in a few generations. So, the dream of creating an ageless super-race isn't an impractical dream anymore.

Indeed, whether this will happen is a matter of futurists, whose job is to weigh in various possibilities and make responsible predictions. Paul Saffo has been particularly prescient in the past and his ideas count in the Silicon Valley, where most of the research projects which can make this vision come true are being undertaken. However, since the thought has entered the realm of possibility, it is useful to think about the social and moral consequences of such a thing happening.

But, before that, we should stop and think for a moment whether we live in a world of scarcity or of abundance. Originating, possibly, from Steven Covey, the suggestions about abundance thinking are already everywhere. Daniel Pink's work pre-assumes a world of abundance and luxury. So, does Chris Anderson's, who believes that abundance will make zero-pricing a feasible business model. The possibility of immortality should break down the last barriers of scarcity - that of time - and it should make abundance thinking far more plausible than ever before.

In fact, to question the moral costs of immortality, Chris Anderson's thinking is a good place to start. I found zero-pricing idea interesting, but it seemed a bit out of place for me in the midst of all the hunger and deprivation that I see, on television and while travelling. It seems to me that the abundance model is based on an inappropriate, only partial, estimation of the costs involved. But, then, when I brought this up in my discussion with Sudhakar Ram, who is leading The New Constructs initiative that I referred to earlier, he had an interesting point: He divided the $60 Trillion world annual GDP by the 6 Billion population, and pointed out that, in fact, we have $10,000 annual per capita GDP in the world. With a more equitable distribution, we can indeed bring out everyone out of poverty and create an atmosphere of affluence, which can not happen till we have a scarcity mentality, which gives rise to hoarding and exclusion.

This, by itself, is an interesting point. I wouldn't even call it Utopian, because no one is suggesting 'equal' distribution and of taking the initiative for enterprise away. This remains, however distant, a practical possibility. As does immortality. And, indeed, if immortality is possible, it suddenly takes away the cost on time, and demolishes the labour theory of value altogether, because if the supply of time becomes unlimited, it is likely to be valueless.

Like, air. But, saying that, one gets to see the problem. When time may become valueless, air, and other natural things we have so far taken for granted, may become invaluable. Of course, Oxygen is commercially produced and you can already buy Oxygen cans through vending machines in some countries, but this is currently for medical purposes and for the kicks. But this may soon be needed to be made available more widely for sustaining life. So, while time becomes zero-priced, air and water may move to the opposite direction, as it seems to be already doing.

And, still, this can not be for everyone. We are where we are with about 1 billion people really living a carbon-expensive lifestyle, with another 4 billion aspiring to attain a lifestyle somewhat close to that level, and 1 billion living in abject poverty and hopeless conditions. With this, we are already stretching earth's resources. Now, if this 5 billion is made to join the party, without taking anything away from the richest 1 billion, our environment can not sustain that. While $10,000 per year may seem a decent sum of money in the context of the countries the poor lives in, it may not be so if the air and water is priced and time isn't. It may actually alter the idea of value so fundamentally that $10,000 and GDP may become meaningless concepts altogether.

And, also, alter our concepts of good and evil. For example, immortality must be matched with death, and since animals may have more pet value than poor people in distant countries, we may have to revisit the ideas of great thinkers such as Himmler and Eichmann. We are suddenly faced with the very practical possibility that this may sound like a good idea. In an odd turn of thinking, zero pricing time seems to lead to zero pricing lives, and abundance thinking suddenly seems to have turned the scarcity mentality upside down. Paul Saffo, arguably, is value-neutral - he is making a forecast about technological possibility. However, one can not, and should not be, value-neutral in the context of such a life-altering possibility, because this will indeed change the moral context of our civilization and what we thought about good and bad.

Death, for example, was always a bad thing. But, not so, in the context of drone attacks, on which Jane Mayer wrote a brilliant piece in New Yorker recently. Death, as long as it is faceless and riskless, seems to be harmless. Like those who we kill on our Video Games, we seem to be turning death into a common exercise. Again, it seems we are zero-pricing death.

So, that is it: We are entering a world where life, time and death may become zero-priced. This is exactly when the God will also be zero-priced, or, more correctly, will be made redundant. Rightly so, because we can replace him with more efficient, nimble and productive decision making system. That may prove to be the last frontier of morality.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Note on Pseudo-Leadership

As a part of my work on the Leadership Programme, I came to realize that one of the more important aspects that one needs to understand about leadership is what leadership is not. I have been reading Warren Bennis and his warnings about Pseudo-leadership is very real: I do think the world is full of pseudo-leaders and the big problems we face comes from the failure to call the wheat from chaff a lot of times.

To start with, take the distinction, following Max Weber, between Power and Authority. Weber argued that POWER is about the ability to force people to obey, whereas the AUTHORITY is when one is obeyed without having to resort to force. In real life, however, this distinction gets blurred and too many people confuse the two. This happens on both sides of the table, incidentally; those who obey sometimes mistake the power - the senior person's ability to fire or punish the junior person - as some sort of automatic authority, and those who are in the driver's seat sometime expect obedience as a given, and behave accordingly.

I think a good understanding of pseudo-leadership can be achieved by reading Bob Woodward's Bush quartet. George W Bush will rank as one of the worst presidents America had ever had. Actually, may be, the worst - given the unmitigated disaster he has been in terms of America's standing in the world, in domestic policy and in terms of the management of the two wars he initiated. His fellow-rankholders, Calvin Coolidge, Richard Nixon and possibly Warren Harding, all had skeletons in their own cupboards and failed the American public in their own ways. However, the question that must be asked is how these men, and particularly George W, who lived and ruled in the era of Internet, interactive media and intense public scrutiny, could mis-lead so many people for so long. I have no particular love for John Kerry and his leadership qualities, but it is indeed surprising that George W managed to win a second term when his leadership traits were already becoming clear. Reading through Woodward's account of the conduct of the war on terror, one gets a front row seat in this drama of paralysed leadership, where strategic thinking was given up in favour of street smart wisdom, and statesmanship was sacrificed in the alter of internecine politics of a dysfunctional White House.

All of this, because George W had the power - as the President of the United States - and that gave him an automatic authority and claim on loyalties of a lot of very smart men and women. But, the obvious consequence of this has made the world a lot worse place to live - something that pseudo-leaders end up doing for themselves and for others.

If for GWB, it was the position, for Warren Harding, it was his looks. He looked presidential and that's why he got elected. Again, human superficiality was at play and ended up in disaster. We tend to make an automatic concession for the physical beauty, but one must remember that this is not an yardstick of leadership. In fact, when we take 'physical presence' into consideration, we are wrong more often than not, and let pseudo leaders fool us.

I think the essential point about leadership - to use C K Prahalad's term - is to be a good sheepdog. It is not about being in the front or being seen in the front, but standing back and leading the herd through thick and thin. The visual image of leadership, however, is of the front runner, someone charging up without much thought or consideration about what others are doing. And, I think this visual image of leadership, and lot of the associated literature and philosophy, lead us to get it wrong, and err on the side of pseudo-leadership. It is therefore extremely important for a student to study the pseudo-leaders when studying about leadership, and understand, as I mentioned before, what leadership is not.

So, pardon me if I add Mussolini and Hitler on the curriculum of the leadership class. My heart is still pure.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Nick Griffin on BBC

Nick Griffin's BBC appearance has created a row, for good reason. Many people saw the similarities with Jean Le Pen, whose fortunes were created after appearance in the French equivalent of Question Time, so much so that he turned from a rather lunatic fringe right winger to the challenger to Jacques Chirac in a Presidential run-off in a decade's time.

Nick Griffin is a slightly churlish, utterly boring politician, who does not seem to stand for anything. Except the emptiness of the current political debate, one would hasten to add. If there were any questions about why Nick Griffin was even invited to the show, the show proved it: What was indeed the point in having the show with a vacuous Jack Straw, pointless Sayeeda Warsi and self-defeating Chris Huhne? If television shows are about TRP rating, bring it on!

