Friday, January 31, 2014

Sanctioning The MOOCs

The US Government's decision to stop Coursera (and presumably other MOOCs) from delivering the courses in Syria, Iran, Cuba and Sudan is astonishing, if not outright misdirected. Indeed, I come to know of this as I am doing a course 'Constitutional Struggles in The Islamic World' from University of Copenhagen, and the notification tells me that the students taking the course from the above-mentioned countries will be stopped from taking the course. The act of sanction, therefore, appears completely counter-productive in the context.

The mail from Prof. Dr. Ebrahim Afsah that bore the notification states:

"Let me reiterate that I am appalled at this decision. Please note that no-one at Coursera likely had a choice in this matter! At any rate, rest assured that these are not the values of the University of Copenhagen, of its Faculty of Law, and most assuredly not mine!"

The point made in the notification, appended to Professor Afsah's mail, is that the course experience has now been definitively classified as a 'service', and therefore been included in the sanctions regime. I am sure this is not just about Coursera, a For-Profit enterprise, and will extend to all MOOCs, including EdX and others. It would be interesting to see whether US Government also considers 'services' such as MIT OpenCourseware to come under the sanctions, because this could be quite effectively used by academics in sanctioned countries to offer education and an open window to the outside world, what the US Government is intending to block.

This raises many questions, like

(a) Is this a suppression of academic freedom barring academics from delivering courses to those who are wanting to learn?

(b) Does this highlight the need of creating non-US based MOOCs, because any US business can be used as a tool for US Government policy? 

(c) Does a policy like this defeat the stated purpose of punishing errant governments, and go to the extent of blocking people to people contact?

(d) Should this apply to an Iranian (or from any of these countries) citizen wanting to study abroad?

Given that a tiny fraction of total MOOC population is from these countries, this may not appear to be an important debate. However, in my mind, this is quite fundamental, because this act slays the 'Open' bit in the MOOC: It is no longer open, but subject to sanctions. Such philosophical points may not matter to most, and not certainly to money men, but should bother the academic community involved in the MOOCs. 



Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Trouble with Vocational Training

Vocational Training is supposed to be a big thing. This is heralded as the answer to the problems of productivity, particularly in countries in Asia and Africa with rapidly growing population. The idea is simple: Get the poor people in a classroom for a few months and make them learn something useful and then get them to work in a factory or profession. Once it is done on large scale - India says it wants to train 500 million people in next 10 years or so - the whole economy can change. The trouble is that it does not work.

I have articulated my complaints about the Indian vocational training system earlier, and hence I shall not repeat it here. I usually receive a stock answer when I talk about the short-comings of vocational training as it is done in India, that it is all down to poor execution. So, when outdated skills are taught, students do not engage or the trained students do not find a job, it bears down to the flaws of execution. I shall contend that these failures have something to do with design of how these training programmes are done.

I shall claim that the Government mandated, and hence funded, vocational training is hardly the way to develop skills and making people more productive. It has never been effective in any country, and what we are doing in the name of vocational training is to build a 'workhouse', an institution which was about confining the poor and employing them in menial trades in England during Industrial Revolution, so that the poor can remain off the street. Worse, the current systems of vocational training are not designed to enable the poor to have a better life - indeed, that can upset the social balance in some of these countries - but rather to make them fail and feel responsible for their own failure. All the elaborate rhetoric for vocational training stand for is that we have done our best but you are just not good enough!

Why say so? The reason is that we continue doing these big government projects on vocational training when we know perfectly well that only two models really work in vocational training. One, the 'demand led' model, where an employer, desperate for skilled workers, pay to get people trained. If the employers are not ready to pay for a particular skill, it is to be assumed that there is no requirement for it as well, except in artisan trades. Two, for artisan trades, the only model that works, and works well, is a 'community led' model, where a community of artisans train and absorb new comers through a slow and deliberate process, what Jean Lave will call the process of 'legitimate peripheral participation'. This is not just about learning to sew through PowerPoint, but actually being engaged in the community and perfecting a trade through practice and participation. 

Educators already know this. Yet, policy-makers, in their infinite wisdom, opt for a provider led model, colleges and training institutions being funded to train people. This only creates what it is supposed to create: An oversupply of useless training programmes which no one wants to take, and do no good. Indeed, people make money, particularly some of the global firms who confuse content with education all too often and grab a big chunk of the pie through licensing their content. From this perspective, vocational training does more harm than good to an economy, perverting the notion of skills altogether.

The other problem with vocational training is that this is treated separately from education. While we revel in seminar halls talking about changing nature of the economy and jobs, when we write policy, we tend to want to condemn people to a life of infinite uselessness through vocational training. This is why I compare vocational training to the workhouse, the new jail. It is almost designed to create the divisions between Have and Have-Nots, those who can think and thrive and those who can't. The strange thing is that this is done at the same time as we are talking about all the future jobs that can be automated will be automated.

At the least, time has come to recognise that vocational training, if this is really key for productivity, should not be seen separately from education. Higher Education as a higher thing not in terms of being tertiary, but a higher prestige thing, is promoted as the praises of vocational training is sung: In fact, this is designed to stigmatize vocational training as a lower thing, designed for lower beings. And, this aside, such distinctions are so obsolete: Everyone indeed needs to think, even the auto-worker. This business of vocational training sustains the business of Higher and Lower Education, and wouldn't let it progress into this age of information economy, the maker age, the social-structured age, or whatever name we want to use to describe our present social reality. 

Therefore, in summary, the vocational training as it is done today is counter-productive and wasteful. One needs to think beyond Government mandated, provider led formula that have been followed so far, and look for demand-led or community-led models, as appropriate for the particular vocation being promoted. This should come in hand in hand with the artificial divisions between education and vocational training: Education, after all, needs to provide a vocation, and vocational training, to be successful, needs to make people think. The policy-makers need joined up thinking, and countries are better served when they have a diverse educational system with deep participation from all sectors. The talk about vocational training has done little so far to move us to that direction.

Beyond China: Why Africa Matters

Yesterday I was speaking at a 'Beyond China' event, arranged by Asia Pacific Technology Network in London. The idea was to look at the reconfiguration of the global economy at the wake of the end of 'cheap' China. There were different presentations, one from CBBC on the changing Chinese economy, followed by presentations on South-East Asia, India, Africa and US. Pratik Dattani, a friend and the current UK Director of FICCI, was speaking about India, though on a personal capacity. I was speaking about Africa, though my exposure to the continent is only through the African academics I speak to and African students that I teach.

My case was that the end of Cheap China is only an opportunity for Africa, and that Africa is mainly looking to do things with China rather than moving beyond it. However, as China becomes a more difficult place to invest in - for operational reasons rather than costs - Africa will emerge as an exciting, perhaps the most exciting, place for global capital. I thought there were three key reasons for this.

First, Africa matters as a simple demographic force. Africa is already the second most populous continent with more than a billion people, but it is puny when compared to Asia's 4 billion plus. By 2050, however Africa's population is expected to double to 2.4 billion, and by the end of the century, it will have nearly as many people as Asia, 4.2 billion against the 4.7 billion of the latter. Nigeria is expected to become the third most populous country in the world with nearly 400 million people by 2050, with populations in Tanzania, DR Congo and Ethiopia all going very rapidly alongside the big nations such as Egypt and South Africa. Africa's demographic miracle will be assisted by a rapid rise of life expectancy at birth, a function of better healthcare systems: The life expectancy has already risen from 52.9 years in 2000 to over 60 years today: This is expected to continue to rise and catch up with the rest, though it may not close the gap altogether.

