Tuesday, March 29, 2011

19/100: The History Mistake

There are two kinds of people, those who read history and those who do not know it exists. And, it is easy to tell who is what from a conversation: Reading history gives a view of the world around you and inform you with a perspective.

I am a history reader, indeed. For me, history is a living experience, manifested in small details of life. For me, the irony of Gaddaffi, the writer of the Green Book and of the freedom to the people, is ever so apparent: So is the hypocrisy of the current NATO action of bombing the way to a regime change. You can see that everyone is playing for time; they always did, in war and peace.

However, reading history also tells me that men make history and it is not the other way round. We are not mere pawns in a great chess game played by an absent master, but we make our own moves. There may be an iota of truth in saying that those who do not read history is condemned to repeat it, but it is equally true that sometimes, we repeat as we read - see a Kennedy in Clinton and a Vietnam in Iraq - and sometimes, we build concepts based on our sense of history which then shapes history itself.

I keep coming back to Churchill at this point. A number of people ridicule his Nobel Prize for Literature, but I would contend that he was possibly the most influential wordsmith history has ever known. The followers of Marx, Jesus and Mohammed may be slightly offended, but I see pure genius in Churchill's conception of the 'iron curtain', a deception that lengthened Britain's empire on life support and shaped a whole century worth of political debate. He imagined the Cold War when there was not, and allowed the conception of the good and the evil that sold newspapers and launched armies. This resulted in tremendous human miseries and huge political mistakes, of the regime change in Iran in 1956, of the United States' violent and unnecessary engagement in Vietnam, of creation of Pakistan by stoking up a division there wasn't. I shall say Churchill saw the world in those terms as he studied history and understood his world in terms of the Great Game, the race between Tsarist Russia and Imperial Britain panning out over two centuries, and he could never escape the thinking. Therefore, the man who could not ride the tube became the man who influenced our times the most.

We can't escape history anyway as it influences the language in use, our ideas of good and bad and our visions of the future. But this is precisely where we make a mistake: Future is quite a different place than history has been. History does not offer a reusable template, just a perspective on human action. And, a key perspective from history is how we keep repeating historical mistakes as we remain history bound.

This starts with our personal lives. We judge the future by the past. We remain prisoners of what we know, and are afraid to open our minds. We fear strangers, and always try to fit today in yesterday's mould. We mourn the dead, but don't care about the unborn. We don't care about the non-existent, a fair point, but determine our actions by times past. The illusions of the ever-existent past rule our lives.

What if we could think that the past never happened? Conservatives will recoil in horror: This will wipe out our identities, nations, relationships, morale and everything that matters. Indeed. But how does one know when the past ends and the future starts? If you trust the media, and the experts, you will be told - history repeats and the future actually never starts. Therefore, all actions must be guided by the past, and not by the future.

This we then carry into public lives: An image of our collective future moulded by our imagined past. Because it is impossible to have a collective past - we were all unborn in the past and therefore did not matter - and what we are guided by is our picture of it. This is where we become the master and not the slave of history: We construct what was and through this, what would be. We let the constraints of the past determine the boundaries of the future, and then try to fit the stories of the past be shaped by our expectations of the future.

In summary, then, this is the point: There isn't a past which is 'real'. History is a perspective, not a fact. Things happened, indeed, but they happened for a reason that existed at the time. People of the past did sorts of things they did because they expected their future, our time, to be shaped by their past: It did not turn out to be that way. Because we came, because we are the masters of our destiny. We should read history, but not keep repeating it.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

18/100: The Decline of MySpace

MySpace, going by the latest reports, has lost 50 million users over the last 12 months, of which the last two months, January and February this year, have seen a loss of 10 million unique users. It is now down to 60 million users from its peak of 110 million, and it is expected to fetch a valuation of $50 million, down from $330 million that News Corp paid for it only a few years back.

Compare this with the stratospheric rise of Facebook and its multi-billion dollar valuation, and the decline looks stark and irreversible. This will possibly happen, as the executives look rather directionless and talk about MySpace being an entertainment site rather than a social network. That seems like the business-speak that is sinking the company: It is the social context of entertainment which broadcast media executives never get it.

But it may be the time for social media to grow up. It is no longer enough just to blame old media thinking for new media failures. Remember Friendster, which took the fast track to oblivion on its own right. There was no broadcast media thinking, just plain arrogance of attempting to engineer users' lives.

Look closely and you will possibly find some kind of pattern. The social is powerful. However, the curator of the social, in this context the site owners like MySpace and Facebook, are not as powerful as they think they are. Indeed, the images people construct on their space (servers, shall we say) is an important part of their identity. And therefore, as in the case of Friendster, the executives may feel they 'own' their users. However, this ownership is as transitory as these identities, and while my Facebook identity is central to my life at this time, it is possible to have many identities, and many lives therefore, at this time.

The curators often mistake the power of the network as their own power. They tend to think themselves as the hub, or as the cloud at the centre of all the connections. But, in a way, they are as much a node as anyone else, and their existence depend as much on the existence of others. And while the network needs curatorial efforts, there must be a continuous feedback loop, where the leadership and followership must move back and forth between the users and the executives.

The challenge of social media companies, I shall argue, is that this people power is their product, and that way, they must defer to their product. The literary equivalent of this will be Frankenstein: It is indeed possible for the social media sites to overtake the intentions of its creators and owners and assume a life of its own. And, then, like Facebook or YouTube, its owners must struggle to control the legality of the content and intent. They go too far, and suddenly their sites are bland 'entertainment sites', more like TV than the public square, and the product dies.

This is an ongoing thing and as any curator will know, that's the way it would be. The job of social media platform owners are more like the organizers of a film festival, rather than the owners of a business, or even the publishers of a newspaper. I say film festival because I see the dynamic of a social site being played out between the curators, the producers of content and the viewers and participants, all sides holding somewhat equal power, though each one of them express it in a slightly different form.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

17/100: The Twenty-something Phenomenon

I have one thing against the twenty-somethings: I am not one of them.

As it is obvious from the tone, I regret the fact. Because the world today moves around twenty-somethings. In this Mark Zuckerberg era, if you are not twenty-ish, you are unloved. VCs think you are history. You are not licensed to dream.

I was told that if you have reached forty without messing up your life completely or doing something insanely great, you are not qualified to dream. My rather feeble protestation that there were always great men in history who found their calling in mid-life, like Gandhi or FDR, was pushed aside. We don't live in that era anymore, I am told.

Yes, indeed, life's faster and there is more respect for young businesspeople. Young business-people by itself is a new phenomena - it is much easier to get capital and run a business early in your life. I contend that what really changed is this - starting up has become easier - we have more young people pursuing a business career. And, they are much more risk-taking, compared to the mid-life dreamers who usually have family and other commitments. The excitement in business, therefore, is more.

But, again, life's not over for the older people. We live longer, so Forty is the new Twenty. It is a time to start, not to fold. Just thank God for all those extra years that you got to learn the thing, and start over. And, yes, you can still do something really cool and still become insanely great. I know talking about retiring at 65 sounds like Civil Service, but that could be your equivalent of retiring at 45 folklore: You may have a better chance of making it.

My point is being twenty is a state of mind. As I was explaining to a younger colleague recently, there is no baggage, just commitment in life. This is my view: You essentially remain alone all your life. That Single thing is just Zuckerberg in his frustration, everyone is eternally single. Just that you don't have to be selfish or lonely because of that; it is perfectly possible to see life as it is, a dynamic formation as in the dance floor, everyone on their own, but tied in synchronicity.

