Sunday, May 31, 2015

My Next Life

Again, a Sunday and a Sunday post. 

After taking on this travelling life, Sundays are travel days for me. Sundays often mean a late morning flight out of Gatwick, with the goal to reach somewhere by Monday morning. Often, my mind is closed on Sunday morning, in anticipation of the sleepless night that would follow. And, indeed, there are other Sundays to play the same chore in reverse, to get into Gatwick early morning and then spending rest of the day catching up on all the sleep missed during the two week sojourns and indeed, the red-eye!

This is one rare Sunday without any of that, and that makes me so protective of it. This is my time to think and read, I would like to believe, though the usual life soon catches on - it usually reaches its full crescendo around mid-Morning, usually with the clarion call of Milk (or something else, most inevitably) running out. So, I stop my indulgent reverie and return to Planet Earth, usually manifested as a Shop Aisle, at around 10am! But, the moments before that, rare, private, indulgent, are still time to dream, spaces without anxiety, pure moments of being me. This post is one that I write with such a mood.

At a time like this, I enjoy the sense of authorship, not of this blog, but life itself. Nothing that I do was written, as the expression goes, and almost everything was willed. I guard against being too self-indulgent or arrogant (so even when I see myself to be the author of my script, the acknowledgements come obviously) but it is still the ability to will my life that causes the desire to shape my future. So, at this somewhat empty moment, when I feel the lightness of being, I imagine the future in my own terms. 

In more than one sense, such will comes from failure. I have tried and failed many times, though I see the trying part of it more prominently than failing part of it. Right now, my life is somewhat a mess, at least if I succumb to bourgeois measures to money and mortgage to measure my life. As I was relating to a friend, all my adolescent dreams of being a shipwreck like Robinson Crusoe (and, the other role model, of Bohemian artist living in Paris) have indeed come to be true. But, then, failing and being a failure are two different things, and I, in this moment of playing creator, treat those failures as deliberate brush-strokes, even if dark, on the canvass I am painting. And, these hopes and dreams, which is perhaps the point of this very post, are the lighter edges of such darkness, which may either transition, as the canvass progresses, into bright lights or be subsumed into darker shades. But I remain the creator after all, at least in these brief Sunday moments.

So, returning to practical talk, I see this very moment in life as transitional. You can be dismissive about this and say I always do, every moment of my life, as I treat life as a collection of moments, and living as a journey (I remain a traveller, therefore), lived with no fixed purpose but only with Nietzsche's maxim that it must be worth repeating an endless number of time. Given that, each moment of life is best seen as a transition, laden with endless number of possibilities, rather than a predestined transition from one state to another. In fact, the idea that I am the one to will my life is intrinsic to both life being a transition and it being worth living, because, then, instead of being prescribed in advance, it is a continual progress of imagining and scripting on the go.

With that mood, then, content to be discontent, in the permanent state of non-permanence, with the only purpose of possibility, I will my next life, to be as different from what it is now. My next life, as I see it, will be of living where I am (so I postpone my plans to return to Asia at least for a few years) and pursuing a more creative life than I live now. This means taking up my writing more seriously - have I not done the selfsame apprenticeship for a decade now on this blog - and I am onto my first project right now. [My work is on the work of creation, as I reported intermittently here, and to study the lives of great creators. I have just finished reading the life of Einstein, and about to return to Freud's, and a general study of Enlightenment.] Indeed, all this means what I do for a day job, and my intent is to move to creative work rather than operational management work, as my current occupation could be described as. 

So, a more strategic, creative role based in the UK that I am looking out for right now. This could indeed happen within my current engagement, either in the education company I work for, or the redefined education business that I set up and which may now get taken over. And, indeed, this could happen outside of either of those, something that I would seek out, perhaps after I have delivered on my current commitments, by October of this year. But this is one of those moments of defining and expressing intent, to affect a pivot in my life. This is another of those moments, uncertain, probably the start of another failure, but, surely, one of excitement, possibility and of will.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Higher Ed Innovation in India

A few days ago, I was completely bleak about the possibility of introducing Higher Education innovation in India. (See earlier post here) However, my key points were perhaps already cliched, and with the benefit of little more perspective, it is worthwhile to review this topic with a different start point - what shape can Higher Ed innovation in India take?

First, there is an enormous amount of corruption in Indian Higher Education sector, and it is growing with commercialisation. The students are justifiably sceptical about anything new or disruptive, and would rather put their faith on tried and tested, despite knowing that these public institutions are quaint and could not care less for them. 

Second, while the students know that the choices they have are all poor, the default reaction to this realisation is not to try something new or innovative, but to ensure that one does not do anything foolish. So, while Indian education seems ripe for new and disruptive propositions, education innovation remains difficult because of lack of venturesome consumption. (See here)

Third, the lack of venturesome consumption is perhaps also generally true for the Indian society (see my earlier post about innovation in India in general) and particularly, the view of Kishore Mahbubani that India is an Open Society with a Closed Mind. In a number of ways, this general approach defines India's ambivalence towards foreign universities, where the country behaves like a retired Prima Donna waiting to be wooed but can not find any suitors on her terms. Despite the generally poor standards of its Higher Education provision, India has not allowed any foreign university on its soil, primarily because it would upset the dynamic of Indian Higher Education.

Fourth, the dynamic of Higher Education in India, growing from colonial roots, is defined to be by and of the privileged class, for entry into privileged class. The government guards this structure as zealously as it can. In some way, the failure to democratise education was the biggest failure of the founders of Modern India, and there is no evidence they even thought about it. The policy thinking in India is always about how to keep the access to Higher Education straight and narrow, along with a quality control regime that is punitive rather than development centric. And, under the new Government, the policy regime is growing even more intrusive, not the other way around.

Fifth, when one-time Prime Ministerial Advisor, CNR Rao, a distinguished Chemist, observed that India has an examination system but no education system, he nailed it right. A system designed to maintain privileges, rather than develop the potential of its people, are usually examination-centric, and India is an extreme example. The most successful education businesses in India today, which are worth hundreds of millions of dollars and listed in Stock Markets, are all exam-prep businesses. So, businesses make money from education in India, but not through disruption. They do it by sustaining the system.

A system which is reaching its breaking point, that is. One of the problems of economic development is that while its gains may be extremely unequal, the aspirations are more difficult to limit. While India has a growing middle class (though its size, for all the exalted talk, remains puny, about 150 million, compared to China's 800 million), its zone of exclusion is much more severe and its culture more individualistic (than China's). Besides, Indias development model, which for the last 25 years, depended too much on Government action (liberalisation, infrastructure build-up etc), now needs to be balanced by wider global successes of private businesses. The few Back-office champions India had spawned earlier seems to be reaching the limits of their growth, primarily as they can not find enough people. If Infosys had to interview 1.2 million applicants to recruit their 10,000 new hires, that may get them mention in a business book, but it still remains a huge waste of time and effort. On an average, Indian companies report that only 15% of who they interview (which is a shortlist based on some fairly demanding criteria they set in the first place) can be recruited, and still they let go about 60% of the people they recruit within the first year.

So, this is how Indias education equation looks. About 15% of those who should go to college do so, about 50% of those finish college (7.5% of the relevant population), about 25% of these, in various technical disciplines, qualify for the interviews with these various large companies (2%), of which 15% gets selected (0.3%) and then 40% of them are retained (0.12%). At every step, indeed, I erred on the optimistic side, and yet, I am staring at 0.12% of the youth finding meaningful employment, jobs that come with a future, that is. Indeed, this figure should be supplemented by those who go to work for the government, but, leaving out the dead-end jobs, these will not vastly improve the percentages here. In summary, one can say that there is a very large number of people who are non-consumers, they have no access to meaningful Higher Education, and therefore, an opportunity for disruptive innovation, notwithstanding all the roadblocks listed above.

