Thursday, February 25, 2016

First Mover Advantage?

Being The First

Writing in 90s, Al Ries and Jack Trout made the Law of the First their first law in the celebrated 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing. The proposition simply was - It is better to be FIRST than to be BETTER! Citing a rage of examples from Yuri Gagarin, Charles Lindbergh, IBM and Harvard, their point was that customers always remember the first, and the second person/ brand doing the same, even if they did it better, is usually forgotten.

Presented as a Law, this may not really stand up to any scrutiny. IBM was never really the first, as were not a host of brands that came to dominate the market. In fact, Ries and Trout themselves added all those qualifications in their later laws - like, it is not First in the market but first in the mind! To be fair, what they were trying to do is not create new laws based on evidence, but rather presenting the generally accepted marketing wisdom and marshaling the evidence to support it.

But, it held - and we got obsessed with First Mover Advantage!

Rushing To Be Different

The Law of the First, which may have driven numerous explorers and adventurers into climbing mountains and finding new places, is not very useful for businesses, though. Being first is a nice idea, but what if one is not lucky enough to be first? Indeed, if the Law of the First was really true, there was no need for 21 other laws, or, for that matter, Marketers.

What really created a job for them is actually the 2nd Law: The Law of the Category. "If you can't be the first in a category, set up a category you can be first in"! So, if you have not won in Notebooks, try with Netbooks, so on and so forth! This made First Mover Advantage into an actionable thing, and the principal job of marketing. This started the scramble for new words, or new meanings in old words. And, the word that benefited the most was 'Differentiation'! This, in its verb form, 'To Differentiate', became the single point job description of any Marketing Director, and for that matter, any business.

Reality Sets In

However, in terms of actual business practise, a lesser known book may have more useful advice. This is Fast Second (2002), written by Paul Geroski and Constantinos Markides. Based on evidence, this presents something more like a Law: That a 'Fast Second Company' let other companies innovate and create new markets, and just as a 'dominant design' begins to emerge, they enter the market, capture the 'dominant design' and gain market leadership. 

We see this playing over and over again in the Internet economy. This always makes me think of Samsung, but so was Apple itself when it followed the lead of Blackberry, or Nokia when it unseated Motorola and everyone else. Being Second, rather than First, has now become fashionable, particularly after so many success stories of the kind in the Internet Economy (anyone thinking of Google?).

Does It Matter?

So, does First Mover Advantage matter? Imagine going into an investor pitch and saying - we are not the first and we are just following the business model of this really cool company! Or, think of that frequent question that gets asked, what's new? With disruption being the talk of the town, if you don't have anything really new, it does not really fly.

So it really takes courage to say, as I heard an entrepreneur say yesterday, that when you are really doing business through people, first-mover advantage does not really matter. This is a forgotten point: Even if you come late in the game, you can still win if you have the best people. And, this applies to almost all service businesses. Think Education for a moment: Offering better education works!

For some reason, we don't have a Law of Better as we have a Law of the First or the idea of Fast Second. But this is not because it does not work, but this 'Dog-Bites-Man' phenomenon, so obvious that there is nothing to write about! But not writing about makes us forget it, or start thinking it is not important. And, besides, this oversight changes our priorities: We replace relationships with algorithms in our search for differentiation.

One can hope, and there is some evidence to back this up, that despite all this talk about algorithm-driven, first-obsessed, start-up talk, the space for authentic, people orientated businesses are opening up. When everyone is trying to be first, an improbability, it is possible, even easy, to be better and be known. That is one law of business which has proved to be really immutable.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

How To Think About Kolkata

There is a Kolkata protocol. As any outsider reaches the new shiny Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport and steps outside the glass doors, and looks into the waiting and loitering multitude just outside the gate, along with a few indifferent guards, a few skinny and bespectacled men trying to look officious with identity cards hanging around their necks, the noise, the sunlight and the general atmosphere of hustle reaches her - she remembers the name: Mother Teresa! As the first act of politeness - as well as of sounding world-aware - she would usually ask those waiting to receive her about Mother Teresa. And, then, the other party would usually start talking about Kolkata's great cultural heritage, its assortment of four or five Nobel Laureates, including an implausible Ronald Ross, who did part of his research in Kolkata (and therefore, has a street named after him), and an apparently disingenuous claim on Amartya Sen, who went to college in the City but have found fame elsewhere. The point of this elaborate response is, of course, that Mother Teresa matters less than it seems from outside, and Kolkata is not all about slums and destitution. In the meantime, of course, the arriving guest would have settled onto her first impressions of Kolkata: She would have discovered another matronly figure, with smiling face and a blue-and-white sari, dominates all the billboards, and she is apparently not Mother Teresa!

Comical it may be, but this welcome dance reflects several things about the City apart from its distorted image and garrulous men. It is, for example, a city of obsessive nostalgia, where one refers to the past far too often. It is also a city of wounded pride, and even the most sensitive visitor can not hide the fact that any reference to Mother Teresa leads directly to its slums. That Ronald Ross evokes its Malaria and Amartya Sen would have been inspired by its poverty is somewhat besides the point. Mother Teresa, directly and unequivocally, stands for something that people of Kolkata does not want to stand for - being an object of Western charity! And, thus, for all its appearance, one must know Kolkata for its strange love-and-hate relationship with the West - it combines a hearty claim of leading India's Independence movement with the pride in Western recognition of its genius through various Nobel Prizes and an Oscar for its very own Satyajit Ray!