But then the BBC is not about TRP. Isn't that what one pays for, through the license fee 'tax'! That should have kept it free of the obsession with TRP ratings, and allowed it to focus on free democratic agenda. Of course, one may contrarily argue that the obsession with TRP would have been better - as Nick Griffin proved less capable of thinking than some of the Big Brother house inmates who we were forced to watch - than the pointless 'democratic' programme planning. Unless the BBC wanted to come clear and say that it is paying for some of the BNP supporters' money, all this discussion is indeed pointless.

For example, what do you say about David Dimbleby asking about Holocaust and Nick Griffin laughing [for which, the host reprimanded him like a school teacher: 'Why do you laugh? Is this a particularly laughing matter?']. Or this discussion about which parts of Adolf Hitler Mr. Griffin approves of. Or that KKK was led by a non-violent activist. And, the fact whether BNP as a party should be taken seriously.

The last point is of course settled. Some polls suggested that at least one-fifth of the respondents polled will consider BNP as a choice. Though two-thirds said that they would not ever consider BNP, the others were not sure. And, yes, the very fact that Mr. Griffin is an MEP - though he stands against the European Imperialism and thought Churchill was one of his own because the old man fought for British independence from Europe [never mind the French!] - tells us that he needs to be taken seriously. And, yes, recent history has taught us that it almost never pays to tolerate buffoonery!

Mr. Griffin's key point is of course Islam, which he sees as a hateful religion and he wants Muslims evicted from British soil. Yes, indeed, including the British Muslims, who form a rather significant portions of the population in the Northern English towns he finds a following in. Which is a fairly doable thing in my view, if Mr. Griffin agreed not to use the oil that comes from the Middle East and stop using the numerical system which has an Arab heritage: small things like this. His faith in British race is absolute, though he may struggle to get the Scots, Irish and the Celts agree on some sort of common definition. However, he isn't an intellectual and would never write a Mein Kampf, except if Daily Mail ghostwrites it for him.

Immigration seems to be the other issue, but on this, Mr. Griffin is only the dumber version of his other illustrious peers on the Question Time. Take, for example, Chris Huhne, who needed to be reminded that what he was criticising was actually his own party's policy. The British government never seems to understand that getting investments invariably means an open labour market, and an ability to attract skills from all over the world. Without the free market for labour, there isn't going to be a free market for capital. So, here, Mr. Griffin failed to shine, because everyone else is as clueless as him on what needs to be said.

And, then, there is Adolf Hitler. He seems to cast a long shadow on European politics, because it never quite escaped from his clutch. I think what Nick Griffin said or did not say about Adolf Hitler does not matter. The fact he thinks that both Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill, if they were alive and were in Britain, would have been given honorary membership of his party, speaks clearly of the ideological clarity, vision and political depth of the debate that we watched yesterday.

But, then, the pointlessness of it is actually the point.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Making Leaders

I have spent a last few months working, and reworking, on models of a leadership institute that I wanted to set up in India. I have gone through various discussions with business people, academicians and students and learners, and have looked at various options that are available to take a leadership training in India.

Obviously, there are quite a few alternatives as far as Leadership training is concerned. First of all, there are the business schools, starting with IIMs and Executive Leadership programmes, the Leadership training function/ facility at ISB Hyderabad, and countless others in all the major cities. Then, there are the special Executive training facilities and programmes, which come in both Western - the likes of Franklin Covey and Dale Carnegie Institutes - and Eastern - in the form of Art Of Living and various other soul-searching sessions - varieties. I have been particularly intrigued by a programme by Landmark Education, which is an international programme, but also available in certain Indian cities. These are typically a few days' programmes, which are held as Open programmes as well as In-Company programmes. I have met at least one company which prides itself for being a Landmark Graduate company, which means every employee of that company has been trained by Landmark Education. Besides that, indeed, almost every training facility inside every company run some kind of leadership programme, using content licensed from training content publishers or recycled from earlier training programmes. In short, there was no scarcity, but an abundance of options, in the leadership training market in India.

I must admit that, looking at such huge array options, I was slightly overwhelmed and started looking at wrong options. Much of my work over last few months were focused on how to adapt a Leadership Qualification programme from the UK for the Indian market. While I chose a top-grade qualification, there were several problems with this approach. It lacked the culture perspective, and I was making the same mistake I accuse others of doing - I was being culture-blind. Besides, I was succumbing to the lure of thinking about leadership in a mechanistic way, believing that this is something which you can pick up in a few sessions, and worse, pass an exam on to become a 'certified' leader, what travesty! I was so blinded by the need of novelty and differentiation, the marketer's holy grail, that I almost forgot about the value proposition.

Besides, I had a very supply side point of view. It was almost like - I think there is a good market in leadership training [Why I thought that way will be discussed in a moment] and what can we do to take advantage and make some money. The problem with that approach is that while this sounds entrepreneurial - identifying a gap in the market and thinking about a solution - it is not. There is always a very thin line between entrepreneurship and opportunism, and I think this is it: Both starts with looking at the gap in a market, but then, the entrepreneur tries to solve the problem and the opportunist tries to take advantage of it. The entrepreneur wishes the problem will go away; and, goes after big enough problems which takes awhile to go away and builds a sustainable business. The Opportunist wants the problem to stay - indeed that is the opportunity - and usually gets myopic, because every pothole looks like an opportunity.

But, I digress: the differences between entrepreneurship and opportunism should be left for another day. The problem with my thinking was that it was neither original, nor solving a problem. It was more about how do I stand out from this crowd and say that I have something different to offer. The worst temptation is to say that this programme is from UK, though I have learnt that it is actually an illusion. Those days are past when people wanted to pay a premium for anything UK: Today's India is a different, proud country. People want world class service and recognition, but globalization, awareness and competition have taught them to demand good value from everything that they look at. This was the problem with my solution - I never cared to think about what the leadership training is attempting to achieve.

I think my Deja Vu moment came while talking to Sudhakar Ram, the Chairman and MD of Mastek, who has set out to challenge the assumptions that our lives are built on. He is writing a collaborative book on the New Constructs [www.thenewconstructs.com], the key ideas that we inherited from our Industrial Age past and those that are in a state of dysfunction in the current 'connected' age. Sudhakar Ram identified seven such areas - Success, Learning, Work, Consumption, Wellness, Governance and Globalization - and started exploring each of these concepts to see how our ideas have become disconnected from the realities of the time we live in, both practically and morally. While we talked about various things, and after a while, I was very excited and peppered him with various questions, the futility of my idea was laid bare in front of my eyes - I was trying to build a leadership training programme on a framework which belong to another age.

And, indeed, the leadership programme I was working on till then was very 'industrial age' that way. I was even planning a full fledged module on time management, for god's sake! And the concept of time - as you can guess - was mono chronic, a simple straight line which you can get onto and time was a commodity you could save, waste and utilize: the straightforward Anglo-Saxon view of Time. Obviously, my Indian learners would have attended the programme with the concept of poly chronic time in their heads, where time is like air which you live inside, and you don't waste time because it is not a commodity to waste, but rather you wait for the right time to come for anything to happen. In the industrial, rather Victorian, perspective, the programme was alright - it was teaching the participants the most 'productive' way of using time. However, this is such a waste of effort in the connected age, today, because, to delve into Mr. Ram's thinking, work is not what you do but the role you play in the world. Suddenly, you control much less than you think, but your actions can have a much greater impact than you could imagine. It was rather obvious that I needed a complete rethink about the whole leadership training business.

