Monday, May 31, 2010

How To Return

I am starting a new life and today is the first day. This is a private note I shall keep, and publish after a year.

Being on the verge of my 42nd year of life, there are promises to keep. I said I shall change my life completely when I am 42, which will be on 2nd June 2011, and this gives me more or 369 days counting today.

As of this moment, I am rather desolate though. I am just coming out of the clutches of the worst company I have worked for. A lapse of judgement for me, surely: I took the job because I liked the position and the scope of work. To be honest, I have got some exposure and learnt interesting things. But, on the other hand, the three years with these cowboys were exhausting. The company is just unreal: ego-driven, irresponsible, speculative. This is a man who got rich because he was at the right time at the right place when Northern Ireland peace came about, and then lost all his bearings. My job was to make international his company, which has as much sophistication as my village grocer back home, while being alternately abused and patronised for my racial origin everyday. This was some experience.

It took a lot of courage to walk out of their clutches without a job in hand, which I have done now. This enraged my employers, and they have come after me in their usual ways: Not paid my expenses, did not give me my release documents, and even stole my phone number. However, more they do this, I know that I have taken the right decision by walking out. This was hugely risky, indeed: This is a bad job market. I was ready to go back to India if I did not find an worthy job, but was not ready to compromise any further. However, now that I have managed to get an offer from a college to handle their branding, it seems that I can plan the return with less hurry.

The college I am going to join has just emerged out of suspension by UKBA. But they are a credible college, with good infrastructure and a track record of good accountancy education. My outside impression is that they got caught in the chaos: I am sure they were dizzy with the success last year when the international student market exploded [particularly for Indian students coming to UK on the wake of racial violences in Australia], and were unable to cope with frequent and unpredictable rule changes by UKBA. I have quite a challege at hand building the brand all over again, and this is going to be a job much bigger than just sorting out the communication. Part of the job entails taking the college to newer markets, to China primarily, and it is surely going to be an interesting exposure.

However, this is also a time for me to plan my return and trace out my steps for next one year. There are certain things which I have decided:

(a) I want to return to India by December 2012.
(b) I want to make Kolkata my main home.
(c) I want to retain an opportunity to travel and see the world.

This plan has various elements and it is not easy at all. I have got used to a different lifestyle, access to information and public infrastructure, and will surely find it difficult to adjust in Kolkata. Besides, I am a British Citizen now and there will be a number of restrictions if I live in India. Besides, Kolkata is quite a slow-moving, parochial place, and it will be difficult for me to have an opportunity to travel for work.

But, then, Kolkata is home, a part of my identity which I want to keep. I also believe a place is made by its people and I must do my part - and also teach my children to do their parts - for the community which has given us so much. That's my private deal with my private God: I have got whatever I wanted, and I must give now.

So, I roughly have 30 months to actually gather everything and go back. But the process must start much earlier, as early as today. Because this will entail defining what I do back in Kolkata, picking up skills and expertise, making available the necessary resources, sorting out houses and places to stay and work - all of that. This private journal is to trace these steps over next 12 months, after which I can possibly make them public and reassess the progress.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Undoing Macaulay: The Case for 'Inglish'

Since I wrote about Lord Macaulay in 2008 and praised the brilliance of his scheme, I have been engaged in the debate about Macaulay endlessly. If anyone has any doubts about how profound the effects of an education reform can be, Macaulay is a case in point. He used English Language as a weapon of empire building, and helped dominate a much larger country, India, through the creation of a franchise of privilege based on the language.

Indeed, India was divided and had no sense of nation, as John Stratchey would later say. With the breakdown of state power, the indigenous education system was dying. These factors made Macaulay's passage rather easy - he did not have to engineer any full scale cultural revolution. Besides, his scheme was not an original invention as some would like to say. An education system based on the language of the state was an established way of dividing and governing a society, somewhat since the Roman time. In all fairness, Macaulay was only applying the liberal logic - of progress, reason and enlightenment - to an old and well used method of establishing power relationships.

India was no stranger to the imperialism by language phenomena. Arabic and Farsi were widely studied in the days of the Mughal empire. In fact, if Macaulay was seeking to replace an education system, it was the one based on Farsi, which ambitious middle class students went on to study in the hope for an administrative job. Macaulay's Minutes were not an agenda for change; it was codifying a political shift already well under way.

After Independence, if one issue generated maximum debate in the Indian constituent assembly, it was the issue of Language. English was widely seen as the language of bondage, so needed to be replaced. However, most of the founding brotherhood of the Indian Republic were English trained, most of them steeped in the British way of life. So, they mostly went through a bizzare exercise - debating in English how to replace English as a state language.

It was more difficult to decide what English should be replaced with. While India adopted a state language - Hindi - its acceptance was by no means universal, particularly in the South and the East of the country. The debate was furious, and finally the issue was settled by allowing English to remain a parallel language of business for fifteen years, and by allowing a number of languages, which stands at twenty-two at the last count, somewhat equivalent status in the Schedule Eight of the constitution.

The journey that followed was marked by a see-saw in the Hindi-English balance and a relentless struggle for all other languages, there are more than 300 of them, to get the privilege of Schedule Eight. Now, one has to remember that we are not talking about extinct or historical languages here [the near-extinct, traditional language of India, Sanskrit, is spoken by about 16000 people, but has a special status], but languages potentially spoken by a few million people: The Schedule Eight, therefore, has been a contentious, continuously evolving list.

However, if one has to locate a pattern in the story of languages in India, there are two discernible turning points. One came when, after years of dithering, the government of India allowed public TV broadcasts to start in the Mid-1970s. That was a major turning point in the fortunes of Hindi. Initially, the television was seen as an extension of the Ministry of Information and used as a government mouthpiece. But, beyond this, television in India was largely about promoting Hindi high culture to all non-Hindi speakers. Dating back to my childhood, I remember the anger at the language 'imperialism', the sense of discrimination that television brought and how, such organized culture, made the Indian Union seemed repressive to some of its constituent entities.

The advent of television was largely successful in establishing Hindi as the language of Indian culture. The stunning rise of Bollywood, which used to be a comparatively small, somewhat regional (appealing to Hindi heartland of India) and intentionally unsophisticated film industry, to a professional, world class and world's largest movie-making machine, is completely due to the integration of Indian culture around Hindi. This allowed the 'scale' that a mass culture needs, though this came at the cost of complete demise of some of the rich regional cultures.

The next turning point in the balance of languages came with the rise of India's IT and ITES industries in the new millennium. There were the inevitable pull of Globalization, and the demographic dividend that India was enjoying; the positive spirit was aided by a relative peace dividend after the war in Afghanistan started destabilizing Pakistan, and unlocking of 'inner city', which happened with the telecom revolution, middle class mobility and diffusion of culture [aided, not least, by Hindi and Bollywood] and rise of a post-national Indian identity. This generation, largely linked through internet and mobile phones, consumes the cultural input mostly in Hindi, conducts family life mostly in their native tongue [though cross-region marriages are on the rise and was subject of a new, popular book] but conducts work and business in English. This helped English; state governments which banned English from state schools in the Eighties scrambled to bring it back, and federal ministers who obligatorily spoke in Hindi started feeling comfortable tweeting and blogging in nuanced queen's language.

This, in a way, could be seen as India's Macaulay moment. But, considering the intentions of the dead peer, it is just the opposite as well. Macaulay wanted to create a class of Indians who are Indian in colour, but Englishmen in taste and habits; we are at just the opposite point at this time, when millions of Indians, Indians in taste, habit and upbringing, are knocking the doors of English language and wanting to take it over. As I keep saying - the days of English as a language of privilege is over, and if India has to move on, we must turn English into a language of opportunity.

