Thursday, December 30, 2010

Arguments with Myself: Search for a New Career

I am signing off early. With 30 more hours to go in 2010, I already had enough. I am rather eager to start the New Year.

It is always good to start a New Year in a high. And, considering that I am all too aware of the fragility of any upbeat feeling, that should be okay. This isn't like 2010, when I knew I was doomed. In fact, the last time I started a year with this feeling was back in 2006, but indeed, that was a different reality altogether. Lots of things have changed since. My life is different; my demands are completely transformed. In January 2006, I was seeking adventure, all but ready to take on an USAID funded position in Beirut, notwithstanding the pleas from my family and friends; now, I am looking forward to a few more years in Suburban London, keeping my day job and working on some new possibilities within it. The irony is: In 2006, I was all too attached to my family, with my mother still around; now, I am living the the loneliest time in my life.

But, that apart, the world is also quite different. In 2006, Gordon Brown was still the Chancellor and was extolling the 'longest unbroken run of prosperity' in Britain. In 2011, that dream is all but over, and we are possibly staring on the face of a deep economic and political crisis in Europe in the New Year. Britain has decidedly entered the post-prosperity age, of politics and of economics, and the discourse about recession and gloom is dominating the public mood. The FT's new slogan - We Live in the Financial Times - proved all too prescient even for the City crowd, and one is desperately seeking a break of some sort.

As much I would want to believe that this is a part of a global power-shift, from Europe to India and China (a view I ardently subscribed to in 2006), I am now deeply suspicious. True, it seems that all the Middle Class professions have started their exodus to these emerging economies of three billion people between them, the countries themselves have not changed much: India has lapped up the new opportunities, but failed to do anything to alleviate poverty or root out corruption. Instead, such job-shift has helped these countries to protect the key problems and create myths around their business-as-usual. So, instead of 'economic development', as celebrated in the Western Media, the whole exercise has turned into an economic window-dressing, a sort of dependent development where the Middle Class signs up for an allegiance to global capitalism, but in turn gets more divergent from its own people, the billions of working class which is pushed into an unending struggle for existence. The omens are indeed not good: For all India's success story, trains between Kolkata and Mumbai, two of India's biggest cities, can not operate in the night because of the pre-dominance of the Maoist insurgents in the Indian heartland.

Returning to Britain, however, the hollowing of the Middle Class is clearly visible. In fact, there is a new term going around - the Squeezed Middle. This is an interesting shift from the Cold War days, if one cares to think. During the Cold War, the European Middle class was pampered with Public Sector jobs, a nanny economy and publicly provided necessities of the middle class life, health care, education and employment. This was the time when the Third World middle class was revolutionary, claiming their place in the world (and a chunk of the privilege pie). How the wheels have turned: The end of Cold War has left the European Middle Class without cover, and now, this recession has effectively torn down the last remnants of the Welfare States. It has, however, enacted another great transformation, a job-shift, primarily to Asia, buying out the Asian Middle classes through cheaper mortgages and ubiquitous mobile phones, and breaking their alliances with their working class people irreversibly. If the creation of the European Middle Classes happened with the 'Great Transformation', rise of the free market as opposed to Social markets, this phase is a 'Great Unravelling' for the Middle Classes in Europe. For the Asian Middle class, this may be the period of a 'great sell-out'.

In the middle of this, my dreams, rather belated, of great middle class stability look fragile and unreal. In fact, my state of rootlessness is more at one with my reading of the world around me. But, the stability I crave for is less defined by the space, but has more to do with the intellectual belonging. In all honesty, I have had my adventures, moving from one profession to another, with relative ease, so far in my life. I have done, mostly, what I chose to do. But while I enjoyed the playfulness of this career, this is part of the reason I feel so rootless. And, in a world of fast-evaporating middle class careers, this is a scary feeling. Howard Gardner makes this point in his excellent Five Minds for The Future: He says in the coming days, everyone must have a 'discipline'. If you don't have a 'discipline' or a 'profession', you don't stand much of a chance (at least in the West). Flitting around from one career to another, I did not develop a discipline: This is one thing at the top of my mind now.

So, indeed, I, as always The King of Fresh Beginnings, am planning a new career. One thing that I deeply love, understand and can work on for rest of my life: Technology. This is a lost love which I left for more earthly glamours and money of sales at the very start of my career. Resolving to return to work with technology makes me sort of feel good. Indeed, I resolved to work in a domain I know best - education - as have worked all these years within the field. I am almost returning to an old idea, of setting up an Online College, all over again: Only just it is more real and more achievable this time, particularly within the context of my day job. This is my search of a new discipline, which should hopefully turn out to be a relevant and productive one.

How do I fit my new career plans in the gloomy world I just described? The politics aside, for which I shall dedicate my free time and this blog now, the business opportunities in the West will reside in creating smart offers substituting the vanishing public services: Education Technology is one such thing. This is also the thing that the emerging Asian and Latin American middle classes need to make the global competition for middle class work more real. So, I see a fast-growing global market of education technology in all parts of the world (which may also help make my globe-trotting ambitions, a childhood dream that ended in being a shipwreck like Robinson Crusoe, come true). For my more political self, this is also something which can change the world: Ability to change the access to knowledge always did in the past. The inequality and subjugation in the world is built around inequality and subjugation based around access to information and knowledge. So, this is a discipline, an area of work, which can potentially put me at peace, and combine my work for a career, and towards my social commitments, rest together side by side.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Say I Love You First: The Power of Vulnerability

Randomly Miscellaneous Words, Life and Love

I discovered a word : Serendipity.

I came across this before, indeed, but never understood it. This was one of the more exotic bits of my adopted language, which I kept neatly tucked away, never needing to use it. It was as beautiful and as unnecessary as the three Persian princes of Serendip, the story that gave us the word. I traveled around, but never liked the expression - if you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there. For all what I am, I am a dreamer, a planner in disguise.

It made no sense to arrive somewhere I did not plan for. Or not to want something that I do end up having. The real life experiences are just the opposite - I do not get where I want to go, I scramble for what I want. This is indeed exotic, out of the way, as unreal as those little princes of Persia. All wonderfully miscellaneous for the busier ends of life.

The point is, indeed, as it must be said at this Christmas pause, that all the busy ends, all these busyness, all planning, are as wonderfully miscellaneous, exotic and out of the blue as some of the accidental ones, like those princes. At a day when I can sit on a Monday afternoon and write this pointless note, which aspire never to be read and still less to be understood, when I make no attempts to sound knowledgeable or to make a reasoned argument, the whole charade of my life, all the bits I thought were carefully planned, choreographed and executed, look like a series of accidents, serendipitous. It seems order and reason only exist at the hindsight, and the more we pretend to be orderly, the more we lose it.

Love is surely similar, though I rarely talk about love here. This goes with my pretension to be business-like, and besides, this is supposed to be intensely personal. The point is though, everyone loves someone and everyone has a theory about it. And, it is, like that work-life illusion, supposed to be wonderfully orderly, structured and full of expectations. One plans for love - to meet THE ONE - and search, sometimes without an end. But, in reality, it is as completely messy as the other bits of life: Love is only apparent at the hindsight, I shall say, and it never exists to be pre-judged or anticipated. It is therefore possible to fall in love in a bus, in a office, in a concert, or on the Internet, and that makes it no less valid than the traditional courtly love of the past generations. The point, perhaps, is that the illusions of order, and indeed morality that follows, exist only at the hindsight: The possibilities of love are entirely serendipitous.

I discovered, in the last few weeks of my somewhat depressed loneliness, that most things in life are quite accidental. It is false to pre-judge them. Take, for example, conversations, the modern art which makes ideas possible. It is easy to say that - we are talking about a subject - but good conversations are accidental, like love and life, in the beginning as well as in their ends. The question of end makes it even more interesting: A good conversation may never actually end. One may run out of words, the context may change, the language may be forgotten, but, a good conversation stays, treasured, may be only in minds of its participants, to give a context to everything that are said afterward.

This pause in my life allows me to marvel at the wonderfully accidental nature of our life, love and everything else. Everything may happen for a reason, but reasons alone do not make them valid or real. It is the story of human sensations, that we talked, loved, walked and imagined together, makes all these random bits real. Order is our attempts to limit the possibilities after the event has happened, and our moralities are fossilized versions of the order; but, while you are at it, life is a messy swarm full of possibilities, twists and turns, each to be taken in its own merit, each moment as valid as any other in the past, each conversation as full of possibilities, each sensation as desirable.

