Sunday, July 29, 2012

Training in India: How Not To Have Partnerships

This reflection relates to my own experiences, and various conversations I have had with Indian executives, particularly from the training industry, regarding the Joint Ventures or licensing arrangements, which seem to be popular and growing, between Indian and Western training outfits in the training space. The questions - the value of partnership, who should one partner with, what to expect - come up again and again, and indeed, my advice was sought, as recently as last week, for a similar project. 

There is a consensus among the Indian executives that such partnerships/ licensing add value. Of particular interest to Indian companies are packaged concepts and ideas, models and certifications that such partnerships bring. Consider the recent outpouring of emotions on Facebook and other similar platforms on the demise of Steven Covey, though the mainstream media largely ignored it, which came primarily from the training business community in India. I am sure similar friendly feelings are reserved for Ken Blanchard, Robin Sharma, Anthony Robbins and other Business Gurus, and surely this means a decent licensing revenue stream for all their companies (and royalties for books) from the Indian training market. The question, however, isn't whether these partnerships and diffusion of ideas are needed - they indeed are - but what value does it bring to the Indian training companies and how much do they benefit Indian learners.

I must admit that I have personally been benefited from some of these western paradigms, particularly Seven Habits and various quality management initiatives, and I am surely not attempting to question the inherent value of these books, models and ways of doing things. At one time in my career, I made an (abortive) attempt to help a friend, who developed a rather 'cool' model of measuring training effectiveness license his model to Indian companies: In the end, he didn't want to do it as he thought the business cultures were quite different [though that did not stop the gathering momentum on Jack Phillips' model of training ROI and other similar tools]. I also worked to license various leadership and English learning products in the Indian market, completely convinced of their value at the time.

However, over time, I have become conscious how culturally grounded these 'western' models are. Consider Steven Covey's 7 habits, which has Protestant ethic written all over it. Indeed, there is nothing wrong in cultural cross-pollination, and Indian gurus also have a good business healing Western executives. However, an institutional acceptance of a culturally grounded model to be the pinnacle of business wisdom is problematic: To be successful, an Indian business need not become an American business, it needs to transform itself within the framework of Indian values.

I think this is becoming even more apparent now than ever. The Indian white collar worker pool has expanded significantly over the last two decades, and many inner cities and villages have started contributing to it. What used to be a narrow pool of urbanised Anglicized workers have now become more embedded in Indian value system. In this context, the Western models should resonate less and less with this audience, which is precisely what I found out in my previous experiences with English Language learning systems. The problems there related particularly to the culturally grounded references, and the assumption of a particular kind and level of learner involvement, which were simply not practical in India. Unfortunately for me, I never picked up these problems myself - because I was already immersed, by then, in similar pedagogical methods. It was only when we tried to cross the chasm, to go beyond the early adopter urban market to the mass market which we all hoped would materialize in India, the limitations of the Western model became apparent.

Admittedly, that was English language training: The other areas, like Leadership training, operate at a different layer, drawing an audience which is more exposed to Western thought paradigms. However, these training programmes try to achieve more: While English training is merely equipping an individual with a technical skill, leadership training, potentially, is challenging the entire value system of the person. This is a much greater challenge, and though the audience may have greater exposure, often having lived, traveled and studied abroad, their value systems might be deeply grounded and it may be a far greater challenge, given their relative superiority among their peers ('I know what Western nations do - I have been to France for a holiday!') and consequent unwillingness to reflect and challenge themselves. 

I also see a problem in the way Indian training companies perceive these Western training systems and use them. Often, such partnership/ licensing decisions are done at a higher level (I am guilty as charged - I have made mistakes by trusting my own judgements over those on the ground) and style may trump substance in that kind of decision-making. The Western training companies are often far superior in packaging and presenting their materials, and often the Anglo-Saxon masculinity (in the sense Hofstede used the term - people are not shy of talking about their achievements) magnify the value of the content and the system. Besides, this is a self-reinforcing cycle: Because one can buy well-presented content and licensing limit the upfront costs and risks, the Indian outfits will often not do any design and development activities themselves. In the end, most partnerships between Indian and Western training organizations build in a 'style' premium by stealth, for a design which is not suitable for the market in many cases.

Which brings the discussion to the last, and the most important, point about pricing: The built-in style premium will often skew the value equation and result in under-performance of the arrangement, not just in terms of outcome but also financially. A typical license fee for India will range from thousands to millions of pounds, and often the concepts such as purchasing power parity, which means in Indian context every dollar can buy five times of what it can buy in the United States, are ignored. So, if you consider a typical deal wherein an Indian company signs up with an UK firm paying an upfront fee of £200,000 or so, which is approximately $300,000 and the equivalent of $1,5000,000 in PPP terms, the Indian firm is saddled with this cost, not to mention ongoing training fees, material costs and various royalties, apart from upfront purchase commitments for materials which may never sell, for a product which may be wholly unsuitable to the market, and may not help their customers at all.

So, my suggestion to Indian executives in most cases to put substance over style, learn from the Western firms through limited and focused partnerships, rather than buying the materials and know-how wholesale. I also advise about doing the partnership in baby steps and doing as much market research as possible, including drawing feedback from people on the ground, like the trainers, though I recognize the difficulties in getting disinterested opinion. I do think that an Indian company can benefit through partnership with a more matured western outfit, but only if the partnership is dictated by the requirements of the market, and not by the slickness of the presentation.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Training in India: Need for A New Start

Training in India has come of age: The choices, range of courses, price points, geographical spread, availability of trainers, have emerged, carrying the industry a long way off from the duopoly of NIIT-Aptech days. However, despite the progress, two problems seem to afflict the industry still: One, most companies are still trying to be like NIIT or Aptech, and talking about fast, franchise-led growth; and, two, the training is still dominated by derived content from one Western fad or the other, and very little research and development is actually being done in India. 

Training in India is an exciting industry. It sits right in the middle of growing population, rising industry demand and a sub-par education system. The opportunity in the sector is, therefore, exciting: It can, and should, play an important catalytic role in helping the Indian industry move to the next level.

This role, which will indeed come with increased profitability, demands new thinking, which is in short supply. The leadership of the industry is still beholden to the golden days of NIIT-Aptech, mostly because they may have cut their teeth in one of the two (as I did too), and want to emulate its successes. The usual theory is that these companies created an winning business model, indeed, how else can one explain the formation of two world-leading companies in a sector in such a short span of time, but lost their way in poor implementation. This is one error all of us seem to be fixing all the time, and the industry is replete with examples of reliving the NIIT experience. 

However, the business models of these two companies, however successful, were grounded in a specific social reality. If they were starting the business today, when capital is more available and workforce is more mobile, I wonder whether the leaders of NIIT would have chosen a franchise-led model. In fact, they did a lot of franchise buy-out in the middle years, and are painfully aware that their success in franchising actually spawned the proliferation of small local training companies (which came from, mostly, franchisees turning independent), a case of Gulliver being tied down by the Lilliputians. 

Franchising remains a good way to grow in India, a country of vast regional differences, but the socio-economic context today is vastly different from the 1990s, and proliferation of franchising, just as NIIT did then, and particularly the creation of regional Master Franchisees, which led to even looser control systems, may not be choicest growth path for a new generation training organization. Instead, they may look at technology, where vast progress have been made, and other flexible form of facilitation, such as monthly events in smaller cities, or collaboration with the existing educational institutions (a model much in vogue).

All this, indeed, need to be supported by indigenous R&D. This is the mostly overlooked part of the NIIT-Aptech story. These companies became successful not just because of their franchising prowess, but also because they were serious about design, and invested heavily in the intellectual property. Besides, the context again has changed: The employment opportunities in the last twenty years were mostly in the sectors faced outward, IT, IT Services etc. The employment opportunities now, and going forward, are mostly elsewhere, in sectors leveraging India's domestic demand, and are inward facing - in retail, telecom, insurance etc. What worked before - lifting of smart models from the West and motivational stuff from English language materials - may not be entirely suitable now: Suddenly, knowing the geography of Maharastra may be more important than knowing the nuances of American pronunciation. This shift may not have happened yet in the Indian training industry, which more or less undermined the design and development functions so far. 

