Thursday, December 31, 2015
It is cliche, but I can not still believe that here we are on the last day of the year already. It is a sunny day here in London, an unexpected gift. Cold but not too cold, which is also a good thing given how mild this December so far has been, and yet, the predicted bitter-cold winter of an El Nino year is also nowhere in sight. Having spent most of the year in warmer climates, this feels just right for me, a very welcome situation at the end of a year on the road.
The year that ends, for me, was a stop-gap year. I spent the year in, using a computing metaphor, recovery mode, without trying to do anything special, just surviving, keeping my head down. This was exactly like the year I spent immediately after coming to UK, a decade ago, my previous big adventure that led to some disappointments and several serendipity. My learning from that was not to give up on adventures, but to be ready to step back and recover, if needed.
This may indeed make no sense to my friends and family, who would rather conceive life as a gently rising line, getting better every single year. I would have embraced that life too, if I did not want to change my life significantly, say two lifetimes' worth in one, and indeed, this was what I was trying to do in the first few years of my working life, rising along the hierarchy step by step, measuring myself by increments, getting married etc. Now, of course, after setting myself loose from my moorings, I am either in adventure mode, or I am going home. And, this model of iterative failure is an essential part of my being on the road.
That perhaps is putting it too darkly. I do all the supposedly 'silly things', as my father would call them, not to fail, but to accumulate. One dimension of accumulation is wealth, but the other is experience, and I wanted both. My expectation curve is also gently rising, just that it combines both, and it rises unevenly, rather poorly in dog years, but dramatically when I reach the promised land. For this, there is a third step in the sequence of failing and recovering, and this is the moment I arrive at now.
For this, my favoured term is, borrowing from computing again, Pivot. I do not mean this in the sense the start-ups refer to it, a change of strategy. Rather, for me, it is a breakpoint, a point of departure. And, this, for me, comes not immediately after the failure, but after a period of recovery, when the disappointment has subsided. I am angry, at myself, at others, when I just failed. Or, worse, I am still in love with my old life and assumptions, when I just failed. Trying to change course, at that point, is like the way start-ups do, change the way but keep the goal. But all too often the goal needs changing too, and this is often obscured in the close proximity of a moment of disappointment, when the mistakes of our ways, and of others, are far too obvious, but not the various other roads not taken.
A year of reflection affords me this. When I mention recovery, people around me, all too often, think about recovery of my bank account and credit scores, but not of me. While I find such faith redeeming, my repeated efforts at failing better risks myself. One of the perks of living the way I do is I can love what I do with my senses - my work is I at any given moment - and I bring my whole self to it at any given moment. So, a break is also a break with myself, a change of work is a mini-rebirth, with all the pains of a mini-death and the sacrifices of a mini-birth. And, a Pivot is not a new way of doing the old thing, but finding a new purpose to live for.
This point is one such. The welcoming, sunny, cold morning, turning into a busy afternoon with all the work lining up, is an invitation to such a start. It is not one of those periodical resolutions that I subject myself to, not the fantastical belief that a January morning would reset everything, but a feeling of readiness, redemptiveness if there is such a feeling, a clear-to-fly signal from myself. A narrative, as yet unformed, starts to form, with not faith or circumstance, but me, as the writer.
Sunday, December 27, 2015
In the world of Unicorn companies, privately held start-ups with valuations of $1 billion or more, global strategy is no longer what it used to be. In fact, the old, dated idea that one goes global only after securing its home market, and having cash flows to sustain far-flung operations, is as good as dead. Getting global fast, rather, is the thing to do, as the copy-and-catchup innovation, as popular in many fast-growing emerging markets, can alter the dynamic for a start-up quite dramatically by capturing large market share in foreign markets and becoming a threat almost instantly. Whatever we may think of them, copycats, imitators, etc., the copy-and-catchup ecosystem in India, China, Middle East and Africa, are made of very smart entrepreneurs, savvy technologists, and investors who are ready to back them either looking to exit in a global M&A or going global through acquisitions themselves. With this, right now, start-ups are usually born-global rather than not, and discussions about global strategy has to flip accordingly.
There are other structural changes that necessitate this too. First, the consumer demand is growing globally, and not just in the United States. In fact, the new demand growth in many a sector - automobile for example - is primarily in the emerging markets, or projected to be in the emerging market. A quarter of new college going students is supposed to be in India, followed by China. Healthcare markets would grow dramatically in the population-heavy parts of the world, not just in terms of service provisions but in revenues too. India is already the second largest market for Uber after the United States. So, the model, created only a few decades ago, of global workflows with cheap labour in emerging markets at one end, and rich consumers of Western countries at the other, is already flipping. The Copy-Catchup innovators often have access to bigger markets and cheaper labour at the same time, on a terrain native to them, creating a different set of strategic challenges to global start-ups. The models used by P&G to take soaps to Asia is no longer a template for strategy-making.
Second, if the transformation of consumption is not enough, the global models change innovation too. Indeed, one may read the above paragraphs thinking that all innovation is happening in the West whereas it is only copy-and-catchup elsewhere, but that would be mistaking what innovation really means. New product and service ideas are still being generated in the West, particularly in the consumer Internet space, because of its advantages with technology clusters, advanced education systems and wider penetration of broadband Internet. But it may not be equally efficient in terms of the last mile solution, where infrastructure and culture have a role to play, and here, there is a lot of innovation in the emerging markets. The emerging market companies often excel in copying the product ideas, and concentrating their innovation efforts on the last mile, dealing with payment issues, community building, service infrastructure etc. This is why M-Pesa originates in Kenya, and Uber is playing catch-up with Ola in offering cash payments for cab rides. And, indeed, frugal innovation, given the limited needs and service infrastructures, is often being pioneered in these markets, interrogating many of the unspoken assumptions about public infrastructure and value systems that underlie the Western business model. This creates a brave new world of strategy-making, where all the assumptions must be carefully validated, because almost nothing can be taken for granted in a global scale.