Understanding this messy nature is key to living, I shall say; I shall not want to escape the past unless it comes on the way of creating a future, but it often does. The relationships and their definitions, handed down to us, are no more valid than those we create ourselves, and our own senses are not to be prejudged and subjugated in the altar of scripture-worship. This is the context I discover serendipity, and this allows me to start all over again. It is not just about finding something, but knowing that what I found will change my life forever, that matters. For me, this Christmas was full of gifts - of people I came to know, of friends I earned, of ideas that I discovered; but, the word is not just another gift, it is the one to define all the other gifts I received and all the expectations I build from now on.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Guest Post : Soaring College Costs: Should College Education Be Free for Everyone

According to a Money Magazine article, for over two decades colleges and universities across the United States have been increasing tuition four times faster than the overall inflation rate. After adjusting for financial aid, the amount of money families pay for college has soared 439% since 1982. The soaring costs of a college education has brought back the discussion of whether or not college education should be free. Let's take a look at the two sides of the debate.



Arguments in Favor of Free College Education




  • Student Debt: Many students graduate with an overwhelming amount of debt, which can significantly affect their lives. The average yearly cost, including tuition and expenses, of attending a public, 4-year school is close to $20,000. The costs of going to private for-profit and non-profit 4-year colleges are $30,000 and $35,000 per year, respectively (Source: National Center for Education Statistics; 2007-2008 school year). Fortunately, some students do receive grants and scholarships to help ease the burden.

  • Local economic impact: The construction of new facilities and the new jobs created by the need for more faculty and staff would stimulate local economies.

  • National economic impact: More people would attend college if it were free, and an educated workforce would make the United States more competitive in the global economy. The nation needs more educated workers. A report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce states that in 2018 about 63 percent of all U.S. jobs will require at least some postsecondary education. American employers will need about 22 million new workers with postsecondary degrees. The report forecasts that U.S. employers will fall short by three million highly educated workers without a big change in the status quo.

  • Informed decisions: Some people believe a college education helps people make informed decisions in a democratic society.

  • Personal accomplishment: Obtaining a college degree provides people with confidence and a sense of achievement.

  • Lowering the cost: Bachelor's degrees could become three-year degrees by eliminating some general education requirements and thus lowering the cost to taxpayers.

  • Changes in education requirements: In the past, a high school education was sufficient for a large percentage of workers, and public schools provided them with a free education. Now, a lot of the good paying jobs require a college education, so out of fairness some people believe free education should be extended to colleges.

  • Volunteer services: Free public colleges can require students to provide volunteer services in return for their education.



Arguments Against Free College Education




  • Education required for jobs: Some people claim there are not enough jobs available which require a college degree, so why should taxpayers spend more money on public colleges and create more overqualified workers?

  • Competition: Some experts believe that the competition for students' money makes US colleges better.

  • Private colleges: Tuition powered, non-elite private colleges could get hurt. However, some of these colleges could become public.

  • Upward mobility: Some people are concerned that a free college means more college graduates, and this will make it harder for those who don't go to college to advance in their careers.

  • Job relevant degrees: Some people argue that certain degrees have little to no value in the real world. They believe college should be expensive so that college students are more inclined to study topics that are valued and useful for society instead of taking degree programs they enjoy or believe are easy to complete but have no practical use. A lot of people attend college after graduating from high school because they don't have a better plan; however, they might not be ready for college. A lot of these students receive financial aid, drop out of college, and thus waste taxpayers' money.

  • Outsourcing: Those in favor of free college education for everyone claim that the United States needs more educated people to compete in the global economy. However, due to companies outsourcing jobs to foreign countries, there are actually less jobs available for college educated Americans. According to an October 2010 Los Angeles Times article, the most recent Commerce Department data indicates that employment at the foreign subsidiaries and affiliates of US multinational companies grew by 729,000 employees from 2006 to 2008 to a total of 11.9 million. During that same period, domestic employment by these companies decreased by 500,000 jobs to 21.1 million. For example, more and more high level engineering and development for products produced in China are being done in China and not in the United States. Also, according to the Los Angeles Times article, Dennis Donovan, a veteran corporate-relocation consultant, said many legal and engineering firms already outsource routine work overseas. He sees a bigger wave of offshoring by the burgeoning healthcare industry.

  • Low-income taxpayers: Some people argue that low income taxpayers shouldn't help finance the college education of wealthier students.



So that's the issue. Where do you stand?



Brian Jenkins is a member of the BrainTrack.com writing team. He is an expert on a number of college and career topics.

Essays for the New Year: The Context of 'International Higher Education'

The recession is refusing to go away. Even before some good news emerged in the United States - at last - Europe started crumbling. It was Deja Vu all over again: The leaders' scramble, a patched up loan fund, a North-South divide, and one crisis after another. We are just in the Christmas Break from the crisis, and there is no signs yet that the domino effect has been contained.

And, it is not about the financial crisis alone. The world continued its journey towards becoming a more dangerous place. Despite some drone-induced victory against Al Queda and Asif Zardari clinging on to power by his teeth in Pakistan, the American-led coalition in Asia looked tired and divided, ready to cut-and-run, in contrast with their opponents, who seemed to have an endless stream of recruits, covert state sponsors and a zeal to continue for thousand years. North Korea, on the brink under pressures of economic crisis and leadership succession, continued to play dangerously. The Chinese induced thaw in Burma achieved little other than pushing the country out of headlines, for a moment. But the list of failed states continued to get longer - Somalia, Yemen, Ivory Coast, Sudan, Chad, Congo - all hovered dangerously close to disintegration.

The only hope against this world-wide disintegration and disorder came from the middle classes. One may say, their time has finally come. In a historical sense, middle classes were the maintainers of society, who wrote the books and found the justification for the existing social order. However, their influence was only very limited on the polity and economies of the world, and indeed, this has more to do with their defining characteristics, fear of unknown and love of conformity, than anything else. They were, in a sense, the conduit of production - they managed the working classes to produce and sell the produce at an 'acceptable' price - and of savings, so that the surplus could be used by various agencies to maintain the status quo.

However, suddenly, the role expectation of the middle classes have changed. They are being seen as the saviours of modern day capitalism, and are accorded a much more central role in the politics and economics than they were previously allowed.

Apparently, there are at least three reasons for this new found love for the Middle Classes.

First, the Post-Colonial model of keeping the vast territories of Asia, Latin America and Africa under control through a well-fed elite class is proving to be unsustainable. This is primarily because of the shift in the economic role of these territories, from the 'passive' supplier of natural resources to 'active' producers of manufactured goods and services. This expands the need of hired hands in these territories and their active participation, not just physical but even ideological, in the world economic system. This changes everything: Previously, these countries needed a small middle class, now they need a large one.

Second, there is a role reversal of sorts for middle classes as the world economy is reeling from excess savings in certain areas, which has driven the real interest rates low, almost negative. This, in crude economic sense, means that the previous generations in Asia, Lat-Am and Africa lent too much money to American bankers and forgot to take a payback. The developed economies loved to play with the surplus, but as production in these territories stemmed and people generally started settling for a more comfortable life, someone needed to keep churning the wheels of money. This is now expected of these middle classes in 'Southern' countries, that they not only produce but consume, not just save but borrow.

Third, apart from the needs of production and consumption, there is a need for the Middle Classes to play a part in politics. This is indeed the dangerous bit. One has now come to realize that keeping tinpot rulers like Kings and Emirs of the Gulf is not sustainable; they undermine the authority of the state itself and give birth to powerful non-state actors. The only way to save the modern state, and along with it the current economic and political arrangements, is to get the middle classes involved. Democracy, in short, but the controlled version of it, where, like in the West now, everyone speaks more or less the same language. The framework can be summarized as : You can have any democracy as long as it is run by Murdoch.

So, in essence, the world needs the middle classes, in their millions now. They are needed to manage the productions (and herd the working classes), lead the queues to the stores and run the conformist democracies. They are the vanguards of 'power-spread' - as opposed to the myth of the center of the economic world shifting to the East - some sort of wild west pioneers tasked to bring the world into a single fold.