While this equation gets worse and worse every year, it has remained difficult to spawn meaningful innovation in Indian Higher Ed. There may two reasons for this.

First, many of these disruptive attempts come from outside India. While these attempts bring to the country a number of good ideas - and disruptive ones - they are inherently limited, because of cost structures and business design, to the limited number of privileged people who are already being well-served. At best, they could aspire to serve the 0.3%, the number of those who could get a job in the global companies [because they can afford first world cost structures and go to a premium private institutions and speak at least one international language] and work to improve upon the 40% retention rate. The big opportunity, however, lies upstream, particularly in expanding access to technical disciplines, college completion rates and indeed, access to Higher Ed. It remains unattractive for most education businesses coming from outside India to work on these problems. However, as one astute Indian investor observed, without working on these deeper issues, any business remains limited to the existing social context of Indian Higher Education, and is, therefore, more vulnerable to inherent conservatism of the traditional customers. It is only by working on these deeper problems, bringing access to those who do not have it and creating a meaningful Higher Ed experience, one could break the social model of Higher Education, and therefore, disrupt the sector. This remains beyond the business model of the global companies looking into India. [Also, the perils of being global is that all too soon, one starts assessing the market attractiveness, and leaves India because it is all too difficult].

Second, the Indian companies have very little incentive to disrupt the market. They are a victim of the demand curse, that India has so many other opportunities - why not work on one more test prep business - which are more attractive to investors. Besides, as one Senior Executive of Pearson Affordable Learning Fund observed, there is very little good quality entrepreneurship in education in India. Often, you will meet entrepreneurs who are trying to start two or three businesses at a time, simply because they do not know which one may win investor approval, leading to, predictably, failures in all of them. And, besides, it is still a Market for Lemons, where the unscrupulous thrive and drive out the scrupulous operators. 

So, there are demand-side reasons complementing supply-side reasons for lack of innovation in Higher Ed in India. It is difficult to see how privately backed businesses can break this deadlock, even if the global Higher Ed is at the cusp of a massive disruption. There is indeed a market opportunity, but it will require an unique local-global format (or glocal format, as Rahul Choudaha calls it) to really change anything in Indian Higher Ed.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Future of Professional Education

What to do with Professional Education?

While there is endless discussion about Vocational and Higher Education in the context of what we have come to call Knowledge Economy, no one seems to talk much about Professional Education. One reason for this is that we assume Professional Education to be the business of self-contained professional communities - Lawyers, Accountants, Surveyors etc - and those who pursue them to be self-selected aspirants who have chosen that profession for themselves. It is, however, a quaint view, because most people pursuing Professional Education are just students looking for jobs (or Mid-career employees looking to define a profession for themselves) and it should be as much a part of the conversation about building the knowledge economy as any other form of Education.

But if general conversation about Professional Education is off the mark, professional bodies do not do much better themselves. They are caught between two roles - one as the gatekeeper of the profession and the other as educators - and they tend to define themselves more in terms of the first. Despite the fact that most learners pursuing Professional Education is not a part of the profession in the strict sense, they tend to derive their approach from the golden past of controlling standards of certain social functions. The point they miss is that the Knowledge Economy is perhaps undermining that role quite precipitously. The concept of knowledge, authority and expertise are indeed changing, but most professions, at least the properly organised ones, are oblivious to this. India's Chartered Accountancy Institute is more concerned about keeping their status as the sole authority to sign off company accounts, but is oblivious that book-keeping and tax calculation software has dramatically reduced the number of accountants the society needs, and the roles they play. This change of the role of professions is further accentuated by the twin forces shaping our society - automation and globalisation - that alters many of the premises our old-world closed world arrangements were built upon.

It is difficult for many professional bodies to adapt to this new reality, and some are feeling the pain more than the others. Indian Chartered Accountancy body is a great example. They are completely at a loss why most of their members can not find an employment, in effect reducing its appeal to new aspirants and undermining the professional respect they get from the rest of the society. 

However, if the overall Professional Education is facing some sort of crisis of identity, one could see that one part of the market, not strictly defined as professional education, is doing well. This is the Certification market, particularly in context of technologies and standards. People are flocking to study for those and there is almost always a job at the end of it. These tests have many features of a professional education - they certify a certain standard of performance - but in other ways, they represent an Open profession rather than a closed one. In a lot of ways, they are weak professions - these professionals have to prove their worth every day rather than relying on a socially guaranteed privilege, but at a time of breaking of the professions, this is no longer a disadvantage. 

I am arguing that therein may lie the future of the professional education, where the emphasis shifts from the entry into a closed profession to the education aimed at excellence and expertise. This may mean many things, including that today's professional bodies may morph more into Certification agencies, validating a body of knowledge and defining the standards. This will require them to adapt to ecosystems thinking - how to build an ecosystem around qualified accounting professionals (Hint - the starting point may be to think about all the less exalted professions that may need accounting knowledge) rather than building walls around it and trying to protect its privileges. That way, certainly this is about bringing everyone in the conversation - educators, policy makers, employers - rather than trying to maintain the professional mystic by leaving everyone out. This may be, I shall argue, the future of Professional Education.


Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Who is to blame for Pakistan failing?

Nisid Hajari makes such an obvious point in Foreign Policy (see here) that it surprises. Blaming India for the failure of Pakistan is so cliched! What do we not know of the arguments made? That Gandhi was too religious for secular leaders like Jinnah to put up with, and this is why he went on to set up a religious state? Pakistan faltered because it was not given Calcutta, and later Kashmir? That Indian leaders never wanted Pakistan to succeed? These arguments have been repeated since the 1940s, and promoted assiduously by two groups of participants in the drama, who may each have something not to talk about.

First, the Pakistani elite. Nehru did indeed scare them off, but this was not about Hindu majority. If anything, ask the Hindu fundamentalists in India, Nehru and Gandhi would be accused of undermining Hindu majoritarianism. Nehru scared them off because he was dangerously socialist and the founders of Pakistan were mostly landowners. Most political leaders, and the Army top brass, dealt with the rest of the population with contempt. Ask why Pakistan had to wait for a peaceful transition from one democratically elected government to another for more than 60 years, and hopefully one would not find the handiwork of Nehru. 

This is the same elite, which caused an existential danger for Pakistan by trying to exterminate the Bangladeshi peasants, with the landowning arrogance that they dealt their own with. Indira Gandhi surely supported the Mukti Bahini, but it would be naive to claim that she created it. Today, Pakistan is failing because the state has lost the legitimacy with its own common people, which is not surprising. Blaming India for this may sooth some hearts, but would not stop the disintegration.

Second, the British imperial administration, which sponsored Pakistan. For them, Pakistan was never a viable state, so precarious that it was to forever be dependent on Western military support. This was to be the bulwark of British Imperialism in Central Asia, restricting Soviet influence in Iran which was the equivalent of Saudi Arabia, the main oil producer, at that time. The fact that they, and later various American administrations, propped up various Pakistani regimes to keep fighting India, which they saw as a Soviet proxy, and later the Soviets themselves in Afghanistan, and helped them undermine the local aspirations of development and progress, should give them some responsibility of the failure of Pakistan.