Second, a related and more consequential factor will be the rise in productivity. Even discounting any possibilities of technological innovation or great investment (capital formation remains a challenge in Africa with most of its savings fleeing the continent), the simple demographic factor of falling Dependency Ratio should lead to this. At the current 80% Dependency Ratio, there are 80 people either in Under-15 or above-64 age groups for every 100 working age people, Only 56% of Africa's population is working age (compared to 67% in Europe today). But this dependency ratio will start falling dramatically from now on, reaching 70% by 2030 and 60% by 2050 (implying 62% working age population), resulting in, by simple maths, 1.3 billion working age people, up from today's 550 million. Combine with this the rapid urbanisation that we are seeing in some parts of Africa, and one gets the picture of a rapid rise of a vast consumer economy.

Third, I am excited about the Technology narrative in Africa. While it is small - and someone in the audience did point out that technology industries may not grow until the per capita income picks up - this year's investment in 'Silicon Savannah' (the corridor between Nairobi and Lagos and Accra) exceeded the investment in Silicon Valley. African Tech companies, App Development enterprises, start-ups have made news globally. As one leading African tech entrepreneur contends, the development of Africa's tech companies will happen not at the back of consumer demand, but on the strength of Government IT procurement. Come of think of it, that was one big element in India too, at the early stages of its tech industry lifecycle. However, the most exciting thing about Africa's technology sector is its focus on 'infrastructure hacking', the innovations to overcome infrastructural bottlenecks, like physical delivery issues, payment issues and low bandwidth (and dependence on feature phones rather than smart phones). This presents an interesting model for other countries stuck with infrastructure bottlenecks (think India) and African Tech may be the next hot thing to talk about.

Indeed, Africa has enormous challenges, and I spoke about three of these. First is Agriculture, as Africa is the only continent which did not have a green revolution and it only uses a tiny fraction of its arable land. This is an urgent need, because depending on imported food when the population is doubling is a sure recipe for disaster. The second challenge is electricity, as 5% of Africa's GDP every year gets wiped out by electricity shortage. Africa can do it cheaply and sustainably, given its vast reserves of renewable energy sources, but it needs to be done to support its growing middle class population and urbanisation. And finally, Education - an essential ingredient to turn the population burden into demographic dividend - where the efforts in Africa remains fragmented. Indeed, the scare word here is 'vocational training': This has so far been a disaster wherever one chose to create this artificial category divorced from education. Yes, one needs to create professional skills at multiple levels in Africa, but we don't need one of those 'vocational training' drives which have come to mean modern workhouses to contain the poor.

So, this, in summary, was my view of Africa, a vast, rising continent, with exciting possibilities and potential tragedies cuddled together in a formation. This is the big one for the coming generation, as China has been for us.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Education for Employment: What If You Didn't Go To A 'Core School'?

In 2013, more than 1.4 million students sat the Entrance Examination for Indian Institute of Technology (IITs), competing for the 20,000 odd places up for grabs in various institutions (some in less prestigious NITs): The pressure can be intense, and the suicide rates in Kota, the town famed for its examination coaching industry, worth $50 million a year, reported to have been doubling year on year since 2012. Lady Shriram College in Delhi made news a few years ago by demanding a perfect score, yes 100%, in school leaving examination, as the cut-off for applications: It has now become commonplace in the best colleges in India. During the Gaokao, the annual college entrance examination in China, it is not unusual to divert the traffic away from near the examination centres lest the noise distract any candidate from the chance of the lifetime to enter an elite university. Because India and China (along with most other developing countries) have a 'Tiny-at-the-Top' education system, even a momentary distraction may lead to a lifetime of ruination. 

But it does not have to be that way. Education is not necessarily an Olympian sport, and extreme selectivity, particularly of this kind, may mean not just human tragedy but wastage of talent and possibility. And, this does not just stop at University admissions: Elite employers exclusively recruit from elite schools, because it would be difficult for them to go to a huge number of schools. This results in fairytale salaries for some school leavers, as Oracle and Google employed the top graduates from IIT Kharagpur this year with an excess of $150,000 a year starting salary (considering purchasing power parity, this is likely to feel like $750,000 a year in India). However, this system also works against the employers in more ways than one: A narrow recruitment funnel not just drive up the cost, but eliminate diversity and reduces, rather than enhances, possibilities of innovation.

This was the backdrop for my conversation with Daniel Garraty, Co-Founder and CEO of Project Firefly (, a platform that seeks to democratise the access to talent for global companies. Daniel seems to see the downsides of the 'core school' system more clearly than many others: His stated aim in Project Firefly is to create a better way to find talent and to combat grade inflation, the cascading effect that such a selective system will have on the whole education community. Indeed, after it became acceptable for colleges to stipulate cut-off marks at 100%, 100% marks have also become more common in school boards in India, setting in motion an absurd spiral which may lead to meaninglessness.

The concept of Project Firefly is simple: Students, no matter which school they are from, can enter various competitions they run throughout the year, by submitting their essays and developing a portfolio of work.  Working with its Co-founder, Professor Simon Evenett of University of St. Gallen, and Credit Suisse, one of those blue chip employers who has mostly worked with the 'core school' system, the Project Firefly team has set up an Academic Review board which includes names such as Professor Eric Maskin of Harvard, Professor Barry Eichengreen of UC Berkley, Professor Anne Krueger of Johns Hopkins, Professor Deepak Nayyar of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Professor Douglas Irwin of Dartmouth and Professor Raghavendra Rau of Cambridge, among others. The students' work is then graded by this Academic Review Board, and the top students are then rewarded in various ways, including the top three from the annual global 'Emerging Leaders' competition being taken to an expenses-paid trip to the Asian Investment Conference in Hong Kong.

One can see how this could potentially change the recruitment dynamic of big firms. I was impressed by the story of Prateek Gupta, who went to, admittedly, no less an institution than BITS in India, who built a portfolio of Project Firefly submissions and was promoted as a elite analyst on the site. Prateek built his career path as an intern in JP Morgan, eventually settling for an Analyst role in Bain and Company. Prateek contends Project Firefly played a critical role in his career development by providing a challenging environment to compete with some of the best students in the world and making him think creatively about global issues. Similarly, Sam Chao of Singapore Management University, who wrote the winning essay on whether Renminbi would become world's next reserve currency for last year's Emerging Leaders competition, acknowledges the role Project Firefly played in building his career (Chao works for HSBC in Singapore). Success stories such as these highlight the possibilities how very accomplished students, who may or may not be in the extreme end of the institutional hierarchy (though BITS, SMU and other institutions these students are coming from are all at the top end and very selective themselves), may be able to showcase their work and get international validation - and indeed, be noticed by top employers.

Indeed, this is an experiment worth talking about. If MOOCs democratised access to knowledge, this is one attempt to create an open, democratic and global platform for competition and validation, useful for the students who, for whatever reason, didn't end up in 'core schools', for employers who would love to recruit from a bigger talent pool and for institutions who would want to expose their students to the very best of global talent and stimulate their creativity and imagination. Indeed, a project such as this, which challenges the inherent closed system thinking in Higher Education, is bound to make some people uncomfortable: Even if an institution is not in the top league, it may still feel threatened by the reality of an external, secular validation of its students' abilities. And, this is exactly where Higher Education's fault lines lie: If the institutions don't embrace the possibilities of Project Firefly (or similar endeavours), the students still might, opening up possibilities of credentialing outside institutional boundaries without the institutions being part of the conversation.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Education for Employment: The Educators' Option

UK's job outlook improved last quarter, with a fall in jobless numbers not seen 'since early 2009', which really means that we are getting close to the figures before this recession began, though not yet there. This is, however, good news: At the least, such news will make businesses invest and hire, making this sliver of good news self-sustaining, hopefully. This will mean a lot to those graduating this year, they may indeed escape the fate of those who landed in the job market precisely at the wrong time, and this makes a world of difference. Yet, the challenge that the job market is fundamentally shifting does not go away (Read Education for Employment: Facing Up The Future) - we won't ever be back to business-as-usual.

