Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Mystery of Inner Cities And Why Foreign Companies Struggle in India

India seems indecipherable. It is an exciting market, just that it never materialises. I have used one expression - borrowed somewhat from James Kynge's book on China - that while India looks like a huge multiplier effect for businesses from outside, the moment you set foot in the country, the endless game of divisions begins. Also, India is like El Dorado - everyone wants to go there, but no one knows how. After repeated failed efforts, excitements in the world markets, the sentiments are now cooling: The India play is treated with caution, often avoided in favour of more exciting regions, like Brazil, or Indonesia, and now even Burma or Mongolia.

However, it is hard to ignore India. Apart from the fact that it has so many of the new consumers, it is a potential breeding ground for competition in other markets. Leave India to local companies for far too long and a competitor will certainly emerge, who will better the game in prized markets that you wanted to keep your eggs in. It is just one of the most intensely competitive, value sensitive, constantly innovative markets in the world, which must be engaged with.

Companies keep complaining about corruption and red tape and assign the blame to the difficult operating environment. However, there are a number of Indian companies who shun bribery but are still successful. Indeed, it is a difficult, hard fought, competitive environment, but engaging with a market necessarily requires learning the rules of the market. The armchair criticism of India as a jungle is not just lazy and uninformed, it is an admission of corporate stupidity.

I have been studying the market entry failures in India for quite some time. It was triggered by my own professional requirement of creating a business model for India, but soon expanded into a more comprehensive enquiry, and conversations with friends and clients. A number of factors surely emerged: Premature entry, logistical difficulties, personnel issues and inappropriate business models were top culprits. But these were all too common - too many examples of the kind in the graveyard of international business - and such cases do not really explain what makes India such a difficult country to deal with. 

However, there is one key factor which may somewhat explain why India proved such a mirage: A complete misreading of India's growth by most outsiders. Most Western executives see India's growth and relative prosperity in terms of people buying $10 Million houses in Mumbai, and imagine that the great Indian cities have suddenly become prosperous. Indeed, no one can fail to notice the consumption boom in these cities, epitomised by the sprouting up of shopping malls and food courts and the transformation of the middle class life around them. But, this buoyant outlook may not survive any flight's approach to Mumbai airport, as the ubiquitous tarpaulin ceilings of Dharavi slum come into view, and crushing poverty that one would notice as they step out of the air-conditioned surroundings of the airport. Urban India has got richer, but that prosperity has not spread well enough. The markets in Mumbai should not be seen through the prism of its population or its GDP, because the people who can afford western goods at western prices still remain miniscule.

Besides, the middle classes in Mumbai - and this is only an example and the same will apply to Delhi or any other large city - may not feel richer, but in fact poorer, at this time. This is because of the rising inflation (which was always the case), stubbornly high interest rates (which is primarily due to rotten state of public finances), and a huge asset bubble, which makes middle class housing out of reach for most families. So, those companies that counted on the millions of middle classes to climb the consumption ladder, or make extra investments, were hugely disappointed. 

But, despite this, India has got richer. Its per capita income has indeed risen. Its savings rates, despite the squeeze on the urban middle classes, remained stable. One could argue that there is still an El Dorado, a city of Gold, which no one seems to find from outside. This, I shall argue, is the India's inner cities. This is where things have been magical, the transformation real and people richer. Those people who always lived in the family homes in these cities (unlike the large city dwellers in rented or mortgaged homes) has now seen their assets appreciated many times over. Life has remained comparatively cheaper, and manpower plentiful, as Indian affinity to family made sons of the soil often come back to town if a decent job is offered. The vibes of prosperity is very real in Indian small towns. Besides, this has been hugely helped by the rural prosperity in the last decade, when improving transport infrastructure, electrification (which remains uneven) and plain government handouts, have expanded rural consumption many times over. For the small town tradesmen, this was magic.

Indian companies have grown on the back of small towns. All the Indian companies which are suddenly competing with the best in the world have taken advantage of this small town growth. And, this is not just about cheap cars and shampoo sachets: I have indeed worked with NIIT and Aptech in their heydays, when they would sign up 100 small centres in 100 days (or perform supposedly heroic feats of the kind), and they built education businesses, computer education delivered in English language of all things, on the back of the growth of inner cities. Indeed, abilities such as this, to anticipate and harness the growth of inner city growth makes Indian companies the tough challengers that they are. They leverage their inner city constituency to battle out the hard-to-win, marginal, big city consumers with the global companies. And, the global companies in search of easy money indeed turn out to be clueless on how to compete.

This is indeed a classic Christensen-like setting: The global companies focusing on high margin urban consumers, leaving the lower margin but high growth inner cities to Indian competitors, who, in time, leverage their strengths in inner cities with time to compete on everything, and eventually drive out the global companies. A successful Indian engagement strategy can, should be, ground up, global companies creating an India focused product and get into the inner city market first, may be with a JV partner, may be into several of them at the same time. But this is not how global companies still think: Ikea will still plan to do a flagship store in Mumbai, at great cost, and not in Nagpur. The trouble is, indeed, most people in Mumbai will consider Ikea expensive, and those urban middle class movers and shakers Ikea has in mind may consider Ikea too downmarket. However, Nagpur may still lack a decent furniture chain store (I know, wrong example!) and may soon get one from an Indian chain, which makes profits by achieving scale on the back of growing construction of new houses. In time, this chain competes with Ikea in Mumbai and Delhi, then Djakarta and Manila, and may be eventually in Sweden.

This is important because consumer markets in India are just about opening up to the world. It is not just about investment opportunities in retail and aviation, but gathering of momentum in many other sectors, and also the growing consensus about services. The Indian consumers, pampered for choice (a far cry today than the pre-liberalization age when we got three varieties of soap, and Dove soaps were standard gifts from relatives coming from abroad), now want more - and this opens up a window for global providers wanting to provide choice, convenience and high quality. More than ever, they need to unlock the mystery of the inner cities.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Fight for Bangladesh & Everyone's Future

The frontiers of civilization keeps shifting: Now it is in Dhaka. Unlike the American formulation, however, this is not about one kind of civilization up against another. It is a different, but known, variety of struggle - of a modern nation of aspirations against the old structures of repression and fear. The Islamists in Bangladesh, powerful as they always were, have finally come out of woodwork and trying to claim the country: In a rematch of the country's liberation war fought forty years ago, they are, in fact, more ideologically formidable, and may be more numerous. However, they are up against a modern young aspirational nation, no less determined than their forefathers a few generation ago, no less able than the military commanders of the earlier generation.

