Monday, November 30, 2015

Approaching 2016

In a lot of ways, 2015 was a year of waiting for me. Two years of bootstrapping to get the business off the ground took a heavy toll on my finances and me, and towards the end of 2014, I resolved to step back and go back to employment, which I did. The last several months was just that, of keeping my head down, and of reflecting on the experiences. It was time to come to terms with failure and re-imagining. This was what 2015 was about, and I feel I have been successful at doing this. However, with 2016 around the corner, it is time to put a plan in place.

Indeed, one of the key lessons that I have learned through the start-up and bust is the limits of romanticism about start-up life. One of the key mistakes I committed in U-Aspire was to ask and raise too little money, and spending inordinately long time in raising that money. I should say I should have known this all along, but the truth is, I did know and I still took the risk, rather foolishly, as it turns out at the hindsight.  The lesson I take away from all this is not to try to be in the market to raise seed money. Next time, if and when I have a good idea, I should rather be able to fund it myself or not do it at all. 

So, I have settled to the relatively boring idea of pursuing a professional career all over again. When I came to UK in 2004, this was what I pursued at the beginning, moving up the job food chain step by step and pursuing professional qualifications to support that advancement. This is the other thing I gathered through this year of reflection - that it is time to go back being an entrepreneur-manager! This is a sort of acknowledgement that, perhaps, I have been trying to do too much simultaneously - settle in a new country, build a new identity, support a family and at the same time, trying to build a new business. It is time for me to focus back on my marketable skills, things that people would pay me for.

In my return to pragmatism, the other key issue is settling the issue of residency in my mind. For too long, since my mothers death in 2006, I have continually wavered on where I should live, returning to the issue of Return all too often. While this has kept me interested and engaged in India, this was problematic in career terms. I needed to make up my mind, even if this was only for a specific period of time. Again, this may seem obvious, but I had to make my mistakes to learn it. I settled  that I would live in the UK till at least the end of 2019. This was a significant decision in terms of my current work too, and I had to talk to my colleagues about it clearly. But, with this conversation behind me, I approach 2016 knowing where I would live, which makes things much easier for you.

Also, I spent most of 2015 on the road. This was enormously valuable, but I was resenting it while I was doing it. At this point, however, I feel somewhat equanimous, having resolved to go back being an entrepreneur-manager all over again. Indeed, I still consider my current work stop-gap, given its limited mandate and loose engagement, and want to move on to something more significant soon, but my resentment to travel is over. Rather, I see the international work as one of my key strengths - I possess familiarity with global cultures, wide range of acquaintances and business contacts all over the world and ability to engage respectfully with other cultures - and would want to do more of it. 

This is, in a way, a confession of a repentant start-up founder. Alternately, one could see this as a thing that I attempt to do all that often - make new beginnings. My agenda is to make 2016 count in a conventional sense, and this new beginning, in my mind, is absolutely essential for that. This is one of those notes to myself (and those few friends who I am in constant conversation with) that I need to change things, dramatically and drastically, soon.  

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Mr Corbyn's Victory & Defeat

I predicted Jeremy Corbyn to be a different type of politician, and he indeed turned out to be one. He stood steadfast, somewhat in defiance of public opinion, for what he believed in. His was a lonely stance though, as the career politicians that surround him squirmed and fretted to do what they do best - power play without regard to what their constituents want. So, in a little over two months after his landslide victory in Leadership elections, we see headlines of MPs revolting against his leadership. He may survive another week, may be another month - but it seems that the knives are already out for him.

I voted Labour in the last election, but did not sign up for its membership. I must admit I was tempted and spent time filling out a membership form, just after Mr Corbyn was elected (and a few times before that, as I wanted to vote for him) but decided against it - as, I wrote on this blog, I could not trust Labour to follow through. It is a party of Blairite career politicians, for whom winning an election and holding office is more important than anything else. They were unlikely to return to a politics of principle, as we see now.

One may say that Mr Corbyn is not a politician, but consider what he achieved in the few months he was the leader. George Osborne had to do an U-turn against his steadfast leadership of opposition and rallying of public opinion on the issue of Tax Credit cuts, perhaps the most significant opposition victory over a Majority government in many years. His leadership presented a platform for popular opinion to consolidate, and the working class movements to be rejuvenated in Britain. The very day his MPs went home conspiring a coup against his leadership, the Fire Brigade Union decided to return to Labour, hoping that this would be able to represent its voice again. 

It is also astounding what this revolt talk is about. Mr Cameron wants to bomb Syria. He is making an excuse of the attacks in Paris, but his intent is clear - he wants to be on the table with Americans, Russians and the French when time comes to divide the spoils in Syria eventually. There is no way the British bombing would hit ISIL, as it would melt away in the midst of a civilian population, and the bombing would either be tokenism or kill a few civilians. The Blairite MPs who are trying to break the Labour ranks and support the Government move have no shame - the unfortunate war on terror that the likes of them inflicted on Middle East and the world has impacted the security situation in the first place. The point missed - that the battle really is against poverty and deprivation in our midst, rather than in bombing civilians in Raqqa - is a serious one, and bombing Syria, instead of investing in communities in Britain, is precisely the wrong way to go.

One should not undermine Mr Corbyn and his long political struggles, and think that he would be a pushover. The career politicians, the proto-tories inside Labour, may try but they are in serious breach of trust of those who vote for them, and indeed, ultimately, this politics of people may overwhelm their tendency to indulge in backroom wheeling-dealing (one hoped they learned the lesson in September, but it seems they are used to their politics of fooling all the people all the time). However, in the end, the Parliamentary politics may still push the politics of principle aside - and return to its day of politics as usual. This - if it comes - would be the ultimate victory for Mr Corbyn, as it would expose the bankruptcy of Labour politics once and for all.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Idea of E-School Reconsidered

This was an old idea that I keep coming back to - that of a Global Enterprise School. Indeed, the shortening to E-School is deliberate to contrast it with B-School. A Forbes article in 2011 first used the term (see my earlier post) and I have been exploring it ever since. This was the idea I pursued in the transformation, which remained incomplete, of London School of Accountancy and Management that I was running at the time, and afterwards, as I set up U-Aspire to offer pathway education globally. While I may have been doing something else for several months now, and U-Aspire, in its China-only format, became more focused on qualifications that lead to English degrees, I have never abandoned the idea. However, the intervening months of experience was valuable and helped me develop the concept further, and perhaps to a point when I am ready to give it a shape.