Kolkata, which changed its name from anglicised Calcutta to the original name of one of the villages on which the City was built in the Seventeenth century, was, without doubt, one of the great centres of Enlightenment, one of the premier cities of Asia, and for a long period of time, the Capital of British Imperial power. It was one of the first Asian cities to reach a million population, and infamously, a great centre of Opium trade that broke the back of the Chinese empire! A surrogate of Scottish Enlightenment, the City became a great centre of social reform and learning, leading Indian participation in the early days of the British empire (and hence, Indians often think of the natives of Kolkata as collaborators in the imperial project), and subsequently, a great centre of nationalist thought. It was also a thriving port and a centre of trade and commerce, as it sat right in the middle of some of the most productive agricultural land in the world, alongside great minefields of Bihar and Orissa, with huge deposits of Iron Ore, Coal, Bauxite and other minerals. It was one of those rare commodity economies that, due to a strange twists in its economic history, became, at least for a while, obsessed with its intellectual achievements. 

However, if one wants to go beyond Mother Teresa, to narrate its history in the name of other Nobel Laureates is really a false claim. The most abiding symbol of even the enlightenment Kolkata was a particular life-form called the 'Babu', a word that lived on in English language and the annals of Independent India. 'Babu', the Bengali word to represent 'gentleman', assumes a very specific meaning in Kolkata, describing a rentier class who lived off the incomes of land. Side by side with Enlightenment Calcutta, a particularly brutal feudal system with rentier landlords living in great comfort in the City, while their serfs were mercilessly squeezed in various landed estates all over Bengal (including what is now Bangladesh), was established by the British administrators. Babus, who usually lived a debauched life, also funded many of the theatres, poets and playwrights on the side! Some of these families eventually produced some of the greatest intellectuals of the Bengali enlightenment. However, to tell the story of achievements of the people of Kolkata, without mentioning its dark underbelly of repression and exploitation by the Babus, is the sort of selective amnesia all past-obsessed peoples indulge in.

And, this is one of the first things to think about Kolkata - its past! Somehow, it clings to its past everywhere, in everything, but in a meaninglessly selective form. The Babus are wiped clean off the slate, the collaborations with English are all but forgotten as is the final act of Kolkata's originality and intransigence, the revolutionary left movement that took hold of Kolkata's youth in the late 60s and eventually changed the City. The city feels like one filled with almost endless pasts but not coming to terms with it, just like all those dilapidated buildings whose owners would rather talk about when it was built rather than finding a way of repairing them.

One may see this as a great charm, and indeed for those who are doing well. But Kolkata is also one of those great cities whose population has decreased over the last decade. Its past is becoming overbearing, to the point when it drives out its young and the ambitious, and makes it forbidding for all those who come to seek education or fortune. But, also, this is some sort of a great opportunity. The wrap of its great past means that Kolkata is a better place than it is portrayed to be, one brutal fact of life all average sons of greater parents know! It is the past that weighs the present down, and clouds the future. Like other great cities who were in a similar funk - Vienna would come to mind - the great opportunity for Kolkata lies in making a break. And, that is not difficult, when Kolkata embraces its past, its whole past and not the selective bits - and tries to make sense of it! That would mean going beyond nostalgia and getting into history.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Higher Education: 'Unbundle' or Not?

There is some sort of consensus that Higher Education needs to change, but the shape of it is hotly contested. One key idea that has got some traction is that some sort of unbundling is both inevitable and desirable. This model of 3- or 4-year Undergraduate degrees, focused on one or few disciplines, is too costly and too closed for our time. Unbundling, which rests on recognition of various ways of earning college credit, through various channels and activities, would reduce the costs and allow the students flexibility in terms of time and location to complete their degrees. All sorts of experimentation has followed: From the launch of college credit bearing (as well as non-credit) MOOCs to variation of the structure of college degrees, including shortening of the time required, have got under way. 

But, it has also gone the other way, as Chris Mayer argued (see the article here). The Higher Education community in general, accepting that a transformation is necessary, is arguing for 'bundling', a more holistic approach to education away from the disciplinary fragmentation that has come to be over the last half century (or possibly longer). 

While 'Unbundling' may reduce costs and increase flexibility, and is perhaps more aligned to the employers' ever-changing requirements, the arguments for 'bundling' can be traced back to Aristotle: "There is no royal road to education!", as he told young Alexander. While 'unbundling' treats students as consumers and give them choice, the opposite approach emphasises that softer abilities and behavioural change, key to successful careers, need holistic engagement over longer periods.

So, the debate is framed like this: One view holds that Higher Education is a black box that needs to be prised open, and the other says our approach to knowledge has become too fragmented along disciplinary lines, and a more integrated approach, focused around the student, would be needed to set things right. 

While this may look like a sharp division and one could start drawing lines along public versus private in this debate, it is not going to be straightforward. The public policy of dividing education and skills have gone on for too long, and this is one of the key aspects of the 'bundling' argument: That an education must prepare the student for an economically productive life. That Higher Ed would eventually be unbundled is the assumption behind numerous Ed-Tech start-ups, some are already finding out the challenges of fragmentation, huge transaction costs that may occur in the handover stages, the culture conflicts between various parties involved in delivering a solution and various problems that arise when the students start playing the role of a consumer a little too seriously.

In the end, Higher Education may be transformed not into one model or other, but in multiple forms. This is a transformation like no other - the acceptance that there are more than one correct way of educating - a big departure from the state-backed monolithic idea that we have come to believe in. In fact, this debate, which encompass both the process and purpose of education, highlights, even if in a roundabout way, the unity of engagements. This, in itself, goes a long way to overcome the false divides, between skills and education, between practice and theory, between contemplation and action, and indeed between different disciplinary labels, which came into existence owing to dated social conventions or bureaucratic convenience. The very existence of this debate puts the student at the centre-stage of education, which can not be a bad thing.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Waiting For Trump

Everyone has an opinion about Trump. Which is okay, because he has an opinion about everyone. So, though I do not get to vote in the American Presidential election, I shall add my two bits!

