Monday, January 26, 2015

Humanities and Leadership Journey

I taught a course called Leadership Journey for a few years in a college in London. This was part of their post-graduate programme for practising managers. It was a great little course embedded in an MBA type programme, the difference being the emphasis on practice. The participants were to plan for their own development of leadership capabilities and compile a portfolio of reflections backed by evidence, which made it very different from most MBAs.

This was part of a management course, and the rest of the programme dealt with the usual HR, Marketing, Finance, Strategy stuff. However, this one constituent course stood out, because this was more about the learners and less about any one subject, and everyone could choose their own paths to write their portfolio. I did indeed try to encourage a diversity of approaches, though not many of the learners eventually tried to be creative. Indeed, they saw this course without any fixed content as an invitation to do whatever, which means essentially getting away without doing much. The idea, however, stayed with me to eventually construct a course like this on leadership.

When I get to do it - and this is something I want to do when my project of creating a global e-school becomes a reality - I want to keep it separate from learning things like strategy etc. My plan is to build upon the key idea - a learning journey of knowing about, doing and being a leader - and construct it around an interdisciplinary structure, based on humanities, social and behavioural sciences. In my construct, the Leadership Journey itself becomes a programme itself, and divorced from the technical aspects of management. Indeed, I have nothing against management, but I reject the assumption that knowing about strategy or finance makes one capable of leadership. Leadership capabilities, in their broad behavioral meaning as opposed to their conventional, technical, meaning, are much needed in all spheres of the society, not just in business, and the institution I am designing is to serve that broader social goal. 

One objection to this approach is that I am trying out the old tired approach that humanities courses are inherently better in developing leadership abilities than others. But my approach, I shall claim, is slightly different. I have seen the limitations of professional education first hand, and would claim that a narrow professional education limits the ability to reflect on the human and moral aspects of work. This does not only mean significant moral failure, which we all bear witness of, but also a declining professional standard and gradual debasement of social commitment of a profession, like the one management is now facing. What I am trying to create is an alternative way of learning about leadership, through exploring history, following biographical pathways, understanding psychology, ethics and culture and connecting back to moral and social aspects of work.

But there is also another reason why I think the old, tired approach is better. Anyone reading history will notice that this is a point when history is making a comeback. The euphoria days of the 90s, when we reached the end of history, are well and truly over. The break with the past, just like successful children wanting to break away from the way of their parents, was fashionable when we felt confident about the future. But, right now, confronted with globalisation, decline of democracy, unrestrained powers of the few on the rest of us, we are seeking to understand, again, the ways of the past. From this point on, there are two ways to choose. Some of us are choosing to hate, reject our surroundings and wanting to go back to the past. Others, a few, are still choosing to hope, and trying to find ways to reconcile the future learning the lessons from the past. My idea is to be able to promote the latter message.

While I want to develop this course as a part of the overall E-school proposition, this is a standalone project in itself. I evangelize the essential idea of developing an applied humanities approach to leadership development (as I have come to call it) whenever I am talking to someone who cares to listen. This, development of a full scheme of Leadership Journey based on this model, is my project for 2015, and I hope to find a friendly institution to test run this with by the end of the year.  


Saturday, January 24, 2015

Rethinking 21st Century Skills

The label - 21st Century Skills - is popular, but the definition behind it are questionable (see the previous post). However, this is not to deny that the skills we need - to live and to be successful - are evolving. One interesting and oft-used thought experiment to figure out what we may need is to compare the experiences of a time traveller traversing through the last century. Say, we could get someone from 1900 to come to the world of 1950, and another person from 1950 to come to year 2000 - who do we think would experience greater changes? It is perhaps the person from 1900, who would see automobiles, aeroplanes, widespread use of electric lighting, airconditioners and tall buildings, who might experience greater changes in the material environment. But it is the person from the later half of the twentieth century, traveling to the threshold of the twenty-first, comfortable at first seeing only incremental changes (faster automobiles, bigger planes, taller buildings and more appliances), would soon discover deeply unsettling new social norms, of living, of parenting, of schooling, of marriages, of dressing, so on and so forth.  Overall, she would see greater stability of personal lives - people living longer and more healthily - but a great turmoil in the families and communities, contrasting greatly with the first half of the century, when war and diseases afflicted personal well-being but people lived in stable communities and within the bounds of defined family norms. 

Skills, particularly as policy makers got involved in it, have assumed a very specific, technical, meaning in the recent years. This is also partly because of the Human Capital theorists, who have seen skills as an external thing, which people can be equipped with, rather than attributes that people may have in themselves. What skills we need, therefore, is a discussion informed by what skills that the employers may need to carry out the business activities, which further reinforces the external nature of skills. Because we define the skills in this very particular way, the context of changing social norms may not sound relevant to the discussion about 21st Century skills. Instead, the discussion about skills has tended to depend on the largely fictional existence about a global labour market, and on the mistaken assumption that employer skill requirements tend to operate independently of the broader social requirements. In summary, skills have become disconnected from lives that we live.

Indeed, the narrowing down the definition of skills is a mistake, because instead of business skill requirements driving the society, it is the changing social norms that define what skills may the businesses need. Going the other way round, as we are trying to do today, create a vast number of people narrowly skilled in tasks that may soon be redundant, clueless about how to live and disengaged from others around them. Skilling, as it stands today, is designed to perpetuate a low-skilled society, rather than creating social engagement and trust that create what may be called a high-skill, productive society. And, instead of answering these fundamental questions about the nature and purpose of skills, the discussion about 21st century skills has increasingly concerned itself with technicalities.

So, the talk about 21st Century skills, being superficial and insufficiently informed by social context, reinforces the schism between life and work, accentuating the social dislocation that underlie modern living. No wonder that most people concerned with skilling complain about lack of motivation on part of the intended beneficiaries. And, besides, despite all the efforts going into skills training, even employers still report a relative decline in workplace skills, and talk about an impending global workforce crisis. And, the failure of the skills practice, instead of prompting inquiry into the nature and purpose of skills, has consolidated the skills orthodoxy to extend its reach to the previously untouched areas - soft skills, as we started to call it - which concern itself with the behavioral aspects of a person rather than his/her technical abilities. 