As for India, Indian leaders may not have wished Pakistan well. Pakistan was a direct negation of whatever the idea of India supposed to be. For many Indians, it was a part of the country they knew - and the partition was a tragic anathema. Some leaders wanted Pakistan to fail, others less so. [One of the reasons Gandhi was killed because he was seen to be too friendly to Pakistan, planning to carry out a peace march to Karachi to meet Jinnah. He was supposed to leave the first week of February, which was stopped as he was killed on 31st January.] However, one could argue that they were so busy keeping India together, and moving forward on development, giving them credits for the self-destruction of Pakistan would be way too much! (proving the wry observation of British administrators that India has bad people and good politicians, and Pakistan, the opposite)

For all Indian leaders through the generations, Pakistan arouse convoluted feelings. On one hand, it is a competitor and a problem for the idea of India, but, on the other, a failing Pakistan is a terrifying prospect, because that would surely destablise India. Today's Indian leaders are possibly different from the previous generation, who may feel no connection to Karachi or Lahore and come to regard Pakistan as a different country. At least they are more capable of some self-interested sincerity in the Indian approach to Pakistan, because they, more than anyone else in the world, do not want it to become a hotbed of anarchy and terrorism. However, the Pakistani elite and their Western sponsors continue to dig themselves in deeper holes, and India is surely becoming a hapless spectator, and a victim, of this unfolding tragedy.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Path to Development

In an insightful article in Strategy and Business, John Jullens present a view on How Emerging Markets Can Finally Arrive. This is required reading for anyone who cares about emerging markets, if only for going beyond the orthodoxy of free trade and flexible labour market. The broader point - that every market needs its own strategy and that the strategy may vary from stage to stage of development - is also extremely valuable, as this is usually overlooked in any politically tinted discussion about development. 

At the core of it, this article has a China theory at its core. China is affecting a transformation of its economy, and it may just pull it off. While some commentators in the United States would say that China can not be a model for most other countries, just because of its political structure, it is becoming a model for many countries, including, for India, the alternate that these commentators would love to highlight. China has proved the naysayers wrong several times - The Coming Collapse of China still sits on my bookshelf after 10 years - and it seems to be going through another extraordinary transformation right now. China is also a great example of the development of domestic businesses as an essential ingredient of development strategy, and it has done so through a mixture of direct and indirect protection. One may not agree with its strategies - and developed countries indeed do not - but one must remember that the strategies that England, France, Germany, or United States followed in their path to progress was no more moral than what China does now. If you are complaining about China's approach to intellectual property, check on how the United States treated such issues in the late Nineteenth century. 

Indeed, the lesson here is not to be like China, but each country mapping its own path, rather than following any orthodoxy preached over our heads by magazines like The Economist (which I stopped reading because I got so tired of its right wing crusade, after more than a decade of loyal readership!). To develop a country, its government needs to be responsive to its ground realities and play on its strengths, rather than following models of another nation and formula thought up by armchair theorists. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Leapfrogging to 4G University

There is an argument that the developing countries will not follow the path of developed nations setting up educational institutions and campuses, but rather leapfrog into universities built on modern technologies, such as 4G. The evidence of leapfrogging can be found quite easily. Indeed, none of the developing countries went step by step through the IT revolution, and many of them directly joined in at the mobile era. The fact that a quarter of Kenyan GNP flows through mobile transactions is one of the great examples of technology leapfrogging, and often cited to back the case that universities may do the same. In fact, some commentators see the emphasis on university campuses and infrastructure in developing countries as plainly wasteful.

There are, however, two parts of this argument, which need to be examined separately. First, that the developing countries would not follow the evolutionary path traversed by developed countries is perhaps quite understandable. They are joining the game late, and in a radically altered world, one shaped by hyper-globalisation and automation. The educational challenge in developing countries will be shaped by the global reality, rather than the isolated national policies and preferences that shaped nineteenth century Higher Education in most developed nations. Some kind of educational leapfrogging is somewhat inevitable, because the graduates coming out of universities in Kampala and Mumbai would be considering work and professions shaped by global realities. 

Second, whether or not technology replace the campus (and the broader argument that setting up campuses in this day and age of modern technology is wasteful) has more dimensions than just technology leapfrogging, and should necessarily take into consideration what education is for. Many developing countries define their social and economic model still around the developed country model, and often following the orthodoxy of agrarian-industrial-service economy progression model. Every developing country in the world is being told to follow this path by those who lend them money, the developed country dominated institutions such as the IMF, and they are being led by men who have had, more often than not, an education in developed countries. The thinking about the future in developing nations are modelled around being the back-office (of factory) of the developed world. This social/ economic model does not assume any leapfrogging, even in the face of extreme disruptive change playing out globally, and are built around systems, such as intellectual property regimes and economic models designed to restrict such leapfrogging.

When seen in this context, one should start to see that a different educational structure, let us call it 4G University, is not just a function of technological possibility, but also how one thinks about economic development and social models. The hierarchy of labour concept, as we accept it and model a country's economic ambitions around it, naturally dictates that a similar idea is replicated in the inside economy, built around an elite to do the thinking work and the rest in various steps of the work ladder. This is why, notwithstanding the technological possibility, the developing countries will continue to build campuses and infrastructure, and endow professorial positions - because these are instruments of the power system that sustain this development model - and talk about skills education (as India does, see my note here) for everyone else. The physical limitations of a campus, it must be remembered, is not just a limitation of capacity, but the definition of privilege. 

Indeed, the people who theorize the coming of the 4G university tends to overlook this aspect. The 4G university, to them, is about directly accessing those excluded by campus universities of various nations and directly plugging them into global consumption. For them, 4G University is an instrument for establishing a global hierarchy of consumption and participation, without the middle tier of the national elite. But herein lies the fault line between the wishes of a local elite, who would want to maintain the structure of privilege, and a global elite, who would rather undermine their role. In that formation, 4G universities may happen, but it will be a handiwork of global capital, rather than something that the local elite intentionally help to build.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Approaching India - Ending The Skills and Education Divide

In India, Education is not supposed to develop Skills. At least, that is what various policy-makers prescribe, as they use the two terms, Skills and Education, with two very specific meanings. Accordingly, business groups and consulting organisations will have Skills Departments and Education Departments, accepting that these are two different things. 

Seen from outside, this is indeed one of those idiosyncrasies that one has to put up with when dealing with India. But it is not just about some government official, perhaps goaded into it by some clever consultant, coming up with the Skills mantra as distinct from Education. It is also two other things that ail India. First, it reflects, rather than mandates, a deep division between Skills and Education that is already there in the Indian psyche. Doing anything with your hand is indeed considered inferior in India, a legacy of the Caste system which defined a hierarchy of labour. Skills, that is the ability to do something, are not coveted because, in the Indian mind, if you are successful, you make other people do things for you. Second, the Government still mandates how the Indians think about their problems and usually sets the agenda. Any social engagement remains Governments responsibility, and none of the other institutions, business etc., and indeed, the individual citizen in person, want to do anything to define the conversation in India.

I shall argue that it is critical for India to get serious about working with hand. I hear the opposite argument - the world is now, with automation, discovering the ancient Indian wisdom of the superiority of intellectual work - but, like the other fallacies that Indian supremacists often gets it backwards, this one is just after the fact justification of a system which has done much harm. The inability to work with hand creates serious problems in Indian labour market, where, as the Infosys founder N R Narayana Murthy said, articulation is more important than accomplishment. This mindset, that working with hand is inferior, not just undermine the dignity of labour, but undermine the pride a good worker may take from doing something well and reduce everything to pretenses and discussions about Take-home salaries. The Prime Minister of India may want everyone to Make in India, sounding contemporary and in line with the Maker movement, but in India, no one wants to make anything themselves.

Indeed, the second problem is equally big - that the Government must take care of everything. One illustrative debate was about a Bollywood actor, who, in an infamous case of drink-driving, ran over people sleeping on pavements. Many celebrities came out in his support, arguing that he should not be held guilty, because it is the Governments job to provide people shelters. If people were not sleeping on pavements, they would not be run over, was the argument! Indeed, India has reached the point of Ask not (what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country), but no Indian leader would be courageous enough to mention this.When the Prime Minister, very appropriately, made cleanliness and hygiene one of the key themes of his tenure, he talked about pouring money into Government projects to do it, and not about Individual consciousness and participation.

