Sunday, February 28, 2010

Why is David Cameron losing it?

In a few hours, David Cameron will deliver a make-or-break speech in Brighton to the Conservative Party faithfuls. It is ironic to note how political cycles run: Only a few months ago, we talked about Gordon Brown fighting for his political life in the run up to his speech to labour party faithfuls in Brighton. The world seems to be coming a full circle.

If opinion polls are any indication, this election seems to be slipping away from Cameron's grips. Oddly, the news from Downing Street has only got worse, but still, it seems, the British public is steadily started giving Mr Brown the benefit of doubt. Conservatives are already sounding defeatist, and talk of a hung parliament and the dangers of indecision that brings is the best they can talk about. If such an eventuality does happen, or as Sunday Times is predicting, Gordon Brown can manage to form a minority government, it will certainly destroy the conservative party with some finality.

One can account for such shifting of allegiance in the light of the great love for underdogs Britain always displayed. However, in a way, the Conservative Party has been a perennial underdog for quite some time. They seem to be being beaten by Gordon Brown in their own game now.

Besides, in the light of the recent controversies about bullying, and the accounts of conflicts with Tony Blair reported with vivid imagination, Gordon Brown's public persona as a fighting man, odd but solid, has only been reconfirmed. The more people point fingers at him, the more he appears to be an underdog, fighting against an array of well-heeled adversaries and not giving up. Gordon Brown, in his latest Avatar, appear Churchillian, though gifted with none of his oratorical qualities, but somewhat the same out-of-date, yet solid and lovable rogue. At times like this, people of Britain surely wants a solid man, who is fighting side by side with them, rather than a bunch of Etonians doing smooth talk on television.

However, despite Gordon Brown's bounce, this is still an election for David Cameron's to lose. He started off with huge advantages, and received a lot of help along the way from labour's fratricidal tendencies. Yet, he seemed to have failed - by his own admission - to convey his message. What caused such a colossal failure, at least upto this point of time?

I guess there are three interlinked factors that are working against David Cameron.

First, he had no message. That's the truth. He, true to his PR and communication background, believed in the meaninglessness of the message. That is quite true, going by the popularity of the trash TV and the earlier success of Blair's Spin Doctors, but the current recession has put politics firmly back in the spotlight. Also, David Cameron was trying to push the Conservative Party to the Centre, and the Centrist position is already quite crowded because all parties, New Labour as well as the Lib Dems, are jostling for space there. Cameron's conservatives were bound to appear as a bunch of Public School boys trying to dress themselves as common men. They were bound to get lost, except for their stiffness.

Second, the stiffness. However much the conservatives move to the centre, their stiffness and disconnect with modern Britain still remains unmistakable. Remember the MP's claims for the duck-house? That image would outlast the scandal itself. Besides, all these slush funds, an offshore billionaire as Party's fundraiser, the cosiness with Russian Oligarchs, these are true Conservative symptoms, and in this regard, Lord Mandelson and his clan are pretenders in turn. This is really so far away from the realities of Modern Britain. All that fine oratory in the parliament, political correctness of the statements, suitable vagueness of policies and a paternalistic attitude towards the people of Britain are so last century, so distant. Conservatives preach family to children who idolizes John Terry and read OK!, and sing mantras of savings to the benefit generation. Conservatives depend on Newspapers to carry them to victory, when they are so irretrievably dead themselves. Their only scoring point: they talk against the bureaucrats; but then, Gordon Brown, as we know now, bullies bureaucrats, abuses them physically and shouts at them all the time. That should surely please Conservatives.

Third, Conservatives offer no hope. This is what people want now: Hope. Britain appears in terminal decline, whatever the newspapers or the leaders may think or say. It is struggling for its place in the world after America voted Obama in, and he seems to prefer a more multilateral approach than his predecessors. It is likely to run a huge deficit, and with its politically mandated closing of gates on immigration, cutting of funding to universities and scrapping of incentives for enterprise and innovation, it is likely that it will soon lose the competitive edge it held in the creative industries. The seat of Finance is going to shift to the East, with all the money in China and India. One is looking at a pretty dispiriting, long term picture here, and the wait for the last man to leave the British Isles and switching off the lights seems to be on. At this time, what one needs is a messenger of hope, who stands up and says - we shall not go down - and offers a fresh agenda for the British people. Strangely, no one seems to be doing that. But, then, Gordon Brown is at least showing the spirit and seems to have some conviction in his own ideas, while David Cameron and the conservatives have none.

To illustrate how off-message the conservatives are, they are proposing to come to office with a huge deficit staring at their face, and the first solid idea [and subsequent flip-flops] they offer about their 'emergency' budget is a corporate tax cut! This is what it means: We are in for tougher times and everyone must tighten their belts, but hey, businesses should keep an extra 2% of their profits. They are struggling to explain how they will account for this tax cut financially, suggesting that they will withdraw some of the business tax exemptions linked to business investment to fund the tax cuts. Read closely and you see a policy pattern: Let's have less manufacturing capacity and more 'pure' businesses, like banking. This is not the vision that ordinary Briton, who wants a job, would easily agree with.

It may all change again between now and 6th of May. But what may not change is the fundamental disconnect that Conservatives suffer from reality. They may manage to come to power and wreck Britain's future, but David Cameron, surely, has plundered his chances to create a new agenda for Britain's future.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Danish Newspaper Apologises For Printing of Cartoons

Adding a fresh twist to the Sensitivity versus Freedom of Speech debate, the Danish newspaper Politiken, which published the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad with bomb-shaped turban and the like, apologised for any offences it may have caused. In fact, the apology comes after it has reprinted one of the cartoons, originally published in 2006 by another newspaper, after an attempt was made on the life of Kurt Westergaard, the cartoonist.

The newspaper which originally printed the cartoons, Jyllands-Posten, criticized Politiken's apology, calling it a 'pathetic prostrating in front of a Saudi Lawyer' which deserves 'the first prize in stupidity'. Kurt Westergaard called it 'a setback for the freedom of speech' and the Danish Union of Journalists called the move 'kneeling before the opponents of the freedom of speech'. Such criticism comes despite the fact that Jyllands-Posten itself apologised for printing the cartoons back in 2006, and the opponents of the freedom of speech being referred to here are none but a few lawyers.

This opens up, yet again, the debate of cultural sensitivity versus the freedom of speech, and the role of newspapers in general. Being a blogger, I obviously thrive on the freedom of speech, and would not like any infringement on my rights to say things. However, even in this blog, which is only scarcely read, I am conscious enough about the sensibilities of my readers and my responsibility as a publisher, even to such a limited audience. I shall not, for example, write about how to commit suicide, even if I come across some material, because I believe the responsibility towards the wider society transcends the mere individual freedom of speech.

Now, unquestioning acceptance of such responsibility may thwart attempts of all change, and undermine the quest of justice and fairness I hold so dear, because social norms will always demand preservation of status quo and will not allow anyone to rock the boat. But, assumption of responsibility is not about conformance; it is essentially about judgement that every individual should exercise. In fact, I would argue that development of such judgement is an essential professional responsibility of any publisher. Bloggers are a far more diffused, diverse community, yet they must show some responsibility towards their audience; and a newspaper, which is a professionalized trade, needs a far higher level of judgement than the bloggers.

From this point of view, I do think while publishing of the cartoons may have been perfectly within the tenets of freedom of speech, publishing them may have been culturally insensitive and therefore, of poor judgement. And, even if the first such effort can be passed on as a mistake due to lack of cultural understanding, reprinting them, after they have seen to be causing so much offence, was anyway an act of sensationalizing the issue. Thus, I do think an apology was in order, and I do not see why Politiken apology is drawing so much criticism.

Except of course the fact that the Europeans drifted further apart from Middle Eastern sensitivities in the last four years. I do think they have, and the current recession, the failure in the twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the apparent ascendancy of Asian powers, have made Europe look inward. One can clearly see the rise of racial intolerance on the streets, and the civil society is reluctantly accepting the ideas of conservatism and searching for elusive 'British', 'French', 'Italian' ways of life. Europe as a liberal melting pot is giving way to the idea of Europe as an aging, standstill society, which must preach to the world toleration but will not tolerate variations itself.