However, the discussion about soft skills is not an attempt to move away from technicalities, but rather usurping the discussion about motivation and engagement with the technocratic terms. For example, communication has become one of the key soft skills to be covered within this new skills agenda, but the term has been endowed a new, technocratic, specific, meaning. Communication now is no longer being able to communicate in the normal sense, which would invariably require some efforts at understanding the other person and even empathy, but rather the very specific activities such as being able to present, to sell (ideas and commodities) and to speak in some very specific language. Critical Awareness (which has come to mean being anything but critical), Problem Solving (which has become divorced from problem identification), Collaboration (which now has to operate within the context of privatized knowledge) have all become labels without their common sense meanings.

So, in conclusion, it is not that we do not need new skills and abilities to live successfully in the twenty-first century, but the skills and abilities that we need may be broader than those which are being promoted as 21st Century skills. Starting to ask the questions about what we may require to live successfully may be a good starting point, even if this does not fit the narrow technical boundaries of skills discussion as it happens today. In that sense, the discussion about twenty-first century skills may have to be re-imagined, and we should start from the society we live in rather than the job descriptions handed down by the employers.

Friday, January 23, 2015

India 2015 - The Fragility of Future

Some time back, on the eve of the 2014 General Elections in India, I wrote about the Indian Republic (see Resurrecting The Republic) as perhaps the greatest achievement of India, and hoped that the Indian electorate would vote sensibly to protect it. I argued then that handing out the Hindu Nationalists a mandate may endanger whatever we have achieved so far. I feared that we might have taken the Republic and the democracy for granted and might, therefore, stand to lose it.

A few months on, the Hindu Nationalist take-over has happened, with some predictable outcomes. The development talk continues to dominate the agenda, with the government making tall proclamations while back-pedaling on the old ones. The greatest achievement of the new government so far has been a slew of development friendly ordinances, ten in eight months in office, which they have adopted without reference to the Parliament. So far, there was not much of economic good news, except the Bombay Stock Exchange achieving some breathtaking heights and the global petroleum prices collapsing to give the middle class at least one commodity where prices have really gone down. 

Instead, as expected, there were some really game-changing social developments. The conversions to Hinduism reached a fever pitch and the government planning to ban all religious conversions on the back of it (apparently to stop its own Hinduvta champions, but to put the Christian missionaries and others out of business). The MPs have gone around preaching Hindus to have more children, 4 or 5 at the least as recommended, to keep growing the majority population and to keep the Islamic conspiracy of over-running India with Muslim children at bay. As an aside, one of the MPs preaching such population strategy also prescribed what to do with all the children of Hinduvta, with the middle one being duly sent to the Army. The newly assertive Education Ministry has engaged itself in promoting traditional values in education, and have pushed for Sanskrit, the traditional language, being taught in the universities. Nathuram Godse, the Hindu nationalist who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi for being too soft to Muslims and Pakistan, was back in mainstream conversation, and a statue of his has gone up in Meerut, not far from Delhi. The national anthem of India, which, at its heart, uphold a cosmopolitan vision of India, has been questioned - and an alternative song, Vande Mataram, has been promoted as truly Indian instead.

I can indeed be accused of exaggerating the bad news and not talking about the new shopping malls, roads or bridges that may have been constructed in the last few months. I have surely heard the excited talk in business circles - I was present when Gopichand Hinduja informed an Indian delegation his joy of getting his long-stalled infrastructure projects cleared only in a few weeks after the new government took power - and know of the great triumphs the Indian Prime Minister has scored with the Non-Residents in the few short months with his business-like approach. But, I am talking about the Republic and not the Stock Exchange, which, important as it may be, belongs to a separate sphere. And, for the Republic, the social stirrings I describe may be more significant than the shopping malls, and we should be mindful that the new India may be more tolerant to the idea of Military Rule than inter-marriage across castes or religion.

I am conscious that this commentary, and the title I have chosen, may appear pessimistic. However, pessimistic we should not be. The fragility I refer to is to invite caution, not to give up hope. The events I mention are exceptions, even if significant. We should be mindful of them, but they don't, at least yet, define India. And, the broader point I want to make is that the good news of India progressing is not in the new roads and shopping malls, but in the the small, significant, individual resistance of the all-compassing embrace of development rhetoric. Among these, the best news I have recently come across is the stand by the students of Jadavpur University, from Kolkata, which, despite its limited agenda, illustrates that not everyone has surrendered themselves to the convenience of career and money. And, though the Hindu nationalists continue to dominate the political agenda, winning over one state government after another (which, if it continues, will give them enough powers to effect major constitutional changes in India by 2017), one can still hope that the Indiab democracy to stay its course through the resistance of individuals such as these.

On the eve of the Republic Day, then, we must spare a thought for the Republic. We have come to take it for granted, but this is our Ask-Not moment. Without being alarmist, we must recognise the existential threat that our grand idea faces, and that we must re-imagine to protect our cherished, modern, Indian identity. India is an idea after all, and like all ideas, it needs an act of commitment from time to time. And, by such commitment, and nothing else, we can prove ourselves to be worthy of the grand vision that we inherited, of a poor but democratic nation, an illiterate but tolerant land, which, by being itself, present the best hope for humanity. It is a responsibility, if I am re-invoking Kennedy,  that we must bear. 

What Are The 21st Century Skills?

We have come to accept that there are certain things called 21st Century Skills. That these are distinct from what used to be 20th century skills, and universal across national boundaries, are implicitly accepted. A common list is also emerging, which include things such as communication, problem solving, critical thinking, initiative, and collaboration, skills that underpin any kind of 21st century work, presumably. 

The list appears in slightly different modified form at different places, but words, as always, hide more than they reveal. We have no commonly accepted definition of any of these things, except claiming, like pornography, we know it when we see it. But it pays to explore the assumptions that lie behind the idea of 21st century skills.