This brings me to the final point: How to integrate English into Indian society and make it a common platform of business and work. This is indeed a part of the two hundred year process and very much part of the Indian historic reality. There is already a considerable amount of diffusion of culture and common words and understanding already exists. A sense of Indian culture has emerged around Bollywood, where movies with titles such as 'Life in a Metro' or 'Karthik Calling Karthik' are already being made. The Liberation Generation in India is already exposed to computers, mobile phones and Internet, and even in the remote villages, English words and concepts have arrived. But this is not the idiomatic language of the British or the Americans, but a set of culture-neutral words and concepts like Menu as in a telephone, connect as on the Internet and friend as on Orkut.

So far, the educators have missed it. The reigning orthodoxy in English learning in India is to shape the curricula to lead to a Call Centre job, oblivious of the deeper and bigger change already underway. English as a platform of communication, a way to freedom and mobility, of opportunity and connection and technology, are far more powerful motivators for learning the language today, though these motives are less well articulated and often boxed indifferently under the label of 'getting a job'. That job is any job today, as, with the expansion of private industry and people mobility, English is the language of business in India and it is hard to get by without it.

In this changed context, the dominant requirement in India is not to learn English as it is spoken in Buckingham, or in Manhattan for that matter; nor it is to learn the 'English ways' of life. The need is for 'Inglish', a simplified, culturally adapted language platform integrating millions of Indians with each other and with the global workplace. The barriers of privilege erected by Macaulay and his ilk is past its sell-by date. This is a new inflection point in history of India, and must be attained to by the millions who are eager, innovative and hungry for success.

The idea is not foreign or new. Indian culture is known not to reject anything and adapt anything. So we did in architecture, language, literature, religion before. This is another such idea, when we turn Inglish an Indian language. Already, various variants, Hinglish, Benglish, Teglish, wherein local words are mixed into English sentences, exist; the point is, however, to create a common structure and grammar - minimizing the differences, that is - so that a common platform can emerge. We already know of such social experiments: the new simplified Mandarin facilitated rapid growth of literacy in China and two modern, successful nations, Indonesia and Malaysia, were constructed on modern languages, Bahasa-s.

How this can be done? In India, the usual answer, that the Government should do it, does not work. In India, things happen not because of the government, but instead of it. I think the Indian industry should be the starting point here, who will benefit enormously from such an effort. [Not just the solution to their skilled work needs, this will also mean a truly integrated domestic market and a scale to die for].

This will need civil society participation and academic acceptance, organizational work and efforts by people who wants to take India forward. But, in India, such enterprise, imaginativeness and effort are never in short supply. Macaulay is long dead and gone; this is the time to truly bury him.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

On Globish

From Wikipedia:

Globish is a subset of the English language formalized by Jean-Paul Nerriere.[1] It uses a subset of standard English grammar, and a list of 1500 English words. According to Nerriere it is "not a language" in and of itself,[2] but rather it is the common ground that non-native English speakers adopt in the context of international business.

[For more, see HERE]

Now, Globish has its own book : Jean-Paul Nerriere and David Hon has written a book in Globish, on Globish. [This book is not available through Amazon in the UK, my first port of call for such projects, which lists instead Jean-Paul Nerriere's Parlez Globish, in French]. Robert McCrum, of London Observer, has now written a book on Globish, though he chose to write in English, and The Economist has recently reviewed it. So, as they say, Globish has the momentum!

The idea is, as stated above, a platform for non-native speakers of English language to adopt and use the language, without any of the socio-political hangovers and cultural bias. This is very different, as McCrum claims, from the nuanced idiomatic English of England, America and other English speaking countries.

The idea, though not an obvious one, has some merits. Globally, English language is on a forward leap. As Economist puts it, it has replaced French in diplomacy, and German in Science. It is increasingly popular in Eastern Europe; strangely, it is easier to find English speakers in Warsaw these days than people speaking Russian. It is also making a comeback in South East Asia and India, where nationalist sentiments forced a roll-back of English in 1960s and 1970s. With such nationalism receding, or at least getting comfortable with Globalization, English is making a comeback in school curriculum and political etiquette.

I have been involved in the business of English language training and know why Globish is a good idea. English language training, so far, has largely been an affair for the business elite, particularly in Europe and East Asia. Consequently, the focus is on teaching of nuanced, 'American' like English, mostly in the context of business or affluent middle class life. However, unbeknown to the Language training providers, the nature of English language training has changed. This has changed since China and India, and then most of rural Asia, have joined the party. English is making inroads there, English is important, but this is not the culturally nuanced Queen's Language or American or Australian for that matter.

So far, English is a language of privilege, which gives access to a different social tier, jobs etc. But, in the next stage of Globalization, English will turn into a language of opportunity. This is what Globish may do, or already doing. I say this is already doing because the world seems to be finding a common language platform on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere. Just that this language has not entered the world of business or classrooms. There may be people who believe that the language of classroom will reign Twitter, and the language of the street will get moulded by the language of business, but it is likely to be the other way of round.

So, a common minimum English, mixed with local words, adapted grammar and set in local culture is what we are heading for. To be honest, that language may challenge the hegemony of English as it is spoken today. If you are feeling threatened by that, don't: That will be the highest stage of globalization and somewhat the remedy that our recession-threatened, skewed, corrupted world needs.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Education Across Borders: Reassessing The Challenges

As I continue to explore the possibilities of a web-delivered model of education, I am faced, all too often, with the question how to 'port' education across the borders. The enquiry is a many-edged one; my exploration is not just taking me into the nuances of curriculum design or certification, and the policy frameworks for education in different settings, but also to the fundamental 'social' nature of education. With the renewed perspective, I would think I have made the transition from a 'publishing' paradigm to the 'education' paradigm, and this is making a significant difference in my thinking.

Let me stop a moment and explain how my thinking has evolved. I started with a bit of wide-eyed wonder for the foreign degrees, and thought of building an efficient system of delivery of education, by which the learners can achieve these degrees without having to leave their home countries. This is, of course, in line with the existing models of online education, and following closely the models like U21. However, this is essentially a supply side perspective. A publisher's perspective, as I mentioned, which makes a business case based on the 'foreign degree' fetish.

The problem with this approach is manifold. First, this is not the real thing. Of the millions of students who travel abroad every year, most travel for the sake of experience and exposure, not just for the degree. The model of online education offers the degree minus the exposure, which is not going to excite the traditional seekers of education much. And, because I was trying to set up a business, which will require a high risk premium given these uncertain financial times, the education provision is not going to be cheap and will not expand the market significantly.

But, above everything else, this will remain a supply side proposition. There is an industrial presumption at the back of this design - we know what is needed - which is not exactly true in a rapidly changing, global world. This model works in the current, home country setting because the colleges were to service an specific economy, a finite area with a defined culture and a requirement which Politicians and policy-makers know about and can help shape. However, the moment that national perspective is taken away, education across borders lose its key relevance, and unless this can be re-framed to be radically learner centered, demand driven, any cross-border provision is likely to fall short.

Quite obviously, technology should facilitate greater flexibility in terms of what can be offered and how learning can be structured. But economics determines the choice and the application of technology, and unless the business model of education, which remains supply centred and not demand driven, is radically transformed, it will always be a challenge to create an education offering which is in tune with the host markets.

While these are all difficult challenges to respond to, and may be it is not possible to successfully negotiate these challenges anyway, one can build the education provision sufficiently building in the host country's social setting in the offering. This is why my current thinking is to work on collaborative programmes, with like-minded colleges in the host countries. The idea is to create a global programme and allow dynamic designing of the content, delivery and social experiences in collaboration with host country partners, as well as within a community of all partners.

