Sunday, July 31, 2016

Making Sense of India's Crackdown on Foreign Education

The University Grants Commission (UGC) of India has made news recently by ordering the closure of Pearl Academy, a popular fashion school with more than 4000 students, because they were offering foreign degrees, from UK's Nottingham Trent University, illegally.

While some people would see this as an attempt to clamp down on Foreign Education in India, and make Indian Higher Education, already quite parochial, more inward-looking, this particular development may not signify any of that. While the closure of Pearl Academy would make news, especially because it is owned by the global education conglomerate, Laureate Education (something that the Indian media seemed to have overlooked, with some effort presumably), the UGC has been showing teeth and enforcing regulation for some time now. 

The infamous IIPM, which operated without any license for years and offered an MBA, Masters Diploma in Business Management, to thousands of students, as well as running the equivalent of an educational ponzi scheme by guaranteeing employment of its students using a part of the fees they paid, was closed down recently, as was Mewar University last year for giving out foreign degrees without authorisation. The Indian approach to Foreign Higher Education, which was defined by legislative inaction to create any clear frameworks coupled to loose enforcement allowing a free-for-all regime, is now showing signs of change - both in terms of efforts to roll out clear guideline for foreign collaborations and an activist approach to enforcement.

It would indeed be a mistake to expect that the Indian Government, with its strong Hindu Nationalist ideology, would necessarily be very open and welcoming to Foreign Education. We know that the Indian HRD Ministry has been interfering even in supposedly autonomous institutions, either by decree, or through key appointments (in some cases, by overturning the decisions of the governing boards), or by implicitly endorsing demands of student unions affiliated to the Hindu Nationalist cause. India also instituted its own Higher Education ranking mechanism and implicitly rejected the notion that its universities need to compete for global rankings (which may indeed be seen as a defencive move as its universities usually do so poorly, especially compared with other Asian nations). 

However, at the same time, one should be aware that this Government has been quite keen on foreign investment, particularly in manufacturing and technology, and has been open to foreign technical education in the country. A less reported, but perhaps more significant, move is the recent proposal to reform Professional Education sectors, such as Accountancy, Company Secretaryship and Medicine, by creating independent regulators for each of these areas instead of the current catch-all institutions such as Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI) or Indian Medical Association (IMA), which are both professional bodies and sector regulators themselves. One way of looking at it is that the government is creating a bureaucratic layer and moving away from professional self-regulation. However, given that these bodies have manifestly failed to modernise the sectors they are responsible for, and have been known for corruption and incompetence (particularly the IMA, whose ex-President was caught taking bribes for granting expansion of seat capacity of a medical college), the Government move is unsurprising. The stated reason for the move, to create diversity in the sector and for development of an export-facing service economy in India, point to greater openness to foreign professional bodies and qualifications. 

I would argue that there is no apparent conflict between the moves to close Pearl Academy and the new openness to global education. What Pearl Academy was able to do was clearly illegal - it was a private training institution offering a foreign degree - and it was just loose enforcement that kept it going for so long. There are people who would argue that poor countries do not have the 'right' to regulate their own Higher Education sectors - and indeed this is what is being pushed in many African countries, which have become a free-for-all for American For-profit operations - but that kind of anarchy, as previous experiences in India would show, does not necessarily enhance quality or access to Higher Education. There may some players with good intentions, but that kind of setting, where no norms are sacrosanct, usually create 'markets for lemons', where frauds and charlatans thrive - and drive out honest operators. The lack of enforcement is not of interest of anyone, including For-Profit providers trying to offer World Class education (in fact, it creates a disincentive for good education).

I am therefore cautiously optimistic about Foreign Education in India. India needs to be open to global Education, and given the demography, the time to act on it is now. The new guidelines should make it easier for Indian universities to establish partnerships and collaborations, and hopefully the New Education Policy, due later this year or early 2017, would establish clearer frameworks for Foreign institutions to operate in India. Together with the reform of the Professional Education sector, and good enforcement, this should create incentives for legitimate foreign institutions to create partnerships or even campuses in India. Indeed, there is much to be done - the current bureaucratic, punitive, regulatory structure is hardly the way to go to create a dynamic world-ready Higher Education sector, but it seems that the basics - frameworks and enforcement mechanisms - are being worked upon now.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Is Islam Violent?