This is what I am planning to do now. I have taken seriously another of Mr Ram's advise - some of the big problems can only be solved if the accountability of the business culture can be combined with long term orientation of a non-profit. This made me go back to where I started : Why did I think leadership is such a critical need in India? I thought India is at the moment of a huge demographic advantage. Nandan Nilkeni has written recently about India's demographic dividend in an essay in Strategy & Business, where he referred to a number of historical parallels. The message was obvious to read: This window of opportunity need to be taken advantage of. Now, India's education system, both the old and the new incarnations of it, is too focused on mechanical excellence, discipline of followership and conformity. It is hardly aligned to what we need to steer this demographic divided to our advantage. This is the time when we need great and good leaders, not just in business, but in education, public service and creative trades, who will bring a global perspective, ambition, integrity and much creativity.

I don't think the business schools, at least most of them, will offer this, because that's not what they are meant to do. Nor will the various short and sweet executive programmes - they mostly have a spatial, almost a mono-syllabic, view of what makes a leader. In fact, many of these programmes, and I have met some real cowboys who ran them, are actually counter-productive: They promote an Dirty Harry version of leadership, which does more harm than good. Besides, most of our leadership thinking is deeply industrial age, as Mr. Ram would point out, and are in dire need of repair.

So, this is my new project - a non-profit dedicated to developing leaders in India. This isn't going to be a high profile school with sprawling facilities to make prime time leaders. My goals are modest: this will be about discovering leaders among us and nurturing them. I know my abilities are limited and I plan to connect up with everyone who are interested in building this up. This blog post is my first step.

Education 2.0: Reflections on 'Victorian Teaching Methods'

A colleague brought this up in a recent discussion, how most colleges still follow Victorian Teaching methods. Then, I saw it on a newspaper article, denouncing the lack of creativity in the classroom. And, last week, there was the report on Primary Education from a Cambridge University Think Tank, which suggested that Children should go to school when they are 6 years old, which was rejected by the Ministers, who opted to keep the school age at the current level of 4 to 5 years, depending on which part of UK you live in. The decision was greeted by the media as one opting for 'Victorian' methods.

So, indeed, It is worth reflecting on what the Victorian teaching methods really are. My take is that the expression is usually used to mean drab, boring teaching, usually associated with unwelcoming, and often unhygienic, learning environments; apart from the focus on three Rs, which are all 'left-brain' activities, so to say; and the assumption that everyone learns at a similar pace and style, and if someone is falling behind, s/he is not trying hard enough.

Obviously, lots of those conditions still exist, and will continue to exist. The classroom hygiene may improve, but windowless rooms will become more and more common. It will take a considerable shift in our thinking to allow even greater diversity inside the classroom in terms of learners' pace and interests, and even if we can conceptually achieve it, government bureaucracies, which need concrete, measurable data to show progress, will attempt their best to keep away such changes. We may become aware of the possibilities of technology in the classroom, but it will take more time to change how we define achievement and success.

It also brought back something I read in Howard Gardner's Five Minds For The Future, where he talked about his experiences in a Chinese classroom, where the focus was upon memorizing. [That's what Victorians meant by Reading, really] Dr Gardner's point was that those skills were meant for a different age, when information was scarce and access to information was difficult. Pupils needed to memorize whole texts to be counted as educated. In the age of Google and Wikipedia, where the world's knowledge is being compiled for free and instant access, the key necessities have changed. It is no longer memorizing, but credentialing and validating available information. To be fair, a pre-Victorian intellectual surely got this: "Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it". [Samuel Johnson - I 'found' this on the entrance of the British Library]

This thought also brought me to the way the University College London, a premier institute, assesses its students for the course I just enrolled into: just by marking Pass or Fail, and does not grade them.Was it okay to just mark Pass/Fail, or a gradation is important in an assessment? A flippant thought: Why we always cared so much about pass grades, but never cared for grades of failure? In context, I think even the gradation is also very Victorian - an assumption that learning can be compared in its own right. The fact that we have different learning journeys mean that we have a box of apples and oranges and grapes to compare.

In this context, it is worth mentioning what the Tutor told us on day one. The learning group was indeed very diverse, which included me, from business background, some university teachers, research and lab assistants, a training manager from Royal College of Nursing, a school teacher, and a Priestess. We had people coming from all corners of the world, and when the tutor asked why we wanted to do the course, the reasons were as diverse as the group itself.

And, then, the tutor, Paul Walker, introduced us to the concept of a Learning Log/ Learning Journey. He drew this diagram on the flip chart:

In his scheme of things, there are those 12 parallel learning journeys that will take place, representing our individual journeys, which will come together at a certain intervals when the learning group convenes, represented by the table structure in the picture. The learning will happen through Literature Surveys, Observations, Presentations and Feedback Sessions and finally with evaluation and assessments, all of which will be based on our reflections on learning based on our context, and which will be gathered in the form of a portfolio. So, after 12 months of doing this course, we shall have this portfolio containing the details of what we studied, thought and learnt. Paul Walker, our Tutor, quoted T S Eliot, to explain the outcome of this journey: We shall not cease from exploration/ And at the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.

Now, this is far apart from the Victorian conception of learning, of all that homogeneity and uniformity. It is meaningless to attempt to grade these journeys, because they are indeed not comparable, and the only thing to judge will be whether this journey was taken on sincerely and with the necessary curiousity, and whether one indeed arrived with a new perspective at the end, which is really the beginning.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Drawing Lessons from Vietnam

The US engagement policy abroad, for last forty or so years, has always been shaped with the lessons learnt in Vietnam in perspective, as it is being done now. President Obama, as I have noted previously, is supposed to make the decision on sending more troops to Afghanistan. From the media gossip, one gets to understand the decision is likely to be that General McChrystal will get some troops, but not the 40,000 he requested for. This will actually be no decision at all - a few thousand American lives, and a few thousand Afghan lives, will be sacrificed because the President and his advisers will not be able to make up their minds. Common sense dictates that the solution is elsewhere, not in sending additional troops; but there will be this shadow of Vietnam weighing over their head. The civilian administration and democracy lost the war - that's the lesson learnt - and this time, no one would want to take that political risk. No one wants Afghanistan, and Pakistan, go over to the dark side. The consequences, everyone knows, will be severe. The strong visual imagery of planes slamming into World Trade Centre is enough to make a President lose his re-election, and hence, no one will take the risk.

I remember reading 'No More Vietnams' by Richard Nixon long time back. Back in the early nineties, when America has just emerged victorious in the first Gulf War but stopped short of driving into Baghdad. The debate in my university circles were about whether Americans were afraid that Saddam Hussein had dangerous weapons. The other opinion focused on Vietnam, there came Richard Nixon with all his wisdom, and the psychological effect that it must have had on American policy making about occupying territories in Asia. So, we talked about America retreating into a modern Monroe doctrine, keeping their large scale involvements to Western Hemisphere. With the Cold War and the need for containment going away, it was logical for the Americans to let countries in the other parts of the world follow their own course.

But, Richard Nixon, the perennial cold warrior, was advocating otherwise. He was urging Americans to get over Vietnam, because it was not a failure of American military power but one of American polity. He was making the case for strong engagements with intent, and his point was that America must remain engaged, militarily if needed, to run the world according to its wishes. It did seem that George HW Bush took his advice when he went into the Gulf, as did his circle of advisers, including Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. They definitely wanted to emerge out of Vietnam's shadows and believed they did, with a comprehensive and convincing victory in the First Gulf War.

This is the exact perspective which made George W to plan his adventures. The media and historians seem to ascribe to him a filial sense of responsibility to complete his father's unfinished task, by going into Baghdad. But, George W was actually taking advantage of what his father achieved - the beyond Vietnam mentality - a strong will to engage in other parts of the world. He had the same set of advisers - Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld - and it did feel Deja Vu over again.

But, the Vietnam experience refused to die. We talked about Vietnam in 2005/6 when Iraq seemed completely out of control. The President took the decisions based on his post-Vietnam, strong engagement mentality: sent more troops. It seemed to have worked, and that reaffirmed Richard Nixon's view of the failure in Vietnam: Not a military failure, but one of polity.