So, even if under the weight of recession, increased public scrutiny and public scepticism, educators have belatedly woken up to the fact that a great majority of their students today come to Higher Education seeking a path to a successful career, it is still not clear what they could possibly do. We seem to be fairly certain, collectively, that some of today's jobs will disappear due to technological progress, but hardly know what will come in its place. Some futurists indeed contend that this only means the 'bad' jobs will go away - those that can be replaced by a machine will  be - and we would have more 'fulfilling' jobs instead. However, except for the fact that this is how it went before, we have hardly any idea what will come next. At a time when past is no guide to future, this optimism is scary.

This, in a strange way, validate the argument many educators hold out against the persistent media criticism of what they do and the For-Profit schools that boast of a more relevant education. Often, preparing too closely for an employment means losing sight of abilities that will make a learner adaptable and fit for the future. The overwhelming focus of most For-Profit offerings on jobs such as programming, accounting and clerkship at law offices, jobs that are on the endangered list, bear out an essential limitation of the For-Profit model; the media criticism of colleges not teaching enough practical skills are contradicted in the other columns heralding near-arrival of a future where everything is bound to change.

However, while the educators may have a point in resisting the pressures to teach for 'mere employability', the tendency of going for the 'timeless' option instead is also a big mistake. By 'timeless' option, I mean the thinking that 'it was always done this way', a false construct overriding the many changes the ideas of education had to go through in the past, largely in line with the immediate social circumstance. Besides, this also leads the educators seeking certainty inside the academia, giving credence to the complaint that colleges produce too many students largely for itself. 

To go beyond both the trap of disappearing professions and golden age thinking, educators perhaps need a greater understanding of social trends than many other professions. The educators' job description does not come with a mandate for crystal ball gazing, yet the practice of education may be seen as nothing but the facilitation of possibilities, the sensitivities towards the future being an essential part of it. It is quite easy to lose sight of this, in the middle of all the imperative of being political and the pressures of being businesslike.

So, what is that third option? I am stuck by the comment made by Jim Spohrer, IBM's Head of Global University Partnerships, to a question what one needs to do to get hired by IBM, in a recent conference: Mr Spohrer's answer, go and work for the next start-up we want to buy. Said in jest, this answer captures the key to employability in the new age: The route through Enterprise. Essentially the same answer, though in a different context, I hear from Simon Bird, the founder of DotMailer, a successful AIM-listed software company, who was speaking at Croydon Tech City meet yesterday.  Simon was explaining how it is difficult to continue to innovate within a medium size business when you are under all the pressures from public capital markets, and the need to acquire, therefore, of innovative start-ups and products. This is essentially the same drive - innovation, new ideas, fresh thinking - that makes the world go around for a job-hunter. This is the point made by The Economist too, which portrays the entrepreneur as the new labour, and the 'accelerators' as the ' biggest Professional Training system you never heard of' (see story here).

Indeed, this is not about recounting the entrepreneurship fairy tales: Rather, an educator's option may be to appreciate how excruciating, demanding and complex, yet how inevitable those entrepreneurial moments could be, and how education could be the safe house to nurture the entrepreneur in every student rather than letting them fight it out themselves. It is also not just about the gifted few, but rather taking the view that most of us have one gift or another, which, with nurturing, can make us do better than robots. It is about realigning the education system, from the industrial era requirement of being better at process tasks, which now can be done by a robot, to the emergent requirement of being better at uniquely human abilities, social and creative enterprise and tasks requiring flexibility and adaptability. And, this is not just about software, but any other task: The Maker movement is indeed making the craftsmanship hip again, and all the professions, even teaching, is being rediscovered in the light of all the new possibilities that new technologies, and new frames of mind, open up.

In the end, then, I am suggesting that the time to see the university as a big box to hold the students' empty time as the society decides what to do with them (as the beat poet Alan Ginsberg saw it) is over. Also, the current system of multi-tier university system, a layer dedicated to preserving social privileges and all others to reproduce a working class to feed the modern machines, will come under great pressure as technologies get smarter and make the system, at least the bottom half of it, redundant (and challenge the primacy of the top half, by altering the nature of knowledge). The university need a new purpose, and a place for enterprise, a secure space to develop ideas to change the world and connect with other people who share your views or hold a different perspective, is one viable way of redefining the university: The maker of the future possibilities is a new tag many educators would proudly want to wear.   

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Idea Review: 'To Sell is Human'

When I picked up this book from the Library shelf, it was Dan Pink's name, whose books on Future Work and Motivation I have read before, that made me do it. I was expecting to read a book on sales: Not that I wanted to, but I must admit that I was intrigued by the literary interest in sales (Philip Delves Broughton's Life's A Pitch appeared around the time this book was published), just as the profession seemed to be dying (see some data here). 

What the book turned out to be is more than I bargained for: This turned out to be a book about persuasion, starting out with a proposition that as sales is dying, we are now all in sales. 'Non-sales Sales', Mr Pink uses the term, is all about the job of persuasion that sits at the heart of almost all the jobs that we are doing now. He cites three main trends - entrepreneurship (that we are all business owners now, either running small businesses, or being self employed), elasticity (that almost all jobs today need persuasion, either of 'internal' or 'external' customers) and Ed-Med (which is about the expansion and robustness of Health and Educational professions). So, as the 'Fuller Brush' man is disappearing, sales is becoming ubiquitous, embedded and different.

Mr Pink's argument about the emergence of a different sales hinges on the proposition of 'information symmetry', a situation where more aware customers are operating with vast amounts of information, taking away the 'upper hand' traditionally salespersons used to have. In this transparent world where 'attention' is the scarce commodity, Mr Pink sets out to challenge some of the old rules and conventional wisdom about selling.

For example, he turns on its head the old 'golden rule' of sales, ABC - Always Be Closing, which has, in a way, created the impression of salespeople as a pushy sort. The alternative ABC that Mr Pink offers is Attunement, Buoyancy and Clarity. Attunement, which is the ability to understand and to be understood; buoyancy, which is about maintaining a positive yet realistic approach amid the 'ocean of rejection' that one must face in sales (and it must be added, in life); and clarity, the ability to project one's message persistently and clearly. 

In establishing this new ABC, indeed, many of the conventional wisdom of sales, still pedalled around by various sales gurus, had to be challenged. For example, a sales person must be an Extrovert. Instead, Mr Pink cites research to show that in fact the 'Ambiverts', those who sit right in the middle of extroversion and introversion, usually do the best in sales. (He offers a free tool to assess what kind one is) He is also challenging the notion that declarative self-talk - 'I am the best and I can do this' - is usually bested by, hold your breath, Bob-the-Builder type 'interrogative' self talk, 'can we fix it?' The book is full of insights from social science research, presented in the context of sales and persuasion, and Mr Pink has already established a 'Gladwellesque' reputation in this.

This book ends with very practical advice on how-to: How to Pitch, how to improvise and how to serve. All this establishes sales as a very human activity, finally resurrected from its industrial age awkwardness, in its full 'post-modern' splendour.  This is what, for me, established a greater significance for this book than just a quick, attractive manual of new sales. In a way, this presented for me a very usable guidebook for designing an education for learners today, in any discipline, about a very important ability, to sell, and also a discussion of what's really important. In a very enjoyable section of the book, Mr Pink details, using psychological and social research, how 'Problem Finding' is trumping 'Problem Solving'. A lesson that I shall now carry, he cites a survey by Conference Board:

"(A) few years ago, the Conference Board, the well-regarded US business group, gave 155 public school superintendents and eighty-nine private employers a list of cognitive capacities and asked their respondents to rate these capacities according to which are most important for today's workforce. The superintendents ranked 'problem solving' as number one. But the employers ranked it number eight. Their top-ranked ability: 'problem identification'." (See 'Ready to Innovate' here)

Interesting snippets like this go beyond the immediate context of sales and clarify some of the issues about the future work and the models of education that we should be thinking about. This has been my key takeaway from this book.