And commitment isn't a bad thing. Commitment teaches people lessons that are needed to come up with great ideas. Commitment gives people discipline that they need to write great code. Commitment means being predictable, which is not the opposite of creative, but just that you turn up on time. If I have spent twenty years at work learning such things, it isn't going to be a waste of time.

But here is what the twenty-somethings are teaching the older dreamers: Commitment isn't the end, but the start of something great. If you want to change the world, first commit; but then, get on with changing the world. Don't fuss over, be cool: Don't take your eyes off the ball.

Finally, one more thing that is so twenty-something: Don't take the world as it is for granted. The 60s are back: The post-modern selfishness has finally given away to a new era of street activism and connectedness. The illusions of stable life, which the broadcast media peddled every evening to our unsuspecting minds, are over. As the TV sinks into reality shows, and Facebook makes our relationships go beyond the obvious, and even the permissible, everything is up for grabs. This is the world twenty-somethings grew up in. The Forty-somethings, though they created it, need help from the 'young ones' to make sense of their own lives.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

16/100: The Change Imperative

The business I am in is facing the full force of change. The immigration laws are changing, forcing us to rethink our business model; the university funding is changing, opening new opportunities for us.

I have been here before, indeed. I started my career as a Systems Administrator managing Unix systems, in 1993, just before the advent of Windows. Then, I moved onto another company in a job setting up their private network, in 1995, just before Internet became commercially available in India. And then, we rode on the Dotcom sentiments and ran a Certification Training company in 1999, just before plane-loads of software programmers started returning to India.

From these experiences, and others that I studied, I know that the best option available for a small business is to change with the environment. The greatest advantage of smallness is nimbleness, and one must take full advantage of this. The worst thing one can do is to sink in denial; but that's exactly what most small businesses do when times change.

Someone I know insists that small businesses don't think. In a way, he is right: In the cash-is-king environment of a small business, there is very little time for elaborate thinking. But, then, he is wrong in some ways, too. Elaborate brainstorming exercise and expensive strategic planning getaways do not necessarily mean better thinking. Besides, thinking-doing gap is usually much smaller in small businesses than in big ones. I would contend that the small businesses think differently. They do not have the luxury of elaborate research and extensive data, hence they depend much more human instincts in making decisions. Going by this, they are likely to be more adaptable at crunch times like this, when most research is meaningless and there is almost no usable data available for forecasting.

However, sweeping environmental changes often catch the small businesses blind. Their nimbleness become useless, and despite their gut instinct and action orientation, they can't do anything. This is because their decision mechanism, so effective in face of 'regular' uncertainties, are completely useless in the face of paradigm shifts - because they are grounded in the past.

Any experience-based decision making is bound to be grounded in the past. Indeed, you can't experience the future. However, the key ability to extrapolate past into future is to be able to reflect and act, something that is hindered, not helped, by the action oriented setting of a small business.

However, at times like this, not just in the particular industry I am involved in but almost everywhere, the importance of reflective action can't be overstated. It is only by standing back, one can see the true nature of the challenge and the other opportunities which arise at the same time. This isn't just an overtly optimistic statement: It is quite obvious that technology in particular always create new opportunities by changing the rules of the game. But, other things, like the shifting political and economic environment, do the same thing as well.

In our industry, right now, the two shifts are happening simultaneously. Led by political imperatives, a misguided policy is being framed which will weaken Britain's competitive standing in the international education market. The Tory government, indulgent on political point scoring on Labour's immigration system, forgot that the expansion of student numbers in Britain are primarily demand-led. There was no Indian middle class twelve years back when they were last in power: It is incoherent to say that the migrant student numbers should go back to what it was a decade ago. But, at the same time, the British education market is going through a deep shift: The university education is about to become expensive, and the job prospects, after such courses, more uncertain. It is likely that more British teenagers now will decide against going to the university, or seek to go to universities elsewhere in Europe. An opportunity is therefore, opening up, for offering meaningful education in a different format.

Reflective action can tell us how to progress now. Indeed, the key thing is the commitment to progress. However much business books tell us, cut-and-run isn't often an option for a small business owner. This is because, even if it makes abundant economic sense, the emotional capital invested in a business is huge for the owner, and therefore, that's possibly the last option for even the most dispassionate. And reflecting is anyway an easier option than closing down, and hence worth a try.

15/100: The Consequences of Muddle

I would expect a Tory government to be business friendly. But it is clear that the current British government is caught in a web of its own confusion. At one end, it talks global and wants to connect to the rapidly changing world, kick-start an enterprise society and build a competitive modern economy; on the other, it needs to fulfil its promise to take Britain back to the past, play on its islander mentality, and erect, if it could, an wall around the coastlines to keep everyone out. This is obviously spilling out to its approach to Higher Education: It is throwing the whole university sector in crisis with its harshest culling of public funding in two generations, in the hope that private sector will step in to fill the void and meet the British industry’s requirements of skills and knowledge, and then, as if to make up, it is cutting out the Private Education sector from the lucrative international education market, Britain’s third largest export industry by some count, in the hope that the universities can mop up the place left vacant by the Private providers.

There are at least two key problems with this thinking. First, the universities can’t service the markets that private providers service. They are not nimble or imaginative enough. They don’t have the understanding of the international student market the way private providers do. Most private education entrepreneurs are from ethnic minority background, and often their businesses are built around a deep cultural bond with their countries of origin. For university bureaucrats, international students look like fat pots of money. The promise of ‘university life’, which roughly translates into an undisciplined pursuit of sex and drugs, misses the point with cash-constrained, highly ambitious international students, seeking an outcome in a hurry. The private education entrepreneurs understand them: They deliver. The university administrators, who have mastered the game of seeking funding and faculty council politicking, are completely out of depth here. So, the students who wont come to British private colleges will not go to British universities; they will go to Canadian and Australian and American For Profit colleges.

The other problem with this approach is that it is anti-competitive and will promote complacence and sloth, rather than efficiency and innovation that we need in the education sector. The proposed legislation are intrusive and is an attempt to impose bureaucratic processes ahead of simple academic disciplines within an education institution. Government failed in instituting adequate oversight and will continue to do so. In fact, its efforts in accreditation was miserable so far; despite the rhetoric, the government actually forgot the mandate of the current accrediting bodies in the private sector, namely BAC, ASIC and the British Council, expired back in 2009 and was never renewed. However, when the government tried to fix the system, it did not try to fix the system by tightening the accreditation, telling the colleges to smarten up and gain a QAA accreditation in the matter of next few months. It can’t be done, because the QAA does not have the resources and will not be given the resources. Instead, the government gives a long drawn out, almost open ended, period of 18 months to all privately owned colleges to get accredited, but jumped the gun on other areas, depriving students of work rights and other facilities which they legitimately could expect. The government blamed the previous government, most conveniently, but failed to take any lessons from its muddle. It repeated it, all over again.

The implications for British Education industry is huge. Just when education is becoming world’s fastest growing industry, and the aspiring millions from India and China are looking for options, British institutions, which is nominally just below the American ones in terms of global prestige, have been put in a modern time equivalent of a cage. And the impact is not limited to education: It will have ripple effects in financial services and creative industries, the other two big export sectors of the British economy. Politically, it scores points if the British workers can make cars again, but no sensible government would aspire for a future when car manufacturing returns to Britain but the design and fashion shops, banks and brands, go to India.