Islamic Terrorism has made news and focused minds in the recent weeks. It did not help that a section of the Turkish Military tried a coup against its Government - perhaps in the Secular cause against the Islamic politics of Mr Erdoğan - and it counted as another instance of Islam being violent. The Egyptian government is intent on putting to death more than a hundred Muslim Brotherhood leaders and members - the Government is tacitly backed by the Americans - but it also is counted as Islam being violent. As someone told me recently, "All Muslims may not be terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims", as if that proves Islam is a violent religion. I did tell him, after the religious scholar Reza Aslan, that taking one example and generalising it to a whole community is indeed bigotry, but this is unlikely to stop him in the future. Using a term which is now very popular in India, he called me 'psuedo-liberal'.

I am fascinated by this term, not least because I get this label all too often. And, I am risking earning it again by writing this post. But, so be it: I like the fact that those who use the label think being Liberal is a good thing (and, therefore, being a 'psuedo-Liberal' should be bad) and each post I write on my political views, I think, would betray my liberalism. [Indeed, I am aware that this is a vain hope and the term, 'psuedo-Liberal', only shows how hopeless hateful vocabulary can be. For those who use the term, I am both 'psuedo' and a 'Liberal', just doubly bad!]

But, anyway, these claims should be considered and questions should be asked whether (a) all terrorists are Muslims; and (b) Islam promotes violence. 

To be sure, many terrorists in the recent months are of Muslim faith. But this can be equally because how we define terrorism. For example, when a mentally ill Lufthansa pilot crashes a plane in the Alps, we chose not to call it terrorism. Ditto for the East Ukranian separatists downing a Malaysian Air Jet using a missile. We also exempt the American man who gunned down several people at an abortion clinic, and the young man who massacred school children using an Automatic Rifle or even the Norwegian who wiped out an entire summer camp of young people because they were 'liberals', but count in when a mentally ill person commits a terror act in Germany, a deranged man drives a truck through a festival crowd in Nice or a gay man kills several in a gay bar because they were all Muslims by faith. We do not even count how many of these terror acts were committed by mentally ill, and talk about the Mental Health problem in our societies. And, indeed, as a newspaper helpfully tried to remind, we do not really look at what is most common attribute of the terrorists - they are all men - and start questioning whether the male stereotype that we have built our societies around is the problem. 

As for the second claim, I know of people who can tell you exact passages of Koran, and the ideas in it which are particularly violent. But then, I also know of people who compared The Bible and The Koran and came up with the pointless insight that The Bible has more references, and justifications, for violence than the Koran. The faith I was born into, Hinduism, is also supposed to be built around tolerance and acceptance of diversity, but then we have a book, one of the most important, Bhagbad Gita, which is basically a cosmic justification of violence and killing, even one's own kin, for the right cause. Now, we can indeed endlessly argue about the nature and degree of violence in each of the texts, but the essential argument should be different. I would much rather defer to a scholar of religion, Reza Aslan (or if you prefer a Christian scholar rather than a Muslim one, you may try Karen Armstrong), who argues that a religion is not, can not be, violent in itself - it is the person and what he (it is always he in this context) brings to it. A viable religion survives because, within the context of its world-view and living ethic, it still accommodates a range of aspirations, ideas and attitudes - and that is indeed its difference from what we will call a 'cult'. To see a religion that guides the lives of 1.6 billion people worldwide as a terrorist cult is nonsense.