Obama's predicament today is to work under this shadow of Vietnam, when it is ever more real. Iraq was far more manageable than Afghanistan. It was a country with flat deserts, where air power is far more effective than the mountainous Afghanistan. Afghans are notoriously independent, they have been scarcely governed for centuries. The sense of Afghan justice and negotiation is far more swift and immediate than any democratic negotiation will permit. It is indeed one country where the limits of American Military power may become evident.

But more than that, this should focus ourselves on the lessons of Vietnam. Draw the parallels in your mind with what the apologists of troop surge are saying, and you will see Pakistan being portrayed as South Vietnam. A war must be fought in the North to win the peace in the South, to whom we are pledge-bound to protect. Further if we lose the South, it will unleash a domino effect in the region, ultimately threatening the peace and the prosperity, and in essence, the American way of life.

The problem is that America lost in Vietnam not for the lack of troops, but in spite of them. Nixon was indeed right, it was a failure of polity, but the war was not lost in American Congress. The war was lost in Saigon. South Vietnam became a failed state despite American support because it was a false state, poorly governed and without the moral legitimacy. The lessons from the Vietnam war should be about the pointlessness of puppet states, and not one of the size or engagement of the army.

The other lesson that should have been learnt is what armies can not do. If we all agree that we live in the age of information, we must concede that military power can not substitute moral legitimacy. So, in this age, there is no point trying to perfect a strategy which failed before [and adding up the colonial experience, it always failed]. What needs to be done is an all-out effort to win the peace and moral legitimacy in the broken states.

The United States administration is not doing a good job at that, so far. They are going to tolerate a rigged election, while making noises about a similar one in Iran. They are insisting on a pointless defence of Israel when it is increasingly clear that Israel has been taking advantage of this American protection and set out to do whatever they wish. They continue to try to prop up Pakistan and rescue it from failing, while it must acknowledge that Pakistan is a false state in the need of fundamental changes. In summary, the decision that needs to be made is whether the US has the necessary moral strength to win the moral legitimacy that it needs.

The hope is, as Winston Churchill put it, that 'Americans can be relied upon to do the right thing, after all options have been exhausted'.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The World Last Week

The most interesting story last week was of course about the boy who was thought to have gone up did not go up. I was just watching Arianna Huffington questioning the wisdom of the story, justifiably because it is a non-story which the major networks devoted an enormous amount of time on. Arianna was on the Ed Show on MSNBC to talk about her recent post why Joe Biden, a long time opponent of sending more troops to Afghanistan, should resign if the President decides to concede to General McChrystal and send more troops. Arianna's point was that American executives should sometimes resign in protest, and not go silently as Colin Powell did, after enduring two uncomfortable years of the war in Iraq and even choosing to become the public voice justifying it. That does not measure up as integrity. But she was visibly peeved when she was called to discuss this and this discussion turned to the boy in the hot air balloon. She pointed out that this is indeed the worst kind of tele-voyeurism - and a journalistic failure to check the story's credentials before publicizing it. The discussion was amusing - a prominent blogger accusing MSNBC for wasting people's time, and Ed Schultz defending it in the name of public concern and news. That seemed to be the media world in reverse, or possibly the way soon it is going to be.

The other big news is Obama's big question - to be or not to be. Almost everyone knows that sending more troops to Afghanistan is pointless - and, as Zbigniew Brzezinski stated, the United States is increasingly making the same mistake that Soviet Union did twenty years back. He says, Soviets walked into Afghanistan and believed that they can create a communist society with a handful of urban Afghan communists. When they realized that this is not going to be easy, they sought a military solution, with the objective of getting everyones compliance to the ideas of the few. US is making a similar mistake, he says. When the United States went in, it used only about 300 special Marine commandos, along with thousands of Afghans, who saw them as liberators, to throw the Taliban out. And, then, US lost the peace, by bungling the reconstruction, by relying too much on a few Westernized Afghans in the cities. And, then, it sought a military solution. Today, there are 60,000 US troops along with 40,000 NATO ones, and General McChrystal is saying that the Taliban is winning. He's got a point, indeed. In this context, the big question before the President Obama is whether to give in and send another 40,000 troops, which will, according to Dr Brzezinski, only help solidify the opposition and expand the Taliban ranks.

Of course, the people who believe more troops should be sent pointed towards Pakistan. This was a bad week for Pakistan. The news there almost read like the ones from Iraq in its worst years, suicide attacks every day, including one inside the Army HQ in Islamabad, the capital. It looked as unstable as ever. The apologists of troop surge talk about stabilizing Pakistan, because, with its nuclear arsenal, Pakistan is a far greater danger.

This is indeed a bit of convoluted logic, which made no sense at the outset. America has already won the war in Afghanistan. What it lost is the peace. But instead of trying to win the peace, it is getting into a seize mentality. Egged on by the Pakistani administration, surely, who wants to pass on the responsibility of governing their country to the Americans, without passing on their sovereignty. The Pakistani administration failed to take any action to restrain the terrorist ideologues who preached openly and directed people to attack Indian people; their excuse was religious freedom. They possibly can't see that the bombs that went off in their territory were made of the same religious staff.

And, Americans continue to lose the peace. It made depressing reading to know about the widespread corruption in the Afghan elections, designed to keep the incumbent President, Hamid Karzai. Peter Galbraith, the ex-Deputy Head of UN Mission in Afghanistan, was surely in a place to know. I shall recommend his article in TIME as a must read. The results of the election is still not announced - it has just been delayed by another day - but media reports indicate that at least a third of the vote in favour of Karzai is possibly fraudulent. Add this to sheer mindlessness of trying out an American style election in Afghanistan, and one gets the sense why the US is losing the war. They need some common sense, not 40,000 troops, to restore Afghanistan.

Indeed, the US indifference to the stolen election in Afghanistan is making their moral stand vis-a-vis the stolen election in Iran much less convincing. The news is that some of the democracy protesters have been given death sentence for inciting trouble. With its bloodied hand in Afghanistan, rest of the world will have to stand by and say nothing. Besides, Iran seems to be getting away with its nuclear programme, as both China and Russia failed to work with the US to impose any sanctions. So, Iran will go Scot-free, which will add to the nuclear threat in the region.

And, finally talking about the UN, the UN Human Rights Council accepted the Goldstone report, despite some attempts of blackmail from the Israelis, and some woolly-minded voting from United States. Justice Goldstone said human rights have been violated and civilians have been attacked, both by Israel and Hamas, during their war in Gaza. Something which we knew, and something that must stop. Yet, Israel linked this to their national self-defence, unbelievably, and wanted states to vote against the acceptance of the report. So, did United States. Britain and France could not make up their minds, so abstained without a formal declaration. But, almost everyone else accepted the report. Indeed, this will amount to nothing, because this will now be recommended to UN General Assembly, which is notoriously ineffective because the United States will block it. So will Britain and France, as they gain their composure and discover that doing the right thing is to let Israel do whatever it likes. But, then, that's another bit in losing the peace, in Middle East in particular and in the world at large.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Reflections on A Leadership Training Programme

One of the propositions on the table for me now is to evangelize a new Leadership Development programme, to be offered in India and other South East countries. My engagement at this time is fairly minimal - all I am doing is answering the questions asked - but the whole activity triggers a thought process. While the offering in question is a fairly straightforward Leadership Qualification, accredited by one of UK's Leadership institutes, this allows me to reflect upon whether such a programme is at all suitable for India and what needs to be done, if one needs to start developing leaders in India.

