Sunday, February 27, 2011

1/100: In Praise of Work

Physical work is liberating.

We have spent the last 200 years, that is the period since industrial revolution, demeaning physical work. Before the industrial revolution, physical work was seen as the source of all value mankind could produce. The wonders of farming, celebrated by the French Physiocrats, were there for all to see: Man's physical labour making nature yield life sustaining produce. But, since the Industrial revolution, this changed. First, people were seen as mere resources, eligible for only a meagre subsistence pay and less than amenable living conditions, who must 'man' the machines and just that. The magic of physical work was gone. The workers became mere cogs, as celebrated in Charlie Chaplin's The Modern Times. Then, started the man-machine competition: For the same work. Machines were taking away not just the glory of physical work, but physical work itself. The heroes of this age were men who could beat the machines, people like John Henry or Stakhanov, stuff of industrial age mythologies, supermen who retained the glories of man's physical abilities. And, then, finally, automation started taking over: The last heroes of the physical age faded, aged or dead, and the rapidly multiplying transistors on the silicon chips made any kind of physical work unnecessary. The new heroics of human civilization were not defined in terms of the Olympian deeds, but in terms of microwaves intelligent enough to turn itself on when needed. The ideal man owned all the gadgets and never moved an inch, except for working out in the gyms. RIP physical work.

This is a point of time when the transformation is complete: From the French economists who saw farming as the only source of value creation to the age of intellectual capital, where value resides not in things but in the idea embedded in them. But, one can argue this is more a political construct than anything else: Physical work must still invariably be done, just that it is valued at less. So, a labourer would be paid less for his work than a surgeon, and the surgeon would be paid less than a banker, but this will be done not because of the value of their work, but the political constructs around it: Indeed, bankers rule the world.

Ideas that value resides not in things but in concepts embedded in them sounds neat and practical, but only till you start thinking about world's bottom billion, who live by scavenging and value only what can be eaten. One can, with reason, argue that intellectual capital is the illusion of value than value itself: That economic value is no longer politically neutral. The problem with physical stuff, those which are made or produced, is that they are largely politically neutral, and therefore, clever campaigns are devised to add or subtract political value to or from them: Hence, fair trade, organic and all the other labels. All of this obscure the fact that it is still physical work, that lovable movements of human hands and body, synchronized by human mind, that creates 'things', that embeds judgement, responsibility and ownership in them: No clever automation or concept have yet found a way to replace the same.

It is the last statement which implacably put physical work ahead of anything else. When you do something, it belongs to you, emotionally. Indeed, if you are paid to do something, the legal ownership belongs to the man who bought your labour. But, it is still yours emotionally, because you have not only embedded your time, but spent your judgement, love and responsibility in constructing the 'thing'. One goal of modern management has been to undermine this sort of emotional connection: Henry Ford, Frederick Taylor, all the proponents of multi-divisional organization moved the definition of work from creating or making something to doing something, where you don't get to see what you are doing. But, lately, as the scientific civilization enters its tired last phase, there is a lot of talk about employee motivation and ownership: The fact that the workers should be working as if they know they are building a cathedral. So, the emotional ownership is back in vogue: With it, the supremacy of what is being done with hand.

I shall argue, therefore, in favour of liberating experience of doing something by hand. It is pragmatic too: In the age of automation and Asia, as Daniel Pink puts it, you would rather learn something which has to be done by hand, and therefore, can't be outsourced. In a way, gardening is a safer profession than equity analysis: It is only a matter of time and political expediency that the equity analysis will go to India. Gardening will never go, not at least your neighbour's garden's work. No concept will make the flower bloom without the hard, disciplined work that needs to be put in.

In the end, therefore, praise be on thee, physical work. In the act of creating by hand, men come the closest to God. Notwithstanding the enemies of physical work, and the web of conspiracy undermining it, this is the only way to remain connected with the world, feel the nature and its forces in your life. I shall rather dream of a life where I can do something with my hand everyday, rather than being a slave of a know-all microwave.

Conversations and Resources

For an organization, conversations are more important than resources.

This is not meant to proclaim that one can go without the resources, physical and financial, that an operation needs. But, resources can't create a sustainable competitive advantage for an organization, because they can always be acquired by a wealthier rival. Conversations, however, are difficult to generate, and often, far more difficult to replicate even if your competitor is rich.

Conversations, remember, are ideas plus connections. Conversations need context. More importantly, conversations need humility, an acknowledgement that one can't go it alone. Today, while we live in a resource rich world, but where humility is in short supply and often, organizations are locked in a resource-based thinking trap.

This is a paradox. Richer one is, possessions are more important. But possessions often come in the way of conversations. Conversations happen when one is out to connect, not to hoard. Besides, conversations, even when organizations start having them, happen between people. But people don't talk to each other when they are merely human resources; they talk when they become men and women again.

One can argue once a company has resources, it can own the world. It can decide the conversations. Like News Corporation, which can buy into conversations. It can make any conversation a portfolio item (like buying MySpace and Wall Street Journal). It can then control them, and through them, all other conversations as people start having them.