Now, this is the world we step into, in 2011. I see the context of International Higher Education in this background: Tasked to create the new middle classes and expand it, equip it to become the vanguards of the new global order. Whether or not I agree with this goal, I see this to be a necessary historical phase. I almost know this will happen: This is a necessary step before the Capitalist system reaches its full glory. However, the humanistic university system, developed in the West just before the spread of democracies, is not fit for purpose for this world-wide land grab. This new education isn't about equipping people to be a 'man of the society' merely. The assumption is that the society does not exist - not at least in the desirable form - and the new emerging middle classes will shape the next societies, integrated into the capitalist system as producers and consumers (as opposed to mere suppliers) and which share the same values (anglophone, perhaps, and enthralled with Murdoch press). This is the job of a new breed of For Profit education providers, agile and adaptive, who will lead the trail and draw a lot of attention in the new year and beyond. After years of languishing on the sidelines, Higher Education is suddenly cool - right at the center of the global agenda of rebuilding out of recession.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Teaching Adults: The Question of Migrant Students

Something I learnt reading Stephen Brookfield, but now tested it in the classes I took and become an absolute believer: If you are teaching adults, it is absolutely crucial that you encourage the development of a positive self-concept.

In short, that's obvious: Don't teach adult students as children. In fact, it is better to assume that they know what they want even when you may have an urge to 'teach' them. The point is that they can decide. Post-compulsory education is all about choice, and they have made the choice to sit in your class. Whatever barriers you may want to erect, if they choose to walk out, they will.

This is a particularly important understanding for me at work. We have a number of overseas students at the college. The current UK Border Agency norms hold the college responsible for the conduct of their students and hence, give a lot of power to the college over its students. In a way, this is problematic and show how little the bureaucrats at the Home Office understand, or indeed, care about education. They are in favour of an administrative straight-jacket: They have made employers responsible for the employees they bring to the country, and used the same formula for the college-student relationship. This is quite blind to the fact that while for an overseas employee, employer is the customer, in a college-student context, it is quite the other way around.

This makes running the education business one step more complicated. In this inverted relationship equation, it is easy to be patronizing to the students. Telling them what to do is exactly what the Border Agency expects you to do. But, on the other hand, this is contrary to Adult Learning 101: You treat adult students as adult students, respect them and try to understand them. There is no way you can build an effective learning environment without positive regard for your students, without facilitating their own positive self-concept. Assuming that they are all waiting to run away, which Border Agency norms want you to believe, runs counter to every norm of good adult education.

It is difficult to resolve this paradox without courage to take risks and start treating your students as partners, responsible adults who want to develop their professional skills. Rather than falling into the slippery slope of suspicion and disrespect, it is much better to keep the values of education non-negotiable. And, indeed, treating adults as adults, encouraging them to find their own path and unerringly helping the development of their own self-concept are these core, non-negotiable values.

This is one of the key things I shall work on the New Year: How to comply to Border Agency requirements while, at the same time, keeping the values of adult classrooms untouched? The easy answer lies in building a better system of recruiting students who will invariably comply: In short, export the compliance function to the countries where student comes from. This is where the British model of recruiting through agents will come into question. This is indeed the cheapest model to recruit internationally, but in compliance terms, the weakest: What one trades off for the cost of recruitment is the control over the quality and background of the students. It is much better to evolve an alternative model, let's say one based on scholarships or student funding, which allows better quality recruitment with greater control.

This is obviously not an easy thing to do. This will break all the norms and displease a number of people. The usual argument one would be faced with is that all universities recruit through agents as well. That, obviously, does not make a bad model any better. I shall argue that the Border Agency's current problem with student compliance starts with the implicit encouragement of the agent driven recruitment model. In fact, the British Council, which is in turn funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and is an organization tasked with the promotion of British Education and Culture, has developed a significant commercial interest in the promotion and propagation of the agent driven recruitment. The problem indeed is that their commercial interests come in conflict with the control requirements that a high quality recruitment system must have.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Arguments with Myself: Entrepreneurship Redux

I wrote on this blog that my career in business is more or less over. That was earlier this year. I was feeling burnt out, which I wrote about over and over here. I came to a point of a general disregard for the business culture of the day and found nothing similar to the romanticism I felt about my grandfather's profession - being one's own boss, having customers who were treated with respect and who gave respect in return, and having a high standard of professionalism and integrity (which, in lay terms, translated into keeping one's word, paying on time, being honest and transparent, paying one's taxes and never committing to bite more than one can chew).

I say this is the romantic conception of entrepreneurship because this, in my experience, is passe. My take is that such things/ values become out of date as 'making money' took over the world. In the Gordon Gekko world, such things like parsimony and humility were indeed out of step. Today's entrepreneurial culture, I observed, are guided by a different set of values - of consumption over independence, of showmanship with respect, of risk over restraint, of getting away over getting in. I was very much part of the culture - I thought businesses were built with the objective of being sold to moneymen and making millions. That was indeed my own contradiction: I was expecting the values of the business my grandfather built and sustained through his lifetime (60 years to be exact) combined with results of today, a sell out in three years.

I have now understood the essential problem. The two are indeed incompatible. My grandfather worked with employees and suppliers over half a century, and they were as much family to us as anyone. You can't get that if you want to start with the end in mind - a sell-out in three years and a few millions to be spent on a home in Spain. It is difficult to judge right or wrong though; the attitudes may be quite grounded in the values of the age. I can argue my grandfather bought mahogany furniture so that they last, while I would prefer Ikea so that I can change them in a few years.

Indeed, some things remain the same. For example, you pay when you promised to pay. My current exposition to Indian businessmen whose cheques bounce as frequently as they get honoured is quite horrifying anyway. But these are only a few areas which may have somewhat remained the same. The concept of respect has certainly changed: From the rather 'feminine' concept of respecting everyone and building relationships, we have moved to the more 'masculine' world of achievements and selectivity. Not biting more than one can chew will be definitely termed unambitious in today's day and age - not the mark of an entrepreneur. However, I shall recall that the first English sentence I ever learned was 'Cut your coat according to your cloth', though admittedly I have worn coats without backs in most of business endeavours.

However, I shall claim that despite my inconsistencies, I get the problem. In this particularly optimistic Saturday morning, when I make a break with the past, I would love to believe that collectively, we are turning a corner. The modern business values that I mention, the ones which seduced me so deeply that I forgot the core lessons of my grandfather's success, are the ones which have driven us to the brink. The low price of cheap credit, leading to a global underestimation of risk has caused a severe economic disruption, big enough to warrant a re-examination of what business stands for yet again. Suddenly, there is oomph in responsibility, respect is most decidedly sexy. The showing off party has resulted in the melt-down and the emperors lack of clothes are being whispered about: This recession may help us discover a new way of doing business.

I am not certain this means going back to my grandfather's values. However much I admire it, and claim my lineage, I wouldn't know whether it is possible at all to go back. Life has accelerated, to start with. The possibilities that exist around us are more than ever before, and hence what can't be done is less certain than what it used to be in Edwardian age. But, I hope that the new business environment will bring in a new definition of risk, respect, relationships, reward and rightness.

For example, I would think we shall move from the current, narrowly held, definition of risk - which is primarily defined in financial and regulatory terms - to a broader one, incorporating environment and social perspectives. This is because these two rather passive factors in the business environment will increasingly became active and agitating. We shall see the fragility of environment, expanding the conception of risks, and more social activism and common interests emerging among diverse social groups and across geographical boundaries. The 'fordist' control of Mass Media is indeed seriously challenged by preponderance of social media. The public discourse is increasingly turning from broadcast to conversation. This, hopefully, will now enter the premises of modern business and shape the new risk assessments.