This time, the battle is fought in proxies. Most powers will sit out on the fence; they ought to: This is a dangerous battle, mostly fought in ideas. While battling against the government, the reactionary forces may unleash a new Bangladeshi spring, that will sweep away them, but also those in power which kept the country impoverished, denied it its potential. This battle, played in Shahabagh in Dhaka, and in other cities around the country, may snowball into a South Asian spring: All governments, powers that be, may have something to fear from it.

What we are seeing in Dhaka is more than just a battle over the country's past. It is a fight to the finish for the country's future. This is about young middle class aspiration taking the streets, the ideas of a modern nation seeking expression, a young country seeking its rightful place, its deserved path, to prosperity, to development. The past was only a prologue - but the battle is for more than just history. This is why it is not meaningless.

One Indian friend wondered why Bangladeshis are so worried about war crimes committed long time ago. His good-natured suggestion was whether a South Africa style Truth and Reconciliation Commission would have been better than a War Crimes Tribunal. I believed he missed the point: Bangladesh is still at war. The forces which wanted to subdue the aspirations of its professional classes are still at work. This is why the country's democracy proved so fragile, so troubled. This is a point when these big questions get settled. This is about something else, not just the war crimes.

There are many reasons why Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan, but there is one key reason. They have always been two countries, right from the start. Pakistan was a British colonial handiwork, an unstable state to be kept in dependency status forever, to keep the dominion of Western powers overlooking Persian Oil, and checking Russian ambitions in Central Asia. But, more than anything, the Pakistani leaders themselves sought protection from the dangerously socialist India, and created the country to keep their landowning undisturbed. But, East Pakistan was just the opposite: It was a peasants', and Professionals', country that wanted to escape the Hindu landlords. From the start, the country's landowning elite wanted to keep the middle class aspirations in control: That was the trigger for its pathetic failed efforts to install Urdu as the state language, thus denying the Bengali speaking middle classes a fair chance. The whole East Pakistan project was to fail, and it did: The Pakistani army's contempt for its own people was always understandable - this was never its own people, just peasants which they thought they could kill at will. 

The trouble is that this battle has never really ended. This battle of privilege versus aspiration went on and on, the successive governments knowing themselves who to side with. Most of the old money and businesses were still under the control of old landowning classes, privileged ones which would rather rule the country with military discipline, but the aspirations of successive generation pulled this beautiful country and its creative, rebellious people to the other direction: To freedom, to shared prosperity and to aspiration. This battle has now come to a head, again. This time, defeat if it happens, will upset the country's power structure unalterably and therefore, the powerful people, the country's old elite, will not give up easily.

This may look like a freak issue, brought to a head by the current Prime Minister's quest for justice for her father's killers, but this is in fact another chapter in the country's freedom struggle. On balance is freedom and democracy, and plutocracy and repression on the other side. The ruling classes in neighbouring countries are afraid. They don't want to unleash the power of th street uncontrollably for the fear of getting drowned by it. But the time for acknowledging the ambitions of the young, the democratic aspirations, have come. Either you will be with it, or against it - and lose badly.


Sunday, February 24, 2013

Reflections and Interests (Day 1 of 100)

First weekend back home, so far, is just as I wanted, organized, unhurried, free. I spent the day reading The Economist, something I wish I could do every weekend, and catching up on myriad other tasks I enjoy doing. This invariably means postponing some of the things that I must do, such as preparing for my Monday classes and preparing the expense statements and suchlike, but I still wanted a quiet day after all the excitement of travel.

Such days allow reflection, which is very helpful. I could pause and think of what I am doing now. We are six weeks from launch of our services in the new business, which is simultaneously exciting and nerve-wrecking. I am slowly getting in sync with my new life - no compromises, just focus - and finding it the greatest education I could have ever had. Living through, things that looked important before, such as getting the Private Equity backing, is fading away into the horizon: I am discovering the very real purpose of life, creation of a great 'product', a truly global education experience for those who study with us. 

In fact, the more I think of it, my anxieties become less intense. The tension give away to this wonderful pleasurable feeling of being immersed into something interesting. Indeed, my financial worries are easing slightly, given the traction the business is starting to get, and I am hoping my sacrifices for last six months is now entering its final phase. I hope, soon, the additional work and revenue will help me get back to a normal person's salary. But this relative anxiety-free weekend is not linked to my bank account, but rather comes from the enjoyment of meaningful work, that I am in charge of my life (however precariously) and I could do what I enjoy doing.

One of the most interesting thing that happened now is that the things I really liked doing, such as reading, meeting interesting people, learning and working with new technology, are all back at the center of my day to day life: These are things which I am expected to do. No more of the compromises I had to fit around, that hackneyed thing about stepping out of comfort zone or 'developing people skills' (the other name of corporate politics), I now fit around work around me and I am so much more productive therefore.

My reading list is now full of things I enjoy - technology, innovation and stories of business creation - and I am feeling light enough to try read Science Fiction, once my favourite that fell by the wayside once I started making numerous adjustments to live an average person's life. I am ready to push the reset button on mediocrity - too many things I do I am only moderately good at - and take the plunge on being great! For this, my formula is to focus on my strengths, solely and single-mindedly, for the next few months; I indeed accept I have several shortcomings, but - I am like - one can't be good at everything and I better spend time on being really good at certain thing rather than being the proverbial Jack.

The other thing to restart my life is to reach out and meet interesting people. Many of our daily correspondents are those who we meet by default - I would insist on calling this default rather than serendipity, as in most cases, there was no search involved - and there is a big, exciting world full of people out there, which we may miss out on if we don't search enough. In my own life, I have benefitted greatly when I searched and reached out: People from many backgrounds and cultures, who I met completely at random, often online first, have enriched my life and made living so interesting. I am planning more of this randomness. I am planning to turn up in interesting meetups and also taking time to travel, as much as I can. I am also, and this is where I am possibly too bold, planning to learn a new language, so that I can explore a new country and culture better.