But this isn't necessarily true. As the historian of conversations Theodore Zeldin contends, people change the subject as authorities start owning them. Conversations have always been owned by the commoner. The authorities wanted to own the language, and developed manners and syntax to make themselves sound regal: The commoner then, for what appeared to be a lack of education in eyes of the authorities, invented a language of their own. And, since conversations happen not in the richest language, but in the one which is shared by everyone, authorities lost the grip on conversations throughout history.

And, since owning conversations is owning history, we progressed. Authorities of all ages wanted us to freeze on time, stay as we are; but despite their vast power, they failed to control conversations, and therefore, we moved on. If anyone is celebrating today's tweeting democracies, we must remember it was always that way.

Yet, today's companies still focus on owning resources than starting conversations. The idea of today's predominant discipline, economics, is about resources, not conversations. The governments still throw resources at problems, but they don't talk [Talk is a two way process, and government 'consultations' fail to talk back and ask]. More importantly, educational institutions, which shape the thinking of the people of the future, fuss around with resources they have: They almost abhor conversations.

Remember, we live in turbo times, and everything happens faster. People who hoarded resources and missed the conversations, failed. Today, they will fail faster.

On the other hand, those who succeed, succeed by connecting and conversing. They get the new ideas, because new ideas happen not in the middle of super-secret labs but in the messy commons of human conversations. While the companies trapped in resource thinking spend millions in protecting what they have - just like authorities of the past did by using codes and symbols - these companies reside in the open and join ideas and own the future.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A New 100 Days: All Change Please

I am back into 100 day plans. I love them. Indeed, I grew up in India during its various five year plans, and time-restricted plans are therefore in my blood. But there is nothing socialist about the propensity to plan; on the contrary, these are my exercises in fantasy. But whether fantasy or not, these 100 day plans give me focus that I so badly need, and allows me to achieve something in the end. It worked for me before, and I am hopeful that this will work for me now.

Truth be told, I need a bit of a restart. While I have achieved some of the things I intended in the last nine months, but I have lost a bit of momentum in the last couple of months. My brother's untimely death is one of the reasons: It completely unsettled me and left me feeling desperately lonely. Various 'work in progress' items at work add to this feeling: There are things which I wished to complete sooner, but some must invariably wait for some time more. Some of this also pertains to my aspirations, trying to achieve beyond what is readily available. The daily imperfections of real life invariably slow things down, and while I consider infinite patience as one of my key strengths, my limits are being tested now.

So, this feeling, of being in a captive state, of not being able to be free, is what I need to overcome. At the same time, I have started feeling the need to do some 're-branding', of my own self. I have started feeling that since I do not advertise my abilities well - I am actually quite embarrassed to talk about any of my abilities at all - I end up getting a raw deal most of the time. I am struggling at this time to get out of my shell. Shouting about what I am good at is completely out of the way for me; but getting taken as a good-for-nothing is not what I wish to bargain for as well. So, I have to find a middle way: I don't want to change myself into an aggressive self-promoter, but waiting for other people to recognize my abilities isn't a smart thing to do. This adds to my feeling of being bottled, of not being able to play at the level I think I should, but rather getting labeled into something else.

However, despite all the flux, I have made two important decisions that I kept postponed for 2011. First, I have ruled out going back to India anytime soon, if ever. This comes out of the realization that unless I make up my mind, I can't do much. Besides, I have nothing much to go back to. With my brother's death, my links with India are weaker than ever. I have now started thinking about building a life from scratch, looking out to the world rather than one focused on going back.

Next, I have also felt that over the last few months, I have deviated from my own agenda of building strong skills and expertise in a specialized area, in my case, design of learning experiences, and particularly of online learning, and got involved in a number of things. Indeed, I enjoyed and possibly made a difference; but I must get back to what I decided to focus on some time soon. This is one thing I want to be good at, and I can't achieve that without giving up some of the things I am currently pursuing.

All this, though I have spoken about this so many times earlier, need me to make a fresh start. It needs a deliberate attempt to live differently, as well as to imagine what will be with fresh perspectives. As I said, this will also mean that I project myself differently, however artificial this may sound, in alignment with what I want myself to be perceived as. For a start, I have realized that creative pretensions are as much part of the game as any real creativity; it is about imagining oneself to be something and mould one's behaviour in the same cast.

So, then, this is what I wish to write about, over next 100 days, starting tomorrow. My efforts to imagine a completely new self, and moving into one, just as I moved into a new house. I shall attempt to write everyday, may be even the most banal bits if they constitute part of this journey. But I am hopeful that something worthwhile will come out of this journey. Even if it doesn't though, it will be another attempt to change myself, as I did so many times in my life.

Monday, February 21, 2011

About Organizational Politics

Usually, politics is a negative word these days. Gone are those times when politics was a liberating force, a way of thinking and doing things for ascendant middle classes (and later still, for working classes), something that led to freedom and progress. Now, this means manipulative behaviour, something that one should not do. This negativity is nowhere more pronounced than in business literature.