The whole cartoon debate, ironically, comes just after Libya's Colonel Quaddafi declared a holy war on Switzerland. The primary reason why he was furious is because the Swiss has banned minarets being built, in order to preserve their national identity. The Swiss are, of course, following the French who have first banned headscarves, and now imposed a fine on anyone wearing a burkha in public. In the European conception of reality, the states banning things are on the side of freedom of speech though; they are just preserving their cultural sensitivities. However, the rules are different for non-europeans, who must comply to euro-centric values, and tolerate just anything Europeans throw at them.

It seemed that many people in Europe wonders why Muslims feel so offended with these cartoons, without appreciating the fact that this is exactly the type of religious stereotyping, which fuelled anti-semitism at the beginning of last century, with disastrous consequences. The cartoons of Jews as blood-suckers, made with the same sense of freedom of speech, were taken as harmless jokes, without appreciating the offence it would have caused. European society, since then, became even more isolated from the world as it hid itself within its own Euro-centric conception of the world, while everyone else started discovering their identities afresh and started seeing history and culture with new eyes. This is not a clash of civilization as people conceive it to be; it is just the failure of European liberals a more diverse world, where many different conceptions of freedom and justice are possible. And, in this case, it is the European liberals who appear humourless and fail to appreciate the irony of the connection between French banning of headscarves and Saudi anger at the cartoons.

And, before we end, a note on the Clash of Civilizations, which is perceived to be the reason behind so much fuss. I must admit that I do not believe in the clash of civilizations theory, which is so popular in Europe. I do not think the British Muslims I know are any less British than the British Catholics, or for that matter, British Hindus. I thought the separation of the Church and the state has happened a long time back in Europe, and do not see any reason why that needs to be brought back. Besides, my friends in Dubai, Egypt and elsewhere in Middle East and South Asia, are just as tolerant, educated and decent as anyone in Europe. As Amartya Sen observed, I do not see their religious identity dominating the other facets of their identity, and much less becoming a civilization identity. In fact, the media's tendency to see the world in terms of competing civilizations is a reality that they are trying to create, rather than reflect on. And, this curious linking up of culturally insensitive cartoons with the idea of freedom of speech shows that attempt once again.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Education 2.0: What About The Teacher?

I have written about University model changing significantly and morphing into an User Network model, more akin to a library, where learners learn from each other. The reason behind imagining such transformation has obviously been the availability of technological options, and the social trends and imperatives of Lifelong Learning. One criticism I have received of such a visualization is that it pushes the teacher out of the equation, making her extinct and letting Learning Technologist take her place, or at least de-professionalizing teaching into some kind of technology assistant.

First of all, I accept the criticism as valid. In my enthusiasm in writing about the universities as user networks, I almost forgot about teaching, not mentioning this at all. This, however, came from my own background and bias, because my engagement with education was mostly from the administrative and business perspective, rather than teaching itself. Being largely self-taught, it was rather obvious for me to adopt an overtly constructivist position, where learners need some kind of mechanical guidance to put their knowledge in perspective to become educated. It is indeed rather important for me to acknowledge the bias and address it cogently.

The more I think about it, I know that teaching as a profession will not become extinct with the advent of modern learning technologies; if anything, it will become more important. However, teaching as a profession as experienced now will become largely irrelevant, even disruptive, in facilitation of learning in the lifelong learning and technology facilitated learning sector.

Let me explain. Teaching is professional work, and it is a mistake to undermine its necessity. I forgot to mention the teacher, however, because the current social technologies are mostly about democratization of power relationships and social construction of knowledge, and one way, teacher dominated classrooms are wholly in-congruent with such a concept. From this perspective, teaching is an element of oppression, a method of perpetuating the existing power equations, which hinder, rather than help, learning in the age of universal availability of knowledge resources.

However, as one of my teachers, Sue Cross, very coherently argued in her recent book, Adult Teaching and Learning, the learner-centric/ teacher-centric paradigms of education are better seen as a dualism, where two perspectives are equally possible, rather than a dialectic, where one or the other must prevail. She also points out that in certain circumstances, like driving instruction or a physical activity like Scuba Diving, it is best to follow the teacher rather than letting the learners experiment, which can lead to disaster. And, it is possible to see why, in the age of Google, learners are more likely to lose way than not, without the professional guidance of a teacher. It is wholly plausible to argue that self-teaching was far more practical in the age before Google, and teaching plays a critical, if different, part today in guiding the social construction of knowledge.

So, looking closely, there are two elements of the teaching profession that must somehow be de-linked. The first is the power perspective, which must evolve with age and become more democratic with more and more adult learners returning to education and technology facilitating a more levelled classroom setting. However, while the power issue is intrinsically linked to professionalization of training, it is not one and the same. I would argue a professional teacher operates with a more democratic, nearly sublime, assumption of power, which passes off under the label 'respect'. It is still professional teaching, but essentially constructed upon the learners' deference to the teachers' professional abilities rather than her professional title.

Of course, the power relationships are nowhere more apparent than in the assessment of learning. Here, a learner may justifiably feel that she is left to the teacher's mercy, especially in humanities and other similar areas, where so many alternative approaches could be equally plausible. Social requirements, particularly arising out of social funding of education, makes learner centric assessment completely out of question, and here, the teacher, more accurately, respective association of teachers, assumes a supreme power. This is the sort of bureaucratic power the modern technologies are assumed to destroy, and this is the sort of oppressive power of teaching profession that so many people argue against. There is also something self-defeatist about the system of peer review as implied in the usual systems of assessment, and one would imagine a number of innovations will take place in this area over the coming years.

To address the issue of assessment further, one would see the key role of assessment as one of measurement of social utility of the learning activity, particularly relevant when a social funding of learning is availed. The perspective, one can see, is self-evidently oppressive, and an element of conformance is demanded in the very nature of this activity. It is wholly implausible that a society would want to fund learning which will be directed against its own structure, and therefore, it must build a power structure, through the practise of teaching and imposed through a system of assessment and recognition, which must be aimed at preservation of existing social norms. This is exactly where the modern technology creates the tension: It makes some of the existing social norms untenable, and the information about non-conforming practises accessible. It helps expand the perspectives available to the learners, and invariably includes perspectives not certified by the society, and its teachers.

What I shall argue here is obvious: technology always wins. Marx observed the tensions between the means of production (technologies) and the relationships of production (social norms), and described how technology can progress independently outside the social sanctions, and eventually help shape the society itself. This is exactly what is happening in education. Here, teacher as a professional remains as relevant as ever, but the teacher as a preserver of status quo is swimming against the tide. I am arguing that the profession of teaching will not become irrelevant, but it will not remain the same. And, on that note, I would think I am on the same page with those who criticized my visualizations of a teacher-less world.

Education 2.0: Universities as User Networks

The more I think about it, I become more convinced that universities have already started morphing into the User Network model, adopting the role of a guide and mentor to the seekers of knowledge, rather than trying to be the fountainhead of knowledge creation. One may as well argue some of the best research and innovation come out of universities. This is indeed true, and in that function, universities create knowledge. And, I see the universities concentrating more on research function, while morphing their teaching function into a technology-facilitated user network form.

This does not happen today as the universities are expected to meet their social obligations through the performance of the teaching function. The economics of an university is dependent on dispensing education, and research is mostly an area where universities incur costs. The government policy expects the universities to produce a certain number of graduates, in line with the needs of the employers as well as the needs of the community the university functions inside.

However, we are already stretching the model as far as possible. Particularly in the universities in Europe, the finances are stretched and the model is failing its responsibility at both ends, leaving significant financial holes as well as creating ever larger, not so balanced classes. The universities have already started combating this challenge by innovating new courses and formats, and many of these new, irregular, courses are aimed at professional learners and leverage the resources available both inside and outside the university. The universities work as the provider of framework for learning, and common benchmarks and assessment mechanisms, but not much else. Most of the learning is expected to happen in the context of learner's own environment, in the context of practise as one may say, and there is an increasing emphasis on creating shared learning environments, where the learners can bring their experiences together to achieve distillation of the available knowledge. One may argue that the university is still following a process, which is correct. But, the point to note is that we are not talking about a void in terms of process; the whole point of the shifting business model is that the VALUE resides in the NETWORK rather than inside the PROCESS.