The first assumption, as Philip Brown et al underlines in their insightful Skills Formation in the 21st Century, is that there is a global labour market. The idea that there could be some universal skills valued across national boundaries can only be true if such a labour market exists, which, for all practical purposes, does not. We are acutely aware of various barriers that exist, and we often forget to count xenophobia and cultural stereotyping among them. The very visible (audible, strictly speaking) globalisation of call centre work came with attendant backlash, parodies and eventual limit of expansion. And, if the last few years represent a trend, globalisation has gone backwards as far as labour markets are concerned, both with increasingly protective labour market policies and near-shoring of most activities.

The second assumption behind claims of universality of skills is that skills are independent of the societies around them. However, we know even if there was a global labour market, this may not be true. Brown et al cites the higher salaries of American CEOs, over their European and Japanese counterparts, as an example. In Finland, the teachers are valued more than they are in some of their neighbouring countries. A nurse in Bangladesh does not mean the same thing as in England. An electrician, even an electrician, may not be treated as a skilled person in India. Being a lawyer is a far more lucrative profession in America than in the Philippines. However much globalisation may attempt to steamroll these differences, a manager will be more sought after as a prospective son-in-law than a programmer in India, while the opposite may be true in some other countries.

Apart from the issue that the skills are not secular, but socially defined, it is also important to recognise that skills are value laden and a signifier of social power. Communication may sound harmless enough, but we know that speaking in a certain accent in England signify better communication than another. Exactly how much initiative one should take often depend on the social position of the person. Problem solving may sound wonderful, but it glosses over the essential first step - problem finding - which is not free of social mores. 21st Century, if anything, has carried on the 20th Century traditions of certain people being better endowed than others to participate in certain things in life, and therefore, 21st century skills, in more ways than one, represent more of 20th century skills than a departure of any kind.

In summary, the talk of 21st century skills hide more than it reveals. For example, the excitement about communication and problem solving undermine the more serious-sounding lists explored by, among others, Howard Gardner. Professor Gardner did not use 21st century, which is the buzzword, and instead spoke plainly about the future. His list of the skills for future included Disciplinary Thinking, Creativity, Ability to Synthesize, Ethical Behaviour and Ability to deal with Diversity. Somehow, this list, which adapts better for cross-border adaptation, did not get the traction, perhaps because these relate more to the person that ought to be skilled and less to the industrial requirements, which we take as the starting point of the skills discussion. But this is the most important issue in thinking about 21st century skills - do we start with what it takes to be a whole person or do we start with what employers are telling us - and whether or not it seems so, we may end coming up two distinct lists depending on our starting point.

Also see
Brown, Phillip (2001), Skills Formation in the Twenty-First Century, in Brown, P et al (Eds) (2001), High Skills - Globalization, Competitiveness and Skill Formation, OUP, Oxford.

Gardner, H (2008), 5 Minds for the Future, Harvard Business Press, Boston, MA

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Conversations 26 - The Employability Question

Right now, the theme of my life is getting rid of legacy! 

2015 has began positively for me, and I am able to focus on the tasks at hand and also starting to think about the future. There were some minor strokes of luck too, after I thought it had abandoned my path altogether. So, into the third week, as the expression goes, I am looking forward!

Which should start with stopping to look rearward. I have been clearing my desks - and indeed my inbox - as quickly as I can, and have started to say no to many of the propositions that come my way. I am indeed tempted by academic life, something I want to live and some of the proposals I have will perhaps allow me that, but I have now resolved to be in business for a little while longer. In fact, after my experiments with living through 2014, I can not afford not to.

So, here I am - intently focused on one problem, which, after Mckinsey, everyone seems to call the E2E gap. My day job concerns bringing the educators and employers together. Being out there on the messy ground is a great exposure for me, and in its current setting, this is global too. Despite my rather limited mandate, this is a great preparation for what has become my key focus of late, working on a model of employability preparation for the graduates in developing countries.

If that sounds like working against my own advice, it is. I have followed several employability training businesses in India, ranging from small one-person outfits to large skill development businesses, and learned a lot from listening to them. They are indeed all trying to solve the same big problem. Though I mostly disagreed with their methods, it is apparent that there is a big problem that needs solving. One approach to this is indeed to try and reinvent the whole education proposition, which I do as a part of my day job. The other approach is to see how to address this without necessarily being part of the regulated system.

In my private research, and it is a research project at this time rather than an entrepreneurial one, I want to explore the latter approach. I think the unemployed and unemployable graduates present a bigger challenge than the proposition of setting up a new education system. While I know that innovations outside the regulated system always suffer from a legitimacy gap, I have now come to believe that innovation inside the regulated framework is extremely difficult, costly and risky. The other option, trying to be within the regulated system but not following its prescriptions, is worse than being outside, because once you are in the game, you must play it as it should be played. So, my idea is to develop a model to complement the regulated system and try to find its legitimacy from outside.

Higher Education is one of the hardest thing to try and change, as many people have figured out at their own cost, but it is not impossible to change Higher Education. In fact, I shall argue that Higher Education has almost always been changed from outside, either because of regulatory change enforced by the government of the day (the reforms of Oxbridge in the 1850s, the Morill Act, to the Open University in the more recent history) or by changes brought by For-Profit activities or the media. The medical school was a predominantly For-Profit activity before the universities woke up to it, and so are accounting and business schools. The greatest change in Higher Ed, for better or for worse, has been brought about by ranking systems, mainly an invention of the media, and while most people in the universities love to hate it, they can not escape its embrace.

Therefore, my little project, or whatever comes of it, I would rather not to make the pretense of trying to challenge the Higher Ed system, but rather stand outside it and try to work with it. My starting point is to try to create a model that can work - a business model coupled with a delivery model - and I shall reach out to my friends and correspondents who have been working on parallel paths for a period of time. I am trying to leverage all the things I learned in the Education Conference that we had last week and get conversations going, though there are lots of gaps in the conversation which I am acutely aware of.

So, an end and a beginning, this is more or less the story that I am trying to craft. 

Who Wants to Remedy Graduate Unemployment?