The idea may have started as a contra-B-School, particularly attractive as the limitations of B-School teaching is all but apparent and the MBA, which made the industry, has lost much of its sheen. As management cadre and career dwindle, many B-Schools have since caught on to the Enterprise mantra, though this may be a significant departure from what they were set up to be. The Enterprise play is self-defeating in a way - no one should sign up for an expensive MBA if s/he wants to become an entrepreneur - and is a roundabout admittance that there are not many management jobs to go around. Indeed, in the end, the B-Schools have done what they do - produced Investment Bankers who revel on the Business Plan competition experiences as Entrepreneurial stints! The world, in a way, remained exactly where it was.

However, this spells doom for Entrepreneur Education too, if that was the idea one had to pursue. That one can teach Entrepreneurs, though consistent with the modern-day mythologies of planned entrepreneurship (and all those Government schemes that come with it), has always been proved wrong. There are issues of aptitude, environment and indeed, the timing. Whatever we believe, not everyone is ready to be an entrepreneur after they leave college, and not everyone should be struck off as potential after they have crossed 40. Entrepreneur Education, particularly of the variety that calls for setting up of a school, is by definition a doomed project.

But, indeed, the Enterprise School is not the same as a School for Entrepreneurship, though this may be quite a nuanced distinction for the blunt hammer of education marketing. Education Marketing, as it stands now, wants everything to be a Course, and all outcome to be defined as a Job Description, preferably with a dollar figure attached - and tries to do so for Entrepreneurship. The Process of education is somewhat redundant in this world, except for some dreaming spires and sprawling lawns that always get attached to Higher Ed, even if it is only virtual (one Marketer told me to think about virtual lawns for an online university, only half-jokingly). The point of Enterprise School is indeed about a new process of education, one where asking right questions are more important than searching for one true answer, is indeed irrelevant for this translation.

This is where the tendency to frame the E-School in contrast with B-School comes from, though, as I argued, this is a non-starter. In this simplistic formulation, one trades up the management career for an entrepreneurial stint, though that defeats the purpose - quest of certainty - that drives enrollment in the first place. However, at the core of enterprise thinking is to turn this model of certainty on its head and to make it emerge from inside out - that I would know that I can find a way - rather than depending on others for certainty. And, this - by definition - should come from the Process of Education rather than the Paper (or the Degree or Certificate) that comes at the end.

So, this is the starting challenge of the E-School conversation - flipping the usual discourse and make the proposition distinctive enough. The way to do it is to connect with real experience, as there are no other way of building confidence. And, this experience needs to be just business projects - one of the big limitations of the business school is to start formulating everything as business and overlooking the distinctive nature of our engagements in family, community and polity. The experience-based education as attempted in business schools usually focus narrowly on business-related problems, but the Enterprise School must go further and seek to create an Experience-based Education engaged in the whole experience of living. 

The other challenge in E-School conversation is the one about what is being taught. Business Schools teach business, but if E-School does not teach Enterprise - then what should it teach? If a label has to be used, it is indeed Leadership in the broadest sense that is being offered here. However, this is not leadership as a soft skill, which it has now come to be, but rather leadership as a character trait that one is after. The wider engagement, diverse teams, commitment to learning and reflection and pursuit of values should make the E-School graduates distinctive.

By definition, E-School is also global, reflecting the nature of global engagements in our daily life. However, another distinctive feature of E-School is to appreciate Globalisation as a nuanced process in all its variations, rather than adopting the Globalization Apocalypse thinking that B-Schools promote (the assumption that business everywhere is the same, or should be). This is one thing I learned over the last several years of work in education internationalisation, and E-Schools should provide the safe space for promoting and exploring differences, rather than providing idealised models of behaviour. This is indeed part of the first principles here - the ability to ask questions rather than seeking the best answer - that must guide the approach to globalisation.

This is just a concept at this time, and I am not at the implementation mode yet. However, when an important investor recently asked me what I really want to do, my answer was this - I really want to create this model. I am still not ready and my exploration of ideas continue, but I am hoping to get to the point of fleshing out these ideas into operable principles at some point in 2016. Till then, I am in the lookout for all those cotravellers, whose ideas are similar and who are exploring one or the other aspect of education in their own distinctive way. This post is my invitation to connect up and start the conversation.


Thursday, November 26, 2015

Vocational Training in India - Should The Penny Drop?

A few years ago, the then Indian Prime Minister of India proudly announced the biggest skill building initiative in the world, aiming to train more than 500 million people over 10 years. 

The reason for such a high profile initiative was obvious. In India, where 69,000 people reach the age of 25 every single day, making sure that they are able to find work was more than important - it was essential for the survival of the republic. The attention that the initiative got, with investments lined up from public and private sources, with high profile committees and the usual lining up with consultants, was unprecedented. Everything and everybody was there, except just one thing. No one knew what this was all about.

It may sound nonsensical and it is, but the Government set out this multi-million dollar initiative without knowing what skills need to be trained on. There was little involvement of the industry, and none of the trade unions or communities. The consultancies wrote some reports and made some money, and recommended building training infrastructure. Accordingly, the government went out and handed out money to the companies which sprang up, well, to get the money.

This was, with the hindsight, one of the biggest social engineering attempts in modern, post-communist history. Indeed, all of it is a complete failure, but no one talks about it because there was nothing to be gained even by branding it as failure. A new government, which made some structural changes - such as creating a ministry of skill development - essentially followed the same path as the previous one, believing that Governments can enable skill building by fiat. A number of superficial changes, including the change of personnel, have happened since, but it is unlikely that the approach, and therefore, the outcome, would be any different under the new regime.

I have been arguing that government vocational training initiatives are likely to fail (see here) and that this funded approach to vocational education has done more harm than good in India (see here). However, one could see that in the context of Indian politics, where soundbites worth prime time TV is important, and vocational training has become a way to distribute crony money without upsetting the International Investor Community or businesses, this is not going to go away. 

However, there is something more important than misspent government money at stake here. If India does this job badly as it is doing, it will end up having 500 million badly educated people, not fit for work. It is delusional that India is trying to become a leading nation, an economic power, with an unhealthy and uneducated labour force (as Amartya Sen would say) - and the penny must drop at some point. 