These changes are setting off great changes in global strategy among the great global corporations, inverting their business models and setting off the quest for reverse innovation. However, these changes create particular challenges for born-global start-ups, whose problems are seldom studied in the business schools. For them, changing global dynamic, and the threat of competition from emerging markets, create very peculiar challenges. For example, the homogeneity and single-mindedness of the founding teams that is usually the strength of a start-up becomes a handicap in handling the intricacies of last-mile innovation. And, it does not help that the quest for global strategy is only mixed up with the softer subject of cross-cultural competence, that nineteenth century game of stereotypes and prescriptive manners, which hinders, rather than helping, development of global mindset.
What are the elements of a global strategy for a born-global start-up? Following a model developed at Thunderbird, this may need, at the competence level, intellectual, psychological and social capital to deal with globality. This means that the start-up should seek to have a native view of the global marketplace, not just by choosing information to fit its assumptions, but by letting its assumptions evolve with global context. In this, diversity of the founding team is an important factor, and one could perhaps comment that most, if not all, successful born-global start-ups have at least a few key executives or founders who came from a different background. It is also important to note that iterative models like Business Model Canvass becomes crucial here, though it perhaps need a different level of sophistication, as any assumption can be proved and disproved simultaneously when tested in a global scale. Market selections, usually opportunistic in start-ups, become even more crucial in this context, as like the founders, first few market-places define the strategy more profoundly than the influence that home markets used to have on earlier generation of companies, because the openness to make the leap is greater when one is going from domestic to global than when it is trying to fit a business model established abroad into another market (because, for many, there are only two kinds of market, home and overseas).
One of my teachers used to say, Start-ups do not do strategy, and there is an element of truth in this. There is very little breathing space to think and reflect in the breathless life of a start-up. However, the imperative to be born global and the complexities of global existence force the hand of the start-up founders to take up seriously the challenge of global strategy. In a world where the start-up ecosystems generate employment, create wealth and explore new possibilities, the issue of global strategy from the perspective of the start-ups is too important to be ignored.
Friday, December 25, 2015
As a trained marketer, my default position is - we must start with the customer! I have taken this as an article of faith, a common sense position that underlie all businesses, that businesses exist to solve the problems of the customers. That lasted till I started putting it into practice. The customers I met either did not care to talk to me or wanted me to give a solution. The entrepreneurs I met told me that the customers do not know what they want (quoting Steve Jobs, I figured out). And, the marketers, I realised, were all telling me that it is about telling the customer they are getting what they want, while giving them what we want to give them.
I know this is cynical, but this is exactly what it feels like. True, we get to hear about companies which love their customers. But, once you have been inside the marketing box, it is hard to know what is for real. And, besides, even if some companies do and we get to hear about them, we get to hear about them simply as they are man-bites-dog exceptions, not the other way around. And, this makes sense in the world of business full of super-smart entrepreneurs and gullible customers, all those people who seek to construct their identities around the brands they could buy.
Having worked in established companies and in start-ups, I am trying to come up with my own answers. My answer is that the customer knows more than she can tell. While I sympathise with the entrepreneurs who says that the customer does not seem to know, I think the point is that we often do not know how to ask. For the marketer who believes that he can just make the customers want things he has, I think he is grossly mistaken - and he is embarking on a path which will end up in failed companies, disenchanted customers and unemployed marketers (or, more unemployed marketers, I should say). And, for the customer who do not care or want me to come up with solution, I am willing to try harder.
Even if this is stating the obvious, I think market research is bunk. Going and asking a few questions about what the customer may like is a costly way to find out what we want to hear. Look at all the different ways of doing the market research, and to an outsider, it would look like the blind groping through the dark, providing approximate answers to imperfect questions and hoping something would click, a voodoo positing as science. The amazing fact that we keep doing it is more due to our faith in things written in textbooks than our common sense. Besides, it may work in some contexts where the product exists and parameters about its usage is largely known, but most entrepreneurs are not in that kind of place.
Even if the customer explicitly knew what she needed, figuring that out is a design exercise, rather than a logical, statistical thing. The only way to figure out how the customer would behave, what she would want is actually to be doing the real thing. It is indeed risky to be betting it all on something that may turn out to be the wrong thing, but that is indeed the point - who said there was a short-cut to business success? And, for technology businesses in particular, it is about figuring out how the technology-in-use would play out, and no statistical exercise can give that answer. Hence, we are now talking about Lean Start-ups and Business Model Canvass, the attempts at figuring out by failing.
The customer knows, even if she can not tell. Make her part of the process, help her serve herself - the point of co-creation - and you would know the answer. This is the in-between place between asking customers what they want and assuming that they need to be told what they should want, a crazily approximate position where failing is the norm and learning is the mantra that is indeed the holy grail of marketing. It is the tacit knowledge of the customer we are after, and letting them play is the best thing we could do.
Monday, December 21, 2015
I wrote about a fresh start in 2016, but unlike all the grand plans of new beginnings I usually make around the year-end, this fresh start was not really that fresh. Rather, I am seeking to be boring, conventional, going back to a professional life etc. Was this about a burn-out, am I giving up, I was asked, and my answer that I am trying to be realistic did not have much weight. After all the years of attempting not to conform, this idea of settling in can only be seen as giving up, rather than a bidding time strategy.
The point, of course, is that I am not giving up on my ambition, but seeking a different one. There are certain assumptions I made about my abilities and what I wanted to do, and to be sure, I tried them out. It did not work, or at least did not work the way I expected it. Like a good entrepreneur, I have learned and now, I am trying to pivot. Stepping back and getting back to professional life is not giving up entrepreneurship, but rather seeing my life as a continuous enterprise, attempting different opportunities. What I am looking for now is not a sure shot way, but an opportunity to fail better.
At times like this, one needs to interrogate all the things that one does, and I am doing that. And, in that, one aspect is this blog, which is a big chunk of my time, but which, by design, has no real purpose. Started as a hobby, this is indeed the most prominent public activity that I have, and yet, I have steadfastly stayed away from connecting this with my professional interests. As I admitted earlier, the nature of this blog has indeed changed, as awareness about its readership has made me conscious of what I write and how I write. And, this is why it merits some thinking as I think of what I do next - it is an important time-taking activity, placed inbetween my intense desire to preserve a private voice and my consciousness about its public nature and my professional responsibilities.
One way to resolve this is to take this blog seriously. I decided, as I started this blog about 10 years ago, is not to take my writing seriously. This is why I chose to write a blog rather than trying to contribute to magazines etc. Blogs were, are, not serious stuff, as anyone can write anything, and I believed trying to take the blog seriously is succumbing to the same disease of self-importance that I hate in other people.