Graduate Employability is a big problem. Depending on who you ask, we are looking at 30% - 40% of the graduates not being employed within a reasonable period of time after leaving college. The problem is so bad that we are inventing ways to hide it. Instead of bring it to the fore, we club graduates who get a job and who go to post-graduate education together, and ignore the cases of underemployment, so that we get some respectable data. The granular data that we may really need to address the problem, such as how many of our graduates are working in fast food shops, may present us with a bigger problem, that of busting the myth of the college altogether. We would instead focus our attention to other soothing pieces of data, such as the existence of a college premium. It is soothing but problematic because, people going to college earns more than those who dont, the gap is widening only because people who dont go to college have seen their incomes collapse, while the premium has been propped up by the million-dollar bonuses of some superstar professions. The fact that an average college degree for an average student gets one nowhere is a story that everyone wants to hide.

A large section of the academics, though by no means all of them, treats all the discussion about graduate employability as some sort of neo-liberal conspiracy, blaming the lack of jobs because of automation and offshoring practices of the employers. There may be some truth in this, but at the same time, the availability of educated people in a certain geography has known to have attracted investment and jobs to it. So, while employers may be guilty as charged - they are indeed looking for better profits by shifting jobs to areas where costs are lower - the academic institutions may be better served by trying to integrate themselves into an overall economic strategy of their host regions and making their students employable and attractive to the employers, rather than rejecting such notions out of hand. Automation, too, has its own lessons. Automation is destroying certain kinds of jobs and threatening middle class lives, but it is also opening up other opportunities. The employers are looking to automate, true, but the educational response is not to sink deeper into insularity but rather seeking to educate their students to be fit for the automated future.

The employers, and the powers-that-be, also need a bit of introspection on graduate employability. Educators get blamed for everything, from the students lacking communication skills to the ISIS insurgency in Iraq, but all this is happening in the context of a prevailing business doctrine that no taxes should be paid and the state should do as little as possible. The alternate to state funded education, the private alternative alongwith the perpetually indebted students, has not proved to be any better than the public ones. The private players talked a good game on employability, but have failed to deliver anything significantly different. The rapid disappearance of good public education at all levels have worsened the middle class crisis.

So, we might see the graduate employability as some sort of perfect storm, where all the problems of modern society, academic insularity, tax-dodging employers and government fudging of statistics, come together.  One can also argue that this is at the bottom of the big crisis we are facing, that of the disappearance of the good old middle class. President Obama may have finally come around to raise the banner of middle class economics, but the old middle class, committed to social mobility and hard work, may already be dead as a Dodo. The newer middle classes, which has inherited the label but little of the values, may be informed by a consumption ethic, which discounts all the commitments of long preparation and laps up the doctrine of being at the right place at the right time. A slew of technological and social factors, but also the education practices that we championed, have brought about this just-in-time education philosophy, which may sound nifty but at the same time, causes a number of problems that we see with graduate employability. While there is a broad point that what educators are doing may be at odds with what employers want, we also have an issue that students are not learning much anyway, as detailed in Richard Arum and Josipa Roksas work. So, this may be the fourth dimension of our problem - that not just the whole underlying system of middle class economics is broken, we are adding fresh problems everyday by sustaining a system that undermines even the middle class word and all it stands for. 

Can anything be done? One gets to see a number of people attempting to do something about it, not least because they see the opportunity to make big money by solving a big problem like this. However, whichever angle one wants to approach it from, it is like encouraging turkeys for Christmas. Employers can not be talked into paying higher taxes, educators can not be asked to give up their privileges and ways of life, governments can not be expected to publish data which will make them look like failures, and the students can not be expected to put in the hard work and learn something when everyone else around them dont see any value in doing so. 

However, a conversation must emerge and will emerge. Whatever Margaret Thatcher might have thought, there is a thing called society, and it has so far proved to have a wonderful mechanism of self-healing. The search for profits by the entrepreneurs is one part of it, but this is supplemented by many other feelings and motivations, including the urge to do good, commitments to people we know, desire to make our own lives and communities better, which make individuals to attempt more and achieve more than they are mandated to do in their prescribed social roles. This is what is happening to education today, as one sees a lot of people, from different professions, who seem to commit themselves to educational work without any clear motive or profit. Indeed, the solution needs more than just well-meaning individuals, and this may involve emergence of a platform of some sort to string together all these individual efforts into something meaningful. This is what is happening to graduate employability, as we see the start of many conversations, many ideas, and many linkages, all attempting to solve the problem. 

On a personal note, this is what I am attempting to study. This is indeed my day job, but also the key to all the ventures that I am looking at and working on. I may indeed report some of the work I am doing on this subject here. This post, in that sense, is a prelude.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Conversations 25 - The Idea Of An Institution

My agenda in 2015 is to be able to build the kind of institution I keep talking about - a global, entrepreneurial, practical, creative school. 

I know the idea but I dont know where I should eventually build it. One tempting answer is, everywhere, which was indeed at the heart of my earlier venture. The technology to reach out to people wherever they are exists today, and building an institution on them is a sort of no-brainer. But, having tried this, I want to build a more traditional institution enabled by those technologies, so that it can reach everyone, but at the core, it offers a rich experience and cohesive purpose for all its learners.

One of the things I learned through all my ventures is that it is the purpose that defines an institution, rather than its physical locations, courses or technologies. Too many people think too much about everything else, but forget to ask the why question. My essential starting point is indeed the why question - I see that to be the most difficult to answer - and I know everything else will fall in its place once I have done so.

So, why set up such a school? Essentially, to prepare the students for the emerging reality of globalization and automation. I believe our current institutions, too obsessed with various academic rituals and funding games, do not grasp the shifting dynamic of globalisation and automation, their effect on work and their effect on our values, cultures and societies. The students who come out of school today, to live a productive, engaged and successful life, they will need to grasp the phenomenon of automation and globalisation and learn to make their trade in context of it.

Like any other institution, the school I want to set in will train on certain trades. It is likely to be creative media and business, given my experience and interest in those areas. However, it is not the trades that matter most. It is that we would like them to fully appreciate what is happening around us, and grasp the practical, moral and social issues they have to work with, so that our students could be really successful when they come out of school and start building their individual identities.