As with many other things, I believe the industry is at an inflection point, in the great chasm between great opportunity and great waste. This is the space where winner emerge and losers are defined. The winning formula, it seems, lie in the combination of new business and content models, apart from the usual stuff like great people and astute leadership.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Gifts versus Markets

We live in an age of market fundamentalism. That is, live by an assumption that the markets are cure all, and as long as we free everyone's hand to buy and sell at whatever price one chooses, everyone will get the best deal by the magical work of the invisible hand. This doctrine is being pushed everywhere: In an age where the sovereign states live in mortal fear that George Soros may pull their money and bankrupt them overnight if they don't toe the line, markets are made to penetrate every sphere of our life, in education, health care, environment, relationships and even births and deaths. The idea of the markets has become hegemonic, so widespread that one can not see its edges and question its limits; indeed, questioning the merits of the markets is seen as blasphemous and unusual.

However, still the criticisms of markets are emerging. First, that this represents a fairly narrow view of human race, that it is driven by self interest, despite many evidence on the contrary. Human history has been a race between human selfishness and human generosity, and yet one half of it is conveniently forgotten. True, the history of power, and of powerful, is mostly full of extremely selfish people, but if one cares to look, the power play existed only in a narrow corner within the sea of benevolence and loving relationships that formed human societies. Humans gave to one another, protected one another, loved one another - this has been as natural as their competitive nature. So, the natural theory of the markets is only partly true, and the view that human society should be solely governed by market relationships is certainly misplaced and wholly unnatural.

Second, apart from being contrary to human nature, the market view of human nature also undermines the critical responsibilities that each one of us have. By promoting selfishness and maximization of pleasure, it blinds us from our responsibilities to protect nature and the human race in general. The theory of invisible hand creates a culture of disconnect: No one of us feel accountable for the damage we cause to environment and expect the pricing mechanism to take this into account. However, pricing mechanisms don't, and weak states only stand by, creating a situation not unlike the infamous 1964 case of Kitty Genovese, a young woman in the Queens neighbourhood who was chased on the road and stabbed while thirty-eight different witnesses watched, but none of them called the police or did anything because they were all expecting the other persons to act, or some invisible hand to do the job.

This leads the discussion to that inevitable kill-all-discussion question, if there is an alternative to the markets at all. But, we can dismiss that as an irrelevant questions. Human beings invent ideas and systems, and the history of human progress depended on its ability to come up with new ways of doing things. However, while one would put infinite faith in our ability to innovate out of trouble, and usually cite the example of the urban planning conference hosted in New York to discuss the major environmental crisis, in 1898, which seriously considered the health problems created by horse dung and could come up with no solutions, only for the problem to be solved by electric carriages soon thereafter. However, when it comes to questioning the market, which is far nearer to power plays and profiteering motives of the few, the usual response goes in line of brilliant, but pretentious, quip from Churchill, talking about democracy in this case: 'Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried'. Markets are seen as such, the best mechanism invented so far, but we have seen far too many times, latest in the current LIBOR scandal, that what seems fair play is usually a tinkering by those in positions of privilege.

Most importantly, it is important to remember that while markets have been around through centuries, it was never the only system, nor it needed to be. We had other systems guiding other domains of human activities, and these can be as successful as the market system. There is absolutely no reason why we should find the volunteer-driven success of Wikipedia as an aberration: This is in the age-old tradition of gift culture where things changed hands without a specific, material, reciprocation at the same time as is the norm of the market. We don't put a value to the work mothers do, all over the world, to bring up their children, or increasingly more rarely, the children does, in their term, to look after their aging parents. The mantra of today - if something isn't in the market, it gets trivialized - undermines the value of such work, which is possibly much larger than the World's GDP, and indeed insuperably valuable. Indeed, there are limits to the gift culture and the markets can fill the gap, but it is increasingly one or the other, and the aim of the modern marketers and capital-owners is to push market everywhere: That simply does not work.

Consider education, where a predominantly gift-driven culture is being transformed with a market-driven culture. It is not just about how one pays for education, it is fundamentally changing the classroom and even the nature of knowledge. The safe place for developing thinking, which the educational institutions were to be, are being transformed into factory of worker reproduction, the research orientation of great universities are being replaced by result emphasis, and the nature of knowledge, from the result of disinterested inquiry to a product of focused pursuit, has been changed to maintain the current social order, rather than exploring the edges of current thinking and come up with better ones.

Or, for that matter, healthcare, where caring for the sick has been a function of insurance eligibility, and it has become common for people to die without care in the age of abundant healthcare. This is not just about a hospital, or even about the system, but what responsibility we have to one another, and how this is being changed.

The redeeming thing is, however, that the gift culture, contrary to what the market fundamentalists want us to believe, is deeply natural to human beings and therefore refuse to die. President Obama talks about Stephanie Davies in Aurora, who stayed and cared for her friend, Allie Young, wounded and bleeding, amid all the shooting and mayhem all around her. This is being hailed as heroism, in the infinite trick of the media which portrays this as entirely exceptional; however, this is exactly what being human means, this is entirely natural and this is exactly what, each one of us as human beings, should do in a similar situation. Denying this, and accepting a narrow-minded selfishness as the true manifestation of human nature, is a motivated, and plainly wrong, way of interpreting who we are and how we behave. However, this is what the myth of the markets stand on: This is indeed why we need a better system, and we may already have some ideas how we can construct one.





Tuesday, July 24, 2012

1001

This is the 1001th post on this blog, done over almost six years. Not that I have written it all, some are videos and snippets, and a few are guest contributions. However, it is still a large number: I am amazed myself that I managed to find time to write all of that, amid everything else that happened in my life during the period (which, to sum up, amounts to five deaths, four marriages, two divorces, three births in my close family, alongside four job changes for me!). However, as I mentioned earlier, this is precisely the reason I write - for me, writing is somewhat therapeutic - a few minutes of space to indulge and dream, much needed amid all the chaos and confusion of everyday life. This writing was what some of the French philosophers will call my strategies of living, my window of sanity and escape from the framework of compliance, my moments of being myself rather than a cog on bigger wheels.

But these 1000 posts lie in the past now: The sheer volume of the posts, and I am acutely aware of its variety of subjects, tell me that the time has come for a rethink. I indeed intend to keep writing, but I would want to focus and do something meaningful. I am actually hoping - just because I am human and troubled with so much change - that my life will possibly become a little more predictable in the next few years and start moving towards the direction I want it to move to.

Indeed, there is some legitimacy in asking whether I know where I want to go, but this is one area where the voice in this blog is remarkably consistent. I wish to live a creative and meaningful life, which I wish to achieve through the creation of a liberal minded, forward thinking, education institution, which will teach people to strive beyond mediocrity and make them try to change the world. This may sound too big, and by implication, quixotic: However, here is the catch - I don't necessarily want to own it, I want to create it and remain involved. This is an important difference, and one that is embedded in all work I have ever done: I have always seen what I do or seem to possess as an act of trusteeship. This is indeed because whatever we may think, we are temporary beings and any great work should outlast ourselves. Hence, I would rather work towards a mission, something meaningful and world-changing. This would mean connecting up with others who think the same way and build this together. I am currently searching for such partnerships.

This excitable goal, and my impatience with the current status quo, makes me feel terrible now. I have worked inside one of the private institutions, partly to know the trade but also to test my ideas and create a platform. I have had some wins, but culture is a hard thing to change, and lately, I am coming up against brick walls far too often. Besides, oftentimes it felt like I am trying to drag ahead a ton of bricks, the dead weight of the legacy: This is part of the platform that the investors love, and the 'platform' I wish to build on, but this is every bit alien to what I wish to build, and this may, I fear, prove to be a mistake. I need a platform to start building on, but I am increasingly concerned that I may have chosen a wrong one.

I took advantage of the last few days to go back to some people I trust, some I know for years but some others who I only met recently and not know so well, and tried to talk through my plans and how I am planning to take this forward. Everyone, well meaning and friendly, advised me about the value of the platform and that I should stick to it; except one person, who possibly knows me best, who advised that I should cut the ties and try to pursue my dream in pure form. He was right, though he agreed with the common opinion that I may not yet be ready, financially and otherwise, to take the plunge. So, the aggregation of my crowdsourced advice is that I should keep developing the idea, keep connecting with fellow dreamers (and keep writing the blog) and keep developing my knowledge and skills; but, in the short run, I should stick to what I am doing, take the current efforts to transform the college to a logical conclusion and if that does not work out, as it may not, go back to school for a few years of preparation through research and skills development.