Right now, after South Carolina, the path to a Trump-Clinton match-up looks clearer than it ever was. All the predictable candidates of the Republican field, save Marco Rubio, have started dropping off, and soon, Trump would achieve what seemed completely unachievable even a few weeks ago - sound the most sensible among the group! His economics may eventually sound better than Kasich, his xenophobia more moderate than Cruz, and his common sense more than, well if he had it at all, Carson's. Oh, Rubio! Though he is still going strong, he may indeed be too smooth, too official, to go all the way in a year like this. 

Now, if Trump faces Clinton, it will be easy to see it as an ultimate Insider versus Outsider race. There is no one more on the inside than Clinton, she even lived in the White House! Besides, while Republicans may hate Trump, they hate Clinton even more. In the end, the prospect of seeing Bill back in the White House may be a bit too much for them to bear. And, therefore, it is hard to be optimistic about Clinton! The middle class is really feeling squeezed, and all the official news about economic growth and job data have been so out of touch with the day to day reality of anyone that it has started losing meaning. At this time, claims of a safe pair of hands is just another euphemism for business-as-usual, not good enough for most people. 

So, rest of the world has to contend with a really possible 45th! However, regardless of the naive assumptions of businessmen like Trump, America is not the world. The odious insults that may have won him the viewership on quarrelsome American television would be a handicap when dealing with people who are more respectful of each other. And, as we have seen in statecraft, when you wish for a Wall, you get a wall, and Trump would perhaps get his! All this put together, we will get an unmitigated disaster - and possibly a world-changing one!

Irony may not be welcome in America, but one can not escape one when watching Mr Trump. His punchline - Making America Great Again - is combined with ideas which aim to do anything but.He punctures, very effectively for rest of the world, the hot air baloon of American Greatness, laying bare its ugliest ideas and discarding the mythology and rhetoric of freedom, tolerance and opportunity that has caught the world's imagination ever since Wilson, another opportunist who belonged to a different age, made them principles of international policy. A hundred years after Wilson, it is Trump's turn to parade naked self-interest, xenophobia, belligerence and idiocy as the new Fourteen principles that America should be known for.

So, I am waiting for Trump to be unleashed on an already fragile year, when stock markets are shrinking with fears, the Chinese economy tottering, the Indian banks desperately seeking public funding, Europe tearing itself apart in the fears of the refugees, Britain hurtling itself to a crisis on European Union, and assorted Islamic terrorists preping themselves for a mother of all meltdowns in the Middle East. Add Trump in the melee, and one gets the apocalypse in all its perfection, one that would be democracy's very own!

Sunday, February 21, 2016

What Makes Creative Places?

Creativity was perhaps never been more glorified. We have appreciated art, music and literature, enjoyed the fruits of scientific research and technical invention, indeed, but never before we have considered Creativity as the sole source of progress as well as redemption. Governments never wilfully proclaimed the goals of building creative economies, city planners never before had an explicit mandate for creative cities, and here is the clinchers, accountants never concerned themselves with creative output. Creativity, seen in context, is a modern religion, a source of collective well-being when all other prospects have failed.

Accordingly, there is a stampede for making creative places. Start-ups have taken the place once Public Corporations had in public imagination - the mainstay of a middle class economy! Governments now divest in public sector, they are so last century, and proclaim policies to encourage start-up making. Economists write about idea economy and collective IQ. Institutions of Higher Education fall over each other in finding and promoting creative ideas, as do local governments.

The key question in our age is, therefore, what makes creative places.

There are some ready answers which we love to hear. Richard Florida loves the T words, Talent, Technology and Tolerance. It paints a neat picture, and reverse-engineers the Silicon Valley. However, this may have got the causation backwards: Talent congregate, technologies appear and a tolerant culture may develop around a creative place, but someone do not will such things to come together. Besides, it is perhaps too simplistic as well: If those things could be willed, then we could create Silicon Valleys at will, just as Real Estate developers wish!

But, then, here is the thing: Going by our track record, we could not really plan, predict and enable making of creative places. They come up seemingly at random, making fools of all those government proclamations and million dollar business parks. And, indeed, the regularity with which all those dreams of building creative places falter, and enormous sums of money disappear, makes one think whether we are staring at the bottom of the barrel - is Silicon Valley indeed the 'last great place', as one travel writer calls it - and whether all the attempts at making creative hotspots are doomed at the very conception.

To answer this, it is useful to reflect how it happened in the past. Different creative hotspots appeared and disappeared through history, Athens, Florence, Vienna, Kolkata, Paris and Modern Silicon Valley, seemingly randomly but with some consistency in how they happened. Usually, it hardly ever started with someone proclaiming - 'let there be' - or, much less, rolling out one initiative or a policy for creative flowering. The consistent thread has been that it started with disruption: Not the benign sort that has now become a buzzword, but rather the violent kind, usually a defeat in a war or a revolution. It needed a defeat in hands of the Prussians for Vienna to really prosper, Florence rose from a string of battles and defeats in the hands of the other Italian republics, and Paris from the complete humiliation of Prussian incursion and Paris commune! Otherwise, it is the new places, that was outside the structures of power - Calcutta in the early Colonial Bengal or the sleepy towns of California in United States - places that, when it all started, can not be imagined to attract the best talents and best technology, really make it. One good indicator perhaps, at least in the modern examples, is a good education structure, perhaps an elite institution (Stanford made Silicon Valley, it is claimed), but it may be a necessary, but no way a sufficient condition. 