Watch Dan Pink speak about 'To Sell is Human'

Monday, January 20, 2014

Education for Employment: Facing Up The Future

In my previous work on Education for Employment (links below), I pleaded the case to shift focus on to the goals and aspirations of the students, most of whom come to education with at least an implicit objective of getting into employment. My argument was primarily that Universities are designed, at least in a large way, to serve themselves, and all too often, the academia's focus is out of sync with that of the students. As a solution, I was arguing about a new paradigm for engagement with employers, keeping the student as the core focus rather than academic ambitions or the immediate needs of a particular employer. 

The arguments from among academic colleagues rightly challenged the plausibility of such a shift, pointing that most businesses are driven by here-and-now requirements, while the academia may essentially need to take long run view for the sake of its students. There is indeed some merit in this argument, as the failed attempts to create a successful vocational training provision in many countries often show. However, one must not also lose sight of successful experiments - there are indeed very good examples of universities and employers working together not just to give students jobs, but to work towards long term developments of the students focusing on development of T-Skills. In this debate of particular versus the general, it seemed, each one of us seem to be confined by one's own immediate experience, the very thing I wanted to raise through these posts.

However, there is more than just academia's willingness to look beyond itself and employers' desire to engage with a long term view: Beyond the control of both, technology is shaping how tomorrow's jobs will look like. Hence, while a progressive university and a socially minded business must work together to create the education-employment interface, the enterprise will be better served if the trajectory of technologies and businesses are taken into account. The recent issue of The Economist presents a very good summary of recent research on technology's effect on jobs, and my intention here is to summarise some of the key factors that an educator must think through in his/her quest to produce employable students. ('The Onrushing Wave', The Economist)

To start with, it is best to accept that we are in the middle of a profound change in the job market, a moment when the Information and Communication Technologies seemingly reached a tipping point and started eating into middle class jobs and careers which appeared solid only a decade ago. Indeed, the ability of technologies to replace labour have so far been put in check by the constant supply of cheap labour through the expansions of middle classes in populous countries such as India and China, and by the political imperative of protecting jobs in the West. However, this is a losing battle and it seems that we are reaching an inflection point of some kind: The supply of cheap skilled labour is now proving to be finite, as the emerging economies fail to expand their education infrastructure effectively enough. The political imperative of protecting jobs have been undermined by the pure economic pressures induced by the recession, and the rich country governments have become bolder in making deep cuts in public services and making people redundant citing the case for austerity. 

This presents a confluence of factors, rapidly improving technology, constrained skilled labour supply in emerging economies (and the political issues related to offshoring jobs) and the weakening of public argument for protecting jobs, which may set in motion a profound shift in the labour market, and it is already happening. A study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University studied the effect of computerisation on jobs (cited in The Economist, the original study here) and came up with a list that may frighten many. Primarily exploring on the basis of three 'compterisation bottlenecks', Perception and Manipulation (factors such as Finger Dexterity, Manual Dexterity and Frequency of Cramped and Awkward positions), Creative Intelligence (Originality and Fine Arts) and Social Intelligence (Social Perceptiveness, Negotiation, Persuasion and Assisting and Caring for others), they came up with a frightening figure of 47% of today's jobs that may be vulnerable to replacement by technology in the next two decades. Indeed, the effect is not same on different jobs, some jobs being far more susceptible to replacement by technology than others. On a scale of probability, where 1 stands for almost certain replacement and 0 stands for almost no probability of replacement, some of today's favoured jobs looked like this:

Jobs (Probability of Computerisation)

Telemarketers (0.99)
Insurance Underwriters (0.99)
New Accounts Clerks (0.99)
Insurance and Claim Processing Clerks (0.98)
Credit Analysts (0.98)
Bookkeeping, Auditing, Accounting Clerks (0.98)
Tellers (0.98)
Legal Secretaries (0.98)
Models (0.98)
Hosts, Hostesses in restaurants & coffee shops (0.98)
Cashiers (0.97)
Cooks, Restaurants (0.96)
Surveying and Mapping Technicians (0.96)
Receptionists (0.96)
Paralegals and Legal Assistants (0.94)
Hotel Desk Clerks (0.94)
Accountants and Auditors (0.94)
Retail Salespersons (0.92)
Tour Guides  (0.91)
Taxi Drivers (0.89)

This makes uncomfortable reading. Surely, there are jobs which are much less susceptible to computerisation threat, such as Editors (0.06), Chemical Engineers (0.02),  Dentists (0.004), Marketing Managers (0.014), Registered Nurses (0.0094), Educational and Vocational Counsellors (0.0088) and Secondary School Teachers (0.0078). But one must guard against reading the obvious here: That people with a Higher Education is somewhat immune to the technology threat, which seems to be the general message here. Too many people in today's Higher Education get into accounting, office work, hospitality trades and technician jobs in Health sector (Forensic, Diagnostic Work), Banks and Insurance (Underwriting etc), which are all greatly exposed to the technology rollover. If one takes an international perspective, the picture will become even grimmer: The universities in India, China, Poland and elsewhere, are happily churning away Accountants, Telesales people, Hospitality workers, and many other jobs which have been offshored to those countries (and hence represent prestigious graduate jobs with higher salaries), completely oblivious of the impending technology change. Looking at this list, one may get the feeling that the great promise of the emerging middle classes in Asia and elsewhere may turn out to be a great disaster, because better technology will wipe out managerially inconvenient and politically incorrect offshoring before it starts cutting into jobs at home.

The educator taking a long view of jobs and careers may therefore need to think beyond the clear and present labour market realities and balance the priorities of the future with the present. Surely, there are new jobs being created by the same job-destroying technologies, though not in the same proportion: An educator's trade is not just about educating, but to cull these insights and enable their students to prepare for their futures better. The starting point still remains the same: The educator must bring in focus the priorities of the students, often a middle class life with the usual contraptions of happiness, extending out twenty to thirty years into future. The educator must then bring about the conversations with today's employers and understanding of tomorrow's skills in line, and prepare his or her students with abilities and understanding that can help them live a fulfilling life.

Previous Posts on 'Education For Employment'

Is Education for Employment A Bad Thing?

Education for Employment: A New Paradigm for Engagement

Education for Employment: Finding the T-Skills

Technologies and Jobs

'Software is eating the world': Marc Andreessen said that and we see this everyday. It seems technology is marching into, in fact, creeping into, everything that we do. And, if it is eating anything, it is eating jobs, the solid middle class jobs we knew and still model our lives around, those of Secretaries, Administrators, Receptionists, Sales People, and all that. As is said, Microsoft Word has eaten more American jobs than India and China (and that's no consolation to India and China, because it will eventually, it is now, eating Indian and Chinese jobs too), and now this is extending into realms that we didn't think are possible. For the moment, Google's self-driving cars may not stand a chance in Mumbai or Lagos, but its arrival should eventually reorganise the trade of driving vehicles. The big issue in London today is that of closing ticket offices - with the implication of loss of Ticket Clerk jobs - and many stations today have only minimal ticket office service anyway, the job taken over by the touch screen machines of various kinds.

The Economist sees this as inevitable and desirable: Because the pressures of increasing productivity, globally footloose capital and high skilled labour, countries can't avoid, despite the loss of jobs and social consequences it brings, adopting technology. And, it prophesies that like in previous expansions of technology, while this replacement of labour with technology initially benefit the owners of capital and technology, subsequently, with realignment of education and training, labour catches up and reaps the rewards: Better jobs are created, to be performed in better conditions.

However, this happens over long run. As Keynes said, "In the long run, we are all dead", and therefore, this may not be an uniformly gratifying scenario. The new jobs are just too few to replace what is lost. As an illustration, the Economist article cites Instagram, which, when it was sold, serviced 13 million customers with 16 employees, whereas Kodak, which filed for bankruptcy a few months before Instagram got sold, employed more than 140,000 people at its peak.