But, first thing first. Do we need to develop leaders in India at all? The question is an obvious yes, given the fact that we need them at all walks of life. There are so many problems to be solved, so much of human energy needs to be channelled. However, in India, it is often a case of many Chiefs and no Indians, in the Western sense of the expression. In many cases, we do not seem to accept that the necessary complement of leadership is followership, and one must take a complete view of the leadership phenomena. The leader is a sheepdog - says C K Prahalad - and he guides the pack from the behind. We get it wrong a lot of times [and that's not an Indian phenomenon] and think the leader needs to be at the front, an arrogant human being in search of limelight. However, effective leadership, again quoting CKP, is about the moral force and humility, and this will often mean working without the allure of prime time TV.

So, yes, there is a need for leadership training in India, and at all levels of work and in all walks of life. Quite a transformational opportunity this is, not just for the people who should be trained, but for the society at large.

But then, next question, is an English qualification on leadership the benchmark to use? Before we get into the nationalistic rhetoric, one must remember that this could be one of the world's largest leadership training organizations and have a fairly well-acclaimed programme to offer. From my various interactions with Indian businesses, it is important for many of them to hire people with 'global' skills, because India is entering the phase when the businesses must take the outward leap to be successful. Such leadership framework or qualification can indeed be quite useful from that perspective.

However, may be not. I do believe that we need to do a fundamental rethink about what leadership is. The current framework of leadership skills were drawn up in the past, when we lived in a more certain time and had more clear expectations about our lives. The leadership thinking is yet to take the post-boomer leap, and adjust itself in the brave new world post-Credit crunch.

Consider most of our leadership models and you will start getting the sense. Churchill, the old imperialist, will stand apart, as will General Patton [more on him in a moment]. JFK will come to mind, and so will Rudy Giuliani. Jack Welch will feature in any list, along with people like Bill Gates, Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela and a few others. The theme will be resilience, courage, ingenuity, and success after all - who remembers failed leaders anyway. One will mostly talk about the unity of purpose - most of these leaders set out with the end in mind - and the dogged focus that one displayed all the way till the end.

CKP makes a reference to the General Patton style of leadership in a recent interview. He talked about the movie actually, which may or may not be accurate account. Indeed, one remembers that unforgettable scene of General Patton standing in front of the huge American flag and talking - no one has ever won a war by dying for his country; to win a war you must let the other bastard die for his country, or words to that effect. He points out that Patton is careful and sensitive about his staff, he never uses the word German - because many of his own staff are from German origin [though I dispute the fact, because Patton was, most probably, fighting the Italians then]. He also points out how Patton focuses everyone to the future, how he talks about every soldier will have a story to tell their grandchildren about their heroics in the great war, an odd thing to say to twenty year olds, but an essential thing - giving them the hope of winning and a pride and purpose of living. This is indeed our model of leadership at the current time.

But this must change. Because all our certainties are gone, and our mental models are changing fast. It is not sufficient for today's leaders just to guide his pack to winning, but s/he must do so sustainably and with compassion to everyone else. In summary, the days of zero-sum leadership is over; what we need is inclusive leadership. CKP alludes to Gandhi as a Leadership model in the same interview. He talks about his moral force, the fact that he upheld the means being as important as the ends. That last bit is all about sustainability. Answer this question, what was Gandhi's purpose, and you will know. If you think all Gandhi wanted was to win independence for India, you are getting only half the picture. Gandhi wanted Indians to become an independent nation, with all the attendant pride and moral force. Gandhi was building a nation where none really existed. Therefore, it was not for him to resort to violent killings, not for him to do petty politicking and attack the British when they were at their most vulnerable during the war. He wanted India to be a proud nation, born with a moral force which will sustain it beyond its independence. In fact, that's exactly what has happened today. India, poor and illiterate, became an exemplary democracy and a stable state, arguably because of Gandhi's attempts to stay the course even if it took longer and the journey was fraught with difficulty.

The other model of leadership which is capturing the popular imagination now is of Abraham Lincoln. This view has star power, Barack Obama famously idolizes his fellow President from Chicago, though he was Republican. Lincoln, unlike most leaders today, actually built an all-star team around him and surrounded himself with very able people who disagreed with him more often than not. He obviously was in control: He did not let his Presidency degenerate into a debating club and indeed left a mark on his country's history. The key lesson of his leadership was that he was the ultimate sheepdog, he stood there allowing his very able team get on with their individual jobs, but reigned them in when he needed to [like when he decided to abolish slavery, despite disagreements within the cabinet].

The current model of leadership, especially the one codified in qualifications, cover none of these. No uncertainty about goals, but an unwavering purpose; no tolerance of dissent, but the ability to get conformance; no moral force, but hierarchical authority - dominate the discourse. My own feeling is that the model is out of sync with the current world, and indeed, modern India.

Now, coming back to the question whether a British qualification will be good enough, my answer will be nuanced - it depends. I have seen this before: Too many times, it is assumed, on both sides, that someone from a Western country can indeed train any number of Indian managers on the subject of leadership. If this has come from the long tradition of Western dominance of the business world, we have come to an inflection point. It is time to clearly define a model of leadership in the Asian context, and develop our leaders accordingly. After all, they are likely to need to solve Asian problems with Asian resources.

This is not to suggest, though, that we must shut the door and reject everything non-Asian. This is indeed farthest from my purpose. I have learnt many things by coming and living in Europe and an essential ingredient of leadership training today will be to cover the global outlook and comfort with other viewpoints. The point I am making is that we must allow a balanced perspective and not let the Western ideas dominate the training.

I shall conclude with an example. In one of the meetings I attended recently on the subject, I came across the leadership training expert who said he trains Chinese managers on Decision Making, prompting a comment 'they certainly need that skill' and a bout of laughter among the participants. I do think this is essentially the wrong view. China is a functioning economy and a successful one. They have indeed mastered the art of decision making, their own way. While they need a perspective on how Europeans make decisions, the last thing they need is to change their own way. This is often the point that gets missed when one tries to impose a framework of leadership from a different culture.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The 7 Negotiation Principles I Try To Follow

I have done many negotiations in my life, and in most cases, I failed rather than won. I don't necessarily see that as a negative, because I have managed to win some important ones. Besides, some of the ones I failed to conclude successfully involve the cases where I walked out from, deciding they were not worth the trouble. No, I am not exactly referring to 'the grapes are sour' variety; there were indeed some juicy grapes I missed out on. But there were many which looked trouble from the word go, and while I failed to get a win, it feels like winning when I look at it with some perspective. In all, I shall consider myself to be a fairly successful negotiator.

So, what are those 7 negotiation principles I always follow?

But before that, an honest statement: I don't know why it is seven, or whether there are indeed seven. Just that seven looked like a fine number to start the conversation - with its pedigree dating back to Steven Covey, or even to God, who finished everything by the sixth day and went to sleep on the Seventh, but still kept it on record.

So, why did I say 7 principles just like that? Because, it made me feel in control, on top of things, as if I know what I am talking about. To be absolutely honest, we make up a number of things in life out of thin air, and this is one of those things. But, this also gives me the first Principle - The Sense of Being in Control - of negotiation.

1. The Sense of Being in Control: I shall insist on being on the driver's seat in most of the negotiations, defining the agenda. Not that I am pushy - those who know me know that I am not. But, I never get to a negotiating table without having a feel for the other person at the other end of the table, without knowing their needs and desires, and without defining an agenda. So, whatever is the number of the items on the agenda - one, five, twenty - I would have a role in defining them. In situations where I was denied the privilege and an agenda was already set up for me, I shall still come prepared with my sense of priorities and try to sell this to the other people around the table.

2. The Sense of Power : A step from being in control is feeling that sense of power. Power as in power of controlling things as well as power of giving up. Some of my worst negotiation performances were under stress, when I had a gun - notionally - put on my head. I knew I was doing things wrong - I was too desperate to close the deal. After a while, though, I realized I could not continue that way and negotiated my way out of that position. How? I told myself that I do not need a job which takes away my intelligence and ability, and turned on the negotiating heat on my boss who was trying to put the gun on. I said he should fire me. He backed off, because he knew I was doing the right thing. I could at least negotiate better afterwards.

