Monday, May 30, 2011

63/100: The State of My Work

My work role is undergoing a subtle shift. In the first six months in my job in the college, I was mainly involved in strategic developments, which meant I dipped my toe into almost everything, from planning new customer service initiatives to talking to strategic partners overseas. However, since January, after the college recruited a new Managing Director, whose role includes everything business related, my role has changed into one overseeing the learning and teaching in the business courses of the college. Which I indeed love, it is in line with what I am studying at the UCL and something that I wanted to do: In a way, I am dead serious when I say I have retired from business.

My own assessment of the job is that there is a lot to be done. We do a much better job than most other private colleges around, but there is a lot to be covered still. Private College industry in Britain is sort of a cottage industry, without much professional practices in recruitment, design of courses, evaluation or marketing. This is not to say that the universities here are all good - I would rate some of the bottom ones as bad as any - but since the students are paying from their own funds for a private education, the private colleges have an obligation to be better than publicly funded institutions. I see this as an important job - one that can make or break the company in the days to come, when the college must grow out of its comfort zone of international students (who are far more forgiving and takes into account the 'foreign' experience when evaluating the college) - and indeed, have started working on this in all earnestness.

My first challenge is indeed to assemble a team of tutors who can teach the subjects in a manner consistent to our requirements. Till this time, the requirements were defined in simple terms - number of hours, indicative syllabus and quite loosely defined learning objectives. The assessments, usually written by the tutors themselves, kept the whole system going: It was quite easy for individual tutors to simply stay in their comfort zones. I am trying to change these requirements, and trying to bring the learning objectives to the fore. This will need some deep structural changes, I reckon, and I have started by creating an independent assessment team whose job will be to ensure that the students are fairly and comprehensively assessed against the learning objectives. This may sound a bit prescriptive, and I have been accused of low confidence on our tutoring. However, this is where my previous life in the sharp end of business is helpful: I am not very uncomfortable in being unpopular, as long as I have the conviction that this is the right thing to do.

Other than assessments, I have also started focusing on what goes on in the classroom. Too often, I suspect, our teaching is 'telling'. We recruit far too many people to teach who have been in the training industry (where I have spent a significant part of my working life) and their styles revolve around telling students what is correct. Most students, primarily the Asian ones, love it, as this is what they expect to happen in a classroom. However, in my mind, this is not in alignment with what a course at the Masters level is supposed to do - encourage Critical Thinking. I have picked that one from the Subject Benchmark statements of the British Quality Assurance Agency, and ended up agreeing with wholeheartedly. So far, I have found this difficult to do - encouraging critical thinking starts with encouraging conversations, and most tutors and students I have met so far dread conversations after all. To implement this change, I have started working on two things. First, to recruit a teaching team which is in alignment of this thinking, and this I wish to achieve by setting a recruitment process and candidate benchmark in place. The candidate benchmarks, this time around, need to go beyond just qualifications and experience, and need to involve their teaching philosophies, level of motivation and interpersonal skills, as well as their knowledge of the subject and their own ability to think critically and explore. Second, I am also trying to work out a document clarifying the teaching and learning strategy: this is surely a rather heavy sounding name for the slim document I am actually putting together, but a tag like Manifesto is more likely to alienate people than attract them. But, considering the spirit of what I am doing, this is really a manifesto - a set of ideas how we should be teaching - and for a matter of fact, this is not prescriptive but just a statement of intention. And, finally, this document, a trick I have learned from one of my teachers, will forever remain in draft, so that it can be changed as we go along. The idea is to have a conversation, around how we should be teaching: The only reason I am trying to put something together is because every conversation needs a starting point.

Finally, I am also trying to define the distinctive areas of what we teach. This is more strategic than the other two areas I am working on, but in alignment. What we are trying to do in the new business school is to focus on small and medium entrepreneurial businesses, which are at the sharp end of the technological change and demographic revolution. So, our idea is to develop programmes aligned with the agile and flexible business environment that these businesses have to live in. We are not expecting many senior executives from big banks and oil companies taking a course at our college: Instead, it will be the aspiring entrepreneur in East London trying to put his New Media company together (Someone told me that they don't go to college, but they do, as the data would prove). This area of work involves talking to universities and looking at programmes and adapting them to context: Something I was already doing for many years and something that is only helped by my experiences in marketing education. I have no illusions that we are only at the starting block, and aligning what we offer to this objective will take time and will not be without disappointments (I already had my share of them). But, in my mind, this is a journey worth making, and as always, I am in it.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

62/100: Beyond Employability

I was at the launch of a new book - Blue Skies: New Thinking About The Future of Higher Education - on Monday the 23rd. This was about, as Rod Bristow, President of Pearson UK and the host of the event said, starting a debate on the role and future of higher education in Britain. If so, it was timely: In many ways, this is a time for existential crisis for higher education. In attendance were who's who in Higher Education, including the British Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, and Wendy Piatt, the Director General of Russell Group. There was some debate on the funding models and more discussion on where the Higher Ed is going in Britain. However, one thing everyone agreed on - education is for employability.

It is not so much of an issue if employability is one of education's goals, but it starts becoming problematic when this is perceived as the sole objective and everyone seems to agree on it. Particularly in the context of higher education, where a critical understanding of the world is central to learning, putting employability first invariably subverts that goal. Call it the cannibalization of higher ed by professional training or whatever, there seems to be an irreversible trend towards education as training, where the institutions must produce 'value for money' for the students and the outcome is solely measured in terms of pay-offs.

I would argue that this should not be as straightforward as this, and reducing higher education to training for employment is one of the reasons why there is so little focus on teaching in HE institutions these days. Indeed, training for employment is needed, but it has its own place and this should not be allowed to take over the higher education agenda.

Everyone must go to college is a middle class dream. Middle classes, indeed, center their lives on better jobs, and if a generation ends up earning more than their parents did, that's seen as progress. Education is widely seen as a tool to achieve this objective, and hence, education equates the search for employability.

But this means that the society should remain steady-state, which it does not. Knowledge is what makes it forward, and higher education is not just about delivering knowledge, but also to continue to create it in context. One can't move forward if the goals of a higher education classroom solely centers around getting a job equal to and better than the students' parents. In a way, imposition of employability as the sole objective subverts the purpose and corrupts the nature of higher education.

I have indeed nothing against employability, but feel that it should not dominate what is taught in HE classrooms. Being in Higher Education should continue to be the kind of complete, multi-dimensional experience it was supposed to be a few decades back. The training provisions should expand and service the middle classes, but not at the cost of reducing the degrees to technical certificates. The trend of reclassifying polytechnics as universities should be reversed, and some universities should be reclassified as polytechnics. The employers should be encouraged to work with polytechnics, which should then receive significant government support, but learners should bear the major share of the costs. This is indeed about a reversal of mass higher education, which is, in a way, neither necessary nor helpful for a society's growth. When you upgrade polytechnics to universities, you don't abolish polytechnics, you abolish the universities.

On that note, I stand directly at the opposite end to the current thinking about higher education, which is about expanding access while cutting costs. The model we have worked ourselves into is clearly unsustainable, and by moving from a grants based model to a fee based funding model, the government is threatening the survival of higher education in this country. One needs to find a solution - call the bluff of the ruling classes and accept that there is no way we can afford higher education for everyone as long as our priorities remain as lopsided.

62/100: Obama wows the British Parliament

Saturday, May 21, 2011

59/100: How can 'Education as Enterprise' Turn A Profit?