As far as respect is concerned, we are at a different sort of crossroad. Till this point, it felt as if we are at a point of departure in the history of the human race, where a new super-race would most certainly emerge. With the advent of neuroscience, nanotechnology and advances in genetics, indeed, this super-race may have a much longer lifetime (and immortality at some point) and a healthier and happier life. This super-race will have the best of education and will be pre-ordained to lead, businesses, communities and countries. In this Utopian vision, we, mere mortals, were destined to a life of complacent subjugation, where our lives can be arranged like a reality TV show where we are given a chance of 'making it' if we are ready to trade off our freedom and privacy. So, the idea of respect was defined in an one way fashion, clearly based on a few markers and symbols. However, I shall argue, a new peripheral vision is suddenly emerging within this techno-tunnel. The inherent tension between this one-way model of respect and recognition is becoming apparent. The inclusiveness of technology-enabled social networks are trumping the exclusiveness of privilege based old boys club. At the very point of its complete triumph, the concept of super-race is turning uncool. This isn't the Edwardian view of respect, steeped in good manners but shrouded in exclusivity, but a new emergent paradigm of the age of William and Kate, and the feminine element is indeed omnipresent. In a way, respect is social and the businesses must adapt to that.

The same goes with relationships. In this 'who you know' world, the context of relationships are broader than who you went to school with and who lived two doors down from yours. It has pervaded the personal space: Of love, friendships and conversations. It has taken over work, of collaboration and competition. One may complain that the 'deep' relationships of the industrial age has been replaced by the 'shallows'. I can imagine my grandfather shuddering at the thought of me sharing my business ideas with someone who I have never physically met, or will not meet. But I shall argue that this is only a natural progression from 'social markets' to 'free markets' to 'Virtual Trust Markets'. The trust here is not in knowing the past, as the Edwardian Businessmen would have thought; but it is based on the inescapable nature of connectivity, that you can't possibly go away, because the values produced today reside not independently, but inside the connectivity. In short, you are worth your network and hence, you can't go away. This changing relationship is yet to hit home for businesses, particularly the small ones; but, I shall argue, it is now winning friends and influencing people.

Reward is another such area. The days of 'making money' (the expression which evokes the erotic percepts of 'making love' in my mind) are melting away as the money becomes cheap and increasingly divergent from 'wealth'. Mike Southon, a writer and conference speaker who I have referred to before, puts it this way : 'money is what you have in your bank account, and wealth is what you got left'. This is one area where Late Victorian businessmen can teach us a few things: They made less money, but ended up with more wealthy, as evidenced in their legacy and my evocation of my grandfather in telling this story. Satisfaction, Independence and Legacy as a reward are abstract, but no more woolly than money as reward (see it this way, money is nothing but the trust you have on the world's bankers and if you didn't sleep through the last few years, the trust should now run quite low whatever the bank balance). I would argue that in this world of low institutional trust, the 'purpose' of business will again take the precedence and making money will become what it should be, a derivative.

And, finally, rightness: As much I can't be my own grandfather, the days of transient, completely relative moral are over. The costs of not doing the right thing is rising and increasingly, the accountants, who are the High Priests of our age chanting the mantra, are being forced to accept that the right is not quite right. So, again, a peripheral vision of rightness is emerging: A more complete and coherent vision. As a senior executive recently explained to me - doing the right thing is now at the top of the chart, implying that when one is expected to trade off between conflicting values, doing the right thing, the woolly, mid-Victorian concept should trump the modern, situational, maximization of profits.

So, in the end, there is hope. I should not give up on entrepreneurship yet: Just, like any day and age, be more judicious on who we get involved with.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Randomly Silicon Roundabout

Policies need to be made of dream stuff, particularly in these difficult times. Reality is always hard to believe and good words are usually handy to keep away wrong statistic: Like the drop in real incomes for middle classes for a decade or the very current drop in employment numbers. But this is the way of the world - or, as Stephen Covey puts it, an area of concern - and the decent thing for plain folks is to get on with it.

What makes the Old Street roundabout Britain's answer to silicon valley? The place is indeed run-down, ideal for new property development. It is rumoured that Russians are now moving in and buying the Bangladeshis out. Commercial Road is becoming, well, commercial. Indeed, there are so many other creative hot spots in Britain, and as a friend rhetorically put it, why not Brighton, that one wonders whether the vision of a silicon valley in Hoxton has anything to do with creative enterprises, or is it a clarion call to beleaguered property developers.

I must apologize - property developers are not beleaguered. In fact, commercial property in London is alive and well and rents are back to their pre-bubble zone. So, if anything, this is a call to conquer new territories, and turn an eyesore into something more palatable, just in time for Olympics. In fact, no one may actually mind - why would I mind if I had a flat in commercial road where prices shoot up - and overall, there will be an extension of city towers, which are already raising their heads around Bishopgate. The supply will rise, the prices will drop and the demand will rise again: This is indeed the little Simcity that the government can afford to play.

But what about Britain's digital future, if there is such a thing? The point is such digital future has more to do with people than spaces. David Cameron is not alone in visualizing the silicon valley or roundabout in terms of shiny offices; most policy makers across the world see software industries as columns of newly built buildings. The hard fact though is that it is the social attitude that makes or breaks the 'industry'. It is about education, and not just university education I must add. It is the quality of schools and sixth form colleges which will determine the game. Besides, this has lot to do with social attitude. I would argue that you can't get an open standard, world beating industry, any industry, while promoting inward-looking social attitude.

One needs the best and the brightest in the world to converge to create a best-of-class industrial cluster. The problem is that you can't just get the best and brightest: They are always in demand and they will choose the country to go to on the basis of how friendly the environment of the host country is. With Britain's current obsession of 'securing the borders', it is hardly the friendliest place to come to at this time.

I am obviously excited by the talk and believe that British Creative Industries have a lot of unexplored potential. I agree with the basic premise that a little bit of focus on the industry will enormously help. After all, the creative industries together are Britain's second largest export industry, but it does not get the credit for it. However, unlike the banks, where the rules can be bent and bail-outs are all too common, creative industries are brutally competitive, where only the best can survive. In a word, it is not for the faint-hearted. Besides, it is more about people and thoughts than the banks ever are. So, to succeed, the industry will need an open environment - not the kind of quibbles a Musician has to get into these days about bringing their instruments in - and not just soundbites. In a way, the silicon roundabout is already there: The cosmopolitan mix of people, the creativity, the buzz, the feel, the energy. The politicians' pledge, the Russian investors, the building contractors may end up stealing it.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Back to the Sixties?

It was interesting to watch London in a foreign news channel last week: The student protests got more footage than anything else.

The Police Officers are already warning that we are entering into a new age of public protests. All over the Europe, this is evident. Strikes are back: Anger is back. We are no longer confined to our Post-modern cocoon of differences, but suddenly linked up in a grand narrative being played out on the streets.

Back to the sixties, shall I say, and expect a re-emergence of Hippies, spiritualism, LSD, and all that? It seems somewhat similar, as conformity gagged creativity in our age, reality TV dominated the public imagination and an unpopular war is raging on for far too long. But, sixties were about the demise of grand narratives, not emergence. Sixties is when we lost the hope for humanity, and started discovering our selfish selves above everything. Sixties is, in a way, the high noon of Industrial Man, and the birth decade of post-modernism. We are indeed at a different age right now.

One thing Post-Modern thinking has certainly done to public discourse is to inject this idea of 'difference' in everything. Everyone claims everything is different. Change - corporate and political leaders claim - must happen. Even Conservative David Cameron talks about change. Barack Obama got to power riding on 'Change You Can Believe In'. This sudden popularity of Change is due to an universal acceptance that you don't have to explain the nature of change: It should be self-evident.

More, one should not even attempt to define how we would be 'different' after the 'change'. These are supposed to be self-evident events, but part of no grand narrative. The 'difference' we talk about is not about transforming the civilization from one stage to another, as Marx or any other preacher of change would have dared to imagine, but rather the trivial middle class difference of sorts, fragmentation of details, our daily lives running through an academic hourglass. So, the fact that I wear Green and Martha wears Red will make us inhabitant of two different planets, living in different realities which in turn will be fragmented every moment. There ought to be no common cause to make us die for it; there will just be reality TV.

Reality TV, which I brought up, is about celebrating the trivial. One may justifiably claim that Print Media were platforms where Grand Narratives were played out. There was something unchangeable about it. Newspapers made this into public domain: Cheap, current, available, they strung together diverse groups in a common national imagination with a great efficiency. TV, I shall argue, was getting the way of newspapers - it was only more real and more current - till the Reality TV arrived.