However, as I see it now, this is the root of my dilemma. I do not want to take my writing seriously, yet I spend a significant amount of time on it. Do I, if I have to make 2016 impactful, have that kind of luxury? Further, I do not want to take my blog seriously, but I am also trying to be professionally responsible and publicly conscious, a contradiction of aims in a way. If I have to default onto realism in 2016, I ought to settle on one of the two solutions about this blog, and my writing in general.
One option is to give it up. It is drastic, but not unreasonable. Thousands (or is it millions) blogs die every day, and I can claim some points on perseverance for carrying on for 10 years. It can be sweetly dramatic, as I can make an announcement on its 10th anniversary, only a couple of weeks away, and draw the curtains. It would still have visitors on legacy posts, as it happens for most blogs anyway, and it would live till the time the platform lives on. This action would make me stronger - there is no greater proof of commitment to the future than giving up something I so dearly love - and allow me to focus on the 2016 I want to build.
The other is, of course, to take it seriously. This means a range of things, from the trivial, like remedying the missing punctuation (due to a faulty keyboard that I use to write most of my posts), to the more significant, like taking on one or the other writing projects that I was pledging to take up for quite a while. There is a difference of writing seriously and taking my writing seriously, a distinction I missed for almost ten years. It is only at this point, a humbling moment, that I see the difference - the fine line between commitment and hubris, the two sides of the professional self - and see a potential resolution of my dilemma.
Indeed, these two are diametrically opposite conclusions. One would free up my time, and the other would devour more time, into an activity which has no apparent professional aim. However, this could indeed be my redemption for 2016, a safety catch from becoming totally consumed in the life of paying the bills. I have, persistently for ten years, refused to see writing as a serious activity, confusing it with the pretension of taking my writerly self too seriously. But, a commitment to write well without putting on the pretension to be a writer is actually quite consistent with what I am trying to achieve in 2016, being real about myself.
Tuesday, December 15, 2015
We have our ideas about how a society becomes prosperous. There are some great examples for us at hand - from England of the Industrial Revolution, Psot-War United States, China in the new millennium, and host of other countries in between. Explanations are aplenty too - there are technological, demographic, social-cultural, political and now even spiritual and astrological justifications available why prosperity happens. But, even within the variety of explanations, there are some overarching assumptions, two in particular, that can be seen in every theory. They are Paradigms, in the sense Thomas Kuhn originally used the term, frames of reference that we fit every available evidence into. Whatever explanation we seem to pursue, we seem to accept one or the other paradigm about how a society functions.
First of these two is the Planning paradigm, primarily positing that human societies can be planned from above. This may seem out of fashion now, with the terrible mess that Soviet Union turned out to be, but this was extraordinarily popular at the time of the longest uninterrupted run of prosperity, after the war and through the mid-sixties, where every country, rich and poor, embraced some form of planning. There were miracles then, which were ascribed to Planning, though they did not last. The Planning paradigm had an important use, though, that it did free us from the racial assumptions - that some people can develop while others can not - and gave everyone hope.
But, then, it failed. It is not because the efforts given to planning was inadequate, but rather that we trusted planning too much. In varying degrees, societies believed that an enlightened elite can know everything and design the path to good life for the masses. It failed, because enlightened elite failed. Designing things from above did not work, because the elite did not understand the realities. Their actions caused miseries, rather than prosperity.
The second paradigm, under whose spell we live now, is the paradigm of the market. Rising from the rubble of the Soviet Union, and primarily powered by the mythologies (which are historically inaccurate) of American development, that of a free people shaping their destiny through agency, we came to trust the invisible hand of the market allowing the survival of the fittest and the prosperity driven by a few smart individuals. These agents of development, wealth creators, are to drive thinking and doing in the societies, leading innovation, building enterprises and finding opportunities.
In its current form, though, even this Market paradigm depends on a small elite, well-educated, privileged and enterprising. The fundamental goals of the state policy is to create opportunities for them at the expense of everything else. Accordingly, the old ways of running government, taxes with the aim of redistribution of wealth, welfare provisions, regulations, have been cast aside in favour of ever lower tax rates (which is easy to avoid), minimal welfare to drive benefit scroungers to work, non-intrusive state etc.
The two paradigms may be at two different ends of the political spectrum, but they are essentially similar in their reliance on a small elite - the Superheroes - in driving economic development. The difference might be in who these people are - sons of party bosses or sons of businessmen - but it was never assumed that the common people can do much. But there is perhaps another way of reading history, all history, that it is common people, through spontaneous action, bring about all development. Instead of elites leading development, all elite, hereditary, bureaucratic or commercial, are anti-development, as the state of change threaten privileges. Development is the imperative of the common people, as only their quest of well-being leads to the challenge of status quo, and it is they, taking charge of their development, can bring about sustained change, which we call development.
At this point, I can fully prepared for being called a Socialist, because any argument that talks about people as the driving force of development is labelled as such. It did not matter that I find the planning and state-sponsored ideas equally ineffective. Mythologies need the kind of one or the other approach, and I am guilty of pursuing a shade of grey. The history of development though perhaps bears this argument out. Often, we define progress in terms of one or the other particular invention. But, a closer look, as we look at the life cycle of development, when that invention truly gains traction and results in perceptible change in the society, we generally see that it has become commonplace through education, that even the common people are able to use it and employ it to productive purposes. So, we may put our faith on brilliant inventors to change society, and they do have an important function, but it is little people, through education, actually make development happen.
This may be obvious, but this gets missed all too often. Talking about this people dynamic of development is not socialism, but just a common reading of history. However, we must talk about this to counter all superhero theories of development, particularly of the current variety where we expect a Larry Page or Elon Musk to deliver the future. It is us, through education, engagement and improvisation, who would have to bring change about.
Sunday, December 13, 2015
I am keeping my reading pledge of completing a book a week. This week, I completed Benn Steils The Battle of Bretton Woods, a fascinating saga of the emergence of the Bretton Woods system, with all the key actors, politics, achievements and disappointments. Not an easy read, it was monetary economics side by side with personal drama and high politics of International relations, it was nevertheless worthwhile the effort.