Now, given that someone has to pay Professor's salary and the bills, the question is whether one can monetize such facilitated networks. It is interesting such questions are even raised, because we already have established commercial models how Facilitated User Networks can be monetized. Looking at telecom and banking industries, one may see that users pay for three different kinds of privileges, Membership/Participation, Access and Events. Membership is about the basic fact of being part of the community, and users choose to pay a fee just because there are certain values attached to such membership. Access to services, usually over and above the basic membership services, are charged for. And, then, there are Events, like an overdraft in case of a bank, and a tune download in case of a telecom provider, where users pay a charge.

I would argue that as and when universities morph into User Networks, their charging model will change to include all three components. People will pay to be part of the community, they will pay to access learning resources and they will pay for events and facilities around the process of learning. Not very different from what happens today, indeed; but we shall need a new paradigm to think of students as members and build and present a new service package accordingly.

Much of this will not sound revolutionary, and it is not. The practises already exist, and the examples can be drawn from across the board [from Gentleman's Clubs and/or Professional Associations]. New innovation in education has always been difficult, given that it is politically sensitive, reigned in by vested interests and the cost of a mistake is significantly high and irreversible. However, we are at a time when there is a broad consensus, across the countries and spectrum of opinion, that something needs to change in the way education is done. It sure seems that change, incremental or disruptive, will now surely come.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Education 2.0: How The Education Business Model Would Change

I am preparing to write the Open College idea down over the Christmas holidays and hence, doing some reading and review of ideas. There could not have been a better place to start the journey than Clayton Christensen's DISRUPTING CLASS [with Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson], where the effect of disruptive innovation on how education is delivered has been examined.

The book is full of concepts about disruptive innovation and how they are brought to market, and a connecting fable which lets us understand the possibilities and challenges of technology introduction to the market. There are some rather disconnected, but useful stand-alone sections, on Pre-school education and Educational Research for example, but overall the book is a good read and stimulating for anyone interested in the business of education.

The point of this post, of course, is not the book, but an idea contained therein, which requires closer examination in the context of the open college project. This is the idea about three types of generic business models and how the business model for education, particularly schools, may change with the disruptive introduction of technology in the classroom.

The three types of business models following the framework developed by Professors Oystein Fjeldstad and Charles Stabell are the following: Solution Shops, Value Chains and Facilitated User Networks.

The Solution Shops are professional teams put together to solve problems, like high end consulting, legal and advertising firms, which employ highly trained people to identify problems and recommend solution. The value, in this business model, reside largely IN the people who work for these organizations. The organization operates with little or no standardized processes, as each client problem can be unique and may need a special solution. Corporate Training firms mostly function as solution shops, though the tendencies are to gravitate towards another business model [we will come to that in a moment].

The Value Chain business, such as manufacturing, retailing and food service businesses, is about taking an input and add value through the processes that they have, and finally engaging with the end consumer with the value-added product. This is the most common business model in existence, and one can see this in the way schools and colleges are run. The value in this type of business model resides in the processes. People here are not as important to these businesses as in Solution Shops and strong, standardized processes are the hallmark of a successful Value Chain business. It is not difficult to see schools and colleges in this mould: students come at the beginning of the year, value is added to them through standardized teaching and assessment, and finally they go out to a higher class with the added-value capabilities at their disposal.

The Facilitated User Network is where customers exchange with each other, through direct or indirect processes. Telecom businesses are great example of this type of business model: customers talk and share information with each other using the network. So is Insurance, where premiums are paid to and drawn from a pool. Banking too is a sort of network, where saving is converted to investment. Participation in the network may not by itself a profit-making activity, but facilitating the network is. The value, in this kind of business model, reside in the network rather than the product or the participants.

Now, education as a value chain business is working fine, but this is inherently limited in its capacity to educate people. Three reasons:

(A) The business model tends to be biased towards high value, high volume courses and do not sufficiently attend to the individual preferences and requirements. This become crucial in higher education, because the society can gain much more by training individuals with the right skills and making them do what they are really interested in.

(B) Research shows that individuals may have learning preferences, the way they learn best. In a value chain business, one can allow little variation - expressed in Henry Ford's maxim 'you can have a car in any colour as long as it is black' - and though we have made significant progress in logistics management and production technology, it has proved significantly more difficult to accommodate a number of learning styles in education. The popular solution, so far, was to combine different methods together, hoping that one of the parallel learning methods will work. But, this means more work for the learners, fatter textbooks and a more daunting classroom for all.

(C) Various educational thinkers objected to the Prescriptive nature of traditional school or college education. The key problem was that standard value chain education is process driven and the focus, during the delivery of education, remains on the integrity of the processes rather than inventiveness of individual pupils. By design, inventiveness is disruptive in the context of a value chain and is strongly discouraged.

These three reasons make the standard education processes quite out of sync with the emerging demands of the students. The students who will enter college now would have all used a mobile phone, a digital camera and a computer for a number of years already. A large number of them, across the world, will have a facebook [or on some other similar network] profile, friends who are geographically distant and experiences of digital music and movies. In short, many of them are exposed to the Internet-facilitated world of long tail, of ideas, identities and aspirations. The one-size-fits-all college will increasingly be an anomaly to them, and value-chain education will become counter-productive. They will want to have learning, specific and specially useful, to fit their own curiosities. A standard education system with its tutoring and processes will make more and more students disconnect with education, and increasingly, from life.

I keep hearing complaints from tutors about bad behaviour by the students. The milder offences are about using mobile phones, texting most commonly but increasingly email, while the class is on. With computer-aided classes, there is always the case of facebook and chat while the tutor was explaining how to do a standard car maintenance check. The more troubling ones are about showing disrespect, physically threatening or even abusing the teachers and general misconduct with peers and tutors. The system of education is plagued by such problems, but forcing a student out of class or using the standard disciplinary methods are solving very few problems. While I do not see a magic solution to the bad behaviour, I do think a renewed effort must be made to connect the students back in education, which can only be done by connecting education back to the realities of life.

This is where we see the possibility of education morphing into, admittedly over a period of time, into the Facilitated User Network model from its current value chain form. This is increasingly because the standard processes and assessments are becoming out of sync with a more individualized world.

One can almost say that we are at a point of liberation from the tyranny of statistics, and a return to personal, experience-based education, which was the preserve of the few in years past, seems imminent. However, because democratic societies will not tolerate education as a special privilege [but that's what it is increasingly becoming, and bad education is indeed worse than no education], one must find a way to connect education to life for everyone, and this could be done today with the help of technology.

I think the big leap in education in the Western societies came through its excellent network of public libraries, a sort of facilitated user network of sorts [where the potential of library is fully leveraged and various interest groups organized]. These provide an excellent model of public education. This is no utopia as the benefits of such a network are already in evidence in many societies, though admittedly, one needs a different, technology-mediated framework which nudges people to the right direction and keep the network going. This is possibly the only solution to create an individualized, close to life experiences education system, which can reach a great number of people, and can offer access with fairness.

Of course, this is almost saying that the universities will become extinct and libraries will take their place. I would argue that such a shift is already happening. There is a shift in the priorities of knowledge acquisition, which is increasingly about the ability to put knowledge in context rather than finding and memorizing information, and hence, libraries, of various kinds, are becoming at least as important as the classroom. However, libraries do lack engagement protocols [to borrow a term from telecom] and this needs to be created in order to achieve the educational output that the society will require. So, we are almost talking about a vast repository of material, electronic or otherwise, which is accessed by people who connect with each other, and are guided by each other to distinct pieces of materials, case examples and previous work by peers. They are nudged by few mentors in the right direction when they need it, and increasingly educated by their peers and others who are able to give them suggestions on what and how to study. This format of education will not only connect to life, it will happen within life itself.

Israel and The International Order

No country in the world can dare to behave like Israel, not even North Korea. When we lampoon Iran for violations of International Law, we talk about Israel's ability to go and strike within the sovereign Iranian territory at the same time. When we condemn human rights abuses by Burma, we gloss over the fact that Israelis can literally bulldoze homes and people, and also anyone, like Rachel Corrie, who comes in between. We invade countries to stop them from using weapons of mass destruction, but turn a blind eye when Israel uses deadly chemicals on, of all places, UN offices. We are just embarrassed when Israel copies our passports, steals our identities and go across the national borders to carry out political assassinations. We put sanctions against Iran for developing nuclear centrifuges, but keep mum about the Israeli weapons.