I have no problems with The Big Brother, just that this is an unreal magnification of the frailties and trivialities of the middle class life. In Post-modernist eye, the breaking down of the celluloid persona is indeed a heroic achievement, and the breaking down of any stereotype may go with it. But, wishing for revolutionary fervor is usually replaced by wishing for silicone breasts, and the grand narrative remains - only in a less grand form.

This breakdown, I shall claim, has its roots in the sixties. The breaking of Beatles, where personalities overtook what used to be the finest act of artistic co-creation, only to be reunited in a 'brand' form after its irreversible demise, is in a way what I am talking about. But such experiences are universal: Ideas for a better world lost in the LSD maze, the revolution in the bedroom, admittedly no less important, overwhelming the urge to rebel on the street.

So, in a way, we lost it in the sixties.

I shall claim that we are in a different age now. This is an age, again, of common cause. The Grand Narrative was never absent, just the hegemony of economics pushed out all others out of view and hence became self-evident. But there are cracks around the edges now, fault lines shall we say. We have suddenly hit a wall in our very own Truman Show and this is making us think. The unreality of real life is hitting home and comfortable 'do not embarrass' consensus is fast fading. Indeed, William and Kate will need to marry next year to offer an alternate unifying narrative, the fairytale sort we have come to love, but would our sleep last till then and beyond?

If anything this Great Recession has done, that would be completing the hegemony of money. The whole illusion of honest work has finally been shelved, and money for banks have taken precedence, with loud justification in the Press Inc., over care for the elderly and the teaching for the students. The mask of Welfare State is finally off; the persona of Warfare State, as expected, has finally emerged.

Despite our aversion of universal truth, there are some things that ring a bell. Like this one: You can fool all people some of the time, and some people all the time, but you can't fool all the people all the time. We have reached this final stage - with post-modernist blindness, but surety befitting a Greek tragedy.

Let the final act now begin.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Why Your Employees Should Have Access to Facebook

There seems to be a problem with such a straight-forward question. It is political. There are two sides on it. Battles are being fought over it. This simple innocuous question denotes the battle for the soul of the organization, though its methods are certainly less grand.

The side that says NO has a simple reason: People should be working in office. Not socializing. Not playing. Facebook is playful, even immoral. Let us call this group High Priests of Scientific Management. These gurus are usually the Command-and-Control guys who believe that office work is about putting a bunch of kids in a cage and giving them some simple menial tasks to perform.

This is where they get it wrong. They forget that office work is no longer like that. May be, they don't get because they are mostly managers: They don't work anymore. They sit in their cabins snooping around on other people, forgetting that it is social connections and free energies of the educated adults that determine the fate of businesses today.

The 'bosses' dont get the fact that slavery is over. Finished. It is illegal, I know, but it is unproductive. That was exactly the reason why slavery was abandoned as a practice, not for any moral reason. A free man (or woman) is more productive - physically and intellectually. The trick that managers must perform in today's workplace is to make employees feel at home, and make them feel that they are running their own businesses.

Indeed, some managers follow what I am saying: They demand that the employees must feel at home at the office, consider it to be their own business. But, no facebook, please; no personal work! It is indeed a strange home that is built like prison.

Consider the other part of the argument. Business is intensely social. It is about knowing people, being transparent and connecting. Today's marketplace is FACEBOOK. Today's reputations get built and destroyed in Twitter. If you ban Facebook in your office, you are doing what hermits used to do in the ancient ages: Leave the city. Good luck to you.

Company IT guys mostly hate Facebook. Strangely. But, then, to be fair on them, that's survival instinct. They don't get it. The reason why they are company IT, and not IT IT, is because they are already clutching the last straw on the edges of the sink of obsolesce. They must fight on for a few minutes longer. People can't just open their computers and connect to the outside world without first asking for a gate pass. Note that most these guys are Gen X, and they find the Facebook lot almost impossible to put up with. They resent the Gen Y because they are not part of it.

The problem is, though, you can't remain neutral in a battle like this. You have to take sides, you have to let your views known. Because this is a more fundamental battle about how you see your company. Are you building a prison or a business? Are you talking about bringing people in or driving them out? Do you want smart people or dumb people to work for you? Do you want to know what the outside world is talking about you, or put your head in the sands? Do you want to connect to Generation Y, today's consumers, or are you going into retirement?

In the end, one more thing to the people who wants to have it both ways: It does not work. So, if you are a naysayer, my advice: Get real. Let Facebook come to work for you.

Arguments With Myself: A Story in A Year

I am in the year-end mode, finally. It was almost difficult to let this year go: It has been one of those years of transition, from one thing to another, may be for good, but looked like a long tunnel. It was just not ending. However, as someone quite helpfully picked my pocket and stole my wallet on Wednesday - along with all the bits that made up my self and identity - it was easy for me now to call an end to this year. It is not about the fact it could not get any worse: The point is that it has ended itself.

What an interesting contrast this end of year makes with its beginning. For me, 2010 began with an email, from an ex-colleague who I knew and respected, writing to me about his inability to join me in a project which we have been discussing for months. By then, I was all set to end my commitments with my the then employer and almost certainly knew that it would not be a painless parting. The project in question was the only thing I was looking forward to, and the colleague in question was the guide and mentor I needed: I knew it was almost impossible for me to pull it off alone. So, the mail, which I appreciated for its candor, told me that he would be unable, for a very valid reason, to join me in setting up the venture. For me, that was it though: The complete darkness. Stuck in a painful job that was going nowhere, with the racial stereotyping that came with it, I almost could not think of anything else I could do.

In a way, that was a point exactly as I experience towards the end: A point when your plans and assumptions cease to exist and you have to start all over again. I knew I had to move on, and I did. The best advice I ever got about managing bad times was that I should start to live by the day, not worrying much what would happen tomorrow. This is what I did. I would think only a few weeks after getting that mail, which told me that the project I was planning to start in Higher Education was over, I told my employers that I would be leaving (which was a done deal by then) and go back to India. And, I tried: I wrote to a few colleagues who I thought would give me a job once I am back in India, and spoke to my family in India about my intention to go back.

This led to second lesson, almost immediately after the first. No one wanted me back. The people who I thought valued my skills did indeed value it - as long as I am in Britain! They had no use of me if I was back in India, and so no jobs for me. My family did not want me back: They got used to my absence and liked it that way. They wanted to see me on and off, passing through Calcutta for a few days, but my shifting back a lot more problematic. The expression I learned that time is 'Uprootedness', which was indeed a choice made by me at a stage of my life, not knowing that it could not be undone. However nostalgic I felt about my childhood dreams of enjoying the winter sun, all my life, on the broad terrace of our family home, I may not be able to go back ever. [The only consolation is that winter does not happen in Kolkata anymore]

I sure needed this complete demise of identity to start constructing another. I must admit that I felt despair, but no anger. This is well after the time I argued in this blog that reverse migration presents an opportunity to India - that was not self-interested, just nostalgic - and was told off by the Indian professionals that they do not want people to return and take the privileges they should be getting, away. In a sense, identity is a bit like hangover, and you know that only when you are out of it. By April, when I was completely uprooted, I knew this. This is also the time of Ash Clouds and the time when my company took away my phone number (which they paid the bills for but the number belonged to me for many years) and tried to grab my 'contacts'.

Everything happens for a reason, a friend says, and everything, I started believing, is a part of grander narrative: You see it if you want to see it. Sometimes you don't want to see it though: When I was stuck in the series of disappointments that I mention above, I was living a day at a time without worrying about the narrative sense of it all. I could ill-afford any such reflection then, and I am glad that I left such reflections for an idle Saturday like today, when I have nothing better to do other than making a narrative sense of my experience.

I must say the middle class life can be wonderfully trivial and can consume all our imagination through its appeal of the unimportant. So, while living through a time when one is forced to surrender one's identity and face great uncertainties can be potentially life-destroying, it is not: One can spend enough time debating about the real intents of a distant relative or play Kingdom of Camelot to keep away from thinking what happens next. The only pain that may ever occur is from the dreams, of world beating success, but it is easier to leave those thoughts out of the door and immerse oneself in the banalities of middle class life.