Aptly titled, the Battle captures the competition between Britain, embroiled in war, and the United States, for global dominance in the post-war world. The story, at the same time, is also of the competition between the old and the new world, that of waspish brilliance of Lord Keynes pitted against the bureaucratic single-mindedness of Harry Dexter White, the clash between imperial hangovers and commercial brutality. Lurking behind the scenes, adequately represented in the story, is the Soviet mechanisation, manipulating the world affairs through plain bribery and ideological appeals, fascinating in the details such as leading the Japanese to Pearl Harbour.
Indeed, we still live in the shadows of the Bretton Woods system. Its founding assumptions have been discredited and the world has changed beyond recognition, but the institutions are still alive and the underlying tension between multilateralism and nationalism, and the idea of United States as the sole keeper of a world system, are still valid. In the closing chapter of the book, there is an insightful commentary about how the current world system reflect some of the realities that the makers of Bretton Woods grappled with, and it makes compelling reading.
Couple of final points. Last week, as I completed The Shifts and The Shocks, I was commenting on the role of Creditor Nations in creating an economic crisis. This story of Bretton Woods reads like the backstory in that regard, with Keynes worrying about the role of excessive surplus and the Americans effectively blocking his efforts, because they were, then, the biggest creditor nation in the world.
And, finally, given my background, I could not help but think about how all this affected India and its independence. The American hardball in dismantling the British Imperial System is what the new Monetary system was mostly about. This clearly forced Britain to withdraw from India and all other colonies in due course, rendering the imperial model obsolete. All the rhetoric of freedom, democracy and justice that we have become used to, look like cold economic considerations from this angle. Which is what it is, and will be. Books such as this are important reminders of what really matters.
British Universities are very global and not at the same time.
If one walks into an university classroom, particularly a Postgraduate one, chances are to meet a majority of students coming from outside the UK. In fact, almost 70% of the students in Research and Taught Higher Degrees at the UK universities came from outside the UK in 2013/14, as did 18% of the First Degree students. In England, 19% of all students are International, and one in five in Scottish universities would have been born elsewhere. 38% of all Business students, 32% of all Engineering students and 25% of all Law students are International. Add to this the 636,675 students pursuing an UK degree from abroad (of which 76,600 are in Malaysia and 50,070 in Singapore), mainly due to the franchising and other arrangements that have become a long-established tradition in the UK universities (UKCIS Data). UK universities also represent a global research superpower. BIS reports UK represents just 0.9% of the global population, it accounts for 3.2% of R&D expenditure, 4.1% of researchers, 6.4% of research articles, 9.5% of research article downloads and 15.9% of the world's most highly-cited articles (see here). This picture is indeed of a globally engaged Higher Education sector.
At the same time though, the institutions remain publicly funded, with most university leaders coming from within the UK university system. The conversation in most universities, with a few notable exceptions, centre around the UK undergraduate students, vagaries of government policy and a generally weary sense of the world. The universities, despite their large exposure abroad through the students in franchised provision, have very little connection with employers or local communities that those students live in. The engagement of UK Higher Education sector abroad remains tentative. The world of new global education, driven by internationalisation, private capital and technology, is led by the Americans, followed by companies and institutions based in Singapore, Dubai and Hong Kong. This, for most UK universities, is a world gone crazy, with Higher Education sector dominated by marauding foreigners.
Yet, when the British universities do indeed argue about the global nature of Higher Education, as they do in opposition to the current governments drastic and irrational policies towards student immigration, they cite Higher Education as an export. However, this is unlike most other export items from the UK. The UK trade thrives in its openness, and a majority of UK exports are manufactured by foreign-owned facilities and businesses sending its wares to other countries, representing global technological superiority and connectedness at the same time. Higher Education export, at the same time, represents an export of tradition, mostly engaging former colonial markets, spinning its appeal of a former imperial nation. [As an aside, discussion of Higher Education exports within this frame of imperial connections reminds one of the comments made by the war-time Lend-Lease administration, which wanted to restrict exports to traditional items where British goods do not compete with American ones, like Scotch Whiskey and Harris Tweed, to which Keynes, sarcastically, wanted to add Haggis].
This reflects an approach to Higher Education that is no longer valid in most of the rest of the world. Higher Education used to be a cultural product, coveted by post-colonial elite, as a marker of privilege and prestige. In the international engagement, the UK universities for the most part, and the UK government (with its insistence on the Best and the Brightest students, and by deliberate visa norms, only the rich ones), view it largely as that, though the domestic conversation about Higher Education, with its focus on widening participation and economic empowerment, is indeed quite different. But the developing nations, and particularly the developing nations, have a different function of Higher Education - that of integrating modern technologies and practises in their societies, by reaching out to broad mass of people and diffusing the productivity-enhancing techniques broadly. This is their economic and political priorities, and a system of education to perpetuate privileges and cultural superiority of a few that British universities seem to offer is totally at odds with the emerging Chinese or Indian dream.
I concede that there are people in these societies who are after Higher Education as a cultural product, but this class is small. It is the expansion of the other classes, not the best and the brightest (and the rich), but that of skill-hungry ordinary middle class that are driving Global Higher Education and changing it. The UK universities offer little to these people, instrumental in making the emerging countries emerging.
One could perhaps blame the Government policy, particularly visa policies, for focusing too much on the privileged sections of society, but the universities themselves, and the eco-system of British Higher Education, has limited capacity to service this emerging global opportunity. For one, the American career colleges, mostly For-profit institutions readily backed by private capital and open to technology usage, are far more open - though their preparedness for global markets can be questionable - to reaching out this segment. And, while these mercenary practises can be scoffed at, they have an useful social role - of creating a skilled working class ready to use modern technologies - that the emerging societies greatly need.
British universities, however, have a historic opportunity here, but that needs a paradigm shift from seeing Higher Education as a cultural product to something that enables economic empowerment. Indeed, this is the stated mission of most of the newer British universities and economic empowerment is what they do very very well within their local communities. It is only when they engage with global markets, a combination of nostalgia, imperial hubris and cultural defensiveness overcome them. But a sincere engagement, transmitting the values of British Higher Education as an economic enabler, can build great global engagements.