I want to set up this institution in Asia, rather than where I am currently. Indeed, this is a demand thing - that is where the students are - but also because the twin forces of globalisation and automation are hitting Asia hard and I see the need there to be the greatest. I believe European (and North American) institutions are somewhat in the driving seat as far these twin forces are concerned, as their economies and governments shape a lot of this agenda. On the other hand, Asian governments are somewhat caught in the headlight, and without much debate or participation at the grassroots level, they are bound to make bad choices because, in matters of globalisation and automation, they are not being held accountable. The long term goal of the institution I want to get involved into is to prepare graduates so that they can shape the agenda for globalisation and automation in their societies, by starting businesses which harness the power of technology, by tackling sticky issues, by engaging democratically in the contemporary debates, by shaping public policy, by proving leadership to others and by promoting sympathy and cooperation with others as the society goes through some of the most profound changes ever to happen in human history.

I am often told Asia is not ready for it. The education debate in Asia is about jobs and money, and nothing else. But this is precisely the top-down view I want to disrupt. Having grown up within a newly independent nation, I instinctively reject any notion of a world where developed countries would find solutions for everyone else. For me, Asia is at the sharp end of globalisation and it must find its own response, and I am concerned with making that response appropriate, productive and socially beneficial.

Indeed, this is a big project and I am just starting. My current role allows me to engage and see the education question from close quarters, though admittedly, I am just tinkering at the edges. However, I am right in the middle of the conversation that I want to be in, and I get a lot of opportunity to meet interesting people doing interesting work. I may not agree with many of them, given my peculiar views about institutional purpose etc., but I can still engage and explore. I am hopeful that in the next few months I shall be out of my stop-gap life and be able to start the big project. Watch this space!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Global Workforce Crisis - Open Competency Frameworks and Learning Commons

The hottest discussion in education is the development of Open Competency Frameworks. Gone are those days when a list of courses is the language educators would throw at rest of us. The conversation is now very much around what the education does, because that is what everyone involved in education, government, employers, community and students, want to know. Yes, indeed, there are far too many prospectuses around with endless lists of courses, but we are getting to a point when they need to be rewritten.

However, while there is some kind of consensus emerging around the idea of competencies, there is no such agreement on what they should be. Many educators feel that competency is a corporate word, and education should not subject to employer interests alone. This is indeed a justifiable stance, given that employers are often focused on immediate opportunities and not on building capacity and future options, but the educators must offer a better alternative than a list of courses instead. Competency is a sort of middle ground between the job description and the list of courses we usually get. The idea of putting competencies on the masthead is to create a platform that both educators and employers could use, in slightly different forms if need be, but avoid this complete failure of translation that we are having to live with right now.

But, despite all the talk of competencies, there is a clear problem. Even when we use them, we use them in a narrow, closed, format, defined too narrowly to align itself with the interests of an educator or an employer. A competency is often defined with the perspective of a given role, or a given discipline. This is the essential tension that underlie the competency discussion. To make it practical and tangible, such narrow definitions are needed. But this makes us miss the point all too often, that competencies are dynamic and need to be open, if they are to be used as a platform for bridging the e2e gap.

So, anyone concerned with the future shape of education should be thinking about the nature and shape of competencies, and see how we can develop more open standards which can be used by diverse groups. While this much is understood, what is less clear, however, is that we are often going the opposite way as far as learning and education is concerned. While businesses are often talking about open standards (however reluctantly), there is a some sort of enclosure at the heart of education. Education, which was traditionally an open, commons based activity, where open sharing and connecting were the norm, is increasingly treated as a private activity to be undertaken for private benefit. The invasion of private capital, the abdication of responsibility by the state, the expansion of For-Profit universities particularly in the developing countries, the predominantly debt-based funding mechanism for education and increasing bureaucratisation of the universities, all point to an enclosure of, at least encroachment in, the learning commons, where private knowledge for private benefits emerge as the norm. The whole conversation about education-to-employment (e2e) gap is dominated by For-profit players and investors, who are after clear pay-offs and therefore, tangible outcomes and competencies. This system, by definition, focuses on Closed, narrowly held Standards rather than Open ones.

In conclusion, while Open Competency Frameworks are the buzzword, we are actually going the other direction. I shall argue that this, rather than any innate inability of the educators to understand the challenges of the outside world, is the root cause of e2e gap, and that the resolution lies in developing and encouraging learning commons. One can say that this may be inimical to employer engagement even further, because employers have businesses to run and would only engage in education when it closely corresponds to their own immediate needs. However, this view is based on a misunderstanding of the employer side of the equation, and defined by a very tactical view of the business. The employers often recognise, at least at a strategic level, the dynamic nature of the market and their businesses, and are engaged in their own search for open competencies. Right now, the enclosure in education is being driven by an investment philosophy that sees education as the latest public-to-private opportunity that create some arbitrage, rather than a long term play to create value in a sustainable manner. In that way, the private intervention in education is making the gap between employers and educators wider, or at least, not solving any of the problems that business-like education leaders created in the last couple of decades by championing a closed view of the world. 

Slavoj Zizek says, most of our problems today are problems of commons. The Education-to-Employment problem firmly belongs to that category.


Friday, January 16, 2015

On Endangered Words

I am through with a fairly busy Conference Week. My silence on this blog was because of this, though the reason may be slightly less obvious. It is not that I did not have time, I actually never have any time to write this blog, but because I was in the middle of too many words through the week, and I did not add more to it. 

Conferences are wordy affairs, as some people they should be. They are usually places without windows, full of people carrying around conflicting agendas and expectations, judging the person sitting next to them with the corner of an eye to see whether they are worth wasting a business card on. They are words, words, words, and indeed, some numbers, graphs and charts. They are about big statements, and going by the consistency of the statements that get made, never to be followed up again till the next conference, when those statements are to be remembered and repeated. 