The reason for this is the rational roots of business thinking. We must remember that management as a discipline was created out of the great industrial organizations of United States and Europe in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth century. The roots of business education lie in the economics and organizational science departments in North America, with great rationalist thinkers like Herbert Simon etc. The founding assumption of management as a discipline is that everyone, at least most people, would act in a rational way, with an enlightened self interest. There is little room to have political strategies discussed within a body of literature that was so heavily influenced by Economics.

However, the truth is, human relationships are about power and politics is the technology of power. And, businesses are no less a human organization than the state or the local council. Politics is, therefore, an inalienable part of a business organization, almost its defining feature. I shall argue that to understand an organization, which is the first step of changing it, is to understand its politics.

But before I go any further, I must clarify that I don't use the term politics in the usual negative sense. I must not say that to change an organization, and make it more effective, one must get rid of its politics. Because, simply, one can't: The only thing effective managers can do is to align the politics of an organization with its goals.

Politics, as the technology of power, becomes disruptive when the internal mechanics of power falls out of alignment with the demands of survival. An organization, much like a living organism, can only survive by flexibly responding to the world outside. Sometimes, politics will stop an organization from being nimble and responding to the outside world. At such times, only two outcomes remain possible: One, the organization will disappear; or, a change agent will step in and create a new politics, in alignment with the outside world.

Precisely at this point of discussion, one can start to see why politics is seen negatively. Power is all about taking it and keeping it; so, politics of change can soon become the politics of status quo once the initial tasks of change has been accomplished. But, this will lead to the organization soon falling foul with the outside world, which will keep changing, as technologies of production keeps changing. The change agents of today will invariably become mandarins of tomorrow, and what will make the organization triumph now will make it stumble tomorrow.

This is indeed the great rationalist critique of politics. They preach that the organization can only become resilient by being completely rational about its choices. As I said, this is indeed correct, just improbable. An organization made of people does not reflect collective rationality, but decisions made of individual choices and the mechanics of power. The decisions made may sometimes look rational, but mostly this is about hindsight. In any case, there is very little one can do with 'what if' conjectures.

So, is there a way out from politics that must degenerate when rationality is not possible? I shall argue that organizational life has three, not two, dimensions. The overarching reality of business is indeed outside, the technologies of production and consumer preferences, factors outside control of business decision making that an organization must serve all the time. The organization, as I said, must operate with its technologies in power to keep itself aligned with these outside realities. The third factor in the mix is what Foucault called the technologies of self, the learning of individual players, executives, which, if used in alignment with the external factors and the politics of an organization, can keep an organization from degenerating into a failure.

This is familiar territory from most organizational scholars: A learning organization, where individuals keep learning in the quest of an alignment with the rapidly changing outside world and the politics of an organization makes change possible and desirable. One can argue this is a progressive utopia, but not any longer: This recession is hammering the last nails in the coffin of the great rational industrial organization, before which a semblance of rationality was possible only because the power was so overwhelmingly one-sided (this was BEFORE the age of talent and global mobility) and rationality was accepted as a plausible way of life. As we prepare for life after the recession, the interplay of politics and learning, to keep in tune with the uncertainties emerging, appear more important than ever.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Arguments with Myself: Bystander's Options

There are three wars of civilization in play last week.

First, let's call it the war of St Valentine. If we thought the debate was settled, on the eve of Valentine's Day, the discussion how romantic love undermines a society resurfaced. For example, Malaysian police monitored the hotels in provinces to ensure that nothing wrong is going on. In the extreme form, in India, a young boy of seventeen got killed because he was seen walking with a girl, his sister, on the the day. Young versus the old, it seems to be the theme. The conservatives of various hues usually portray their action as a fight against Western cultural imperialism, but increasingly, this has a local flavour. The women who sent out undergarments to the home of a Hindu fundamentalist leader after he instigated violence against couples seen in the parks etc, were not prompted by Western media of any sort, but their own sense of dignity and freedom.

Second, let's call it the end of Caliphets of Mubarak and Ben Ali, with more to come. Arab street is out in the squares, suddenly. At the time of this post, two mighty dictators have fallen, and governments across the region are shaking in fear. Western channels are playing up Libya and playing down Bahrain, but the story is somewhat similar everywhere: Young versus the Old. The masses of young men, without job and increasingly without hope, are demanding a change. The problem is acute in Middle East, as their rulers are old and disconnected, and were keeping the job with Oil money and Cold War loyalties. Religion, in this limited context, playing a progressive role and the people on the street are finding hope in religious faith than anything else.