In context, it is also important for us to consider what violence is and how it is perpetrated. We all recognise what Slavoj Žižek would call Subjective Violence, the immediate physical violence committed by a clearly identifiable agent - all those guns, bombs, trucks and planes that caused mayhem and all those terrorist mugshots in the newspapers! However, there is another, more prevalent, widespread and equally damaging violence that happens everyday: Žižek would call it Objective Violence, the systemic and symbolic violence. Getting shouted down as a 'psuedo-Liberal', a label that seeks to reposition my reasoning as some sort of justification of violent acts, is one of the more blatant examples of such violence: Claiming Islam to be a violent religion - with the hope that most people would accept the claim on face value - is another. The prevalence of Objective Violence does not justify the Subjective Violence, and I am not bringing it up to justify all those terrible acts and making a claim to some kind of victimhood. In fact, if anything, violent groups such as ISIS want to take advantage of these unexamined claims - all those claiming Islam to be a violent religion are actually working as recruiting agents for violent cults such as ISIS, as more and more marginalised people may chose to take out their anger on the rest of us by adopting an ISIS identity (just as we may have seen in the recent incidents in France and Germany).

One final point: Violence is an instrument of power and all those seeking power over our minds, bodies and imaginations use violence as its means. Claims such as 'all terrorists are muslims' and 'Islam is a violent religion' are designed to make us part of a worldwide landscape of violence, by coopting us as victims or tools. And, by living an examined life, by making these claims subject to reasoning and enquiry, we can gain control over our own ideas and futures. This, as a proud 'psuedo-Liberal', is my only plea.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Oh 'Soft' Skills!

The most misunderstood thing about 'soft' skills is that they are, well, soft!

Soft as in not tangible and demonstrable the way we understand skills to be. Skills, derived from the old English word, scele, or knowledge (which, in turn, comes from the old Norse word, skil, meaning knowledge, discernment or judgement), is expected to be visible. For Swordsmen or Surgeons, one can perhaps quite easily figure out what really matters, and a skilled person should be able to demonstrate that s/he possesses the necessary craft.

Soft Skills, a later derivation, gained traction only recently - this is a late Twentieth Century invention that became prominent in the new millennium - and in business context. With increasing standardisation and automation of work, imagination, relationships, judgement, communication abilities have become important for success in the business world. And, yet, these abilities are much harder to define and demand, in comparison with technical abilities or process competence, and hence, 'soft' - like the 'gift' of painters or musicians that distinguished the masters from mere technicians.

There is an inherent difference between 'gift' and 'skill' though. Gift is supposed to be divine, or at least unique to a special individual, whereas a skill can be acquired. 'Soft Skill', a surprising hybrid, lie somewhere in the middle, denoting a range of abilities from imagination, traditionally thought to be special, to empathy, one of the most common sentiments of the human race. What bundles all these abilities under the common label of 'soft skills' is that, apart from being needed in the business context, they are, borrowing an expression from Justice Potter Stewart: "I can not define it, but I know it when I see it."

This is why they are 'soft'. These abilities are hard to define or measure: How do you measure communication skills? Or Define 'Creativity'? etc. And, this is not so much about the absence of a scale. This is hard because these abilities are deeply context and culture dependent. Take, for example, communication skills. It is not just about making presentations but also keeping silent when the context demands it. A good communicator in IBM or Oracle, of world beating sales savvy, may not be so good in Rolls Royce, an Engineering oragnisation with proud heritage: It is a matter of style, medium, language and approach. Besides, different national cultures have different meanings for creativity, different societies view critical thinking differently and indeed, relationships have different meanings and requirements depending on context.

This has now become the Educators' holy grail, an answer why the supposedly educated - university graduates - often requires a year or two of bumbling around before they settle down and do well in a job. The key idea is to be able to define 'soft' skills in an universally acceptable way and create transparent benchmarks which are less culturally sensitive and context independent. In short, the idea is to make these abilities less tacit and more explicit.

This is the central concept behind the current wave of 'competency based education'. Very popular in the United States, this is now being spread across the world through the American Consultants and American Investment. The core idea appears deceptively familiar - that the best way to educate people is by exposing them to real work and by measuring their abilities of application of knowledge - and more in line with common sense and long traditions of apprenticeship systems in Europe and elsewhere. But, the revolutionary claim behind this - that this would not only create competence and abilities not just relevant for a given competence area or industry, but a higher level of 'soft' skill that can transcend the immediate work setting and be universally valuable - is much less well understood. Indeed, the proponents of this idea often admit that their language needs to evolve further: The familiarity of concepts such as apprenticeships, and the common sense notion of learning through practise, often obscure the central claim that such exposure makes learners fit not just for one kind of work, but wider life world.