The common sense explanation why disruption helps is that such creative flowerings usually comes from the outsiders, immigrants, outcasts and disadvantaged. Creative flowering is necessarily a process of unlocking the talents of those, rather than the pretencion of the polite society. This is precisely why making a place creative is so difficult: This means deliberately undermining the privileged, allowing the space for ideas to emerge, creating opportunities for all rather than lucky few. By nature, governments and policies defend the privileges and try to limit social churn: By definition, they are anti-creativity!

As Jane Jacobs observed, such creative flowering is also associated with low road. It is no accident that Soho, the ugly underbelly that Regent Street was designed to hide and which was a place to throw the dead bodies during the London plague, became such a creative hotspot in time: It is places like that, rather than one with shiny and expensive real estate, that make creative places possible. One may visualise shiny steel-and-glass IT Parks as great symbols of IT progress these days, but it is safe to assume that when the real estate has become premium, the centre of creative activities have taken a flight. Because creativity is essentially risky and unrewarding (rewards often come later), an IT city is hardly the place where such experimental models can prosper. It necessarily needs the 'Low Road'.

Finally, Creativity often needs, and in turn results in, schema variation, odd or unacceptable ways of doing things. Fred Turner and others have pointed out how Counterculture led to Computer revolution in Silicon Valley; other creative spaces, and creative lives, are full of similar examples: Often shocking experimentation with living coexist with great new thinking. Using Fred Turner's word, it therefore needs a 'Democratic Surround', a culture of experimentation and toleration, to enable a creative place. Often, it needs a Cosmopolitan hotchpotch, not built around the 'Best and Brightest' that modern British politicians pin their hopes on, but rather the 'Give me your tired, your poor' kind. Again, it is not something Governments and policies can really aim to - such experimentation runs against their grains, and their mandate to keep a society stable!

All this points to the stupidity of all those government efforts to create 'Creative Hotspots' and their hopes of achieving economic growth through innovation and creativity! When a government simultaneously try to provide sops for entrepreneurial risk-taking and want to wall off the migrants, they are simply wasting public money in more than one way! Studying the history of creative places would help, though it would basically say that the government can do very little other than keeping out of the way. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Internationalisation of Higher Education and Open Business Models

I have been working on Internationalisation of Higher and Professional Education for over a decade now, mostly at the business ends of things and exploring strategic opportunities. Therefore, I find myself often in conversations about how to internationalise educational offerings, often involving developed country institutions trying to tap into demographic booms in emerging markets, and sometimes, emerging market institutions reaching out the other way. 

Most of this conversation, as I see it, is opportunistic. The list of failed attempts is long, which, not incidentally, include my own two years of developing a business to deliver British qualifications online in partnership with colleges in India and China. So, my current wisdom is not just theoretical - it has all the practicalities of someone who burnt himself in the process! 

This makes me reluctant, often to the surprise of willing collaborators or investors who would see me try again, to engage again in cross-border education ventures. The reason for this is not any lack of entrepreneurial appetite - I did not suddenly change as a person in the summer of 2014 - but the lack of interesting ideas in the field. Most of the conversations in Cross-Border Education, in my mind, tend to make one of the two mistakes: Either its purpose is wrong or its business model is impractical. And, indeed, more often than not, it is both.

The first problem, of Purpose, is easy to spot. Most institutions (and companies) want to go cross-border in search of scale. It is about more students, often fuelled by the myth of the New Middle Class. The problem is that the New Middle Class is inadequately defined, both in terms of numbers as well as in terms of other qualitative factors. While globally, no one would be called Middle Class without making at least $20 a day, it is common to count in households with only $6 - $10 a day income in the ranks of new middle classes in India (and similar countries). Besides, while they seek to educate themselves, their quest for education is driven by traditional reasons, and aim for traditional outcomes - a Government job in India, for example! This hardly creates a disruptive possibility or a market for cross-border education. And, besides getting the maths wrong, the expansionary missions hardly sit well with education, which is often about enabling a person than providing idea-drills. The quest for scale, more, often undermine the commitment to care, and sensibilities that must accompany cross-border forays.

This brings up the Second Problem, of Business Models. With diverse markets, divergent motivations, and imperfect information availability, the Closed Business Models of Education is primed to fail more often than not. No regulator in the world create models flexible enough, and even the private companies make assumptions about cultures, processes and people that remain unexamined and invariable when going cross-border. Worse, culture is treated as separate from strategy, often as a soft aspect of business, a distraction rather than a core activity, though cross-border forays necessarily define culture as strategy. 

Indeed, the way Cross-Border Education could work better if Open Business Models were possible. There are people talking about unbundling of education - and the days of Closed Education Business Models, where an institution does everything from admission to certification (and even placement), seem numbered. However, such thinking has not yet reached the realm of Cross-Border Education. The field remains dominated by the old world assumption that emerging market students are fascinated by first-world institutions and degrees, which is validated by increasing student mobility, but inherently false when extended to project demand for in-country delivery and other non-traditional models.

So, here is my point: When planning for International Education, it is best to open the business model of education. Such thinking would allow one to focus on the value proposition and ask the question - what can an international education proposition do better for a student that can not be done locally (to justify the higher costs that are invariably involved). Such thinking also helps to solve other issues that affect such cross-border offerings, like the insurmountable challenge of pricing for the local markets. The European and North-American institutions, entrepreneurs and investors can not often escape 'Margin-based Thinking', which is a key aspect of any management thinking (in education circles, this is expressed using the ever-ephemeral term, Quality), and yet, most emerging markets do not offer margins at all, given the per capita income and relative cost structures of the market. Opening the business model and focusing on one or two key things where an International Proposition really adds value - and working with reliable local partners to do everything else - can create a model aligned with local prices and costs.