Friday, December 11, 2015
In the UK, the conversation about Graduate Employability remains, well, a conversation. Student loans are not yet biting, and graduate unemployment is still relatively low, when compared against its European peers. Underemployment and lack of job progression may be a bigger issue, but till the student loans become oppressive (they are income contingent at this time), they are unlikely to cause a crisis. But this is one thing to watch out for, as the student loan becomes more of an issue, the Government starts allowing differential fees for universities and starts selling student loan books at massive discounts.
The government has published the Green Paper on Higher Ed, which has many ideas including the differential fees, but not many on Employability. Johnny Rich picked it up in his review in Times Higher Education and proposes that this should become an intrinsic part of Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). His view of Employability, very aptly, revolves around three things - Knowledge, Social Capital and Skills.
My own model of Employability also has three things, Skills, Information and Mobility (which handily forms the acronym, SIM, see post here). I came up with this looking at developing country markets primarily, which are often afflicted by uneven geographical development, and indeed, I was not thinking about only university-trained graduates in this model. However, this alternative model makes me think whether I should factor in Knowledge and Social Capital into my own thinking (though this would wreck the neat acronym).
I am sensitive about the different contexts of the discussion - my quest is to create an unified model which I can use in my work in developing countries whereas the current discussion is about a set of parameters that could be included in the TEF. So, while the Social Capital on one hand, and Information and Mobility on the other, have clear overlaps, one set of words is more relevant than others in their given context. Social capital is a capital, thing that grows with its use, and information and mobility, whether in the restricted geographical sense I saw it or the broader sense of reaching out that may apply, are outcomes that result from social capital. But, for me, information and mobility are easier to define and measure than social capital.
Now, in terms of model, everyone seems to be in agreement that skills are important, though it's meaning may vary. Skills for me was the all encompassing attribute, which included, in my list, the ability to learn and the ability to participate, and by extension, knowledge (or the ability to know). So, in the end, the question really is - what to do with Knowledge?
In the THE article that I cite above, Knowledge is taken as a given, 'the teaching of which is higher education's speciality'. Indeed, one can not talk about TEF without referring to Knowledge as important. But is knowledge a static thing that can be taught, or transferred, or it needs to be actively constructed? And, if we accept this dynamic view of knowledge, the constructivist position most people in adult education would perhaps feel more comfortable with, it is not the knowledge itself, but the ability to acquire knowledge that would come up as the most important. So, in contrast with Mr Rich's proposition, it is not how much the student knows, but whether the student is able to learn (which, by itself, would guarantee that she knows) would determine employability.
In fact, over-emphasizing knowledge in the employability equation can be dangerous. Knowledge is always of something, and it is implicitly related to the structure within which such knowledge is produced and used. Much of the knowledge that Higher Education specialises in is linguistic, within the context of Higher Educations own. Within the closed, bureaucratic higher education system, the knowledge that is most valued is the knowledge how the system works, and how language is used in Higher Education. Someone who knows this well, can be very successful in Higher Education, but mastery of such knowledge and excellence in one system can actively prevent success in any other system, including that of the world of work.
Wednesday, December 09, 2015
If one contrasts the way Colleges usually deliver education - defined around a set of textbooks, driven by lectures and reading and assessed by essays - it should be clear that Project-based Learning, where learning is defined by a set of real life tasks, driven by collaboration and interaction and assessed by outcomes, works better. Here are six reasons why.
First, the best way to learn is by doing it. We all know this. Even the college model of lectures, textbooks and essays is itself built around this assumption - it is teaching one to become a scholar, by doing scholarly work. It is a proven model and has worked for centuries, well grounded in the experiences of what Hannah Arendt called Vita Contemplativa, contemplative life. The objective of college has changed, though, and now we expect the college to prepare for Vita Activa, life of labour, work and action. The best way to prepare for this life is through activities.
Second, while a contemplative life may be expected to be a solitary one, life of action is essentially social. And, it is not about new economy or the old. There is enough evidence that while great inventions were reported as flash of insights, they originated in interactions, in social settings, where, as Matt Ridley would say, ideas could have sex. The textbooks, lectures and essays, make a world focused essentially on oneself. One could argue that this preparation is important to participate well in the social conversation of ideas, but while this preparation is important, it is far more important not to try to anticipate all the realities of life in an idealised form, lest it develop in us a sense of withdrawal from the real world. The best way to prepare for the real world is to be in the real world.
Third, the experience of real life must come from inside the college, because the college, as a credential factory, has become too important. A recent IPPR study on Labour Markets in Europe shows that professional work opportunities for younger people has collapsed, including the concept of Saturday Work for 16 year olds in Britain, which offered valuable work experience for young students of earlier generations. And, this may as well be a global trend - many jobs that required only a High School diploma, now requires a college degree. However, this means if college remains inward-looking, scholarly and a solitary pursuit, too many people would arrive at work with degrees but no preparation to work. This is indeed the case right now, and would become more acute as these students have to face the challenge from increasing automation of process-based jobs.
Fourth, the locus of education, due to the changes in the nature of knowledge and access to it, has also shifted from a process of knowledge transfer to whole-person preparation, if we have to give a name to the complex set of goals that a modern education attempts to achieve. The textbook-driven model, sustained, in many cases, for the textbook industry (not just in America, but see how powerful Academic Notes authors are in Developing countries, often sitting on University curriculum committees), focuses too much on Content, rather than Practice. Much of the work today, except arguably for teaching in those colleges which indulge in a content-only model, is about using knowledge in context, taking initiative in finding out the answers and using judgements, things that human beings do better than the machines. Project-Based Learning supplies this missing link - Context - to make learning worthwhile. One has to think of the reform of the Medical Schools in the United States in the early Twentieth century, spurred on by Flexner Report, which surmised that a content-based learning, without practical experience, is worthless in training physicians. So it is today, in most professions.
Fifth, Project-Based Learning goes a long way to avoid the grade-inflation problem that the traditional models are facing. It presents a multi-dimensional look at the ability, and often involving an outside perspective, rescuing it from the cozy game-playing that assessments often become. And, by doing so, it helps to develop an appropriate work ethic, a culture of responsibility rather than gaming the system, a commitment to play your part rather than solitary pursuit of achievement, not just for a better worker, but also a better citizen.