The underlying assumption of such an effort will be that all societies are global today, and while an education provision with completely 'foreign' perspective is useless, a completely 'home grown' model is increasingly irrelevant. So, while the learning context must be set by the host community, which the learner will come from, reside in and ultimately be expected to contribute to, this must be done in coherence with the global context and other learning communities.

It is an interesting journey to put such a programme in place. It is easier said than done, because the Academic community has its own power equations and those very real considerations need to be taken into account. However, it is possible, because the need to change is apparent to both learners and educators, and the moment of change - when the traditional assumptions of nationalism, economics and social life are being fundamentally questioned - is now.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Education and Freedom: An Alternative View

I write this primarily based on the conversations I had in India, but this holds true other 'developing' countries I know well; Like, Bangladesh and the Philippines. The story runs like this: The government is under pressure from a young, mobile population, who, empowered by the new technologies of communication, have started benchmarking themselves against their developed country cousins. They have started 'demanding' things much to the annoyance of grey haired policymakers who expect compliance above everything else. The most pressing political problem in these countries is the pressure of aspiration, expressed in the language and value system of hope and enterprise. This should be good news. However, this is creating a disjuncture in social policy, and in education provision more than in any other area.

In stark contrast to the past, when the governments were to provide a standard education to get a standard job, which earned a lifetime of keeps and a dignified retirement, the current adult education imperative is different. In fact, there are a number of competing objectives to be held in balance.

To start with, the government must keep this huge young population gainfully employed, for reasons of reaping the huge demographic dividend collectively but also to arrest crime and social unrest. With most governments concerned about their credit rating more than anything else, handing out meaningless jobs for meaningless salaries to these citizens is no longer an option.

So, while the citizens increasingly become aware of the possibilities and demand a better deal from their governments, governments need to tell their people, as politely as possible, that they are on their own. In fact, they are expected to contribute to the nation than the other way around. True, JFK is long dead and gone, but most governments in developing countries is still struggling to gather the courage to pronounce the 'Ask Not' proposition.

The obvious conduit of empowering the populace is obviously through a radical redesign of education. Let the people understand the true reasons for their plight and feel empowered to change their own circumstances. Allow critical thinking and questioning in the classroom, let education lock step with the possibilities of the time. That is a way to change, may be the only way, the whole dependency structure that is ailing the government finances.

But that will be too dangerous for the governments in power, who owe their existence mostly to a collusive arrangement between the global power elite. So, the truth is, the governments don't want to say 'Ask Not'. They want their citizens to be dependent, not ask too many questions and not try to find too many answers on their own. The job of the education policy maker, therefore, is to create entrepreneurial thinking without an appetite for risk, innovation without independence, the ability to deal with uncertainty without the need for exploration.

Many Western, particularly American, Educators may find this challenging, to say the least. But it may not be complicated. Education is well designed to serve the needs of compliance and social stability, and the emerging country governments are employing such techniques to the best extent possible.

I shall note that there are three key ways by which such limitations on imaginative inquiry can be effectively exercised, while giving selective access to power and privilege through the system and giving an impression of relative progress.

First, by creating the process of education as an alienable part of the power/ privilege system of the society. I am frequently told that Indian families spend disproportionately more on Children's education than the Western ones, but this is because the education is so closely integrated to the power structure of the society. If we use Foucault's descriptors of technologies of power and self, this is about merging the two as closely as possible. In fact, in most countries, the technologies of self is to be completely legislated out and the whole system of learning has been replaced by a system of symbols, degrees in this case. 'Engineer' is an honorific in Bangladesh, and most commonly, people who carry Masters degrees, write it on the address boards at their homes and on calling cards. Such 'Education By Degrees' incorporate the system of education completely in the fold of the existing power structure of the society.

Second, by keeping people longer in the education system in the quest of advanced degrees. This is achieved by making it easier to progress through the years while shifting the costs of maintaining the infrastructure to the student and their families. In a way, it may be seen as wellness business for the middle class soul, where the penitent father, confused by the new world and unable to offer the solace of mediocre life that he lived himself to his ward, seeks to redeem himself in debt to keep paying for 'Advance' degrees. But it is more: The advance degrees are designed to achieve nothing more than compliance to a stratified, pedigreed social system. It is not surprising that most advanced degrees granted as such are in the field of business administration, though the number of businesses to be administered have not grown in proportion with the manifold increases of the educated business administrators. However, the whole chimera of tertiary education and advanced degrees serve everyone so well: a few extra years to 'mould the spirit' for the government, a pedigree system among the learners, a social status system for the parents and finally, a neatly stratified system to keep everyone in a box, apart from opening up a whole industry sector for private businesses.

Third, by quickly filling the void left by the secularization of education with an alternative system of morality, albeit a global one. Globalization in Indian homes often arrive through the college-going kids humming Bollywood numbers shot in picturesque locales in the south of France; not just as a part of the popular culture or mating ritual, but an unavoidable part of academic life through the various 'extra-curricular' mandates and bonding exercises. The prescription of education is designed not just to incorporate the learner in a power system [by degree], and to reinforce the stratification [through longer stay], but also to imbibe the moral system of consumptive progress, which equates the possession of things as the possession of power, and the possession of power as the attainment of meaning in life.

One may say that there is nothing new and innovative about the model of education described above, which seemed to have been borrowed, for the most part, from the colonial education systems. However, this will be an unfair assertion. The similarities in policy may be many and not superficial, but this 'new education policy' is being put in place not to contain the consumptive aspirations of the local populace, which would have been the colonial objective, but to encourage it. This is a big difference in terms of objective: Though it eventually means an incorporation of a global power structure in the current setting, this seemingly minor variation is potent enough to start a dialectic process setting the technologies of power against the technologies of self. This will happen, as it always did in history, when local aspirations exceed their 'place' in the scheme of things, which, if one trusts the capacities of human consciousness, it eventually will. That is indeed the day when this whole education edifice will come down, and a true process of freedom will begin.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Being Non-Resident

I discovered my identity only after I started living abroad. If I go back to India some day, which eventually I will, this will be key learning I carry with me.

This reflexive construction of identity took more than one step. First, when I arrived, with all the comfort and reasonableness of modern Industrial life, I started to wonder why some of my relatives and friends did not ever think of migrating. In the cacophony of requests that I started to receive for assistance in migration, I grew a private frustration - why doesn't so and so want to come - and a feeling that the talk about 'Indianness' is all excuses, a cover for lack of enterprise from my own folks.

Then, even in the subliminal reality of the equal opportunity world, my colour of skin became more and more highlighted. Contrary to the common perception, racism, at least in Britain, is far less 'up in the face' and far more systemic. So, unless one is travelling to more 'exotic' parts of the country [which I had to do], one does not come across overt racism too often. On the contrary, some parts of London are so 'ethnic' that one feels space-shifted. However, it is usual to experience racism in a more covert form, as stereotyping and role expectations omnipresent at work and social life.

Admittedly, we all do stereotyping all the time. We may not know it, it was as obvious as the perilous state of my hairstyle till I manage to look into a mirror. Metaphorically and practically, once the relative novelty of being abroad wears off, the 'mirror' moment happened to me.

The stereotypes are very common but they are almost always wrong: Most such theories emerge from newspaper stories we read, one or two people we met from that culture, movies we have seen, and private anecdotes we hear. As an Indian, I grew up to believe that almost all Western women are single! On the other hand, I remember a friend earnestly explaining to an American visitor that Indian boys are as likely to chase their fiancees singing around trees as an all-American girl is expected to jump into bed on the first date.