I am looking for a name of my industry. I am in this industry which is called 'Private Sector Education' in Britain, and 'For Profit Education' in America: I like neither of these terms. For a start, 'Private Sector' is a term espoused with Britain's ubiquitous Public Sector in mind, but that distinction may soon go. More and more education businesses will now vie for public funds given out in terms of subsidized student loans, and more publicly funded universities and colleges would want fee paying students just like the Private sector. In fact, the Universities minister David Willetts just alluded to that possibility, only to be severely rebuked by Vice-Chancellors and the media; but, as with other things this Government is doing, this is exactly what is around the corner.

As Public/Private distinctions get blurred in Britain, Education For Profit is having its own existential crisis in America. Steve Eisman, the 'Big Short' guy, has already caused a stir by saying that For Profit education is the next Sub-prime mortgage: "Until recently, I thought there would never again be an opportunity to be involved with an industry as socially destructive and morally bankrupt as the sub-prime mortgage industry. I was wrong. The For-Profit Education industry has proven equal to the task." And, indeed, Peter Thiel, the legendary Paypal investor, and Paul Krugman, the Nobel-laureate economist, and many others have started questioning the viability of the For Profit Education industry as it stands in America: The student debt is already too high (it is bigger than credit card debt in the US) and job prospects are already too uncertain to make room for more growth [See my earlier post on the subject]. And, though For Profit Education is on the march all across the developing world, the American stigma is likely to stick and may even cause a reversal of policy in the long run, unless the industry can rediscover itself.

Such rediscovery should start from finding a new purpose, beyond profits. It can be reasonably argued that private sector education can expand access, develop productive capacity and lead teaching innovation, in ways that less responsive public sector institutions can not. But, as long as all the activities are labelled For Profit, it is difficult both for participants and observers to see what value the industry may have for the rest of the society. The label has lived its useful lifetime and now needs changing. I have started using 'education as enterprise'; doubtlessly other terms will also be introduced. All the names will indicate a greater purpose beyond profits - creation of new capacity, converting non-users to users, leading teaching innovation etc. - and this is exactly how the companies in the sector will start seeing their business.

I am quite optimistic that this new trend may start from Britain, rather than America, as the British companies don't have to face off an industry entrenched in bad habits; rather, the British ones are facing the public sector, and given the British social attitudes, redefining the private institutions with its social purpose will mean better business. This may eventually serve as a model for the rest of the world, which is making its own way through this debate and struggling to offer its fast-growing middle classes with an worthwhile education.

However, whatever the model be, if it is funded with private investors' money, it must turn a profit. It is indeed difficult to see how the industry can be sustainably profitable. Higher Education is investment intensive, and indeed, the component parts, books and journals, great professors, real estate and facilities, all require significant investment and maintenance. In fact, Alan Ryan, a visiting fellow in Politics in Princeton University, believes: "If the UK government takes more care than either it or the US government has hitherto taken to avoid being ripped off - and if recruitment is properly regulated and high standards of provision are insisted upon - the For-Profits will quickly discover what other educational institutions already know: outside technical training in IT, law, finance and medicine, there's not a lot of money to be made out of higher education'.

In a way, then, we are at an interesting point in the debate: Already the investors and traders are seeing the current business model of education as an unsustainable proposition, and the academia is seeing no reason how For Profit can turn a profit. In fact, there is plain hostility to private sector education when Sally Hunt writes in Times Higher Education: "It is essential that the (higher education) sector come together to counter the for-profit threat, which represents an attempt to commodify education and leave standing only that which makes a profit. I urge our mission groups, think tanks and Vice Chancellors to put their differences aside and unite at last to fight this attempt to privatize knowledge."

Despite this hostility and widespread skepticism, I shall argue that Education as Enterprise has a role to play, particularly in Higher Education. I shall possibly agree with the commentators who are calling for greater regulation, but disagree with their observation that when proper standards are met, there is no money to be made at higher education. Here is my case.

First, we have to acknowledge that the role of national governments in a society are changing. There are many reasons for this, including the rise of global institutions and global trade. But, the biggest reason possibly is technology and the information revolution it has brought about. The citizens now have a contract with the state, the tax we give is taxpayers' money and the state has become a service organization. And, since higher education today is largely seen as a method to create private prosperity, it is unlikely that the state will open its purse and continue to support it. So, however desirable our previous state of affairs was, the state sponsorship of higher education is going to go. The argument is already lost: The burden of creating and sharpening knowledge has irreversibly been passed onto private entrepreneurs.

Second, private education, in the past, has made money from the sectors that Alan Ryan allude to, technical training in IT, Finance, Law and Medicine. But history is no template for things to come, and since many other professions are able to create prosperity for its practitioners, it would be possible to make a profit by teaching these subjects. In the end, the profit equation for education will be based on pay-off, how much money can the graduate earn for having this education, and once the right sectors have been identified and right courses have been developed, there will be money to be made in Higher education.

Third, it is wrong to conclude that education businesses are making money because the regulation is too lax. It isn't; most people in education business would think there is too much of it. Education businesses have so far made money (even with sub-par service offerings) because there was too much of regulation and open competition in the sector was restricted. What will happen now is that such protections will go and the 'rent' income for existing education companies will go. (This is why the investors can't see the money in education now) However, competition is the surest way to bring in innovation, and we shall see a number of education innovation in the coming years.

This is my final point: Education as Enterprise is at an inflection point too. The industry as it exists today benefit from high entry barriers, which are set to be going. What the industry seem to be entering is a phase of competition and innovation, which must invariably come. The good news is that this is also the time when the demand for higher education will peak, with continued prosperity, rise of the middle classes and acute talent shortage in China, India and elsewhere. So, the changes will be less painful than it would have been, though protective policies of national governments, like the recently announced immigration controls in Britain, will hurt local industries from time to time. I do think that the new generation of Education As Enterprise businesses will be more sustainably profitable, as they will be born competition ready and will face an intensely customer-centric marketplace. Their profits will come from innovation, primarily, by bringing out innovation in teaching, and making curricula far more responsive to industry requirements than it has been thus far. In fact, in this, one can see a triad - public universities excelling in research and leading the way, businesses applying the knowledge to create prosperity and education as enterprise focused on teaching and creating the workers and entrepreneurs of the future.




58/100: How To Turn Around A Not-for-Profit?

Friday, May 20, 2011

57/100: Goals Vs Serendipity

I never understood something about the self-help literature: It always assumes that you know where you are going. But, mostly, we don't: Or at least, I don't. I keep setting goals, indeed, because I am told they are a good thing. But I most often abandon them rather than reaching them. I shall argue that does not turn me into a failure, necessarily. It makes me feel like Christopher Columbus, who wanted to go to India using a different route: He took a risk, made a mistake, and what a rewarding mistake that turned out to be.

I have always been told goal setting is a good thing. From the school days, when my teachers at school would ask me what I wanted to be and not knowing the answer was a bad thing. So, you then make up the goals, even when they were wholly unsuitable. These goals tend to become more about people around you than about you. May be there are those perfect people who can start with the end in mind, but they are as unreal as Stepford Wives to me. Most of my life was about stumbling upon things, diverting my journey in pursuit of something interesting, and ending up on wrong shores with right feelings.

I would argue goal setting is a problem, rather than being of any help. Once you assume that you should have a goal, you set about getting one. But at any time, you are constrained by your own experience, or that of your parents', or that of your girlfriend's. If you are able to set a goal and pursue that single-mindedly, that means giving up on imagination and being a slave of the past. If everyone set goals and followed them, the world will remain steady-state, or even go backwards in time. It is good that we make mistakes, and some people are pathologically incapable of setting goals.