The British Home Office needs to make up its mind. Fast.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

14/100: Endgame for British For Profit Education

Theresa May, as expected, delivered - undoing the British Education industry within a span of one speech. At the time when the British Government is talking up industry and enterprise, she delivered a muddled protectionist policy, kicking off a civil war of sorts between the publicly funded and privately funded education providers in Britain.

The policy is harsh and abrupt, though it goes an extra mile to reclaim the international student market for the embattled British universities. However, the proposals, more or less, exterminates British For Profit education industry: If you are publicly funded, you go scot-free, if you are private, you must be dishonest - was the presumption she worked with. So, if a student chooses to go to a For Profit college, they will have no work rights or the rights to bring a dependent, so on and so forth. At one stroke, the visas that Private Colleges could have sponsored are being capped, and they are being told to change their accreditation system within 18 months time.

The International students, I shall argue, will have a much worse deal than before. Private colleges, despite the visa abuses in some of them, were driving programme innovation in the British Higher Education. They were expanding access, and an average student paid half the fees they needed to pay at the university studying in a private college for a comparable qualification. The changes will put most, including some of the leading, private colleges out of business, as the students will be weary of coming to Britain without any work entitlement at all.

I am certain that, out of this mess, new business models will emerge. Some of the colleges will be rejig themselves for the home student market, pushing the British universities hard where it hurts. The energies that made them capture the foreign student market now will be directed towards the home student market. This will also drive programme innovation and increased use of technology in delivering learning, and this may, with time, lead to private colleges setting up campuses abroad at a fast pace. Finally, this may also shift the focus on enterprise-linked training, of the kind I have been pursuing for our Digital Media entity, and a whole new game may emerge therefore.

In the end, then, more tests and tribulations for me: Suddenly, all that I was working with is gone. But I am as optimistic as ever. This is that inflection point in my life when I must start doing things afresh and explore new ideas. My idea of World College comes back to the agenda yet again: So does the idea of developing a good overseas campus. Higher Education, of the kind which changes life of the middle classes, will always be good business. I have already devoted my career to this, and despite the madness of Ms May, I am not giving up.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

13/100: Waiting for Theresa May: Changes in British Student Visa System

The British Home Secretary, Ms Theresa May, is scheduled to announce the long anticipated changes in the Student Visa system about an hour from now. She is expected to say what everyone expects her to say – and what conservatives have said before – that they are cracking down on the visa abuses, limiting immigration and reversing the open door policies pursued by Labour. However, the message will appear – to the rest of the world – as confused and off the mark as the government’s approach and policy to immigration has been so far.

Ms May and her colleagues are fully aware that any misdirected tweaking of the system can cause long term and irreversible damage to the British Higher Education industry. Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, has recently pointed out that this should be treated as a key export industry, and he is indeed right. In fact, Higher and Further Education is one of the rare sectors where Britain can claim some sort of a World Leadership, behind America but ahead of the rest of the pack. This is an ‘industry’, which, if allowed to compete freely, can bring money, technology and opinion leadership to Britain, something its ill-advised missions in Afghanistan and its half-hearted adventures in Libya may not. Ms May’s job is, therefore, to walk the tightrope, balancing the need of the education sector with Prime Minister’s rhetoric on immigration, and reconciling the tried-and-tested tactic of scaremongering with the common-sense understanding of globalization.

And, she is expected to fail the test. Going by her statements in this morning’s newspapers, she is expected to ignore the advice from the Parliamentary Select Committee, and the universities and the business and universities ministers. She is expected to push for an arbitrary reduction in the numbers of student visas issued to Non-EU migrants, introduce a cap in the numbers of Post-Study work visas issued each year and make coming to Britain a wholly unwelcoming experience. She contends that all this would be done to ensure only the best and the brightest come to Britain. However, this is a sort of Rip Van Winkle statement – she is oblivious that international higher education is a competitive field and Britain’s recent popularity as a Higher Education destination came only as other competitor countries, like Australia, tried similar rhetoric. The best and the brightest always have choices, and they tend to go where they are welcomed. Parliamentary statements and meddling politicians don’t really help in making a country an attractive education destination.

What’s more worrying about Ms May’s statement is that it comes at a bad time for British Higher Education in general. The shifts in the funding policies are about to exterminate the British Higher Education system as we know it. The ill-fated attempts to abolish the Polytechnics in 1992 (which, someone I know, calls the abolition of the universities) and later incorporation of smaller research based universities failed to keep the pace with social changes, namely the emergence of a ‘new’ professional ‘middle’ class and their global aspirations. Just when this crisis was reaching its height, the government has decided to remove the life-support from the universities – the teaching grants and research funding – without properly assessing whether the universities are ready. There was more rhetoric covering the move, which was mostly about running out of money. The coalitions toy-boy Deputy PM, Nick Clegg, who signed pledges protecting students before the elections but promptly reversed his stance as soon as he got power, sugar-coated the move saying that he simply didn’t know how bad public finances were, and therefore, the government’s approach to universities is fully justified. However, while the general consensus is that banks are mostly too big to fail, it is surprising to see how callous the government was about the universities; banks supply the life-blood of the economy, money, and the universities supply the social lubricant, education. Hence, the complete disregard of the Higher Education system in the government’s agenda point to the same amnesiac policy making as seen in other areas like immigration and defence. This government seems to be governing for a world that does not exist.

Coming on top of all these misdirected policies on Higher Education, Ms May’s efforts may further cripple the British For profit education industry, which runs on International Students. Ms May intends to further regulate the industry, as she seems to think that the industry isn’t regulated enough. However, the reality is this: The For Profit education industry in Britain is marginalized and heavily regulated, often by bureaucrats without any idea or enthusiasm about education, and its customers, the international students, are stereotyped into an eternal guilty-unless-proven-innocent box. The crisis of British Higher Education can only be solved by innovation and dynamism of this sector; Ms May, however, wants to unleash a reign of terror of sorts.So, we shall wait for the statement now. This will be without expectation, indeed, because we must stop expecting the politicians to do the right thing. But, in a way, this is a make-or-break moment for, if I can claim, for Britain. A choice between going forward and going backwards will be made. Some political points will possibly be scored, and a lot of possibilities will be lost.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

12/100: On Setbacks and Teams

After a long time, my life returned to normalcy yesterday. An after-office pub trawl lasted till 11pm, not because of the quality of the wine - I was merely on Guinness for a belated St Patrick's Day celebration - but because of the quality of the conversation.

Indeed, it was mostly office stuff, to start with. It was about the urgency to construct a vision, something concrete and achievable, yet something that breaks the cycle of trivialities that seem to engulf our work. That way, we are at an interesting point. We are affiliated to a couple of universities, and we run their courses. The recent audits and examination boards went well, and everyone is jubilant that we seemed to have met our objectives. However, to me, this is just the starting point and not the end. To my colleagues who had a more public sector background, satisfying the very high standards of the regulators and the accrediting bodies is the goal, an end. To me and the colleagues coming from private sector training etc, that's just the start. The road test of the real market - delighted students, ringing cash register, leadership in our industry - is what we tend to focus on.