Sixth, and this is personal, is what the student leaves with when s/he has gone through Project-based Learning. In my first interview, when I just finished my Masters in Economics, the interviewer, a well-known businessman, asked me what I can do. Every time I tried answering him, he would interrupt and say - I did not ask you what you knew, and I was sure you knew some things, but what you could do! I could not answer the question to his satisfaction, and did not get the job. I wish I went through Project-Based Learning myself.
There are a number of people who would complain that changing the learning models from what it is today would undermine academic values, and make the Higher Education system a fodder for companies. They argue driving learning through work would undermine Critical thinking of the learners and they would not question the corporate interests as earnestly they do now. But do they? One could clearly see that these arguments are based on interests and entitlements, of winners in the system as it is now, against a change that may threaten those privileges. Michael Crow of Arizona State writes in his Designing The New American University that academicians love Critical Thinking as long as it is not applied to what they do. He has certainly got it right.
During April and May 2013, I travelled across India, covering about 10 cities over a few weeks, with two colleagues. My primary goal was to connect with educational institutions, who I wanted to partner with to deliver the courses we were developing then, mainly pathway qualifications that allowed an Indian student to study for the first couple of years of a Bachelors degree in India and enter an UK institution in the final year. It was a trip full of stories, to be told over a lifetime, as we battled May heatwaves, managed erratic Indian transport and met a wide variety of people, businessmen, educators, students and parents. For my colleagues, exposed first time to India in all its intensity, it was exhausting and exasperating. For me, it was a rare opportunity to see India, and interior India and not just the posh parts of Mumbai or Delhi, with two vantage points all at once - from my own deeply Indian perspective, from the vantage point of my colleagues with whom I enjoyed a close and honest relationship. It did help further that one of my colleagues, my business partner then, was a white man of English origin, and another, a senior adviser and mentor who we both deeply respected for his knowledge and experience, was as eminently English as one could be in manners, culture and education, but of Mauritian heritage. The contrasting treatment three of us got on the street and in the meetings, and its variations in different parts of the country - North and South, Small City and Big City etc - taught me a lot about India which I did not know, could not see, before.
For me, I see India in two different ways. This is intentional. I left behind a relatively comfortable life in India to embrace a combative and searching life abroad. Therefore, I never left India in a way. I retained my habits, practises, allegiances and passions exactly as they were, and attempted to see India from the outside, which is what the point of the journey was. This goal defined all I do - as my conversations and my work persistently sent me back to it - and I became somewhat an interlocutor. It is at the same time India was becoming more globalised. The first time in its history perhaps, when many young Indians worked in global organisations dealing with global colleagues and clients, Indian tourists jostling with the Chinese for selfies with Mona Lisa, and for the first time, Indian migrants, some as students, some for work, settling in North America and Europe in large numbers. A range of India experts, those who sold an Insiders view of India to the Outsiders, were everywhere. I, in contrast, was trying to grasp the Outsiders view of India, trying to live an Outside-In perspective despite my deeply Indian personality.
So, when, summarising the experiences during the tour of India, one of my colleagues reflected that he felt India has not been able to overcome its colonial hangover, it came not as a revelation but as a confirmation of what I was watching. What we saw, my colleague poignantly observed, is some sort of a pragmatic fetish, or fetishistic pragmatism. Most people we were talking to inquired whether we would have tutors from London, and the bold ones asked whether they would be white. Everyone thought going to UK to study would be attractive, but did not ask much about either about the courses or the experiences that the students would have. Many were keen for my white-skinned business partner to address their students, much to his discomfiture as my other colleague of Mauritian heritage was much better placed to do so. However, at the same time, one could see that this fetish did not translate into any kind of commitment. All the educated Indians we met were trying to do are farther their own agenda - either impress a student or to earn a few brownie points by association - by using the colonial overhang that my colleagues clearly noticed.
India is not yet free, we almost said, when we met a legislator in a Southern state. He was an educated man, a retired army officer, very well read and articulate. He stood out from the rest of the people we met, as he talked, almost incessantly, how great the Indian culture was, and about its different practices and commitments, in contrast with the West. While he was very helpful in making a lot of introductions, he was, at the same time, quite insistent that we should look to bring our technologies and practices to Indian institutions themselves, rather than trying to deliver Western qualifications through them. A lifelong member of the Rashtriya Sayamsevak Sangh (RSS), he wore Indian attire and ate vegetarian food - and introduced us to the finest Rajasthani food one can find in Bangalore. It was difficult to place him, and all the conversations we had, into the schema I was developing through the journey. His was a rejection of the West altogether and going back to a distant time when India was superior, and his objective in engaging with us is, as we figured out, to convince us of the view.
This view, which is particularly ascendant as the middle classes in India grow in confidence, represents itself in the majoritarian ideology of the emergent India. My quest to develop an outside-in perspective is redundant to this view, as this superior India needs no reference from its outside, and is, indeed, quite ashamed of its colonial heritage. It is quite different from the pragmatic use of the colonial overhang that some others, particularly among the English-speaking classes in Delhi and Kolkata, which is quick to flaunt their Western connections, education, exposure or at least relatives staying abroad. Yet, this second view is also shaped by the colonial heritage as it seeks to invent a story of superiority, either by pure imagination (when fantasies of ancient literature are recycled as proof that everything, from Airplane to Plastic Surgery, was invented in Ancient India) or by false history (like the fabricated quotations from Lord Macaulay circulated on the Internet). In fact, this view is colonial heritage in the inverted form, one of denial that leads to the creation of an imagined identity, just as fabricated as that of the pragmatic anglophiles in the hallowed halls of Delhi.
While in India, it was impossible for me to live outside these two competing paradigms, which the outsiders view affords me now. And, that, I shall claim, provides a third perspective, which, influential as it was at the conception of the Indian republic, has been subsumed in the two dominant views, that of an India comfortable about itself. This was a supranational idea of India, India as an idea or a civilisation rather than a nation in the European sense, that stood outside either the fetish about the West (and cynical attempts to exploit it) or its rejection. This is the idea one can found in the writings of Tagore, or in the texts such as Discovery of India by Nehru, wherein a historical idea of India at peace with the world, and indeed, as a great melting pot, was the keystone of identity. Seen this way, instead of a journey to freedom and self-confidence, the journey of emerging India has been to the opposite direction - to try to fit itself into a world defined by Western parameters, to be a nation in that exclusive, primarily European sense, which comes with either a smug cynicism about all things outside, or its complete rejection.