Besides, goals, and making life more about the end than about living it, steals the fun of the journey. Days become a slog for something that someone somewhere, mostly politicians and newspaper editors, set for you. So you give up your time of wondering about and take up the challenges of life, not acknowledging that the biggest challenges are about living the life enjoyably. This is why you will possibly give up reading a beautiful book and immerse yourself in office politics, marry the footballer rather than the childhood friend who was interested in you, and squeeze yourself in the morning train rather than lingering a moment on the beauties of a spring morning. This is why you will travel and live thousands of miles apart from those who really loved you. In a way, there is one immutable goal in life, to die and die meaningfully, and this often gets compromised by the goals that we make up along the way.

Finally, the primacy of goals is the reason we have started thinking moral behaviour, whatever that means, is an inconvenience. What's better, to get rich first and be acknowledged as someone important, or to ponder about nitty-gritties and remain poor and inconsequential? You must count to make a difference, I was told - that was an argument against idealism, in fact. So you give up your dilemmas, be single-minded in pursuit of what makes you count, and catch up on moral issues later if you could. Or, if you care to.

So, I am tired of goals, and of being told focus on goals is a good thing. That Attention Deficiency is a disease. The whole self-help industry, and some of its gurus, like Stephen Covey, stands on goal-setting: Begin with the end in mind, remember. I wonder - did he? Or is it serendipity for him as well?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

56/100: The Mobile Dimension

I spent yesterday in the Adobe 'Experience Matters' seminar in London - a showcase of Adobe's enterprise tools and multi-platform capability - which was every bit worthwhile as I learned so many new things. It was indeed good to spend some time learning about new technologies: The new ideas, as ever, were refreshing, and there were some really good presenters there.

The presentations were primarily focused on what Adobe tools can do for a large corporation, but I took away a different message. That the world is mobile, and any service that does not acknowledge this, is surely not going to impress. I have since been looking at this more closely and what I found has only reaffirmed my initial impression. I have learned that more than 40% of users blame the brand, not their mobile, or network provider, when their mobile browsing experience is not satisfactory. There are, of course, massive amount of research on Mobile Internet usage (you can access one here) and all point to one central fact - that Internet has become 'splinternet', a multi-platform, multi-device hotchpotch, as Ron Rogowski of Forrester reminded everyone. [Ron's presentation was indeed one of the best in a day of very high quality presentations, and he surely deserves this special mention here.]

It was also interesting to think that the user today approaches a brand, an web brand more than anything else, through multiple channels and platforms, and the companies must try to offer a consistent, engaging experience. But the way companies look to engage the customers is very inside out, divided in silos. The best thing we have had in engaging with customers is the CRM, a tool to maximize profit and completely defined from the perspective of the company. How often do we throw company-speak at the customers, making the VP sound like God and forgetting that the customer does not report to him? So - completely agree with the presenters - companies often offer customers a fragmented, broken in silos experience.

My central takeaway is that one can't build a serious web-based presence in today's world (in fact, any serious presence at all) which does not acknowledge the mobile reality. The prediction that PCs will be a thing of the past was around since 2001; the changes are just coming to a tipping point. This year, more than 100 varieties of tablet computers are likely to be launched. 3G is spreading like wildfire across the world. I shall borrow another concept I learned: This is the age of capability-mobility convergence. The handheld device is becoming more and more powerful, multi-functional and able to perform many tasks which needed sitting down in front of a desktop not so long ago. Given this, there is no point building something for a fixed screen alone. This will be like releasing a movie today which can't be shown on a TV.

This makes scoping any online learning project quite difficult. The researches on Mobile Learning behaviour is still quite limited. Higher Ed on mobile is still a difficult concept to grasp. One would usually expect people to be entertained, but not educated, while squeezing himself in a crowded train. However, it is only fair to assume that we are not just talking about bus or train rides when we talk about mobility: The mobility means freedom, and it means catching up on a webinar in the middle of a beach vacation. We can't just pre-suppose anymore that the learners will carry around a laptop when they can do almost everything on their iPads.

Given that the mobile internet experience is still about shallowness - less clicks, more bounce rates - this is supposed to have a flattening experience on learning delivery. Besides, there is a screen size limitation and what you can actually do while delivering on a mobile device. This is a difficult balancing act one has to keep in mind, designing particularly for the mobile environment while attempting to give users an unified experience, and this is my greatest takeaway of the day.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

55/100: Teaching in Higher Ed

I am amazed how little discussion there is about teaching in higher education. I am currently exploring what is available, and indeed coming across people like Stephen Brookfield and Stephen Rowland, but this is quite inadequate given the huge expansion of university education and teacher numbers. Derek Bok, the former President of Harvard University, wrote that universities often don't want to discuss or improve teaching: Research yes, teaching no. There seems to be an idea that teaching needs to be steady state, whatever we need to know about teaching is already known and if you let someone with enough knowledge and experience inside the class, nothing else will be required.

I have also read Phillip Altbach edited The Fall of the Guru, where he and his associates explore the teaching profession in the context of Asian Higher Ed. What comes out is that while the provisions for Higher Ed have generally expanded, there is a de-professionalization of teaching. Admittedly, teaching was a sort of a 'soft' profession: Teachers never trained as hard as an Engineer or a Doctor will do. But, the drive to expand the Higher Ed provisions has taken away the minimum requirements one needed to have to teach, except a Masters or a Research degree. In a way, that re-affirms the de-professionalization rather than any developments the other way around, because while the focus is on the degrees tutors have - the easy thing, because of the expansion of higher education and more people doing degrees - the requirements to know how to teach, actually transfer knowledge or to inspire the learners to inquire and learn, have been ignored. Call this the vicious cycle of higher education where more degrees produce more degrees, but this seems to be a continuous downward journey, with teaching effectiveness reducing at each step.

Of course, I generalize: There are some excellent teachers in today's classroom, but they are there by accident. With banks and IT companies wooing away the best talents and teaching profession stuck with its peppercorn salaries, inherent volatility because of its regulated nature and the state of change in public administration, and the 'massification' of education (and increased workload), one would wonder someone who has the knowledge and the abilities to teach a future generation of bankers and IT geeks will actually want to do so.

So, I am not surprised when it comes to innovation in teaching, it is an oxymoron. The only thing seems to matter is how it was done always. For that matter, innovation in teaching was mostly done top-down, initially driven by rank outsiders and then sponsored by bureaucrats, trustees or patrons, and the same pattern continues. This puts Higher Ed at a serious disadvantage as it tries to become an industry. The businesses thrive on innovation, continuously challenging the way things are done, and rewarding change rather than status quo: At least the most successful businesses do that. That is not, unfortunately, the culture of Higher Ed.

As I play with technologies of teaching, and explore new ideas, like making multimedia content part of a student's assessed work, I know the journey is likely to be difficult. My inspiration indeed comes from the Chronicle (see here) and as I read elsewhere that American universities are looking at Multimedia dissertations. I can clearly see why it should be done - because the generations that are in the university today will think it is a natural thing to do and that this would be a necessary skill when they work, research or set up businesses - but also know that this will happen only very slowly, because of stagnant culture of Higher Ed. I have already been told that doing an online degree may not seem credible: My idea is exactly the reverse, as a carefully constructed online degree will do much more than a random teacher teaching a random topic without any correlation to students' interests or what they will need to do in their professional lives - all leading to a random assessment. I know doing anything new is difficult in Higher Ed, but I am counting on the general turmoil in our everyday life and the sort of zero gravity behaviour that the governments are displaying lately, and hopefully the change I am proposing will look puny in the face of the deep systemic changes that everything is going through now.