The American origins of this idea is important to note, because this is uniquely, if invisibly, informed by American language and values. As the dominant business culture and commercial nation, the linguistic and cultural distinctiveness of the wider world are usually much less visible and relevant from an American vantage point, and hence, universality of soft skills may be a much more acceptable idea than it would be elsewhere. Besides, there are some elements of this thinking - improvisation as a craft, enterprise an an approach, extroversion as communication ideal - which are much more native to American world view than to other cultures. And, therefore, the very origins of the idea of universal and transparent 'soft' skills tell us about the two key issues in the current approach to 'soft skills' - that of language and values!

This is actually the key global conversation about 'soft skills' at this time: Can these be defined outside the setting of a trade, a workplace, a society or a nation? Is a 'global' person possible who may have abilities and approaches to excel in any setting, regardless of the trade and the locale? It may seem that the world is uniting around the American values and languages, at least within the context of business, and the idea of an universal business person may indeed be possible. However, such thinking may be devoid of historical time, and as we have seen in recent times, with the supposedly irrational outcomes such as the European Union Referendum in the UK or the nomination of Donald Trump for US Presidency by the Republican Party, that history has a way of biting back.

One final thought by way of conclusion: The possibility of universal 'soft skills' is indeed an existential question for mass Higher Education, which is built around the social consensus that education is the way to social and individual prosperity and defines its mission around not just educating a class of thinkers and intellectuals but also serving the broader requirements of the commercial society, that of educating the producers, the workers and the consumers. If work is automated and standardised, and the need of the hour is of 'relationship workers' rather than 'knowledge workers', a specialist education sector can only do the job if this new education can happen outside the specificity of trade and society. On the other hand, if 'soft skills' are really abilities within a specific language and values environment, it is the natural owners of these environments - commercial employers, social organisations and institutions - need to be deeply, intensively engaged in the act of education. This is indeed difficult without changing the current social structures and expectations around specialist sectors for education, commerce and social good, and without seeking to make employers far more locally engaged and socially responsive than they are today.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Marketing The Start-Ups: 7 Insights On The Go

I have been through quite a bit - big companies, small companies, failed start-ups and successful ones, big companies pretending to be start-ups and start-ups pretending to be big companies - and despite my sincere efforts, I am yet to discover how to market a start-up.

One could indeed say that about Marketing itself: John Wanamaker's "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half" has been embraced as the justification of the marketing practise. However, while this may sound playful or funny in a big company, such an approach is plain fatal. The company could easily die, and mostly die, before ever reaching the useful part of marketing.

But, then, this is perhaps a starting point to talk about marketing a start-up. That there is no money to waste, and therefore, no money to spend on marketing without knowing what works. Which is basically to say that start-ups must market itself differently from the big companies, which creates its own problems because every conversation, case study or formula in the Marketing profession is either for the big companies with budget, or hyper-funded start-ups with unlimited money.

When I asked a famous Marketing Professor why there is so little on marketing of start-ups, his answer was, "because they do not think!" But, as I know, they think, think hard and almost think so much that they die - but that was another matter. My intuitive answer, which was gained through the years in the front-line including the years of running my own start-ups is that it is because there is no commercial reason for anyone, consultants or professors, to think about start-up marketing. So, while it is urgent and important - do we not talk about enterprise economy all the time - there is little conversation out there about how start-ups market themselves.

While thinking about it - and the trigger perhaps was a two-day branding workshop that I recently attended, which was all about applying the big company branding principles to start-ups - I have cobbled together a set of insights that may help a start-up owner to think about Marketing. Insights they are, as I wanted to present them as they came, not as Rules with claims to 'science' or a Manifesto with world-changing ambition. But, even without claims to any authority, I think this is just right for the personal, less definitive world of the start-ups that I live in.