As an immigrant, I got exposed, for the first time, of the de-humanizing nature of such stereotypes. I learnt, in a perverse way, the British claim to sophistry, aided by the pride of English as a world language, implied that all other cultures were inherently inferior and must follow the 'English ways' to become civilized. Many great English characteristics which I grew up to admire, the ability to laugh at oneself, the respect for others and ubiquitous politeness, and a disinterested approach to the other people's affairs which easily translates into a deep tolerance of diverse opinions, suddenly vanished in this game of inversion of stereotypes. On the first encounter with ground realities, I was disinvested of my long cultivated definition of Britishness rather quickly and was handed down an alternative, simplified version reduced to simple matters of colour and accent.

I also noticed that the overt expression of stereotypes happen in role expectations. A certain type of people are supposed to be doing certain things, I learnt. For example, if you are looking for a job in fashion retail in Oxford Street, just being well-groomed will not do; you will need to be white, ideally blond, not disabled, well 'shaped', young and chirpy, with an unintelligible accent which will pass off to be authentic British. When I asked someone in Fashion Retail why such an overtly discriminatory practice lives on in this day and age, I was told that the customers expect it, and hence, retailers are powerless to be more 'fair'.

On the reverse, if you are Asian, you are most likely to be good in Maths, and will find it easy to find a job in computer programming. This was the helpful advice passed off to me by a sympathetic recruiter, who wanted to push my candidature in a large corporate training company. After a few rejections, I chose to follow his advice and tried my luck in the e-learning sector. To my surprise, I landed up almost every job I interviewed for in the sector. Not that I had any special qualifications or prior experience in e-Learning. Someone explained to me, much later, that customers don't feel uncomfortable being told about IT systems by an Indian man. Good for me!

However, the problem is that such role expectations are wrong and unhelpful. People take great pains, if and when confronted, to build defences and justify such prejudice, hiding behind customers, personal anecdotes and sometimes, dated quotes of dead men. I usually cite Kohlberg, the influential psychologist in 1960s who concluded that the men have greater 'moral' capabilities than women, when engaged in such conversation. Kohlberg was influential, his research was used to justify why there were so few women in higher positions in America. It was only much later the two principal flaws of Kohlberg's research was pointed out: That his sample included very few women, and his definition of 'moral' capabilities gave weight to traditional male values like independence and drive, but did not include feminine, but equally important, values like responsibility and relationship. I cite Kohlberg because the stereotypes and role expectations that I encounter face similar problems: They are extrapolated from a small sample to create a general rule [stereotyping] and then fitted into a set culturally biased 'role descriptors', the blondness of hair for fashion sales type or the wizadry of maths for an IT worker. In a struggling luxury retail industry surviving on Chinese tourists, more people in Fashion Retail will need to learn Mandarin than having blond hair soon. Nothing against blond hair, please: Of course, I know many blond-haired Europeans speaking fluent Mandarin and Hindi.

My first engagements with such racism and role expectations are inevitably bitter and disconcerting. However, as I stayed, a more mature reality started to emerge. Stereotypes are initially matched by stereotypes, but as time went by, I met people who defied all the moulds that could be built. Initially, I started making exceptions: Neighbours who were friendly, colleagues who showed genuine empathy and respect, people who matched their impeccable manners with a cultivated mind, and friends who crossed the boundaries of superficiality and became, well, friends. Soon, the exceptions became far too many and I started to see the pointlessness of all stereotypes, including my own.

Gradually, I saw the point - that racism is actually an institutional construct, maintained by the media, the demagogues and the sly political men, the parochial businessmen who would want to live in a frozen, status quo world; in short, all those who would want the world not to change. These assumptions inform and shape public debates, and manifest themselves in oblique forms as customer 'expectations', 'competency' definitions, editorial construction of headlines and also in the mechanics of everyday language.

But, with time, it became equally obvious that this discrimination isn't an inalienable feature of humankind; rather, the prejudices are quite obviously against the basic decency of all the individuals I got to meet in real life; at least, those who are capable of thinking for themselves. So, I arrived at a point of yet another transition, of enlisting myself in the post-racial camp, when I started to abandon the pretence of 'ranking' the cultures including my own and start to enjoy, genuinely for the first time, the diversity of modern life.

At this very point, paradoxically but may be not, my own identity became more apparent. This time, this identity is neither constructed on the absence or ignorance of 'otherness', nor in contrast or competition of other people's stereotypes. The identity I have now is built around a purpose: an obligation to uphold certain things and values, an assumption of responsibility I was born with and the rediscovery of the web of relationships which defines me as a person. This realization suddenly makes apparent the answer to the original puzzle : The relatives and friends who stayed back, stayed for a reason - because it was home. In the nakedness of a knowing existence, I as an immigrant suddenly discover my greatest desire and my greatest void - the ordinariness of being a resident.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

In Defence of Idealism

Viktor Frankl defends idealism, why we must believe in others to be what they should be, rather than what they are.

Deeply moving and inspiring, this comes as a gift in the middle of my despair. I am struggling with my innate idealism, something I inherited and grown up to believe, in the face of the usual mid-life crisis, a point where I start thinking where I am going and how much I have lost being a dreamer and not a realist.

However, here is a man who has seen it all, who has seen the moral bankruptcy of incomparable magnitude, and yet kept his faith and believed in the ultimate goodness of mankind and the meaning of life.

Friday, May 21, 2010

On Great Depression II

When I was writing about the economic recession in October 2008 [Memoirs of A Recession, for a local literary journal], I expected a short, painful recession, which will be ended by splurges of public spending. I also thought this would be an unfinished recession, which will come back in a few years with sovereign bankruptcies. President Bush was still at the helm, and I thought about the mother of all bankruptcies, that of America, and how that will mean the end of economics as we know it. I likened it to the First World War, which was an unfinished war, only to culminate in the mother of all wars, in 1939. I fancied telling the story as if sitting in 2040, old and wise, reflecting on lessons learnt and not learnt.

It seems now that I was optimistic. The world has been on a downward spiral since then. We failed to learn the lessons. We tried failed and discredited remedies to new diseases, not recognizing the limitations of our thinking nor the complexities of our situation. Mostly, we carried on business as usual, may be with a little inconvenience. We confused credit ratings for credit worthiness, short term for long term, investor confidence for innate competitiveness. We thought China and India will pull the world while Europe and America take a bit of rest, not realizing that our power structures and role expectations are biased against such a new alignment. Also, we overestimated these emerging economies, giving them a false sense of confidence, which allowed them to take the eye of the ball - of their own problems that they must solve. It seems now that we are sinking in the mud faster and deeper than we imagined.

Today, there are great fears everywhere. Remember, it always starts with fear. Greece is bankrupt, and has been kept on life support by European generosity. But even this generosity did not come with the kind of post-nationalist solidarity one would have expected in Europe; it has come at a price, a steep price for Greeks, and the European solidarity is all but broken. Euro, which was a favourite currency for investors even at the wake of the recession, is suddenly looking at a very gloomy future, possibly never to recover its standing as a global currency ever again. But it is the stock markets and the commodity prices which are causing more worry; suddenly, those who, like me, thought that this is going to be a short recession, are waking up to an alternate possibility - a rerun of Great Depression, which lasted a decade and caused a destructive war.

I am no doomsday preacher, but it is possible. World has enough unresolved problems already. At least two billion people around the world go starving every night. There are enough flash points around the world which can quickly snowball into a major conflict. There are desperate leaders at the end of their shelf life, like Kim Jong Il in North Korea, who may still have the power to create a collective hysteria and seek to destroy. We have imagined, and therefore got, a war of civilizations in our hands in the Middle East. And, on the other hand, we have got a commercial system, which we believe will bring in all remedies, which is dominated by juvenile investors and entrepreneurs who have made money just being at the right place at the right time. Our only hope out of the crisis, as we proclaim, is innovation and entrepreneurship; however, the very system that is supposed to produce the miracles we need, the capitalist financial system, has become an old boy's club, worshipping all values other than disruptiveness and innovation. So, we have a real risk and no real remedies, and a huge population caught in between; we are counting on providence, and patience on part of the dispossessed, but the signs are, we are moving to the opposite direction.