Finally, in other parts of the world, the ongoing recession started getting ugly because of a different young versus the old war. The food prices are rising, the inflation is rising, despite most of the governments cutting spending and raising interest rates. But, cutting spending comes at an enormous social cost: In Britain, this will mean excluding a generation of people from university education, for example. The priorities are yet very clear: By refusing to raise interest rates last week, the Bank of England clearly indicated that they don't care about inflation, which is extremely high by developed country standards, but only the plight of banks and mortgage owners. On the other hand, Barclays shocked everyone by indicating how little corporate tax they actually pay, though they feel no qualms about taking public money when needed.

This third strand is as much part of the wars of civilization and ideas as this is again about status quo and moving forward. The old money versus the enterprise spirit, which is hindered not helped by the reign of banks (banks, indeed, lend you money if you can prove you don't need it).

For me, trained to think in dialectical terms and to believe in the idea of progress, all these little conflicts are indicators of a dying time and the marching song of the army of future. My own life, a bit disarrayed at this time, has always been a bit of a waiting game for an exciting future. Despite the current mess, further aggravated as I, rather unwisely, committed myself to a house move, I am still excited and very much in look out for a part to change the world. As always.

I am, therefore, on the verge of another 100 day plan of sorts. We are in the middle of moving our college campus to new premises, and I am hopeful of making a fresh start. I am rather dismayed by the way private enterprise is seen in Britain, particularly in the education sector, where the public sector mindset reigns supreme. I am amazed, after interactions with many of my colleagues, business partners and collaborators, by how unreal a world they live in. For example, the talk about private money will undermine the quality of education in the universities sound so pompous, when most British universities (not all) have nothing much to offer to their unsuspecting students other than the same ivory tower mindset that has brought them to the brink in the first place.

So, my options in this big, bad, uncertain world is rather clear: To keep doing what I am doing. I have started believing that Education is the killer app (whoever said it) and progress, from this point, will greatly depend on the spread of education of a liberal (in the wide sense of the word) sort. I would very much like to see rest of my life committed to this goal, of spreading education internationally, and once this view emerges, all the other disturbances seem rather trivial.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Trouble With Creativity

Creativity is all good, should be good. One can claim, with ample justification, that creativity of people is the main reason for progress. If everyone was just satisfied with what they got in life, and never explored the edges, we shall be no better than we were a few hundred years back; even, we would be at the same state we were a million year back.

Yet, creativity isn't mainstream. People are afraid of creativity some times. Indeed, because it invariably challenges the status quo, but there is more to the fear of creativity. I would argue some of this is due to the insistence that the usual rules don't apply to creative pursuits.

One can argue it shouldn't. Usual is boring. This is probably correct, but we live our lives 'usually' - like eating, drinking etc. Some rules therefore must be followed. Grabbing others' food isn't acceptable, and similarly, being responsible to oneself and to others must apply to everyone too.

Having said that, I know it is the slavery of day to day life that keeps us un-creative. Sometimes, the deliberate delinquencies of the creative lot is a desperate attempt to free the mind by freeing the body. However, often the mortgage fetish is replaced by cocaine addiction, and there the trouble starts.

There is also the question of accountability. Accountability is narrow and boring, but anyone creative must be accountable in some sense. Preaching violence isn't the mark of a creative genius, and a poem must be written to be read. Creative pursuits in that sense is about discovering the discipline which makes the creator one with the audience, finding that unity of thought and shall I say, language, which is a deliberate, painstaking exercise.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A School For Business 2.0

The project I am involved in, setting up a new Business school in East London, is at an interesting juncture. It is starting to become real. One can see the physical shape of it now, as we have now finalized the building and in the final stages of acquiring it and getting the planning permission. We can also see the concept - as contracts with university partners get signed and ideas are debated and partnerships solidify - and start thinking about the possibilities. In short, we are at that point of the start-up life cycle when everything looks full of possibilities.

This is also the time to search for a purpose. We started with some ideas of what we want to do - to set up a world class business school ready for the web 2.0 world - but now, we have to distill all of it and arrive at some understanding why we are doing it. I must clarify: This isn't about writing a tag line. That would be done eventually. Nor it is about doing something first time in the world. I had all those illusions before, but now I would settle for something that makes a difference, rather than which is completely different from everything else that was done before.

Some people say this is a bit muddled, the search for purpose somewhere down the road. For them, business is a rather clinical exercise and you should know where you are going before you set off. That is exactly what is taught in the entrepreneurship classes, in the bit about writing business plans. However, I have been in businesses, some successful and some less so, and I shall vote for the ubiquity of emergent purpose. In short, often you start with a vague idea, a sense of what's missing, but hardly you do the pen-and-paper purpose statement before you start. In fact, some businesses never do it at all. And, yet others, keep changing it. It is good to say that you should know exactly where you are going before you start; and, also, to say that enterprise is all about being flexible, seeing opportunities and taking them; indeed, those two statements can't go together.

This is a classic example where I shall argue that business is a human activity. It has all the marks of a human activity, being error-prone, creative and regenerative. It is wrong to see it as a rational exploration of options on the table; options, as they are, rarely sit quietly on the table waiting to be explored. That is not just a bad metaphor, but a fundamentally flawed way of looking at things which form the core of business thinking and business education today: The search for overt rationality. I shall argue that the belief that business is a rational activity and therefore, one can 'model' scenarios, using appropriate statistical probabilities, is exactly the reason for the current financial crisis: The models did not work because the assumption of rationality is wrong.