But conferences are also great places to chart the fortune of words, as they rise and fall. It is common, in our very verbose civilisation, for one interest or the other to own some words. This is indeed the objective of all marketing, as Al Ries and Jack Trout will say, to own a word. But even they may have been modest. Our brave new age is about taking over words as they were, and loading them with meanings that serve particular interests. If conferences achieve anything, it is that they are the arena of transmutation of words - words old and new - and they are to be remembered not for actions that follow, because there is none, but the legacy of the words they leave behind.

If there are any consequences of conferences, it is this word trail that shape our lives. In a way, this legacy is truly captured by the whole Point-Oh thing that came out of a conference. Words often get there Point-Oh version after a conference, without something like Point-One (or indeed, Point-One-One) version inbetween because if you are not talking really big, you are not having a conference. Last time I checked, the world was on 3.0, but is waiting for a Davos for its 4.0 nirvana!

And, indeed, as conferences create words, it also kills them. My last few days felt like the obituary of skills. The point, of course, is that I was getting used to Skills with a big S and skills with a small s, but as it must be at these conferences, it is about claiming the words and changing their meaning. So, it did happen, nuances were pushed aside and the s-word was firmly claimed by bureaucrats and wonks. Some of the things I learned is that skills have nothing to do with education and skills can be taught in 3-month, 6-month or 1-year courses. Skills also seemed to be an one-off, wearable (another conference word) affair, which the government knows best about. What skills are required are to be decided by skills councils, who will be research and convene over a long period of time and come up with a skills map which will provide a clear guideline on what needs to be taught (the whole thing reminded me, oddly, of my first visit to Poland, where I was slightly daunted to approach the reception of any office as they are called secretariat).

The point, of course, is that such expropriation of meaning may make a word die. Surely, we may not be that concerned about endangered words as we should be about extinction of a species, but look what happened to - for example - rationality. Rational was to question everything, as Kant would say, though he meant not to question God and a few other things. But his successors will really take the word there, and it became about following reason in everything. Then came the Economists and as they took over the world, the word came to mean not to follow reason, but to behave in a certain way as the various models assume that one should behave. Eventually, this will come a full circle when being rational will mean behaving in a completely unreasonable way, with disastrous consequences for everyone and everything. The word, now it seems, is out of favour.

This can happen to skills. Indeed, there are other words I heard a lot of. Ecosystems! So, finally, many have woken up from megalomania to think that one cant change the world in the shower, and it needs an ecosystem. But the ecosystem that gets spoken about in conference circuits is nothing like the ecosystem as we know them, an imperfect muddy affair full of diversity, but it is to be rather like an exclusive social club, where everyone is of the same type. This word looks seriously endangered, because bankers love them and they are usually November-men, who leave nothing standing in their wake. A few more conferences, and I am sure we would cleanse the ecosystem of any diversity, and arrive at a bleached word of conformity. It may sound smart, and even green, but all meaning will be sucked out of eco-system shortly.

We live in the midst of endangered words. The most unsocial of the activities, peeping into private lives, intrusion, interruption, have become Social. Communities have come to mean you sit at home most of the time.  Critical Thinking has become a corporate requirement, that of finding ways to sell ideas that corporations want everyone else to believe in. Participation means being somewhere else than where you actually are, as being attentive means caring for your devices more than your companions. It is an exciting time, for those who want new words, but slightly despairing, if, like me, you are after any meaning. That is how I am signing off my conference week.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Education and Automation

Automation is fundamentally changing the way we work, and therefore, the society. 

Even if one doesn't believe that technology determines everything, it should be added that the social forces, that of capital and of our present governments, also want automation to happen. Resisting automation, at least so far, hasn't been successful, and those who took that stance were generally pushed aside, along with their ideologies. 

So, if we are looking at a perfect storm of automation, what is the most appropriate educational response?

There are no easy answers, indeed. No one really knows what will really happen when we reach a tipping point of technology, when machines can learn themselves and can do cognitively demanding tasks. The optimists believe that this will be a good thing, as long as we can build a perfect welfare society that supports a dignified life for most people, allowing humans to do higher level of work, and those not capable of doing so, supported by a fair system of welfare. The pessimists, indeed there are various shades of them, believe that this will be 'our final invention', at which point our social consensus will break down and the systems of organising our societies will become redundant without a clear alternative in sight. 

HG Wells' point that history is a race between education and catastrophe become particularly relevant at this point. Some people, mostly with a developing country point of view, see education as a canon fodder for skilled economies that one might need to build in the age of smart manufacturing; those from advanced economies see one step ahead and see education as the key for creating a workforce capable of doing even higher level tasks. People who worry about the implications of automation also see education playing a critical role: In the absence of any political alternative, the best hope to preserve a commitment to human dignity lies in education.

Once someone takes automation as a given, and understand the coalition of social and technocratic elite that drive it, all these different goals of education don't appear to be competing goals, but rather complementary ones. Education must now equip human beings to remain the master of an automated world, both in terms of skills to higher level work and to enable a value system that preserve human dignity. Education, in that sense, will indeed be the 'technology of self' of this age, borrowing the term from Foucault, which should allow the individuals to continually change and adjust to a fast moving reality. 

At the granular level, of course, this is far more complicated. The developing country economies will perhaps have to go through some painful adjustments as automation reverses the globalisation of production, but speeds up the globalisation of consumption and aspiration. Developed country economies will have to deal with their own issues too, which, not unlike the developing countries, will centre around inequality, but will have far more entrenched opposition to the restoration of welfare systems. And this conversation about preserving human dignity will prove to be far more contentious in the context of a carefully crafted social attitude in vogue since the eighties which criminalises poverty and unemployment. It will not be easy to transform the predominant goal of modern education, that of creating consumers in the modern society, to something about morality and preservation, even if it is urgently needed. Education, in that sense, is being handed a Faustian arrangement, it is expected to serve a system that must be questioned and undermined to be served. 

The conversation about our new education system focus too much on how to educate rather than what education is for, taking for granted a nineteenth century consensus that is no longer valid. Automation is finally breaking down that complacence, and forcing the question in the open. Even if there are no clear answers, one must engage in this conversation - because there are fewer ways to avoid it as we automate ourselves to redundancy.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Making Sense of India's Skills Training

I wrote earlier about Skills Training in India and how the bureaucratic intervention may have changed the shape of an entire industry. The point is that a change of course is urgently needed, and without it, the current 'skills industry' may end up doing irreparable harm to India's economic competitiveness.  