Let's talk about India. I do believe in India. I am after all, Indian born, and have deep connections with the country. I believe in the India story; I propagate them. But, I also know that despite the vast human potential of India, for all the opportunities to build a great society, the India story is not built on such solid foundations. It is, instead, a make-believe based on the real estate prices of suburban Mumbai and the speculation fuelled BSE Sensex; both, if you look deeper, are stories made of stories which are made of stories. The other parts of the India story, the corruption of IPL, the insurgency in the Indian heartland, the inefficient and grossly corrupt ministers, the bankruptcy of mainstream politics, are not counted, or counted as an aberration. We always see what we want to see; the problem is that unseen parts sometime may be more real than those which we believe we have seen.

China, ditto! Great progress, indeed. Have we not seen Shanghai? But that wealth is built on forced labour, on the accumulated miseries of the travelling workers, and a lack of freedom which makes it even more dangerous than India: We don't even see what is coming. Remember, the Rural poor in China was always very compliant, except at times when they were pushed to the brink of extinction, and when they rebelled. Mao may have been a great leader or may be not. There were times in China when the accumulated anger did not need a leader to turn into chaos. Remember the last Ming emperor committing suicide in his garden? That is unlikely to happen though, not because there are no emperors anymore, but because there is no sense of honour.

The recession, the talk of shifting global balance, allowed the Indian and Chinese governments to take the eye off the ball. As if such a shift is a given, or desirable. But this may not ever happen without a fairly deep transformation of world's economic system. As we have seen, such system changes need catastrophes of war and destruction; never in history a dominating power abdicated.

So, if we are still left with the old hands to pull us out of doom, are there hopes in America or in Europe? It seems that the last two years have so far taken its toll on collective thinking; the enterprise is all but muted and the speculation is all but rife. At the start of the recession, we said we need to curb speculation and encourage enterprise. We designed policies to do exactly the opposite - bailed out banks hoping for a trickle down effect and then consumed ourselves in the ensuing disputes about continuing bonuses. The democratic system that served us so well since the Great Depression showed its limitations in the face of the next one - we learnt that democracy actually middles public consciousness and actively disregards political innovation. For all its advantages, democracy is the political system of status quo; desperately short then things are not working.

If the economic and political system that we live under is bunk, and if there are no new solutions coming from the East, is our inevitable future to surrender to the pangs of a depression all over again? Today's fears may indicate just that: The systems we put our faith on may not be as foolproof or permanent we would like to claim. And, also a clear realization that no one knows the answer. It is not yet time to be fatalistic and give up hope; but there is nothing real to support exuberance and new beginnings as well.

Except one thing - the indestructibility of human spirit. We have been here before, such depths of confusion and directionlessness is not unknown to us. Our make-believe world did distract us from attempting any real solution, in the past. But this is also the setting when new ideas emerge. The new ideas may have a difficult and chaotic life path, it may have greater barriers in democracy, vested interests and conventional wisdom, but it will emerge and prevail. The new ideas may come from unexpected places, Sao Paulo, Chattisgarh or Xinxian comes to mind, but if the course of human history has to remain true to itself, it will emerge. Yes, I am aware that it is equally fatalistic to believe in redemption as it is to see a straight road to hell, but in situations like this, we are better off keeping our minds open than closing it off.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

On Corporate Training in India

My take: Indian training market will go through a major change in the next twelve months.

Call whatever you like, though 'Coming of Age' may seem most appropriate. It may offend some people, justifiably so, some Indian companies are leading training companies in the World. Like, NIIT, indeed. But, somehow, I think they categorise themselves wrongly. Many of these companies, like NIIT, Aptech etc, built themselves filling the great void in the education space. They are great private education companies, as good as any in the world. They are very vocationally oriented, mainly IT, and this is possibly why they benchmark themselves against training companies like New Horizons, Learning Tree or Oracle University. However, the motivation, commitment and alignment of most of their learners are quite different from the ones in the West. They are mostly school leavers than the mid-career professionals. Not that these companies don't offer a bouquet of in-company programmes, but that's not they are known for; consequently, this is not something which gets attention.

There are other companies indeed, which are far more focused on in-company training. NIS Sparta, which stood for National Institute of Sales when it started, and was focused on sales training for Indian companies, comes to mind. In fact, NIS Sparta's story is instructive of what ails Indian corporate training. This started, as I mentioned, with an objective of providing 'world class' sales training for Indian professionals. The 'Sparta' bit in their name came from their intended claim on Spartan heritage, lean, prepared fighters ready for the sales battle. Promoted by the owners of NIIT, and managed by people who started the business of western style motivation training in India in the first place [in a company called Team Productivity back in the late 80s], the company had all ingredients of success. Except one thing: They saw India through a prism of privilege and visualized the opportunity limited by the English speaking graduates from privileged backgrounds. They sought efficiency, and tied up with Huthwaite in Britain [which, strangely, operates as an independent company from the Huthwaite in USA, and hawks the same SPIN methodology] and took on some of the brightest professional trainers. The problem is - their model did not really work. The culture-fit problem is not just one of factors here; it is the factor. A sales training model like SPIN is embedded in behaviourist assumptions; behaviour of the trainer, behaviour of the trainee and future salesmen, behaviour of the customers who will be subjected to the method after the training. The culture question is everywhere in this equation. The model, unfortunately, did not take into account any of these.

Eventually, NIS Sparta all but failed and became, largely, an insurance training organization. A far cry from their intended top-of-the-range professional training, they were doing compliance training and slugging it out in the private education market. They got bought over by Reliance, which came with an advantage of the access to the huge internal market of the mother company itself. But, their model is at odds with the market. Despite the name, there was nothing Spartan about them; their operating model was full of glitz and glamour, and completely at odds with the shoestring operation and fierce cost competition of the compliance training market. They are not yet fully in alignment with the job they are tasked to do.

The story has various elements which can be extrapolated to construct the story of Indian corporate training. Let me try a list:

(a) Start as a small independent entity run by competent professionals, serving a niche clientele. [Team Productivity phase, where three highly regarded professionals teamed up to do sales training for up and coming technology companies like Modi Xerox and HCL, among others]

(b) The search for scale as the opportunity is large and the geography is diverse [Alignment, of a breakaway group with NIIT, and the other with APTECH in search of scale]

(c) The scale needing identity: the failure to create a home-grown identity and falling back on tried-and-tested models of the West [the privileged perception driving things to wrong direction; to become big and successful, Indian companies would not become like Western ones, they would need to become Indian]

(d) The mis-aligned model and lack of open-market competitiveness leading to search of security [While Indian companies have started exporting education successfully, they are long way of developing their own model of in-company training for the global market. The lack of open-market competitiveness of these companies forcing the executives, both at the training providers' side as well as at the client side, to decide to in-source, buy out the scale and make it part of the client's business]

(e) Failure to provide the promised internal efficiencies triggering new, independent competition [The story did not end with in-sourcing, as the efficiencies failed to materialize. The Indian industry continued to grow at a furious pace, and the internal structure of training creaking under pressure. This is leading the emergence of a new set of small independent players. Will it be deja vu all over again?]