And, finally, I am learning technologies all over again. This is indeed something I loved, and this is what gave me my career, which I started as a System Administrator of all things. But I drifted somewhat, after the demise of Unix and when the world was taken over by Windows, into other things. I enjoyed the outside world, all these things about knowing new people and seeing new things, but the possibility of being able to create new things with code excites me. So, late in life, I wish to learn to code again. I am realistic, at my age, one has to be: I am not in the running to become the world's greatest programmer. But, indeed, I wish to recover my own ability to code, at least have my own sense of the possibilities, rather than having to be told by someone, who may or may not know, what may or may not be possible. A sincere friend told me that this is not a good use of my time: But, here is what I think - this is my kayaking or skiing holiday, my own adventure sports, and whether or not I do it well, it does not really matter (I shall break no bones while programming). 

So, in summary, this is a very special time and I am trying to make this one. Watch this space! 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Education and Employability: Who's afraid of Knowledge?

Employability is the mantra of the day, because we sure have a jobs problem. Governments are making universities, in fact education system as a whole, the scapegoat for millions of unemployed that they have to deal with. The conclusion is straightforward: There must be an education problem if so many people can't find jobs even after getting educated. And, hence, increasingly, public policy is making employability the centre-piece of the higher education agenda.

I shall argue that this oversimplifies the problem and diverts our attention. I am not suggesting that the education model does not need looking at: Indeed, we need to revisit what the universities do in the context of the modern world. But, employability is not a problem created by the universities and colleges, it is a structural issue and everyone knows this. To start with, there are not enough jobs available. It is very good to say that there are vacancies for Rocket Scientists and Brain Surgeons while there is unemployment at the street, but no university in the world can, or would wish to, take a salesman and try turn him into a Brain Surgeon. It is important to acknowledge that the jobs crisis is triggered by, in a mundane way, by lack of jobs.

I make this point because I believe this quest for employability is misguided, and indeed, counterproductive. This makes us feel that the education is useless because it is not getting us jobs. It discriminates against certain disciplines, which are socially important and profoundly rewarding to people who pursue them, such as History or Philosophy, and make everyone follow the herd into disciplines such as Business or Accountancy, only to end them up in the disappointment of joblessness. Indeed, the business students learn assiduously the merits of productivity enhancement, but miss the irony that this means lack of jobs of themselves. 

Indeed, this is not an argument for a return to the ivory tower: Education must make its recipient socially useful, and not a disconnected snob, or at least not any more. But, the central point is that there is a difference between being socially useful and employable, and when the employment opportunities are shrinking, it is the job of education institutions, in fact an essential reason for their existence, is to equip its pupils with perspectives and knowledge that helps them see the alternatives. This common sense point is being lost in the cacophony about employability, which is the easy route pursued by clueless politicians to drive restless young people to mediocrity and despair, and the chimera to avoid scrutiny, which an useful education, focused on finding a person's useful social role, would expose them into.

So, the way things are now, it is knowledge versus employability: Enlightening versus the useless, pitted against one another. I really don't want to make this sound adversarial, but this is how it is, the rhetoric about employability is all about demoting the role of knowledge, and even denying that one needs to know anything at all, and fitting the student attitudes and lives in the debt-fuelled consumption continuum. There is no one who is left to doubt this, indeed: No one standing up and yelling "Give it a break!"

Give it a break! Indeed, that's what we ought to say. The practise of education should push forward our understanding and instead of situated, choked shall we say, within the context of our current social reality, should empower us collectively to see the possibilities and to imagine. These institutions are the ones which should, before everyone, see beyond employability, see that the era of company man, lifetime jobs and pension-centred retired life is over. The educators are the ones who should explore the new ways of being socially useful, and how we transform our lives, and that of our next generation, to fit the era of diminished employment. But this stepping outside of the box has been forbidden, locked down, by this monstrous mediocrity called the employability.

This trade-off is dangerous, ultimately soul-destroying. A student should be touching their graduation parchment with a sense of fulfillment and confidence, that s/he has traversed the path and enjoyed the journey, and this point on, would seek to create value for all those around them, who have supported, facilitated, paid for that journey. This is not utopian, this is what it is meant to be. However, this is being eaten away: The debts, the crushing burden of being a consumer, makes the moment of graduation feel like jailbreak, a burst of freedom into uncertainty, identity crisis and extreme fear. In fact, most have been prepared that way: The media stories of millions of unemployed, the politician's rhetoric of employability deficit, the businesses moaning the lack of nuclear scientists who would work for nothing. The achievements are belittled, the education considered useless, knowledge a pretension one needs to leave behind as they enter the 'practical' world. The educator may be blamed for this dichotomy, and the student is its obvious victim, but it is this construct that needs redoing, and not what education is for. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Designing Teaching For Global Collaboration

I am working with a number of senior tutors with long experiences of teaching face to face in developing the courses which we shall deliver using technology. Indeed, our model is globally collaborative learning, which is as much as about distance delivery as about distribution of various learning activities. The learners are locally supported, their learning is designed collaboratively between the tutor, who is remote, and mentors, who are local, and they work with local peer groups as well as global ones. The technology we employ is easy, based on Open Source platforms and something that can run on a washing line, as they say: The trick of the trade for us is to design this complex learning structure effectively.

So, this is a business about effective instructional design more than anything else. And, being in Higher Education space in Britain, where instructional design is usually seen as the prerogative of the trainers (and not of educators) and essentially American, it is an interesting challenge. The great tutors I am working with are naturals in classroom delivery, and the art is very personal. Our conversations therefore are centred around how to transpose the whole act of teaching as a Design activity, stripped of the charisma and individuality of the teacher but enriched with greater adaptability and flexibility of the material. 

However, this is anything but standard instructional design, where one would start with learners. We don't know the learners, and what we know doesn't help: That they are a cosmopolitan group, of varying intellectual capability and motivation. This is indeed where the educators' experience is so valuable, creating models of support which could be adapted to the individual. This is where most of the education technology research focus today, with various intelligent platforms, which read and anticipate a learner's learning preferences, being in vogue. But this is indeed an intensely personal activity; for all the charm of the big data that various MOOCs and exciting projects such as Khan Academy will generate, true personalisation of learning remains as far as our unending quest for artificial intelligence. Despite my faith in progress and technology, I could think of nothing but a human solution: Installation of a local mentor, face to face, with the learners, supporting them through the process. Our designs therefore are far from what a standard training design document will look like: There are big gaps which says 'we shall figure it out'. And, all the teachers feel perfectly comfortable with it.