One of my correspondents made the point that I have not made any concrete suggestions how India could manage the massive task of skilling 500 million people. My four suggestions were the government should (a) try to leverage existing infrastructure of schools and colleges to provide employability skills training rather than trying to create additional capacity through private sector, (b) the government should take a more active role in professional training and encourage upskilling of those at work through training vouchers, (c) the government should look at incentives for employers to encourage them to train their people, and (d) that the government should get serious about Internet bandwidth which will, apart from encouraging e-commerce, also have an impact on the educational capacity. However, one could perhaps argue that these suggestions do not take into account the massive number that India has to train within 10 years.  

While I may accept the basic point that in the face of such a massive and urgent requirement, the suggestions made here - particularly those relating to Professional Training and Employer Incentives - would only have limited impact, I must return once more to the wisdom of the massive number. The 500 million by 2022, as announced by the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2012, was not based on any demographic analysis or joined-up strategy : It was a number the late Management guru CK Prahalad once mentioned in a lecture, most probably based on a back-of-the-envelop calculation, which stuck. Indeed, sometimes such large numbers are useful to focus minds, but in India, they seem to form the basis of policy, which is dangerous. So, if a meaningful policy does not correspond to a fantastic number, we tend to discard the meaningful policy rather than the number. 

Indeed, the number has stuck. After three years of going down the road and with a change of government, Indian skills policy is still driven by the 500 million by 2022. If anyone was looking, they would know that the National Skills Development Council (NSDC), the body set up to accomplish this mission is only perhaps achieving 10% of its targets so far, even with a very poor quality. The other 90% simply isn't there, even after all the reports, conferences, money being splurged on various things, and lots of people getting rich. The providers complain that people don't want to train themselves, abandoning the usual logic of the market that if someone doesn't want it, it is perhaps not worth it (as far as poor people are concerned, we believe such logic shouldn't be applied : They are meant to accept with gratitude whatever we give them).

The point is that the 500 million is, as it was at its conception, a nice round number meant to sound good at the conferences. I am not trying to question the late CK's wisdom, when he was right about so many things. But, he, more than anyone else, also knew that it was a different game altogether at the bottom of the pyramid. He wanted to focus minds with a hairy number - and sure he did - but he would surely be appalled, had he lived to see this, how this number was abused. The big announcement that India is going to train 500 million people in 10 years had one missing detail from the start : Train on what? Only much later, the government officials red-facedly admitted that they didn't figure it out, nor asked anyone. They talked about employment but forgot about employers. They just gave money to middlemen, who gave money to smaller middlemen, who gave money to.. by the time, a fraction of the money reached the training room, it was blind teaching the blind : Those who couldn't find any other job than to work for pittance were standing in the classroom teaching others how to be employable. It was only natural that hundreds of people were trained as auto-mechanics learning how to work on a carburetor long after automobile companies have switched to multi-point fuel injection, because the people available to train auto-mechanics were indeed those who trained on carburetors and never made the transition.

So, the cardinal sin in Indian policy-making was taking CK's rhetorical 500 million number but missing his point about challenges at the bottom of the pyramid, the prognosis that what works for the usual city markets may need to be completely reinvented there. Training, as in one person standing in front of students and perhaps doing Powerpoint, is not a paradigm that transfers easily to the bottom of the pyramid, and trying this results only in a chain of middlemen who know how to get the government money but have no idea how to get the job done.

My point, then, is that it is time to have a serious debate about skills training, and this needs to be free from the hangover of 500 million. Questions such as what training is meaningful and who needs to be trained need to be asked. The self-serving reports from consultancies and business groups need to be binned. Because by doing skills training badly, India is self-fulfilling the warnings about its demographic disaster. 



Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Mourning The Death of Humour

From: David Pope

Global E-School: A Personal Note

Global E-School is Global and Entrepreneurial, but this is not an entrepreneur's school. It is for all those who need to be creative and imaginative at work, which is going to be everyone, really. I see this as a twenty-first century school responding to two big trends of the time, globalisation and automation. The idea is to build the school to prepare its students for the new workplace that's rapidly emerging.

Some of this may be obvious but are immediately resisted. Education is supposed to be a forward-looking enterprise, but also the most tradition-bound. This is because education's function in our societies is perpetuation of privilege and not creation of possibilities. But this is also why the model of education that we have is under threat, because to change the society, and society is changing not in face of any revolution but under the weight of technological change that it itself is bringing about, one must change education. HG Wells' point that history is a race between education and catastrophe perhaps need to be retold: It seems education is the wedge between history and catastrophe.
The 'E' in E-School obviously stand for entrepreneurialism. This is about an entrepreneurial frame of mind, rather than starting businesses. But there is another thing in this 'E', which is a fundamental assumption about how the workplaces will be - soon, now! There are a number of commentators who are looking at the changing workplace and what it means for skills. Howard Gardner's list, for example, have five things: Deep Knowledge about something ('Disciplinary Thinking'), ability to draw insights from wide interests ('Synthesis'), ability to imagine ('Creativity'), ability to work with diverse cultures and interests ('Diversity') and integrity ('Ethics'). Howard Rhinegold's take, which looks at the skills for the 'digital economy', focuses on the behavioural aspects - Attention, Participation, Collaboration, Critical Consumption and Network Smarts. One could perhaps see a combination of attitude, knowledge and behaviour arising out of the combination of these two sets of predictions.
 However, preparing a student for this needs tearing down the current educational model, and it is not easy. The current model is not supposed to do many of these things. Disciplinary focus is perhaps the only thing which is embedded in our current system, but synthesis and creativity is often discouraged. Diversity is neglected - education is a very national enterprise recirculating dominant cultures - and integrity, while advertised, is severely compromised at the time of across the board grade inflation. On the behavioral side, there is an even greater problem. Again, critical consumption is the only thing that gets some focus, but surely we need more of this in an age when people think Kayne West just allowed a newbie called Paul McCartney to get some attention (See news). Collaboration is frowned upon, participation and network smarts hardly understood and attention seems to be under siege as media wars are fought out right in the middle of the classroom.