I am arguing that the Skills-Education divide, both as an age-old hierarchy of labour that ails India and a modern phenomenon of Government defining the language-in-use (and everything else), should be the first thing to discard in the quest for a prosperous, progressive India. What good is education which does not equip the learner with any skills to do anything? And, indeed, what skills are we teaching if the underlying premise is not to free the person from the servitude, assigned by the accident of his birth? As always, my hope rests on those Indian educators and training businesses who will heed this message and close the gap - those universities taking on the competency-based route and those skills training businesses getting serious about transformative learning - and not on pedantic discourses of academic seminars. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Secular Morality - The Missing Ideal

One of the key functions of a modern university should be promote a Secular Morality. However, by turning technocratic, this often becomes the missing piece, the point that universities relegate to private sphere, rather than an active value that they need to promote.

The reason for this is obvious. We have three kinds of universities. The State-sponsored ones, while nominally secular in most countries, define secularism as equal sponsorship of all religious ideas. Their secularism is non-discriminatory, rather than an idea in itself. The other kind, private, charitable ones, often backed by religious founders or organisations, exist to promote one or the other religious ideal, or at the least, exist because of the religion-inspired social obligations of its founder. For these universities, the only kind of morality possible is inspired by religion, and indeed, their kind of religion. The third type of university is the For-Profit ones, set up as businesses to serve people who do not have access or opportunity of education. These universities, mainly technical, are focused on economic goals, and often discard morality as a private matter, to be explored in the context of individual's own disposition rather than a value to be imbibed through institutional intervention or social interaction.

I argued elsewhere that the indifference towards moral questions in education promote a religious morality, which causes two problems - the Us-and-Them mentality and the After-the-Fact ideal of morality (see post here). The reason why God Is (said to be) Back in modern society is primarily because of education's failure to address these questions adequately. 

I want to argue here that many of our current problems - social divide, irresponsible politics, indifference towards social challenges, corruption - are not at all caused by godlessness that leave us with a moral vacuum, but for the opposite, our failure to promote a secular ethic and tendency to search for moral answers solely within the religious domain. In fact, the state secularism, for example, in India, is often founded on an idea of a non-denominational public life combined with private religiousness, an attitude that may be responsible for the self-centredness of its citizenry and their failure to shoulder public responsibilities. The ideal of social responsibility and public service in a non-denominational way can only be imbibed through a secular and scientific education, which remains the missing piece.

I have more common ground with those who equate materialism and selfishness with science and would therefore reject my argument out of hand than could be seen at the outset. I am arguing as they do - that a scientific education without accompanying moral notions is dangerous and destructive - and we do need to develop a moral approach through education. Where we part ways though is the notion that such moral answers could only be found in Religion. My argument is that human beings are perfectly capable of finding out what is best for themselves and acting in a moral manner, and indeed, this is education's primary objective.

This argument, just to clarify, is not based on a view that science has all the answers. Clearly, it does not. We know very little of the universe, and of the atoms and genes. We understand little of the human body and the brain. We are still trying to grapple with consciousness and life. But, scientific attitude gives us the Known Unknown, the ability to acknowledge that we do not know certain things and the impetus to keep trying. This is in direct contrast with the religious approach - that of the Unknowable Known - the tendency to imagine a divine, strangely modelled as a human (often with the look and the voice of Morgan Freeman). This generates what psychologists would call Script-Think, a tendency to think that there is a purpose of everything, which, unsurprisingly, generates all the Conspiracy Theories. And, this blinds us - both of our role and responsibility to act, as well as the general dynamic of nature, which may have a cause but not a purpose (we know the cause of a storm, but tend to ascribe it a purpose, like Gods anger!).

The purpose of a modern education, whether one is studying physics, economics, business or engineering, should be enable its students to think that they have the responsibility to act in a moral manner all the time. This is not to be based on Pascal's Wager, you may go to haven if there is a God, but rather to be in harmony with nature, all life-forms and rest of the species. There may be no one prescribed way to behave, but a continuous striving to get better all the time, refining ones involvement with nature, others and oneself along the way.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Approaching India - The Case for Competency-Based Higher Education

India is facing a Higher Ed recession! Okay, the students are still coming, as they always do in India, but the colleges have now started failing. There are some colleges in India with less than 10 students. The rapid expansion of private colleges, when at least 10 opened every day between 2006 and 2012, seems to be over. Business Schools are in even deeper crisis, with a crisis of confidence on MBA as it fails to fetch anything more than jobs undergraduates can easily do. So, the fees are falling, marketing expenses are rising, seats are going vacant and yet, the admission queues in the tried-and-tested colleges are getting longer.

This is a difficult time to talk about new ideas, and new ideas are sorely needed. Even those traditional institutions, enjoying a sudden popularity in the wake of widespread disillusion, have crisis of their own in their midst, not least the political interference and widespread corruption in the Public Education sector. While these may stand solid in contrast to the meltdown of the private sector, they represent the past, not the future, of Indian Higher Education. It is clear that the rest of the world is pulling ahead - the Indian President makes the point every time he visits an university - and Indian businesses, usually disconnected from community life, are making noises about education. 

In this context, one notices the excited talk about Liberal Arts. I have indeed done my two bits into it too. I wrote about Liberal Arts education, primarily because I was concerned about the over-emphasis on Engineering and Management Education. Indeed, some of the new University makers have now come to see Liberal Arts as good business, including one new private university where my friends were involved in the initial stages of planning. In many ways, employers are giving the same message - they have started recruiting BScs and BAs - as they become disillusioned with the output of private Engineering colleges. It is now reasonable to expect a wave of private Liberal Arts colleges in India.

However, whatever its merits, copying the US model of Liberal Arts colleges, as some of the newer Indian universities are trying to do, is surely a mistake. First, the ground realities of a large, poor country desperately seeking development is quite different from American colonies that developed Liberal Arts education. Second, the Liberal Arts colleges in America are themselves facing some existential challenges, particularly to keep costs down (and to build efficiencies). Third, the big opportunity in India is in the middle. The Liberal Arts universities coming up in India are designed to serve the top 1%, and justifiably so. These universities are aiming to attract Indian students and Indian origin students away from education in US and UK, which is a smart strategy. But the ever bigger opportunity of servicing the new middle classes and connecting them to jobs and opportunities, the task that the Engineering Colleges were supposed to so, is not their game.

This is why I would think that the new wave of successful universities in India will not be built around Liberal Arts college model, but along the lines of the more recent conversations about Competency-based Higher Education. My current work, working with employers to understand their challenges and connecting education with employment, gives me a great view of the Indian Labour and Education markets. And, this clearly indicate the scope of offering education around the key competencies that get the students a successful and fulfilling life.

Whenever I say this, or whenever this is mentioned by anyone, I get a push-back from those perfectly well-meaning people who claim that education should be about more than just getting a job. Their claim is that education should prepare someone to have a successful and fulfilling life. My point, of course, is that a Middle Class student may not have a successful and fulfilling life without a job, but I am in agreement that education should be about more than just a job. Competency-based Higher Education is just that, it is built around competencies for work and for life, some close-ended and some open-ended, some defined and some dynamic. I am arguing that following this model, an university will model itself to train students on specific competencies, some of them technical, say business analytics, but some of them behavioural, such as Learning to learn. It will further encourage students to have a critical disposition, but also be respectful and sympathetic to others, so that they can connect to, contribute in and lead their communities. 

This is not a conversation that Indian universities are having right now, but my feeling is that we are at the starting block. This idea currently falls in between the Indian definition of skills and education (and the implicit assumption that they are separate) and this is why Liberal Arts education, at least to some, seems more logical than Competency-based Higher Ed. But, the tipping point is not very far - as Students, their Parents and Employers are getting it now. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Approaching India - India in the World

I am now in Mumbai, the sprawling commercial capital of India. 16% of the country's GDP is in this one city, where 70% of its capital transactions take place. This is one of those big populous metropolis, home to more than 20 million people, that represents whatever the popular perception of India is. Even before the flight touched down, a perceptive traveller can clearly see the islands of California-esque prosperity in the middle of Sub-Saharan poverty, the apt expression Amartya Sen used to describe India.