I have also started noticing another significant strain of thinking in the higher education industry. It is very resource based. The tie-in with resources is obsessive, and when resources are in short supply, the educators often run out of ideas. This is what is happening in the British University sector at this time, I gather from the conversations. But Private Sector executives, particularly for those who have lived in the SME Cash-is-king environment, resources are never to be taken for granted and innovation is the key. Moreover, I come from India and my middle class Indian childhood meant that I couldn't even have more than two allocated cream biscuits at home on a given day. Intuitively, I adjust to lack of resources, always trying to find ways.

So, moaning about resources is not part of my make-up. Hence, achieving the goal that we are trying to set for ourselves - becoming a degree awarding institution in next three years time - seem perfectly plausible to me. I am sure the universities and university colleges around us have more resources, buildings etc, but as long as we have the ideas and the people, we shall surely get there.

This makes a very good pub conversation, particularly in one we found in Queens Street, just around the corner from Cannon Street rail station. It is not too noisy, not at least at the basement. I thought it is perfect for such a conversation, where, aided by Guinness, I could at last be imaginative and passionate, my normal self. I was telling my colleagues that if I have my way, I would try to turn the way we do business on its head and make it student led in the literal sense. This will mean some experiments, indeed, like getting some student representatives in the governing council of the college etc. I am certain that these proposals will never be accepted, because experimentation isn't a common thing in the education industry. But, I am certain that my quest of difference, the urge to mesh the best of private business spirit - innovation, dynamism, resourcefulness (which implies working with constraints) - with academic freedom and intellectual pursuit, will be appreciated, with time, by all concerned.

This freedom to experiment may indeed the best part of my job. I came to the Higher Education, convinced that this is the killer app for future, one business that will change the world in the age of rising middle classes. It is still early for me, I haven't yet finished my studies in Adult Learning at the UCL (though I am getting there now and should finish my dissertation by early next year) and only spent about a year in the college environment. However, this being my sole obsession and passion for this whole period, the learning has been enormous. I now feel ready to commit myself to this industry long term, and focus all my activities, work, reading, writing etc, on this industry. I also understand one can't do things alone and it is important to connect with other people, learn from them and forge friendships that last. Such conversations, which mesh work with friendships, are at the core of this new, emergent identity for me.

I have also realized my mistakes at the same time. I lost the humility, of being a student and a learner, and was played on by my ego. I wrote about this in an earlier post, and today, a quiet Saturday, allowed me to reflect upon this. Hopefully, this means I shall be able to regain my balance yet again and start new when I get back to office on Monday: Not give in to the temptations of power but do my job - learning to create a great modern educational institution - with sincerity, focus and commitment.

My ideas are somewhat simple, I want to build a modern higher education institution on the basis of three 'bases' - students, enterprise and technology. I see the college we build should be primarily student-led, focused on development of enterprise (owned businesses or inside the companies our students work for) and in step with technologies of production, communication and consumption. My first step in building this institution is to bring together a team which is united on certain core values. It is, of course, a more difficult job that I initially assumed. I made some bad choices, and putting the team together in an effective manner meant I had to take on some of the existing power brokers that invariably exist in any setting. I am only half done on this journey - still waddling through the terrain of interpersonal relationships - but I am increasingly anxious that this should not make me lose sight of the end goal, building of a great, sustainable institution.

There is a very real chance that I might fail. It almost felt like I did, last week. I was told that my strategies are disruptive - as they were meant to be - but that was not the problem. The problem was that some of the people I was recruiting to be in my team thought I already lost the battle and gave in for the sake of job security. It was an interesting spectacle: I was upset for a passing moment as I took this for lack of loyalty. However, a couple of days of pause and reflection allowed me to see it to be what it is - a simple human survival instinct - and the fact that the problem is actually in me, my ego and cravings of power, which I must solve at my end. However, once this is clear, I am also painfully aware of the fragility of any vision (indeed, I have been here before) and the fact that my irreversibly optimistic nature is actually a bit of handicap in me identifying the right people. I am aware that to build something significant, one needs faith, above all. And, faith, of all things, isn't easy: It isn't for the fainthearted, I must say. I anyway only get attracted to people who are confident and engaged with the world, but now I have added 'persistence' to my list.

Before I move onto another subject, however, I must also mention that the last week was not as bad as I make it sound. The difficult times are always the best time to know people who really love you and will stand by you. At the same time as my 'Et Tu, Brute?' moment, I saw other people who care for how I feel, though I was plain childish at the time. I could see the support and understanding from them, an appreciation of my work, and the commitment to the shared goals. I now know how generous and sincere those people were. While disappointments are bound to come in the course of what I am trying to achieve, it is important for me to know that there are people who I can count on. This isn't about loyalties but shared values, and common goals (which goes beyond 'keeping the job') because the same set of people are unsparing in criticism when I get it wrong.

So, that sums up the state of my life at the beginning of the third week of the 100 days that is to change my life. It is happening, indeed: I am better off than I was three weeks back. Most importantly, I have learned important lessons on the need to build teams with common purpose and shared values at the core of any enterprise, and going forward, my energies will be devoted in distilling and developing such teams. Further, all the fun and excitement of being in the industry that will change the world is back in my mind yet again, and as I sign off now, I feel immensely happy and look forward to get to work on Monday.

Friday, March 18, 2011

11/100: On Courage

I am at it again. I am sitting on the edge of abyss intending to jump. I don't need to, but I thought it was required for my self-respect. I won't jump perhaps, as I am a bit older and a bit wiser, but this is familiar territory.

But play aside, there is a question of principle here. This is what I actually said. I said compromise never actually achieved anything significant. But, then, that's not strictly true. Most things in life are based on compromise. Why did I say that then? To be honest, it sounded good when I said what I said. The thoughts only came thereafter.

But there was a rider: An important one. All compromises are not the same. Some are big compromises, which makes everything open for tweaking. These are things when you give in. This is like agreeing to steal money or murder people. The compromise has gone so far that it violates what most people will think to be important principles. This can also include the things like acting fairly and with integrity, treating others with respect, etc.

But then there are other little compromises. I am reading Guy Kawasaki's Enchantment, where he claims enchantment turns hostility into civility, and civility into loyalty. I am currently in the run for the Type 1 compromise. Civility, in the particular case, will be a great achievement.

But, then, indeed, Big Compromises can't achieve anything worthwhile as I said. I have been trying to advice a friend that one must be prepared to defend a vision. Otherwise, there is no point having one. The central point is, no one can't be everything. Therefore, if you aspire for something, you have to give up something. Like, I loved the winter mornings in my home in Kolkata, and to spend time with my parents and brothers in the calm laziness of Sunday mornings; but I also wanted to see the world. So, I had to give up all of that, irreversibly as it appears now. Indeed, I always hoped I can go back. But, as I know now, I can't: This is giving up something for something else, which we all do all the time.

So, this thinking about eating your cake and having it, which in my case translates into - carrying on with business as it is while aspiring to be different - is counter-intuitive. I tried to plead my case citing everything I could muster, particularly Einstein, that madness is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different outcomes.

Interestingly, that's exactly the time I saw my madness. It felt like familiar territory. It was sublime, I felt I have argued this case before. I have tried to impose my perfect vision into an imperfect world, and wanted to change the thinking. As an idea, that's fine - this is what I should be doing. But, I am too optimistic, I always see the bright side, and that's my mistake. I always assume that people will see my point, when they are actually laughing and thinking I am an wild eyed ideologue. This was a scary moment: I told myself to shut up.