As we watch this in-sourcing/ out-sourcing cycle, we should be mindful that one sector India has really done well in, Information Technology, has a long and successful tradition of in-sourcing education. I should point to an excellent article published by The Economic Times a few weeks ago, where Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar, one of my favourite writers and an astute commentator of India's progress, pointed out how Indian IT companies like Infosys and Wipro attained the scale and efficiencies by bringing training in-house. However, such success so far looks more an aberration than a rule, and seldom repeated in other sectors of the economy. In fact, in-sourcing led to a lack of efficiency most spectacularly in the financial services sector, where sobered executives are now bringing back the outsourcing of training all over again.

Now, this new growth of corporate training companies in India, I am predicting, will be different from the earlier cycles of growth in the wake of economic liberalization. This will be more matured growth, less spectacular but a lot more sustainable. Less spectacular because this new focus on corporate training spending will come from the search of efficiency rather than an unmet demand. The new training entrepreneurs can learn from the mistakes of the past, the lack of scale, the misaligned content and an overt subservience to dated western concepts, and this time around, build internal efficiencies and capabilities, just as the private education companies did in the past. I am also optimistic that this time around, the Indian businesses have a far more global mindset than at any time in the past; they are exposed to global competition and are willing to compete globally. The workforce is also more or less ready, at least at the cutting edge, to absorb the experiences gained elsewhere in the world but, at the same time, unafraid to think of their own.

So, interesting times in the corporate training space in India! I am sure we will see a lot more new efforts, business models and innovation in the area, as the Indian industry will continue to grow, compete globally and evolve their own model of management. It is a privilege being granted a front-row seat; I intend to make a very good use of it.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A New 100-Day Plan

I am back again with a 100 day plan.

Yes, I previously tried and failed, but this time, I think I can successfully pull off a real transformation. Two reasons. First, I have taken the difficult decisions that I needed to - walked out of my job and taken time to reflect and reorganize - something that gives me greater control over my own life. The current scheme of things will also mean less travel, which means greater predictability of how I am spending time, which will help. Second, I believe I can be more transparent and honest, which was always my intent. So far, cultural car-crashes, huge misunderstandings primarily arising out of inadequate cultural and business understanding, were far too frequent for my comfort. I had to stop reflecting on my work life altogether, because, despite my caution and discretion, the chances of being misunderstood were far too high. This changes now, because I am starting fresh and this time, I am doing something that I love. I am not under the scanner, because I am largely my own boss, and this will allow me to live the life I want - open, honest and transparent.

So, I start a new plan. Something new starts tomorrow. I have to surrender my Indian passport, as required by the law, and as a prerequisite of my application for an Overseas Indian Citizenship, which will take away my political rights in India, but will restore some of the economic privileges, like being able to stay and work in India if I wish to do so at a later date and being able to buy property, which I may need to do. The process is quite complex and long, I am told this will take about 12 weeks, and there is a sense of being unwelcome in the feel of things. This is quite in line with the ordinary disregard and suspicion that Indians have for the diaspora Indians. Tarun Khanna contrasted the attitude of Indians and the Chinese towards their respective diaspora. The overseas Chinese is actually seen as a source of support, enterprise and an extended part of the domestic Chinese community; the overseas Indians, unfortunately, are seen as people who have no sense of national loyalty and those who have 'betrayed' the motherland. I must admit that I was swayed by these feelings myself; it took me quite a while to come to terms with the idea of giving up my Indian passport. However, having lived outside India for almost 10 years now, I know such animosity comes from the very inward looking culture of modern India - a propensity to judge the world with its own benchmark and a sensitivity bordering adolescent insecurity about own self-image - and not from any particular act of Non-resident Indians.

The Non-Residents, at least those I know, are, well, non-residents, who suffer from deep insecurities in their adapted land, struggle everyday to assert their equal rights with the indigenous population, and when dealing with cousins at home, try to project an air of superiority and adapt an unfailingly patronising tone. That surely is irritating. I know a friend who will always introduce himself as 'Sanjiv from London' irrespective of where he is actually calling from. But then, this is usual non-resident characteristic. A non-resident Chinese will not be very different, except for the fact that most Chinese may agree that things can get better in China. For India, there is an emergent self-confidence, a will to conquer the world, and hence, such patronising tones sound wholly unwelcome. That is entirely reasonable. However, I also think that Indians need to engage with the world - it is not unusual to meet people in India who does not know that one needs a visa to come and work in Britain - and once that is achieved, the non-residents, their pain, insecurities and ambitions, will be better understood.

The second thing I do tomorrow is finalize a contract at my new place of work. I have accepted the offer to work with a local college in London. This is a highly successful, private training college which is experiencing quantum growth in the International markets. I like the people and the sense of dynamic chaos there. As usual, I am excited - I see great potential to work with this truly 'international' organization - and this is the real, hands on work that I was wishing for.

My keenness to work for this college is certainly triggered by my long term ambition to create a truly international education network, which I have talked about often on this blog. While my last position gave me an opportunity to engage in the international market and understand the potential, I could not do much. There may be several reasons, some outside everyone's control, contributing to the lack of progress, but one clear thing stood out all the time - to become successful internationally, a company needs to adopt an international mindset first. One needs diversity inside, of people, customers and partners, before one starts getting it. Otherwise, as I have seen, one tends to fall back on stereotyping and defensive mechanisms when the complexities and challenges of the international marketplace confounds the executives. When I looked at the college I am joining for the first time, the chaos, the multi-nationality appearance, the united nations of the staff room, are the factors that appealed to me most. This is a successful organization which has already become Global from inside; it will be far easier for them to take advantage of the emerging International opportunity.

So, this is what I do next. And, I am sure I shall learn, experiment with my ideas and observe. I am considering this to be the chance of my life. I would keep recording the goings-on on this blog.

Monday, May 17, 2010

What next?

As I go through this period of transition, which is both interesting and challenging, what I want to do next is the question I have to contend with constantly. One needs a direction, indeed, and uncertainty and instability are hardly enjoyable conditions. Like everyone, I would love to put some dates and plans on my diary; but, to be honest, I am taking it easy at this time, allowing myself the space to reflect, exploring possibilities and seeing life with a panoramic view.

Last three years of my life was very challenging. In a way, these were my Don Quixote years, with all elements in full play - the sense of honour, and the windmill. This was hard, indeed, and in the end, I was in a permanent state of resignation. That does not help: A sort of certainty which was going nowhere in the end. I feel well now as I contrast that lack of freedom with the current state of possibilities, and uncertainty is a small price to pay.

I should not say the years were all wasted though. It is not. For a start, I have understood what I don't want to do in life. That's a huge achievement by itself. Besides, I have a full view of my skills, and my shortcomings, attained through constant reflection and useful discussions with colleagues. I emerge from my last job sobered, but also better equipped and focused on what I want to do.

Also, travelling around for last three years, meeting people, discussing possibilities and ambitions with students, tutors and employers in different regions, I have got a first hand feel of the globalization, not just of technologies and investment opportunities, but also of aspirations and abilities. This is interesting to me: My generation which wanted to migrate and make a good life somewhere in the West are increasingly pushed away by a new Asian generation, which will create wealth, opportunities and possibilities by internalizing skills and knowledge available globally.

I see this as an opportunity and not a threat. I think everyone should see it that way. Human progress is not a zero-sum game. Asia's progress does not necessarily mean Europe's fall. It is not set up to happen that way. In fact, this only means more talent, more opportunities, fresh ways of looking at things and fresh minds to solve problems. Consider all the decline-and-fall literature and we shall know one thing: Decline is always an internal thing. We set it off internally. Civilizations, or for that matter, nations don't decline just because another one progresses. They decline because they close their doors, and minds. They go against the invariable force of technology, knowledge and ideas. They become cultural fundamentalist, supremacist. That starts the decline, it always did. However, if we can see that there is only one civilization - the human civilization - and we are all parts of the whole, each making contributions and each enjoying the fruits of collective knowledge, this Asian resurgence will mean enormous opportunities.