But, all said, the conversation about International Education is not strategic. Interestingly, for most institutions, it is a nice-to-have thing, kept at arms length, often as a department whose job is to make some money by selling programmes designed for the local market, and definitely not to generate ideas of their own. Watching the international engagements in education, therefore, is a torturous spectacle of engagement between narcissistic and self-obsessed developed country institution and pragmatic and narrowly focused emerging market students, each speaking a different language, with different sets of priorities and eventually leading to a failed connection.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Varieties Of Online Learning

Ask anyone what 'Online Learning' means and you know why they think it is a poor alternative of the classroom learning, the real thing. 'Online Learning' is mostly reading texts and watching video online, and that dreaded 'forum', which is about talking to each other but 'not for me'. This picture is consistent, as even the proponents of Online Learning would often concede that those who can afford college, should go to college.

But, while the advocates of Online Learning may make its case based on affordability, its costs at the point of delivery is insufficiently understood: The learner has to find appropriate device (or devices), data plans, quiet spaces and required self-discipline. If the popular 'Total Cost of Ownership' estimation was ever applied, Online Learning is not a cheap alternative. 

Despite this paradox, that its costs and promises are not in sync, Online Learning became wildly popular because of one thing: Degrees. The global demand for Degrees soared since the 1990s, with emergence of Global Workflows and expansion of Service Economy, and indeed, the accompanying contraction of industrial economy and powers of workers' unions from protecting its members from redundancy and retrenchment. One of the premises of Middle Class Economics and accompanying politics, both on Left and Right of the spectrum, was about more people in college. Online Learning promised a cheap and easy way to accomplish just that.

If degrees helped Online Learning, it did not work the other way around, though. Availability of Online Learning undermined the need for Formal Learning. With recession setting in and Middle Class Economics failing to deliver - and we are perhaps seeing its final act, the breaking of the Emerging Markets, now - the link between Degrees and Middle Class bliss was somewhat broken. It did not help that various Technology investors and entrepreneurs prophecied the 'End of College', rightly equating it to State Power and pointing out its commercial irrelevance, but perhaps wrongly overlooking the umbilical chord that ties college and middle class societies together.

In this muddle, Online Learning has now lost its charm, and importantly, its meaning. Technologies of Information and Communication have made great progress in the intervening years, opening up great possibilities of connecting people and enabling Global Workflows, something that existing conceptions of Online Learning totally overlook. Its essential paradox of High Costs (it is justifiable to argue that Online Learning merely shifts the costs from the institution to the learners) and Low Value is now exposed, once the attraction of Degrees plateued out.

So, in a way, this is the best and worst time for Online Educators. Never before has there been such possibilities of innovation - of creating different models, of doing things which can not be done in the classroom, of creating better and different education. At the same time, the term is much maligned, the field much too narrow and its premises suspect, a business dominated by the unscruplous and the silly, a market for lemons, in all senses!  Time has come, therefore, to recognise that there are varieties of Online Learning, and it is important to find the right descriptors for the different kinds. Because, otherwise, if you start using the term 'Online Learning', regardless of any effort to qualify the term, you will be boxed - in the beautiful but doomed prison of pointless degrees and painful education.

Friday, February 12, 2016

'Hindu' Theory of Creativity

This post is not about an idea that just popped up in my head, but about something that I saw. And, that, though uncharacteristic, is most appropriate. I just came across, while reading a book about 'Genius Clusters', a 'Hindu' theory of creativity!

I am reading Eric Weiner's Geography of Genius, a concoction of travelogue and psychological theories, representing a tour through spots of great creative flourishing in human history. I am about half-way through, and have already travelled through Athens, Hangzhou, Florence and Edinburgh - and currently in Calcutta! It is a chatty read, serious ideas and wackiness bound together, and oftentimes, as a book of this nature would invariably be, too simplistic. But, every now and then, there is an idea worth all my effort, and my current pulse-rusher is this notion that Hindus have a different notion of creativity.

Here is the argument in brief: That, in Judeo-Christian, currently Western tradition, the idea of creativity is ex nihilio, from nothing. So, the world was created from nothing, and a creator creates something from nothing. Contrary to this, the Hindu idea, Mr Weiner cites Ralph Hallman of Pasadena City College who wrote a paper in 1971 titled 'Towards A Hindu Theory of Creativity', is that creativity is illumination, seeing rather than making. Metaphorically, the creator is a lightbulb, which, once illuminated, brings the room in view. This, in his view, is much like the Chinese notion, where one can not create anything new, but just rearranges the old into a new order. And, anticipating the usual dismissive comments about this being impractical nonsense, Mr Weiner invokes a supreme authority, Steve Jobs, who said: "When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty, because they didn't really do it, they saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while."

This distinction is useful to me at two levels. The first is in itself. In a sense, all creativity is discovery. Einstein did not DO General Theory of Relativity, he postulated, and then proved through, certain ways of nature's working. Darwin did not MAKE Evolution, and Goethe rearranged words to create beautiful poetry. Ditto for Mozart, though we perhaps should say he could hear, rather than see. Uber is indeed a new way of rearranging our world, rather than making something from nothing. However, there is this modern Genius thinking, where the idea of special gifts, employed to justify a new aristocracy and inflated pay packets, rule the roost. The place left vacant by Divine Sovereigns has been taken over by these new Creative Gods, who, for most part, write codes for commercial applications these days. They claim to create something from nothing, disowning their debt to the rest of the humanity and all the little people, and promoting a new brand of selfish, self-obsessed being. In contrast, I would much rather be a Hindu - I indeed am, there is no escape - and be thankful! All I can ever do, anyone can ever accomplish, is to illuminate one small corner of one's universe, for a sliver of time!