If the usual standards were applied, Israel would be world's biggest and most consistent state sponsor of terrorism, the largest arms smuggler, the worst violator of human rights and a genocidal state based on the principle of religious intolerance. But, then, usual standards do not apply to Israel.

One wonders what the reason could be. It is difficult to accept the god-given rights to his chosen people to bring misery to everyone else; that puts the God himself in disrepute. Jews suffered horrible treatment in the hands of successive European monarchs and finally Hitler; while that may earn them some sympathy, that does not give them the rights to violate everyone else's security, dignity and ways of life. They are indeed America's chosen people and agents in a very strategic region, but in this age of popular awakening and democratic governance, that position is increasingly linked to the preservation of principles, and not aligned with unilateral displays of power. In fact, one could argue that Isreal's behaviour as a state is the biggest problem of the existing world order, and unless they are made to behave by the international community, we shall soon see a crumbling of the world as we know it and emergence of something very different.

I am making such apocalyptic statements because I am horrified, like most people around the world, with the general callousness and insensitivity that Israel displays in most matters. They preach universal principles to everyone else, and then behave in the most abhorrent manner when it comes to rights and dignity of other nationalities. They do not mind forging passports, invading territories, using banned weapons, bombing schools, bulldozing homes, raping women and children, fencing of an entire population. They have dislocated and dehumanized an entire population for more than six decades, and spun stories about their own prosecutions through movies, books and guided tours.

Previously, when I got deeply affected by the terrorist attack on Mumbai's Nariman House, I remember some of my Muslim friends taunting me for my apparent anger: They being decent, non-violent people, I was surprised by their lack of appreciation of the human tragedy. I am beginning to understand why they were so unconcerned only after following the news of the murder of the Hamas leader in Dubai, and the unconcernedness of Israel with the collective uproar around the world. They have undermined all principles of civilized behaviour for such a long time now that it does not matter anymore; which, in a way, explains my friends' complete lack of appreciation of the tragedy of a little, innocent, Jewish boy who had to lose both his parents for no reason.

It is time to call for a worldwide campaign to educate everyone about the horrors of the Israeli occupation and the administration's apparent lack of decency and appreciation of any rules of behaviour. An international museum for the Genocide in Gaza is quite in order, though one knows that no Western government would ever want to host the same. However, it is time they wake up and see that unless Isreali government is reigned in, the world will spin out of the control of the Western financiers who called the shots for so many years. They should feel that people in Oppressed countries are waking up to the universal horrors of Israeli actions, and this undermines all the hypocracy about human rights and democracy that Americans heap on the world.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Sense of Entitlement: The Enduring Legacy of Tiger Woods Affair

Tiger Woods has finally addressed the TV Camera and said sorry. No questions were allowed and the whole Press Event was a tightly managed affair, but it was still something which opened up the possibilities of his redemption. It will hopefully stop the circus in the media, all the digging of details and speculations more sordid than facts, and the act of saying sorry will start the process of atonement of this very talented individual.

Whether it is right or wrong to let him get away with what he has done is a question for his family and it is best left at that. Those who ponder the moral aspects of allowing a very talented and very wealthy man to use a carefully orchestrated show of penitence to gloss over his past misdeeds, will have a lot to debate on. Yes, it may have been a carefully scripted statement by an army of PR specialists, but that does not take anything away from the pain of standing in the public view saying sorry for private affairs. It may all be a charade, but still saying sorry is saying sorry and digging deeper to understand how sincere it was may actually be a waste of time. The key question for all this morality angle is, interestingly, the question of entitlement, a point made by Tiger Woods himself.

Despite the media focus on what happens next, the implications of this affair is not about whether or not Mr Woods reconcile with his wife and return to Golf; those are matters for his family and the administrators of the game. These are valid questions, no doubt, but mean little to those who are not directly related and do not play or manage the game. That will include most of the people following details of the affair, including those youngsters which Tiger Woods spoken about and said sorry to, those who idolize him and see his success and talent as a model of achievement and behaviour.

From this point, as from the point of view of the morality debate, the entitlement issue raised by Tiger Woods resonates with relevance. He said he grew a sense of entitlement, a sense that normal rules that apply to others will not apply to him, because of his success, his wealth and his talents. This is the central point in all the moralist view still - whether he is being allowed to get away. And, indeed, this is a point to ponder for rest of us, because we are all guilty, on our own little world, of behaving with a sense of entitlement, whether it is about little indulgences or bank robberies.

I am certainly guilty of my sense of entitlement, when I expect various things to be done for me or when I flaunt my status, ability to spend money or the fact that I am a developed country resident and expect other people to do certain things for me which they would not do otherwise. I have lately become conscious of this behaviour, but I must admit watching the statement of Tiger Woods on BBC had a 'that's it' effect on me. I did not equate myself with his success or wealth, obviously. But the sense of entitlement is not about its scale, but the very fact itself - that we all, as individuals, treat ourselves as exceptional and believe that normal rules will not apply to us.

I would argue that true good deeds come out of shading the sense of entitlement and almost all the acts which are considered to be sins in conventional morality are steeped in the sense of entitlement by private individuals. For example, let's talk about prostitution and those who pay for sex. As I write this, I am sitting in a Manila hotel and if I walk about, it is the all too evident and all too available. Now one, when paying for sex, possibly argues to himself that he is doing it because he can - he has the money and the woman involved is ready to go any length for the money - and the usual norms of morality does not apply. Rather, because of a social acceptance of the consent based on free will, the question of prostitution has turned into a question of freedom rather than of morality.

We can indulge on various forms of this debate. One can possibly say that prostitution is an useful social institution that helps keep marriages intact. Those who are unfamiliar with this argument may as well pay heed to what some of the apologists of polygamy say: That men are usually polygamous and it is best to allow them to have multiple wives rather than paying for sex. Another extreme moral argument for prostitution is that paying for sex usually allow people to avoid emotional entanglements that invariably comes with it. In all these arguments, of course, one can see that money is being flaunted as an acceptable alternative to marital responsibility or emotional entanglement. The whole moral construct is based on the reductionist ability of money to translate human emotions and attachments into a more tangible form of transaction, and thus endowing the owner of money a free reign on human needs and a sense of entitlement outside the realm of human sensibilities.

One can take this debate further and say that nationalities and skin colour usually takes the place of money because they also have the power to change other's responses. One can look at the Koreans or the Japanese in the Philippines, and see that their behaviour, originating from the fact that they have a stronger currency and more money, has now morphed into a sense of national entitlement: Best girls, best cars, best houses and better treatment than the natives. Unfortunately, American and British tourists have also earned themselves a name for being entitlement centric, they are usually seen to demand things played to their 'home' sensibilities wherever they go in the world [I must say that I know many decent Americans and Britishers, and I don't mean to stereotype here; however, this is a comment on a real public perception, coming out of real experiences all over the world]. The same could also be said about our engagement with the nature, and this particularly perverse logic that Bush Administration used about not hurting the lifestyle of Americans to justify their non-participation in Global Climate change initiatives. To be fair, the same sense is being seen in the attitude of countries like China and India today, a sense that they should be excluded from Global efforts on Climate Change, just because they are powerful industrializing countries.

I would conclude that shading of one's sense of entitlement is the start of moral behaviour, and an essential precondition of living a moral life. It will certainly be for Tiger Woods, as it would have been for grandees like Bill Clinton who blazed the trail before him. But it will also be same for us small individuals, as the entitlement in whichever form usually creates a perverse sense of justice and fairness. It is more practical and possible to shed the sense of entitlement than it sounds: All it takes is a bit of self-awareness and the ability to critique own actions and behaviour rather than being insecure, defensive and mired in justifications. In fact, it is pragmatic to live a life of self-critique, rather than waiting for a crisis of sorts to start the process.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Return to Gandhi

Gandhi is fashionable again.