2016 looks to be a tough year for emerging markets, as economies like China, Malaysia, Turkey, Brazil and others look fragile. India, with its mostly domestic debt and young population, is at a better place, but it is likely to be caught in the contagion if its fundamentals continue to be so weak. There are more than vocational education that need sorting out, but the lack of a coherent approach to workforce in the country, which aims to provide a quarter of the working population of the world in a decade from now, is a serious weakness, and it would count as one when the roll call starts.


Thursday, November 19, 2015

Should India Allow For-Profit Higher Education?

I was in a debate not long ago on the topic whether For-Profit Higher Education should be allowed in India. In a way, I have a predictable position, given that I have spent most of my working life in For-Profit companies. But there are more reasons why I should generally answer in the affirmative to this question. First, because I always argue for diversity of provisions in the Education sector. Second, and more importantly, I believe that the government is generally incapable of providing services, and should confine itself to providing infrastructure and maintaining regulatory frameworks. 

The aforementioned debate was conducted in equally predictable lines. There were some, arguing against For-Profit Higher Education, rooted their argument on a moral revulsion of Profit - that one should not be in education for making money! The other group, arguing in favour, was logic of the market - that it would improve access, bring innovation and enhance efficiency of the sector. These arguments, at its core, were so familiar that another debate on this seemed wholly superfluous.

Such a debate has a predictable outcome - stalemate! One could perhaps see that the two sides, clearly drawn, are using quite different arguments and appealing to their respective, committed to convinced, audiences. There is no basis, other than moral outrage, of saying that one should not make money out of education, when it is perfectly fine to sell food for money, for example. And, indeed, despite its rational sounding appeal, the other group would be hard put to prove that introduction of For-Profit Higher Education would expand access, bring innovation or enhance efficiency. In the end, such a debate is never a debate, but claims of entitlement - the academics were arguing against a loss of privilege (justifiably, as For-Profit Higher Education shifts the focus from academic staff to processes in search of efficiency) disguised as moral outrage, and the entrepreneurs and investors were arguing for a share of the education pie, one of the growth businesses in this slow-growth world, but pretending to use economic rationality.

In context, my position is nuanced, and perhaps because I have no battles of entitlement to fight. I have no moral outrage against Profit, which I see as a reward of taking risks - something essential if one has to deal with uncertainties and build forward. At a time when education needs innovation and be forward-looking, there is no doubt that For-Profit enterprises can, and should be allowed to, play a role in the sector. 

However, at the same time, I do not think the claims of access, innovation and efficiency really measure up. 

The objective of For-Profit is to earn a profit, and not to expand access. It is pretentious to say For-Profits would serve who need access. In fact, going by the track record, For-Profits serve the most profitable. This may indeed include some people who do not have the money to pay, but For-Profits only serve them if the Government - or some other agency - comes forward with the money. And, indeed, For-Profits do not lower the cost to expand access - they charge, following the business logic, the maximum that could be charged given the market mechanism. The task of expanding access, therefore, remains with the Government, and introducing For-Profits in the equation often increase the cost of expanding access rather than reducing it.

The same goes for innovation. The For-Profit business model is about extracting value by removing inefficiencies (I shall explore the efficiency argument further), often by refining processes or employing technologies. These innovations aim, more often than not, at cost savings than better outcomes. The important thing to understand about education is that at least at present, when India has only a fraction of the population who could go to college going to college, the sector experiences infinitely expanding demand - or, supply creating its own demand. In this setting, the business logic would dictate outcomes just as good as the other existing institutions. In summary, in situations of excess demand, there is no incentive for innovation for better outcome, though innovation for cost savings would go on. 

Finally, the efficiency argument. It follows from the innovation argument that For-Profits have no incentive to create better outcome. However, one could go further and say that introducing For-Profits in the mix would actually result in a loss of efficiency of the sector as a whole. Those who are familiar with the arguments made by the economist Albert Hirschman would recognise this process of voice and exit as it plays out in a sector which is partly privatised. The point is that the public sector is designed to be driven by voice - when a public university becomes inefficient, it is inherently designed to be driven to efficiency through active protests and participation of students and the faculty. The introduction of the For-Profit option in the mix would reduce the incentive for such voice, and would introduce the option of exit - those students and faculty dissatisfied with the system would simply leave. As Hirschman observed in the case of private schools, those who leave are likely to be the most active students (in case of schools, parents), denuding the public system of its most important incentive of efficiency - voice! 

I argued that our approach to For-Profit Higher Education should neither be defined by moral outrages nor by simplistic pretensions, but a more realistic approach balancing the two. If we accept the argument of the For-Profit side that they would either expand access, bring innovation and enhance efficiency that would create value for all stakeholders - and not just their owners and stock-holders - we need to create conditions so that the For-Profit intervention indeed does so (and offset the negative effects, such as the loss of efficiency in the public sector). There are possibly two ways of creating such options, and allowing For-Profits to play a role. 

First, One of the key value propositions that For-Profit Education bring is the ability to manage future risks, and to build educational options in nascent sectors and areas, and they should be allowed to do so. For-Profit education in IT, before the sector really expanded in India, was of enormous value, and the society benefits significantly by allowing a role for For-Profit players in such sectors. 

Second, the For-Profit players could be allowed to play a role in the mainstream Higher Education only if a regulatory structure could be created to align the maturity mismatches that arise in sectors which are being privatised. This is not about regulation of Higher Education, rather - this is about regulation of corporate structures. In this, I follow the argument of Colin Mayer, of Said Business School, that in sectors like this, regulatory structures should seek to create incentives for long term value creation. Indeed, the usual For-Profit cycles of IPOs and exits create maturity mismatches for educational assets, and the history of For-Profits is, therefore, littered with instances of overreach, abuse and plain fraud. Before one opens doors to For-Profits to set up educational institutions, the government is better off by exploring what kind of corporate structure these entities should have.