I have now arrived at another Einstein dictum, a problem can't be solved at the same level of thinking that created it. But I am equally aware changing thinking isn't easy; it is actually the most difficult job one may have. It seems I am cursed with this task of 'why not' thinking, and therefore, chained to the edge for the rest of my life: I shall always have to challenge others in pursuit of my perfect vision of future.

One thing I learned is that I need courage and I need friends. I need to get used to looking at the abyss: Some day, I may have to jump, but not yet. But I have been bad at getting friends, people who will think worthwhile to stick with me. I am not sure whether it is about my ability to pick the right people: I am too optimistic and believe anyone can do it, and often this goes against me. But, older and wiser, I must try again to form a team which will stick together in the pursuit of change.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

10/100: Writing, Interrupted

I am trying to keep awake and survive at the same time. Sleep is much like death, admittedly. The problem here is boredom, though. It is a dull morning, like the usual English mornings when Spring wants to come but Winter wouldn't still give away. One of those middle of the week days when the optimism of the start is lost but the weekend is still too far, and the carry-on spirit is faltering in the middle of the predictability of life: The 8:33 train, the walk on London Bridge, the unsmiling receptionist, the creaky lift, culminating finally in the usual hustle and bustle of office life, accentuated, in anything, by the birth-pangs of these words, only the noise of typing.

Coffee isn't helpful, because that may drive away sleep but brings the awareness of death closer: And dosing off is no good, as, apart from the public spectacle, it mollifies sleep but makes me unaware of death and irrelevance. So I try writing, which does all the things - make me look busy, generates sufficient keyboard noise which is the marching sound of the office army, let's me sleep, be aware of death and pay it homage, and yet keeps me alive, just about.

This post has no point. I have tried writing essays here before, or tried alluding to grand ideas. This isn't one of them. This is about interrupting my daily life with a bit of play, a break from the routine, a representation of myself other than what it should be. There is no sadness here: Just the pointlessness. Indeed, pointlessness is the point of our lives, I may justifiably think. What I do does not make one iota of a difference in another person's life, and despite my pretence of grand ideas, for the world in general; all I do is to try to prove to me that I am alive. If I have gone missing, it is only me who will miss myself.

Am I pessimistic, or just growing old and giving up on my aspirations to change the world? I am sure not one of the conspiracy theorists, who see the dark side of things; I shall claim I am alive, constantly at play, fixated on future, learning new things everyday. I have given up on dying my hair and loving this process of being old and authentic, but that does not make me disillusioned in any form. Just a bit wise, which in some way rhythms with weary perhaps, and that I have started seeing the differences of claims and realities.

Things, such as, the words that governs our lives. Like Qaddafi's claim of being the last bastion against Al Queda - which he justifiably is, the last generation of terrorists who are now being replaced - Murdoch's claim of being the champion of free speech, and George Bush's claim of being the sponsor of democracy, our lives are full of claims that hide reality. I am lately fascinated by the expression - taxpayers' money - which seems to have been enthroned as the dominant concept of our age. When was tax the payers' money: It was always the King's, Landlord's, Knights' or Councillors' money, to be spent at pleasure. And, it still is that way, just that lately it has started becoming banks' money as well. But, taxpayers' money suddenly assumes a demonic dimension when a poor nurse, government clerk or a teacher claim any portion of it: They must just be seen as benefit scroungers because theirs are professions that must be cowered in submission to the other grander professions, like that of real estate tycoons, media Moguls and speculators, and they should not be making claims of a decent life as the television shows.

But despite its sheer unfairness, I have come to love this expression - taxpayer's money. This is because it is infinitely better than the idea that money has no masters, that it is one of those woolly things which is never owned and therefore, its flow is inherently fair. At least, here, money is someone's, taxpayers', and if this means that public purses should try to satisfy the people who pay them, that can't mean the rich bankers because they have all gone offshore anyway. But, indeed, they do. Individuals can indeed be left to poverty, joblessness and credit card induced bankruptcy, but banks are, almost always, too big to fail.

Etc. Such play keeps me alive, happy and optimistic. I keep watching the great divergence of claims and realities as they fall apart, as the money economy becomes a bigger and bigger bubble everyday, completely disconnected from realities of the 'real markets'. I see with wonder as bankers surround themselves with bankers, pockets of privilege become fortified by more privilege, ideas that were phony are substantiated by arguments that are absurd. In the meantime, in my oldness, I get to see what bits of our lives - love, fidelity, meaning, achievement - mean. I see that divergence - claims and reality - and that grand design. The only solid thing that emerges from this morass is that life is to lived for death, which must surely come, and its absence, for the time being, must be filled with sleep, boredom and conformity, in the reverse order.

A final word, then: I am finally interrupted. A pointless argument erupts. May be time I get some fresh air. A window opens in our absurdly heated up room. An idea pops up somewhere, and then disappears. A student is jubilant outside on the corridor: She must have received her results and know a bright future awaits her. Indeed, welcome to this world of typewriter sounds and heated rooms, mortgaged homes and convenience-bound marriages, yearly holidays and planned babies. And, then, as it should be, endings without consequence.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

9/100: Teaching Creativity

It is interesting that I land myself in a situation that I am writing about - how to be creative under pressure. I am writing a coursework for my masters studies in Education, and the subject is how companies can 'train' their employees to be creative. I have been reading literature and following discussions on the Internet for a while on the subject, and formed an opinion: That too much emphasis is put on technical aspects of creativity - the mechanics of coming up with a new idea - and not so much on the context, that creativity is a deeply social process, which can flourish in an environment set for it.

This brings me head on to the managerial view of creativity, that it is not a haphazard process of getting there, but one that can be managed within time lines and budgets. Indeed, that's exactly what the managers of creative departments - design shops, advertising agencies etc - have been doing for a long time. It is important to note that these organizations are rather typical and they put as much emphasis on setting themselves up as creative solution shops as any other organization. So, the emphasis on creative atmosphere is almost automatic: It is not just craziness of some of the art directors, but a clever ploy to encourage creative thinking.

Teresa Amabile writes about business creativity and she wrote extensively about how creativity can flourish under pressure. In her four-quadrant model, the high creativity/high pressure model works when people see they are on a mission; the high creativity/low pressure model works when people are on an exploration, she says. Remember a sense of mission must be created, as well as the organization must actively think how to pass on a collective sense of mission to its people. The discussion centers around the environment as much as it does for the technical process for creativity.

The reason why this subject appeals to me is because I am trying to encourage some creative thinking with regard to our business programmes in the college. It is incredibly difficult, given the layers of accreditation and management, and the existence of established practices, both commercial and intellectual, that this model must operate with. Besides, the pressures, as in any SME, to keep the revenue going and keep the whole organization in balance are incredible. Risk taking is generally avoided. So, there are a number of environmental constraints why creative thinking, particularly to initiate some sort of a paradigm shift, isn't forthcoming.

So, as a manager, my first task was to create a 'creative' atmosphere: A safe place where people can trust each other and speak their mind. To do this, I tried to remove the hierarchies and the boundaries that came with it. The next step was to eliminate fear: The organization never had hire-and-fire, but people were generally cautious about not displeasing anyone. After working for some time in the organization, I concluded that this fear comes out of the tone of the discussion, which is usually formal and constricted by the roles and positions of the individuals.

What I have been trying therefore is to change the tone - keeping it respectful and balanced, but making it playful in a way, by which one can express what they feel without having to argue. This turned out to be more difficult than I thought: Humour, while incredibly powerful, is a difficult communication platform to establish. These days, one of my selection criteria is to see whether the potential candidate has a sense of humour, because otherwise I shall find it extremely difficult to integrate her in the creative 'pond' that I am trying to create.