3. The Sense of the Detail: I have seen too many bad deals made, which looked perfect on the negotiation table. This was because the negotiations were hasty and bad. I always bring the details to the negotiation table and do not reach a conclusion unless all of those have been addressed. That makes me a painful negotiator sometimes, even a boring one. But I have suffered from not looking at the details earlier, and do not want to make the same mistakes ever again.

4. The Sense of Common Goal: I am primarily talking of the business negotiations here, but this could be true for any sort of negotiation: There is nothing to negotiate for if there are no common goals for both, or all, the parties. This is something which I focus on first - even before, or sometimes during or after, setting the agenda - what are the common goals we are negotiating for. This tells me whether the negotiation is worth my time and effort at all.

5. The Sense of Long Term: Some time it works against me, but most of the time it worked - to judge the long term effects of the deal right at the negotiation table. It can get difficult, but I have seen that it helps. I have been told how you can think long term when everything is so uncertain around you. But I disagree - I don't think long term thinking has anything to do with certainty in the environment. It is about finding the common threads which are likely to remain the same whatever is the environment. Like, human relationships or integrity. Commit to such principles as goals and you will start thinking long term; focus on how much cash return you will earn, and you are on the short term trap. The trick is to get the balance, and since short-termism is the lazy and the obvious option, the work is to get the long-term side of things right.

6. The Sense of Win-Win: I just talked about power. Negotiations are all about getting the power equation right, which essentially means, in your favour. But I don't think it should end there. You can get it right and win at the table, but I do not think it should end there. Once you have got things going in your favour, it is essential that you start asking - what does the other person get. Because if everyone's not winning, it will not be a successful negotiation. At least in business, where most such activities involve creating and enhancing value. So, think of getting power to be able to define the agenda and keep everyone fair and focused [and if you don't have the power, you will be kicked around and can not make an iota of difference], but power is not for value grab.

7. The Sense of Progress: I see negotiations thus: a meeting of minds from two opposing ends, which is necessitated by a common opportunity or crisis. So, I expect someone to set the agenda [to use philosophy, propose a thesis] and someone to disagree [dispose, or position an anti-thesis], and then go through a process of arguments and discourse to reach a better solution than either parties have proposed [synthesis]. I used the analogies from philosophy because in negotiation too, one must create value and achieve a sense of progress by the act of negotiation itself. There must be some progress, and the solution reached after the negotiation should be better than the two [or more] solutions that were on table before negotiations. So, some way, negotiations are not about winning or losing, but about achieving progress.

One may feel, after reading this post, that I am talking about rather obvious things. Besides, I have missed out on the usual tips people tend to focus on, the bio-mechanical techniques of negotiation like body language and opening and closing techniques. But, I have gone through the process of negotiation quite a few times and know that while those ideas are useful, they are quite distracting. The worst mistake you can do is to see a negotiation as an war. You would rather fight if you need to, but when on negotiation table, you are better off working together, not against, the other parties. I do think this gets missed a lot of times.

Monday, October 12, 2009

India's Urban Renewal

Every bit of statistic indicate India is making great economic progress, except in the look and feel of its cities. It is rather obvious in what one sees while the plane approaches to land in Shanghai, the glittering towers, or Dubai, the Desert trail melting into an always busy metropolis of tall buildings and shiny cars, and in Mumbai: Endless slums with blue tarpaulin. Then, once outside the airport, the hustle of bazzar; on the streets, the feel of swelling population and poverty, and chaos everywhere. Looking at this, every commentator wonders how India actually works. One marvels at the achievements of the Indian Industry and asks around how businesses could still function with the crumbling infrastructure. Non-resident Indians endlessly complain how nothing actually works as it should, and residents display a studied indifference or immense ingenuity to find ways around when they don't.

India was in the public imagination through two award winning attempts last year. Two stories of urban resilience - the Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire, where the hero comes from the same slums of Mumbai that we just referred to; and the other, Arvind Adiga's Booker winning White Tiger, a very different protagonist works in class- and caste-conscious Delhi, thriving in the world of power, influence and corruption. Two very different paths, one of succumbing to crime and getting on with the ways of life in urban India, the other of overcoming the easy options and finding a strange way to reach out to someone one has loved and lost, end poignantly. Love, life and enterprise win over the urban India, its squalor, corruption, injustice and prejudices. It is indeed a strange picture of India, not the one which surrenders passively to fate but wishes to carve its own path, not the one which seeks spiritual redemption amid misery, but one which is ready to slit someones throat [literally] and change the scripts of destiny.

This is indeed a different script from the great works about India of the past: the movies of Satyajit Ray and others, where the protagonists usually discovered beauty and faith within the endless frustrations of Indian life. But what has not changed is the urban landscape - one can find continuity in the slums, poverty, middlemen, policemen that take bribes and roads that are endlessly log-jammed, and the like. One finds the same answer that various commentators are trying to give to the question 'how does India at all work': It is the people. The same thing that business commentators say - Tarun Khanna recently commented that Chinese businesses are successful because of its government, and Indian businesses are successful in spite of the government. Nandan Nilkeni writes about how there is a vast difference between public and private efficiencies in India, and how that is apparent to any foreign visitor driving through the impossible chaos of the Hosur Road and then getting into the serene Infosys campus. One would also remember the scene from the recent movie about India's outsourcing industry, Outsourced, where the call centre gets flooded but still operates from the terrace. Everywhere, the story is of a country whose urban infrastructure is failing to keep pace with its aspirations and in desperate need of fixing.

To be fair, there is a lot of focus on urban infrastructure these days. It is the Government's top priority. There are significant investment outlays for each of the major cities. Almost all of India's airports are going through major expansion [which adds to the sense of chaos at this time] and going by the ones which have been completed, in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Cochin, the improvements are going to be significant. Each Indian city is planning to get some kind of Rapid Transit System - in fact, Mumbai is designed to get two rapid transit systems - years late, but most projects will be completed in the next couple of years. There are significant new ideas to improve sanitation, new plans to build low cost houses and new initiatives to push through political obstacles and get moving on the environment.

But, despite all this, meet anyone on the streets and ask about how things are going, and one notices a sign of pessimism about if things can ever change. Many people blame India's population and the fact that thousands of new people are coming into India's cities every day, looking for jobs, social mobility and a new way of life. The public infrastructure, the schools, hospitals and public parks in the cities have become dysfunctional under the pressure of population. Also, Indian cities keep expanding geographically under the weight of this population, they are forcing people out of their lands, creating a new army of the dispossessed and new pockets of crime and corruption. Gurgaon, a glittering city in the outskirts of Delhi, already tops the world in the rate of crime. Even the backward provincial Calcutta, which is moving slower than most other Indian cities, have recently witnessed unrest provoked by the clashes between the dispossessed farmers and land mafia, the strongmen whose sole business is to acquire land for urbanization.

Looking at this, one can wonder whether any urban renewal initiative is ever going to work. Isn't that climbing precisely the wrong tree, more out of hangover from our colonial past than current realities? The fact that development has to be connected with urbanization is as dated a concept as the efficacy of central planning. That's the prime time approach to development, in an age where development necessarily meant setting up factories which needed a huge number of people to live in close proximity and build a social eco-system in a small geographic area. That is surely past, now that one can build enterprises out of one's home, as long as connectivity and education are available.

So, one would ask - what do we really need as a nation? Is the solution to Mumbai slums lie in building low cost houses around the area, which will get rid of the squalor temporarily but will invite a million other homeless people into Mumbai, or is it to disperse the population by providing economic incentives to live in smaller clusters around the area? No doubt, at the current state of affairs, the money must go into policing, more hospitals, schools and rapid transit systems; but we must look into long term and build more smart villages, broadband backbone, road, sanitation and electricity access for all villages.