Professor Sen surely touched a raw nerve when he said that. The comment came just before the last year's General Elections, at a time of resurgent Indian nationalism. He was accused of selling out, undermining India in front of the world for personal gain. Anyone flying into Mumbai can indeed see what Professor Sen meant - the metaphor would appear quite literal - but such acts of truthfulness are usually considered unpatriotic.

It was only coincidental that today's newspapers wrote about the digital restoration of some of the classic films by Satyajit Ray (See story), the great Indian film director who happened to have attended the same school as Professor Sen . Ray, famous as he was, faced a lot of criticism that he showcased India's poverty in his films. Looking at Mumbai, one could recount a famous story of Picasso and think how Ray may have reacted to the criticism. Once, as the story goes, a German officer visited Picasso in his Paris apartment, and came across his famous painting, Guernica, a black-white-grey depressing painting of the bombing of the Spanish town. Astonished and perhaps disturbed by the apparent violence, the German officer asked Picasso, "Did you do this?" Picasso pointedly replied, "No, YOU did it!"

So, indeed, Ray and Sen and others like them could turn around to Indian Middle Classes and say - You did it! I am always amazed how touchy Indians are about how people outside see the country, but also, at the same time, how indifferent how they are about their country. Someone was telling me about an Indian Software Engineer, who takes his family vacation in Switzerland and talk to everyone about how pristine the landscape has been, and then, perfectly naturally, throws his rubbish out of the window onto the road outside! Indeed, that Software Engineer would not be pleased if people in Zurich Airport told him that India was a dirty place, but he would perhaps never change his own behaviour.

This apparent paradox is intriguing to me. Part of it is a dependency I wrote about earlier. While in India, it seems everything is the government's responsibility, and consequently, everything is the politicians' fault. However, there is more. Part of this is also about Indias image in the world, which Indians do care about very much. There is a strange ambivalence. On one hand, Indians would tend to believe that they are the smartest people on earth, and their kin is taking over the world. At the same time, Indians would die for a little foreign recognition, however trivial, and chafe at any criticism.

So, as I approach Mumbai, I caught up in the ambivalence befitting an Indian, but my troubles are somewhat inverse. It is not about not wanting to show the ugly face, but about feeling the unease of seeing it. As a foreigner Indian, I am obviously at the receiving end of both the contrasting attitudes that Indians have about the world. At one end, I am disparaged for selling out my soul. At the other, I am ignored for being not foreign enough! So, as the plane makes the approach, I have to close my eyes. It was perhaps best that way, as I noticed the other news - an Air India pilot was suspended for being drunk on duty!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Approaching India - Let's Go Kolkata!

I have three data points about Kolkata, which I talk about often. 

First, Kolkata was the first Indian city to reach a million population, and only the second city in Asia to do so (Tokyo is the other one).

Second, it is the only city in the whole world, in this day and age of urban expansion, to have lost population in the last ten years. The loss was marginal, and it is still a very populous city, but this is not good.

Third, it is the only Indian metropolis with abundant supply of drinkable water. Assuming that water is going to be a big issue in the next twenty years, Kolkata seems secure as a City.

These three data points capture the usual narrative. We often talk about the city's illustrious past, as the Second Capital of the British Empire, Capital of India and as home to many leading modern Indian intellectuals, a place of learning and a hotbed of Indian nationalism. We also hope about its promising future, pointing to various geographic, demographic and economic reasons. The present, squeezed between the two, seems like an inconvenient reminder of how we, the people of and from Kolkata, squandered a great opportunity and destroying a great future.

It did not help that our political culture in the last thirty-five years were sustained by our grievances towards New Delhi, the seat of power in Modern India. As it happens, in modern economies, resource-rich regions always have such grievances (think Scotland), and Kolkata is no exception. But the grievance culture has also stolen the initiative from its people - everyone seems to think that someone else is responsible for creating a better life for them (and, therefore, their misery is someone elses fault!). [This is not unusual in India. A recent Drink-and-Drive case involving a Film Actor led to some people coming out in his defence claiming that it is the Government's responsibility to provide housing so that the poor are not sleeping on the pavement (but the protagonist is innocent though he was drunk and driving at great speed!). The paternalistic state in India has created a dependency among its people, and in turn, got a citizenry who fails to assume responsibility of everything.]

Therein lies the two key ideas that I wish to recommend to all people who care about Kolkata (and I know many who do). Both of these ideas are against the mainstream thinking in India, but they have pedigree and prior track record. 

The first is to stop looking at the Government. I am painfully aware that in a developing country, the Government matters a lot, and indeed, wields a lot of power. But, after repeated disappointments, at least the people in Kolkata should know that the government can, and would, do very little. The only way to turn around the city is to organise publicly-minded citizens into a single mission to develop enterprise and opportunities in the city. Surely, the government will get in the way, but there are enough high profile individuals sufficiently concerned about the city who could advise the government to mind its own business. This is what Narayana Murthy and others did in Bangalore while organising Citizens initiatives - and it has worked to some extent! Having watched West Bengal from inside and outside, I know that as long as these Citizens activities concern itself with enterprise and opportunity and do not demand anything from the government, one should be make an impact without official help.

The second is to build an wide ecosystem, in fact, one as broad as possible. Often, discussion about Kolkata becomes one about Bengalis, but the other communities, both linguistic and religious, are big and important. Most importantly, this ecosystem should draw lessons from Deng Xiaoping, who, in the initial years of liberating the Chinese economy, told the mainland Chinese to learn from their diaspora community and connect with them. The Indians have a very different approach to their diaspora. People who left are usually seen as unpatriotic and though their money and investment are often sought, their participation is often frowned upon. If one is to build Kolkata though, this has to be built as an open, welcoming city, involving people from all communities and countries. If anyones heart beats for Kolkata, we should want him in the initiative.

So, what should this Citizen's action be targeting? One should leave the tasks of the government to itself, like Poverty alleviation, infrastructure etc. Instead, the private initiative should perhaps focus on jobs and growth, education and enterprise. 54% of West Bengal households have at least one member who can not find work, the highest incidence in India. This needs to be reversed. The Citizen Action, if built around a global ecosystem of ideas and resources, can get involved in Entrepreneurship Support and Education, including supporting initiatives such as the Analytics City, which has received some government support already. Properly organised, this can use the established networks of public libraries and auditoriums and transform them into collaboration zones. Its global ecosystem can help connect opportunities globally and send jobs and opportunities to Kolkata. It can help organise local industries and support local talent. It can, above all, promote a culture of self help and stop the pathetic dependency culture that blocks all initiative in the City.


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Approaching India - No Country for Education Innovation

I promised to write about my travels in India in an earlier post (see here) and here is an update. I have completed a week in India, traveling through Mumbai and Bangalore. Just as I expected, travels in India are always full of surprises. Once I open my mind, I always do, I can find anything and its exact opposite in India. This time, I was looking out for hope. I got hope and despair in the same measure.

India is, indeed, no country for someone looking for new ideas in education. And, it is not just because the country can not lift itself up from the colonial hangover of privileged classes. It is also because Indian education is, at least mostly, deeply corrupt. The new private universities in India, which have expanded rapidly, have come about mostly through a rigged accreditation process, oiled through donations to whichever party remains to be in power in a given state (and indeed, if you are too sympathetic to the opposition, you dont get a license). But, also, public universities, at least in particular parts of India, have systemic corruption. 

At the outset, it made no sense to me that the University Grants Commission (UGC) and other regulatory bodies in India were so opposed to Distance and Online Education. In a country like India, newer formats of education are common sense, the only way to educate the aspiring millions fast and well. However, it all made sense to me when, during this visit, I got to understand the dynamic of online education better. 