For all purposes and intent, the Independent India discarded Gandhi. He did not matter - in fact, he became almost disruptive - in the politics of new India. He did not agree to the partition, which was the only way to get things going. He almost offered Indian leadership to Jinnah, and blamed Dr Rajendra Prasad for the violence against Muslims in Bihar. He stayed away from the celebrations of Indian independence. He was in Kolkata on the 15th of August 1947, doing his usual prayers, and did not even unfurl the Indian flag. He, the father of the nation, was a disaffected, irritable, retired father.

He did not do himself any favours even afterwards. He kept preaching peace with Pakistan. He insisted that Indian government pays its due money to Pakistani government, even when the new breakaway republic already started showing its colours. When things turned worse, he started fasting, creating embarrassment for the Congress Government, and proposed, what horror, that he will do a peace march from Delhi to Karachi. The government officials tried to dissuade him, but they knew that once he made up his mind, he can not be stopped. The only thing that could stop him, and eventually did stop him, was an assassin's bullet.

This was a great tragedy, a heinous act, but Nathuram Godse did a service, however perversely, to modern India. He almost preserved our nation state, its sense of being and its progress. Gandhi was better dead, it almost seemed. He could then be deified and frozen in statues, without the power to propagate his dangerous ideas. We became not brothers to Pakistan, as he would have wished, but a competing nation state, forever in conflict, as our British Masters envisaged.

Besides, what about Gandhi's plans for Congress, which he wanted to disband, and the ideas of village republics? That was plain disruptive, to our vision of a strong, centrally managed republic, a bureaucracy driven administration, a carefully planned soviet style industrialisation, which one day, would make us dream of being a global superpower. Gandhi's Cultural Revolution would have been a disaster for modern India, we reasoned, and would have set us back for many many years. It would have led us to meekly give up territory to Pakistan - did he not advice British to offer non-violent resistance to Hitler and let him take their land - and become a backward jumble of village societies, devoid of the capability to produce steel, power, heavy industries, modern cities, all the things we did after his death.

That was then.

Today, as India is realizing some of those dreams which the founding members of the Republic dreamt, we are suddenly becoming aware of some of the gaps we left for ourselves.

Take, for example, our cities. However we modernize them, they are becoming unsustainable because of the villages around them are too abjectly poor, and we can not, as a democratic society, stop the flow of migrants. They are becoming environmentally unsustainable squatter cities. We have started talking about clustered communities outside the cities.

Or, our society. However much we progress, we are deeply affected by our disregard for manual, shall we say front line, work. Our embedded caste system tells us everything that we do with hand, figuratively, is dishonourable. That way, selling is dishonourable, but being a sales manager, less so. On the whole, this leads us to create a society of the managers and the excluded, hollow in the middle; a society of talkers, not doers, as Narayana Murthy says. Gandhi's irritating habit of trying to menial things by himself suddenly appears less of a madness, and assumes a symbolic significance.

Or, our villages. We phoo-phooed Gandhi's idea of giving primacy to villages, that Utopian Gram Swaraj idea, and thought a strong bureaucracy driven central administration will ensure that development 'trickles down', hand outs reach the needy in time. This made us create one of the world's most corrupt societies, where the efficacy of development spending is one of the lowest in the world, and allowed us to create an army of the disaffected, which today takes the form of Maoist violence and affects of 20 of our 27 states. India is arriving, indeed, but in Arundhati Roy's telling metaphor, one India has taken the bus leaving the other India in eternal darkness.

Or, Pakistan. Our political correctness suggests that we should have a standing, mobilized army on the borders of Pakistan, costing taxpayers billions of Rupees, ready to strike at a moment's notice. If we don't do that, and we can not do that because it is not practical, then bombs will keep going off here and there, and we shall live with a permanent fear. We keep saying that we shall overrun Pakistan, not admitting that it is a nuclear state and overrunning it is no longer possible. We laugh as Pakistan falls apart, and the Government loses control; but do not accept the Pakistani government's explanation that they have lost control of their country and can do little if an independent terrorist organization strikes India. When your brother stays in the adjacent house, you don't laugh when his house burns; you reach out for a bucket of water. Suddenly, Gandhi and all his peace marches look more practical than our current posturing.

Today, Gandhi appears to be a practical, even clever, man.

As he always was. If we go beyond his mummified image, he was a common man, with a deep understanding of India and a commitment to certain principles. He chose to wear a peculiar dress to emphasize the contrast of his Indianness with the anglicized Congress leadership, and the British civil servants. Though viewed as madness, and nakedness as Churchill commented, at the time, his dressing up was a brilliant act of political symbolism. But he was not perfect. He wrote about his 'experiments' with truth. He joked that he attempts to be, but can not become, a Gandhian. But he created a deeply practical vision of modern India, which most of us missed from the ivory tower of English education and city life.

But, then, today, our bus will stop if we refuse to look at the road and take our compatriots along in the journey. We are at a time of reinvention again, and first time in many years, we must ask ourselves where we are going. And, suddenly the father of the nation, who should now be elevated to a grandfatherly position, looks more relevant than what our forefathers thought about him.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Talent Saga

I have just incorporated a company with Talent Management in its name, and almost immediately, Barclays announced a huge bonus for its 'talent' amid a huge public uproar. What's worse, talent's poster boys, footballers in English Premier League, are kind of having a nasty time. You sure love John Terry as a footballer, though he looks older than his 29 years, but when you look at his conduct - sleeping with his best mate's girlfriend behind his back and chasing any busty girl around him despite being safely married to his childhood sweetheart, you wouldn't want to be him. Even worse is Ashley Cole, who is married to splendid Cheryl, who seems to be one of the best known WAGs in England anyway, who would cheat, lie, cheat, get caught and will almost surely cheat and lie yet again.

I am all too aware of the usual argument. Don't try to meet the author whose novels you love! Because people are different in their private lives. They ought to be, it is their private life. Besides, it was always so. For example, Paul Johnson's The Intellectuals makes a cynical, yet eye-opening reading. That's about crossing boundaries of public and private. I remember reading the book left me in a state of shock from which I never fully recovered. Why? For example, it was difficult for me to reconcile Marx, the writer of such beautiful prose who wrote with so much power and sensitivity for the downtrodden, with his private self: a torturer of his beautiful and dedicated wife, a man who fathered children but took none of their responsibilities and who, allegedly, fathered a child of his maid, only to be saved from the scandal by his dear friend and provider in chief, Frederick Engels.

In fact, Marx was a classical case. He was very certain of his talents from an early age. He knew that he would change the world, and talked and behaved the same way. He was brilliant, possibly the best journalist in the history of writing, who wrote with passion about his subjects and understood, more deeply than any of his contemporaries, the social forces at work. But, he was also the egoist supreme, demanding attention wherever he went, venting anger whoever disagreed with him and pushing his invectives to such extreme to paint everyone who dared to raise a dissenting point as the worst of class enemies. Marx indeed changed human thought and left a deep impression on our society; but his thoughts, so far, failed to deliver the freedom that he promised to bring about. There are many reasons for this, but in a sense, his personality was one of them. Many of his followers lived a life of hatred and anger, and instead of seeking reconciliation and sociability, they wanted notoriety and fear. The great anathema for socialist movements since Marx was its divisions, intolerance and intellectual skulduggery, all the style issues, it can be claimed with reason, inherited directly from the person of Marx.

What I am preaching here is not a sort of deterministic view that Marx's traits have to affect a socialist and this will lead to their undoing; the point I am trying to make is that personal lives of stars are not wholly irrelevant. This is because practise of many professions, particularly sports, is a social activity. John Terry gets paid so much not because he has particular skills of heading a leather ball, but because his skills are seen as a benchmark of athleticism in the society and his persona is seen as a benchmark by so many youngsters. His scandals most likely to have an unexpected effect: Many people will decide that it is actually okay to sleep with your best pal's girlfriend as long as tabloids don't get the wind of it. Or, it will be okay to be like Ashley Cole - when your wife is becoming so successful and dazzling the TV, you better chase a few pretty girls who will give everything to sleep with you. If I daresay, like Marx created the subconscious of those who were to come after him, Terry and Ashley Cole are also doing their bit to shape the future of British society.