Monday, May 16, 2011

54/100: Google Museum of Museums



Amit Sood talks about Google's Online Museum, and I am indeed excited to see the service. For me, this is about art being given back to people, as well as a neat way to prepare for Museum visits. Indeed, I love the museums, the experience of being in the presence of great creative works, and I am sure this will help me prepare for my visits better and make the visits more enjoyable.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

53/100: Gary Hamel on Technologies of Human Accomplishment















Gary Hamel is seen delivering a lecture at University of Phoenix, the American 'Virtual' University owned by the Apollo Group. His central message is clear - management has fallen in a state of disrepair and needs urgent innovation. The question, however, is whether management itself will survive another century or it would dissolve into something else. That idea is less wild than it seems: Leadership has replaced management as the favoured term for the business gurus (with notable exception of Gary Hamel and his colleague at London Business School, Julian Birkenshaw, and Henry Mintzberg). But, here, Hamel's plea to bring back the humanity to business, make employees central to the agenda of the corporation, is linked with his faith in management. Despite the HR gimmicks that passed on as management innovation for last half century, businesses have lost its identity as a social organization and have come to be seen as a money-making machine, often like a Las Vegas style Gaming Machine. This is driving work as we know it and with that, loyalties and moralities are running thin - and the respect for private businesses in the wider community, what gave the moral justification of the enormous expansion of private enterprise during the last century, is at all time low. Bringing people back at the centre of business and reinventing companies as social organizations are the only ways left to run the business as usual.

52/100: Is Higher Ed Bubble About to Burst?

The Economist makes the point that Higher Education may be the latest bubble and may be it is about to burst.

The argument rests on three things.

The first, as observed by Peter Thiel, the legendary Paypal investor, is that the tuition fees are too high, debt burdens are too onerous, and rewards are too uncertain for people to keep investing in education. In his view, higher education is like housing, seen as an insurance against the uncertain future: Once the promise of the future disappears, the students may not be interested to pay the high fees that the top schools now demand.

The second is an economic argument made by, among others, Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman. Krugman observes that contrary to the popular belief that technology is making only low skill jobs redundant, it is also replacing the skilled jobs. This essentially means that the salaries for these jobs will come under pressure in the medium term, further reducing the pay-off for good education. Besides, it will undermine the key argument for college education - that this will elevate you in the skills ladder and thereby guarantee employability - and suddenly it will make the Higher Ed industry look a lot like Real Estate.

The third is a qualitative argument made by assorted academicians and commentators about the state of Higher Ed, whether the academia is connected enough and accountable enough, and the academic produces of big universities make the cut anymore. There is indeed a strong argument, particularly in the humanities, that what the university professors are producing does not represent 'value for money' for the taxpayers.

Of course, this is a very American argument, where Higher Education is a large industry, but most of it holds true for Britain as well. This is a time when For-Profit Higher Education industry in Britain is poised to expand, and possibly the trend will spread to other parts of Europe. Europe indeed has a very high proportion of publicly funded higher education [25% of the total number of HE institutions are privately funded in Europe, against 61% in the United States, 71% in Latin America, 59% in Africa and 57% in Asia] and if money is wasted on education, it is public funds being wasted here. The cutbacks in HE funding heralded by George Osborne may be informed by such perspective, though there is unanimous derision among the academic circles about such a view. The For-Profit industry is all set to attack the sloth in education, expand access and bring the force of competition in the sector, and will mostly be focused on value for money.

This will also look very alien to most Asians and Africans, where the only route to a better life open to emerging middle classes is through higher education. Peter Theil's argument about dropping out of university and starting businesses may not be as applicable to Asians, who has to live within a slowly changing social structure and the route to social mobility is a good degree. Krugman's argument in fact works in their favour - they are the beneficiaries of technology-led skilled job migration (and they are setting up businesses in LPO, Legal Process Outsourcing, and KPO, Knowledge Process Outsourcing, for half a decade now). And, higher education in Asia had the same quality issues, indeed, but the direction is reverse: The quality is improving rather than decreasing in these countries.

In the end, I would think that this bubble, if there is one, is very local to America. The bubble may indeed burst and that will affect the enthusiasm about and investments in higher education businesses elsewhere. However, that will be a tragedy: United States may be an overheated Higher Ed market reaching its peak, while the markets in Asia and Europe have barely began their journeys.

51/100: Profits and Quality in Private Sector Higher Ed

I am in Private Sector Higher Education in Britain and my work makes me explore the ways to reconcile the profit maximization motive, central to any private business, with the need to deliver a high quality (whatever that means, for the moment) education experience.

For a start, capacity utilization is seen as the key profit driver for education business. So, it is down to things like how many students in the class, how many hours does a tutor spend teaching, how much does the student pay and what does the institution have to pay the tutor. The perception of quality is seen in terms of experience - in the For-Profit Education world, the student is the customer - as in the quality of infrastructure, conformance to the implicit and explicit needs of the students (a job, it is presumed), quality of instruction etc. This is straightforward, except the fact that quality of instruction is often perceived to be better if the tutors are teaching lesser number of hours and there are lesser number of students in a class: That way, what looked like a simple set of statements often become a complicated debate on the class sizes and the nature of academic work.

What seems to complicate matters more is that the two sides of the debate seems to come from two different worlds. Often, the proponents of For Profit Education come from the world of professional training, which thrive on standardized instruction and squeezing the efficiency of the classroom. The business of For-Profit Education is built on their alliance with the academics from the publicly funded world, where the discussion is often about creating capacity rather than utilizing it to the every last bit, about freedom rather than format, and of creation of new knowledge rather than living within the boundaries of disciplinary body of knowledge. There is so much lost in translation between these two groups that the compromises are often found in fuzzy terms, like 'long term' profits and student 'experience', and, in mis-equating the purpose of education with making the students employable.

It is somewhat easy to understand some of this, like the tyranny of employability. In much of the literature, education is about freedom: It is designed to free you from the circumstances, from the boundaries set by your own experience. However, this is not in sync with the idea that education only prepares you for your dream job. The dream job, by definition, is set by the limitations of your experience. Besides, it is impractical to assume that an education, which plays out over a number of years, can prepare you for a job, which exists here and now, in this rapidly changing world. Indeed, what education can do, and often does, is to prepare you for your father's dream job.

However, despite these apparent contradictions, much of the discussion in For-Profit education world centers on employability. This is because the students pay, what is central to pricing of education is the individual pay-off, how many years would the student need to recover the investment made in education. One can see the reductionist tendencies of such a discussion, but this is often the only discussion in For-Profit education - and this puts measure-ability at the core of the discussion about quality in education. However, this has clear limitations, we indeed only measure what we want to measure (See Good Education In The Age of Measurement), and this reduces the quality of education down to the cleanliness of toilets and receptionists' smile, important but all-pervasive elements of a students' life.

In a way, in the student-as-consumer world, what should matter is what matters to the students most. This may indeed point to employability, one may argue, looking at various surveys that gets published. To take one most widely available, the Sodexho University Lifestyle survey in Britain, the key reasons for going to the university for British students are:

To improve job opportunities 74%
To improve salary prospects 60%
To improve knowledge in an area of interest 58%
To specialize in a certain subject or area 47%
To obtain an additional qualification 46%
Essential to my chosen profession 43%
To experience a different way of life 41%
It's the obvious next step 40%
To have a good social life 31%
My parents expected me to 24%
I didn't want to get a job straightaway 23%
I didn't know what else to do 18%
All my friends are going 14%
Can live at home and still go to university 9%

However, this is a one-to-one world, and defining quality in employability terms will surely not be enough for those who wanted to gain knowledge and expertise (58%), a different way of life (41%), defaulted on it (40%) or didn't want to get a job (23%). For these various groups, education is a service delivering various different experiences, and the simple factory business model, where better capacity utilization determine profit, and outcomes determine the quality, is not appropriate.