In the end, I shall recommend the two books that inform my perspectives in this debate. The first is Albert Hirschman's Exit, Voice and Loyalty (Harvard University Press, 1970) which offers great insights into the operations in the condition of excess demand (where inefficiencies are common, for the usual tight balance of supply and demand, and therefore, competitive markets, do not exist), which is indeed what we see in education. The other is, of course, as cited, Colin Mayer's Firm Commitment Why The Corporation Is Failing Us and How To Restore Trust In It (Oxford University Press, 2014) which looks into corporate governance issues, particularly in the context of privatisation of public services and explore various regulatory tools, including the use of tax codes, to create incentives for long term value creation. I have studied the history of For-Profit Education in different countries in the world (see my notes here) and believe that we are better off learning from the experiences and taking a nuanced view, rather than either resisting the phenomenon as evil or embracing it without reservations.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Designing Talent Exchanges

I have spent more than two decades exploring the Education/Employment divide.  Starting in 1995, when I signed up to set up networks of IT training centres across small-town India, I have been chasing this idea of seamlessly transitioning students from the world of learning to the world of work (a set of terms I picked up on the way). Along the way, I have spent time doing various kinds of training and education - IT Training (1995 - 2004), e-Learning (2004 - 2007), Language Training and Recruitment (2007 - 2010), Higher Education (2010 - 2012) and finally, Competency-based Higher Ed (2012 - 2015) - in various geographies in Asia and Europe. Of all these different experiences, being on the other side of the table - in global recruitment - perhaps had the most impact on how I think about the issue of Education-to-Employment transition. In fact, my engagements in Higher Education started precisely with this agenda - I was employed by a private Higher Education institution to build their Placement Cell and I ended up actively transforming the education proposition of the college - and this remains central to my concerns till date.

But before I try to sum up all this experience and draw conclusions, I need to state the obvious - that this is personal. I grew up in pre-liberalisation India and studied Economics, going all the way through to a Masters degree without thinking about what job I would get thereafter. I would admit I was in a comparatively privileged position, but the realisation did come most suddenly - and my answer to that was to sign up for something outside my university studies. I learned Computer Programming in one of the institutions that I would later work for, and that got me the job even before I completed my Masters examinations. It was seamless, in a way, but may be not, because I have to actively construct my career moving from role to role for the first few years, as well as retraining myself with a business degree early in my career. 

All this, and later experience, inform my view about education-to-employment transition, including the following beliefs

1) The big problem in education-to-employment transition is that we have a closed system of education and a closed system of employment - two sealed boxes - which do not talk to each other that well

2) Despite the common sense logic, it is not easy to open these boxes, as there are powerful interests that would want to maintain the system as it is, claiming that it is tried-and-tested (though tried-and-failed, going by the number of unemployed youth, is more apt)

3) On the education side, regulators want to maintain the closed box by the sheer force of habit - the Degree being the ultimate closed system there is

4) On the employer side, the marquee employers, because of their relatively privileged position in the Labour market, maintain the proxy of degrees (and its prestige) to recruit, though they would retrain the candidates at great cost after recruitment

5) The demand from big employers ensure that the degree lives on as a closed system, though the small and medium sized companies, though they employ more people collectively (and lack the resources needed for retraining), struggle to find suitable candidates, creating the education-to-employment gap that we talk about

6) For-Profit Education, despite its key promise of finding people jobs, gets blinded by the lure of the degrees, simply because it is easier to sell because of the sponsorship of big employers, and indeed wants it to remain a closed box to maintain the barriers to entry in the sector.

What follows is that we have (a) big company recruitment system locked in to degrees from prestigious universities, which (b) leads to a degree fetish among students even if they do not go to the top universities and therefore, have little chance of getting a job, which (c) leads to more supply of sub-par degrees from For-Profit and other colleges, which create unemployed graduates, a problem (d) that newer investment aims to solve by providing more degrees. All these indeed build a huge pool of the educated unemployed, people without hope that is, while, in the meantime, people who did not have a degree, flock to the same colleges in the hope of salvation through a degree - and in the end, join the army of educated unemployed. However, while I found my salvation through non-degree skills training, and indeed all the new movements of DIY education, bootcamps and uncollege movements, point to the same direction, the closed system of degrees, tradition of college are very powerful, and immediately put everything else in an inferior category. Particularly illustrative are the efforts of developing countries, and India prominently among them, to establish standards of vocational education, which was doomed from the word go as this was seen as a second class education.

One way of trying to resolve this dysfunction is to think in terms of Open Business Models. It is difficult, particularly because Open Business Model thinking runs counter to the ideas the investor community is comfortable with. The education investment philosophy so far was centered on extracting efficiency. The approach of education investors is just like other investors who seek to extract value by privatising public utilities, by breaking through supposed inefficiency of tutor bench time (or research time as one may call it) or enhancing the Tutor-Student ratios by imposing uniform processes. Education innovation, in this context, means imposition of factory system on a sector which is, to a degree, still guided by pre-industrial value systems, and employing technologies to build cost savings. The exploration of Open Business Models, now a common theme in many of the more competitive and innovation-driven industries, is alien to education, which is still guided by a regulated public utility (regardless of whether it is run with public money or private investment).

So, in this me-too space, I see an opportunity of building what I am calling, provisionally, talent exchanges. These are not colleges, and they are not close-ended systems trying to educate any learner. But, rather, these are Open interfaces for educators to interact with employers, and employers to create opportunities for students to know real life work. These will be different from typical sandwich courses, popular as they are, as the talent exchange should provide real work opportunities that could be turned into academic credit. That way, the existing degree fetish can be reconciled with the emerging need of skills education. And, indeed, this talent exchange, which should attract big employers because of the availability of talent, but serve small and medium sized companies and employers more commonly, should create an alternative currency in recruitment - talent exchange experience and portfolio - which could sit side by side with the revered degree.

Admittedly, this is very much work in progress, but this may very much the next experiment that I want to set myself up for. The reason I like the idea of talent exchanges built ground up with local employers is because this escapes the top-down global education models that the developing countries, where this education/employment dichotomy is playing out most earnestly, do not need. Most other attempts at better education, including my own attempt at UAspire, become, fairly quickly, attempts at selling developed country degrees, with little or no relevance to the host country. This talent exchange model allows one to construct locally relevant models with local or global qualifications, as may be needed.  

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Disquiet at NSDC

Finally, the penny drops. The so-touted worlds most high profile skilling mission stumbles. After a highly critical audit report, several top executives of India's National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) resigned. The audit report highlighted a number of things, most crucially various areas of management failure, and that may have triggered the change. But it also crucially pointed out that more than 99% of all funding of this public-private partnership is coming from public funds, and there is indeed no accountability in how it is being spent. 