This may sound boring, but this process is as creative and exciting as writing an app or designing a new business process. We have no template for creating this stuff, just imagination. There are times when we are stepping back and not being prescriptive, despite the stringent requirements of quality assurance from our accrediting bodies and the anticipated future requirements from an ISO process (which we are embarking on at the same time). And, finally, into this, we shall now introduce our global partners, who will introduce their own views and cultural nuances, which we are absolutely looking forward to: This will make it even more exciting. If I found travelling around India and meeting new people immensely educational, the time I am now spending translating those conversations into inputs of learning design adds a few more degrees of enjoyment.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Developing Training for Global Employability

Employability programmes are hugely interesting, particularly because they are so popular but still means nothing in particular. While employability schools, courses, self-help materials and even, almost absurdly, certifications are cropping up everywhere, inherent in those programmes is an admission of failure of the education process itself. It is like getting another medicine when medicines have failed, which indicates how students approach education - not with the usual, healthy scepticism of a standard consumer, but with faith befitting a true believer, which bestow more than usual responsibility on an educator, though, at the same time, it makes life easy for a snake-oil salesman.

However, despite my usual aversion for 'employability' programmes, here I am - designing a programme for global employability! I am not hypocritical: I didn't start this, but this is what the customers want. A number of business schools I have been speaking to want a finishing school programme, and even the students want it. The redeeming part of this conversation is that they want something for 'global employability', rather than just how to be employed, so I am taking it for more than which shirt to wear for an interview, going beyond the usual common sense staff, and exploring issues and challenges related to development of a global career.

To be fair, it is not easy to develop a global career. Many people stumble upon it serendipitously, but few build it consciously. And, for those few who deliberately developed a global career, this involves an enormous amount of effort, to cultivate a global social network and development of global skills, something that indeed needs training and a helping hand. So, while we may end up calling it an employability programme (or may be not, I am toying with terms such as Global Career Development), the idea is radically different: This is about understanding the cultural landscape, identifying opportunities, building social capital and connecting up. 

In course of my research on employability programmes, I came across a somewhat common format: The student is giving a battery of tests and finally a recommendation, about who he is and what career s/he ought to pursue; then, some training on common sense etiquette, dressing and presentation issues, some advice on CV writing (though Gurus could never agree how CVs should be) and finally, some motivational fluff about everyone can do it. For me, I want to stay out of all these three elements. I believe testing may be fine, but giving definitive 'career recommendations' are downright dangerous, because we know so little about how careers are evolving and all our tests and data are so last century! The common sense etiquette is, well, common sense, and one surely needs to go beyond this if the objective is equip the learners for a global career. Lot of these training programmes tend to become consumer brands and attitudes, to the extent that the trainers end up lecturing on the merits of a Swatch or a Chanel; indeed, I am taken to the concept of a personal style, and would rather have the learner come up and define a personal style for himself/herself rather than being beholden to the brands. And, the same goes for CV writing: Whether the CV should be twenty pages or one, largely depends on the job one is applying for and the applicant. If I am a member of Royal Society and have several publications, I better write twenty pages and put all of those in. If I am not, and only trying to be a salesman, I should write a punchy one-page CV which reads like a sales letter! And, finally, the motivational fluff is out too: That anyone can do it is a given, and if one is not aspirational, one wouldn't be in the course I end up writing. 

That's enough ranting! So I am constructing the global employability programme giving equal emphasis to global and employability. On the global side, indeed, I am building an unit to explain the cultural nuances and factors that one must clearly get to manage the global bosses, coworkers, suppliers, customers and subordinates: I am exploring ways to develop global psychological capital, global social capital and global cultural capital, among our learners. Beyond the jargon, we are trying to make them curious, engaged, interested in the world: We are trying to explain to them that global employability is not being an isolated zombie inside some global company office and earning dollars, but belonging there, developing a career and being successful, which means engaging with local norms and customs, making friends and learning and respecting the ways of life. This is indeed very real for me: I have been reasonably successful in my stints in Bangladesh, South-East Asia and England, but not before I learned enough about the country and culture I was in and made local friends. My Linkedin contacts are for real, in any country visit, at least half the people I get to meet are my Linkedin contacts who have become friends, and they come from all over the world. This needed careful cultivation and sincere engagement, and this is what we are trying to convey to our learners.

On the other side, on the employability front, we are working on the framework, eloquently presented by Reed Hoffman and Ben Casnocha in their Start-up of You, that every person is a start-up. Instead of prescriptive views of life and fixed formats of career, we are developing tools, ideas and activities to let the students explore their assets, interrogate their aspirations and explore the market realities; to engage in ABZ planning, wherein they not only fix themselves into the Plan A, but know how to get to Plan B, and also have a fall-back plan; to encourage them to take risks, to adopt and to build networks. We are working alongside them to leverage the power of social media, getting a Linkedin profile properly done up, connecting with people who may help, understanding their social media engagement profile and getting them to tweet and blog, to unleash themselves into the wider world and to connect across the borders. The CV, if they get to write one, is only a derivative of all these activities.

However sceptical I am about the employability stuff, I find this effort immensely interesting. I find this to be an area ripe for disruption: When traditional career models are broken, and no one is courageous enough to admit it, here is our opportunity to create a new kind of education, aligned with the realities of the marketplace, and I suspect, even in line with what the students already think or know.


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

India: The Quest for A Professional Society

India is exciting. Despite all the gloom and doom, mainly because of the stalled economy and the broken expectations, that pervade the media in London and New York, life is getting better in India. Yes, despite the corruption, the still creaking infrastructure, the never fully completed projects: The life has got better for most people, in absolute terms, and it is getting better. This is one thing I noticed, traveling around Indian cities, after a gap of more than a year. Indeed, one could argue that the life has NOT got better as much as it COULD HAVE BEEN, but the explosion of opportunities is real, the better roads are better than yesterday's, the cinema halls are more glitzy, films are slicker, there is a greater choice of newspapers and TV channels, there are more seats to study engineering and management, and more jobs, than there has ever been.