I also take home the point that I may have been trying to overreach myself: I should rather take stock, and though I must keep going, I may have to restart again. I have always preferred serendipity over goal setting, but this may be a time when I can do with a few short term goals. Baby steps, as the expression goes, it is the time for baby steps rather than giant leap. I am indeed reading Tipping Point and trying to bring about one. From this point on, then, this blog may reflect that phase, less of dreams and more of baby steps, the search for focus rather than ambition and progress reports rather than manifestos.

Friday, July 20, 2012

India 2020: Is This The Time To Hope?

A strange thing is happening in India now, an admission that things have gone wrong. In a way, this has never happened before. This is also amazing, given how elitist the Indian administration really is: Most messages get screened off before it reaches Delhi. May be this is working this time as the message is coming from the global puppet masters, the big media honchos sitting in London and Washington, who have started mocking the Indian Prime Minister: The Indian government, while oblivious of the mood of its own people, surely knows that this is only a pre-cursor of what the bond traders and hedge funds will think.

However, while it is easy to be pessimistic about the Indian government's motives, let us savour the moment: The Indian Government is thinking it has got it wrong, a first in its sixty years of history, and trying to do something about it! Indeed, this seems easy for anyone looking at it - was everything not going wrong in India for so long - but the fact that it was being acted upon is a sure improvement. We may know it is the international magazine covers, weakening Rupee and the threat of an imminent drought, but this is a moment of hope, even if a false one, that the navel-gazing culture of Indian government, more akin to the fading days of Mughal Empire than a democratic enterprise, may finally be over.

In fact, that parallel with Mughal Empire is fully intended, as for the last few years, we had a government trying to survive through its adjustments with self-interested local chieftains, just as the Mughals did. Indeed, one could argue that this is the only way to rule India, at least the only way India has been ruled so far, as the British promptly taken over the Mughal model and parcelled the country to a variety of landlords, concerning itself to the revenue collection and nothing else. The vast swathes of India, most of the country, have been on auto-pilot for a long time, exposed to the full wrath of nature and autocratic local lords, resigned to fate and mostly compliant. For the current government, it certainly did not matter that most of the country is reeling under severe lack of faith, heavy inflation and breakdown of basic civility (as evidenced in Guwahati very recently), but the decline of the Indian dream, at least in Wall Street terms, may have woken them up to the possibility of a Mughal-style demise.

The power of global money is all evident in India. The new middle classes, employed in newly minted service sectors and immersed in the consumption habits fuelled by easy credit and stock market induced richness, are inextricably wedded to the rise and fall of Global Finance. The weakness of the Rupee is beginning to hurt, therefore, but it is a much deeper malaise, the withering of the Incredible India rhetoric, seems to be around the corner and causing fright. The changes, so far cosmetic, of moving Ministers around and the talk of a new face of leadership, allowing more global money to flow in and addressing some of the deep regional imbalances, apart from the belated but much needed movement towards reconciliation with an equally out of touch Pakistani leadership, may rank in ineffectiveness with the acts such as the metaphorical reorganisation of deck chairs on the famously ill-fated ship. But, it is undeniable that we are seeing a rare moment of fright, of change, of opening of a window which was forever closed, a moment when the ruling classes look weak and a revolution starts.

History tells us about such moments, when the vulnerability of the ruling classes was betrayed from behind the carefully orchestrated smugness of being; such moments tell everyone that all isn't well and raise questions, quelle horror!, about the continuance of the order as it existed. We, usually immersed in daily chores, can't see the edges of our reality and live forever within a self-imposed Truman Show, only to be exposed to such moments of discontinuity, an imaginary power failure in the Mount Olympus, to the fragility of our constructed lives: Such a moment may be coming to India.

I am not over-optimistic. This may not be India's Bastille moment, nor when baby dreams of a prosperous India must invariable roll down its own Odessa steps. But this is a time when the self-limiting confidence of its navel-gazing ruling class is shaken, its story exposed as trinket and not the fabled gold, a time when it may, just, start an attempt of rediscovery yet again. This is that moment of bi-furcation of courses of history, and as it plays out over next couple of years, a decisive turn may happen, either to a manifest destiny or a historical junkyard.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Quality and Profits: Teaching Employability

Employability, at the time of writing, is the buzzword in Higher Education, some sort of holy grail defined by the governments, pursued by the institutions and seen as an opportunity by all sorts of companies, including the large ones involved in publishing. A number of initiatives are underway: New websites and apps are being developed, new books being published, and there are even companies which offer 'employability certificates'. In short, the confusion in Higher Education is in full display with this business of employability.

This is a worldwide issue. It is an old one in America, and most people are therefore keen to import content from the States. It is a new one in Britain, as the Government of the day has suddenly woken up to it and mandated that every university should publish data on students' employability. It is a critical one for India, where the poor quality private schools are creating a degree inflation but the students are mostly stranded without a job, causing all sorts of problems. A number of companies, including Pearson, is already building solutions for employability training. I also met a number of Indian entrepreneurs who suggested that employability training, rather than higher education business, is the most interesting thing in India. Good luck to them!

For me, employability training is like payment protection insurance, one shouldn't need it if they were rightly evaluated in the first place and their education actually worked. The reason we suddenly have all the buzz around employability training is because Higher Education Institutions have failed their students. So, we have swathes of degree holders who can't do a thing, and in most cases, are looking for what newspapers call 'graduate level jobs' without necessarily having the required skills. 

The source of the problem is manifold, but starts with this mirage that higher education means a better job. This is then amplified as poor teaching, out-of-touch curriculum and pointless certification are added on top of this. Suddenly, we have graduates who may have a degree but have sleepwalked through the college. On the other hand, the tutors in colleges have felt that it is not their job to think about employability, as the students should pursue knowledge for its own sake - just that s/he forgot to tell this to the Admissions Counsellor. In summary, as I said, the buzz around employability training tells us how badly the Higher Education has failed.

Because, Higher Education should make students employable on its own. We shouldn't talk about disinterested pursuit of knowledge unless we attract students who are interested in that: We can't sell Higher Education as a life-changing proposition and then, at the end, turn around and say that employability isn't our job. Worse is the pretension of those who believe that employability can be injected into someone with a few hours of additional training, and laughably, can be certified. 

May be, I am being pedantic, because what most of these employability training does is to present packaged formula to get through interviews etc. They should rather be called Interview Prep workshops rather than employability training. However, I think even that basic job of interview preparation is not easy to do, and there are certainly no formula to get it right. In fact, trying to give people wisdom is usually the worst thing one can do, to create false confidence, which backfires in most places and leaves the candidate clueless. Besides, most interview preparation workshops are done by people who have been on the receiving end of the interviews, so this is an art of mostly blind teaching the blind. Employability training, in short, perpetuates dis-employability, if there is such a thing.

It is not easy to solve the problem, admittedly. It is not about talking to employers and getting the right requirements, because this may mean too many specific skills which may leave graduates with very narrow career options. It is not about changing the curricula with labour market movements, because there is a time lag by definition and one would always prepare today's graduates for yesterday's jobs. It is certainly not about training on and certifying employability - who cares about such certificates anyway?

However, there is an easy solution, which is far too obvious to be glamourous. It is about making education work - endowing graduates with practical skills such as good manners and communication, enterprise (which means flexibility and eye for an opportunity in context) and the practice of hard work. Every employer looks for those skills, and one of the reasons behind graduate unemployment is the fixation of graduate level jobs, of which no one has a right idea. I shall happily hire the person who says he has been working in a newsagent while looking for a job, over the person who kept looking for graduate level job and sat unemployed (in Britain, on Jobseekers Allowance) for many months. 

I know this will not float employability boat, nor it will please the HEIs which are used to selling Higher Education as a mixture of voodoo and rocket science. But the only way, at least in my mind, to get it right is to wake up and acknowledge that employability isn't something people wear around their necks, but something which people acquire, through hard work and commitment.  

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Gift Economy

When I wrote previously about Business Gifts and Bribes, I believe I took a narrow, almost prudish, stance about what a gift means. In the ensuing years, with more exposure to different cultures, my perspectives have somewhat evolved. If I have to update the essay now, however, I have more materials: A number of American companies struggled with the gift-giving practises in China, a number of executives got fired, anti-bribery act came into force in Britain - in summary, the discussions around gift giving continued to intensify.