In summary, the government has finally caught up with what almost everyone else knew. That the much vaunted skills mission was a non-starter, a colossal waste of public funds which made a few dishonest businesses rich. One could justifiably claim that this was one of the pet projects of the previous government, and they must shoulder the blame of its failure. And, they should, having set the body up without any plans and ideas. However, it hurts the current government in a way too, as it has no alternative ideas on the table. The personnel change, perhaps appropriate, is not going to solve the deeper malaise of lack of ideas.

I have always been critical of NSDC and its way of doing things, and argued that NSDC type initiatives essentially undermined, rather than encouraged, the spread of vocational training in India. My argument was that vocational training made significant headway in India, as private enterprises identified underserved vocational markets (IT training, hospitality training, tourism training etc) and built offerings without the government stepping in. But, since 2008, this private market mechanism was completely distorted by the intervention of the government with capacity-building funds, which often went to crony companies, and created inefficiencies. Besides, this government money was spent under the strange doctrine that this needs to go into capacity creation, while the existing capacity, in the form of government supported schools, colleges and industrial training institutes, requiring maintenance and upgrades, were ignored. There was no explanation why public money was handed out to private businesses to create capacity when public capacity existed and was ignored, except that this was a way of making money for some well-connected individuals and companies.

The crisis at NSDC - and indeed one should call it a crisis when the top two executives had to resign - has been kept a low profile. This is surprising, given the prominence every little pronouncement about skills is given in India. So far, this is projected as a management failure, followed by departure of responsible executives. The systemic failure, quite apparent to all observers and pronounced in the audit report, has not been examined adequately. But this is what should happen now - not just the search for a new team, but an interrogation of what really went wrong.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

A November Day

A November day,
Usual, it seems,
Clouded sky and invisible Sun,
Empty trees and their fallen leaves
Sadness heaped, lying indifferently.

But, is there a difference of order -
Whether we pressed a button,
Or they pulled a trigger,
Whether they fired into a crowd,
Or we bombed from the air,
To look into the eyes of the dead,
This morning-after,
And to feel this stillness of bodies, meaningless ends,
Of the slain and the slayer. 

There would be memories to deal with,
And fears to overcome,
Is this war inside us
Making us less human.
The battles that would follow,
The promised heaven in return
All be stained with indifference,
And sadness overhung.

So, this day, freeze,
Remain with us as we live,
The November day of indifferent death,
And waste of all that could have been.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Coming Disruption of Recruitment Business

Disruption of higher education gets a lot of attention, and investment dollars. We say Higher Ed is broken, as costs rise and students end up unemployed, or underemployed. However, less mourned is the trouble another industry is in - Recruitment! As workplace transforms and talks of a superstar economy - one with less workers - gain traction, the neat business model of sourcing thousands of workers for a fee gets threatened. Of course, new possibilities are emerging - Headhunting is transforming into Talent Agencies - but those solution shops can not offset the coming loss of the bulk orders. Temp agencies too, with their time in the sun in the emerging economies now threatened by automation at the shop floor or service jobs, stand ripe for disruption.

We talk about this less as this is not the usual public-to-private transformation that draws lot of investment. This is a classic disruption scenario. The recruitment arrangements have become dated, overtly expensive, as the professional abilities of the workers have become more and more important in the job, compared to the initial job specs that recruiters focus on. The companies are having to do a lot more training they would like to, despite being locked in contracts with recruiters. The traditional bulk recruitment model, which worked with a broad criteria to find candidates for a well defined job, is clearly falling short in face of ever more specific criteria for shape-shifting jobs. 

The recruitment business model, as it stands now, fails in three counts

1) It tends to reject people on the basis of technical specification of the job, whereas these technical specifications for the jobs are really provisional and changing all the time.

2) It has no way of addressing any skills deficit, even of any modest nature, and yet, this seems to be needed for most candidates coming out of college. The close integration of training and recruitment businesses have been tried, but most cases, this do not work for they work with different time horizons (see my earlier post here).

3) It has no way of assessing professional abilities in a consistent manner. There are a multiplicity of tools for assessing aptitude, but there is no consensus on what could really work.

The recruitment business model has already gone through two significant disruptions in the last few years, assisted by no less proportion by the general contraction of jobs and openings since 2008. First, there was online recruitment, which expanded the reach but shifted the pecking order in the business. And, then, social recruitment, through platforms such as Linkedin, disrupted the disruption further. And, yet, it is an unfinished disruption - as the business model continues to be inefficient, rejecting threshold candidates, and selecting for wrong set of priorities.

In my posts about education, I often wrote about inverting the education-to-employment flow, and ending the education/employment divide. I shall argue that the models that would emerge in education, would disrupt the recruitment industry first. In fact, an education that produces employable graduates, by definition, would make recruitment mechanisms redundant. Bringing together practice-based education and learning-centered employment changes education, but this disrupts recruitment altogether.

This new model, I shall envision, would look like a system of education that gradually integrates the learner in a workplace. With a model of education that holds central the value of practical work, and employers who recognise the shifting nature of work and adaptability of employees as the key success factor, can together create this model where the learner could be learning while working (and vice versa). This would bring together the technical and professional skills through real work, as well as resilience and other crucial character traits through a commitment to learning and progression. This would create in employees empowered professionals, who are at once enabled to do a job and to anticipate the next one at the same time.

Traditional recruitment companies may be too attached to their business models to bring about this transformation, but Linkedin surely will. It has strategically moved beyond searching to learning, and while it is focused on content at this moment, indulging in recruiters obsession with technical skills, surely it would get to explore the professional skills challenge sooner or later. And, indeed, it would be a great opportunity for an education provider to change this industry from the other end, and creating an elegant recruitment model, more efficient and less wasteful.