It is interesting to see my other disappointments at the time as a part of this narrative. I wanted to give my never commenced project and trade it for a job instead. I went to someone I knew, who would not want to have a reference to employ me and who I came to know as a kind and friendly man. But, at this very time, his business faced a suspension notice and was about to go down. On top of it, while we still arranged to meet to talk about a possible job, he went to Morocco on holiday and got stuck there because of the Ash clouds. All separate events, all alive with game changing importance for me personally, all part of a strange narrative built around the common involvement of my own life: I came to understand that narratives are not formed just by a string of events but a common core narrative, in this case my loss of identity and efforts to regain it.

I must not claim I was heroic or calm. I was afraid that I may not be able to pay my rents soon. I was trying to cut all expenses. I knew my ex-employers wanted to destroy me for my obduracy of turning down their offers and choosing to walk out: They wanted to take my phone number to ensure that I don't find another job quickly. I was seething with anger, but could do little. They blocked my tax papers, again to create problems for me to find jobs: I could do nothing but to turn self-employed. I mention all this to disabuse anyone reading that I claim that narratives are neatly tucked into real life: It is being able to see the constructs beyond the messiness of daily life that actually can make a good narrative, as this year did for me.

So, I kept faith, went unemployed, stayed on in Britain, kept my head low and took a job where I was initially treated as a Junior Clerk. I did not mind this at all: I was ready to go back to work in warehouses as I did when I came to Britain first time, and this was much better. I had to go self-employed and complicate my life, but that was part of the grand narrative in a sense. I decided to contain all my entrepreneurial ambitions within the context of the job I was offered. There was an element of gratefulness in me - I knew I was burnt out and needed a redemption - but also a temperate readiness to wait. I started telling myself that almost what I had done for last three years have been undone, this ceased to exist, and I have to get started again. I expected nothing more than what I received six years ago, as a just-landed immigrant in Britain: I turned out to be better off as a result.

As the year ends, time comes a full circle. All the things I started earlier, in my attempts to escape the life imposed upon me, ends or restarts. My involvement in India comes down to a minimum, my disillusionment with the rogues I got involved with in the process near complete. My dreams of building a new Higher Education college, offering new age programmes of high quality and high value, become closer to reality every day: The year ends with my colleague and mentor finally deciding to join the project I started. My continuing learning efforts, to understand the nature and process of education, open up new doors and ideas to me. I feel like that imaginary World Citizen that I wanted to be while I was young, not just because I live in a country other than the one of my birth, but because I have been emotionally exiled, suffered an exclusion which can not possibly be ever undone. The lost wallet goes with my remaining hangovers, cards, mementos, pieces of identity and bills bearing the proof of my earlier consumption, and a new start is forced on me. All this, the redeeming part of it, seems like a story, carefully constructed, cleared of its messiness, by my imagination. It is as if I have lost a full lifetime in a space of twelve months and was given the ability to discover a story in lieu.

It is a gift for me to keep.

Amy Tan on Creativity

Thursday, December 09, 2010

On Creative Entrepreneurship

I spent the afternoon in an event celebrating the University of Creative Arts' (UCA) Creative Challenge event, the student competition to come up with creative business ideas. It was very well organized, at very cozy meeting rooms on a bar on the Greek Street in Soho, with great food and drinks to go with it. Besides, the event was lightened up by a brilliant presentation by Mike Southon of FT and Beermat Entrepreneur (See his profile here). His inspiring presentation of 45 minutes, built around the story of Beatles, arguably the best creative team/ business in history, was aided by clips, stories and intelligent contextualization by Mike. Overall, a great afternoon of ideas, just what I needed to lift my spirits amid a rather miserable run.

Apart from the entertainment, this was useful time spent, considering that I am trying to give some shape to rather abstract ideas of 'digital enterprise' that we are working on. Of late, I have been displaying some disillusionment about the myths surrounding entrepreneurship. My break with conventional company career came in 1998, when I read a bit too much of Fast Company and Red Herring (now extinct), and believed in the 'Change the world' story of technology entrepreneurship. However, while I have achieved quite a few things in the next 12 years, my experiments with entrepreneurship gave me mixed results so far: Last few years, in particular, have been quite disappointing. So, I needed indeed all the inspiration I can get to start thinking about enterprise again, and today's event was a significant turning point of sorts.

To be honest, I diverted myself quite a bit from the original goal of being a technology entrepreneur. My first venture in 1999 was about creating e-learning content and a network of delivery centers across India (to offer blended learning courses) was a bit ahead of time [a kind euphemism for unrealistic], but till date, remained with me unchanged. Even today, when I talk about the World College, degree programmes delivered across the world with the help of technology and on-ground partners, I am still talking about the same concept at a different scale. I surely need the conviction that the time has now come; but this was running low after a few rather disastrous associations that I entered into in the last twelve months.

I guess the point to take from Mike's presentation is that it is about getting the right people, and this is exactly where I may have gone wrong in the ventures I mentioned. I needed investment and got associated with 'money men', who has no love for the idea and want to be in it for money alone. In a way, I have understood the problem and withdrawn from most such associations, and instead, in the current project, focused primarily on getting a high performance, culturally cohesive team together first.

The other point to take home from today's session is the collective observation from various university staff about the creative people's disregard for entrepreneurship. I can see the point: In creative circles, making money is distinctly uncool. However, this allows me to connect to my original inspiration to take the offbeat career path - independence and a chance to make a difference, rather than making money - which was part of the dotcom lore. I see entrepreneurs as artists, creating possibilities that are not there on the sole force of their conviction and skills. I am sure there are the dragon's den bunch, which, according to Mike Southon, is about the unprepared meeting the unpleasant, which makes money the central thing about entrepreneurship (making money as the chief object) and develop a stereotype that you have to a complete bastard to be successful. The relief of being with people whose lot thinks that is distinctly uncool is indescribable.

I think artists as entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs as artists all the time. I think it is about solving problems and spreading the message, whatever you do it for. Money is incidental: It comes because you do what you do. The problem is that the rogue tradesman is taking over the world and making us believe that anything we do should be for money, but that is indeed wrong, because lots of people do lots of things which has nothing to do with money. Like writing blogs, if I may start with. But I can give many more examples, like teaching, reading, painting, travelling, conversing, helping, and can say that people do non-economic things more than they work for pure self interest, and it is a myth that everything must be done for money alone. So, if the creative students are rejecting entrepreneurship, they are rejecting the entrepreneurship stereotypes; the job for the universities and entrepreneurship schools will be to offer an alternative idea.

Which is precisely the school we set up should do: Unlock the creativity in entrepreneurship. This makes me think about the beauty of my original dream, which looks naive with the hindsight of ten years, but incredibly bold if I go close up, and I guess it is about discovering that one idea and dedicating a whole life towards it which makes entrepreneurship a so much more worthwhile career than being a company man. This centrality of beauty, commitment to the idea of a better world, should form the core value of our offering: It will indeed run commercially, but I don't see why that may interfere with such a simple objective.

So, I am recharged. This reflection helped to get my ideas back on track, and made me feel like a few years younger, with the full force of my yesteryear's naive wild eyed dreams, and the fact that this is the core value of entrepreneurship anyway.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Student Visas in Britain: To Be or Not To Be

The British government seems to have woken up and realized that at least a quarter of student visas issued by Private Colleges in Britain are abused one way or the other. Right diagnosis, possibly, but as governments tend to do - the government has zeroed on to wrong solution: They wish to bar private colleges from sponsoring foreign students altogether.

This is surely meant to please the crowd, and it will. The government is in desperate attempt to divert attention from its desertion of the British middle class, particularly in the area of university fees, and the political trickery must now whip up an another issue which pleases the voters. Foreign students have no votes, and this has surely been a prime consideration behind this policy announcement. But, I shall argue, the policy is largely misdirected.

But, before we come to this policy, a word about the muddle on university fees is well in order. You can almost spot the same confusion: To Be or Not To Be? The government can't make up its mind whether to commit to the market economy in education or not. It seems implausible that if students are made to pay the fees, the argument for which comes from private gains that a student makes out of earning the degree, why such fees will not be set against the relative scales of such gains. In summary, the question is why one would pay the same amount of money for a degree from Thames Valley University and Oxford University. Apart from the political justification that the government is trying to please the middle class, there seems to be no ethical or economic justification at all for such policy. [In fact, under the arrangements for income-contingent student loans, Higher Education should cost more money to exchequer in the short and medium term, and even in the long term]

This politics-over-economics is visible in matters of student visas, which will surely make Britain a less attractive destination for foreign students. For all the talk about clamping down on under the degree level courses, one has to set the reality that Britain's vocational education has been a huge crowd-puller. This is not because visas were plentiful, but because the British vocational offering, assisted by continued investment in the system for many years (notwithstanding the bureaucratic muddle), has a better standing than the other International Education heavyweights, like the United States or Australia. Nurses from Philippines came to Britain not just to work here, but in search of a qualification which is recognized world over and a number of them went to other countries, to Australia, United States and New Zealand among them, once they achieved their qualification. The heavy-handedness of the government in decoupling degree level and under-degree level education is ignorant of this reality altogether.