This is no attempt to hide the failure. We can indeed endlessly talk about wasted opportunities, and indeed there were plenty of them. The political leadership is abysmal, and there is no end in sight as most smart people flee politics. There is a large disenfranchised population which has taken up arms against the Indian state and has been waging war for almost two decades, and this has gotten worse and gone out of hand, primarily because of opportunistic political leadership. But, while the small incremental improvements in urban life hardly makes prime-time news, the confidence of average Indian is noticeable: The opportunities are all real, the ascendancy of middle classes are all real, and the aspirations are all real. 

The real debate, therefore, is not whether India is getting worse - no one seems to think it is - but how to keep moving forward faster. One present and clear danger is the Middle Income Trap, that life gets better for a while but then stops, something that the media fears that India has already got into. Indeed, the costs have become higher, particularly wages and real estate, and some of the backoffice jobs are now being sent to lower cost locations in Indonesia and the Phillipines: This may eventually wipe away India's fabled advantages in services, and cause urban poverty yet again. However, there is no real evidence that this has happened just yet - yes, some jobs have gone to Manila but hardly for reasons of cost - and the magic formula for continued prosperity should be sought elsewhere.

One persistent theme throughout my visit to India was the observation how people are not interested in doing a good job. We may celebrate Jugaad innovation and the resilience that this represents: However, some urban Indians seem to be indulging in Jugaad not because they don't have a choice, but because they can get away with it. There are too many people doing a mediocre job, without pride or ambition. One perceptive policy-maker pointed out to me that most people hate the job they do: The man driving a taxi hates driving a taxi, and wants to have nothing to do with it. A software company boss talked about how programmers do not like to programme, and would rather become managers as quickly as they can. One parent complained to me about his son being a salesman, which he did not consider to be a gentlemanly job. This, rather than the rising costs, may pose a greater danger to India's competitiveness.

I shall argue that India has experienced, in the recent years, a decline of the professions. In the eighties and nineties, even when the economy was stalling, there was great prestige for various professions: The Chartered Accountants ruled supreme, the Lawyers were still respected, the Doctors were well loved and often famous, the teachers were still the gurus. Even the Development Officers of the Life Insurance Corporation, India's state-owned insurance giant, and the officers of state-owned banks, had a professional halo: These were difficult positions to get, it bestowed privileges but also demanded certain responsibility of action. However, the rapid expansion of professions since then had a detrimental effect: Not just the magic of bank career or a Development Officer job is lost, but also the solid traditional professions, the Accountants, the Lawyers, even the Doctors, have lost the reputation of competence and responsibility, somewhat justly. The gurus have surely fallen, just as the academic expansion has reached an unprecedented scale, may be because of that. The free-for-all, Jugaad culture of the last decade lowered the professional prestige and premium, and eroded the incentives to do a good job: This may be Ivan Illich's idyll, but hardly the road to a stable, prosperous, growing society. I shall argue that the greatest threat to India's continued prosperity will come from its weak professional society, and conversely, the guarantee of prosperity lies in professionalising society.

Surely, this is not about another socialist scheme of government bureaucrats and fat-cat businessmen cooking up some evil scheme, though we can't rule out the government and the businesses if a professional society has to emerge. It starts with a consensus about doing a good job, respecting and loving the professions that one is in, an educational endeavour more than anything else. However, this does not happen in isolation, and the other parts of the society, the administration, the businesses, must subscribe to the same values and accept the value of expertise, to create incentive for professionals to emerge. Growing bigger faster is fine, but it can't come at the cost of dilution of professional standards, as it happened in India.

I shall sign off in this note: My visit to India has now ended. I believed that the creation of a professional society is the biggest challenge, and the greatest opportunity, facing the country. There is a lot of conversation about higher education, and a lot of money being spent in vocational education, but without the concerted effort that it takes to create the professions. So, anyone can teach, despite the fact that the government is spending money on training teachers. Instead of creation of new professional classes, marketers, HR practitioners, it is being de-professionalised, with anyone pretending to have marketing experience assuming the teaching and practitioner positions. The professional associations are absent, primarily because of the lack of government patronage: However, there is great demand for professional qualifications from UK, USA or Australia, but often serviced by dubious organisations from these countries who are in it for a quick buck. This is where the efforts of employers and administrators must now be directed, because the waning of professional competence is the surest sign of a long term decline of India, Indian businesses and its people.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Into India: Constructing A New India

I am writing this from Bhopal: First time in Bhopal, I am stunned by its beauty and serenity. I somehow imagined it to be a provincial town and somewhat of an industrial wasteland, my perspective informed, perhaps, by my adolescent memories of Union Carbide gas leak. Instead, I see a city wrapped around a lovely lake, pleasant weather and mountainous roads. Such 'discoveries', however naive, make up for all the troubles of travel, spending nights at nameless hotels, and irregular patterns of life this entails.

But apart from the beauty of this city, I see ambition: The giant malls straddling the city centre not just changing the consumption patterns of the city, but also its social life. The private universities, only a few years old in the province, churning out a new generation of graduates, and international schools forming a new ambitious pattern of parenting. My initial assumption that the new India is being shaped in smaller towns is proving to be accurate, at least at its surface. 

Travelling around the country also gives me the privilege to talk to different people. While we usually talk business, I can't help but marvel at how different the mood is in India than it appears from outside. I trace on the BBC the start of a new corruption scandal, with India cancelling a contract with an Italian defense firm under suspicion India's Former Air Force Chief in their investigation. This may, I fear, dominate the conversation about India in the coming months, raising a cacophony inside and outside, causing ugly scenes at the parliament to the amusement of the rest of the world, dampening the analysts' views of the country and spawning more articles like Ruchir Sharma's recent Foreign Affairs piece, Broken BRICs. This can turn really ugly, as the firm happen to be Italian, the country of birth of Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the ruling coalition, whose foreign origins have always been a talking point and a great source of suspicion. However, regardless of all the distraction, the mood in small town India is buoyant: The change is too obvious to ignore, regardless of slumping growth figures, the general end-of-the-world storytelling of the media and endless stories of abuse of power, discrimination, violence and corruption. 