So far, I have facilitated a number of experiments in the content and delivery at the business school, but kept them at the experiment level. I have not pushed for formalization of any of these - online learning, networking platforms, custom text books and tutoring - because it is easier for people to take risks with something with lower stakes. What I have in hand, therefore, is a number of pilots and concepts at this time. I see this as an essential first step for initiating some creative thinking in a highly regulated environment managed through a hierarchy.

I am indeed moving towards the next stage, the riskier one when some of these pilots are formally incorporated in what we do. I can't claim that they have been sufficiently tested, but I am also aware that we don't have much opportunity to keep experimenting on these ideas anymore. The obviously bad ones must be dropped now and the good ones must be given greater support and focus, within the formal process. This stage, which an organization must invariably arrive at, sooner or later, usually is painful, as the owners of the original idea usually resent the formalization, as it often involves some compromises. I am fully prepared with these risks - institutional and intellectual - and actually enjoying this progression into phase two.

So, my writing and my work are so intricately linked that I am enjoying it immensely. I keep this blog for the opportunity to reflect and to converse, so this is an obvious post to make.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

8/100: The Difficult Part of Change

Two weeks into my 100 day plan, I am starting to see the problem. The credit goes to the chaos in my life at the moment - the deaths, the house move, the difficulties at work - and I am starting to see where I am going wrong at this time. It is simply this: While I pledged to change my life, I tried to change everything around me, except myself.

I must say I am starting to see the problem. My ego was mightily satisfied acting as a change agent, but the same thing - ego - is actually the biggest hurdle to change. I may have facilitated some changes around me, but of critical importance was my ability to change. This diminished over time as I became satisfied with my work.

Now that I know the problem, I have admitted this publicly. I did go up to colleagues and admitted that I took my eye off the ball. I made a career transition to higher education intending to teach and write: Indeed, that's what I still intend to do. However, I got sort of waylaid by the battles I had to fight, and ultimately, I ended up doing things I have always done before, managing businesses, selling ideas, mentoring people etc. These are exciting roles and I do them well too. However, the first two years in the industry for me was to be able to keep my head down and learn, and I stopped doing this altogether.

I shouldn't be too harsh on myself. Some of what I did needed to be done. But this meant I became the king of miscellaneous subjects; even if this meant more power and influence, it was all about power and influence, and not about the things I wanted, freedom, ideas and possibilities. If I don't stop this right now, this will turn out to be like any other job I have done before, and I shall fritter away my chances of doing something long term.

Hence, I went up to a colleague who I knew for a while and who has, off late, taken quite a bit of job load. and told him that I wish to focus more on the academic side of work and less on administration, at least for a year. I know I am good at this, and enjoy it more than just managing. This will mean being absent from strategic meetings and stop jostling for positions and sphere of influence, but so be it. Office politics is often full of to be or not to be moment, and my initial thought - correctly - was that to manage, particularly if you are dealing with dysfunction, one needs to be decisive and swift: There is no place for niceties. However, this led me astray from my own agenda, which was all about being good to people and pursuing a different kind of work than I have done previously. I must not keep making the mistake.

So, I am at that deja vu moment then: From this moment on, the battles I shall concentrate on are with my own demons, rather than with the outside world. They will be about making myself a better individual. If I achieve nothing else but this, I shall count this 100 day project a success.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

7/100: The Big Society

As David Cameron oversees a rapid dismantling of the Welfare State, that bastard child of Capitalism which won the Cold War but never got any credit for it, he must be hoping that something else will fill the void. Something else must, as Welfare State held the western societies together and its absence may mean a world full of despair, breakdown of social life and crimes and drugs and all the things noir. Cameron's big idea was to fill the void with 'Big Society', a sort of third sector utopia where the voluntary citizen organizations and social enterprises step in to fill the void, create opportunities and spread the word for self-reliance and creative thinking. The problem is - it is not working.

The reason it is not working, and it may not work in future, is because it is so utopian. There may be a lot of lament about the disappearance of community, but this is one thing that capitalism does: Removes the social markets. We would love to see things in pretty boxes: Society in the green box full of community and harmony, economy in the red box full of entrepreneurial energy driven by self-interest, but it is the same box. To get the economy at the cold, impersonal level that we desire it to be, we must junk the softie sentiments and fellow feeling that a community works on. In fact, the markets work best when it is taken out of the social control - this is something the Capitalist gurus have been saying all along. The sad fact is that you can't have your cake and eat it too.

But then, David Cameron must have seriously believed he can have the big society by supercharging Britain's third sector in the action. There are so many organizations, charities, social enterprises - so many good people! In the artificially enhanced years of labour administration, every third person you met had a voluntary engagement. Cameron wanted to take away the life support that this sector was living on - he had to, there was no money - and thought they would start walking. What he did not know that the Third Sector is completely incapable of doing something on its own.

This is because the people running these organizations are so incapable of thinking of their own. There isn't any lack of accountability, and more arguably, of commitment, but these social organizations have always been told what is to be done by other people. I have sat through meetings of some of the organizations in the middle of the great funding crunch, where the objective was to find the new opportunities: But instead of asking what can be done, the whole discussion revolved around where the funding will be. Despite clear signals that these organizations must start thinking themselves, they just can't.

David Cameron does not want to tell the organizations what to do, he just wants to facilitate them to do what is needed. It is a strange catch-22: No one wants to step up and decide what will be done. I am sure this is going to change and a new set of organizations, fit for purpose in the new social settings, will soon emerge. They always do. However, whether they would do soon enough, just in time to save Cameron's scheme from collapsing, remains to be seen.

Monday, March 07, 2011

6/100: The 'Battle' of Ideas

Tony Blair calls Global Higher Education the front line in the battle of ideas. [See Here]

He is unduly combative: That's him. The global higher education can be seen as a more collaborative venture than the one-upmanship that Blair suggests. I shall argue that continued superiority of the West, the thing that Blair wants to protect, is not good for anyone, not even for the West.

I know this would be counter-intuitive in this age of resurgent China. Public discussion in the West is about how to keep ahead of China, India and other 'emerging' powers, and the idea that the only way to do that is to be ahead in terms of the knowledge economy is well accepted. The growing young Indian middle class would invariably take over all the jobs that can be offshored, and the cheap Chinese migrant workers will make the world's goods - so the thinking goes - the only way the 'West' can stop becoming a wasteland of unemployment and stagnation (just as China and India have been for last 200 years) is by winning the battle of ideas.

But this very notion goes against the deeply-held European faith in progress, that history just does not repeat itself but moves forward. There is no reason why we must have a replay of the industrial revolution, where every surplus was sucked out of Asia and turned into industrial raw material in the West, leaving a wasteland behind. Today, a sort of balance of power, between military and industrial, is emerging, and the world is a much more coordinated, better governed place. The naked exploitation of the nineteenth century kind is impossible today. Yes, a nation could still be exploited by pseudo-democracies, where a cozy elite is installed in return of giving away the natural resources to the 'imperial' masters, but this is unlikely to continue for too long: No American support could sustain Hosni Mubarak, and no Italian patronage will be enough for Quadaffi.