Wednesday, November 11, 2015

My Gandhi Project

I write, but one advice I have taken to heart is not to take my writing too seriously. That, I thought, is the best way to avoid any traps - from writing blocks to scholasticism - and be able to enjoy writing. This is exactly I did, on this blog, for the last ten years. I wrote as words came to me, and stopped, sometimes abruptly, just as one would do in conversations. It was difficult not to be conscious of those who might read it - I experimented with private blogs but the conversations felt unfulfilled without others - and over time, this put some constraints of subjects, what to say or not to say, all those little things about appropriateness. There was, however, somewhere a wish, a hope, that I can attempt a meaningful writing project someday. After ten years, I feel ready to try.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post announcing my intention to write about the death of Mahatma Gandhi (see here). Or, rather, what then started as a general enquiry into an imperfect but persistently searching life, has now been distilled in my mind to one cataclysmic moment - that of his death! And, it is not for the drama of it, it was no less dramatic than of the Caesar, or the conspiracy, though one sees the assassins ascendant in the modern day India - but rather just an end, as death should be, and just that. I wanted to see this as an abrupt stop, expected perhaps, even deserving in a counter-intuitive way, as if the whole life of the Mahatma was a built-up just for this moment. And, indeed, what interests me is the iconography that sprung from this moment, how a life opposed to the violence of the modern state got subsumed in the founding mythologies of one, with an eclectic picking of deeds and words were paraded lavishly to reinforce the very menace while the rest were carefully catalogued as idiosyncrasies.

Indeed, I have no interest, at this point, in scholarly research (and by no means I feel capable of it). There are enough of those types of work, mostly employed in the service of integrating the Mahatma in the system of modern state, churned out by sincere scholars in search of the next seminar or citation. Or, those of the opposite persuasion, proclaiming that the state undermined Mahatma, or, that Mahatma was always incompatible with the modern state, those who oppose because they have to. The point for me is a search, making the point of the search, and not infallibility. It is imperfect in its conception, and guarded, as I claimed at the start, against the danger of taking my work too seriously. It is, in more ways than one, about me than about India, or the Mahatma, as I search for the Indian identity, that defines me.

This is the hard bit, in a way. Everyone seems to be searching for Indianness. Particularly at this moment, when a whole-scale cultural revolution is underway in India, when the Modern State seems intent to reinvent the past and recast the present, there is one thing that means to be Indian. However, in these claims, there is certainty, but no confidence. The new Indian-ness is all about amplifying a given image, either through bullying or PR dollars, but the very touchiness underline the fragility of the ideas, the lack of confidence. In contrast, my faltering search, by definition, is not to find a certain answer, but to trace a path. It is to find a way to ask the questions, and to live with contradictions. It is to search for truth, rather than proclaiming one.

And, finally, as is my comfort zone, I wanted to recast the whole project as a conversation. As a blog, no less, to start with, though perhaps separate from this one. I am not sure how I start, but perhaps as a collaborative reading exercise, with a few fellow travelers that I picked up along this ten year blogging (and some from before that). This is perfectly consistent with the way I learned to live - that the journey is the end - and perhaps even Mahatma would approve.  


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Education - Beyond Courses

Can you be in the business of Education and stop selling courses? 

It is a tough ask, as everyone in business has a course-fetish. Courses are the big hammers that the whole sector uses to solve the problems of the world. No matter what you come up with, the educator is likely to say - there is a course for that!

We may not quarrel with the essential idea. Course stands to mean a route, or a procedure, originating from the Latin word for Run. But the course, as it appears in our jargon today, is a frozen thing, and means not a journey but rather a static feast of textbooks, lectures, assignments and exams. 

Indeed, many people are dismayed by how it is usually done - often with little consideration or care for the person involved. However, course is such a common currency in education that, eventually, everyone seems to fall in the Course trap. It is so endemic that being educated and being Coursed (which indeed means chased) have become two different things altogether.

So, what is the route to education if we have to break the spell of courses? Experience is the answer I pursue, wherein the real life, rather than a collection of textbooks (however cleverly designed), presents the route to education. Old ideas die hard, and I hear the argument that these experiences must be designed - rather than being defining occurrences by themselves. This is self-defeating - remember John Dewey's late-life regret of using the Experience word as it came to mean such a different thing (see my earlier post here) - because eventually, these experiences would become canned to meet the expectations of a curriculum. No escape from the empire striking back when one starts imposing a structure on the experience, rather than following it.

Indeed, experience with a small e and Experiences, as a designed thing with a big E, are two different things altogether, and I am keen to emphasise this distinction. In the latter version, the tyranny of Courses is evident - this is indeed nothing but a course with a different label - as it must be when one is still being driven by academic priorities. My work, which I see in terms of inverting the Education-Employment flow, or ending the divide altogether, concerns itself more with the small e word, of building learning around the very act of living. 

This was indeed Dewey's big idea, which seems surprisingly relevant today even in the rather narrow context of my work. The key transformation of the workplace today, due to technologies of computation and communication, is the increasing emphasis of tacit abilities in terms of human work. The innate knowledge of how to connect with other human beings, how to negotiate, how to make someone feel good, how to respond to disruptions and disasters when needed, all those sorts of things which a course, a defined set of knowledge, can not really address. And, this, despite the apparent woolliness of experience, can only be achieved through living it. 

However, this is quite difficult to set up as a model. There may be talk about education innovation, but most of this conversation is driven by For-Profit education, which can not see beyond courses anyway. In fact, as I explored in other posts, the only innovation the For-Profit Education is comfortable with is financial innovation, and in their formulaic world, they are as far from the learner as one could possibly be. This idea, constructing learning out of personal experiences of learners, which automatically imply a great level of flexibility, care, sensitivity, is antithetical to scale-seeking For-Profit models as anything could be. 

This may mean that the great hope of changing education, in spite of the claims, may actually come from people willing and capable of transforming personal experiences into learnable moments. First step in this process is to reject the way the world of education is organised, by prestige hierarchy and in terms of a neat distribution of courses. Going beyond courses is a crucial first step, because, that would make everything else crumble fast and quick. 


Monday, November 09, 2015

Eliminating The Education/Employment Divide

Having worked on the Education-to-Employment gap, I have come to recognise this as a false concept altogether. The metaphor is powerful, and indeed popular, and consultancies and For-Profit schools try to make much of it. But, despite its appeal, it stands on a mistaken assumption - that of education and employment being two distinct stages of life. Indeed, it perhaps used to be, and that is the way we are programmed to think. At the same time, however, the nature of learning has changed - it has become far more of a continuous activity, lifelong as we would call it now - and the demands of employment have been transformed, from a well-defined set of skills and competencies, to a more fluid, more open approach of being adaptable and being able to learn continuously. Seen this way, the ideas are converging - one is expecting the education to go on beyond the school and the employment is reconfiguring itself as a learning opportunity - and the staged metaphor of education and then employment is becoming out-of-date.