What I say is not to deny that the current student visa system is not working: All I am arguing that we are looking away from the real issues. The real disaster in the British immigration over last few years has been the efforts to take discretion away and create a points based system instead. Also, redefining the immigration service in the Border Force template, no doubt a mindset defined by post-9/11 'clash of civilization', took away the main purpose of 'immigration'. In the modern economies, immigration is talent management, and the country that loses sight of this, is doomed to lose its edge in innovation and enterprise.

One can argue discretion isn't possible in the age of mass migration, but this is precisely what we are trying to stop (I believe mass migration is an inevitable part of globalization, but I shall keep such value judgements aside). For a 'National Talent Management Service', one needs highly trained and motivated 'recruiters', at British border posts and entry points, not the Daily Mail reading xenophobes that we tend to prefer.

One more thing about Private Colleges: It is an underground business because it is meant to be one. The British governments policies towards this sector is surely anti-competitive, which denies them a level playing field with the universities at every step. In fact, the policies, like a college must be one year old to be even considered serious, and various other barriers put up on the way, make it hard for serious new entrants to enter the field. With the state of public finances, if it is as bad as it is claimed to be, the only option left to the British government is to encourage private sector investment, creativity and innovation, in the sector.

But, alas, we are choosing to look the other way.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

An Afternoon

I remember that afternoon.

The rain seemed to be tiring off intermittently;
the wild wind was waking it up yet again.

It was all darkness:
I did not want to work.
I took the instrument,
And the tune of the rains flew out of it.

She came to the door, and went again.
Then, came out to the balcony.
Then, slowly, came to the room and sat down in silence.
Kept knitting.
Then, stopped knitting and looked out of the window to the faded trees.

The rain stopped, my music stopped.
She went to do her hair.

Nothing else: An afternoon of rains, music, darkness and silence.

History is full of stories of kings and wars, dime a dozen.

But, this afternoon, this frozen moment, would remain hidden in Time's chest like a rare treasure;
Just two people will ever know of it.

(Translated from Bengali, a poem by Rabindranath Tagore)

However Far Away I Go

Wherever I go
However far,
There travels with me
Weaved in waves
The name of our river.

However far away I go.

Embedded in my eyelids
There remains
The neat courtyard
Painted with Lakshmi's footsteps

However far away I go.

(Translated from Bengali, A poem by Subash Mukhopadhyay)

Developing A New MBA

One part of my work is exciting: Developing a new Global MBA programme. The college I am working for have been offering an MBA for a while, a general one validated by an UK university. It is a quite well structured programme, highly successful among international students. However, over last six months, I taught in the programme and was involved in managing it along with my colleagues, and this experience has given me some insights which I want to utilize now.

So, I am currently working on a change agenda, with the objective that we would want to develop a truly differentiated, global programme, in step with the post-recession world. I have set myself a period of six more months, by when we should implement a new programme design and ensure greater manageability of how the programme is delivered. While I go along this route, however, I wanted to keep a narrative of the journey, so that I can look back at this process and reflect upon. Hence, this post.

At this time, my plans are quite simple and broad. Instead of an one size fits all programme, we should create a number of specialization pathways keeping the international students in mind. Indeed, there is always the demand of the business, so the specialisms will revolve around the usual areas of HR, Marketing and Finance, but where we shall try to differentiate it is by contextualizing the syllabus to post-modern, post-recession global workplace. I am also keen to add an Entrepreneurship specialism, nothing novel though, because I would see Britain evolving into a Start-Up Nation in the coming years.

The point, however, is to develop the MBA programme in line with other humanistic disciplines, where the spirit of free inquiry will be given the highest priority, and not as a technical subject. I shall call this the artistic spirit as opposed to the Engineer's, where the key assumption is that a problem may have several, equally valid, solutions. The general complaint about MBA programmes is that these tend to offer set formulas to business problems, thus leaving an MBA graduate with quite a narrow world view.

It is indeed easier said than done, and considering that I have to try to build this 'open' approach to MBA studies in the college which prides itself for its excellent offerings in Professional Education (particularly Accountancy), it is a greater challenge. The professional education is all about offering the 'right answer', and this view of business education will run diametrically opposite to it.

The other, even greater, challenge is to contextualize the course to the emerging realities of modern business - new kinds of workplaces, the demise of sorts of scientific management, the new ideas of motivation, the new mediums of communication, the new marketing - all of it. Without this, in my mind, an MBA qualification is terribly out of step; but, doing this is no easy task, particularly without a dedicated team, which is committed to research and progression.

Building such a team, committed to innovation and research, has its own challenges and here we shall invariably hit one of the core limitations of for-profit education. Indeed, its big strength comes from managerialism, its ability to ensure all resources are managed efficiently and full value of it is expropriated, but this does not necessarily lead to innovation and new thinking. One can argue that there are enough private organizations in other sectors which combine managerialism and innovation, but education as a sector is highly regulated and always will be, and therefore, the incentive to innovate will always be quite limited.

I have thought about this challenge quite a bit, as my plans to create a world class offering may specifically falter at this hurdle. The only way to create creativity and innovation within this high pressure environment - as I have read Teresa Amabile and completely agreed with her - is to create a sense of mission. Now, a sense of mission is hard to create in a privately owned organization, where most performances are opaque and most arrangements are strictly private. No one actually tries to build a cathedral if it is under 'scientific management', because that case responsibility for thinking can be delegated upwards. The first thing to sort this out is to create an open environment and give the responsibility to create back to the front-line person, in this case, to the tutors and administrators who are dealing with the students.

So, it is not just about creating new programmes, but also to engineer a whole new culture and way of working that I shall be aiming for. This is part of my experimentation with learning environments, but also with organizational culture. My random experiments, so far, have always been quite fruitful: I am expecting this current effort to be no different.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Creativity Under The Gun: Perspectives

I am working on a paper about teaching 'Creativity' at the workplace. I have been fascinated by the various workshops and consultants who teach 'Creative Thinking' to white collar workers, and whose methods range from well-set formulas to the abolition of collar, and everything in between. I must admit my curiosity starts from my rather dim view of managers of all sorts, those poor souls who has no skills other than carrying out orders and shepherding others to carry out orders, those who wants to be as far distant from the customers and as close as to the boss/ the owners as possible, and those who don't even possess the skills of making a cup of tea for themselves but claim to have the solutions which can solve the problems of the world: But then I exaggerate. However, whatever the managers are capable of doing, I wonder, how can they be creative: Isn't management all about maintaining the status quo and not to be creative?

This one question pushed me to attempt to understand creativity, and also to critically reflect on the management trade, which I tend to do on and off, in my blog and elsewhere. I must clarify this isn't about scepticism, but wonder - how can you teach creativity to the middle-aged poor souls who always wanted to be slaves, of their ambition, of mortgages, of hierarchies, of bosses that be, of rules and procedures, of formulaic lives? But it indeed seems you can - as millions of dollars are spent on this by smart people and organizations, which surely know what they are doing - as well as there are some successes along the way: Some companies have indeed become quite creative.

So I read around the area and came to know two or three things about Creativity which I did not know before. In my mind, this is a good place to start the discussion - about the nature of creativity - and then progressively explore the areas of management creativity as I keep going.