The problem with all our development attempts so far was that it was inevitably elitist and benefited only a small section of the population. This could be for a complex set of reasons, but not least because we were so fixated with our cities. We are only beginning to realize that Gandhi's vision of building an Independent India which is based on independent, prosperous villages was a brilliant idea, one ahead of its time but one firmly rooted in reality which escaped the social engineering trap of the soviet model, which so many developing countries walked into during that period. We are facing the reality now as we see that cities can not solve our problems: It can only compound them by leaving the villages disenfranchised and giving up vast lands to leftist extremism, and also, at the same time, burdening themselves with an endless pressure of mass migration. Yet, we are firmly stuck in our industrial mindset and the only solution we can think of is the urban renewal. It is indeed time that we bring a fresh perspective in the discussion and revisit some of the old ideas that we discarded without consideration.
I am deeply indebted to Sudhakar Ram, Chairman and MD of Mastek, because he stimulated the idea about the pointlessness of urban renewal while we discussed how various Industrial Age constructs continue to stifle our thinking.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Private Notes: Why I Write?

I have been writing this blog since October 2004. Yes, I have deleted all the posts prior to January 2006 - there weren't too many - when I decided to renew my blog writing efforts. Or, writing efforts, to be precise. I just read Julia Margaret Cameron and wanted to start writing 'morning pages', just to get into the practise of writing. However, despite her advise to keep the writing private, so that one is not conscious of what's being written but just goes with the flow, I chose to put my writing on public domain. Obviously, I hoped my efforts are going to be so obscure that no one is going to read it anyway, giving me the privacy of the morning pages along with the manageability of web based writing, and an opportunity to share some ideas with friends and colleagues when I have grown more confident.

I feel happy that I took such a decision because, since then, I have made about 430 posts, some private but mostly public. It feels good to look back at all that writing, which mostly are essays, but some autobiographical postings as well, which are very useful when, at times, I try to look back and signpost my life. I have got some visitors stumbling upon these pages. The rewards of this journey has been to make some friends with whom I share interests and ideas, something which could not have happened otherwise.

I have been asked by my colleagues how do I find time to write. Indeed, at least one of my employers deduced that since I find time to write the blog, a meaningless exercise, I definitely do not have work at hand. Others, more from family, complained that while I duck many family commitments, I am far more consistent in writing my blog, indicating that I am not being honest about how busy I actually am.

My consistent defence, so far, about blog writing as well as work, has been that it starts with love. If you love doing something, you always find time to do it. No matter whether you are tired or exhausted, whether you have time to pick up on some office gossip or understand the nuances of the invitee list of your sister's marriage, you still feel that you must write. Like one feels like walking, so to say. I would not draw parallels with eating and shaving, but I could have. Though these seem to be unavoidable activities, there is a certain amount of preference involved too - whether you have a sit-down lunch or a sandwich on the go, whether you shave every day or is it okay to skip a few days in between - and that preference turns the activity more like an act of habit than bare necessity. For me, this writing is a combination of love [like walking or reading] and habit [like shaving]. So, while it takes considerable time, the burden is not felt. More often than not, I am sleeping less and not talking too much when I choose to write.

Someone also commented that I don't get too many comments, so it must be difficult for me to keep writing. I have actually been given that feedback - that my writing is too verbose and complicated - to induce readers to leave feedback. I am not sure, though. I know that since I write about various things - technology, learning, education, culture, politics, India, diplomacy, books and even my own work frustrations - I am not having a consistent dialogue here. I am conscious that a couple of times earlier, I expressed my wishes to be more theme-orientated on this blog. It never worked, because the essential utility that this blog served in my life is that this was to be my scrapbook of ideas and reactions, a log of my life's journey more than anything else, and I felt powerless to change its fundamental nature without eliminating the earlier posts. Something I would not want to do anymore.

Back on the subject of being verbose, I think that's a question of style preference. I try to write closely argued essays, and often I am unprepared to make the whole case as my thoughts are work-in-progress. I do think that shows up in many places, arguments intertwined with thoughts and reflections. Again, I could not have changed that without altering the fundamental nature of the blog, and I chose to let it remain what it is, 'rambling', so to say, on the subjects I assumed is of great importance to me personally.

However, at the same time, since I have been writing for my own pleasure, I did not wait for reader feedback. Which I might, if I am trying some professional writing enterprise. But it would have been vain for me to expect people spend their time commenting on my off-time musings. I am not that self-obsessed yet.

But, while I did not care about being read, and was fairly careless about editing my own writing before hitting the publish button, I have this wonderful sense of being watched and supported by a wide, well-meaning community. That is indeed the power of the Internet. It is not the comments, but the silent readers, who only show up as numbers in a counter and sometimes connect up through emails or anonymous comments, who make the journey every bit worth it. I have reconnected back with friends through this blog and found new ones. I have discussed love, work and politics on these pages. I have found encouragement and forgiveness, opportunities and justifications, suggestions and foreboding - all part of being part of a wonderful community. In summary, the experience of my blog made me believe that there are far more good people out there than the bad ones, and outweighed my scepticism and made me a believer.

Afghanistan: A Necessary Choice

The Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to President Obama, was a distraction. The world's attention was focused on whether this is a just reward, given that the President, who assumed office on the 20th of January, had just 12 days work to show for it [when the nominations closed on the 1st of February]. The stated reason from the Nobel committee pointed to various initiatives and policy pronouncements by the President, including a clear commitment to nuclear disarmament and an intent to engage in Arab-Israeli conflict. The President himself was far more practical in his reaction and said that he was 'humbled' by the Prize and views this as a 'call to action'. It indeed seemed that President Obama had got the prize just for the act of winning the Presidency itself, which marked the pinnacle of achievement of Afro-American rights movement, which intensified in the last 40 years and became the Civil Rights movement in general. So, this prize is somewhat for the Barack Obama the symbol [one should not be surprised by this in an age when Marge Simpson has made it to the cover of Playboy]. To be fair, it is also for the Barack Obama the person, and the great hope he represents of healing the wounds caused by George W Bush's ideological wars. And, it is precisely at this point, Obama's job gets complicated, given the recent request by General Stanley McChrystal for more troops for Afghanistan.

So, imagine a President celebrating his Nobel Peace Prize in the Situations Room in the White House, weighing the options in the war in Afghanistan. We are at an interesting point in history, when even the American Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, admitted on CNN that the Taliban indeed has the momentum in Afghanistan. The Defence establishment in Washington has marshaled all their arguments in the support of an Iraq-style 'surge': that a withdrawal will be catastrophic and will aid to boost the confidence of the Global Jihadi movement; it will destabilize Pakistan and create an even greater danger for the region and the world at large; and, a withdrawal would look so much like the 1989, when Americans packed and left, and allowed a sense of betrayal take hold, which eventually culminated in 9/11.

While these arguments sound rather obvious, we have heard them before and the historical comparisons are actually less robust than they seem to be. In fact, the historical comparison with 1989 is exactly where the interventionist argument shows its true colour: It is currently engaged in a global semi-cold war with the Islamic Fundamentalism, and sees Afghanistan as the principal theatre where that needs to be played out. This isn't surprising, given that most policy-makers today learnt to see the world through cold-war goggles. But this is neither correct nor practical in the context of the current world.

The Americans decamped and left in 1989 not just because the Mujaheddin won in Afghanistan, but also because the Soviet army left and there was no chance of them coming back. The global Cold War was ending, and a new era of cooperation was dawning. It was a season of hope, then. Continuation of a war seemed wrong and unjust, and a continuing American presence had no global strategic importance. Besides, it is hard to see who would have felt betrayed at the time. The Mujaheddin won decisively and many of them were returning to their home country after a long period of exile, thanks mainly to a decade-long American effort. Afghans are one of the world's most freedom-loving people; it is hard to think that they wanted American guards to stand by while they were taking over their own country.