Sunday, December 06, 2015
I pledged to myself to read a book a week and write a short review here. The first book that I read under this pledge is Martin Wolf's 'The Shift and The Shocks : What We Have Learned - And Have Still To Learn - From The Financial Crisis'. A summary judgement, in the tradition of Amazon, is that this is a 5-star, absolutely brilliant book to read on the Financial Crisis and its causes. Martin Wolf, who I saw as an apologist of Globalisation and principally writes in the Financial Times, would not usually be an author I would start my reading pledge with, and it needed some persuasion from a friend whose I advise I value greatly and who suggested, accurately as I understand now, that if one has to read just one book about the financial crisis, this should be it.
It is, as is clear from the title, about the financial crisis that started in 2007 and shaped our lives in many ways. The boom years before 2007 is now a distant memory for many of us, and though some countries have returned to growth, its legacy still lives on in the perennial crisis of the Euro. Mr Wolf argues in the book that despite the deep crisis, the way financial sector operated has not changed much, perhaps, perversely, because the tax-payer funded rescues let them off the hook rather too easily. However, the great thing about this book is that it looks beyond the usual narrative - the misdeeds of the bankers and the mistaken assumption of the regulators - and interrogates the wider economic factors, such as the strategy of the developing countries to 'export' excess savings to advanced economies since the shocks of the 1997 Asian Financial crisis. This wider economic narrative is extremely relevant right now, as we see the warning signs in the horizon, an unsustainable property boom (when real estate prices become completely out of proportion with income) in some countries, and a real prospect of economic crisis across developing nations, yet again. Some economists are now predicting that we are just one shock away from another crisis, and if one looks around, there are plenty of candidates - Chinese stock markets, Indian Real Estate, US Current Account deficit, Greek exit from Euro, British exit from European Union, Donald Trump in the White House - that may bring it about.
The best bits of the book, in my mind, relate to European Union. The book clarified to me a lot of questions about the Greek crisis (with several moments of why-did-I-not-think-about-this-before) and the role Germany played in the crisis. There are two things in particular I should highlight. First, there is this rather naive approach that a country should manage an economy just as a household manages its finances. Originating perhaps from Margaret Thatcher, this is an underlying theme of discussions about economics, not just in the popular press, but also in the policy making circles and some parts of the academia. The discussion about the Euro in this book shows how hopelessly naive that approach is, and consequently, our idea of indisciplined Greeks causing mayhem just by themselves is rather flawed. Second, this book also makes one think about the concept of debt, particularly the underlying principle that we tend to hold dear - that all debts must be paid! While such a principle is important for functioning of a financial system (because, otherwise, there will be no credit), one must explore the concept of creditors' responsibility and look at ways how debts are dealt with in the event of a crisis.
Jumping off towards the very end, the conclusions that Mr Wolf makes are worth taking seriously. He points out the fundamentally incomplete nature of our response to the financial crisis, and that the job remains half done. The costs of the financial crisis - more than the World Wars without a matching recovery to follow - would perhaps be compounded without a robust response, and the crisis would keep coming. Mr Wolf identified six areas of action/ attention that are worth thinking about.
First, we should be making the financial system more resilient by raising capital requirements for banks and creating more 'bail-in-able' debt. He also suggests proper funding and empowerment of regulatory bodies, giving them more teeth to deal with fraud and other criminal behaviour.
Second, we should look to de-leverage our economies. The suggested method includes the removal of tax deductibility of interests and creating incentives for equity investment, and a proper tax on land values, as most boom-bust cycles start with land and real estate.
Third, the corporate taxation and governance needs serious attention, with the aim of reducing corporate savings glut which is creating serious economic imbalances. One powerful suggestion is to remove corporate taxation altogether and treat all corporate income as a part of their shareholders' income, which will create incentives for distribution of profits. Besides, the case for attacking the bonus culture is made, as this often leads to underinvestment in capital goods and over investment in schemes such as share buyback.
Fourth, the financial contracts may change to adjust with the circumstances. One key suggestion is to create mortgage contracts where the lenders could have a share of gains if house prices rose and share the losses if it falls.
Fifth, measures to facilitate income redistribution are urgent. Suggestions made by Thomas Piketty about Global Wealth Tax are referenced to, and even if this is ambitious, some measures to combat the rising inequality are urgent.
Sixth, measures to raise longer term economic growth, including investment in scientific research, relevant education, private sector investment, are urgent to make up for the lost growth.
In the end, I could not help but reflect how flawed the right wing orthodoxy, as demonstrated by every candidate in the Republican Presidential race, but also held with radical faith by our own Conservative front bench, is out of touch with this world. Martin Wolf is no socialist, and his clear presentation of these urgent, realistic measures would perhaps get more attention.
The official strategy for economic development in India is 'Make In India'. This is based on an economic strategy for the dummies - that as China becomes more expensive, India should take its place as the World's workshop - that underwrote the massive electoral victory of India's charismatic new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. The strategy, so simple that even a simpleton should understand, combined with Mr Modi's 'Track Record' of drawing investment to Gujrat, was dream stuff that makes winning politics, particularly in a country where 69,000 people turn 25 every single day.
What makes good politics isn't good economics. China had uneven manufacturing output in the last few years not because it was becoming expensive, but global demand was faltering. Manufacturing, the key to its strategy to lift millions of people out of poverty in the 1980s and 1990s, was not creating as many jobs as we would like to believe it did in the recent years, as automation caught up in Chinese factories. The official Chinese job data shows that there are 30 million less manufacturing jobs since 1996 despite soaring output (see The New World Order, by Andrew McAfee et al, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2014). Not only outsourced manufacturing isn't expanding as rapidly as it did a decade earlier, and creating fewer jobs, the transformed nature of manufacturing, automated and skill intensive, would tend to keep the activities geographically clustered. So, the underlying idea behind the sexy slogan, has little promise in turning around India's economy.