1. Start-ups are NOT Small versions of Big Companies

I am quoting Steven Gary Blank, and I think he is spot on. Too many teams think this way, and they are always building small versions of big companies, hiring people who spent life in big companies, throwing money at fancy branding and campaigns, and doing other things as big companies will do as a way of life. The point, of course, is that much of it is not just wasteful, it is plain subversive, because big company thinking destroys the key reason why start-ups exist: To explore and to learn. 

Essentially, that is Steve Blank's point: Start-ups are learning entities, it is an entity in search of a business model. The big companies are just the opposite - it is about execution of a working business model. And, marketing, accordingly, for start-ups is about generating the insights and learning from the market, and not like big companies which is about educating the marketing.

2. Start-ups Learn from Data, But Unexpected Things

One of the perils of Big Company thinking in Start-ups is how they use data. The big company culture of many start-up owners and investors insist on a data-driven culture. However, the problem in data-driven culture in a start-up is that they do not often know what they are looking for or they are looking at. They would often mimic big companies and create models as they do, using the little data they have. But, as anyone sane would know, little data often misleads, making one extrapolate trends when there isn't one, and labelling important insights as outliers because the frame of reference may be misdirected.

I have seen this play out with hilarious, if tragic, effect, with start-up teams celebrating meaningless achievements, and discarding useful suggestions because they did not want noise in their data models. But, my beef is not with the data itself, as learning requires feedback: It is that many start-up owners tend to look for patterns too early and with shallow data, and by doing so, they close themselves off alternative possibilities. The start-ups relationship with data is often a quest, rather than a decision exercise. It is about generating and participating in conversations, than creating the pretence of knowing everything beforehand. Unfortunately, the VCs like that, and this is how people live in big companies where these pretences are highly valued, but this has a disastrous effect on Start-up decision making.

3. Start-ups seek Scale, but only those who Connect get it

Start-ups seek scale: This is natural because scale makes them real. However, too many start-ups build for Scale, and scale alone. All the conversations centre around this obsession, and anything not scalable is not considered unworthy of trouble. But this is where big company thinking is in action again, as Connections make a start-up successful in scaling. 

The objective of the Start-up Marketing is to establish this connection. And, in a way, premature quest for scale gets on the way, as connection requires humility and commitment that run counter to building scale. Too many start-ups want to be Facebook, and miss the whole story about Facebook being created dorm-by-dorm, being a personal thing with a limited context.

4. The Authoritative Start-Up is A Myth

When a company is a start-up, it is best to admit it. Many start-ups want to claim history, mostly of their Founders', or of some supposedly famous invention (which, in today's start-up scene, is mostly about graduate papers written in business schools), and come to market as authoritative ones. However, without the hyperfunding of silicon Valley type, it is far easier to go for authenticity, and define oneself not by history but by desire! I know the merits of faux authority, but it is often unsupported by reality, so these start-ups face the problem of 'not wanting to be the member of any club that will take them as a member'. All those brand consultants hung up on archetypes and narratives would readily concede that it is hard to be something one is not; and yet, the start-up scene is littered with false claims of authority and businesses that are so patronising that no one wants them.

5. The Inauthentic Authentic should be Resisted

Authenticity is a much abused word, particularly in big company marketing. In fact, of late, marketing function has taken upon itself the task of manufacturing authenticity. Despite its implausibility, fake autheticity is a real thing, therefore.

Once they have fallen into the branding trap, Start-ups often forget why they exist. Big companies have more money and can attract better staff, and hence, should be able to, in theory, solve all the big problems. Yet, they do not, and often Start-ups do, because people often wants start-ups to do this for them. This is primarily because the start-ups are more authentic - they can engage and do things differently from a bureaucratic machinery of a big corporation. One of these endearing attributes of a start-up is that they are authentic, even in their failings. And, hence, authenticity is one of the last things that a start-up should give up. 

In practical terms, any Start-up Founder who is unwilling to maintain a Twitter feed (or, in an ideal world, a blog) should not be a start-up founder. If they are not finding time to converse or connect, they are in a wrong place.