In the immediate term, however, the effect of technology on labour is pretty dramatic. People employed in agriculture in America has shrunk from over 30% to 2% in the last hundred years, but the food output has gone up several times. Labour's share of output, the article points out, has shrunk from 64% to 59% globally, and the share of income of top 1% in America has shot up from 9% of total in 1970 to 22% today. And, menacingly, a study in Oxford University suggests that 47% of today's jobs may be replaced by technology in the next two decades. (Source: 'Coming To An Office Near You', The Economist, Jan 18th - 24th) 

As for the logic that expansion of technology eventually benefits labour, just as it did in the industrial revolution when compulsory education was introduced and a new generation of trained people created the middle class that we know today, is based on the view that technology determines everything. However, there may have been other factors at work which made it possible, such as the expansion of trade. So, the mobility of labour that The Economist's argument is based on, may have happened at the cost of extreme deprivation of the artisan communities in other parts of the world. In that sense, the argument that technology will destroy jobs but in the end, labour will catch up, is based on the assumption that global economy will continue to expand in scope, and new countries will continue to join it expanding the cycle of global consumption endlessly.

Another assumption left unsaid is that this march of technology will leave the politics untouched, but history shows it does not. The changes in the global economy has already wrought changes in politics in many countries, and if one global trend is visible today, it is that the middle classes are in a full scale war against its 'lower class' compatriots to wrest control of the polity in the name of 'development'. Since this battle can't be won by democratic means, the losers from globalisation are just far too numerous, this trend is resulting in the undermining of democracy though a culture of street protests, facebook rebellions and undermining of the compromises and consultations that formed the core of a democratic culture. Though there is no inevitability of repetition of history, the industrial revolution did indeed lead to conflicts inside the nations eventually spilling over outside, a danger we should be mindful of.

Indeed, this is not about prophesying that this would happen, and surely, history itself has lessons what needs to be done to distribute the effects of prosperity: The answer lies in preservation of democratic politics and innovation in education. A greater, even if painful, culture of compromise and consultation between the classes, and creation of an education system designed to build prosperity for all (rather than to preserve the existing privileges) can prepare a country to take advantage of the technological progress, and yet not lose its shirt in the end. Admittedly, the current trend is just the opposite, but to keep faith in humanity and to expect it to 'do the right thing once all options have been exhausted' (paraphrasing Churchill) may be worthwhile.

For details of what jobs are in danger, kindly refer to Education for Employment: Facing Up The Future

Sunday, January 19, 2014

India 2014: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

In a few months, India will hold a General Election which may change the country. Rather, it would be appropriate to assert that it will change the country. The Indian Republic, founded 67 years ago, has finally run its course, and this time, its citizens will have to choose a path which is different from what has been for the last 67 years. This change may be frightening, chaotic and even disastrous, but this time around, there is little choice but change.

The competing ideas are firmly pitted against one another. It is no longer about one party against another, as it has always been, but two clear ideas of governance, two clear ideas of India. And, there is no middle ground. The mythical middle ground may be the holy grail of democratic polity, but at the time of change, this may not present an option. Everyone must choose - and everyone must resist, because compromise and staying silent may veer the country to a course which will shape everyone's future.

The most talked about choice on the table is a Hindu Nationalist government of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), led by its charismatic Narendra Modi, which promises to create a paradise of middle class prosperity in India. Staunchly pro-business, pro-urban middle class, Mr Modi is feted for governing the Western Indian state of Gujrat well, though his stint includes a bout of ethnic cleansing of the state's Muslim population in a pogrom in 2002. This factor alone should have disqualified him in office, but the fact that it did not seem to count shows what kind of administration he would lead, if elected.

He is the favoured candidate for the middle classes, and seen as a 'strong' leader. He, in turn, promises a strong stance to Pakistan, strong stance to China, strong stance to Indian muslims, and an income tax free world for Indian middle classes. His fortunes are buoyed by the hapless Indian National Congress (INC), in power for a decade, which has little to show for its years except raging corruption scandals and a fragmenting party. Despite its initial promise, the Congress failed to connect with and represent India's overwhelming young and increasingly urban and aspirational middle class. This has made the businesses and overseas corporate interests shift their allegiance to Mr Modi: Mr Modi's campaign for power is bolstered by huge pools of money thrown at it by Indian tycoon businesses, as well as Overseas Indians.

The BJP's vision for India has been quite clearly presented in a book called Breaking India, by Rajiv Malhotra, an Indian-American Hindu Chauvinist ideologue, and Arvind Neelakandan. As apologists for the 'strong leader' case, they present three existential dangers for India: An Islamic fundamentalism supported by Pakistan, a Maoist insurgency supported by China and a Dravidian-Dalit fault line nurtured by the West. This is indeed an old Fascist tactic to try to create a scare to convince people to give up their liberties, and taking from the Fascist playbook, this points to the other, Pakistan, China, the West, rather than trying to seek the answers inside India. And, clearly, this others presenting existential threats to India represent most of India's people, Muslims plus the landless peasants fighting for their land (labelled as Maoists) and Dalits and Dravidians will account for more than 70% of India's population, leaving only a tiny sliver of caste Hindus living in the cities and seeking to enjoy Mr Modi's handouts to decide what the true India is. 

So, in summary, this is choice number one for Indians: A strong leader, running an authoritarian government, primarily focused on the tycoon businesses and urban middle classes, serving the upper caste Hindus. His solution to India's problems will be to impose an uniform vision of India, one framed in Hindi-Hindu terms, and anyone speaking against it will be categorised in one of three anti-national categories: Muslim, Maoist or Dravidian. If one has to reconstruct Martin Niemoller's  timeless poem for the fate of a Modi-fied India, it is easy to see what shape it would take.

But, just in time for those Indians who did not necessarily subscribed to this apocalyptic vision of Hindu India but were complaining that they had no viable choice (the only alternative being voting for the corrupt Congress and its allies), the emergence of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a ragtag citizen's coalition led by a former taxman, Arvind Kejriwal, presents an alternative. Indeed, AAP is small, somewhat chaotic, untested and currently confined within the City state of Delhi, but regardless of its size and scope, it represents a truly alternative vision of India.

This vision is somewhat opposite to Mr. Modi's, and Congress'. This is about saying that India's problems can not be solved by its politicians, ministers and civil servants. Its problems must be, first and foremost, be solved by its people. Standing at the opposite end of the Strong Leader thesis, this is about the government being an instrument to facilitate and enable citizen's actions. Its leaders clearly see governance as revolution itself, and their three week rule in Delhi was marked by activism and demands for accountability. 

Indeed, the established political parties have condemned AAP's style of governance, sticking it with the 'anarchist' label. AAP's style of governance, with Ministers roaming around without VIP convoys and in the streets, legislative activism, a culture of consultation, a common thing in most mature democracies, is a new thing in India. It is usual in India not to see one's MP ever in life, much less approaching him with a problem to solve. So, for those Indians used to regal MPs and distant governance, a politician who turns up at the front door may indeed appear anarchic. Besides, Mr Kejriwal's government has given credence to these claims by threatening to protest against the callous lack of accountability that State police, not directly controlled by its government but by the Federal administration, shows to cases of rape and drug abuse: A Minister who is ready to take the sides of the people when those in power fail to be accountable is a dangerous precedence for the political establishment which is used to being distant, indifferent, unaccountable to its citizens.