And, that, I shall argue is the precise problem with Talent. I know the key metaphor of this whole discipline of talent management is that you are building a football team and you need some stars, those who make the real difference, and you must treat them differently from mere mortals. You must go the extra mile to retain them, give them an out of proportion bonus, pamper them, give them those extra holidays and prize trips abroad and all that. The problem is that this is all very narrow, and business is not a football pitch.

To start with, a business runs 24x7 and require a multidimensional engagement with a very diverse audience, while a footballer only have to display one skill very well for a relatively short period of time. And, he has to do it in a condition where rules are set and the challenges, as in the opposition, are mostly known. Ashley Cole's texting habits will not undermine his ability to make those brilliant runs along the left wing, but a racist Vice President can very well make profits in trading but destroy the company at the same time.

Business is less like a football pitch, and more like, I would like to think, a family. I say a family though I know those days of permanent identities are gone. But, businesses are more closely knit than building societies if you care to think, because the financial prospect of all its members remains interrelated in a business. While you are not born into a business and hopefully not die in one, it gives you an identity around the middle of your life, which, in the modern world, is almost as important as your family name, or if you are a commoner, more important. So, you belong to a business, even if for a time, and this belongingness is deeper than a club membership or residency in a gated community.

In this sense, talent in business must be seen in a different context. I still believe talent is a valid word - which denotes individual excellence - but I think viewing talent management as in the context of management of stars is wrong. I would propose a different perspective and say everyone has a talent. Of varying types and intensity, but every individual is capable of achieving individual excellence if offered the right support. Businesses need to manage talent, but that does neither mean a bonus culture nor an elitist closed group, but, like a family, acceptance of the universality of talent and stitching a strategy together to bring out the very best of people.

I know I am sounding really old-fashioned, and worse, idealistic, here, but remember the world's most talent dependent companies are usually found in rather non-obvious places. Education, for example, I would think is one of industries most dependent on individual excellence. So is hospitality, healthcare, transportation and industries where customer contact points are diverse and complex, and processes have little control over the moment when the actual value is generated. I would like to think software, but its a lot more process driven than people would like to talk about; so are banks and insurance companies, where lots of talent resides in computer programmes and models. I am not undermining the brilliance of mind that is required to do any of those work; but I beg to differ from the conventional view that it takes more mental ability to predict the future of a particular stock than figuring out, during the late night hours in a hotel reception, which customer really had a heart attack and which one has drunk little too much Whiskey. The nurse who saves a life, the teacher who inspires a kid for a lifetime - are doing what only individuals with a deep and abiding commitment to excellence can do.

Pity that our narrow view of talent management does not take those sorts of talents into consideration, and we, as a society, remain locked in the worship of false heroes.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Year of The Tiger and The Century of The Dragon: Jo Owen

I came across this short article by Jo Owen, which is full of facts and insights about China. Written from an uniquely British perspective, this adds interesting historical perspective and points to the world that is to come. I quote the article in full here.

February 14th marks the Chinese New Year – the year of the Tiger. It is now clear that it is also the century of China. Here are six statistics to make the point:
  1. China became the world’s largest exporter in 2009, with 10 per cent of world trade, compared to 9 per cent each for the US and Germany.
  2. China beat the USA to become the world’s largest auto maker, producing 13.8m cars in 2009. The UK produced under one million cars in 2009. Two Chinese companies, SAIC and Nanjing Motor bought the rump of Rover.
  3. China is the largest foreign holder of US government debt: Uncle Sam owes the Dragon over $800bn. This creates an uneasy balance of mutually assured financial destruction between debtor and creditor.
  4. China is the largest investor in Africa. Chinese trade with Africa has gone from $10m a year twenty years ago to $100bn a year now. The Chinese offer a no strings attached approach to trade and investment, which is a welcome antidote to the strictures of the IMF. China gets the raw materials it needs, and plenty of support when it comes to getting its way at the Copenhagen climate talks.
  5. China had the world’s second largest economy in 2008: $8trn versus the USA at $14.2trn on a Purchasing Power Parity basis. The UK is a mere $2.2trn and going backwards compared to the dragon.
  6. China is the world’s largest producer of carbon emissions, with 21 per cent of the world total versus 20 per cent for the USA and 2 per cent for the UK. China blames this on the need to produce so many goods for western consumers.

In some ways this is a return to the historical order. The Middle Kingdom was always a huge slug of the world’s population and GDP. It really did not need anything from Europe, which meant we could not pay for the tea, china, silk and luxury goods we wanted from China in the nineteenth century.

The Brits got round this by becoming the world’s largest exporter of narcotics, via the East India Company shipping Indian opium. When the Chinese got uppity we burned down Beijing (1860, second Opium War), not long after we had burned down Washington DC in 1814. Getting back into narcotics and burning down Beijing and Washington may not work quite as well for us this time around.

Perhaps Mike Geoghegan, the boss of HSBC is leading the way for us. He has decided to run the bank from Hong Kong, starting from this month. This seems right for a bank which started on the Bund in Shanghai in 1865.

Whether it is trade or politics, it is clear we now live in a new bi-polar world order. On Valentine’s day, we are going to have to start learning to love the new world order.

How Real is The Recovery?

This is not a rhetorical question, nor a political one. The question, how real is the recovery, is serious and needs serious consideration not just from the policymakers, who are only too aware of the situation, but also from the media and the general public at large. We have long lived with this motto of 'perception is reality' and the current recession has indeed established the primacy of psychological factors in our economic world, but when we have started seeing the green shoots of recovery everywhere, it is better to set perception aside for a moment and get real.

Yes, because despite all the optimism in the market, the economic problems remain. What we see now are more symptomatic of the problems of the cure applied than of the disease itself, so to say. We are straddled with a big debt everywhere in the Western World, societies which have become accustomed to cheap money and lower interest rates, and unless some serious steps are taken now, it will be a very long time before we get out of the troubles. If ever.

The issue is that we are not going to be able to take those serious steps without hurting a lot of people. And, in the age of democracy and mass media, it is exceedingly difficult. Compare the Great Depression like for like with the current troubles, and you know the problem. We knew much more about economic cycles this time, but policy making was easier then. It was hilarious watching Hank Paulson and Alan Greenspan on television yesterday, when Fareed Zakaria chose to re-telecast an interview they have given on another network recently. Both of them said that difficult choices have to be made and the deficits have to be reduced; the next moment, though, they fumbled when asked whether the Bush-era tax cuts should go. They just could not say it on TV. Such is the power of mass medium - that it tamed two of the veteran policymakers, though not in elected office, from making one clear public pronouncement which could be unpopular with people.

So, we are left with two choices, both bad, and both will possibly occur simultaneously in the next few years. The inflation will rise first. It is already rising. Despite all the recession, we live in the era of real shortages: of food, of housing in popular urban areas, of health care, of education, of essential commodities. So, prices will rise - though the sale signs outside shops will become more common and more shops will fold. And, then, suddenly, the money will become scarce and the interest rates will start rising. And, both will possibly happen in quick succession, at least in Britain. We shall see some running inflation by Summer this year, and by next summer, we shall possibly be into a deep recession again aided by higher interest rates and failing businesses.

I am no pessimist, but standing at this point, it seems that we have handled the recession really bad. With all the knowledge of handling the Great Depression, we have still got it wrong. That's the problem of public policy: A disaster may teach you to ask the right questions, but you never know the right answers. Conventional wisdom held that letting the banks fail was one mistake that brought on the Great Depression; but even when the banks were given a lifeline to survive, it does not seem to be aiding the economies too much. If anything, the crisis is getting deeper, at least in some areas, and slowly affecting the social dynamic.

Here is an alternative answer. The real problem uncovered by the current crisis is that just how much of the economy belongs to banks. Some 40% of all the profits in Britain, by some estimates. Now, banks are the money business - it is actually more a social utility which keeps the money going rather than generate any value by itself. 40% of the profits is a rather disproportionate price to pay for such a function [let's try a parallel : an electricity generation system which generates all the pollution, but consumes 40% of the net power generated; but it is a bad parallel]. This is actually a black hole, which not only siphons out value, but also perverts the social mechanism by driving up conspicuous consumption as well as rents in faraway places where a banker may never go to live. And, our policies, instead of correcting this imbalance in any way, threw money at this imbalance. Throwing oil to fire, that's what we have done, because the Great Depression taught us that when the fire is burning too fast, it may quickly consume all that can burn - so we threw oil at it and it kept burning. May be, this time, I got a better parallel!