The other significance is in explaining, yet again, how culturally loaded our current practises, in business and in academia, really are. I have been privy to many very patronising conversations in British universities how Chinese and Indian students do not get plagiarism, and how they are serial cheats! Once you start seeing the world in a culturally literate way, while the need to understand plagiarism norms while studying at a British university remains, the conclusion that the Chinese and the Indian are trying to cheat may be off the mark. The copy-and-catch-up innovation, that so offends the Western commentators (who, by the way, do the same, but live in the bliss of ignorance of debt), may rather be quite natural for the Chinese (it was natural, in a different sense, for nineteenth century Americans too). And, this leads to one of the central tenets of being civilised, accepting that there are more than one ways of seeing the world, and the limitations of the current approach of exporting creativity from Silicon Valley.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The 'Soft Skills' Question

I notice a strange disconnect in my conversations with Employers. If one asks what they are looking for in new recruits, they tend to talk about soft skills: Initiative, Team Work, Communication etc. But when they write person-specifications and seek to recruit, it becomes a conversation about technical skills, at least mostly. So, how important are soft skills, really?

It should be very important, as all of those who ever worked in a commercial environment know. One must navigate the organisational life, and that needs soft skills. The moments one is in front of customers, soft skills are super-important, critical. And, progress in professional life hinges on soft skills too. No wonder one of our customers reportedly said,"I hire for technical skills but fire for Professional Skills".

Two things come to mind. First, the relative importance of soft skills versus technical skills vary depending on who in the organisation one is speaking to. The business managers, those who lead teams and deal with customers, tend to emphasise soft skills, whereas the recruitment professionals tend to highlight technical skills. At the recruitment end, it is all about tangible, certifiable skills, without the benefit of observing the person at work, whereas it is different once the person is inside.

Second point is about expectations. The employers have come to expect the educational institutions to develop technical skills - this is what they ask for all the time - and tend to regard the culture business, specific as it is for every company, a preserve of the employing organisations. So, in a perfect world, a well-trained Engineer comes in, with all the technical skills, and then get inducted, and acquire the norms of behaviour etc., as they start working in the company. 

If this expectation sounds logical, one would wonder why employers still complain. This is because there is no perfect technical skill without the accompanying soft skills. And, besides, one can not really 'induct' a person and train him to be a professional, if s/he has not been told such things are important for most part of life. Consider the Engineer in the perfect example above: He has been told that it is all about acting solo and it is the technical skills that matter. Then, on induction day, suppose this is his 22nd birthday, he is told that it is all about working with other people, and how one communicates and collaborates matter more than technical abilities. For the poor Engineer, it would appear like a charade that he has to learn. For the company, it would be a long time before he can embrace those 'values'.

So, as a solution, we have this entire industry, primarily an American one, of soft skills training. The idea is, if they don't know, train them. So comes the powerpoint slides on assertiveness, walking on hot coal, the array of stand up presentations - the key assumption of soft skills training industry being that soft skills can be hardened with a few days of classroom! It is indeed a hit and miss business, and all the efforts to measure RoI of training etc., have usually fallen by the wayside, but, in the absence of other alternatives, the charade still goes on.

In the meantime, though, soft skills as a term lost its meaning. As anything and everything gets lumped under the label, it means nothing. At a time when employers are skeptical about their own soft skills training - and do not know it from voodoo - Educators' belated discovery of the magic of soft skills is usually greeted with indifference. And, when the claims are overt, some educators are going all the way to say that they do only soft skills, for the employers that translate into style over substance!

So, here is the 'soft skills' question: Is it important? Can it be 'taught'? Should it happen at college? What should the educator do?

Interestingly, when I was talking about this at a recent conference, someone in the audience reminded me that early years education is absolutely central to 'soft skills'. So is the home environment, one must add. The flip side of this argument is indeed that at every level, we tend to discount the value of such abilities, until at the very point of performance, when they appear all important. And, ironically, one reason why this happens is because we use this unfortunate term - 'soft skills' - as if this is a special thing to be acquired just around the time one is getting ready for a job or just got one. The very fact that we state that the students are missing out on 'soft skills', this has become a prominent media narrative, cause us to overlook what they are - the ability to connect with others, share, be tolerant and open, to be able to learn, have courage etc. 

One said, "Oh! All that is character!" Soft skills are presumed to be different. The distinction, one can guess, lies along the lines such as, having courage is character and doing smooth-talk is soft skills! But this is precisely why soft skills is so devalued and yet such a problem. We, at all levels, refuse to accept the problem and instead, trying to create bite-size solutions which can make money but not solve the problem (as the hit-and-miss results show). But, the solution brings its own problem, and in time, now, no one believes the soft skills solution anymore.

The point, at the end, is that for all the talk of soft skills, it is a fad and it would pass. Hopefully, once we have got rid of this unfortunate term, we can get back to - well - the next great fad that would come along.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Free Basics and Free Trade

Some people are angry at India for maintaining Net Neutrality! Marc Andreessen just tweeted (and then deleted) that this may be another mistake just like Anti-colonialism! He could not be more right!