This itself gives me a sense of purpose for the business school: To be able to prepare leaders for the 'humane' business. We think the world is changing - the pre-eminence of cold rationality is over. In every domain, technical thinking is being challenged by social constructivism, that 'facts' are actually opinions seen in an all pervasive context, and business is no exception. Suddenly, the business philosophy built over a hundred years look extremely fragile. It seems that we set out a journey a century back and when we reach its end, the world does not look like as it was supposed to be. It looks far too messy and completely off the mark. We may need to rethink all the fundamental assumptions that we worked with so far, and particularly the fact that human beings act rationally most of the time.

Interestingly, we started out defining our purpose to be a web 2.0 ready business school. The point of being on the cutting edge of technology was not about being technical, but to analyze the full impact these technologies are having. For example, think leadership. In an information poor world, we were better off being led by a leader, who, like a spider, sat at the center of the world and knew what's going on. But with information abundance, we are in starfish territory: We are better off with personal knowledge and personal decisions. Marketing changes from broadcast to podcast and interactive, finance changes from bottom line to value migration, business models evolve from value chain to network based. One can say technology is changing everything; seen the other way, technology is just making it more human.

We are integrating traditional business curricula with technology savvy and creative thinking. We see the new school to be a meeting point, of entrepreneurs, technologists and creative thinkers, and we see the learning will happen in this social context, by connecting the dots with patterns of one's one rather than mastering a syllabus. The underlying theme - discover the human with technology - is important, because it is counter-intuitive.

We never articulated this goal earlier, but working on hunches, we moved along a similar path. We are creating interesting MBA programmes which are quite different from the MBA we offer now, and which has a lot more space for Social Learning than the current curricula. We are also building a lot of interconnected support mechanism - online learning, custom texts, employer network sessions and tutor surgeries - with the objective of helping students leap into the new world of business. We are also creating a set of interesting undergraduate programmes, in creative media and technology, which we expect to go hand in hand with our business courses. Finally, we are putting in a lot of effort to put together a programme on entrepreneurship, with a focus on social entrepreneurship, the most humane side of the 'humane' business we are talking about.

In summary, then, this is an interesting time. Someone told me in today's education, it is not what resources you have but what conversations you are having. We intend to have lots of conversations, debates and exploration of what really is new in New Business. The school, which will eventually be named (School of Digital Business is one of the favourites), will be our contribution to the ongoing debate about the nature of business in the post-recession world.

Arguments with Myself: Pandora's Gift

I always see the positive: This is one of my biggest negatives. I often miss the downside. This isn't lack of experience, as I shall rate myself above average in terms of perspective and long term thinking. But I often go wrong as I am so irreversibly optimistic about people.

For example, I believe that given an opportunity, anyone can almost do anything. I do believe attitudes can change, and everyone has something in them. In a way, that's my Hindu belief: Everyone has a bit of God in them. I shall also think that this comes from the way I grew up, with my self-made entrepreneur grandfather, who obviously believed that everyone can make it in life if they try.

In a way, the middle class lives on optimism, in the faith that it is possible to be happy. However trivial way this happiness is defined, a mortgaged house, a secure job, a devoted spouse, or a big enough car, as long as one belongs to middle class, being optimistic about their chances in life is an inalienable responsibility. And vice versa, optimism, I shall claim, belongs to middle class alone: You don't HOPE once you are rich.

And, therefore, making a middle class start with preaching such hope. Consider this business of teaching employability skills to disaffected 16 to 19 year old kids that is such a big business in Britain. The whole act is primarily about dispensing optimism. This is about hand-holding the kids who knew no love or praise in their entire life and try to give them some, in the hope that they will abandon anger and embrace optimism and thus keep the society going.

And, in a way, the job of a democratically elected government is primarily to keep the hope going, so that it remains business as usual.

If you don't agree and still think of the government's role in grandiose terms, consider this: The stated aims of most governments in the world can be reduced to one word: Finding jobs for its people. One might cringe at this, and wonder why the government does not talk about enterprise, wealth or well-being, just jobs, which sound menial and defeatist in a sense. But, the point is optimism - as long as there are jobs, people are happy and optimistic and ready to give their lives for a mortgage - and everything can go on as usual.

I have used the words Hope and Optimism interchangeably, because, in this context, they are more or less the same thing. Defying the English dictionary, I shall claim the opposite of both the words would be Anger, not hopelessness or pessimism. The governments dispense hope wanting to keep people off the streets, to keep them away from anger which can burn everything down.