However, it is possible to argue that treating all gift giving as some sort of bribery is based on a dim view of human nature, which is essentially incorrect. Not all transactions between two individuals are always a commercial transaction: Not even interactions two strangers always have to have a strictly defined purpose. Gift cultures, as opposed to money cultures, underlie many human activities, including what we do on the Internet and what is usually done in the academia. I write this blog every morning by getting up early and finding time: There is indeed no monetary incentive to do so. Thousands of volunteers help build Wikipedia, write software like Linux and spread the word on thousands of causes on Facebook. The university research is often carried out to develop human knowledge, the current efforts to create a result, and money-driven, culture notwithstanding. Many of the key innovations that created the Information Age originated as gifts from great minds at Bell Labs and Xerox PARC. In summary, gift, as a form of exchange, remains important and underlie a great swathe of human activity; just that we don't get to see them at all.

Our failure to see and appreciate the gift culture, and indeed the recent attempts to vilify and criminalise it, is indeed deliberate. Money is power, and that people can do things unmotivated by money is deeply problematic for the existing social order. Wikipedia is a great example of a gift activity undermining commercial enterprises like Encarta, and flies in the face of common wisdom. Besides, one could cite the case of Bradley Manning, who, despite great personal dangers, gave away confidential messages to Wikileaks, instead of selling it to another covert agency or even a tabloid. One could also remember the case of Clive Ponting, whose case now is largely forgotten, but created legal history in Britain, when he, as a civil servant, helped in the parliamentary disclosure of how Thatcher's government misled people during the Falklands War: In his acquittal, the Jury cited 'people's right to know', despite being told by the Judge that "public interest is what the government of the day says it is". 

In context, it is possible to see gift culture as a resistance movement, against the countervailing power of money. Indeed, the sources of the gift culture is ancient, and there are a number of great books, like Lewis Hyde's The Gift, Mercel Mauss' The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies and Marshall Sahlin's Stone Age Economics; essentially, it is important to understand that the gift culture is normal and native to human nature, the way money-based transactions never are. Indeed, we tend to make the assumption that while money-based transactions are entirely natural and therefore fair, exchange of gifts are somewhat unnatural and therefore, must have been done with perverse interests. Indeed, most of the corporate gifts, like the ones BAE made to Saudi Princes and which got conveniently covered up by Tony Blair's government in the name of national interest, are possibly bribes indeed, but the intensity of discussion about naming and vilifying gift culture points to the threat that this poses to the existing order.

We live at a time when crisises never stop coming: One institution after another, our politicians, press, the bankers, commit heinous and rather silly mistakes scrambling after money. We are told not to see this as an inherent, systemic problem, but rather as isolated events caused by rogue individuals. However, the persistence of the problems, and unending crisis, is opening up the discussion, if only slowly, that rogue individuals in the money economy seem to be the norm rather than exception: A discussion about the possibilities of the gift economy is only just beginning. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Return of the Local

1990s were heady days. The decade of the global, I shall say, of optimism, of a sudden step change in human, and all our personal, histories, indeed the time when the end of history could be claimed. The decade built up in perfect crescendo, big events at the beginning, slow build up in middle years reaching the perfect storm towards the end. In India, where I spent the decade, my familiar world of government jobs, predictable parochial life, limited choices available through local corner shops, all disappeared in the space of few years. I got on to a plane first time in 1994, but by 1998, with cheaper flights and business reaching to far flung destinations, I was flying once in a few weeks. I had no passport in 1994, but by the end of the decade, my job, of a humble trainer/ training manager, took me to different countries already: On 16th January 2001, I left Calcutta for good. In short, 1990 is when the world arrived in my suburb.

There were other deeper changes. In 1990, our house had one phone in our entire locality and many people would come to our house to make phone calls. I started my working life installing and supporting email installations, in 1993, and doing user training, where one of my standard overhead slides, and one that generated most discussion, was about the advantages of email over fax. By 1995, Internet connections started replacing those email installations in workplaces. By 1997, I had a mobile phone. By the end of decade, everyone seemed to have one. At the same time, our dreary, state-owned TV Channel, Doordarshan, gave way to the proliferation of satellite TV. Suddenly, we were watching a lot less of Indian regional cinema, Bengali or otherwise, and Hollywood had taken over the viewing time; I soon abandoned my local heroes for the sake of Clint Eastwood and Julia Roberts. The stately 1950s GM model, Ambassador, which was more or less the only car available in Calcutta (as it was locally manufactured, Fiat was more popular in Bombay for the same reason), couldn't withstand the competition from the cheaper, more fuel efficient Suzuki variants and gave way by the end of decade: Suddenly, there were different shapes and sizes and colours of cars on the road. All middle class lives would have changed somewhat within the space of a few years.

However, the biggest change was in how we viewed the world. I saved few spare Rupees by skipping lunch while in college and bought, one by one, the cheap, Moscow printed collected works of Lenin: I couldn't complete the collection and start buying Marx-Engels, before Soviet Union folded and those books disappeared. By the end of the decade, I was reading the almost unreadable Road Ahead, Bill Gates' vision of the future with everything Microsoft, which turned out to be another bad investment. By 1995, I was chatting - with people from faraway lands - and by 1999, I was ordering books from Amazon. My passionate internationalism, fueled by socialism but grown under the influence of Tagore and his humanist writings, had given way to globalism, on the regular diet of Internet visionaries and Hollywood movies. A different kind of life seemed to have started.

All this seems to be in reverse gear now. All in a decade, as it goes, the prosperity and the middle class aspirations are dented. There are more cars than roads, but rising fuel prices made car travel extremely expensive: Alas, there is no way back to the public transport, as it teeters near extinction after decades of neglect and underinvestment in India. The middle class jobs, which kept growing unabated for many years on the back of newly liberalised, technology-enabled or egged by neo-liberal policies, industries, are suddenly going in reverse, being eaten up by labour-replacing technology or neo-conservatism in the Western countries.

In the sphere of opinion, the Internet is not free anymore: It is not free as in Beer, and not free as with thought. Most sites where you could go looking for information have been locked down, and most governments are watching what you are doing. All those little freedoms earned during the heady days of 1990s are receding on the fear of a terrorist takeover of the world. Besides, the Western communities, one that I live in now, are struggling to cope with migration, and wishing they had the Berlin Wall standing for a little while longer. It is a world where Google seems to be evil, Apple a dictator of tastes, and Facebook a creepy voyeur; the universities are again bastions of elitism and privilege; the media, increasingly dependent on sensationalism, has reached Armageddon moment, with its practices, such as hacking dead people's voicemails, under public scrutiny. The political masters are faring no better with their various scandals, fiddled expense reports in Britain to Mauritian bank accounts in India, and love in relationships with business houses. The bankers are having their tobacco moment, as The Economist dubbed the recent LIBOR scandal to be, with the usual excuses of banking as a creator of jobs lies in tatters, with the bankers, their inability to meet even the most basic responsibilities of civic life, stand exposed. Greed has finally gobbled up the world.

At this time, the Local makes a comeback. It is not just a nostalgia but a destination, everyone having left and reached a point of uprootedness. The global identity, which we all fell in love with, now appears too nebulous, almost a fraud. The global dreams of 1990s have come to just this - you are lent global money to buy global commodities, and in the spiral of debt, sacrifice your private lives and local identities. The global story, spun around the media, schools and all other nooks of our lives, manipulated us into a spiral of debt, consumption and loss of ability to live 'wisely, agreeably and well', as Keynes summed it up. We traded local for global, only to know our place in the big game and becoming bankrupt with everyone else. Those realizations suddenly found a place as the global machine came to a halt, its fundamental assumptions challenged and its proclaimed values of freedom and diversity in full retreat in the face of challenge to its power. 

There is one other thing, knowing that the time of plenty is perhaps over. For all the promise of internet, the real food and real clothes and real work has become all local. The jobs that could be transported has been transported: It is not a good idea to be good (and therefore earn more) in a global job. The gardener, who can not be outsourced to China, had his life least disrupted: The office worker who employed him lost out. The transport costs are back to the pre-euphoria levels and rising, and suddenly it is not possible any more for mexican yarn to turn into clothing in Thailand and be back in California to be sold in shops in Calgary (I picked this up from Patagonia) at a reasonable cost. It is time of shortening the supply chain; Prahalad's r=g equation came a tad bit late. 