The first thing I learnt about is the myth of the lone genius. Steven Johnson, whose video I posted earlier on this blog, pointed me to the idea: Creativity, though it seems to be an individual act which originate at a special Eureka moment, is often a social process involving 'liquid networks', chaotic and crowded. The great men often muddle through to big ideas, often the big ideas are lost and found later, because the networks do not support their growth and development. This inherently 'social theory of creativity', if I may call it, runs counter to the stories of Eureka moments primarily inherited from the age of Romantic Science, of 19th century England, where the myth of apple falling in front of Newton was invented. As Steven Johnson contends, Darwin did not reach his big idea while reading Malthus one day at his study, but much before, while he wondered around in scientific literature and went around the world. This conception has some significance in my mind about how organizations try to become 'creative'. In my mind, each organization, however big, is a microcosm of humanity and they need to replicate the 'creative environment' - where openness and spirit of inquiry are highly valued - rather than trying to get creative by hiring a few 'creative geniuses'. Some sectors already do it very well, like Advertising Agencies and Social Software companies; but, in others, where the potential of creative work is no less pervasive, sectors like Education and Public Service, creativity is supposed to come from a few while everyone else should be locked in a chain of command. It is no surprise that these sectors have completely failed to make the mark and is plunging into deep crisis day by day.

Apart from the creative genius/ creative environment debate, I have also tried to understand what creativity is. I have been taught, in the first part of my life when I was in a company career, that creativity is about thinking 'outside the box'. A few examples aside, most of which seemed like practical jokes, the idea never made much sense to me. I have been to seminars wearing thinking hats of different colours, and attended meditation sessions to unlock my creativity, and found them to be deeply repressive. My aha moment in this regard came while reading David Bohm, who talked about science as a creative endeavour and the business of creativity is about finding truth and beauty in the order of things. In this view, as I interpret it, creativity is about finding the 'laws' of nature and the beauty of order and relationships: Transposed in the corporate classrooms, this is about discovering the box first. I can indeed see how creativity can be taught, the first lesson being - Your boss was not appointed by the God - but know that such lessons will surely be unpalatable for most organizations. It is an interesting point as I can connect this to something I read in Michael Cusumano, who argued that while Japanese firms are good in developing industrial software, they fail to develop application software because they lack the irreverence and thus creativity of the American workplace. The same can indeed be said of Indian software engineers, who are doing great work in projects but failing to imagine product ideas: The power distance and individualism are surely coming in the way. However, in line with my belief that everyone can be creative (not just the 'creative geniuses'), I shall also believe that different cultures are creative in different ways. It is the job of the businessmen / policy makers to discover what makes their workers tick and 'create', given their cultural contexts.

Third, I read an interesting study by Teresa Amabile, where she looked at creativity under the time pressure, a reality of everyday corporate life. The study is quite clear: Time Pressure does not help Creativity. However, she looked at four different scenarios of creativity under the gun, and I found these scenarios profoundly interesting:

- High Time Pressure scenario where people think they are on a MISSION, which leads to HIGH level of creative energy

- High Time Pressure scenario where people think they are on a TREADMILL, which leads to LOW level of creative energy

- Low Time Pressure scenario where people think they are on an EXPLORATION, which leads to HIGH level of creative energy

- Low Time Pressure scenario where people think they are on AUTO-PILOT, which leads to LOW level of creative energy.

I found this fascinating and inherently usable. We are back again to the 'Social Context' of creativity, the job of creating the canvass and encouraging the people to play, think and create, rather than the usual formula of 'teaching creativity'. However, this is what I wish to explore - the learning theories and techniques that are used to 'make people creative'. As usual, I shall possibly write about this more as I go along.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Journal Entry: Snowed In


As you can see from the pictures, taken during my regular mile-long trek to the nearest working railway station (about 20 minutes walk for me), I am currently snowed under. This whole week has been quite a nightmare: Monday, it was the Tube Strike, and though I could get in alright, most of my colleagues suffered and many of the meetings got canceled. Then, Tuesday came the snow and complete collapse of the transport system. Tuesday night, I took four hours to get home though it is only about half-hour journey. (Still I must consider myself quite lucky as most people could not get home that night and ended up staying in Train carriages overnight)


The misery continues, though I am getting used to it. I have now adjusted to this mile-long walk every morning to the nearest working station, queuing up behind the crowd well outside the station concourse for the hourly service to Central London and then doing a somewhat similar exercise every evening. The fun is that it is not snowing in London and my colleagues can't really get what we have faced in the South of the river. If I poked any fun with anyone suffering from the tube strikes, I have been well compensated.

The week, therefore, was quite unremarkable, except a few special events. We had a fairly promising meeting with an university wanting to start New Media courses in London. I am hopeful that we can put everything together quite soon and be able to start a really good course offering in quite a niche area. My ideas of combining technical education along with business savvy, enmeshed within a liberal education environment (by which I mean a commitment to exploration, learner centeredness and an openness to diversity) were well received by my key colleagues, and I am hoping that we shall be able to create that environment when we get started. This will be quite a break from the professional training environment within which we offer our business courses - with certification as the main objective - and I am hoping that this experiment will help us set up a model of combining the ways of Private Education (Managerialism, focus on resource utilization, efficiency inside classroom) with the values of Higher Education institutions (Collegiality, commitment to inquiry and openness, building a 'Citizen'), which we can then use as a model for the partnerships we shall embark upon with the universities in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Some of my colleagues are reminding me that these are big plans and there is a quite a gap we have to cover from the current realities of the UK private education market, which is mainly about commoditized courses, facilitation of visas of different kind and brutally efficient operations of getting 'bums on seats'. However, possibly for the first time in my life, I have committed myself to something I would absolutely want to achieve - a world class education provider with global operations - and have decided not to give up regardless of what I have to face. It is fitting perfectly with my mindset to start all over again about staying in the UK - go back to my initial days of working in warehouses and putting in the equal amount of hard work - and staying focused on the job at hand, rather than trying to do too many things (which was my problem at my previous assignment). Another thing that I have learnt - to be compassionate but not to compromise - is also giving me a lot of pleasure: Suddenly I know that I am making many right decisions, whereas earlier I made too many mistakes either succumbing to sentimentality or ego.

The digital media/ new media is interesting to me as this allows me to center my business plans into quite a niche area, which is in demand, but combining business and enterprise offerings with it allows me to create quite a general platform, which can be ported into other countries and territories. This is indeed my grand plan, which isn't yet widely shared among my colleagues: This is something I shall treat this as one of my key areas of development. To make any such plan successful, one needs a group of talented people who are completely committed to the project and wish to stay with it for a period of time. Indeed, this means that the idea needs to be shared, but also a reward structure must be built to ensure that such efforts of team members are rewarded fairly. Education, despite being a high growth industry, is not the one with most sophisticated management thinking, most people coming to it from either a public sector or trading or real estate background. None of the software industry's flourish and natural commitment to innovation is evident anywhere in education, but this is precisely the thing we shall need to achieve if the project is to be successful. Again, I knew this before, but was too meek to give in to other more persuasive colleagues in my previous jobs: This time, I am quite clear that this is the only way to create a winning model and staying steadfast on this.

However, at this time, my plan is to bring a team together which stick with each other and believe in the potential of the project: This is what I am doing currently. I have already been blamed for 'groupism', which is an interesting epithet considering that I have earned it while fighting the vested interests. This is an interesting political lesson for any workplace or public life for me: Groupism isn't always bad. In fact, in almost every situation, one can find a dominant majority and a cornered minority, and protecting the dominance of the majority, which most organizations tend to aim for to protect the Status Quo, is the surest way to kill off innovation and miss the next big thing. The only way to avoid 'Groupism' in such settings (and in colleges, the 'hegemony' of the majority can be quite pervasive) is create 'pockets of excellence' free from the interventions from the powers-that-be. This is why I call it an interesting strategic lesson for me, as I intend to achieve exactly that: A separate 'Team of Excellence' away from the daily stresses and strains of the business.

The problems of achieving this, indeed, is that you are working inside a running train. My quest for excellence and new models must keep meeting the minimum requirements of the business - cash flows - and must work within the existing cultural framework. This is no less difficult than performing the Die Hard acts in Action Movies, like walking on the ceiling of a running train compartments with a group of baddies shooting at you from all directions: I indeed feel quite like that sometime. However, I have also learnt what can make you keep going at times like those: You must not fear to fail. Because you can not rationally expect success against such odds, and failure seems like a pre-destined outcome, you must not give in (because you die then) and keep going. You can say this is my Bruce Willis moment, and it indeed felt like that walking through the snow storms all of last week.

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

- Theodore Roosevelt

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

- T S Eliot

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