Arvind Kejriwal, AAP's leader, brushes off the allegations by stating that they must take unprecedented actions because the precedent of governance was leading India nowhere. BJP apologists, in their desperation, claim that AAP and Mr Kejriwal stands not for 'the middle class but the lower classes' (this 'lower class' being most Indians), that AAP manifesto echoes communist manifesto (raising the fear of the other, without having read either), and that they lean to the left and therefore an alternate to Congress rather than BJP. (See these allegations here

In a sense, the poorly argued article cited above got one thing right: That AAP is not BJP and represent an alternative for Congress. This is fundamentally because BJP's, and Mr Modi's, politics stands on two pillars, that of fear and of chauvinism. BJP's politics portrays India as a besieged country, subject to countless conspiracies all around the world aimed at undermining its greatness, and Mr Modi is that superman who would lead India to its destined greatness by suppressing the internal enemies (just as he did to Muslims in Gujrat) and challenging the external ones. The AAP idea, on the other hand, is one of hope - that Indian people, yes, even the lower classes, are inexhaustibly resilient and can solve its own problems; all it needs is a government that is accountable and that works for them, enables them, facilitates them, and at least not work against them. BJP presents an institutional vision, regal, distant, authoritarian, a picture of India as an exceptional country (though the vision itself is a cheap copy of Nazi nationalism), denied its rightful place by enemies within (Muslims, Maoists and Dravidians) and without (Pakistan, China and the West). The AAP, on the other hand, presents the alternative vision, of an India resilient and aspirational, which is held back only by the lack of accountability of its government and its elite.

So, the elections in 2014 represents a choice between fear and hope, democracy-for-a-day versus citizenship and accountability. The latter message is difficult to comprehend, and the BJP strategists, who, in their heart, hold the ordinary Indian in contempt ('the lower classes'), are hoping that the glitz and the glamour of Modi campaign will convince most Indians that they do not want the responsibility of citizenship. Those on the other side will, however, do better to keep their faith - and believe that involved citizenship may be an idea whose time has finally come in India.

Friday, January 17, 2014

MOOCs: If this is not the future, what is

If 2012 was the 'Year of the MOOCs' as proclaimed by New York Times, 2014 started on a downbeat note, with Harvard Professor Eric Mazur talking about 'MOOC Bust'. It is difficult to understand what accounts for such fickle sentiments, except that current pessimism is just a correction of the hype.

There were indeed talk of low completion rates - only a handful of students who register for a MOOC ever completes a course (Times Higher Education reported a figure of 7%, but that seems way too high) - but then completion rate itself is such an old economy model out of sync with Long Tail thinking: Kevin Carey wrote a fairly persuasive piece on why the completion rates of the MOOCs is simply the wrong measure ('Pay No Attention to Supposedly Low MOOC Competion Rates').

There was also the Fast Company article on Udacity founder, Sebastian Thurn, the Stanford Professor whose Stanford course on Artificial Intelligence may be claimed to have started it all. That article gave a sense that all is not right in the MOOC world, with Thurn admitting that his courses are not teaching people as well as he would have wished. 'We have a lousy product', was the soundbite from that interview which made the headline. Indeed, this article, for the first time, indicated the change of heart at Udacity about their 'change of course', a shift of focus to corporate education and an effective abandonment of their ambition of turning the world of Higher Education upside down.

News such as this encourage those who always questioned the MOOCs, primarily because it was free. Indeed, everyone knew that one can't keep dispensing good quality education for free for a long time; none of the MOOCs were countering these doubts with a robust answer, other than pointing out to various incidental benefits such as insights on learner behaviour and influencing the university recruitment strategies. These benefits counted, but whether these could generate enough revenue to cover the costs of continuing the high profile enterprise was always questionable. Thurn's remarks just substantiated this apocalyptic vision of a coming implosion, an exemplary failure such as U21 (a high profile international collaboration of leading universities offering online courses, which failed and was eventually sold to India's Manipal, who reoriented the brand and platform away from Higher Ed and into Corporate Education: See 'Another One Bites The Dust' here)

But this counter-hype about the demise of the MOOCs is surely overdone, as the proliferation of various new MOOCs, no doubt with fresh investments, bear witness to. Not only new universities offering courses, platforms in different languages and learners from all over the world have multiplied over the last year,  some of the old platforms, such as Alison, which was around for quite a while, have gained traction (and earned mention in the media, including The Economist) with the MOOC effect. An ecosystem of MOOCs are clearly visible in developing country universities and colleges, where an EdX room (or MOOC room) has become somewhat common. There are even businesses which are producing teaching materials around MOOCs, and teachers in less known institutions have caught onto MOOCs as additional material for the classes. Meetups are springing up all over the world - isn't it exciting to see an Indian entrepreneur and a German Engineer talking about Whitman sitting in the cafe at British Museum - and the public education, long dead with as the money economy progressively sought to enclose the learning commons, has indeed had a shot in the arm with the MOOCs. 

Given this, one can possibly view this cycle of counter-hype not just as a regular pushback against the initial surge of rhetoric, but a reminder that we have been having the wrong discussion all the while. The discussion around the MOOCs were economic, rather than pedagogical. This is somewhat down to timing: MOOCs came to view just as concerns were growing about student debt in the United States. This focused minds on the costs of Higher Education, though the real problem was always that Higher Education was not earning people good enough jobs that could help pay for it. MOOCs appeared as a handy thing to cut the costs of delivery - it is magical to be able to teach a class of thousands with just one professor - and media, investors and policy makers (including Britain's David Willetts) loved it. Whether or not this was in the mind of the creators and tutors of the MOOCs (Michael Sandel, as an example, was teaching large public classes without the MOOCs for years anyway), this is what caught the investors' and analysts' imagination. 

But this was indeed the wrong point, pushed to the fore by those who saw education as an industrial activity. The debate, centred around costs, rarely asked the question whether this could enhance education. The educators, sensing the further loss of privileges, disengaged from the debate and were left to oppose any moves to introduce MOOCs in their institutions (well, mostly). However, these cost advantages failed to materialise: As Professor Diana Laurillard argues in her recent piece in Times Higher Education, unsupervised learning was never the answer to the problems that Higher Education sector faced ('Five Myths about MOOCs'). 

On the other hand, the confluence of Online Video, Machine-based Assessment, machine capacity to handle a large number of learners at the same time, social media based spread of word and all the other technologies that were to enhance and change learning, did come together and enhanced and changed learning through the MOOCs. It did open up a new public sphere of learning and conversation, stoked people's curiousity and created a new architecture of Lifelong learning. However, we chose to have the wrong conversation: We were trying to use the combustion engine to light up gas lamps. Instead of looking at the possibilities of enhancement of learning, the wonderful capabilities of technology to connect people and enable conversations, we were looking at MOOCs as if they are the next textbook, as if they are the panacea of the cost disease in Higher Education, we were expecting it to reach out to those who never had Higher Education (we fail to learn: This was what Open Universities are for, but they tend to reach out to people who already had degrees, mostly). 

The current sobering, therefore, is in order. It is the return to real world of learning from the rosy universe of the moneymen, but there is enough to do in the real world, enough demand and enough problems to solve. As for solving Higher Education's problems, that will surely need another solution. Higher Education's problem is not that it is so costly to deliver, but that it is often not worth it. This needs a different conversation: Part of this problem may be solved within the academia, but certainly there are other parts of the equation for the employers, the policy makers and the public to solve. The institutionalised universities, the blinkered employers, the learners who are adept at the game of social recognition but nothing else, all need to participate in a new debate on how the 21st century learning should look like (apparently, it needs to be different than 20th century's, but nothing so far has changed). And, while we write off MOOCs from its world-changing roles, one thing is worth noting: Any 21st century education system will probably involve a re-ignition of the public sphere of learning, where people, regardless of their previous track record and credentials, can come together to learn subjects that they want to learn, in an affordable way, suiting the structure of modern lives. MOOCs may still be a very good part of that future.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The App Generation: A Review

I have followed Howard Gardner's work ever since I started studying the science and art of adult learning, because of his intuitive insights and penchant to address issues relevant to modern life and work. These were precisely my expectations when I picked up his latest, The App Generation, co-authored with Katie Davis, and I was not disappointed.

The book is an attempt to portray 'Today's Youth' in the context of their digital habits and its implication for life, love and learning. This seeks middle ground between the enthusiasm that Marc Prensky had for 'Digital Natives' and the bleak vision of The Shallows. Putting things in perspective through personal reflections of Professor Gardner, Ms Davis (twenty years his junior) and Ms Davis' sister Molly, another generation apart, this work is an imaginative exploration of technologies shaping consciousness and habits.