Despite this apparent transformation of both learning and the workplace, the old ideas die hard. There are educators who see employment as a pursuit of narrow material ends, rather than a way of being, a process of constructing ones identity. They want to be in denial of the fact that we have to introduce ourselves these days not whose children we are, or what caste or tribe we belong to, but what we do. It is ironic that publicly funded, arch-bureaucratic Higher Education institutions tend to find their reason for existence in pretending to be medieval monasteries, notwithstanding the public goal that they have been evidently set up to serve. From the outside, though, this looks very much designed to escape accountability - with focus on a narrow set of institutionally defined outcomes rather than meeting the self-declared challenge of creating complete individuals - and this is exactly why the purpose and process of Higher Education is being questioned in almost every society around the world.

There are employers too, who, despite their professed goals of innovation and learning, see education and employment as two distinct stages. They complain, as almost all employers do today, that educators are not preparing students for jobs, and invest in vast remedial infrastructure. They are, however, unable and unwilling to see that their own demands have shifted - and this has made the staged approach of life rather redundant. Their own engagement, hands off and more as a consumer of the Higher Education systems, is increasingly falling short. Low cost of capital has led many employers now pursue the nuclear option - of replacing people with software and robots as they come - but this is creating a deep disconnection between the corporations and its communities, ultimately cutting it off from the people and causing, using a term popular with Hayek and other Austrian economists, a lot of malinvestment in capital-intensive technologies.

From either side, this state of affairs is not sustainable. Educators can not cut themselves off from the desires and aspirations of their students, nor corporate activity can become a disconnected, algorithmic enterprise - and the combined effects of the two have the making of a breakdown of the society we have built. But, to address this, it is insufficient to just think of closing the gap between education and employment, as they exist in two separate processes, but rather eliminate the divide altogether. In this format, education becomes life-intensive, built around practise and challenges of everyday, as employment becomes a pursuit of excellence and development of self. There is nothing new in this - this is what successful professional lives are made of in our times - and we are indeed doing a great disservice to all those young people seeking a productive and engaged life by keeping them in separate boxes and building narrow causeways inbetween.

So, if education is built around employment, and employment comes with the spirit of inquiry and development at its heart, what would it look like? A lot of it would look like the ancient apprenticeships, though it may jump over the modern version limited to the skilled trades and encompass the original idea of life of the mind too. The point of such transformation is indeed that tacit knowledge, the very human insights and tendencies that we bring to work, is increasingly the trump card for the humans in the workplace - every task that follow explicit instructions are already being automated - and development of such knowledge can only come from learning by doing. Enabling such learning - situated learning as some people will call it - is the point of modern education and is at the core of development of a professional. 

Translating into more practical elements, this would perhaps combine informational activities, enabling the learners to do career design (making career choices through observation and conversation, rather than assumptions - read my notes on Career Design and How To Do Career Design), learning through long apprenticeships (see my note on how it makes sense) and educating for character (earlier post here). One way to think about it is as a period of employment with a coach at hand, along with some kind of safety net so that trying and failing is okay. Our current institutional structures, built around commercial companies and professional educators, somewhat fall short of this, but this is an easier problem to solve than the education-to-employment gap as it exists. One part of my work, now postponed, was to reverse the education-to-employment thinking, and rather imagine educational qualifications based on actual practice (as it exists in some UK universities, under the name of Masters by Negotiated Learning, example here). Anything else, and we are back to the world of separate domains and narrow causeways!


Sunday, November 08, 2015

The Indian Road : The Tolerance of Intolerance

In what kind of a state, one may see a protest march against protest marches, because, as its organisers claimed, protesting undermines the country's image? This is happening in India, as the cultural cleansing, as anticipated at the election of a Hindu Supremacist party at the helm last year, began in all earnestness. Indeed, the protest against protests is proto-Fascist by definition, particularly when it is led by a Ruling Party activist with some popular appeal.

Anupam Kher, a popular and accomplished actor who has been dabbling in politics, organised this protest-against-protest march, arguing that the recent protests by a broad section of Indian intelligentsia against growing intolerance in India undermines the country's image abroad. In a way, this is a sort of political faux pas, as this proves the very point the ruling party is desperately trying to disprove: That it does not matter that a large number of Indian writers, film makers and thought leaders are denouncing, in no uncertain terms, the cultural violence it has unleashed in the country since it won the general election last year. 

The facts on the ground in India are quite plain - those who disagree with the cultural line of the Governing group are being hounded, either virtually by Internet trolls, or by lynch mobs in real life in the more gruesome form. People have been beaten to death for eating beef, people have been assassinated for trying to expose various Godmen, ideologues and political appointees have been imposed on educational institutions, and anyone speaking against any of them were accused of being, hold your breath, Political!  The organisations which opposed the government line, on environment or human rights, have been de-registered (like Greenpeace) or put under investigation (like Ford Foundation). Mr Kher, and likes of him, are indeed arguing that these acts are alright, and only protesting against them makes India look bad.

Indeed, all these were vigorously exploited by the thriving news channels, and ruling party spokesmen appeared there with the incontrovertible justification - that we should accept all these because this might have happened before. Indeed, questioning the very basis of this logic - how, even if something might have happened in the previous Congress regime, may justify its recurrence and most importantly, official sanction - has been branded conspiratorial. The official strategy of being silent about even the most heinous crimes, such as lynching of an innocent man accused of eating beef at home, has been interpreted, perhaps as it was intended to be, as support of such actions (just as Mr Modi encouraged the rioters in Gujarat, who massacred over 2000 Muslim men, women and children, in 2002, by remaining silent and inactive for three days, after which he was forced to accept Military detachments sent by the Central Government).

What is underway is indeed a transformation of India. While the ruling party keeps defending itself that such intolerance is not new, what we are seeing now is not mere intolerance, as the media is portraying it to be, and isolated individual acts. Rather, with the encouragement of the Government and ruling party MPs, this is a planned transformation of India as a Total State, representing a majoritarian ideology and making a clear break with its secular and democratic past. This may appear a tall claim now, but one must note that this is perfectly consistent with the RSS ideology, the movement of which the ruling party, BJP, is a part. RSS was founded as a social organisation following the inspiration of Mussolini and his movement. They evidently believe their moment has come - Narendra Modi's landslide victory last year was their equivalent of march on Rome - and they have now embarked on an agenda of social and cultural transformation backed by the full power of the state. 