One points to the fact that the new Afghan administration was soon unravelled by corruption and internecine rivalry, but only the die-hard imperialists will reason that this happened because the Americans took the leave of absence. In fact, it will be more appropriate to say that the neighbouring countries, notably Pakistan, Iran and Uzbekistan, all jumped in to control the Afghan affairs, and backed their favourite war-lords to farther their own influences. The only people who could have failed betrayed by the American withdrawals were the Pakistani Military, whose access to cheap money and advanced weaponry considerably reduced after the Americans lost interest in the region. It is also interesting to note that it is they, who, while enjoying a temporary peace dividend with India in the 1990s, turned their full attention to Afghanistan, encouraged the Taliban militia to defeat, with their direct and logistical support, all the other warring factions, and took over Afghanistan. Pakistan, indeed, was only one of the few countries to recognize the Taliban government, and was one of their key collaborators in the world affairs. The reason we are choosing to forget this piece of history and assigning the responsibility of 9/11 on the American disengagement is because it is precisely the same interests, American and Pakistani Defence establishments, are making both the arguments: they reasoned Americans should leave, then; they are reasoning now that the Americans should stay.

It is not in America's interest to stay. Afghanistan is playing the same trick on them as it did for the Soviets. It is an unimaginably difficult territory to hold for unbelievably little strategic advantage. True, it used to be the centre-piece of a global imperial map in the Nineteenth century. It was the flash point between the Czarist Russia and the British empire in India, and was crucial for the British oil interests in Persia and Bahrain thereafter. But that was a long time ago, and the world's military configuration and balances have changed significantly since then. It was a combination of imperial hangover, a false sense of history and a cosy media-military collusion which makes Afghanistan feel as important in the context of the US Military strategy.

Besides, as Richard Haas was making a point on Fareed Zakaria GPS recently, it is a strange argument that one has to remain engaged in Afghanistan to keep Pakistan stable. First of all, Pakistan has more unstable than ever since the US troops walked into Afghanistan in 2002. And, this has nothing to do with the war in Afghanistan and has everything to do with the ruling elite in Pakistan. Pakistani establishment's long standing foreign policy is to cry wolf and keep the Americans variously engaged in supporting them with money and armament. The other part of the same stance is to refuse to be accountable. They wanted to keep inventing Global Cold War situations [and, indeed, create them] so that Americans hand out whatever they want and not question what they use those arms and money for.

It is therefore only fair that American administration today see this crisis as a Afpak problem, rather than a purely Afghan problem. However, there is a clear failure to understand the complexities of the Pakistani society and a tendency to relegate the issues as 'Pakistani Taliban' issues. The current American administration, which is trying hard to come out of the Bush-era ideological straight jacket, needs to make the distinctions on a more practical level and translate them into policy-making. It made no sense to go after Al Qaida and punish their sponsors, the Taliban government in Afghanistan, by bombing them out but also by funding and arming their principal patrons, the Pakistani Armed Forces and Intelligence establishments. Viewed in this context, it is not surprising that the Americans never got a clue where the key leaders of Al-Qaida went. They were indeed the most valuable assets Pakistanis hold, and they must remain at large for the Pakistani establishment to keep the US administration engaged and entertained.

So, in summary, the United States is currently waded itself into an Asian maze. Stanley McChrystal's solution is only near-sighted, and fails to take into account both the global priorities of America and ground realities of Afghanistan. Barack Obama may make the same mistakes as his predecessors, and the soviets and the British, by succumbing to the obvious and committing himself to more troops. But then, he may also realize that what happened in Iraq may not happen in Afghanistan. For a start, Iraq was far more down the road on nation-building than Afghanistan and had a far more manageable terrain; and more importantly, the promise of future in Iraq is clearer than to any Afghan at any time in history. President Obama may actually acknowledge that there is no hope of an US victory in Afghanistan in tangible terms; democratic nations tire of war far faster than a dispossessed people who has no other means of survival.

So, when a choice has to be made in Afghanistan, the United States may choose to do the unthinkable. Accept defeat - not of the US military, but of the US-centric view of the world - and call upon the powerful nations around the region, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, and create a 'coalition of the willing', not to fight the war but to build the peace. Of course, if such a situation ever arise, Pakistan will indeed be most unwilling to cooperate, and even it is arm-twisted to join, they may resort to double-deal this. This is a possibility one has to take into account and deal with, but Pakistan's choices would be far limited once China, Russia, India and Iran, all of which have competing interests, were called to cooperate. It is a hard choice for President Obama to make, but possibly only one which will lead to lasting peace as opposed to the lasting war. And, this is a choice only a Nobel Peace Prize winner can only contemplate.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Five Reasons Why Command-and-Control Learning May Not Work

After I wrote the rather 'autobiographical' note on how I got frustrated in my efforts to establish an open learning-orientated environment in a training organization, which, I reasoned, would have triggered culture change and resulted in greater commitment and team work, I was reminded by some of the readers that I have not explained fully why I think command-and-control learning is such a bad thing. Yet others reminded me that corporate learning can not happen in a cafeteria format, and companies do not pay for learning to educate people but to get the job done. So, they reasoned, the companies must focus the learning efforts of an individual on what they need, rather than on the whims and fancies of the individual employees. In summary, they suggested the opposite conclusion from my own: the pendulum actually is swinging away from my own, learner-directed learning end.

I think I made one mistake in my previous post. I stated that I do not like command-and-control systems at all, and hence dislike such approaches to learning. But that was my heart speaking. But this should not take away anything from the rationale why a 'social', peer- and learner-driven learning environment is better than directed training environments. Here are 10 top reasons why such a shift is inevitable.

(1) Because the nature of work is shifting. Daniel Pink makes the point in his brilliant 'A Whole New Mind' - work is not what it used to be. He points out that three factors - abundance, asia and automation - are changing the nature of work and skill requirements across the world. So, anything that could be automated and/or outsourced, will be automated and/or outsourced, and with affluence, the customer expectations will rise beyond the basics and they would start expecting us to add value at every interaction. Us here is all our front-line staff, who take their calls or meet them at the door. And, in the context of this rapid shift, we, the managers or the training experts, do not really know what's needed. We have to let everyone think for themselves.

(2) Because, it is rather an old theory Chris Argyris propagated, people usually work at their lowest level of competence and motivation in an autocratic organization. One would work just as much to keep getting their salaries. Similarly, they will learn just as much to keep their jobs. And, as Professor Argyris pointed out, they will seek their meaning of life, involvement and commitment outside work. That's not what we want; do we?

(3) Because, it is not enough to do today's job well, but to prepare for tomorrow. The organizations which are too transaction focused, indeed the one I referred to earlier was very much so, tend to become a victim of changing circumstances. And, as I discussed, even being a government contractor is no longer a stable business. So, in that kind of setting, how could a manager possibly know what's best for their staff?

(4) Because, in the current world, the responsibility of learning needs to shift to staff. The companies can neither tell them what to learn, nor it can bear the responsibility of their learning. Like, they are unwilling to take the responsibility of their livelihood, they need to shed the responsibility of their learning and moving forward. Yet, one can not make learning redundant. And, hence, one must create a culture to induce people to learn, rather than pushing them into it.

(5) Because, technology makes it easy to facilitate learning and yet keep a handle on what's going on. Consider this to be a self-service environment of learning, where one can control the inducements and keep a track of consumption real time. Without that, the self-service may not have been possible or would have resulted in spiralling costs.

What I think will happen is that a continuous movement towards Social Learning, where learners do not only learn by themselves, but they will collaborate in and across groups, tell the organization what they need to learn and even create materials and resources to share across the network. This will create tremendous opportunities for the organizations, and a different set of challenges, including those related to copyright laws etc. However, one must remember that laws must be created to keep the world functioning, and the world should not stop functioning the way it should because of some law.

So, I remain confident that we shall be moving towards more self-directed learning, not less.

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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

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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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