One of the most entertaining parts of the book is its 'unpacking' of the concept of generations. We have had several characterisations to deal with: The usual concepts linked to familial generations, each 20 years or so apart (and rising, as people live longer and have children later in life), the socio-economic ones (the GI generation, the Baby boomers, Generation X and Y) and those linked to historical events, such as the Watergate generation. Professor Gardner correctly points out that we are increasingly viewing generations in media/ technology terms, so a generation of newspapers, followed by a generation of radio, then of television and of Internet, each dominant media affording certain form of society, certain values and certain personal habits. This is indeed the commonly held view of media historians, after Marshall McLuhan's 'Medium is the Message'. Tom Standage's entertaining Writing on the Wall, which I also recently read, chronicles the history of consciousness shaped by the media too. And, indeed, this view is shared by the Digital Enthusiasts and Digital Pessimists: Mr Prensky's Digital Native is indeed the same fidgeting person documented in Mr Carr's 'The Shallows'. 

What is special about Professor Gardner's work though is to see the 'Apps',  downloadable software applications designed to perform specific tasks, as a distinct development, significant enough to shape habits and culture differently from media and computer usage. This is indeed worth pondering about. By focusing on the App culture, the authors somewhat under-emphasize the social nature of the Internet, what some of the digital enthusiasts see as a pivotal aspect and defining possibility of the new media (for example, Clay Shirky's 'Cognitive Surplus'). However, this is not an isolated dystopian vision, but in the vain of the warnings from Tim Barnes Lee about the emergence of 'Digital Walled Gardens' or Siva Vaidhynathan's Googlization of Everything visions which warn about cognitive and social shrinking through managed filters of the Internet, rather than the promised expansion of the possibilities. 

The message of The App Generation centers around three aspects of today's youth: Identity, Intimacy and Imagination. The author's warn of each of these things being somewhat preordained, rather than achieved through exploration and engagement. If someone is uncomfortable about digital algorithm's ability to find true love, one would perhaps understand the issue. As the authors put it:

(I)dentities will be more superficial, packaged less interestingly, idiosyncratically, less meaningfully consolidated; intimacy - even it proves more robust than privacy - will be more superficial, more tenuous, less likely to evolve over time; and imagination will be enhanced chiefly for evident problems with evident routes toward their solution. Or, extending beyond our individual young subjects, it may seem that, in spheres ranging from religion to education, the plurality of apps, and the uses to which they are currently put, lean strongly in the direction of dependence, not enablement. 

This is a powerful message. The authors are not dystopian, because they do discuss the possibilities of resistance, individuals resisting the consciousness shaped by technology, though, the authors concede, it may be much easier to disconnect for a while (Arianna Huffington recently asked people to 'disconnect to reconnect') than to resist consciousness determined by technology. The message of App Generation is therefore one of stark warning, and a plea in the lineage of Anthony Burgess, we would rather be bad and imperfect in our own way than be good with scientifically programmed consciousness. This is one message that every educator should at least seriously consider.

Watch Howard Gardner talk about 'The App Generation' at the RSA


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Reimagine! Vocational Training In India

India wants to train 500 million people in vocational and technical skills over the next few years. This is, on paper, the most ambitious vocational skills training agenda anywhere in the world.

This is old news and the details are well known. The announcements, and subsequent splurging of money have been well documented: The creation of an opportunistic vocational training industry in India, where training firms were created overnight to take advantage of this windfall of public money, is less so. The fact that such efforts have actually gone nowhere in the last few years is usually kept under wraps, because it serves no one to admit that things have gone wrong.

However, the need to change things are rather urgent. India's competitiveness is under threat as the skills bottleneck drives up costs and wastage, limiting opportunities for Indian businesses. Besides, expansion of mining activities and industrialisation is driving out a huge rural population into the cities, and without a strategy to integrate this excess populace into a modern economy, India will face not only economic problems but social unrest as well. So far, the Indian government has tried to deal with the modernisation of economy in a very traditional way - by expanding its welfare system - but this is clearly unaffordable beyond a point for a hugely indebted Indian state.

While the need of productivity boost through skills training was clearly understood, how to do this was clearly not. As with other things in India, this became a thing to be announced quickly, by the policy elite for the policy elite, and with little discussion or understanding of the issue involved. As an example, while the big announcement was made - that India needs to train 500 million people - and the money was allocated (with the usual suspects lined up to receive the largesse), the government forgot to ask what skills may actually be needed. Besides, the skills development agenda, as the government saw it, was to be driven by training organisations, alongside training divisions of employing organisations, based in Indian cities. These organisations, many of whom may have done excellent work in training 'white collar' workers in IT, hospitality, retail and other trades, were surely unconnected and clueless about the intended audience of this new 'opportunity', the disenfranchised rural jobless with little intention to move to the city.

So, what happened since is all too predictable. Most of these organisations have not gone anywhere near the projected numbers: The usual complaint is that people don't want to take the training they offer. Tales from the field tells one about the emergence of a new phenomenon: The ghost learner. These are people who may turn up for the first one or two days of training, but then drops out, as s/he figures out that the training is not for them. However, the person remains on the training company's books, because they have little incentive to report the drop out. And, if underachievement of the numbers, alongwith the fact even the reported number include more than 30% ghost learners (in some cases, 100%), is bad enough, the skills they learn is out of sync anyway: It is reported that 500 auto-mechanics were trained in UP to work on carburetors, whereas auto companies have stopped manufacturing cars with carburetors for last two decades and use Multi-point Fuel Injection instead. Needless to say, none of the 'trained' personnel could find a job in any auto service station.

The government and its agencies are reportedly well aware of the problems. Their search for solution has been to create more top down mechanisms, such as UK-style Sector Skills Councils, involving the industry, and to sign more MoUs with overseas agencies and providers to get more expertise and better training. Indeed, these show that the Government has no idea what the problem is - that the people being trained can't be reached - and the officials are more interested in creating news than getting anything done. How else would the Sector Skills Councils justify its existence, when the trades are mostly unorganised? How do MoUs with foreign providers enhance the proposition when the local ones can't find enough people to train? 

Apparently, there are two problems here. One is a global problem of skills training. It is almost always poorly done by training providers, and particularly by big ones. The officials overseeing skills development, usually well-educated policy people who has never really been out there (except for well-staged photo opportunities), don't, can't, recognise that skills are socially constructed and only developed over a longer period of time. A skilled plumber becomes skilled not for a three week (or six months, or even a year's) training programme he attends, but he becomes skilled because (a) plumbing is socially valued and he is encouraged by everyone around him to do plumbing; (b) he keeps at it for a long time, doing work and getting paid enough to sustain himself; (c) there is incentive for him to improve, in the form of good plumbers getting paid more than bad plumbers and amateurs. Without this eco-system of values and practices, skills training becomes a business of warm bodies: This is mostly the case in many countries where Welfare State splurges money on training providers.

The second is a very Indian problem. Work with hand falls at the lowest category of the work hierarchy, and the Government is indeed fighting a futile battle with deeply embedded belief systems here. This is not a battle that the government can win through its usual functionaries, the officials, the tycoons and the training man. In fact, if anything, these pyramids of privilege sustains the prejudice against the physical work, and only reaffirms the caste system by its own existence. This can only be changed with creating grassroots involvement through grassroots organisations, organisations that are for, of and by the people of disadvantaged castes doing the work. Indeed, this is to be done not as a 'scheme' but as a 'movement', and that is the only way to do it.