There is also another problem with too much focus on employability. Education is a life-changing experience, and good education may mean a shift in expectation. So, an education, if it delivers its promise, will ensure that the goals the student start with is not the same she has at the end, because the process of education would have altered her expectations about her own life. Hence, education that sells itself on the employability plank has an inherent problem: It is designed to disappoint most of the students anyway.

This brings us the need to revisit the issue of pricing and profit from education. The central point, that the process of education is at least as important as its outcome, and the students come to the classroom with different requirements and hence a good education must be designed to offer different outcomes through different pathways, defeat the assembly line (shall we call this 'value chain') model of education. Hence, the assumption that profit will arise from squeezing efficiencies may actually be misplaced, and the focus on processes rather than people, and on capacity rather than content, may actually be counter-productive. I shall argue that the principal driver of profit is bound to be design of the educational intervention, as it would be in a similar high contact service setting. Indeed, the process efficiencies are needed, tutors must know what they are talking and must add value, and the infrastructure must be up to scratch, but what people will pay and whether the institution can turn a profit is dependent on whether the services are delivered in an appropriate manner (not at the cheapest cost), whether the intervention is seen as worthwhile (not just in pay-off terms), and whether the institution is able to balance the various needs of its stakeholders or constituents (I love to see students as constituents rather than customers).

Saturday, May 14, 2011

50/100: British For-Profit Education - Point of Departure

There are 157 Degree granting institutions in Britain, only 5 of them are privately funded. Two of them are in the news, The University of Buckingham, which got its charter in 1970s, and BPP, the Business, Accountancy and Legal Education company, which received its charter only recently. The others are Ashridge, a well-regarded business school, the College of Law, a legal education provider and IFS, which specializes in Financial Services training.



That is going to change, as the Government is making overtures that there will be much more welcoming approach to the private sector in education than there has been in the past. In fact, one can argue that the government has embarked on a risky strategy by cutting the funding for the universities and by allowing the universities to raise the fees, which can lead to a significant decrease in the number of people pursuing higher education, unless the private sector steps in, creates capacity and competition and expands access. The Quality Assurance Agency in Britain is gearing up to offer services to Private Sector that can lead to the charter, and just appointed Professor Nigel Savage, the Chief Executive of the College of Law, to advise on the same.



The other significant change for this sector is the deep changes in the immigration law: The government has set about virtually shutting down the private sector, as it exists today. The business model of getting the students who did not qualify for a university admission and could not pay the university fee effectively became a conduit for getting ‘visa’ students, people who wanted to use the excuse of study and come and live in this country. The Labor government’s businesslike agenda of getting immigrants to come to Britain and fuel the economic upturn was anyway doomed as recession set in and Gordon Brown started talking about ‘British Jobs For British Workers’: The Conservative government just wanted to take this to a logical conclusion, though they may have just taken this further down the road that previously imagined.



So far, the private sector has reacted with disbelief – the sense of denial was clear in statements made by various business representatives, which almost always started with the assertion that such changes would be unsustainable. But, it is not, the changes are real and here to stay. What we see now have a very clear objective and the policy direction could not be clearer. The harsh immigration controls were only half of the game. The other half, messages are all positive: If a business is above-board and offer quality education and has the scale, it can apply and get the accreditations required to become a degree granting institution within the next three years. Also, once the business proves itself to be a high quality education institution, there will be no limits on how many students they can bring in from overseas. What we are seeing today is the process of separating wheat from the chaff, and a process which improves the attractiveness of the private education sector, and not the other way round.



These are pointers for the things to come – a much larger scale For Profit higher education industry – and the stakes are already quite clear. A range of likely players are already positioning themselves, which include only a handful of current players. The source of investment is likely to be global, global funds, American For Profit Education companies and some of the City-based funds, specialized in education, are already in the fray. It is not coincidental that Becker Professional Education, an arm of the company which owns DeVry University, just bought over ATC, a publishing company which specializes in training materials for British Accountancy Training bodies.



We may see a range of new and innovative start-ups entering the market in the next 12 to 18 months, as the universities look to maximize their income and investment in the sector becomes available. However, the current players are unlikely to survive, mostly: What they have shown so far is a combination of lack of will and lack of imagination, and ended up going backward rather than forward.



The issue of lack of will is understandable. Here was a lucrative market where people paid you for nothing – just for the privilege of being in London – and suddenly you are being asked to compete on service. There was no culture of service or innovation in most private sector colleges, nor they employed people who could align themselves quickly and effectively with what the new marketplace demanded. While privatization of education will certainly happen, but this time around, the rules may be completely different and the current players have already sapped their energy trying to protect the old system.



Besides, while the talk of the industry is surely around the ‘Home’ students, the lack of imagination is evident too. Most colleges tend to operate with an assumption that the two markets, overseas and home, are essentially the same, and can be serviced with similar products and service levels. What they have missed the sight of is that the greatest attraction for an overseas student to do a course in Britain is that they are getting a British qualification, which is not a lot for Home students. Hence, there needs to be more in the package than just the certificate in the end, and the Diploma mills need to reinvent themselves in terms of course design, delivery and alumni services. So far, however, very little effort has gone in any of these areas, except that the adverts have changed – ‘your local college’s have appeared but they remain all the same.



Also, most private players today crowd in narrow segments, accountancy, business, IT, tourism and social care being the most common, in the hope that these streams will imply greater employability and hence attract more students. However, if experiences of other countries, where private sector has flourished from similar starting points would show that successful new players have emerged and created new segments. It is interesting to think about arguments like Daniel Pink makes in A Whole New Mind (or Howard Gardner in Five Minds for The Future) where the abilities like Creativity, Design and Integrative Thinking are pointed out as critical skills for the Western economies. I shall argue that these are the areas where there is an educational deficiency, and this will become quite grave as public institutions start replicating private sector models and start crowding in to ‘popular’ sectors. For a matured economy like Britain, there will be more people doing Media Studies and Liberal Arts than Business and Computer Science at this point of time, and this is a segment new and successful private players will effectively serve.



So, in summary, interesting times for the For Profit education sector in Britain where the Creative Destruction is clearly in evidence. For the old must make way for the New, and market systems ensure that unmet demands always create new sources of supply, we shall see new players emerge or invade in droves. Unfortunately, the current players, suitably positioned to take advantage, will mostly miss out. It will be tragic, but one say, such was scripted anyway.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

49/100: Roll Back Britain

For all the glory policy-makers want to claim, usually policy follows social realities and not the other way around. Indeed, I am in the middle of preparation for my dissertation on the Open University, and exploring how all the policy pronouncements about the University of the Air, that's how it was first named, were really a catch-up. The technology moved, social realities moved and all the Ministers were doing was a catch-up. It was no longer plausible to leave vast numbers of people in the country, 96% of the school leaving population at the time, outside the cycle of prosperity, hence the two bills of 1966, one to create the Polytechnics and the other to keep the Open University, though none acknowledged the other.