Before I get into it though, here are two disclaimers. First, my information is derived from people who knows, the providers of Online Higher Education who work closely with these universities. I can not claim this information to be any more authoritative than the credibility and experience of my sources, and while I fact-checked this with several sources (everyone shrugged so as to indicate this is common knowledge), I did not have the resources of a professional journalist to verify these observations beyond a certain point. Second, I do not mean to generalise my observations. Given the nature of my sources, these observations, even if they are true, relate to systemic corruption in specific universities. While my key argument - that the skepticism about the value of all online degrees come from existence of such corruption - remains valid, I am hopeful that these corruptions are exceptions rather than the rule (though I got the opposite impression).
So, here is what I learned. A Vice Chancellor's post in a public university in some Southern States is usually sold at about $1 million, going up to about $5 million for bigger public universities. Now, once this money is paid, and the position secured, the VCs are often in the running to earn back multiple times the investment. Online education, for them, provides the perfect opportunity to do so. The university gives out franchises to private providers to do online education, and a part of the money is paid to the VCs privately. This amount is often greater than the amount paid to the institution itself, but the VC ensures that the university efficiently supports the Online degree, which often means that no questions were ever asked. 

Notwithstanding the hypocrisy of these university functionaries as they rail against profit motive in education (the Association of Indian Universities remain steadfastly against For-Profit universities), this is good business. The fact that these are some of the most respected regional universities working as Diploma Mills shows that the students are not asking the questions about the value of a degree. This is the Demand Curse. In India, whatever you do, you get students, and therefore, the need to innovate or do something interesting does not exist.

The point, of course, is that the message I want to give is hopelessly lost in the middle of this. I am frustrated when the students come and ask whether our degrees are recognised. It is even more frustrating when some of my Indian colleagues ponder over such issues, even though they have full knowledge what recognition is. It is the lack of courage to change, or speak the language of change, that mark my Indian educational experience. In fact, in India, I am told that I am an idealist because I talk about changing this paradigm. Being a realist, in India, necessarily means accepting all the shortcomings of reality. Elsewhere, it merely means recognising the constraints while having the courage to challenge the practises as they stand.

This defines my engagement with India, in a way. I am seeking out people who wants to change the system, and have discarded the Not-Invented-Here mindset. They are seekers of good ideas and practical solutions, those who wish to make India happen. And, as in the case of India, once I start looking, I find them in abundance. Good, intelligent people from all walks of life, young and matured, with great dreams and unrelenting resolve, undaunted by the challenge and inspired by the possibility. As I sunk deep in despair about what I now see as the most corrupt education system in the world (perhaps), I started finding those people who are trying to change it from the inside as well as outside. They are speaking a different language and they are doing different things. This, somewhat, defines the focus of my work, seeking out these people - executives, educators and learners - who want to, as I said, make India happen.


Friday, May 15, 2015

Education-to-Employment Gap - Need for A Joined-Up Approach

As more and more students go to college all over the world, the problem of education-to-employment gap become more and more significant. Though data varies from country to country and discipline to discipline, it is safe to assume at least 50% of those who are in college today will not find an employment. Despite this, the queues to join colleges are becoming longer, as the promise of Middle Class life is the mainstay of the social arrangements that we have now, and every now government in every country comes to power promising the magic formula of creating the jobs for educated (or skilled) people. This creates another problem, that of educational access. There are simply not enough seats in colleges for those who want to join them, at least not in good colleges and not in the areas where these students are. This creates a second problem - of educational access. Add to this the Global Workforce Shortage, that companies wanting to fill positions can not find workers, and one gets the picture of a complete global tragedy. 

One big problem of these gaps and problems is that they are all labelled. Instead of having the generic meaning, the way I used it here, they all have very specific meanings endowed to them by various consultancies that coined them. So, McKinsey owns the Education-to-Employment gap, as they coined it. The Global Workforce Crisis is owned by Boston Consulting Group, which takes a slightly different perspective of the same problem. The problem of educational access is owned by various people, as we have different perspectives to it in different countries. In Africa, where there is simply not enough seats, it is a problem owned by Development Agencies and Charities, whereas the access to GOOD higher education is a problem in India, and the Government seems to own it. This means that there is no global view of these problems, and no joined up approach, despite this being a global problem - and fundamental to the middle class societies we live in.

McKinsey, while making the point about Education-to-Employment gap, urged for all hands on the deck. Such fragmented approach hardly facilitates one. There are those who talk about bridging the E2E Gap but would not want to engage with educators or regulators. Educators, on their part, see all this as a neo-liberal conspiracy and would not entertain a coinage by McKinsey to enter their vocabulary. College education, despite its lofty rhetoric, has always been a game of power and entitlements, and the E2E gap (or whatever you call it) has fallen in this trap.

Indeed, the tragic consequences of this are borne out by those unfortunate students who continue to believe in the promise of the college. There are people in developing countries who would mortgage their land to send their children to college, giving a new meaning to the Jomo Kenyatta's half-joke (“When the Missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the Missionaries had the Bible. They taught how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.”). Allowing this to happen may put everyone in trouble. Educators lose their legitimacy, businesses their consumers, and governments, their control. One should not see ISIS as an isolated phenomena in the Middle East, but rather a deep problem for legitimacy of the nation-state system that we have come to develop. Nation states need the hopeful Middle Classes, and losing the middle class dream is fatal for them.

So, yes, all hands on the deck! I was recently hearing Nick Donofrio, now-retired EVP of Innovation and Technology at IBM who also served in the Board of Commission on the Future of Higher Education in the United States, speak, urging the new Education Start-ups, who wish to create a new model of Higher Education outside the current regulated structures, to get out there and get involved in the ground realities of Higher Ed, rather than staying outside the structure. While this makes abundant sense, the entitlement-based thinking that dominates Higher Education is really difficult to get beyond, and the start-ups tend to falter (as did mine) when the regulatory hangover draw most of their energy.

I think the big question for any start-up to decide upon is whether they are in the game of Disruptive or Sustaining Innovation. Disruptive may be the buzzword, but not every business is, or should be, disruptive. In fact, the start-ups solely focused on E2E gap is in the business of Sustaining Innovation, as they are building a better, more relevant, product. One could perhaps build Disruptive models in the area of Educational Access, where they can bring non-consumers to education (like the French school, Ecole 42). From that perspective, one could perhaps see who should be inside the system - those building sustaining innovation - and who should be outside - those in the disruption business! But, we still need a joined-up approach, with its first principle being the need of a diverse education sector, which is beyond these artificially imposed labels.


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Employer Awards: The Thing That Would Change Higher Ed?

What shape would disruption happen in Higher Ed? All the new institutions claim they are disruptive, and indeed, even the old and prestigious institutions are keen on disrupting themselves with the MOOCs. What shape the disruption will take is a guessing game, and here is my two-bits on what this could look like.

My conjecture about 'What' is based on the 'Why' question. Why is Higher Education in the risk of getting disrupted? A large part of the answer is clearly linked to the decline of the nation state, the key sponsor of the Higher Education that we see now. And, this is not just about the money that the State gives to Higher Education. It is more about the nation state as a social system and Higher Education's function within the same. 

The Nation State should be understood as a Power System, run by an elite with certain ethnic and cultural values. This system, with its set of rules, privileges and relationship, are linked closely to the definition of this elite. Higher Education, in its modern form, was a system to define this elite. Indeed, the modern nation builders were quite clear about that. Nehru, in choosing to prioritise on the creation of IITs over universal primary education, was swayed by the idea of the need for an intellectual elite who would lead India's public sector driven economy (this was before people talked about Brain Drain). 

With the advent of what is now being called 'hyper-globalisation', this power system has been undermined. Rather unwittingly, global capital movements and free trade, which tend to diffuse consumption across national boundaries, undermined the power of nation states to dictate their citizens' consumer aspirations. Currently fashionable doctrines of minimal state have limited the role of the Nation State as the consumer of Higher Education, the employer outside the college gate. The global workflows have created a global market of talent and skills, at least for the Highly Educated. And, finally, as the states themselves sought legitimacy in terms of consumer aspirations, expressed in the magic figure of GDP Growth signifying jobs and money, there has been a democratisation of aspiration incompatible with the system of privileges that defined the model of Higher Education. The New Democratic mindset, which imply at least an aspiration for the equality of opportunity to consume, is directly at odds with the idea of some special people.