The powers-that-be got the local, and it is time we get it too. It is time to start thinking, perhaps by giving up a few things we got too used to. In a world in danger, living on less may mean more. It may mean undoing a lot of things we did in the 90s: But the same thing may now mean thinking ahead, rather than back.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Reassessment and Recalibration

I have been pursuing, with all earnestness, a particular dream for last four years, but I have reached a point to pause and think, and change directions, if necessary. Call this return of the practical, or even its revenge; however, it is my return to the real life in many ways. 

My problem has always been that I have been trying to do too much. May be I read too much new business mythologies and signed up to garage entrepreneurship without necessarily connecting the dots, that I am late in life to start, and not everything happens to everyone. This is not a new feeling, I have been here before: What is new is this - whenever I thought about this earlier, the full reality had not sunk in till then, and I saw giving up as a sign of cowardice! Cowardice - that's how I thought - in chivalrous, almost quixotic, terms! Now, I am trying to think like a grown up, and viewing giving up, at least some part of it what I wanted to do, or deferring, as pragmatism. 

My idea is to create an online platform for delivery of British education abroad. Working with colleagues over last few months, we refined the idea considerably - with open source technologies, smart partnerships to keep the costs manageable and even finding a way around the country-to-country regulation maze. However, as we came up with a smart business model where we needed only a small amount of money, relatively speaking, that very moment, Europe started cratering, and most investors sought refuge into the big and the known. Accordingly, for last six months or so, we had to go into a scramble for scale, trying to package our idea alongside a brick-and-mortar entity, a money-guzzling one so that the investment is of the right size, though this meant considerable departure from the pure passion of a start-up.

This was indeed a mistake. As I myself often say, each business has its business model. After spending six months to fit our business idea within the frame of a larger business, I have come to realize that aligning with a brick-and-mortar entity will not make the core idea any safer or sustainable: In fact, just the opposite, it has all the risks of derailing the business by crowding out our time.

Friends, who have been pointing out the obvious for a while, are astonished that I took so long to come to this relatively apparent conclusion. However, two factors kept me on this path as long as it did: First, that the business I was trying to align everything with was the one I worked on for a considerable period of time, and helped reshape the agenda, at least as far as I was allowed; and second, the path to start up, in England just at the time of the European meltdown, was not easy, particularly considering my own financial commitments, age and all that. However, it is still undeniable that I did not take the plunge, and was forever warming up by the side of the pool. I have now reached a point where I either leave the idea or jump in.

I am planning to do, expectedly, both at the same time. I shall abandon the pursuit of combining the two models - I already have - and return to the pure-play start up plan. However, this time around, I shall commit to start in baby steps, making small investments in the platform and the content, doing up the website, connecting with a team of people, etc. I shall approach this as play, not work, at least as long as it is not ready. This is where my big mistake was: Waiting for everything to happen before starting. 

I shall also continue working, though I want to change the nature of my work. I want to go back to more academic work - I shall again take on teaching and writing commitments - which will hopefully give me more predictable hours and work schedule. I shall now lock myself into a room and try to finish my dissertation in a hurry, and postpone my pursuit of a Ph D by a year. The idea is to go back to my start-up days, when I arrived in this country and took on odd jobs and counted days I actually could survive, while I build everything up from scratch yet again. 

All change, yet again, then, but that is a better way of living life than remaining stuck. I am passionate about creating a great online college which will make education available, in a meaningful way and without giving in to the cost spirals and pressures, and would work on creating this. But, this is not about fast-mover advantage etc: These things are never too critical in education. Education is a supply-deficient marketplace and all that matters is reputation, which stands on the back of doing a good job and having satisfied students. Elementary, indeed, but I indeed took my eye off the ball: It is time to get the focus back again.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Idea of University in Transformation

The consensus is that Higher Education is broken, which is strange, because we are seeing an unprecedented rise of Higher Education. Every year, more and more people want to go to college, new institutions get set up, more graduates come out, more research money becomes available and more media coverage, measured in column inches, gets dedicated to Higher Education. The only thing that is going down is how much the Governments spend on Higher Education, but that is at the back of the general demise of the welfare state and the currently dominating view that Higher Education is primarily a 'private good', that it makes its recipients richer, and therefore should remain in the realm of private enterprise. This growing demand and shifting structure allows us a view of a sector in motion, where, with us as witness, the structure and the processes may all change, along with the attendant relationships, world views and what it actually does.

So, here is my hypothesis: Commercialisation of Higher Education will also lead to its fragmentation into various constituent functions. The modern universities are complex institutions, perhaps too complex, for when higher education becomes solely a private good, the current form of the universities will not be able to deliver 'value for money'. In the drive for efficiencies, which invariably follow the ascendancy of private purpose, the complex and nuanced relationships that sustain an university will have to give way to a more formal, 'results driven', structure. And, in turn, that structure will lead to dis-aggregation of various functions of a modern university, like Research, Teaching, Content Production, Credentialing, Student Services etc. We already see some of it: A number of mini-industries, university preparation, textbook services, open courseware, certification services, course franchising, new lifeforms preceding the full-fledged disaggregation, have started gathering momentum. The research activities of the universities, facilitated by the triple helix of government-industry-academia collaboration but transformed by the industry-sponsored research, are being transformed to become results driven rather than pure research: The search for useful research has already began in the media.

One way of looking at this is that this is the spirit of the age, this is what is happening all around us. The student-as-consumer in the classroom demands that the university studies become more meaningful and the taxpayer demands more bang for her buck from the institutions. However, there is very little research and evidence that the modern student is really any different from the ones in previous generations. Yes, they study less hours on an average, but they have to work for more hours to sustain the increased tuition fees and living costs. They keep coming to the university when better jobs are increasingly rare. They see the university as a way to make a better life, not just match their parents' achievements but exceed it, but that is not necessarily just a financial goal. 

I see that the gift economy, the one of free exchange and community, that sat at the heart of an university is being actively replaced by a market system, because the nature of the knowledge is changing from an open commons underneath private enterprise to a form of private property, which is to be used for profit purposes. This means that the universities, the fountainheads of secular knowledge, must move to private sponsorship and ownership, and they should become factories of production of the modern workers. And, since it is politically difficult to create a visible two-tier university system, one for those who own the property and one for those who produce it, the system must be disaggregated and made invisible, so that most university students concern themselves with only one part of the activity, just the certification, say, without any visibility of the process of knowledge creation and ownership.

This transformation indeed means a number of changes in the relationships that surround it. The rise of the research professor has already been well researched. The demise of great teaching causes a lot of angst, but the goalposts have possibly moved. The students' alienation, that they have actually lost the plot inside an increasingly complex and obscure institution, is noted but generally ignored, as this is seen as an extension of life in general and not as a function of the institutional transformation. On the whole, the nature of knowledge, how it is produced and how it is owned and used, is the key contention, and the market economy is pushing its boundaries all the time and transforming the nature of the universities.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What Management Does

I am reading DRIVE, Daniel Pink's usually interesting take on motivation and what makes people tick.

I have come across the key ideas of this book before, primarily through Pink's presentation at the TED, which I found extremely interesting and put on this blog earlier. [See it here]

The key idea, to repeat, is that there is a limit to extrinsic, material, incentives for work. Most managers indeed operate with an extreme, behaviourist assumption about why people work. Because they get paid, simple, is an extraordinarily naive but extraordinarily common answer. And, accordingly, they believe that the promise of higher pay, extra pay, incentives, is what makes people go that extra mile sometimes required by the business. WRONG, says Dan Pink, in this book.

I completely agree. Psychological theories, elegantly presented in the book, show that extrinsic motivators, like money, does work, but only in a limited context, only for activities which are routine (making 40 phone calls a day) and often lead to undesirable behaviour. However, if the activity involves 'rudimentary cognitive' ability, such as making potential customers, on the other end of phone, interested in some product or service, which will require not just the product knowledge but extraordinary sensitivity to his/her feeling, privacy and interest (given the limitations of phone as a medium), extrinsic benefits do not work. 