There was usually sneers from all quarters: The Tories called the plan 'blithering nonsense' and newspapers, with the exception of The Economist, were universally hostile. There were jibes about 'even housewives may want to learn'. The one thing that sustained the momentum was the Labour party's love affair with education, the 1930s view that education meant emancipation, from poverty, hunger and disease. This is the time of gentrification, of the time of the 'rise of meritocracy', of Dagenham girls, of cuts and economic slowdown, of the expansion of service economy and start of the long decline in manufacturing. And, crucially, this is the time when Television became a common household item, Britain got two more TV channels and BBC got ambitious. This is the time when the first wave of modern universities, Lancaster, Warwick, Brighton, York, Essex, were given charter. This is the time when equality of opportunity was central to any government agenda, and the essence of political correctness.

In a way, the contrast could not be more stark. We have lived through the years of New Labour, when getting rich was glorious. The Welfare State, unencumbered from the need of matching up Socialist East Europe, has been dismantled. Financial Services have become the biggest industry in Britain, contributing up to 40% of its GDP. A Lib-Con coalition is in the power, and the equations are based on total surrender of collectivist values and a desire to prop up house-owners and bankers of this country. The biggest industry of the age, Buy-to-Let, defines every government agenda, including one of the Higher Education.

So, we have reached at the other end of the scale when the Government cuts the university funding drastically and throw them in a ring to fight it out with each other. This is a conscious decision, given the precarious financial state of some of the universities, to let some of them go bankrupt and 'sell' themselves to private providers. In fact, the government is rumoured to be keen facilitating such deals. The Minister in charge of Universities have now said that if a student is ready to pay a premium, they can jump the hoofs of usual university recruitment rounds and get a place: His justification was that this would open up places for students who are less able, financially, in the universities, at least in the worst ones. This is the modern day equivalent of 'why do they queue for bread and why don't they have a cake', a complete reversal of what the sixties stood for. A day after this announcement, the Head of McDonald's UK went up to the podium with the Chancellor of Exchequer in attendance and said that young people are better off doing jobs flipping burgers than going to the university. Britain seems to have reached the point when policy follows practice - a time when a two-tier system must be accepted and legitimized, when Higher Education must be preserved for those who could afford and when those less fortunate must abandon their ambitions of gentrification and return to the menial jobs.

This tension was all there, I shall argue, in the story of the Open University. A miner's daughter, Jennie Lee, may be eager to create her own legacy in line with her husband's, Nye Bevan's, NHS, wanted to create 'a proper university', not a poor man's alternative. Yet, that was being done at the same time, in the form of the creation of polytechnics, and later, in the abolition of polytechnics and in the creation of the new universities. Jennie Lee said - there was nothing more offensive to the poor than being given a poor man's alternative - but the society has come a full circle and such policy has become socially acceptable. The Open University, as Bill Bryson will contend, is one of the best things in Britain: But, in context, this is also an aberration.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

48/100: Interrogating the MBA

I am doing some work on what quality means in the context of our MBA programme, and the discussion is gradually pulling me to an uncharted territory. My initial ideas were, if I can claim, simple: I thought it meant keeping promises, delivering what was said in the prospectus. This was the textbook definition of quality as I understood it. However, it took me only a few conversations with students and tutors to see how differently each of these promises were understood, and how culturally specific some of the things I assumed we have said were. Besides, the enquiry opened up a whole new discussion about the content of the MBA programme, its objectives and what it must achieve in the end to be valuable.

My starting point was the Benchmark statements for a Business and Management Masters as provided by the Quality Assurance Agency of UK. (Can be accessed here) My understanding was that the MBA should be built around General Management, and ideally avoid narrow subject specialisms. The QAA seems to have decided that subject specialisms should be best left to Professional Bodies or M Sc type of degrees. While a sectoral focus was welcome, the MBA programme was to build on a candidate's prior professional knowledge and enhance his/her decision making abilities through analysis, effective use of knowledge and interacting with people and the like. The QAA benchmark statement is indeed a very useful read, and sets things in perspective.

This is a sort of an eye-opener too. While talking to students, it seems that they are mostly enthralled with subject area specializations. People I spoke to wanted to have an MBA in Finance, rather than a 'general' MBA. The tutors I spoke to thought that the goal of the MBA should be to make people employable, notwithstanding the fact that MBA is meant to be a qualification for people with professional experience, and thought specialisms and greater subject focus will indeed enhance the marketability of the graduates. In fact, I realized that since we offered a General MBA, and since some candidates were keen to get a subject area specialism, some of the Admission Officers were advising them to do their dissertation in the preferred area. Further, my inquiry made me understand that such preferences were very strong, and in fact the Academic department allocated dissertation supervisors along the subject area specialisms as well.

So, if MBA is about integrative thinking about management, that message is somewhat lost. This is more pervasive than the immediate area of my concern - the Business School under consideration - and it is common among many MBA programmes I looked at since. In fact, I noticed that Henry Mintzberg makes this point in his Managers, Not MBAs : That the message of MBA as a General Management programme is lost in the domination of functional specialisms, and what we get is an IKEA model of management, where parts of management are supplied by the Business Schools and the students were supposed to assemble them, without any instruction or an idea how the finished product should look like.

This gives me a starting point of looking at the issue of quality in the context of the MBA programme. It seems to be more about providing the students an overarching framework to integrate their functional knowledge of management. I have, in the past, grappled with the problem of our course becoming too training-like: In fact, my opening statement for the course on Entrepreneurship is to be that it is not about telling the students how to be an entrepreneur, but think critically what entrepreneurs do. And, I can see why it is easy to lose the message: MBA is a course at the sharp end of vocationalization, where 'employability' seems to have usurped all other legitimate learning objectives. And, this is possibly the reason for the problem of the well-educated manager: There is little time or scope to explore why one needs to manage at all, and what could be the goal of decision making when decisions are made. A simplistic assumption that managers are expected to enhance 'shareholder value', without thinking how this value may be defined, is the recipe that landed us in the current disaster. It is also easy to see why the understanding of business as a social organization is so out of fashion and why it is such a cultural challenge to establish such a view.

More battles at hand for me then, but I am glad that I embarked on this inquiry, which allowed me a fresh perspective.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

47/100: Sense and Nonsense

I wish email software programmes had an 'Unsend' button. Sometimes, that would have saved lives; more often, this would have saved marriages, friendships and definitely, jobs. It is surely not impossible to undo an email sent - unlike a bullet fired - but just unappealing. However, surely, a Google Engineer someday will give his 20% time on this. That will be realizing the unrealized potential of Outlook's Recall function, which, if I remember correctly, usually used to send a second email saying that 'the sender has recalled the previous email'. That was my definitive example of pure nonsense: Indeed, I tried and failed before.

I spend a lot of time thinking about expressions which rule our lives and claims that we believe in. Expressions such as 'Taxpayers' Money'. When was taxpayers' money really taxpayers' money? Who would want to spend a few billion pounds keeping the Trident missile system, which, okay, can flatten Moscow and St Petersberg in a few minutes, and rather not use the money to fund the universities and produce more well-qualified graduates? And, then, there are things like 'The Third Sector'. I have known people who really identify themselves with the term. I get the sense - Public Sector, Private Sector and then, third, Not For Profit - but don't know whether the expression was invented to give a distinctive identity to NFP, or to lump various things together and somehow wish away the Church, for example.

Then, there are claims. It is interesting to see who makes them and then to explore why they make the claims they make. Why do Conservatives claim that Britain can go bankrupt? Because they are more concerned about keeping the British Pound strong and interest rates low. They don't care if a few children miss out on education and a few families get booted out of council estates, but they would rather ensure that buy-to-let remains a viable business opportunity and people with a pot of money can sit back and enjoy the rental income. They claim Britain isn't working and living on benefits, and they make it sound really bad, but what about living on rent income, which they are trying to protect by keeping the interests low, even if that means high inflation. One conjecture: They are full of people with money. Yes, they may be honest - because they always lived with people with money, talked to people with money and taught by tutors who were used to teaching people with money. That living on rent and living on benefits are actually the same thing - living without doing a hard day's work - has not occurred to them. And, indeed, never will.