From a pure economic perspective, recessions like this have a utility. Every society, as it matures, builds up a class of rent-seekers, who extract a price from every act of value creation, without adding back any value to the society. Their existence discourage value creation, and pervert the economic functioning of the society. Their existence, and success, encourage other people to seek shortcuts to luxury rather than taking the long and arduous path to enterprise and creation of value. Recessions wipe out these rent-seekers and restart an economic regeneration. All this comes at a great social cost, and with lots of pain for the people who are not so well off. This is why recessions make elected politicians cringe; but one way or the other, such recessions are an unavoidable part of the capitalist free-market system that we all love.

However, we are still very bad at managing such crisis, despite all our knowledge and self-professed expertise. We live in a society where the power of vested interest, read rent seekers of our age, reign supreme. So, our policy-making is policy-making to restore the past, the same past that got us in trouble, rather than trying to usher in the future. So, we throw more oil to the fire. We use wrong indicators: We know the house prices were way above their long term value, but we want these prices to go up again. We want the banks to be profitable and take that as an indicator of life back to normal - which indeed it is - though crisis is the new normal.

And, this is no conspiracy theory, this is just normal democratic politics and free press and all that. This is what supposed to happen. We have got rid of autocratic, theocratic and all such voodoo powers and created a system where money, and only money, talks. Banks talk, therefore, as creators and holders and consumers of money. Our world - if we can still call it that way - is an irreversibly alienated world of money, where these currency figures jump up and down in front of our eyes to denote progress and disaster, where the stock market index can correctly indicate how we speak to our spouses when we return home, and house prices can define what our lives were worth. This is where freedom is perverted, by ourselves, into our ability to buy into slavery, of a payslip, a mortgage and a retirement saving. And, our elected representatives have no choice, and remember that they are the beneficiaries of the same rent-seeking system as we are, but to keep propping up the same sinking ship.

Whoever talked about arranging the deck chairs on the sinking Titanic, prophesied this moment.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Day 42: Reflections on Power

My thinking is focused on the idea of the state and the role it plays in our life and thinking. I am now onto an interesting book - the Social Construction of Reality - which I have just started reading. The essential thesis of the book is that the 'reality' as we know it is socially constructed, and there is no universal 'reality' as the underlying construct of reality imply.

It is actually a no-brainer in a way, and we have already heard the slogan - perception is reality. But, even that slogan, assumes a fixed reality, something that exists as given, and only claim that an alternative proposition can be found through perception. Besides, the proposition also assumes the existence of ONE reality, so that perception can replace the same. The social construction of reality, however, examines the existence of multiple realities, constructed from various vantage points of horizontal and vertical social positions, which then overlap and pass-off as one universal construct.

I am not training to be a sociologist or a philosopher, but such discourse is still of interest to me. My key interest is in learning, particular Adult Learning, which started with my professional engagement and business interests, but is progressing to become the key focus of own learning endeavours. The two major exposes in my life, the first related to the creation of a channel for vocational education in IT in India and Bangladesh, and the second through the advancement of English Language training and job recruitment in India, Philippines and some other territories, gave me certain insights which I am trying to reconcile with the existing literature. In short, I am trying to understand why people learn, and how learning may actually produce 'value' - my training in economics and my commitment to social progress as a responsible individual is to blame for such obsession - and this has led me to examine a wide body of literature in sociology, psychology, business and economics.

Increasingly, I am coming to discern, that learning as we know it is about the power equations in the society. We have created an web of power relationships, and created an elaborate structure to sustain such relationships. Job, in its current form, is one of them. So are careers and learning. The construct of success, wellness and governance is also based on, and are designed to sustain, the power relationship that exists in the society today. I know who I am referring to - Foucault - and I am sure my thinking is leading me to make the not-so-trivial attempt to read some of his work. But I am not there yet, in terms of the ability to commit time and intellectual consideration that will surely be required for such an enterprise.

But, it is discernible, even with my rather crude and untrained eyes, that the preservation of existing power relationships in the society remains at the heart of all learning endeavours. At its crude form, learning is connected to outcome - jobs or certificates - and hence designed to create a clear inclusion/ exclusion peripheries of the society. At the other extreme, learning as a process of enquiry, still dwells within the boundaries of existing social knowledge and accepted norms. One may argue that this is less so in the enquiries in the field of natural sciences, because such efforts must be directed to the discovery of universal truths, but it is possible to see the inherent limitations of scientific enquiry, at least at times, in the form of its social context. There are some outliers, and these tend to push the human knowledge forward. However, such outliers become rarer as the society matures and the power relationships within the society becomes more profitable, and more important, therefore, to preserve; thus limiting the ability to a matured society to discover new sources of progress and rejuvenation.

It is possible to view civilisational decline from this perspective, rather than the whims and fancies of individual despots or the geographical over-extension of the great powers in history. The current social and political thinking is obsessed with the creation of a sustainable form of society, but it seems that the whole worry about sustainability is the key reason why such sustenance becomes harder to come by. And, in the context of learning, as long as it is seen as a tool of sustainability, it remains limited in its scope and as a collective, the human civilization must go through the cycle of dark ages from time to time. It is possible to view learning as a tool of progress, but this learning must happen outside the boundaries of institutions of the age and as a freewheeling process of human enquiry. Again, as we endeavour to define all the parameters of our existence and achievement, such freewheeling enquiry is difficult to come by, and even if comes, it is castigated to the realms of disorderly behaviour and banished from public view.

My previous point about the notion of state can also be viewed from this perspective. The state, as it is perceived today, is an instrument of preservation of social power as known and observed in our day. The primacy of the state is a protocol that all acceptable strands of thinking must accept, and this should be the essential construct behind all other political and social constructs that we may have. In this set up, treason must be seen as a crime and should be met with exemplary punishment. Our schools and universities must endeavour to maintain the concept and the inviolability of the statehood. All this, while the statelessness is taking a grip on human consciousness, both through the social technologies and through stateless social movements. While there are various hues of statelessness, the terror regimes of pan-islamism is primarily a conflict between the state and statelessness and are therefore so incomprehensible. While we may draw comfort in establishing parallels between the current Islamic extremism and the previous threats to our power equations from the Soviet Union and the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the fact remains that the previous movements operated within the paradigm of statehood and were therefore much less a potent force than the current threat. [One can argue that Stalin's Socialism in One Country was the ultimate betrayal of the Communist universalism, which directly led to the colonization of East Europe and the ultimate decay of the Soviet Union]

As I said, I am not training to be sociologist, and only have amateur interests in subjects of power. And, I would like to keep it this way - though it may develop into a theme that I have been looking for all my life. How about spending a lifetime understanding the mechanization of global power and observing the many individual rebellions that spring up, and crushed, every day all over the world? It sure seems a worthwhile goal, especially when it feels that the day is not far when some of those micro-revolutions will be conjoined with the power of the technology and alter the equations and percepts of the power itself. As an optimist, and as an observer of social progress, there is no more a worthy goal than to remain in audience when such change makes an appearance.

Friday, February 12, 2010

India: Need for An Alternative Idea

There are times when I encounter a special book. A book which questions fundamental assumptions of my thoughts, the ideas I took as given. Over last couple of weeks, coincidentally, I encountered not one, but two such books. These, along with various experiences and reflections, allow me to think about the idea of India all over again.

The first among these is a travelogue. Benard Imhasly, a Swiss cultural anthropologist and someone who knows India quite well, has written a beautiful book - Abschied Von Gandhi - which I read in its English translation, Goodbye to Gandhi. Beautifully presented, this is an attempt to retrace the footsteps of Gandhi - from Porbandar to Champaran to Sevagram - and reflections on modern India from the vantage point of its Gandhian vision. I must not give the impression that it is a biographic commentary or hagiography in any sense, the author travels to Devdungari to see MKSS and its founder, Aruna and Bunker Roy, as well as to Manipur to meet the heroine of hunger strike, Sharmila Irom. Everywhere as he goes, he creates a detached, balanced assessment of the modern Indian state, its progress [as he travels around Cyberabad] and the essential conflict of India vs India, the old civilization versus the modern nation state.