I shall stick to my theory of phone calls [I have been a telephone salesman for a period in my life]. Most companies still hire people to make calls, and call centres are still popular. The assumptions that lie beneath the whole business of telesales is an extraordinarily plain view of how things work: If you make 40 phone calls, and get 10% conversion (10% because that is a nice round number and it is just reasonably low but sounds nice!), you will get 4 sales a day. And, to do so, companies give out incentives, on the number of phone calls when the money is easy, on conversions when it is tight. We, as customers, therefore get these annoying phone calls at odd hours, by mostly rude people who would want to sell something that we do not want, and are mostly left with a bad taste: If we happen to remember the company's name whose sales people pester us all the time, most of us will go great lengths to avoid their products even when we see it at a supermarket.

However, Dan Pink's point is about intrinsic benefits, the work's own reward, which makes people do better in cognitively challenging tasks. He talks about three elements of intrinsic benefits - Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose - which people would derive themselves from meaningful work. Returning to the theory of phone calls, imagine the company has a solution to, well, leaked roofs, and is on a mission to ensure that no one suffers from leaked roof ever again. Here is a brief to its tele-callers: You are the missionaries of the solution, and find at least 4 people in this postcode area and solve their problems. Spend as much time as you want on the phone, and make sure that you are courteous (at least ask the person you are talking to if it is a good time to talk!) and never intrusive: We want to be the friendliest roof repairing company in the world. I would think this approach will work better (on the assumptions that people need roof repairing, the company has a good product which is reasonably priced) and the employees will often end up doing more than 40 calls because they are on a mission.

The problem with material benefits is that it is based on a particular view of how people work and what they expect. I have worked with an entrepreneur, who, though being a generous and charming man, has a very low view of what people really work for, and he went on to create one of the most repressive, ad hoc, dysfunctional workplace I have ever seen. It was not to do with his personality, but his mistaken view of other people and their motivators: While he handed out material benefits, he gathered a crew of self-interested and often dishonest people, who, when the market turned sour and the boss himself needed help, left him and the business in a sorry state and almost beyond repair. What's  worse, such experience only reinforced his view that people work only for money and benefits, and he wholeheartedly ignored the possibility that creating a shared purpose or giving people autonomy may turn around the workplace. While extrinsic and intrinsic motivators do not need to be mutually exclusive, people who actually manage sign up to the view of human motivation of one kind or the other (lazy automatons motivated by rewards versus autonomous self-directed individuals wanting to make a difference). 

So, finally, here is my view of twenty-first century management, after Dan Pink: Managers job is to create a safe, trusting place to work, which should be, for the individuals involved, a way to find their own self-esteem and fulfilment. The businesses exist, and I keep repeating this, to solve social problems, and only by solving them, they earn a monetary reward: The managers job is to pass on this message to the employees (who s/he should recruit on the basis of the commitment to this view) and enable them to get on with it. I shall use a Steve Jobs quip - 'making a dent in the universe' - that's what work should be for, and the manager's job is to be the coordinator in chief in that extraordinary effort, nothing less, nothing more. 

Monday, July 09, 2012

On Writing

My blog writing obscures the trouble I am having in my life, and that is precisely the point of it. With social commitments, a deadline to turn my dissertation in by 7th of September and an M&A situation at work, I have not had a free weekend since New Year, however, still I keep posting a few hundred words ever so often. Indeed, this makes me look non-busy, and creates arguments that I am ignoring the other tasks while I still find time to write. However, for me, writing is critical: It is therapeutic, it is what keeps me sane and able to do what I must do.

I shall not make the claim that I am 'visionary' in any sense (a common description on Linkedin these days); I shall settle for the humble claim of being a dreamer. I keep talking about things that are not there. I live a rather strange life, half in what I do, but other half imagining and talking about things what I wish to do. However, this isn't any hallucination and most of the things I dreamt, I have at least made an effort to do it (some of it happened). Writing this blog, essentially, is about this dialogue of dreams going on with myself, imagining things that weren't and running sanity checks from time to time. 

I have learnt that there are two kinds of religions, locative and utopian. Locative religions proclaim that the human life as it is represents the best it can be, and we should do our best to preserve it in the current state. This is about living with the spirit of the age, and also about accepting the end of history, as the apologists of capitalism do. Utopian religions, on the other hand, see human life in transition and better future ahead of us. For its adherents, it is about changing the world into a better place. In that sense, I am firmly in the utopian category, and believe that we are capable of constructing a better world, one more fair and just, and each of us, including myself, is capable of living a better life. This blog, apart from being my dreamy dialogue, is also my manifesto for myself in search of that better world.

I am no politician, though. My problem was always with perfect solutions. For my utopian friends, the utopian of today is the locative of tomorrow: While they accept that history must move forward, most of them assume that it must end in some form, and proclaim that they know how it will. We have moved from the conception of Hegel that history ends with human will being one and indistinguishable from the God's, but yet, revolutionaries of today wants to become rulers of tomorrow, positing their own wills on others. This is where I failed to sign up to any kind of politics, because I am a conversationalist, and see that human life is essentially imperfect. The only thing that makes us and keeps us human is our search for perfection, our ability to dream, and in no stage of human history, we must give that up. In short, however perfect the life is, I must keep writing the blog.

However, I don't write this blog as a self-advert for myself. This blog has possibly done more harm than good for my economic prospects, because if anything, this is a narrative of fragility and confusion, not the iron will or sense of direction that is expected of an accomplished professional. Indeed, in my day to day life, I don't pretend to be a professional. This has also been a problem: While I was in employment for all of last twenty years, I was possibly difficult to work with for many of my colleagues. Some of them confided that they found me 'too philosophical'; I thought, at the time, I was being useful.

Finally, this is why I write: This is my way of connecting with all others who are like me, who keep the dreamers in them alive. I believe that is most people, if not all. They may not exactly follow this logic, but that's because they had different lives and have different priorities currently, but all of them, somewhere deep down, retain the spark that makes them human. This is my window of sanity, my way of bonding with them. It is a strange feeling, posting this writing online and then watching the visitors, all anonymous, come and go, leaving a geographical footprint but nothing else. Each visit, unattributed, silent, without result, enriches me, through a connection of spirit and conversation of dreams, makes me feel human, and not lonely. This is why I shall steal these few minutes and write something down: This is my way to touch my soul and know that it is alive and well.




Sunday, July 08, 2012

A College in India 2: What Should It Do?

In India, the number of colleges have more than doubled in the last half decade. So, why do I still think that I should try set up a college? In fact, if anything, there is some sort of oversupply in India's Higher Education, with growth in college numbers as well as the number of degree granting institutions outstripping the growth in student numbers. Coupled with onerous and unnecessary regulation, India's Higher Education is almost an impossible business: Last year, more than 100 approved business colleges notified the regulator about their intent to wind up.

My thinking is that India has a distinct quality problem, rather than quantity problem (I have written about this before). India's Higher Education so far is a money-laundering mechanism for politicians, at least in most cases, and hence most of the development in the sector was of poor quality. Besides, everyone jumped into the field wanting to offer Business Administration degrees at Undergraduate and Postgraduate level, and the regulation allowed them little differentiation and little value to offer to students. Under these circumstances, the college closures are only to be expected.

Looking at the spread of Higher Education, however, one would find it difficult to connect to India's maturing service economy, where the buzzword is KPO (Knowledge Process Outsourcing, or skilled work outsourcing) rather than BPO (Business Process Outsourcing, or Outsourcing of Grant Work) and the companies are trying to move up the value chain. The skills gap remains acute and professionalisation of trades, except in the case of Accounting and Medicine, is virtually non-existent. These opportunities, however, are ill-served by most new generation colleges, which sells the dream of managerial jobs (which, given India's deeply embedded caste system, essentially means no hands on work!). The recent disillusionment with private sector colleges come from the fact that college degrees or diplomas given by these schools can hardly get any premium, and their graduates end up doing the same job that someone attending a state funded college, where fees are cheap but teaching is inconsistent, can get. 

In this landscape, I see three distinct opportunities. First, I see the opportunity for high end, high fee institution, which can differentiate itself with distinguished teachers and links abroad and with employers. Such an institution needs to be highly selective and offer in-country options for the talented Indian students who go abroad. Indian School of Business in Hyderabad has done this, and is highly successful. However, the opportunity remains to set up such institutions in other geographical areas as well as in other subject areas.

Second, I see the opportunity at the lowest end of fee spectrum, where, with committed teaching, smart technology and pedagogic innovation, vocationally relevant qualifications can be offered at a reasonable price. The training sector already does some of this work; however, there is an opportunity to do it within the scope of formal education, and I am sure it would be possible to receive government support in doing such a thing. These colleges, operating at an undergraduate level, may also offer integrated High School options, may be as a separate business, but possibly with shared infrastructure. 