This underlies the case for a general redesign of educational experience, and there one runs into power equations, not just of the distrust of change among educators but much larger issue of not wanting to upset the apple cart of social privileges. Everyone wants change to work for them, but the enterprise to engineer social change has failed so many times. Besides, educational change, for all the silicon valley proclamation, is usually slow and granular, changing one person at a time rather than changing the world in one click. The idea of a new kind of education should, therefore, be set out in a non-glamourous fashion, in prosaic terms such as curriculum and credit, and pursuing the real change through the culture of the institution, the values of those who teach and the approach to assessment and interactions with the wider world. 

This is the educational idea I want to pursue. This is a project I set out to do in 2010, when I left my recruitment career to get into education; and despite all the ups and downs and changes of course, I have only become more committed to the idea and found validation through experience. I wish to do this in Asia, the continent being the world's most exciting education market, though I have become convinced that this should be launched from a small country rather than a big country. This is indeed my pursuit in 2015, and hopefully it does not have to be like the statement I saw in Facebook: I must do this in 2015 because I thought about this in 2014 as I wrote them down in 2013 because I felt the necessity in 2012..

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

'Post-Professional Society': Education and The New Middle Class

India is Education's El Dorado: Everyone wants to go there but no one knows how.

I say that often enough, sometimes to my peril. People like to treat me as an Indian Education specialist. My past experiences in Indian education, particularly the hard-fought bit played out in small town India, make me some sort of a tour guide to this El Dorado. It is indeed a problem for me if the place does not exist.

However, I don't want to be an 'Indian Education expert'. I am in fact rather weary of the professed experts of Indian Education, those who produce shiny reports and make glitzy Powerpoint presentations talking about the new middle classes and the wonderful opportunity there. Many of them, of course, will dutifully carry mineral water in their bag while in India and end their explorations within the city limits of Delhi and Mumbai, and have never stepped inside, much less taught, in an Indian classroom. The very fact that I have been out to those small cities, and taught, make me suspicious that the promised land may not be there.

Before I commit the blasphemy in full, however, let me acknowledge that there is a statistical case for the wonderful opportunity in Indian Higher Education. There are lots of young people, and many companies requiring skilled personnel, and a broken education system which fails both sides. The need is urgent - 10 million people joining the non-farm workforce every year - and well understood - there is a whole industry of India Experts (which I don't want to belong to). I am not in denial of these fundamentals, and indeed, I have been a great beneficiary of the expansion of professional education in India, cutting my teeth in the field. I am just slightly skeptical, however, whether this emergence of middle classes fit neatly into the staged development model experienced in the Western economies, and whether one could. coming from outside, really provide the kind of education that this middle class desires.

My thesis is somewhat simple: That the emerging middle classes have a different attitude towards education compared to 'traditional' middle classes, and therefore, an expansion of income does not necessarily mean an expansion of demand for 'good' education in a country like India. An attempt to justify this statement is, however, a more complex enterprise: There may be many factors at play why the 'new' middle class will approach education differently. 

First, the 'emergence' of the new Middle Classes in countries like India has not happened 'organically' like the one in Britain, where economic expansion led to expansion in education and emergence of what we would now call 'Professional Society'; the new middle classes emerged within the space of a generation, more in consequence of financial globalisation rather in any domestic factor. In many ways, this emergence was 'easy' - it did not need the long struggles for a place in the sun - and quick - it is a first generation thing in most cases. Education may be seen as a catalyst for doing well in life in another circumstance, but in India (and in similar countries), many people will think this is due to astrological reasons with some justification. [No doubt, astrologers have done very well]

Second, this 'emergence' happened with the backdrop of the global change in the nature of knowledge and expertise. The emerging middle classes are somewhat contemporaneous with Google, and can believe, with some justification, that the world's knowledge is available to anyone in one click. The consideration that one needs to have a prepared mind to access this knowledge is a moot, rather academic and completely avoidable point: Most people in India embraced the 'post-professional' credo rather than looking to develop 'expertise'.

Third, it did help that India hasn't yet shed its colonial heritage, and being able to speak in English is still the most valuable expertise an Indian could have. As the Infosys founder Narayana Murthy said in an interview, "In India, Articulation trumps Accomplishment." The dominant position of English in Indian culture, and the existence of the five-star 'economy-within-an-economy' in India where English language (and custom, manners, dresses and cultural preferences) gets one through the door, meant that all other 'skills' could be assigned an inferior position. In practical terms, a good 'English Medium' school education may be just enough for many people, as they could talk for a living.

In short, the meritocratic argument that the traditional middle classes used to stake their claim on social prestige isn't one for the new middle classes in India: The new argument, consistent with the global phenomena of the changes in the nature of knowledge and expertise, is that success is luck, being in the right network and being able to speak well, which fit the existing Indian framework of relationships and recognition. If anyone wonders why there is not more demand for good education in India, despite the vast expansion of the middle classes (more than 100 million added to its ranks already), this should serve as an explanation: The emerging middle classes are looking for quick and easy ways to get credentials, rather than demanding education. This is indeed a global phenomenon, as underlined in Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's groundbreaking study of 'Academically Adrift' students. The Indian Education has reached the 'Academically Adrift' phase straight on.

There are different conclusions to be drawn from this, but the key one is this: As someone put this to me recently, Education markets in India is often a romantic idea. That picture that one sees of emerging middle classes lapping up a good education offering because they had no good domestic alternative, does not happen. The Indian institutions know well how to attract this segment, and build shiny shopfronts and good promises at low price. Indeed, the demand is maturing and within a generation, good private universities are coming up in India. But the multiplier effect the International Officers at various universities talk about (and their Indian counterparts sell to them) isn't going to happen. Like any other market, one needs an India strategy, and this needs to be based on something other than just the magic of the emergence of a new middle class.

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