However, if life is getting better, it is also becoming different. The old and new India seem to clash regularly. The large IT and IT services companies, which have become the new microcosm of India, show the conflict and the emergence of the new. On one hand, Indian IT companies are pulled apart by regional rivalries, with one or the other community getting a favoured treatment, supposedly or for real, displaying in abundance the divisions in India that refuse to die. On the other, however, younger workers, as they are forced to stay close to each other through the trials and tribulations of a difficult job, find love mostly in office, cohabiting with, and in some cases, marrying, people from other regions, caste and even of different religion. These companies, seen that way, are the new melting pot, enabling inter-marriages, causing mobilities, and yet spawning fierce battles of regional affiliations more often than not.

And, in this backdrop of clashing optimism and pessimism, regionalism and modernism, small town versus the colonial big cities, a new Indian narrative is starting. Sixty years back, the Indian leaders embarked on a path of creating a paternal state looking after its citizens, a state that itself tried to be the melting pot, the saviour god and an ideologue-teacher, all rolled into one. But this was based on a view of power and ambition, deeply entrenched in the psyche of the independence struggle, of being being a subject race for so long and of the horrors of partition; no longer, all such memories have been wiped off in the last twenty years of liberalization in India, where the new middle classes, rising from small towns, jostled with old elite in ambition, taking over public roles and spaces with their rough manners but abundant aspirations. The old state narrative is falling out of favour, but, strangely, it is not being replaced by high-culture postmodernist atomised individualism. Rather, the new elite wanted the reassurance of a new state, strong and linear, less nuanced, less argumentative, less interfering, but a state which gives them identity and confidence. 

What I am seeing, I shall claim, is the beginning of this new state. The old values, some cherished, such as secularism, some redundant, such as socialist bureaucracies and reservation mentality, are falling out of favour. Instead, things which were rebuffed before, such as majoritarian nationalism, the idea of India as a Hindu-Hindi country, and, at the same time, paradoxically, strong regionalism, the rediscovered charms of being Bengali, Tamil, Telegu and Maharastrian, without necessarily appearing anti-Indian, are being considered acceptable, even fashionable. This is a very different statehood, philosophically, from the statehood enshrined in our constitution, built on a consensus forged by the freedom struggle and worldview of a subject race. I do complain that Indians are arrogant, and they are indeed, but this arrogance is shaping the positive view of India and Indianness, and prompting a revisionism, wiping out the toils and tears of the freedom struggle and somewhat conjoining the modern, small town India, with a mythical, glorious, imagined past.

It is easy to interpret this tension as the tension between Congress' world view and the BJP's, the struggle of two ideas of India, as some will put it, one defined by secularism and the other by chauvinism: But this is a continuum, parts of the same journey. It is as if the country wants to unleash itself, committing itself to the mobility and relationship revolution that silently started in the BPO corridors, just because it has lived long enough to the shadows of its past. While this may indeed somewhat echo some of the Rahul vs Modi rhetoric, it isn't exactly that: In fact, just as the constitution may be part of the past, the political parties may be similarly passe. The Congress has abjectly failed to match expectations; but equally, BJP has failed to imagine and to deliver, when and where they were given the opportunity. They have succumbed to the same dithering indecision, same webs of factionism, corruption, and politics of perks and privilege, whenever they were in power. Worse, the BJP's strategic thinkers have still not aligned themselves to the future, not imagined the coherent strong nation but merely succumbed to a meaningless fantasy of revivalism, a big city dominated polity and majoritarian rhetoric so irrelevant in modern India.

Therefore, new political formations are bound to emerge, one fit for a rising country of billions, of millions of young people. Power is shifting and will shift: The post-industrial production will shape the futures and fortunes of smaller cities like Bhopal and Bhubaneswar, and unleash the tremendous energy and productive capacities of its millions of residents. A suitable politics must not be about choosing the least worst alternative, but to genuinely move forward. To keep with it, possibly, the days of platform parties, such as Congress and the BJP, big national formations who are too cumbersome and distant to do anything, are over: Power may now return to the regional parties and functionaries, all working within the frameworks of a common identity. The current bottom-up pressure may reorient India to achieve a new coherent national identity based on strong governance at the regional levels, synced together in search of a common destination. This will be very unlike the European nationalism, but this may stand out to be the model of national identities and democracies in the time to come. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

'Returning to India': Conversing with a Book

This does not happen often, so this is special. I read a book from cover to cover in a flight. The flight was late, by an hour, as the SpiceJet workmen hovered around looking lost for a long time before my flight to Bangalore departed from Kolkata. But that's not the reason I could read: It was one of those books which I could have a conversation with, that kept me awake and busy, despite an early start in the morning.

This is a book about coming back to India. Written by Shobha Narayan, whose writing I have not read before, but could easily connect with her crisp, well-honed, journalistic style. Indeed, I should have been disappointed: This was an impulse purchase for reading during the flight, but I expected a story of what happened when one returned to India. Instead, this is an immigrant's chronicle of deciding to move back, the doubts, the debates and the challenges. In a way, this was better, closer to my lived experience, and not just an empirical list of disappointments and wins after the plunge, which is still theoretical for me. 

There are many differences indeed with the writer's world and my own. She wanted to move back to stay close to the parents, who did not want to come and live in America. While I go through similar tribulations with my father, he openly says that he wants me to live in England, because 'there is nothing to come back to in Kolkata'. To be honest, here is the second difference between the story and my real life: I have now committed myself to Education, and India seems to present the biggest opportunity for education innovation that there is anywhere in the world. [In the story, Shobha's husband, Ram, was in Asset Management, and India was a mere backwater compared to his position in Wall Street] 

True, India is daunting and difficult: The combination of tight regulation and failed implementation have ravaged India's education sector. In fact, education, particularly post-compulsory education which is my specific interest area, seems to be last bastion of babu-raj in India, and almost impregnable because of its joint ownership (between state and union governments) and comparative low priority given to it so far by the policy-makers. But, India's low enrolment ratios and growing population create a tempting case for intervention and innovation. There are some stellar enterprises in the sector, but none very innovative, because India's attempts to get world class higher education was, so far, about importing the disease - cost disease - that ails global education. Indian institutions tried to rent reputation (which comes at a huge price and does not work) and fly in various big name professors by paying them exciting salaries and perks, all resulting in a quick cost climb up. [On the other hand, not much has happened in building reputation, and rather, reputations, such as IITs' and IIMs', have been leveraged in various towns, with a great risk of brand dilution.] This presents a great opportunity for anyone trying to do something innovative, though the challenge will remain in how to stand up amid the cacophony of mediocrity, where tall claims are being made and little delivered.