However, as we know, Hope was God's curse to humanity, so that they can keep enduring the pain and disease and death that he packed in a box and sent to Pandora. The point of optimism should indeed be not to see the point, but to always believe that no matter what happened before, it will be different this time around. This is why we must keep praying, even when we know the situation is hopeless, and dream, when the reality appears bleak all around. Whatever was God's intent though, one has to now accept the disease, disorder and pain as given, and hence, hope should serve rather than torture us. And, the middle classes, the great bearer of human hope and optimism, should allow us to defy God's intent, at least for the moment.

Also, the biggest enemy of hope is not despair, but privilege. I am not in the business of changing the dictionary, but the idea of middle class hope is based on the concept of fair play. That there is a fair chance is absolutely central to hope. Privileges, which segregate people and take away the fairness, take away hope. And therefore, middle classes always fight against privileges (as they did in Egypt last week) and try to create institutions against privileges, like democracy and what is rather meaninglessly called the Rule of Law.

Finally, at this time, when the rhetoric of hopelessness dominate public conversations, the middle classes are desperately waiting, wringing to change the topic, we must search deep and hard for a clue how may things change. Robert Nisbett said the future resides in the present as the present resides in the past; the bleakness of now can indeed be countered by the hope that we have been here before and life always moved on. We can talk about something called the human spirit, and it sounds morally superior than the God's will, particularly that of the devious Zeus who didn't like the Promethean ambition of man. We can turn Pandora's story on its head: It is not her foolishness, but her curiosity, which made mankind what it is today.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Huffs and Puffs: New Media's Judgement Day

The feeling at the news of Huffington Post being sold to AOL is - sadness.

I have subscribed to Huffington Post for last couple of years. Every day, reading the daily update was my touching base with my left-liberal self. But, there was more: This was my commitment to the alternate news.

In a way, I don't trust big media for all its worth. After Al Jazeera, it is plain to see what they are up to. For example, the BBC and the CNN completely omitted the news of the protests in Kuwait, which was in a way the first among the Arab democratic movements, may be just slightly ahead of its time. My daily media consumption is Huffington Post and Al Jazeera, the left wing editorials coupled with irreverent reporting.

So, the sale of Huffington Post to AOL, which is only slightly better than its sale to Rupert Murdoch, feels like one relationship severed. There is no reason to feel that way, indeed: The Press Release says that it will remain business as usual, with full editorial independence for Ms Huffington. One thing is plain though: That Liberalism is now a big company plaything. It is a portfolio item, not a freestanding principle on its own. The hegemony of big media is near complete.

What happens to new media, and the citizens' journalism, all those kind of things. Huffington Post was anyway an old/new crossover, at awe with big names and particularly with old Clintonians, but still outside the big media ring-fence. After this sale, they have sort of gone over to the dark side and space for a new liberal voice has now opened up yet again.

It is always like this - the baton gets passed on and the story continues.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Roles and People

I am contradicting myself. I sat through a business meeting only a few days back and proclaimed that instead of trying to fit people into roles, we should look at roles first and then find people, recruit from outside if necessary. That made perfect sense, and sounded nice. Everyone around the table agreed – as if this is quite obvious – and I felt good because I sounded business-like.

However, reflecting on this over the next few days, the statement does not appear as obvious as it did initially. The first problem is that the roles don’t exist but people do. However much we talk about competencies and job descriptions, that’s nothing other than a perception – a bunch of assumptions made by people other than the person doing the job about what doing the job means. Okay, I know about those soft scientific techniques of asking people around what their job needs, and creating the competency maps, but, indeed, people say what they think the job needs but not what they do.

The problem with management is that it pretends to be a science. It is therefore good to sound business-like and present the cut-and-dry common sense formulations as my statement in the aforesaid business meeting represented. But, on ground, it is never the same. For all the talk of professional management, most owners’ sons and daughters become owners, chairpersons and CEOs. Think James Murdoch, and unless you believe in the marvel of genes carrying management wisdom, you will feel that roles-versus-people stuff does not apply at the top.

I am arguing that what’s alright at the top is actually alright anywhere else. Given time and some basic attributes – shall we call this attitude – anyone can grow into any role. In fact, there is no other way, because no one really knows what the future holds. Someone said – don’t attempt to forecast, particularly the future – and he was absolutely right. This is now accepted management wisdom, and is factored into every strategy meeting. However, the accepted wisdom about roles is that they are set in stone – and this is not any more intelligent than the talk about ‘dream’ man or woman. In fact, a recruitment exercise in a company may as well be compared with Wayne Brady’s rather entertaining search for a bride in the The List (2007), where he ended up, predictably, settling with someone not possessing any of the two dozen ‘must have’ attributes that he had on the list.

In fact, search firms are already blaming the competency fetish for the high level of unemployment in the developed economies. It is also counter-intuitive that while the people are being told to be flexible, the companies are increasingly committing themselves to narrower job requirements and search for perfect candidates. And, on top, I shall argue that such ‘perfectionism’, committed in the name of management as a science, also undermines the business as a social organization, and promote elitism and disconnection from the society, which is necessarily a collection of imperfect individuals. Finally, since it is accepted wisdom that the governments should be run like companies, the temptation to succumb into social engineering, not unlike Hitler’s quest for the perfect Aryan man, is all too great.