In context, the power of the Nation State has been matched by the power of the corporations. When someone lists Facebook as the biggest country superseding China, and followed by a few other social networks before India or United States get a place, there is some element of truth in it. The vast power of an Apple and Google can influence national policies, as Governments desparately court them to invest so that jobs can be created. These corporations, despite their ruthless pursuit of profit, represent the new middle class dream. The prodigal son now goes to work for Google and does not become a District Officer. Indeed, this change is more visible in some countries and less in others, and indeed some countries cling to the 'North Korea' option. One thumb rule of where universities are in greater risk of being disrupted (nation state is weak) and where it is still going strong (nation state remains relatively healthy) is to look at the health of broadcast media, like Newspapers and even Television. Still strong nation states usually mean thriving broadcast media, like India; weaken Nation States have anaemic newspapers and News TV Channels trying to find a purpose, like Britain. It should not, therefore, come as a surprise that Indians, despite the poor state of their university education, are among the most satisfied in the world about its standards, whereas the British, despite its fine universities, despair about it.

However, one must not underestimate the equalising effect of globalisation. And, in the context of the new power equation that underlie the society - the power of the consumer over that of the provider, say - the most potent force in Higher Education is perhaps the Employer Sponsored Awards. These, as they are structured now, often remain outside the usual regulatory structure and are unencumbered by the bureaucracy, slowness and navel-gazing that comes with it. The vast power of the employer in the dreams and aspirations of the new Middle Classes give these awards a great appeal. Even the Indians, pragmatic as they are, sign up in droves for one or the other Diploma that gets them a job, and often give it more energy and focus, notwithstanding their love affair with the degree. 

One example of an employer sponsored award is perhaps the Micro- and Nano- degrees offered by various MOOC providers, along with Google etc. But, one must not overlook the hugely successful technology certification programmes that preceded it and touched the lives of millions of professionals and students. This is a rather ignored subject in Higher Education conversation, but one of its most modern forms. Now, newer, technologically enhanced forms are emerging, along with greater scope and aspirations, and spreading beyond the realm of specific technologies. 

The trick in making employer sponsored awards to come of age is to build an open competency framework around these. And, this is coming of age, with many new start-ups working to create the same. The employers, traditionally the consumers of Higher Education and mostly passive ones, are being prodded by Global Workforce Crisis, to take a more proactive stance. A trend is building, an avalanche is coming. 

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Approaching India

I am on my way to India, again. This has now a two-week cycle for me. So, all this, Sunday morning breakfast at Gatwick, midnight queues at Indian airports to scan my body for African diseases, the familiar food in Emirates, feel usual. I am already tired from journeying so much (an experienced traveller told me, only those who don't travel think travel is glorious!) and the journeys now are marked by a strange combination of boredom, tiredness and total lack of enthusiasm, which is unusual for me. 

Particularly because I am going to India, and as it happens, I would spend a few days in Kolkata this time, a city I still consider my home. Notwithstanding the fact that I am so disheartened by the illiberal turn in India, Kolkata never fails to attract, amaze and make me feel comfortable. Yet, it is one of the cities which are too ensnared in its comfort zone - and surely it attracts because if is my comfort zone too, one thing I try so hard to escape all the time - and it fails to move, progressively sinking in a spectacular stall that crushes its young. The tunes that play at every traffic junction are now so artificial, so politically decadent, that rather than showcasing Kolkata's lively culture, they invoke the spectre of an irrevocable, cancerous decline, pangs leading to a quick and painful death. The options available to other cities that may have come back from the jaws of such decline - leadership and enterprise - seem to have escaped this city which once was one of the first to reach a million people (the other was Tokyo) in Asia. These days, it's spirit has been overcome by a Resource Curse, the mineral rich areas around Kolkata fuelled an elite made of commodity traders and money launderers, and devoid of its political significance and social hope, the city's life has settled into a desolate search for its identity as rest of the country moved on.

The conflict, then, in me, is between the aspiration of building global and the tiredness of life on the road, exaggerated by the tender love for my home city and the sadness in its decline. This made me resolve to write about my travel, something I did not do for a really long time, just to keep a chronicle of  all my love's labour lost, of my brush with reality and search for social hope, my conflict of commitment and pragmatic self-interest, my own middle class hypocrisy and the ideals I grew up with. This, fittingly, I write sitting in Gatwick North, with a strange anticipation without expectation, written at the twilight moment, as far as my approach to India is concerned, between the moments of giving in and giving up. The time for me is to reimagine my life afresh, of moving beyond what most will see as a silly sentimentality about a city and a country I love already left, and of committing myself fully to the possibilities of a new, global, life. And, hopefully, this narrative, entwined in travel, is both my quest and my answer.

Confidence and Certainty

I finished reading Kevin Ashton's super-smart How To Fly A Horse, a very readable book on creativity. This is the kind of book I love reading, about new ideas, and what makes people come up with them. While I would not put this one at the top of my favourites list on the category, that will be Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From, this is still very good. At this very point of my life, when I am searching for a potential topic that I could do further studies on, this is a feast, a birds-eye view of one of the things I keep reading about - about creation and creators. However, more than just being a good start for me on my project to make my reading more thematic, the book is full of great insights and ideas that will hopefully help me in my work.

One of these ideas comes from an inspired passage in the book, which distinguishes Confidence and Certainty. In Mr Ashton's view, Confidence is the belief in yourself whereas Certainty is the belief in your belief. And, as he shows, through the stories of creators and mass of research presented in a very readable way, while Confidence is a tool, certainty is a trap. Certainty makes people ignore data, and make them jump out of Eiffel Tower tied to a parachute that would not work. However, confidence, as he demonstrates in story after story, keeps great creators on track, even when everyone rejects what they are saying. Indeed, the two may look very similar from outside, because the crucial difference is really inside - that the successful creators themselves are themselves riven by doubt. 

Mr Ashton does not use Darwin's example, perhaps because it is oft-used. But, Darwin spent years proving to himself his own theories, collecting data, observing, doubting and validating his observations again and again. He did not go out and publish, as many of the evolutionists before him did. Rather, he took years, indeed decades, establishing a whole new way of looking at the world - and only then went out to publish. There were other people saying the same thing (Alfred Russell Wallace being one Darwin wanted to beat by publishing before him), but Darwin had evidence. 

In a different context, the book tells the story of Ignaz Semmelweis, who had a hunch that women were dying at Vienna General Hospital after giving birth because Doctors never washed their hands after dissecting corpse, which they did intermittently while delivering babies. Dr Semmelweis could prove this with data - he urged Doctors to wash their hands and the mortality rates dropped - but he was ignored and ridiculed. There were other eminent Medical Practitioners who believed that the Doctors' hands could not be unclean because the Doctors were gentlemen. Dr Semmelweis eventually lost the argument, losing his job and dying in a mental asylum a few years later. This was indeed some years before Louis Pasteur and others will develop the germ theory of disease working on the precise problem Dr Semmelweis tried to solve - the problem for puerperal fever. 

In these stories and other, confidence, as in the likes of Darwin and Pasteur (the book also tells the stories of Judah Folkman, Robin Warren and Woody Allen), was about keeping your head down and working on an idea, constantly doubting your own observations, but never your ability. It is about treating rejection as a feedback, rather than a conspiracy. This is a rather subtle difference, and arguably achieved through great commitment towards truth. But this combination, Confidence and Doubt, is what makes great creators. The opposite, Certainty and Arrogance, could be shown to have created most fools and various other monsters.