But for this unfounded fears of losing supremacy, breaks have been put on the knowledge economy for far too long. Human knowledge should not progress at the rate of what the Cambridge academics, sitting in their offices, can produce; it should also embrace the street innovations coming out Manila, Delhi and Rio. By keeping people out, by seeing the world in terms of a zero-sum game of getting there first, we continue to increase human waste and misery. While the environmental apocalypse may be near or far, no one will deny that we live in a world of scarce resources. We can ill-afford to keep wasting human ideas, just because they may spring up at wrong places.

Tony Blair's key point is directed against Islamic fundamentalism. It is interesting that he says that at the very time when Arab Street is revolting against the cozy compromise of political servitude in return of the continuation of theocratic autocracy that Blair and his friends allowed the Middle East monarchs. Also, it is tempting to see the plight of the Leytonstone Imam who had to retract his endorsements of Darwinism somewhat [See here] as the fault-line between civilizations, as Blair's statement seems to imply; however, only a few years back, a sitting British Prime Minister, Tony Blair himself, saw merit in creationism and suggested that it should be included in school curricula [See here]

Based on these falsely constructed perceptions, we are racing into wars where there isn't one. By whipping up this 'knowledge war' thing, Tony Blair may be positioning ourselves for IRAQ-2 but there is no threat as far as we can see.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

5/100: Why I Don't Want A Kindle?

I have finally moved home, after living in the same flat for almost seven years. The movement became quite a long drawn affair, particularly because of the books I bought over the years. On top of this, the house I moved in has no bookshelves, which meant another significant expense and today, a whole day's very tiresome visit to our local IKEA. In fact, I find the shopping experience in IKEA the most distressing I can have, not just because of the layout, where you have to walk miles before you can start the business of shopping: It must be nice for people who are building a new house obsessively, but not me - with limited time and specific requirements.

The £600 odd expense on bookshelves sound a bit ridiculous at this stage, but it must be made. My life isn't going to be back to normal till the books are back on shelves and become accessible yet again. In the new place, where I can afford a small study, allowing me to read and write in relative privacy, looks promising; but the room is a junkyard at this time with books on the floor.

While I know this expense must be made, I also know this is going to be temporary. I am not sure I want to live in Croydon for too long. Besides, now that I am more or less decided that I shall stay in Britain, it may make sense for me to buy a place to live. Whether or not I can afford that, and whether I want to give up my independence to move around (which I have not done for 6 years, yes, but I feel this flexibility is essential to the 'travelling' life that I want to live), is yet unsettled: The only certainty I have that I am not going to stay in this place for much longer than 24 months. So, one idea is that I must stay within these bookshelves for the period, which is an impossible target, given that the only possession I love is books.The other idea, much more sensible, is that I switch to Kindle.

At £150 which can hold 3500 books, it indeed makes abundant sense. Besides, the £150 model allows me connectivity in many countries around the world (India included, but not Iran strangely) and allows me to get the books while on the road. It allows me to read some of the classics free, and it allows me to carry around my entire library when I go on a holiday. One of my classmates even tells me that Kindle works better than books on a beach, as its brightness can be varied. And, since I am not the one to need to buy a book while riding a bus, which the 3G Kindle will allow me to do, and can wait till I get somewhere with an Wi-Fi connection, I can do with a £110 version, saving money to spend on a leather cover with a built-in reading light, costing another £50.

So, where is the problem? The problem is that I am inherently suspicious of the Kindle. I suspect that Kindle is not about the things I just mentioned, but about Amazon owning up my reading experience. It is a technical gadget aimed at altering what I read, and how I read them: Indeed, where and what and how I buy what I read. Unlike my laptop, or an iPad if I feel inclined, it is not just using Internet to read free some of the staff I would have otherwise paid for; it is the other way, stealing my greatest pleasure - being able to shop around in second hand bookshops - for a monochrome screen locked in a proprietary arrangement. There is indeed no second hand books on Kindle, though technically, it is common sense to have a social books exchange of some sort. But that will beat the purpose of Kindle, indeed: It is all about changing our habits and owning them.

I am not a conspiracy theorist, but I can see the business case for Kindle rests on killing the second hand book market. Reading books is a special, rather painful, hobby, and increasingly, it is only a limited number of hobbyists, me included, who will indulge in it. Others will cite lack of time, though there is never a lack of time for something you enjoy or consider valuable. Amazon, being possibly the largest bookseller in the world, wants to own our book-reading habits, quite reasonably, perhaps. With less people reading books, it is critical for them. But it can't do so, because of the second hand book market.

Second hand books is the social market for books. It is not just a cheap transactional convenience. It is the thrill of finding something unexpected, of making connection to a stranger who owned this book in your hand and may have shared your interests, and may be more, finding an odd scribble somewhere making you connect with the text and its readership. Publishing industry has moved on from its social and community roots to become big business; so did the booksellers. The only social bit left in book-reading is therefore preserved by the second hand book markets, something like the one on South bank, but also in every neighbourhood in the form of charity shops.

The odd thing is that Amazon, despite its size, see this as a threat. It indeed is. The publishing industry abhors students buying second hand texts and is always locked in a conspiracy with educational policy-makers for annual syllabus revisions. But students still see the pointlessness of high-priced text books with minimal revisions, and end up buying their friends' copies. The hobbyist community of book-readers also guard their second hand book-reading with a religious zeal, and this will soon be recognized as the mark of a true hobbyist. Amazon has every reason to be worried, and to make a bid to change us.

There is nothing wrong with technological progress. But new technologies should be matched with commercial progress and new business models. Kindle isn't doing this: It is a device meant to defend an out-of-date business model of production and distribution. It is one device aimed at removing the social pleasures of book reading.

Indeed, I am not going to buy into the empire any time soon.

Friday, March 04, 2011

4/100: Choices for For Profit Education: What's Quality?

There is a halo around 'Quality' in education, and it's mostly mystical. The business world has somewhat figured it out by now: With zero defect and six sigma, and established standards and all that, the businesses have made big strides in the last three decades. A definition - doing what it says on the tin - as well as an understanding - meeting and exceeding customer expectations - have taken hold. But while education administrators keep talking about quality, and often define it with the terms borrowed from the world of business, the concepts remain quite woolly and difficult to measure.

It is quite obvious why it is so difficult. Education is not a product as we understand it. It is a mission critical service, more like healthcare perhaps, but when we move into higher education territory, it becomes a cross between a luxury, like silicon enhancements, and a social necessity, like a fire service, at the same time. But more critically than the nature of education, the problem of defining quality comes from the problem of measurement. There are a pleathora of measures for quality of education - from hard data of student achievement to soft measures like satisfaction - but since it is hard to pin down causation for any of the factors (is there a certainty that a student becomes more employable if taught in a certain way?) and therefore, hard to see where quality comes from. Besides, any attempts of measurement is impossibly difficult, with social, legal and ethical issues around it: One can't use students as a 'control group' or subject them to experimental interventions.

In the absence of any scientific basis, many quasi-scientific measures have become popular. University rankings are wildly popular, and most students pour over a dozen or so ranking before they decide which university their children should go to. However, rankings are quite an imperfect measure, not just for the reasons of measurement. Most rankings claim to be objective and comprehensive, and as Malcolm Gladwell will contend, it is impossible to be both. [See here]

Besides, there is always one thing all Higher Education quality talk try to hide: That a college is as good as the students it admits. The quality in higher education is really about selectivity in student admission. This was understood well by Charles Eliot, when he described Harvard as the place where the smartest people come together and leave their intelligence behind. But, this is a sort of a 'old boy's club' view of education, and may not have much relevance to For Profit sector as they are all about extending access. And, indeed, the transformational role of modern higher education will only be played out when a wide cross section of the society can participate, and an intake-neutral measure of quality, which penalises institutions which attempt to widen participation, is counter-productive.