Mr Andreessen's point is, of course, that India suffered from anti-colonialism! This, apart from proving that every smart people can be woefully silly at times, seems to come from some standard text that many Americans seem to cling to, even if they have no idea what colonialists did, where India is on the map and how it feels to be an Indian. Partly, some Indians contributed to this narrative, making a big deal of the liberalisation of the 90s (which, at best, has produced mixed results), though this confusion between Anti-colonialism and Import Substitution is rather uniquely American. An aside is that this does not show just ignorance about Indian history, but also America's, which was an inward-looking country sustained by trade barriers well into the twentieth century (it only converted to free trade when it was commercially ascendant). 

But all this silliness should not take credit away from Mr Andreessen's unwittingly insightful comparison between Anti-colonialism and Anti-Free Basics! The way to see it is that Facebook wanted to created a ring-fenced Internet for the young population in India, making free access to Internet costlier and cumbersome by making some Internet sites accessible without carrier costs. With millions of young people, this was supposed to be Facebook's chance of dominating the next century, by locking down the preferences of a great number of young people. Couched in marketing speak - Free Basics was really Free as long as it is Facebook - this was not just about India, but also about the integrity of the Internet. Offered in partnership with Reliance, the conglomarate which The Economist once called 'a national embarrassment', this was an attempt to be justly refuted. And, now, Indian regulators must be criticised by people like Mr Andreessen, conveniently perched on Facebook board, for having an independent opinion.

In Mr Andreessen's world, there is a simple way to profits: A combination of Debts and Poor People, who do not have many choices, can drive the spluttering engine. This rebuff, therefore, would surely hurt. But, this Freudian slip, invocation of Anti-Colonialism, gave out what it really was about - colonialism of the mind! In one way, though, it is Mr Andreessen and his friends who seem to be in thrall of economic doctrines which are both unreal and coming to the end of shelf life, and it is they who can do with a dose of fresh thinking, which Twitter has been helpfully reminding him about.

In the meantime, this may be a moment for countries such as Philippines, which has allowed the Internet to be fragmented and prioritised, to think fresh and roll back some of these policies. Indeed, national governments themselves do a lot to undermind Internet, which must also be challenged, but for the moment, let's savour the victory of choice over enclosure!

The Third-Place For Education

As Post-Secondary Education continues to evolve with time, we are having a good hard look at what the College might look like. So far, we have pursued binary ideas - elaborate campuses that exude solidity or tradition versus virtual, online spaces - but the next College form may be something inbetween: A third place. I use the term in the same way as Ray Oldenberg defines Third Places, a place for community, the coffee shops etc. That community and connection, not tradition and not content, is really at the heart of education is the fundamental reason why this should be such.

So, college for me would be one of those converted warehouses with long rows of tables, chairs, sofas, coffee bars and technology gadgets, with designated meeting places and quiet rooms, and perhaps a gym, but never a classroom. There will be no teachers either, just team leaders, and coaches, and those who lead discussion groups. Indeed, the picture is more like Raphael's School of Athens (yes, the one that usually makes the first slide of every presentation insisting that college should change), plus Computers, which may make it look like a modern incubation centre. Minus, the cut-throatedness, of course, because education needs safety, and support, though too much of that can also be counter-productive.

This, for me, is not a philosophy class or a literature workshop, but the environment to teach technology, for example. Someone I know and respect said once to me that his key insight in technology education is that technologists are artists, but they are taught like scientists. They are given structures and syntaxes - a lot of emphasis on what we call explicit knowledge - but they thrive on tacit, their signature codes and intuition to interpret and solve the problem. So, this college, this Third Place college, by removing the walls and structures that are usually associated with the traditional ideas of study, can refocus the minds back on tacit, on practice, on the actual work, both technical and human, that one has to do.

And, the inevitable next question: Where would the Professors come from? They would not, because one does not need them, not in this environment. This whole model, predicated on doing things, solving problems and exploring ideas, would perhaps be supported by relevant content, which can be accessed online through all the videos and lectures available on the Internet, or through the plain old-fashioned books and manuals that may sit in a corner rack (which may be made a 21st century book by adding a RFID tag). The coach, in this setting, is the guide, who can connect content and application, someone who helps create a personalised to-learn list, among other things.

How is this environment better than the ones exist all around us? We have now figured out that what we are really learning at college is a culture - for a good technologist, it is the culture of technology - rather than content. If so, the environment for learning should be modelled around that objective - enabling cultural learning - and our classrooms, narrow benches, the lecture theatre, PowerPoint, are all built around content and content alone. The point of the new college is to turn the model on its head, just like we are getting rid of the old office designs, and build it ground up around culture, community and conversations.

Monday, February 08, 2016

The Legend of Steven Jobs

We have two Jobs: One, the magical creator of iPhone, and even more, of the whole iGeneration, whose life story is one of a visionary, one that stayed steadfast through various failures and ultimately prevailed. The other is, of course, much more human, with all the failings, tempers and tantrums, who refused to accept parenthood of his own daughter and made life miserable for his colleagues at Apple so much that he managed to get fired from his own company. This latter story makes him no less visionary, but just a bit less perfect! The perfect millennium man, the first story eventually overshadowed the second story at the turn of the century, as the second coming of Jobs - his very successful return to Apple and making it the most valuable company in the world - played out, helped no less by his Cancer survival and finally, death.

One can say I was watching Steve Jobs, a very good movie with Michael Fassbender as the lead. I am slightly weary of hero worship, and therefore, would usually avoid such movies, particularly because, I believe, that we have not had sufficient time, belonging to a generation shaped by Mr Jobs' action, to be objective about him. The previous attempts at biopics, even with all the dramatic material, came up short, primarily because the legend of Steven Jobs was far too ubiquitous to leave any opportunity for any new story to be told.