I see my opportunity here, facilitating this international flow of knowledge and skills. This is an ever emerging opportunity, and frankly, I believe we are not even at the threshold. This is an area which technology will impact next, and impact big: I am not talking about just e-learning here. Education is at the threshold of a revolution, primarily because our societies have changed so much but our education ideas have not. Or, they have only just started to come to terms with what needs to be done.

Besides, this is an area of human endeavour which is affected by so many other externalities - legal environment, politics, social power equations, religion, economic conditions. Education, I feel, is one of the most common human activities, but one of the most regulated, most complex and most hindered by dated thinking. The good news is - we are at a breaking point. The dam will burst soon. I would want to be there when it bursts.

So, I am currently focused on picking up skills and abilities in International Education. I have lots of ground to cover - to understand the practises, have a good grip on theory and policy, understand and master technologies, understand management principles and define an overarching goal of my private endeavour - but I have taken the first step: Commit myself. I am looking for jobs in the area, as well as investing in relevant skills and abilities, and making the necessary connections. Some of it is reflected on this blog, as I maintain this as a scrapbook of my ideas; the rest will reveal itself in what I do next.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Celebrating An English Victory

England has finally won, after many many years, a World Tournament for Cricket. Yes, a proper one, the World Twenty-Twenty Title, beating the all-cylinders charging Australia. However, winning is only part of the whole celebration; England looked unstoppable after the few initial hitches, and the team contained so many young, exciting talents.

It may be naive to expect a contagion of success, but one must hope: England can sure win the Football World Cup in South Africa in a couple of months. That will be really really big! We have a great team, which combines the best footballers from the best domestic league in the world. So, why not expect a rerun of 1966, when England won the football cup last time, and never played a final since.

That's not far fetched by any standard. English sport is currently going through a sort of renaissance. For next few years, Burton/Hamilton duo will always have a running chance of lapping up F1 title between them. And, if Andy Murray, though he is very Scottish, surely will make a Wimbledon one day, why not make it this year? And, all this can lead to an One-day Cricket World Cup title next year, which, with the current crop of Cricketers, England will be a favourite to win.

So, pop the champagne, a small one, will you? Reserve the vintages for days to come, when we will have more celebrations. We are entering an exciting age of sports, when we shall go beyond fair play trophies and stop being good losers. It will be a time when we shall win. Earlier, I said, Britain is feeling bleak; tonight, we may have turned a corner.

One parting thought, though. It always helps to think about the reasons for success when we are successful. What makes England great? The cricket team provides an insight. Look at the exciting new talents like Pieterson, Kieswetter and Lumb, who between them have won us the World Cup. What makes the Premier League exciting and pushes up the standards of people like Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole, are the people like Didier Drogba, Carlos Tevez and the army of the best and the brightest footballers from Africa and elsewhere in the world that comes to play.

This is not strange or exceptional, this is just how it works. So, when celebrating England and the English victory and an all-England future of this year's sport, we should also celebrate the English spirit: The open, welcoming, tolerant society, which invites and nurtures talents from all over the world. Upbeat and finally on a winning run, let us not succumb anymore to the xenophobic talk that all the migrants are taking this country to dogs.

Learner & Tutor : The Classroom Equation

It is interesting to explore how the power equations in the classroom, or for that matter, any learning environment, are shaped.

The starting point is that the two primary participants in the classroom, the learner and the tutor, are both human, and they carry with them their unique psychological make-ups, shaped by their individual histories and backgrounds. They carry with them their Freudian personality, their unconsciousness driving their value systems and their super-ego desperately controlling their direction.

It is interesting to watch how these personalities play out in the classroom. Someone who had a difficulty in learning herself would often try to project learning as difficult; someone who grew up as her father's special child will often pick up a special pupil, to the jealousy and dismay of everyone else. On the other hand, learners will often come with their sets of expectations to the classroom. This will often be dictated by what they missed in their lives, the roles and expectations which their parents may have fallen short of.

Of course, classroom is an intensely social setting, and especially adult classrooms, which I am primarily concerned with. The personal make-ups of the actors here gets engulfed by the social power equations and expectations. Imagine an one-off training consultant trying to deliver a training programme to a group of large company executives, where the power equation is invariably skewed against its natural tilt, and you get the sense. Thinking back, I now know why so many of the consultants spend so much time bragging about their individual backgrounds and expertise: Often, it is a power dance to set the equation right.

Go one step further and bring on the global classroom, where the tutor and learners may have come from different cultural backgrounds, and the power equation assumes a new dimension altogether. The personalities involved, the social context of the classroom and the cultural power dimensions all engulf the actual learning experience.

Imagine for a moment training someone on decision making. Let's say the person who needs the training is looking up to the teacher as an authority figure, and let's say we pick a tutor who knows the subject and projects a personality which is clear and decisive. Let us also assume for a moment that this is one area the learner was found to be lacking, and was 'strongly' recommended, by a supervisor, that he takes the course. Add to this fairly usual setting a tutor who is old and wise, perhaps from a western culture, who has seen the world and indeed, who starts his sessions and spends the first fifteen minutes telling everyone his credentials. I am quite certain a good session can be held in such a setting, and the learner can go home happy, have a number of great handouts and even feel empowered that he has learnt about decision making. If there is a behavioural objective, something in the lines of 'The Learner will be able to decide', which is measured by asking the learner whether he can or can not make a decision, the box will probably be ticked to everyone's satisfaction.

But, the construct of the classroom will linger in the learner's consciousness. Yes, he will be able to make decisions, as long as there is a strong support environment available, somewhat similar to the setting I just described. A strong, inaccessible authority figure, a directive to do the job, the elements present in this setting. Something that will still leave him helpless when decisions have to be made without the support, and in conditions of ambiguity. Unfortunately, that is the setting most decisions actually get made.

What is my point? I think a consideration should be made to these psychological and social elements of the classroom when planning a training programme. Again, talking from the adult workplace learning perspective, I think this is where a number of initiatives fail; behavioural objectives are somewhat made to meet, but the learning may not happen effectively. The fissures actually become clear quite soon after the training programmes have completed; let us call this the gap between practical business and workplace learning. This is where a deeper understanding of adult education theory can help workplace learning professionals, though , currently, the current dogma in workplace learning is to become more 'business-like', which is precisely the opposite direction it should be going.

Value of College Education

A study of Graduate earnings in Britain indicates that going to the university indeed pays. Neil Faulkner makes the point in the Yahoo! Finance article, which can be accessed here.

I shall quote a few interesting bits of statistic from the article.

For example, consider this list of highest paying subject areas:

Subject studied

Average extra earnings (compared to non-graduates)















European languages




Linguistics and English






This is, of course, the 'lifetime' premium of a degree, which is quite modest for some of the subjects at the bottom of that list.

The top order has few surprises, though Chemistry graduates earning more than Business Graduates is interesting, particularly considering many university Chemistry departments are struggling.

The other interesting statistic is the comparison of Annual earning of graduates versus non-graduates, which reads like this:

Age in 2008

Degree or equivalent

A-level, GCE or equivalent






















All ages (21 -34)



So, it seems that by the time one reaches 30 years of age, the graduation premium peaks. This is quite a considerable difference in salary, over £10,000 annually, roughly 40% on the basis of non-graduate salary.

Another interesting statistic, quoted in the same article, the rate of return of graduate degrees, and here, law comes at the top.