This isn't new, it has surfaced so many times before in so many conversations. There are roughly four kinds of literature one can find on this conflict, which dwell on two different themes. One clear theme is that the two is actually one and the same. The old civilization has created the modern state. This is exemplified in most of the modern Indian political literature, dating back from the middle of nineteenth century, when Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay and his contemporaries started imagining a new India in modern nation state terms. This has arrived in the modern times with people like Veer Savarkar, Balgangadhar Tilak and Subhas Chandra Basu, who imagined the modern India with the glory of its ancient history. And, this is not just Hindu nationalist thinking. I remember reading M K Akbar who protested loudly about the British assertion [was it Judith Brown?] that the British colonial administration actually created India, and pointing back to the great tradition of Ashoka and Akbar in search of the Indian state.

The other theme in this two as one is the modern state triumphing over, and transforming, the ancient civilization. This is the reformist view of India [if we call the other traditionalist], as exemplified by Nehru's Discovery of India and the whole body of his thought and work. This idea is also deeply embedded in the whole liberal reformist cult in India, of late turning into triumphalism of New India pop and the stories of social dynamism, as exemplified in the Booker Prize winning The White Tiger and Academy Award winning Slumdog Millionaire [and the book, Q&A]. The theme today can be briefly described as 'India Arriving', the title of a popular book - a modern nation, essentially reconciled to its ancient traditions, demanding its rightful place in the world.

However, the cacophony of this dominant theme, and the variations therein, largely hide the alternative thinking about India altogether. I am talking here of a society ill at ease, where most people are still disenfranchised, desperately poor and worse, hopeless. From this point of view, the modern state is an anomaly, an imposition. For all its industrial progress, it is unable to absorb its teeming millions; for all the glitter of its cities, it is unable to hold the spread of the squalor of its slums. It is a country divided. To use Arundhati Roy's metaphor, it is as if one India has taken the bus to progress and left, leaving behind another India to perish in darkness.

The problem is that this theme is counter-intuitive, and against the trend. We are today living in the age of nation states, at least intellectually, and anything that questions that basic assumption is treated as blasphemy. This is point the second book I read dwells on - an excellent polemic written by Ashish Nandy, The Romance of The State. He suggests that the modern Indian state is deeply in conflict with its culture - the ancient Asian civilization that hosts it - and to survive, it must dwell on disenfranchisement, coercion and violence to spread its underlying message. From this point of view, Bernard Imhasly's story of Sharmila Irom assume a new significance; the Indian state keeps her in continued captivity and forced feeding to maintain AFSPA, a colonial law designed to disenfranchise fellow Indian citizens from the basic human rights and dignity. The state as an apparatus seems to have taken over the Indianness of our civilization, and its agents, in the name of modernity, undermined the freedom and dignity of all Indians that was the key reason to wage the struggle of independence.

I said there are four types of literature, dwelling on two key themes. So, there is - a slight variation of this angry view of modern state as an aberration. Let us call this the sad view, a deep desire to see modernity yet without the trappings of a coercive European format nation state. We can still call it the reformist view, which deeply distrusted the state but welcomed the liberation of thought from the constraints of traditionalism. While Gandhi would have tried to go back to the Ancient Indian Civilization and created a society based on the traditional village cooperatives, free of the coercion of a central state, the modern humanists would have proclaimed freedom from state coercion and uniformity and ushered in the individual human spirit in the context of a deeper, global humanism. This human spirit, following their formulation, would have been free of all coercion, of the state but also of tradition, and would have been empowered by modern science and universal human ethic to seek the greatest common good. The elements of this thought was embedded in the work of Rabindranath Tagore, a persistent critic of nationalism but yet a preacher of modernity, and have since then lived on within the realm of Indian regional vernacular literature.

One can argue that this all sounds Utopian, but free trade and nation states itself sounded Utopian a few centuries back. The social system and the countries we live in are surely products of our imagination, and the lack of it. I have previously argued that it is great ability of individual human beings to imagine systems counter-intuitively that keeps our society moving forward. Someone imagined nation state; someone imagined European Union. Someone imagined the Zionist state. Someone imagined Islamic Revolution. They all defied the gravity of traditional ideas and went beyond what was obvious at the time.

Similarly, it is time for us to think seriously about the alternative idea of India. I am not proposing an abandonment of the state as it is, and return to the village society or revert to complete individual freedom. But, instead of the coercive violence-based thinking that we have about the Islamic extremism, or Maoist insurgence, in India, we can possibly explore why the state we created is increasingly at odds with people it is supposed to serve. We can look at the whole worldwide phenomena of the weakening of the nation-states, not just in Western Europe, but also in the Middle East and North Africa, where an alternative violence-based model of non-state actors rising in alarming proportion.

If you are an optimist, you will know that all roads to future progress must lead through freedom - of thought, action and endeavour. It is the great benefit of scientific and social progress that we should be able to maintain a society without coercion or restriction, but by goodwill and commonwealth. Nation States were a tool of progress at a distant time in history; however, they have long stopped being so. Similarly, time has come for us to go beyond the idea of India as a mere nation state. We should not lose out on the future because we simply failed to imagine it.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Day 39: Private Equity and Training Business in India

I came back to London on Monday morning, and it already seems a long time. Active life has its own value - I have been running around, sorting out my passport and various visas, as well as pushing through the business restructuring issues in India and elsewhere. It is interesting that I was watching a snippet from Donald Trump's recent interview on CNN and he was saying that when you work hard, you get lucky. Something of that sort is already happening with me.

In short, just when I was almost giving up, orders have started coming back. An idea I cooked up in near desperation, setting up employment preparation centres inside universities, is suddenly gaining some traction. There are some new doors opening in terms of business opportunities. Most of this end of recession bounce, and being acutely aware, I am very keen to make use of some of the opportunities. There are some legacy issues which I still have to negotiate - true - but I am much more optimistic about the next 12 to 24 months than I have even been in last three years.

Last few days, I have also received some excited phone calls and emails from India telling me how big an opportunity Indian education sector presents, and how much of private equity investment is lined up to support the education businesses. Money is available, though the actual investment has so far fallen far short of the promise. The reasons cited is (a) the investors are still not certain about the government policy and that the promises Kapil Sibal has made so far will indeed be carried out; and (b) Indian education companies so far proved too small in the context of market size in India and in terms of quantum of investment currently needed.

I think the first concern will soon be addressed, as the government is starting to take some concrete steps in modernizing education policy. It is interesting that such liberalization/ modernization is happening exactly at the same time as the popular overseas study destinations, Australia, UK and United States to some extent, is becoming increasingly inaccessible to Indian students. This may mean an increasing focus on developing the in-country offerings by foreign universities, and increasing collaboration with Indian colleges, as most universities in these countries are also suffering from a recession-driven fund crunch and they wouldn't want to give up access to Indian markets that easily. Besides, the new procedures, which are supposed to be more transparent and commercially viable, should allow professional education outfits to be set up, as against the current black money driven industry.

The second is more difficult to address. India is a matured, regionally divided, complex market. But its complexity is matched with low margins on the business, it is a classical bottom of the pyramid market. This presents most foreign companies with two insurmountable challenges. The first is to adjust their margins thinking with volume thinking, while simultaneously handling a second puzzle, the volume promise isn't automatic too. So, the Indian education/ training mostly has to be left to Indian entrepreneurs who can live with this reality. However, so far, Indian training industry was dominated by SMEs [education investment for bigger corporates were mostly a sideshow or a philanthropic activity] and in a capital poor country, SME businesses are unlikely to intervene in scale in the first place. So, Indian education markets so far had a number of smart companies, but unfortunately only a few which could operate at a scale and with professionalism required by Private equity.

I am sure that a change is coming, and no one can deny the existence of very professional commercial companies like Educomp or NIIT, which are as good as anyone in the world. Besides, we are seeing increasing interest from business groups like Birlas and Reliance to enter into training and education businesses. So, a scale intervention is around the corner, despite its apparent complexities and challenges. One can argue that it actually depends on the government to liberalize education and relax some of its meaningless control measures, and we shall suddenly see a sea-change in both the provision and consumption of education and training in India.

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