The current attempt, in contrast, goes further. It revolves around the second Jobs, the human one, centering itself to very human failings of the hero. It brings in the hate figures of the Jobs legend, John Scully, who had become the dumb-witted villain in the tale of Jobs. It restores Steve Wozniak in all his affability: That the Creator of Apple computers gets restored from his usual place - a footnote - makes the movie remarkable.

For me, however, it is not the story it tells, but the one it hints. I am not sure anyone seeing the movie would agree with me, but it is worth blurting out: I thought the movie hints the transformation of Jobs from one who did not listen to one who finally did. And, this is not just about recognising his daughter or being truthful about Scully or Wozniak. Jobs, in his second coming, started listening to the customers. He did abandon some of his earlier positions - the Macbook that I am using to write this has Intel chips and runs Microsoft office - and became more flexible. And, by combining his ability to listen, alongside his great genius of fusing Form and Function, he eventually became what he is.

Regardless of what has been told, Steve Jobs may end up having a mixed legacy in the long term. He may have done, partly through his work and partly through his legend, more than most people to turn computers into a consumer device, but, with time, we may also discover that he, along with Bill Gates and a few others, also closed down the Open Computing, built walls around the Internet, created a money machine that would eventually kill the golden goose of ideas. But, we are too close to pass such judgement - right now, too blinded by the brightness of genius! However, figuring this out would need a revaluation of the Second Coming of Steve Jobs - less of the humiliation and more of the humility that eventually floated his boat!


Saturday, February 06, 2016

A Search for Creative Life

What enables Creativity? This has somewhat become the central question of my work.

In a way, it was always there. I always sought opportunities where the boundaries between work and play fades - in other words, sought out work that I love - though this often meant a circuitous route to what other people may call Happiness. In fact, with time, happiness became something I do not seek, just the right opportunity to be creative! Happiness became, to me, a bottle, and the outside it, in the ephemerality of work and play, joy is to be found! 

However, as Freud would have said in a different context, the economic life suppresses, rather than enables, such opportunities. The modern men (and women) is expected to play its part in the vast, global arrangement we have come to call civilisation, trading their very opportunities to be themselves, in return of happiness - or, what everyone calls happiness. In this sense, pursuit of happiness is the antithesis of a creative life, and yet, it is the act of creation, human inventiveness, that enables the consuming passions of the happiness-seekers.

This personal conflict is indeed amplified greatly while going through periods of compromise, such as now, when I must keep my head down and accept the diktats of the economic life. In the narrow bounds of job descriptions, which seeks to limit what one can and can not imagine, the desire for a creative opening becomes stronger. In the usual alienation from work, where meaning is separated from action under the useful guise of teamwork or process, the essential contrast between creative work, which seeks to embed meaning in the creator and the created, and economic work, which essentially transfers value from the creators' time to the economic product, become starker. For me, the feeling alternates between resignation, that this is what I am destined to do, and hope, that I must keep alive the quest for a more creative life. This quest is indeed what defines me, along with all my apparent eccentricities.

It is this hope, at its brightest, pushes me to embark on a way to find meaning by setting out to find the source of creativity. At a time when all those smart men, governments and universities, are attempting to position creativity as the essential growth engine for our economies, the essential conflict between economic and creative work may be significant beyond my own mid-life upheavals. Innovation Clusters, as they are called, are no longer the bohemian haunts or underground movements, but rather celebrated in the mainstream. Capitalism's central claim, once all those horrors of imperial extraction and unfair trade are sufficiently forgotten, is now the ability to create, to self-heal, to rejuvenate. Even if one is essentially aware how temporal these intellectual fads are, the charm of such claims is inescapable, indeed they are foundational to our own social hope, the two-cents worth happiness that we live by. With this rhetoric, now the wagons of emerging world prosperity has been hitched - and indeed, my native Kolkata, alongwith Sao Paulo, Shanghai, Djakarta, Manila and everywhere else, has now set out on a fantastic journey of some sort of Silicon dream.

So, I must restate my question, make it broader: Can one really engineer creativity? Build a creative ecosystem - or innovation cluster as the management lit will have it - that enable creative individuals to create economic value? Or, is this all finance capitalism's brave last stand, one final illusion, that will come unstuck with time? 

My journey, therefore, is to study the creative places, those fabled lands, cities and times, that enabled new thinking and progress - the history that lies at the very foundation of the current fashion. There are many attempts, as one would expect, to study the history of creativity, and creative places, and indeed, that is my starting point. But my intention is not to study the history and draw the conclusions that have already been drawn, but rather think about what I may call the Pre-history of Creativity. So, my quest is not for the belle-epoch Paris, Imperial Vienna or Renessaince Florence, but rather than the stifling world of Habsburg Court, the violence of Paris Commune or the petty traders of Tuscany, which preceded those moments of extraordinary creative flowering. And, I am all too aware of the famous blunders of historical reasoning - with hindsight, coincidence often appears as causation - and not attempting to create any fail-safe five-steps or seven-habits. Rather, I, a mere blogger, are looking for stories, ideas, inspirations, the little people rather than big names, the values rather than valuation. 

This quest, I hope, would also unbind this blog from the servitude of professional interests. I started this as a hobby, a plaything to keep my habit of writing alive, but over time, it has become a tool for career progression, a chronicle of my professional interests. At the point where my professional and creative interests diverge, a moment of acknowledgement that I live a life of compromises, it is best to moor this with its natural buoy - the creative pursuit and the pursuit of the creative.


Popular Posts

How To Live

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

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

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

- T S Eliot

Creative Commons License