Third, I see the middle market opportunity, where it is supposed to be most crowded, in niche segments, like Design, Journalism, New Media, Entrepreneurship etc. The sector is dominated by everything-under-one-roof mentality and niche positions remain wide open. 

The second and third proposition is geography independent and can easily be developed into a nationwide network. It is a space Indian training companies wish to get into, but formal education has a different appeal to the new Indian middle class and the proposition of a college is seen as quite distinct from the local training outlets. 

My idea, which I discussed earlier, is to develop a niche offering in the middle market segment, but I do think that we shall see exciting developments in the other sectors as well. I do think a private model will evolve, we shall possibly see life beyond entrepreneurial outfits and private equity, and smart companies, like NIIT and Aptech from the generation before them, will soon emerge. 


A College in India 1 : The Question of Form

I am spending a lot of time these days talking about a Higher Education college in India. This is my next big thing - I have worked on the idea for many years - and I am hoping that this will finally allow me to find one thing that I really want to spend my life doing. 

Indeed, this is not a short term project and will still take years to play out. Indian regulatory regime is complex and difficult, though there are some signs of opening up in the recent months. The demand for Higher Education is fast changing in India, and a new college needs to tread carefully to balance the traditional needs with the emerging ones. Finally, there are questions of form that I must resolve in my own mind before I commit myself into the project.

The question of form, first: I have spent two years in the entrepreneurial end of For Profit Higher Education and learnt a few things about how the industry operates. More importantly, I have spent a lot of time talking to various Private Equity firms in the last six months and have an idea about how they approach the Higher Ed 'industry'. I do not see any of these two forms as entirely suitable for the college I hope to build one day in India. Any higher education enterprise should be based on careful creation of capacity, some physical but mostly intellectual, and the entrepreneurial mode, while entirely suitable for businesses such as certification training, isn't easily amenable to capacity building (more about this later). On the other hand, private equity's pure pursuit of money and return, often bench -marked against other more 'profitable' industries, creates a negative incentive for capacity building. Besides, it seems that the private equity is completely blind to intellectual development, though they value 'reputation' if that could be a tangible thing, and their quest of process efficiency often means denuding education institutions of its collegiate environment and intellectual commons. 

The For-Profit Education sector has evolved from the certification training business, mostly, with entrepreneurs, goaded by highly commoditised nature of certification training, entering Higher Education space in search of something more nebulous. Indeed, higher education allows them to escape direct competitive comparison and downward price spiral (if you are teaching ACCA, why would I not go to the lowest price provider as long as I can pass?); lucratively, higher education's dynamic often works the other way, an upward price spiral that signifies the higher reputation and quality in popular mind (a £15,000 MBA must be better than a £5,000 MBA!). It is a no-brainer then that moving into Higher Education with the surpluses accumulated from certification training makes a lot of sense for the entrepreneurs. However, while Higher Education is seen as a continuum - it is surely a teacher standing in front of a group of students - there are significant differences that get overlooked by For-Profit Education Entrepreneurs. 

The precise reason why a degree isn't exactly comparable to another degree is that there is more to higher education than just a teacher in front of a group of students. Roughly speaking, one would expect them to 'produce' knowledge - by exploring new thinking and questioning the 'conventional wisdom' - rather than submit to a set standard, professional or popular, as would be the norm of a certification training classroom. The students, in an ideal world, then, may not just be recipients, but agents themselves in the process of learning, and what they should be paying for is being part of an exciting group, which broaden their thinking and make them better individuals. And, if this has to be achieved, the environment inside the classroom needs to be predictable and safe, the teacher committed, the students fully engaged and immersed in the process of knowledge creation. None of that may be possible within the adhocracy of a certification training environment, with a freelance tutor clocking the hours and the students anxious to get to the end line and already wondering whether to buy a brown or black frame for the certificate.

This is why entrepreneurial For Profit education is failing to take the lead, which various governments across the world thought they would. In the invariable second phase, when the consolidation takes place, these smaller entrepreneurial businesses are being gobbled by private equity, which would mostly combine and package them in search of value. Private Equity, in the quest of bigger valuation, understands the point of differentiation that most entrepreneurs coming from commodity trade of certification training missed. However, the unchallenged faith in this circle is that reputation can be created by process improvements (and indeed, by hiring talent), and that is indeed what they look for. However, the problem remains in what one means by efficiency: Traditional business efficiencies such as cost and predictability can indeed be achieved easily. However, the particular efficiencies (if it can be called that) that higher education may need - safety, creative space, student co-production - are not immediately obvious or may not even be achievable within the private equity time horizons. This is where private equity ends up trying to alter the nature of the business - just as their entrepreneurial predecessors did and failed in - dis-aggregating the same into discreet functions such as content delivery, student activities, social life, accommodation and facilities, certification and credentialing, and employer engagement and placement. Jury is still out whether this would necessarily improve education efficacy: Going by a more matured form of private ownership, that of public capital markets in America, it seems that For-Profit continues to lag behind in terms of student attainment. One can ascribe some of that to the non-selective nature of these institutions, but that argument does not stack up when measured against institutions working among the disadvantaged, which avowedly given up selectivity and talent advantages. It may sound alien, but such lack of success may come from the sense of mission, which remains problematic even in the case of private equity ownership.

Given where I am in my quest to get the college project going, I have sought to raise money from For Profit routes (though the delivery arm in India may need to be Not For Profit, given the regulatory requirements) and indeed, I have to think through what this means for the institution. Indeed, there are For Profit companies, most notably Google and Apple, which managed to create and protect creative commons and a collegiate life within their campuses (a deliberate use): However, from the experience of those two companies, it is easy to see how such values can quickly change under the market forces. This is a subject I am sure I shall keep coming back to, as well as having to address the other issues mentioned at the beginning of the post, as I go down the route of creating this project. 

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Is Europe Over?

Europe is the new sick man. It is crisis after crisis, Greece followed by Ireland followed by Portugal followed by Italy followed by Spain followed by Cyprus followed by, possibly, France, into abyss. The Euro-sceptics feel vindicated: Suddenly the issue of a referendum whether to stay in Europe is back on the agenda in Britain. The European dream, not just the Euro (which Britain was never part of anyway), seems to be over.

However, only a few years ago, Europe seemed like a model, in environmental activism, foreign affairs and in balancing the strife of a capitalist society with the need to protect and nurture the vulnerable. It is a few years of clueless leadership, combined with global economic crisis, that stole Europe's leadership credentials. However, I shall argue that it is too early to write off the European model, and indeed, if this implodes, we are back into some serious trouble.

One has to remember that all the gloom and doom about Europe comes from the instability of the Euro, which is somewhat separate from the political experiment that remains at the core of the European Union. This is not to say that the troubles are not significant, but it is disingenuous of British politicians to use this as an excuse to severe the political links (while wanting access to the European single market). However, Euros troubles are inherent in any currency today, at a time when decades worth of financial folly of creating asset price bubble through easy credit needs to be corrected. The difference between Euro and other major currencies is that the Euro is not backed by any political union or will, and its most powerful leaders couldn't make up their minds how to act for a while. However, the crisis may also mean that Europe is further down the road of correction than the other major economies, whose borrowing costs are not true reflection of their credit-worthiness but just a temporary bounce on the back of Greco-Roman disturbances. In fact, one can argue that these troubles will finally push aside Europe's generation of myopic leaders, like Sarkozy and Berlusconi, and create the space for a new generation of leadership more committed to the political project. [This may, at a later day, lead to Britain's exit, which will strengthen the Union]

But, such optimism aside, one can ill-afford the political project of Europe to fail. This is the way world's capital-rich countries keep peace and maintain harmony. A fall-out will return us to the dark ages of Franco-Prussian rivalry, which may start with trade, but wouldn't take long to degenerate into territory and other kind of dispute. Besides, Europe is an idea of peaceful coexistence, which, even if its is strenuous, is a model for rest of the world, particularly Asia and Africa, and may prove pivotal in maintenance of our current world system at least in the immediate term. One would think the idea is strong enough, and embedded enough, for Europeans to maintain it at all cost. As for Britain, it was never part of the project anyway: As a Dutch observer once told me, if one could float Britain on the Atlantic, it will neatly fit around the New York harbour.