In the end, I shall rather treat the people I have around me – colleagues and friends – as an indispensable part of the company, as long as they are pulling along. They may be imperfect, but they are there. It is worth exploring their strengths and give them the opportunities to do and learn, even if that takes a little while longer and a few more mistakes have to be endured. Some people will see this as a perfect recipe for slack, but at the same time, I can argue, this is possibly the only way to build a humane and sustainable organization. I shall say this is one thing business organizations should learn from good not-for-profit, which, in most cases, start with people first. I have heard so many times that businesses can only survive through the commitment and passion of its people and their ability to pull together at uncertain times like this; I don’t see that to be possible in a company of perfect strangers.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Britishness 101

I claim I can talk about what Britishness means with some sort of authority. It is always easier to talk about something seen from outside - I was not born British and only settled in Britain later in life - as, from that perspective, only the really distinguishable characteristics can be seen. For a nation, if Britain can be said to be one, it is a collection of people with individual characteristics from inside; from outside, the common eccentricities stand out and define the collective.

All this is very relevant after David Cameron let the penny drop now and said that Muslims in Britain must learn Britishness. Now, it will be his responsibility to explain what it is, and he should get cracking possibly after he finished explaining his last big concept - great society - to the public. One can indeed make light of his recent statement and say that he was only trying to please Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, who recently said Multi-culturalism has failed in Germany. David Cameron repeated her words.

Whatever was his intent, he would face some difficulty to set the standards for Britishness. Agreed, Englishness would be easier to explain, along with Scottishness and Welshness. However, such details aside, there is one graver problem in making Britishness override the varieties.

I remember being asked, while appearing for an interview in the process of acquiring my visa to come to Britain, why I chose Britain and not America to migrate to. I said, since I love Cricket but don't get Baseball, the choice was quite obvious. I got the visa. That was a prepared answer, I must admit: I rehearsed enough to appear spontaneous. The point was not about the relative merits of the different sports, I read, the point was to be humorous. In effect, before I even set foot on the British soil, I knew that humour was the defining characteristic of Britshness.

I further learned that it is a particular kind of humour which is very particularly British: The ability to laugh at oneself. Coming from India, this is something I needed to learn. In India, you always laugh at others and never really at yourself. In fact, laughing at yourself is seen as a weakness and is therefore assiduously avoided. Before coming to Britain, I did not know the endearing value of the polite self-deprecating humour.

I remember seeing a range of Cartoons when this concept of over-riding Britishness started making rounds. This will be around the end of 2006 when the Government first proposed a test of Britishness for immigrants and then the talk of a British National Day started. One cartoon showed a closed door, apparently of an examination centre, with a board with 'Q Here' message outside. In another, two characters discussed what else to consider other than binge drinking for a test of true Britishness. In another country, the Cartoon artists may have caused serious public displeasure; in some, they could have been imprisoned or had fatwas issued. In Britain, of course, they were regarded a 'good laugh'.

This leads to the other defining aspect of Britishness, as seen from outside. As a student steeped in romantic socialism, I was fascinated by the fact that world's emigres converged in Britain. I saw London as the ultimate meeting place of men of ideas, free from fear of persecution, converging on exciting and non-conformist conversations of all sorts. Indeed, I was disabused of my romantic notions about the Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park during my first run-in with the assorted loonies and born-agains who currently reign there, but freedom of thinking and expression as the central idea of Britishness lived on.

Also, coming from India and all too familiar with the terrors and genocides of British imperial administration, I never bought the popular notion of Britain as a relatively benign imperial power, but was educated to contrast the genteelness of Britishers at home and their savagery abroad. This neatly fitted into my notions of a decent working class, which was made up of those 'jolly good chaps' who worked hard to earn the daily bread, and a conniving elitist aristocratic class, which, unlike their continental counterparts, understood the joys of commerce earlier and better, and triumphed through an alliance with the working class men. So, Britain to me was never about grandeur and pomp of the palaces (in fact, I found the British castles small and distinctly unglamourous in comparison with the Mughal heritage of India), but the decency and ingenuity of the working class.

Coming back to David Cameron, he has to find a Britishness which isn't defined in the terms as above, but something more defined, contained in watertight formulation, almost Prussian. He can't replace multi-culturalism with Britishness if one accepts Britishness is about tolerating variety. He can't laugh while he is trying to make this a serious matter. And, indeed, he would have no time for working class decency and inclusiveness, but instead would stick to his vision of Britain as a place of privilege, arrogance and exclusiveness. He is starting at a good place, though: He may look out to the famous twentieth century Austrian corporal who tried to do something similar and almost ended up destroying the world.