These are political claims, but then there are cultural claims. Like, love, shall I say. No one ever defines it: It is one of those terms like Fascist which should remain undefined, so that anyone / anything can be labeled with it. And, commercial claims, like Brands, which really represent mummified trust of a kind which you can buy in a bottle (or in packs, whichever). We live in a somewhat claim-infested world, and making sense of everything may come on the way of happiness.

Besides, this is a pointless exercise, as must be mentioned at this time. Claims have Counter-claims. Usually: May be they are not allowed in Libya, Burma, North Korea and such places in the world. But usually, Trident money will be claimed by universities and the schools and the health services, all having equally 'valid' claims. The point, indeed, is to see these claims with the reasons why they are being made - the motives. Seen this way, as I am trying, modern life will look like a see-saw, and a negotiation - though everything is done in the name of absolute truth.

A professor played an interesting game - he made a statement and asked us to guess when it was made, roughly. Like, the modern youth knows no respect and our education system must imbibe respect in the pupils. My guess was Tony Blair, but the right answer turned to be Cicero in Ancient Rome. Similarly, the International Conference which dealt with the problem of urban pollution caused by modern transportation and decided that there was no clear solution to the issue, happened in 1898 and was dealing with Horse manure. You hear them and say - hang on a moment, why we are still talking about this after all these years!

The problem is, once you start looking at things critically, as education is supposed to make us do, everything looks relative, negotiable. It is easy to see therefore, while educators claim that education should be about critical consciousness, no one likes it: Education is all about just a series of claims therefore. However, I shall CLAIM that we are reaching a sort of limit of claims, in fact this isn't new and at every point of social change, just sticking to claims does not help and new thinking is needed. We are at such a point, and perhaps my efforts to make sense is timely.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

46/100: Where Do I Go From Here

Hi Supriyo,

Trust all is well with you.

All is well with me.

Have been trying to bring a long dialog with myself to conclusion, and have had recent
breakthroughs, largely thanks to your posts about your journey.

I stepped out of my "job" a month back. In your words, "I am not looking for a job." Doing nothing more significant than creating more debt and having a good time at home with family.

Have been through a good bit the last two years. Terrible stuff but very instructive.

Haven't been happier.

Would like to see 46/100 if you think it is ok.

Best regards and lot of gratitude,

S.

This is the first mail I saw when I turned on my Blackberry on my way to office. This is from a friend whose words made my day. He has taken the leap of faith; whatever I said in my blog, I haven't reached there yet.

Today was a somewhat special day for me. Exactly a year ago, I walked out of my job: A job that I hated, but was one I could have held on to. I walked out, foolishly, without a job in hand and in the middle of a terrible job market. But I did so as I thought time is somewhat more important than money, and I must follow my heart.

I was prepared for the worst. I was ready to go back to work in some cash-in-carry. I mentally prepared to go back to India if I can't sustain myself in Britain. But I was no longer ready to waste time on someone's vanity project which was going nowhere.

So, on the 3rd of May 2010, I returned to England from my last business trip and spent the day thinking about my priorities. I wrote to all the people I could possibly turn to, looking for a job. I created a budget for my expenses, and listed things I could sell off, like my car. I pledged not to buy any books from Amazon for three months (this is one thing I shall successfully do, and realize how much money I spend every month).

The best I could do is wait, stay home and enjoy the break. I had to catch up on pending work, like washing the car, sorting out various bits in the house, catching up blog writing and emails that were sitting on my mailbox.

It was a bit of a wait, and then responses started coming. There were three distinct sets of emails. The first was from people who I thought were quite close to me, but suddenly, they were quite distant and inaccessible. They made me realize that it was my position they cared for, and as I left, there is nothing much I could offer to them. The second set were from people in India, my backup option: They told me that there isn't much I can do in India and they value me as I am in England. Basically, this was the moment of truth: An understanding what mattered and a bonfire of my vanities.

But, then, there were this third set of people. Some of them I don't even know, they are Linkedin connections rather than real life friends. Some reads my blogs. Some I met in real life but did not think they were very close. And, indeed, some close friends. They came back with concern, care, words of support. One person offered me a job, then another. Soon, in a couple of weeks time, I was considering different offers. My fears were behind me: I was making a fresh start in an industry of my choice.

This was a sort of a life-defining moment. I have had these big moments before: When I left my first job to start a business in 1998, or when I left India in 2000, or when I landed in Heathrow in 2004. I could talk about all these moments as me being heroic, taking decisions, staying the course. But I have learned two things about such events that are worth confessing too.

First, there were always other people and their random kindnesses that make such life-changing moments possible. My first months in Britain were tough and focused, but without my friend and benefactor from Bangladesh stood by me all the time; today, any story would never be complete without mentioning him. These acts of random, unexpected kindnesses shaped my life-defining moments, exactly as it did to me a year ago. Someone I knew only as a casual acquaintance - I tried selling something to him once but never succeeded - responded to my request for a job and took me in. I am quite certain he was trying to help as much as he was looking at my experience and expertise, the standard stuff people consider while offering someone a job. This is again an act of random kindness by a relative stranger, which, if I count, always underpinned the most significant moments in my life.

Second, while it sounds rather heroic to stay on, keep my head down and start working from scratch yet again, I was too afraid to run away. As the English proverb goes, this may indeed be the essence of all heroism - but certainly this was why I did what I did. Most of the time, when I moved from one stage to another, I burnt the ships - hence there was no going back. My plans to go back to India was somewhat fanciful, though I must admit that the key reason was to be able to live close to my family in Kolkata (and this is why it is fanciful, because it would have never happened). But I was too afraid to walk away from my dreams, even when it did not make sense. I was too afraid not to fulfill the promise that I somewhat made to myself, to escape my provincial past and to live, work and learn in different countries of the world. I was too afraid to abandon my journey, and disappoint, above all, myself. So, I didn't go away.

As I look back, there is a sense of happiness in having survived the year, in being able to do what I wanted to do. However, I am at another point of inflection yet again, when something different must be done to move forward from this point. I may or may not be any closer building the 'global' business school I wanted to build, and at this time of taking stock, I am trying to assess what I have got and whether I shall be able to get there at any point of time. We live in a time of great change in the British Higher Education sector, and the point about being at such times is that one needs to take the opportunity as and when it arises. Sitting on your hands and waiting for things to happen is possibly the worst strategy people could adopt at this time.

But, in the end, the point S. got so clearly, it is about happiness. It is about overcoming the fear that keeps us sub-par and makes us do what we don't want to do. And, finally, it is about achieving the freedom and independence, so that we can become what we should become. This day, being a sort of an independence day for me, was already special: My friend's declaration of independence made it even more special - and encouraged me to go on.

Monday, May 02, 2011

45/100: The Start Or The End of War of Civilizations

Today can be anything: Start of a prolonged war of civilizations or the end of it. Let us hope it is the end, as it appears to be. The most important figurehead of Islamic extremism is gone. This may not weaken the Al Queda units across the world in real terms, because of their decentralized nature, but this should rob them of their most recognizable icon and the most effective recruitment tool. This should lead to a thaw in Afghanistan, give Americans the breathing space they need. This should allow other Muslim leaders to emerge in the limelight, hopefully with more moderate voices.