Rate of return











European languages


Medicine (excluding dentistry)


Chemical sciences




Linguistics and English




In this list, management fares well too.

But, the sobering bit, particularly for lifelong learners, comes now. There is hardly any Post-Graduation premium. Not all employers, and I must add from experience, the SME employers in particular, are ready to pay a premium for Post-Graduation. Those who pay a Post-Graduate premium, may pay upto £6,000 extra a year for a Ph D or £4,000 for a Masters degree. The study reports that very few employers actually pays a premium for MBA, but those who pay, may pay upto £12,000 a year [investment banks, surely].

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Training For Reflection

My understanding of the Workplace Learning is that the practise is dominated by behaviourist paradigm. So, the key principles held dear by the workplace learning practitioners are the following:

(a) Observable behaviour change, rather than internal processes, is the key. So, the effectiveness of any training interventions should be measured or evaluated by what people do, rather than what people think, see or feel.

(b) The environment shapes one's behaviour. What one learns is determined by the environment, the design and delivery of the programme and incentives at work, and not by individual learners. So, a programme should be seen as a part of the environment, designed to enhance the experience and create a common platform of understanding so that common stimulus-response pattern can be expected.

(c) Workplace Learning should establish contiguity [how close two events must be to form a bond] and reinforcement [any means of increasing the likelihood that an event will be repeated] as central to the learning process. So, the learning, which should establish a certain way people should behave, should revolve around what leads to what, and how one must keep repeating the 'success formula'.

If the above seems obvious things to do from a workplace learning perspective, it may make sense to grasp the underlying theoretical perspective. Behaviourists are popular because their theories seem to conform to the management thinking - that there is a clear cause-effect relationship in human behaviour, and an efficient formula can lead to sure-shot business success.

However, behaviourist theories have come out of very little human research - because such research is forbidden by law and beyond professional ethics - and they were formed mostly by observing animal behaviour in controlled laboratory conditions. Best known examples of behaviourist experimentation is Pavlov's dogs, who were trained to salivate at the sound of a bell, and also Skinner's pigeons, who learnt to peck on a certain button because food pallets were to appear as a result of such a peck. However, these are hardly conditions and behaviours which will apply to humans, particularly those whose physical needs have been met and who perform complex 'knowledge work'. However, for all the refinement of models and practises, the workplace learning paradigm, primarily shaped by management dogma, remain firmly rooted in behaviourist ideas.

The behaviourist thinking has deeply influenced various aspects of workplace learning, including the whole discipline of Instructional Design, which has achieved great sophistication over the years, and the Measurement of Training Outcomes, which is becoming increasingly popular. On the other hand, though, the ideas about the organization life and management are constantly shifting. For example, management is increasingly seen as a practise more than a science, where outcome of an action is far from certain and critical reflection is seen as the key to improvement of practise. Development of abilities of a person is differently viewed, not in terms of the performance of the assigned work, like John Henry or Alexey Stakhanov, but in terms of intelligent input, innovation and continuous improvement that a person may bring. Even the identity of a person, which was defined by a sort of 'stage of life' concept in the last century, have moved on, and is increasingly seen as something to be constructed, in the social context, not unlike putting up a well planned facebook page. In this context, the current practises of workplace learning surely fall short: Leadership courses that dwell on best practises of another era, sales training that rely on a simplistic stimulus-response sequence detached from the complexities of real life, and reductionist formulas which make ceteris paribas assumptions to determine the Return on Investment of training in a still-life world, are all examples of flawed behaviourist assumptions being stretched to meet an out-of-size requirement.

If management as a discipline moves on and establishes the requirement of critical thinking and reflection in the workplace, the learning practises must follow the same. It must establish the primacy of observation alongside performance, allow reflection at work and balance 'what works' dogma with 'why it works' analysis. Most organizations are culturally ill at ease with such thinking, particularly when they are sustained by arcane power relationships and role expectations.

However, the organizations can ill afford not having an engaged and observant workforce, because such engagement is key to innovation and improvement. The combined forces of business environment, recession, shifting international power equations, technology and an emergent bottom-of-the-pyramid market, are forcing the organizations to change, and taking workplace learning with it. Training for reflection is not easy; however, the practise will hit home as the discipline must itself start reflecting on its own assumptions.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Political Transformation of Britain

Britain is changing, for all purposes and intent, from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential one.

The process would have started some years back. One can't really pin it down to a particular event, though Tony Blair, with his gift of presence, largely initiated the process. His successor in office, Gordon Brown, accepted and continued the process, first by insisting on a mid-term succession, and then making the election, wrong-headedly, a referendum on himself.

In doing so, however, he lost; though not before a never before Leader's Debate on TV, where the three party leaders took carefully pre-selected questions from a carefully pre-selected audience and made their various political statements. Besides, the British Press intervened in the political process, as is the tradition, but this time, they were focused far more on personalities, particularly that of Gordon Brown, than on the parties.

The process of transformation into a Presidential system has only hastened after the election. In the immediate aftermath, the country was gripped by a sense of panic. If I learnt one thing about British life is that the strangers don't talk to strangers, and that includes some neighbours who lived in the house next to you for a decade, unless there is a calamity; a flood, a snowstorm, or England winning the football world cup. However, in the days after the election, there was lots of discussion about 'government-lessness', an idea created by the media, though in reality, the existing system works just fine and we are never without a government.

There was a huge, collective sigh of relief when an unlikely coalition was stitched up between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Some people I know only voted Liberal Democrats just because they did not want Conservatives in power, and it was a rather paradoxical outcome of their decision to do so. However, it did not really matter, because the transformation of Britain to a Semi-Presidential state will continue to undermine individual intent and the small-country feel of its democracy. The reason why such a coalition was even formed was, admittedly, to keep the bond markets happy. The newspapers and the voters at large were perfectly happy to get a government for, of and somewhat by the bond traders.

Besides, the current debate about fixed term parliament takes things even further. The idea is that the parliament can not be dissolved before its term expires unless 55% of the MPs agree; an extraordinary idea coming at the back of a general election where no party has got an absolute majority. The parties which propose this, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, were stoking up the collective fear of not having a duly elected government last week. One of the papers were calling Gordon Brown a 'squatter' because he was forced to stay on as a Prime Minister, by tradition, till a coalition was formed; the same paper is now entirely comfortable with the idea that a government may lose the confidence of majority of the MPs, which means 50% plus one, but may still stay in power because the parliament can't be dissolved before its turn without 55% of MPs agreeing.

I am not sure how to explain this twilight zone of democracy, the gap between the '50%+1' to '55%', the precisely area which defines the hungness of the hung parliament and collective panic that gripped us for a week. Our disregard for such nuances is a sign of our desire for a Presidential system, which in turn comes from, possibly, our deep bonding with America and our appreciation of movies like 'The Independence Day', at a time when our existence is getting threatened by faceless alien bond traders.

A presidential system may not work for Britain for a variety of reasons. Unlike America, the British Legislature, Executive and Judiciary are closely interlinked. Besides, though some devolution has happened, the British government still remains strongly unitary. There will be too much power in the hands of a British President, if there is to be one. Besides, Britain is a strongly class-based society, and a Presidential system will eventually throw up a loony, because we shall remain hostage, against our better judgement, to The SUN and other similar rags. Our celebrity obsessed culture may lead us soon to a Presidential Big Brother house, and as a way of revenge, we may succeed in exporting that format to America.

In summary, we are at a twilight zone of British democracy. The Prime Time TV, pointless celebrities, the bond speculators and no-holds-barred journalists are taking over one thing that this country can be really proud of - its parliamentary democracy. In this era of crumbling institutions, this may be one thing worth saving.

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