Mr Ashton is actually quite damning of certainty. He writes "Delusion's comfort comes from certainty. Certainty is the low road past questions and problems. Certainty is cowardice - the flight from the possibility that we might be wrong". And, yet, isn't it common to see Confidence and Certainty being one and the same? In fact, I would suspect most educators, coaches and managers want to develop certainty in their students or employees, as this is treated as synonymous to confidence. It takes a lot to teach Doubt, and yet develop Confidence. This is about letting someone fail, even repeatedly, and yet not allowing her to be a failure. This is a hard job, and in most cases, will get a teacher fairly bad feedback. And, yet, the arguments against certainty is so convincing, and so obvious if we start counting all those experiences we have of meeting people who are certain about Ghosts, Aliens and Jews (or Muslims nowadays). 


Friday, May 08, 2015

Labour Lost!

Or should I say Lost Labour?

Labour loses, Ed Miliband blames the surge of nationalism. All that is predictable.

David Cameron and Tories warned that Labour will benefit from a divided country. It is they who obviously are the great beneficiaries. That too is predictable. Conservatives, everywhere, are the parties of fear. They gain from uncertainty.

But what about the loss? Is there a lesson in it more than just a shrugging acknowledgement of surge of nationalism, and an unspoken belief that all this is temporary? 

The point missed, I believe, is that the Centrist politics is bunk. People want the political parties to stand for something. It is easier to be crafty and get away with rhetoric when you are playing on fear, as do the Tories, because our fears are almost always of unknown. It is harder if you are trying to give people hope, because we want our hopes to be certain, visible. 

The problem of New Labour is just that. Their new politics is about being everything to everyone. It is about saying the right things. It is about listening to Opinion Polls and Pressure Groups, and continuously shifting the balance as if on a Bike. This may work for those who want to invent new threats every day, like the Tories speak about unspeakable consequences of the loss of British power, prestige or credit ratings. It is more difficult to do when you speak about working families but wont really say who you mean.

It is easy to dismiss the Nationalists as a temporary thing, but they stand for something. Often, they stand for fear, a very clear and present danger, or at least they make it sound so. But see the Greens rising, and that is because they are seen as honest, standing for something. It is only because UK has this first-past-the-post system that many people wont vote Greens (yours truly included), for the fear of playing into the hands of right-wing. And, it is not to deliver what one stands for attracts the biggest punishment - look at the Lib-Dems! Labour, if they have to draw one lesson from this election, is to the necessity to find what they stand for.

The election is over and a five year of uncertainty and division will now begin. But, hopefully, in a mature democracy like Britain, this will mean new ideas in Politics, new alignment and new messages. I am hoping that Labour Party will now introspect and learn, and they would seek to find their principles again. In them doing that rests the best hope for United Kingdom.

UK 2015 - 7 Things That Can Happen Now

Election results are in. Tories have won, with a result better than their own dreams. They have got Vince Cable and possibly Ed Balls (who is getting a recount). Fear has triumphed over Hope. Nationalism is back - with UKIP and SNP, English and Scottish nationalists, triumphing in two different ways.

Here are seven things that can happen now.

1. Scotland can leave the UK. UK Map looks like yellow top, blue bottom, more or less. The next Conservative government will have no MPs from Scotland. SNP must be smiling for more reasons than one, because it makes another referendum a possibility.

2. UK can leave Europe. David Cameron is tied to the pledge to have an In/Out referendum. The nationalism that sunk Labour this time will be alive and well. Without UK, EU will perhaps be stronger. But, for UK, as Gordon Brown wrote yesterday, that is possibly the North Korea option.

3. Immigrants can now leave the UK, as the xenophobia can now continue unabated and destroy British industries and institutions. The economy will take a hit, and global businesses will become unviable. Investment will dry up as uncertainties over EU build up. There will be nothing for the immigrants to come for.

4. A clean majority for the Conservative Government means Matthews Law - For unto every one that have shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that have not shall be taken even that which he have (Matthew 25-29) - can come in force in Britain.

5. The Hindu, Sikh and Jain communities in Britain can rejoice. They can carry on with their caste discrimination, as there will be no legislation barring the same.

6. CNN yesterday referred to UK merely as an US ally. CNN may not exist in five years, given the rate of their gaffes (remember Putin as Jihadi John?). But, friendless and alone in the world, the UK may have to sail the Atlantic and park themselves in the New York harbour. So much for the UK soft power!

7. The Conservative win is good news for bankers in general. They can carry on as usual. HSBC may not have to move. They can pay themselves as much bonus as they like. Until the next crisis, because crisis it will be. All these asset prices will have to pop, perhaps soon, but definitely under the watch of George Osborne. Remember Gordon Brown and his claims of the longest uninterrupted cycle of prosperity? It is a cycle after all.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

What is Critical Thinking?

As we speak to employers about what skills they value, they often talk about Critical Thinking. When we talk to colleges and universities, at least in the UK, Critical Thinking comes right at the top of the list of the things they want their students to be able to do. Someone I know, who has been working on the Educator-Employer interface for more than a decade now, tells me that even if they are using similar language, they mean different things by Critical Thinking. According to him, this creates the disconnect, and this is why while 70% educators may think the students are ready for the workplace, less than half the employers think so.

With this in mind, I was engaging with educators and employers to figure out what the different definitions of Critical Thinking may be. It seems that both employers and educators mean the same thing - the ability to test and validate the assumptions that underlie a decision - when they talk about critical thinking. They are both talking about not accepting any situation or a piece of information at its face value, but being able to, reflexively, examine the backdrop, the assumptions and the contexts.

However, the difference occurs often in application. The academic world, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world, is dominated by philosophy of language, and deeply inclined to understand language in its context. One of the key focus of university teaching in the UK, as Baroness Wolf of Dulwich (Dr Alison Wolf, a distinguished economist) so eloquently explained in a recent House of Lords debate, is to make the students conscious that no statements should ever be made loosely - they should be backed by analysis, thought, evidence and accuracy. On the other hand, the employer, within a dynamic, action orientated business setting, wants the employee to test the assumptions with a focus of getting things done. They would indeed want them to validate the courses of action, analyse its effects, check the data and ensure accuracy. Independent thought is encouraged in academia, within those parameters, it is so in the workplace, within those parameters.

So, essentially, the focus of the activity that may really be the problem. When the student is doing critical thinking, he is supposed to be thinking - is this right? When the employee is doing it, they are asking - can this be done? There should not be any conflict between those two approaches, as long as this difference is acknowledged and understood. Many people make the transition perfectly well, and sometimes (like me) continue doing both. In fact, the ability to ask the former question, arguably, endow the employees to develop Higher Order skills of reflection and ability to improve over time, ability to handle unfamiliar situations and diverse teams, and work with integrity and consistency.

However, the problem arises when this transition is not done, or even worse, it is rejected as a possibility. The world of work is the world of practise, messy, pragmatic, action-orientated. One could argue that the Critical Thinking taught at the university somewhat misses out on testing one of its key assumptions, that of a lofty Technical Rationality divorced from practise. Indeed, this is not always so, and this is an old issue, Donald Schon was writing about this in the Eighties. However, the influence of positivist, rational methods of thinking is still very common in Academic practise. And, if I extend my argument, the disconnection between the Critical Thinking as understood in Academia and what it is in context of work is not about how you do Critical Thinking, but what you are seeking. The Positivist quest for truth is somewhat opposed to the more Pragmatist thinking of goal orientation that dominate practise.

In the end, it is perhaps appropriate that I think about this issue as a question of practise rather than a philosophical argument (there is one to be had, but one that was not resolved over thousands of years). And, it is not an either-or, but a way to translate the commitment to seek the truth into a mechanism to produce better action. This is what successful professionals do, translating their quest into a constant balance between pragmatic action and finding better ways of doing things, progressing iteratively. That way, the Critical Thinkers can not be produced in isolation, but only with the commitment to progress and do things better. It becomes, at this point, a question of values, rather than the mechanics.




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