On America's side, this may mean a boost for Obama, which should be good for America and the world. Obama isn't unduly combative, not a war president like his predecessor. He is measured and cerebral - he took great pains to emphasize that America is not at war with Muslims - and he understands the dangers of stoking the flames more than anyone else. While the dancing crowds outside white house and the rather awkward, if unavoidable, way of disposing off Mr Bin Laden's body will enrage the faithful across the world, Obama's support of democratic movements across the Arab world is genuine. As Hillary Clinton mentioned today, these democratic movements do more to undermine Al Queda's bitterness and violence more than American Army ever did: Mr Obama will keep reminding the world that this started with his own version of 'winds of change' speech in Cairo two years ago.

However, despite all the positives, it may still turn ugly. The dangers are real, and if things don't go right from this point on, we may soon be staring at the slippery slope of a different kind of domino effect. All this can start in Pakistan. This is, by common admission, a failed state. It is a failed state if the government housed Bin Laden and denied this for a decade. It is even worse if the government did not know, for such a long time, that the world's most wanted man lived in a large compound within a wealthy locale hundreds of yards from its elite military school. While the American intelligence deserves full credit, it is hard to accept Pakistan as a functioning sovereign state after this incident.

Also, Obama, while declaring how important America's friendship with Pakistan is, said that the American's kept all progress about Mr Bin Laden secret from Pakistani authorities. The US Military helicopters flew low range to avoid detection by Pakistani radars, a supposedly friendly country. The Pakistani government will find it difficult to explain this to its own people, and its relatively secular Military top brass may now be even more defensive in the face of the more radicalized sections of the Military and Intelligence community.

Considering all this, America's next task is not just to win the war in Afghanistan, but to keep Pakistan together. And, this is far more complex than just securing Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, which is what most Americans would want to right away. But a country of Pakistan's size can not be allowed to fail, and the current model of keeping handpicked governments through a system of patronage has proved ineffective (what is a better proof than Obama's visible presence). Successive Pakistani governments played China effectively against America and kept themselves in power, and expropriated most of the aid and resources coming into this country. Surely, such a system is unsustainable: Real change must be brought to Pakistan urgently.

What will determine whether this is the beginning or the end of the war of civilization is what the Americans do with Pakistan now. To take advantage of Obama's absence, the Americans must redouble their engagements in Pakistan now and dismantle the corrupt client state they have helped to build. This is more difficult than tracking and killing Obama: This will require real sincerity, commitment and a change of heart hitherto not seen in foreign policy. It will require a quick re-engagement with India after a forceful clampdown of Pakistan's residual terror infrastructure (which must now be done, to stop potential terrorist outrages that may follow Obama's death) and tangible measures to kick-start the economy. It is eminently possible to create a zone of peace involving India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and common people in all the three countries, fatigued by continuous war and terrorism, will support that. Indians surely recognize that it is mostly in their interest - they can grow faster and stronger if they can stop fighting Pakistan - and Obama may actually find the Indian government more willing to engage in this process than any time before.

So, to paraphrase Churchill - this is just the end of the beginning. The work actually starts now. The British Administrators created the problem, more than 60 years back, by following a policy of cut-and-run from South Asia. The temptations are strong, but the Americans must stay focused and stay engaged if they have to win the war.

History Moment: Obama Announces Bin Laden's Death

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This is a great speech handling a difficult subject. The President took great care not to sound too jubilant, as Military Leaders often do, and offend anyone. Instead, he was on the message about not fighting against Islam, not fighting against Pakistan, and not fighting against the American right. His usual restrain works against him when Americans want emotion - as it did during the Deepwater Horizon crisis - but it served him well in this speech. Someone commented on Twitter - we are possibly watching a great second coming of Barack Obama.



Sunday, May 01, 2011

44/100: The Power of Followership - Derek Sivers

43/100: Three Things I Learned While My Plane Crashed - Ric Elias

42/100: The New Social Learning

I have been reading Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner's timely book, The New Social Learning, which points to the social nature of organizational learning. I would rate this book only 3 out of 5, and found parts of it quite laborious to read. Lots of it reads like PowerPoint slides put together, which makes it quite dry and difficult to engage with: However, the book nonetheless makes important points that any Learning and Development practitioner should take notice of.

The central thesis of the book is to conjoin the psychological and sociological approaches of learning theories together. Starting from the point of organizational learning, indeed Tony Bingham heads ASTD, or the American Society for Training and Development, which is one of the most respected professional associations for training and development practitioners in the world. Their approach, however, centers around facilitating a 'learning organization', through 'paving online community roads' and 'share stories around, up and out' and the like. In fact, organizations are already doing it, as evidenced in the book and elsewhere in the T&D literature, though most approaches in the profession remain focused on individual-centric approaches, like talent management.

I did some work on training for creativity in the organization a couple of months ago, and explored various approaches that T&D professionals take. However, it is interesting to see while management professionals tend to see creativity as a technical process and preserve of a few exceptional people, most literature on creativity and innovation focus on its social nature and the fact that it can be best nurtured through creating a 'creative environment' (and not a creative department, as most organizations will do). In fact, it was rather illuminating to come across the three paradigms of creativity, from I-paradigm of individual creative talent and He-paradigm of a genius to We-paradigm of social nature of creativity. I would think organizational learning should focus more and more on the social aspects of it, even when it is dealing with non-creative aspects of the business, like Health and Safety. [Some of the working notes are here]

I pick Health and Safety because this is the most boring subject that I could think of. Make no mistake, I know its value as I have had to live through evacuations caused by bomb threats during my tenure in Bangladesh. People I know died in fire incidents because they did not know the proper evacuation process. In a world full of terrorist threats, earthquakes, tsunamis, nuclear meltdowns and fire hazards (as newspapers will make you believe), Health and Safety training remains one of the most crucial for an organization. But this is also T&D professionals' nightmare, because it is so boring and most people won't take it seriously unless a major problem does happen.

Now, consider the current approaches that we follow to train people. One would have a few Health and Safety 'champions', like a Fire Marshall, and they will usually be picked because they have the least important jobs to do (and therefore can spare some time). This also means that they will usually be junior in rank and have less influence on colleagues. They will then be trained and would be told to train other colleagues. The most persistent ones among them will try, either by trying to assemble colleagues for training sessions which most people will ignore, or by sending emails after emails to remind everyone that H&S does not paying heed to. The managers of the department will initially back him by sending 'stinkers' to people who are not attending the H&S sessions, but will soon start mocking the H&S emails privately. The most useful H&S training employees will ever receive will be in the first 30 seconds when the crisis actually breaks out.

Consider the other approach, if you consider the social nature of learning. Whatever the regulatory authorities may demand, H&S is an organizational priority and the T&D professionals should start by establishing that. Depending on what resources you have on your disposal, a number of things can be done: What about commissioning a film using real people on a storyline that show a possible disaster and the most dramatic bits where some expert knowledge helps to avert it; or, creating a safety culture - what about making the world's safest employee canteen - and circulating the stories around. In this approach, the focus will shift from usage of technical devices - formal training, notices, email communications - to social devices, stories, missions, champions, communities. The good news is that there is so much more resources available to help build such an environment - all the social tools that sustain our lives and phones can be tweaked to help our work lives.

So, here is the central point - despite our lives becoming intensely social, organizational learning is still not there. Companies have embarked on interesting experiments, but full scale commitments are still rare. This is an important book: Pity it is not Gladwell-esque and we still have wait for a better effort to ignite a trend.

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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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