This possibly reflects the biggest challenge in India, particularly from an outside-in perspective: That most people do not care about doing a good job. Shobha Narayan also laments the lack of civic spirit among Indians, recounting, memorably, an imaginary case where an Indian will trouble to carry home-made food for a distant relative and turn up at the railway station at an ungodly hour just because his/her train is stopping by at the station, but then have no qualms about discarding the packaging right on the station platform without caring to look for a trash can. While I read this, the thought flashing across my mind is that this is a problem that can be fixed with education, but I know that would be counter-intuitive in India.

Coming back to the book, I have this conversation every day with myself, and reading this book just accentuated the thoughts. Indeed, I love this country and would want to stay near my father, whatever sacrifices he may want to make for the sake of my happiness; I love Bengali books and literature, and would want to enjoy the expected revival of bengali culture industry, as and when it comes, because of the opening of markets in Bangladesh; I love Kolkata as a city and would, some day, want to make a photo feature walking around Kolkata's streets and retelling their stories; and above all, I love the house I grew up in and enjoying an quiet winter morning standing on its terrace has always been the pinnacle of my ambition. 

But this book reminds me of another thing, too: That return is another journey.  Indeed, I never left, or never left with finality. I left my books untouched and constantly reminded my father that they need to be cared for. I tried to build another flat in the city, not to rent or sell, but to live if I need to. I only wanted to have a bit of adventure, study abroad and expand my mind. However, eight years is a long time and life grows around you: Friends, family, habits and possessions have rooted me down in a way I never foresaw. So, return is another journey, which has to be plotted and planned, and lived through. And, it is hardly easy - something that this book brings out vividly and all its complexity. 

I have my usual criticisms too: Parts of it sound too cliched, one can almost see an editor's hand in highlighting some portions to appeal to an Indian audience. The fact that the author spent time with gay artists but when confronted with the prospect of a same-sex marriage in a friend's family, started thinking that this would be averted if only she lived in India, is a bit over the board for me: In fact, she might as well have thought that if her child turns out to be gay, she might have faced much greater social problems, exclusion and even legal persecution (the incident was several years ago) if she chose to live in India. But, despite a few things like that, she writes in a very practical way I could connect to: She talks about taking on an American passport just as taking life insurance, so that one could come back if things don't work out, a practical discussion most immigrants will do. She talks about the identity issues with her children, the conversations with Korean Dry-Cleaners, Polish shopowners, all of which could have happened in Britain, and I could have been her.

So, I shall recommend this book to all my neighbours and friends now, those of us who talk incessantly about going back, but never sure how to do it.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Into India: The Skills Opportunity

I am exactly at the midpoint of my visit to India: I set off for Bangalore tomorrow and through the week, will visit Mumbai and Bhopal, before coming back to Kolkata for a final couple of days. I am indeed very happy with the progress I have made - I now have several partnership conversations with really committed education institutions - and will go back to London with an eagerness to enhance our offering. One key business assumption I always had turning out to be accurate: In the business of education, there is no demand problem, only delivery challenges. I have spent time talking not just with the owners and managers of private education institutions, but also students in several schools: I now have experienced first hand that the students are eager for an opportunity that would open up the world to them, a global education, which is exactly what we are about. However, I am fully cognisant that opening up the opportunity will need several innovations in delivery, complete integrity and commitment towards creating significant learning experience for the students, and most importantly, an education about education. So, I am taking extra care in choosing who we work with, and only had conversations with schools and people who I thought would have shared commitment to building a great education network. I initially thought I would have a Groucho Marx problem - I won't want to join a club which will take me as a member - but now I am slightly spoilt for choice and can really choose who we work with. Indeed, this is not the end, but only the end of the beginning, and the hard work, at least for us, starts now, but I am looking forward to next week's meetings, which feels so good.

Through these conversations, I have also attained a clearer understanding of Indian education and training sector. If I thought I had an idea already, I had to revisit several of my assumptions, and on the whole, I am again optimistic rather than gloomy. Before I came, I had this perception that private higher education in India is mostly a chaotic space, with mercenary owners and laundered money sitting pretty in great chunk of real estate. I know first hand now that this is indeed the case, mostly: But my optimism comes from the conversations I have had with education entrepreneurs who are ambitious and who really cares to do a good job, and several despondent ones who think their business model and easy money has broken down and they must go and look for something else. I could see several Indian institutions are inching towards closure, but the others opening and starting off - and some doing very well. Talking to the students, faculty and managers, it was apparent that the students can now see clearly through the promises such as 'guaranteed placement' and the name of the game now is credibility, not promises. Despite the widespread perception that Indian Higher Education is a free-for-all enterprise, one could see that the era of jungle capitalism is getting over. The new entrants want to create brands, or leverage existing ones in the sector: They are not intending to shortchange students or do anything foolish. This is the ideal time to get engaged with the sector.

And, indeed, the demand is limitless. In almost every step, one comes across a skills deficit: This is far more apparent to me now than it was ever before. The drivers drive dangerously. The sales people are clueless. The customer service staff behave like policemen. The technical staff on the other end of the line assumed that I am technically naive as I couldn't tell him which version of Windows I am using on my Mac. And, the invisible thing: Everything that one has to do has layers and layers of complexity, form filling, signing or simply three people doing one job, implying lost productivity, hassle and overall a management problem. The person sitting next to me on an Indigo flight from Delhi had to plead to get drinking water, which he eventually got at least an hour afterwards, because the staff are incompetent and too busy to handle the crazy mandate of serving free meals to some passengers and not to others. The ICICI Bank staff just couldn't explain how credit cards really work other than advising me that it is like walking with a very large amount of money in your pocket: When I told him that I shall really feel insecure doing that, he said most of his customers go around with at least Rs 1 million in cash on them all the time. 

The government acknowledges this, but like all governments, they keep coming up with bad schemes. I figured out, finally, what the big hoopla about National Skills Development Corporation (NSDC) is: This body extends soft loans for capacity creation in vocational training space and its beneficiaries can enjoy loans from retail banks to fund their studies. The problem is that NSDC usually disburses money to big corporate houses, who didn't need money to create training centres but is now treating this as a government subsidy to expand their real estate holdings. The effectiveness of the scheme is really questionable, with most NSDC providers woefully underachieving, and despite all the talk, it is going to become another big failed government scheme soon.