Consider this: As machines take over most manual tasks that we had to do, and we are left to do cognitively challenging tasks, Higher Education of some form is needed for a wider section of the society. The public funding of Higher Education institutions happen because this is meant to extend access and widen participation. Why then, most college rankings take selectivity of admission as a factor: More selective you are, you get more points? Surely, in business, if you have to measure quality of an operation, you would offset input quality against the output quality and then rank the efficacy of the procedure. In education, however, the input quality isn't offset, but seen as an enhancement factor of process quality. Surely, there is something wrong here.

It is easy to say what's wrong: We have still not moved beyond the elitism that underpinned education through the ages. Education was never for everyone, particularly Higher Education. Now, when the needs are enormous and middle classes are taking over the world, the divide still exists and we want to cling onto it. So, who we admit to - selectivity - lives on, and in popular mind, this is the biggest indicator of educational quality.

As I argued, it should not be so. The perception of quality, its parameters, should change now. For me, the quality of an education is how much difference is made through the educational intervention. My father spent his life teaching in an inner city community college, and always took pride on making 'real' difference: His students included a few drug dealers and small time thugs, who would have got their first exposure to poetry in the classes he conducted. And, this difference must not be measured only in terms of employability: Because education is about building a 'whole person' and not about fitting people into some job which can feed them.

Is this difference measurable? This depends on how you want to measure. Benchmarking is a good way to go, but finding something to benchmark against becomes difficult. But I shall think if Gross National Happiness becomes measurable, it should not be so difficult to measure real differences that an education makes in a person's life.

This can be left to statisticians, perhaps. Or, can it be?

Thursday, March 03, 2011

3/100: Choices for For-Profit Education - Agency versus The Brand

Higher Education in Britain is currently in the middle of what can be called - after Karl Poliyani - a Great Transformation, where a historically developed, social (and not socialist necessarily) education system being replaced by a system of open markets. I am indeed enjoying being an involved observer, not just as I study the phenomena, but also at work - as I explore, progressively, building a market-led college to offer courses and collaborate with universities in transition. A conscious exposition of this work, I concluded, should be at the core of my 100 day agenda, and therefore, I have started writing about it.

In Higher Education, this is an 'All Change' time. The universities are in serious disarray, and it indeed seems that the government is also indecisive about what they are going to do. The hidden Tory agenda has finally come up in the open and is now head to head with the Lib-Dem muddle, and suddenly, the university administrators across Britain are left in an uncertain state not seen in a lifetime. They are not just unsure how the new fee system will work: They are also pushed to uncertain areas where there is little government intervention - like the International student recruitment - where fees and policies were traditionally left to the universities. Suddenly, it seems that the universities are facing the 'bite of the market', which was a nice concept while it resided within conference papers, but not so when it has become a hard reality.

If my recent discussions are any indication, the universities have started seeing a competitor in the British For-Profit education sector. This is good news: The British For-Profit education is usually reviled, seen as a 'visa factory' or 'diploma mill', as it used to be in America before the expansion of higher education there. And, just as in the US, we are possibly at the threshold of emergence of world class higher education companies in Britain, which, almost certainly, will compete with the public universities, most of which may be completely incapable of competing in the real world. The fact that the universities are already seeing red and envisioning the world in zero sum terms is indicative of how unprepared they are to handle this new scenario: The cozy arrangements of past times are all threatened and suddenly there are new, unheard of factors, like Student Experience and Employability, in the mix.
Indeed, British For-Profit education, as it stands today, leaves much to be desired. Having to survive within a social market for Higher Education, the For-Profit colleges form an education underclass of some sort. Corruption is rife, and most of the colleges are indeed visa factories or diploma mills. But there are indeed serious players with serious intent, and they are ready to break free of the mould. They are handicapped by the overall impression of the sector, and it will take some time for them to emerge as brands. But, again referring back to the American experience, this has happened before and one can see how the British education market may evolve in the context.

So, the For-Profit education industry is at a crucial juncture where they have to make hard choices. This is particularly true for the top 10 companies in the industry, which must now redefine how they approach the markets, and somehow start breaking free from the universities. In my perspective, one area they must look at closely is how they recruit students from overseas.

The British For Profit industry, in this regard, copy the British universities and use agents, in different countries of the world. The model is simple and economical: The agent gets the students and gets a commission. The college is usually happy because this model has the least amount of risk - commission is paid after the student is recruited - and the agent, who usually runs different allied businesses, like travel or English language training, is usually happy to have an additional revenue stream.

However, despite its simplicity and apparent effectiveness, British education industry as a whole, and particularly the High Quality players in the For-Profit part of this, must start moving away from the agency model and start exploring alternative formats. This is because the agency model is usually counter-productive after the company has achieved a certain scale. In fact, the agency, usually a small business, can not really satisfy a larger college. Besides, agents' and the college's interests usually diverge at a certain stage of development of the college, and the agents usually become a drag, rather than of assistance, when this moment is reached. The agents usually try to push below par candidates, and stop the colleges from pursuing any other form of partnerships, and even from taking basic commercial decisions, like raising prices or defining new campaigns. The agents become the gatekeepers of the college, and using their access to recruitment markets, often unduly influence the business decisions of the college.

College owners usually feel helpless in front of agents, as the latter is seen as the source of revenue. However, they should not be so, if they start thinking ahead and a bit more strategically. What makes a 'genuine' student come to a college is the quality and relevance of programmes offered and the learning environment. And, nothing else, not the agents' sales skills, because that does not matter in the most occasions. The colleges can still get the students with or without an agent, provided they are willing to invest in building a reputation for quality and value in their own domains.

One can call this exercise 'branding', which is all about communicating effectively the customer value proposition. The agents usually keep the colleges from branding themselves, as they mercilessly flaunt their little agendas ahead of the broad strategic goals of the college. Besides, the agent gets nothing if the college tries to become a top quality provider, which invariably means making some sacrifices in the short term. The agent, who will usually be not interested in a long term capability, wants to go ahead and recruit as many students as they can, but this may run directly counter to any effort the college is trying to make to control intake quality (which, some researches show, is pre-dominantly correlated with the student success).

I have come across owners of education companies who thinks branding will cost a lot of money and there is no guarantee it will work, though I shall argue that the probability of this working is possibly higher than an agent failing to send appropriate students in adequate numbers. And, to the question how many countries can you do this in, I shall say that any agent based in a country which you don't know of or focus upon, does not deliver in any way.

In summary, my view is that the top For Profit colleges should get serious about branding and marketing, rather than leaving their cherished brands in agents hands: There will be nothing much left in a few years when these college administrators wake up to the damage.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

2/100: On Time

Time, for me, is a house to live in

Built in air perhaps,

A bit crowded too, with all people of the past

But one I can't get out of.

Time is also my dear old friend,

Like a suitcase that travels along,

With all photos and moments, and a familiar smell,

One I can't ever get rid of.

Time feels like a running train

I was let in without a pass,

I have to get off when it stops

But there may still be a long way to go.

Then, time is the place I go to,

To become a bunch of moments perhaps,

And to end up in someone else's suitcase,

May be her, who loved me.

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How To Live

"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

Last Words

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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