Politically, therefore, Europe may emerge stronger after the crisis, and if Britain is to leave, this will allow the mainland Europe to band together closely (and may even align itself to Russia, Quelle Horror!). In fact, one should survival of Europe as a coherent entity as key to Western dominion of world politics, and economics: If Europe disintegrates politically, it will destroy Britain and distract America. 

So, while European leaders get their act right, they will receive all the support possible from Britain and America. It is unlikely to disintegrate in the short run, because, despite the cynicism of American investment banks, it is what keeps the wheels of capitalism go round. However, in what form it will emerge after the crisis, and what impact a closer integration of Europe will have on rest of world, will remain to be seen.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Immigration: Can we talk about it?

Immigration is not what it used to be. Or, to put it correctly, it is what it used to be, plus something else. Boatloads of people still turn up at the doors of rich countries; but, to snatch a share of global pie, countries also actively pursue immigrants. The political rhetoric around them has changed too: Once the usual, comfortable issues like colour of skin and religion became politically incorrect, politicians who lack courage but seek votes have made immigration their proxy issue. It is not a subject you can easily discuss in a pub, or a coffee shop or gym. If you do, everyone will look at you as if all issues around the subject have already been settled.

As if, immigration is BAD, everyone knows! One needs to only look at how crowded the buses are, no parking spaces, getting into school is a hassle and a lottery, no jobs, house prices are well beyond middle class salaries - the ill effects of immigration are just too obvious. Conveniently, all the things that could be blamed on the government of the day can be ascribed to rising immigration. It is also one of those propositions which can't be falsified: If an overwhelming number of nurses, bus drivers and teachers are immigrants and keeping the hospitals, buses and schools running, they are the ones stealing jobs and taking parking bays. The tabloid description of immigrants is absolutely on the money - they are the shop workers who take away jobs from the local people and the rioters too, who burn the same shops down, making themselves jobless; they steal jobs and they are lazy and get jobless benefits; they are ones who drive house prices and rents up by buying or renting all the houses and then also get all the council housing because they can't find one. In the end, this is about constructing an all-consuming monster which is surely putting British way of life at risk, and keeps the politicians safe.

I am an immigrant: I am indeed biased about it and I feel angry about how immigrants are generally portrayed. I have been living in England for eight years and do not even know how to claim jobseeker benefits, as I have never thought of hanging around without a job. But this small-island-drowning-with-the-weight-of-immigrants view, the one the Prime Minister and his equally out-of-touch cabinet seem to believe in, is laughable. As the British Ambassador in China recently put it, this is 'fortress Britain' mentality, which has now been successfully inculcated to the British public by the politicians of the day and their ideologues at the Murdoch media.

However, where the ridiculous turns absurd when the immigration minister talks about attracting 'only the brightest immigrants'. This is the business bit of the Tory bench trying to make sense of themselves. The Brightest Immigrants, and I hope he does mean brightest and not just the richest, the Qataris and the Russians who buy luxury apartments and help keep the house prices stable, have all the options in the world to choose from: They are unlikely to choose a country besieged by its own fears and hostile to anyone who looks slightly different from the native stock. They won't come to a country whose education system is in a disarray via the various ideological experiments unleashed on the establishment in a hurry and without thinking, and they would certainly not come to an economy which is sinking, partly because of complete lack of imagination in policy making and mistaken assumption that rhetoric can make up for bad governance.

Talking about governance, the UK Border Agency does nothing, absolutely nothing, if someone comes to Britain and just stays on. They have no clue who these people are, and no strategy how to find them and deport them. The only thing they can do, and are doing, is to make life more difficult for people who want to come to Britain and live legally, like the students who usually have to wait for months to get a visa extension granted. The Ministers want to tighten the UK borders and bring the net migration down to tens of thousands, but they can't even manage the immigration queues at Heathrow and get some illegal migrants out of the country. 

The only way a country can manage its immigration is by creating incentives for compliance and disincentives for non-compliance, which roughly translates into an welcoming approach to legal migration and tighter enforcement and penalties for law breakers. But, this is hard work, needing competence; besides, this does not make headlines and does not sell newspapers. So, UK takes the opposite approach - drives all its resources to constraining legal migration, creating disincentives for compliance, while completely missing out on law enforcement, creating great opportunities of money-making for people smugglers and illegal immigrants, even the dangerous ones. The current approach makes Britain a weaker economy, an unloved country and a place even its own brightest people would like to leave. Indeed, it buys politicians a few more months, but at the current rate, they can only hope to achieve their net migration target by destroying British Higher Education and industry, quite a costly bargain.

So, can we at least talk about it?

Monday, July 02, 2012

The Return Path

Today is some sort of anniversary, 8th, of me living in England. When I first came, I used to keep a count of days I was here, and expected this to be a short trip; now, I keep counting down the time I still have to live here before going back to India. 

That's a serious thought. It is no longer an expat's itinerant dream, of which I wrote about before. I have taken the decision that I must, for a host of practical reasons, find a way back to India. That was the plan anyway, when I came here first: I wanted to live and learn, but never wanted to settle for good. But there are other reasons which have arisen since: I obviously do not want my father to live alone, as he is doing now, after my mother's, and then my brother's, unexpected death. And, finally, I see India as the great canvass of opportunity, where I can possibly make a difference: I always thought that way.

What changed recently is my view that I would only go back to India if I can go back to Kolkata. I have now realized, mostly from the narratives of other people who tried to return to Kolkata, that it may not be the best place to start. If anything, it has become more inhospitable to new starts after the change of government last year. It comes in the way of staying home for me, but being in India would still be better, as far as spending time with my father is concerned, than living in England: With my plans to pursue a career in Higher Education, I could travel to India only once in the last two years.

Once I open my mind to life in other Indian cities, the decision becomes much easier. Cities like Bangalore and Pune, not to mention the large metros like Delhi and Mumbai, are buzzing with activities and ideas. What makes me more optimistic is the reshuffle in Indian cabinet, with Pranab Mukherjee being retired upwards as the President and the Finance Ministry returning to Dr Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister, a job he has done before. Mr Mukherjee was a stumbling block to any serious attempt to change: Being a politics-first man, he was playing politics with India's much needed economic policy changes. Though Dr Singh will possibly have the portfolio only for a few months, before he finds an appropriate replacement, Indian economy may gain some momentum it lost.

I indeed don't see a red carpet homecoming in India, but another journey, just as tough as the one I made when I came to Britain. I am cognizant of my age - India is a young country where people of my age don't generally start off - and the fact that most people are weary of returning migrants. I am careful to keep my expectations low.

I am also allowing myself time to prepare for this return. It is not my intent to try to return this year, and not even in the next. For me, it is two year project for which I intend to prepare starting today. This means building connections and a life back in India. I have not lived in the country since I left it in January 2003 for the last time, and even then, I was just living intermittently, between my travels to Dhaka and elsewhere, for two years. I need to get used to again with the trains, the street food, Hindi and all that. But, most importantly, I need to connect back to people. Over the years of absence, I have lost touch with many friends, though some of it happened as the contexts changed. But I have earned others through exchange of ideas, mainly through this blog, and one thing top of my list now is to start those conversations again.

My idea of return is centred around the idea of creating a college in India, one that prepares young Indian graduates for life in global business, which fuses creativity, enterprise and technology. The idea draws upon all I learnt in England, both by working in Higher Ed as well as studying it, and what I am trying to establish at this very time in London. I can see how interested British universities are to attract Indian students; on the other hand, I can see a gap in Indian market for good education. In India, the market for higher education is vast and expanding, with 5 million more students expected to enter college in the next 3 years, but the Higher Education sector is failing them. The public sector, apart from a few top institutions, are chronically underfunded and unmanageably large; the private sector so far is mostly a mechanism for money laundering. No wonder that despite the demand, seats in management colleges are under-subscribed. I see an opportunity in this chaos, and believe that Indian Higher Education, particularly the private sector part of it, is now coming of age. This is indeed the time to do something innovative.

I have spent time last few months looking at funding options for our business in Britain and know that it becomes so much more easier if the plan is bolted on with an 'India play'. This is what I am planning to do now: A part of the plan that happens in India, and I would happily go and live there. This is the best possible opportunity for me to return: I wish to spend every minute preparing for it from now on.

Popular Posts

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

Creative Commons License

AddThis