I see all this as an opportunity: The Higher Education failing to deliver and the vocational sector failing to grow, creates the perfect confluence of opportunity for us to bring the 'higher' and 'lower' education into one framework, a higher education which makes people do something, a global-local one which bestows glamour to mundane but essential.  The more I look at it, I see the great opportunity in breaking this skills versus education dichotomy, and while this may be one of our subsidiary goals globally (In South-east Asia, this is already quite aligned), in India, competence-based Education is indeed going to be our mantra.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Into India: The Search for Change

I am in India after a gap of 15 months, and now writing this post sitting in a hotel in Delhi. My visit is going well: I kept my expectations low, and therefore slightly overwhelmed by both the affection of long-lost friends and the enthusiasm of the education entrepreneurs about our proposition. Everywhere I go, I am filled with stories of change, a new thing in India. The stories filtering out of India may be gloomy, but it seems that India is moving on, unleashing an avalanche of change below the analysts' radar: Despite the pessimism of the media, the never-say-die reflections in popular culture (The White Tiger to English Vinglish) may be more true than their fictional nature suggests.

Indeed, my enthusiasm about change is tempered by the fact that I stopped by in Dubai before I came to Kolkata. In 2008, I called Dubai the Disneyland of Capitalism and thought the party is over: Returning after a gap of 3 years, I could see the Disneyland spirit is alive and kicking. The change was clear as I put up with my friends only a few blocks away from Knowledge Village, where I had an office previously. I vividly recall how difficult it was to commute to office then, and how I felt it was a bit out of town. Now, I was fascinated to see a Dubai Metro station just around the corner and the developments around the Marina. Dubai seemed to have recovered its buzz on the back of Arab Spring, as the Ancien Regime of Arab Capitals now decamped to Dubai to escape being lynched. This seems to be funding new property developments and the bubble is back with a vengeance (some rents reportedly going up 15% this year): The dramatic change, and the constant rumours of more change (an undersea hotel next), seems to be a natural part of Dubai's life.

The contrast couldn't be more apparent as the flight touched down in Kolkata airport. Before the plane stopped moving and the seat belt signs switched off, almost all the passengers were out in the aisle, overhead storage was opened and everyone was trying to get off the plane before everyone else. I was like - here we go again! It was ever so familiar. My Dubai excitement completely dissipated as I had to step out into the same old international terminal which, as before, always looked like falling apart. I was hoping that it would be the shiny new Terminal 3 that our flight will go to, but, I was soon told, though the terminal has been inaugurated, it would not start operating before a few more weeks. 

Indeed, the life in Kolkata seemed to have changed so little that I felt like being in a time wrap. The Dubai conditioning was making my disappointment far too apparent. But, to be fair, there has been an earthshaking change in Bengal recently, as the ineffectual communist government was thrown out after 30 years in power: In comparison, Dubai's changes are merely cosmetic and one must give credits to the voters in West Bengal for this. But what followed is a complete disaster: Change in government has now led to complete reversal of Bengal's fortunes, a rapid deterioration of its political culture, rise of violence, further depletion of its industrial base and a shameful exposure of the phoniness of Bengali intelligentsia. Kolkata's politics is a butt of joke all over India, and the humiliation of once proud Bengalis is near complete (there will be three more years of the same administration to be lived with).

Indeed, Kolkata presents a great backdrop to appreciate the changes in Bhubaneswar, where I went next. What's apparent is that new constructions are everywhere and the traditional laid-back spirit has given way to a get-rich-quick race. I was astounded by the enthusiasm and positivity. Bhubaneswar, I used to joke, has been a forever-coming-up city; no longer, the city seemed to have arrived now. The change is for real, and the prosperity has spread beyond just the capital city, just as it is happening in the rest of the country. The migration from the villages and minor cities have stemmed, as the jobs and hope has reached the rural folk. This is other facet of change that I discovered in India: This is not about bridges and Marinas, but the real change in the life of people, people who have moved from $1 a day to $1.20 a day, which is sending the revolution upward, only if invisibly. Kolkata's problems seem to be that it is going on reverse gear, its rural prosperity, which predated the rest of country's, is waning under the complete administrative breakdown, the mafia takeover of governance (backed by proliferation of chit funds and scams of various kinds) and the strange invocation of high culture in most unseemly places with comical but exclusionary impact.

Coming from Bhubaneswar, which, despite the changes, remain a small town, to Delhi, the seat of government power, the dynamics of change becomes more apparent. I did some experimentation in Delhi: I tried to be unfailingly polite to test if this is ever reciprocated, and as expected, I was pushed around, shoved aside and frowned upon, as everyone else, completely oblivious of the supposedly human imperative of reciprocity, tried to get on with the race to win, to shortchange (literally) and to jump ahead. But, while I may have despaired about civility, this time around, it was clear that Delhi has surely changed - the runaway capitalism has arrived everywhere, even at the bastion of the babu-raj. The mantra of consumption driven change is everywhere, prices are astronomical and the civility and manners of the old have completely disappeared. 

Yet, this should be regarded as a transitional phase rather than the permanent future of India. One could clearly feel the hunger for change, and when governments falter, as in Bengal, visible derision and disappointment. I commented in an earlier post that the days of vote bank politics may be over; travelling around India, it is all too apparent that the dynamics have changed. The conversations are now about jobs, and opportunities, and consumption, and indeed, India is quickly changing into a vast Disneyland of capitalism on the same coin as Dubai: But it is changing nonetheless and this is a good thing. I shall write about my adventures in Indian education, chronicles of my meetings with Indian educators, that was happening in parallel: The search for civility, that seems to be becoming my defining mission, may need to start from education.

Indeed, the education system is broken, but what I saw tells me that it is on the mend. The education sector is losing money as the students vote with their feet, and this is making the mercenaries among the education investors run for cover, allowing new configurations to emerge and committed educators gaining a voice. I shall therefore sign off with an optimism - about the light at the end of the tunnel, about India's ability to reinvent itself and about the evolving nature of change, the possibilities that emerge out of chaos and most importantly, about the existence and emergence of a new leadership which will shape this positive change.

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