My intention is not to make a dark prognosis about India's skills development and say that it won't ever happen. Indeed, this needs to happen if India has to progress, and even for the country to survive in its current form. But, this will need imagination, a cultural revolution, a commitment to bottom up in a country where everything runs top down: This is indeed the shape of the solution to skills development problem everywhere in the world, with trade unions and workers' guilds doing a far better job than the bureaucrats and skills training colleges. But it is best to acknowledge that this is more difficult in India than anywhere else, because the Indian state is distant, disconnected and hijacked by its elite, it is not in control of itself anymore.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Educating The Global Professional

One of the programmes I have written recently is about preparing Global Professionals. 

The rationale for writing such a programme was that with globalisation, all professions need global savvy. It is no longer the preserve of those working on International Trade and Development opportunities, but now it is required for most businesses. And, being global is no longer a preserve or a requirement solely in the Global 'North'. As South-to-South trade increases, and ambitious break-out firms appear in India, China, Mexico, Brazil, Turkey and everywhere else, global thinking becomes an imperative for a much wider spectrum of managers than before. The programme we wrote, titled Global Business Professional, is intended to be a preparation for professionals facing the hyper-global future.

As with other things we do at U-Aspire, this programme is not a certification assessed by tests, but a practical, competency-based programme where demonstration of learned concepts are critical for success. We identified two key abilities, Strategic Thinking at a Global level and Cross-cultural Competence, that these Global Professionals must have, and constructed two units of the programme focusing on each one of these attributes in turn. 

The aspiring Global Business Professional engages with cases and examples of global strategic thinking, clearly delineating the special challenges that come with global business (distinct as it is from strategic issues in the business' home market): The key idea to go beyond the simplistic idea of 'world is one' (or Globalisation Apocalypse, as Dr Pankaj Ghemawat calls it) and to highlight strategic thinking that must accompany international engagement. In this, we ask the 'Why' question, usually something that is taken for granted in similar programmes (or given superficial answers, such as you have to go global because your competitor is going global), and explore the challenges of global strategy in great detail. We use a framework to assess Global Business Risks and Opportunities, and look closely on three critical aspects of global business, innovation, market development and leadership.

In the accompanying unit, we seek to develop cross-cultural competence of our learners. Usually, this is done in one of the two ways in Asia. One, a list of attributes are described for each country, promoting huge stereotypes. In the typical 'Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands' fashion, this is about rattling off a mechanistic rules of engagement with people from each culture. Indeed, this approach is completely ineffective, because such lists are completely off the point, too hard to remember and imparted without any logic.

The second way to impart the culture training is about trying to explain the rationale underlying behaviour: This is about Hofstede (and mostly Hofstede) and his dimensions, as well as explaining things like Fast and Slow culture, and various other models. This approach is more involved and common sense based than the previous one, but usually leaves the learner slightly bedazzled because these 'dimensions' relate to behaviours they have never experienced first hand.

In deciding how we see Cultural Competence, we decided to take the second route, but instead of solely relying on theories, we have constructed the programme in continuation of the theme of strategic thinking. So, we present scenarios to the learner which require understanding of cultural dimension and encourage them to apply the theories learnt in interpreting the case. Typical example of this approach will be that the learners will be presented with a typical cross-cultural conflict scenario, and would be given the tools to interpret the same: Once they have arrived at their own interpretation of and indeed, recommended solutions for resolving the conflict, they will come together in a meeting to discuss this among peers and a mentor.

These two 'knowledge' units are then followed up by a sustained intervention based on practice. First, the learners are required to take on a live project for their employers which requires engagement with global customers, suppliers, colleagues or partners, looking at the application of global strategic thinking and development of their cross-cultural competence. The learners are mentored through this project, and helped along with resources, ideas, cases and feedback, while they undertake their research and present their recommendations. In the other unit, the learners are expected to look at their own self-development in the global context, and effectively become a part of a global community of professionals, by enhancing their global intellectual (knowing about the world), psychological (knowing about behaviours of different people and developing a cosmopolitan outlook) and social (knowing people across the world) 'capital'. Again, this engagement plays out over a longer period of time, in keeping with our belief that it takes a longer intervention to affect thinking and behaviour. 

We did keep in mind the futility of trying to develop global values and attitudes solely inside a classroom, and hence, designed the delivery around face-to-face facilitation by educators from different cultural backgrounds, online interaction with tutors and peers, study of cases and examples from a wide variety of countries, industries and settings, and a competency-based assessment mechanism that focuses on skills and behaviour, rather than context-blind technical knowledge about the issues involved.

Though we wrote the programme, we wanted this programme to be clearly bench-marked. We have been modestly successful in this: Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM), which is UK's largest professional body for Leadership and Management professionals, endorsed the programme. University of Greenwich, which is a really forward thinking university, also accepted the programme for a certification from their appropriately named Centre for Innovation, Imagination and Inspiration: This certification is competence-based, and the learners get a transcript clearly outlining the activities and projects they have engaged into, a clear boost to their CVs as their project work is highlighted and certified.

It has taken us more than six months to put this proposition together, design the content and the readings, and get the external endorsements and certifications. Now, this is good to go: We believe this will be of enormous value to global service organisations which seek to improve the global outlook of their employees (new recruits or seasoned locally focused managers). By certification, we ensured that this is not just an in-house programme, but the learners will have demonstrable competences which should help their employers to project their offering to global clients. We have started marketing this programme in India and China, and looking to engage with education institutions and training organisations in other countries to take this forward.

Reflections and Interests: Approaching 2014

2014 has started and I have allowed myself a bit of a leeway, all the days, to gradually settle into a plan.

My agenda has already been set by 2013: I have perhaps irreversibly committed myself to set up a global education business. This is a complex enterprise which will take many partnerships and linkages, and will only slowly come into shape. However, I see now that my life is inextricably linked to this - in a way, this is what I have been doing since 1999 and this took me more than a decade to get it fully going - and all my plans revolve around this central enterprise now. Indeed, in the course of 2014, I expect the shape of the business to change. This is a large scale enterprise requiring deep connections and flow of capital, and indeed, 2014 may be a year of building those strategic partnerships or even mergers, but whatever the organisational future may be, this seems to be what I shall be doing for a very long time.

This, in turn, shapes my personal agenda as well. This is not just work: This has now become my identity. This is not an enterprise just to make money, though it should sure generate a profit for its investors and partners to remain viable. But, at the core, this is about creating an enterprise which attacks the problem of global education, creates a framework for truly global learning that works. This task has a large personal preparation element as well. There is no let off, so to say: If this has to be done, this needs a commitment of all my waking moments.

Having said that, I take to heart Doris Kearns Goodwin's lessons from life of Abraham Lincoln that one must seek to balance love, work and play. To some, my life may seem incredibly boring because I have taken on this one goal, which is bigger than myself, and for many years, I have been living a somewhat obsessed life just to pursue this. Some people indeed complained that I forgot to play, and that I neglected family and friends. This is my big task of 2014, and that is not to seek a balance of work and life (because my work has become my life) but to bring it all together, so that my commitment to family, work and play all lead to the same destination.

How I do that I don't know yet. Usually distrustful of management guru stuff, I have taken on Robin Sharma's concept of 'Holy Hour' though: I am now getting up very early in the morning to allow myself an hour of exercise, learning and journalling (this post is one of those) to charge my mental abilities and getting ready for the day. But I think engaging is a great way to bringing back the balance in life: Making friends not with those who happen to just happen to be there, but with those who are on the same journey but needs seeking out; and engaging family and friends in the enterprise of one's work rather than trying to erect artificial boundaries between the two; learning those skills and abilities that engage the mind, because if the mind is focused, it will automatically seek out things which it needs, rather than one has to consciously directing it to useful things. (This happens to me a lot - I shall read a history book and often will end up bringing it out in context when talking about work)

And, finally, this is also part of my enterprise to go home too. As I have always said, I wish to go back to India. But this is not about just leaving Britain and going home, but to craft a journey, just as I did while coming here, making the pieces fall in place and being able to construct a meaningful return and meaningful existence thereafter. My project remains, at its heart, my commitment to my roots. 

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How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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