But it gets worse. Lord Kumar Bhattachryya, of Warwick Manufacturing Group, observed recently that Make-in-India should be Made-In-India. This is indeed logical, but this is not part of the Indian strategy. The political imperatives of Make-in-India are antithetical to what is required to climb up the value chain of manufacturing. Made-in-India would require harnessing domestic manufacturing, designing and business capabilities, which would not work in a tariff-less world. Japan, Korea and now China, may have moved up the value chain, but they did so by using political leverage of their unique geopolitical situations and by maintaining largely protected domestic markets to harness domestic capabilities [China did this through a combination of currency control and trade barriers]. Mr Modi's Make-in-India is dependent on Foreign Direct Investment, which would rule out any such protective options. Besides, the Indian aspiration is to become a low cost destination, of cheap labour, without trade union interference or environmental niceties, to get foreign companies manufacture in India. That, however, is hardly the path of sacrifice, capability building and long term strategy that Make-in-India embodies.
Mr Modi, of course, is beholden to his past experience and takes his slogans seriously. He spent the first 18 months of his premiership travelling around the world, connecting with Indian diaspora and selling the Make-in-India promise. On the other hand, his government has done very little in terms of education or health, and the promised reforms or projects in those areas, have not featured in the legislative agenda. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has observed that India is trying to achieve economic growth with a largely uneducated and unhealthy labour force, and this has no precedence in history. Make-in-India has set the wrong priorities.
As we approach 2016, emerging markets look shaky, as if they are about to join into a third act of the economic crisis, following the 2007/8 credit crisis and Eurozone woes. India, among the emerging markets, is comparatively more solid, and because of its better current account position, may escape the worst if a crisis did indeed happen. However, a credible economic strategy is more important than ever, because a global turn against the emerging markets may quickly affect the stock markets and already fragile real estate markets in India, unleashing a crisis nonetheless. Make-in-India isn't something that would hold up if and when the music stops. It is time for the Indian government to stop electioneering and start governing with a sense of urgency.
Tuesday, December 01, 2015
One promise of EdTech that gets talked about is about its ability to reduce the cost of education delivery, and thereby, expanding access.
This is a powerful notion that drives many business plans and policy decisions. Information Technology has changed a lot of things, but changing the lives of the poor is where it becomes truly transformational. The quest for efficiency and better management have impacted healthcare significantly, and enhanced its impact and extended its reach. We have seen similar transformational change in Banking and Retail. This is the model we now expect EdTech to follow.
Already, we know something about its impact. When I was with NIIT, I saw first-hand the impact of The Hole-in-the-Wall experiment that Professor Sugata Mitra, now a TED fellow, carried out. One big outcome of this was to put an end to the patronising notions about the intellectual capacities of the poor that we all secretly held. This idea of making a computer available, unsupervised, for children to play with and figure out, and eventually to learn from, brought out evidence of agency, curiousity and engagement is not the sole preserve of middle class children (or as Prof Mitra would put it, they don't have the monopoly of genius!). This is indeed one benchmark for what thoughtful use of education technology could do to transform education.
There is also another thing about using technology this way. Professor Mitra installed one of his computers in a remote island in the Sunderbans, in the midst of forests in Southern West Bengal, the home of the Royal Bengal Tigers. I got a close-up view as I was coordinating the technology activities of the Rotary District 3290 that particular year (2002), and it was one of our clubs that facilitated the experiment. The Hole-in-The-Wall was installed in a very remote village (though there was no wall there, only mud houses) with high salinity - which is why the spot was chosen - where one could only go by boat with a requirement to get out before the evening to avoid being eaten by a tiger. I was told by the local Rotary members how this transformed the approach of the local children. In a few months, they were confident and they treated the computer as their own. When Dr Mitra visited, some of them told him that they wished he could design a better navigation tool, a huge transformation for village boys who would not even make eye contact with city-men only a few months ago! This transformation in person is the holy grail of all education, and that unmediated access to technology could initiate such transformation was reason enough to think seriously about its potential.
I would often contrast this with the experience of government funded literacy missions. Its logistical challenges and costs are comparable (the Hole-in-Wall required the computer, the pod to house it, solar power and monitoring mechanism), and yet, its impact is as uncertain as it would be in case of this unmediated Hole-in-the-Wall. We know that teachers are often absent in government schools and the education is not just poor, but counter-productive. A teacher, coming from town, who took up the village teaching job not as a mission but as a choice of last resort, could indeed do enormous harm to the pupils self-esteem and interest in learning.
However, at the same time, a lot of EdTech is also very poorly used. It is a fashion now to be culture-blind and to create one-size-fits-all model of delivery in search of scale. Hole-in-the-Wall was, and still is, a research project, with the objective of learning about learning behaviour. It did not claim to change everything, at least not in short term or without experimentation. But the usual culture of EdTech, either venture funded or for Government projects, is not to seek to learn, but to solve. All those preconceptions about the poor that a project like Hole-in-the-Wall tries to dispel, make a comeback at this point. The whole conversation - in case of Government funded projects - becomes one of pleasing the minister, who do not care either about the poor or about the learning. In case of private venture funding, the quest for scale trumps everything, leaving no room for customisation or learning from the poor.
If we contrast these two approaches, the key issue about employing EdTech for the poor perhaps become apparent. In banking, healthcare and retail, the examples I cited earlier, what one is seeking to do is to make available a model already available to the middle class to the poor, extending the business model to the so-called bottom of the pyramid. Education, however, is different. To be effective, education for the poor is not about co-opting them into a structure already made up for the middle classes - that is exactly what the government funded programmes seek to do - which may allow them to compete for low-level jobs, but at the same time, steals their agency and confidence, and undermine their ability to solve their own problems. Technology can help change this, but not if it misses the first step - that of learning from the poor!
The key difference between the approach of Hole-in-the-Wall and the EdTech that we talk about is this - that the former seeks to learn from the poor and enable them to learn themselves, whereas the latter seeks to teach. In fact, in most EdTech projects, the notion of learning from the poor would be a ridiculous concept, not allowed for in the business models (though it is a standard part in business models built for products for the rich). And, it would go against one of central assumptions of all the bottom-of-the-pyramid models - that customisation is only for the rich! It fits our assumptions elsewhere, consider the tailor-made suits versus the supermarket ones, but education is not a bucket to be filled, but a fire to be lit, and failing this is failing to educate and failing the poor, and doing more harm than good in the end.
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How To Live
"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."
- Theodore Roosevelt
- Theodore Roosevelt
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
- T S Eliot
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