As I travel in India often, I reflect whether I am being unduly alarmist. However, my experience tells me that the threat of emergence of a modern Fascist state is very real. I shall argue that one can not be Alarmist when faced with such danger, and one must try to resist it with all one can, regardless of how nascent the threat may seem to be. Indeed, India is a diverse country and some states are not ruled by the BJP, but the power of a modern state is overwhelming. True, the Indian electorate is mature and can be astonishingly  prescient, as evidenced in the recent rout of the BJP in state election in Bihar (where it tried, rather cynically, to unite the Hindu electorate) but the Indian constitution has countervailing provisions for emergency rule, one that was used frequently before (by Congress Prime Ministers, admittedly, but this may be another precedent to follow), and we have heard warnings that this can happen again for a Senior BJP politician of late (though this is a disgruntled LK Advani). 

What makes this a question of When, rather than If, is the swindle of a promise that the current government has made in securing its mandate. India is at a dangerous moment demographically, as 70,000 people turn 25 every day, and its economy is not expanding fast enough. The BJP promised to cure this by magic of bringing foreign investment, something that seems reasonable enough in a culture beholden to its colonial heritage. But there is no magic potion and indeed, India remains a net Capital exporter by design, holding onto and even boasting about its precious foreign exchange reserves, something that is unlikely to change in the immediate future. Besides, India presents a fairly poor alternative to productive deployment of capital, because of not just its poor infrastructure, but high level of corruption (Mr Modi seems to be celebrating that India is better than China in corruption, though it is on a poor 85th place among the nations), poor level of skills and education, poor health and sanitation (which is one of the priorities set by Mr Modi) and indeed, the rising scourge of religious conflict and violence. Since becoming the Prime Minister, Mr Modi spent an inordinate amount of time travelling around the world, reaching out to Indian diaspora with an appeal to invest in India, but doing little to attend to the structural issues that impede such investment. The only ideas that the government seems to have is steamroll the environmental and labour law provisions, but it is even unable to do this because, as it claims, it has opposition in the houses of parliament.  This is indeed both ironic, because it stalled everything (including the very legislation it wants to bring) on its way during its days in opposition, and comical, this is appearing only as an excuse for not doing much.

This economic failure, as any reading of Fascist history would suggest, eventually leads to a search for other, those who could be blamed because they are different, or those who disagree. This is the process that is now underway. The election theme of BJP in Bihar, which has now spectacularly backfired, was that people should vote for it for Development, and voting for the other side would light up firecrackers in Pakistan. Expecting the party to learn the lesson from the overwhelming rejection in Bihar would be expecting too much. One would rather expect to see the return of a tried-and-tested strategy of authoritarian rule, communal discord leading to riots leading to imposition of emergency, as the ideologues realise the limits of their demagoguery - that one can fool some people all the time, or all people some of the time, but not all people all the time.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

On Age, Generations and Feeling Young

Being on the start-up scene in my mid-forties, I am right in the middle of the discussion about age and generations. In summary, the point most investors make is that one needs to be twenty-something to have a realistic chance of founding a billion-dollar business, an assertion that, unlike many other assumptions of the investment community, can be empirically proved. Of course, I, and people like me, can only feel bad about this - with little chance of becoming billionaires and no chance of becoming twenty-something - and be compelled to build counter-arguments, such as older entrepreneurs are better at building businesses in sectors like Education. However, whatever one may try, the common-sense logic of younger people having more energy and less commitments are hard to beat, and indeed, for most of us, pointless to contend against.

However, this does not stop me from musing about age and generations. I am from that generation which fell right in the middle of the switching of social attitudes. When we hit the twenties in late Eighties or early Nineties, being older was so desirable. By the time we were older, being young was the in-thing. So, in a way, I have rallied against stereotyping by age all my life, and had the unique opportunity of arguing on the losing side regardless of my age. And, from that angle, that one can not be a successful entrepreneur because of age sounds to me very familiar, just as I was told not to do certain things, including seeing the girl next door (who I would eventually marry) because we both were too young.

And, by the same token, I indeed defy the label of being Generation X. Part of the rationale is that, being born in India, I belonged to what is now becoming the baby-boomer equivalent in that country. But the more salient point is that nothing special happened on 1st January 1985, or for that matter, on 1st January 2000 (which was, for us, remarkable because nothing happened), to mark out an entirely new species that came after it. The only thing to concede perhaps is that our attitude towards finance and money and consumption changed at some point in between. But, that makes the conversation about twenty-something billionaires more about the nature of the billions (mostly backed by private finance) than about their age. Technology has its role too, though I am equally skeptical about labeling the digital natives and immigrants (see my post on Digital Refugees).

In summary, I am making a case against ageism and stereotypes of all kinds. My argument is that there is no space for this in a society of individuals, which, at least in rhetoric, we want to define ourselves by merit and effort. My world of the suburban India in the Eighties was defined by social norms, where I was not me but someone defined by my family, place and linkages. I found that oppressive, and rebelled in my own small way, marrying for love, not following the usual career paths and eventually, leaving the country. However, the world I came to, with its obsession with young-ness, reflected not just in the rhetoric around start-ups but also in the rush of older people to sound and behave young, is no less inconsistent with the idea of being oneself. I endeavoured to stay outside this too - by rediscovering my love for reading (and writing long blog posts), alongside activities reserved for younger people, such as going back to school, starting a business, traveling around the world and indulging in transient relationships. 

In short, it was not about acting my age, or desiring another, but just being myself. This is why living outside the labels and expectations are so important. This stance has indeed put me into constant arguments with the Millennial generation, from India included, who would rather see themselves as a homogeneous, global generation, somewhat specially endowed, perhaps luckily so. But these arguments usually gave way to most enduring friendships, as every individual discovers their own struggle with stereotypes of one kind or another. Someone told me that being young is being free, but one is indeed not free while trying to conform to role expectations - and therefore, being young is about rebelling all the time. Exactly my point, I wrote back to her, though being young - or for that matter, old - is not the point of living. I did meet the role expectation - like an old person, I can not let go of my central obsession, defying the stereotypes - even when I am conspiring for a rebellion.


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"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

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Will be to arrive where we started
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