The Question of Foreign Students

The British Immigration Minister delivered a speech on the forthcoming changes of the student visa system on the 1st February, and followed it up with a number of interviews on Television and Radio. This set of statements are intended to be justifications, of a policy direction already set. Considering that the Immigration Minister has said the same things before, and saying these now immediately as the Home Office's public consultation on the student visa system got over (the last date to respond was 31st January), the policy direction is already set.

From the tone of the statement, one would suspect that the government is trying hard to justify this set policy now. Earlier, this was about the election promise about curbing immigration. Now, as the government's policies are driving Britain into a quicksand of recession, and the unemployed figure is going past 2.5 million, it is natural for the immigration minister to justify his plans as if this is done to protect jobs. That's exactly what he tried to do. The truth is, however, that the immigration policies of this government are a mixture of xenophobia and confusion, and this came out plain in the Immigration Minister's statement.

What comes out, in essence, is that this Government is completely out of touch with the twenty-first century. For example, it is talking about setting systems by which it only gets the best and the brightest and not the rest, and to do so, it is making the immigration system 'water-tight'. The first problem, you don't attract the best and the brightest in the world through a difficult immigration system, you attract them through making your universities world-class. At the time when the government is pushing for drastic cuts in funding in education and research facilities, there is very little evidence that this government can crack the code for attracting such students. Besides, the other part of the rhetoric is that the government does not want the students to settle in Britain permanently. From any angle, this seems strange: You don't want the best talents in the world to get the education (okay, they pay for it) and then walk away. A country's government needs to be able to think more strategic than a training center owner, whose only interest may lie in collecting the student fees. From whatever we have seen so far, this Government may be more interested in short term political brownie points than the long term future of Britain.

We must also consider that the Immigration Minister in his statement singularly picks up on private sector education for failing to keep track of their students. The center-piece of his argument is a statement: In a sample survey carried out with private sector institutions 'about which we have suspicions', it was found 26% of their students are not being accounted for. Next minute, he presents another figure, 91,000 visas have been issued to students to come to study in the Private Sector colleges in Britain this academic year till January.

Indeed, anyone listening will sit up and think - more than 20,000 students may now potentially disappear after coming to this country, in effect, turned illegal immigrant.

The point is that this data is plainly alarmist and off the mark. First, the Minister is talking about a sample from 'suspicious colleges', no way representative of the sector. Second, we don't know how big is the sample. Most of the other evidence presented in the speech are anecdotal, so one may think that the Border Agency did not do much of empirical work. Third, since the exit checks have been abolished in Britain, there is no way tracking a person who leaves the country on their own free will. Fourth, a bit of anecdotal evidence countering the claim made - I have been told by an university that the Border Agency could only deport about 30 odd illegal migrants though they have been told about hundreds of absentee students last year. Even if the addresses of these potential illegals are supplied, the Border Agency simply does not have the staff or the will to be able to remove them. In summary, what we have is an implementation issue, not a case of gross corruption as it is being projected.

The problem is that with this alarmist noise, Britain is being seen in Asia, Africa and elsewhere as an increasingly xenophobic country (a recent survey actually shows that the Britons are most wary about immigration among eight European and North American nations, though we may have less immigrants than at least five other countries surveyed) and this does not make it an attractive destination for the best and the brightest in the world. In today's world, the countries should focus on 'talent management' not 'securing the borders', and Britain is singularly failing in both.

The reason we landed up with more foreign students with lesser academic capability is because our government has so far taken a shop-keeper's approach to education, counting the fees but not accounting for the education ecosystem. For example, while complaining about the jobs taken by foreign students, one has to realize that many of these jobs will not exist anyway without them. The cozy rent that London landlords have got used to would melt away if the foreign students pack their bags and go to Ireland. The universities and colleges, if they can't recruit the students to come in, will go elsewhere and create clusters of competence which will, in time, make the countries compete with Britain in education provision. The Minister notes that the foreign students contribute £5 Billion to Britain's economy every year; however, losing the 'preferred' status as an education destination will possibly cost us ten times as much.

the Immigration Minister laments that many foreign students, after graduating, go into low skill jobs (like Customer Service, he said!) and therefore, end up stealing jobs from British Graduates. Again, that expression is apt - apparent muddle - because one would expect British graduates to compete for skilled jobs and not unskilled ones. Besides, the reason many foreign graduates are forced to go into low skilled jobs immediately after graduation is that the recruitment system in Britain is still racially biased against a non-EU migrant (who receive at least 30% less in pay for a like-for-like skill set) and that many businesses and public organizations have such detailed and immutable requirements for jobs, it is almost impossible for a person who spent at least a part of his life in a different country to meet all these requirements.

In summary, I think the immigration minister has got many things wrong. We need more foreign students, not less. We need more respect and opportunity for private sector education, not less. We need a twenty-first century approach to immigration, not an elitist, devoid of reality one. We need better implementation and less intervention, not the opposite. We need investments in universities and research, not take them for granted. We need to create jobs for British graduates by conscious adjustments with the twenty-first century global economy, not by shutting the door and pretending to be Victorians.

Education is the killer app of our time. It is time that we take this seriously.

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