6. Social Responsiveness is the Default

Social responsiveness is like Authenticity for a start-up: This is one of the reasons start-ups exist. The handicap for big companies is that they are too distant from any society: They do not belong anywhere anymore. in contrast, Start-ups are, and have to be, fully embedded in their surrounding, drawing people, ideas and often funding from it. Social Responsiveness for a start-up is not a slogan, but just its way of being. So, that Start-Up Founder who can sincerely and unshamedly talk about a local/ social issue on their Twitter feed, or believe in a cause (Anita Roddick comes to mind), has more chance of success than the others bleached clean of controversies by PR professionals. Social passion is the best PR for a start-up.

7. First Customers Are Co-Creators

For a Start-up, its first customers are partners, at least in most cases. They help build the solutions, they contribute in the conversations, they establish the models. Too many start-ups overlook this, particularly those seeking scale and try to sweep the first customers rather like embarrassing uncles whose money one craves but not company. Sometimes, these custmers are treated as useful trophies, but no sense of acknowledgement. But customers make the brand, even for big companies (the suggestion that Facebook should give one share to each member is more than just a ridiculous slogan), and start-ups can only ignore this at their peril.

Indeed, my broad point is simple: Start-Ups are a business form that can harness the power of enterprise to solve problems, but not until they are self-aware and do things differently from the big companies. And, the best approach to marketing for start-ups is based on a quest for authentic conversations, based on real human connections and social responsiveness, and in partnership with its customers. Any start-up that pretend to be a big company, one that treats itself as God's gift to humanity, or one that try to read insights that were not or create illusions of certainty through fragments of data are dangerously missing the mark.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Reimagine Professional Education

The conversation about Education Innovation should go beyond Education Technology, and try to address fundamental questions: Do we need schools? What should the teachers' role be? How do we make people think critically? What makes students creative and innovative? What credentials should one have? 

My favourite one among these is about Professional Education: How should a '21st Century Professional' train? There are several reasons why I want to ask the question. I have seen professions transforming both from inside - as a Professionally trained Marketer - and outside - as someone working closely in technology and technology training. But, more importantly, I ask this because this is not a fashionable question to ask. That professions, defined as a sort of social monopoly in some service areas, are supposed to be well-regulated and well-defined, which makes them less susceptible to change, and as a result, near-blind to the possibility of change.

But this immunity means nothing when deep and fundamental changes are setting in as a result of technological change and changes in the global economic flows. This is particularly relevant as globalisation reaches service industries, after fundamentally altering manufacturing. The services, accounting, media, law, and perhaps medicine, is globalisation's brave new frontier, and while machines do comparatively less well in services (than manufacturing), its impact has been no less dramatic. It is not for nothing one would say that United States has lost more jobs to Microsoft Word than to China!

The headline example of the transformation of the professions could be the recent Indian proposal to establish new professional regulators for Accounting, Company Secretaryship and Medicine. This is surprising not just because India's Charterd Accountancy body, Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI), is one of the most powerful and closely-guarded in the world, but also because India is not any hotbed of innovation in Professions and Education and rather, one of the most conservative of the professional cultures. Indian Civil Service, for example, still does not accept any outside expertise - for example, from Academicians or Corporate Leaders, as is common in other countries - even in the case of pressing requirements. The professional bodies affected by this move have been quite willing to exert their influence in policy-making - ICAI successfully kept big 4 and other accounting firms out of the lucretive audit market and resisted the global accounting standards successfully - and their members occupy most of the major decision making roles in the industry and in the administration. And, yet, the Indian Government wants to create a new and independent regulatory body, separate from the Professional bodies, with the intent to promote India as the 'Global Service Hub' - an effort to globalise to take advantage of globalisation!

The effect of technology is all too well-documented, and right across the spectrum, from the still-precarious practice of self-prescribed medicine to bot-Lawyers and book-keeping software, professions have been transformed. While it may be easy to dismiss the possibility of an algorithm replacing the needs of professional skills and expertise in foreseeable future, we should know that technologies have fundamentally altered the nature of knowledge - we are validating professional advice, rating our doctors and connecting with communities of users of professional services - and this is a fundamental change in the way the Professions operate. There is no smokescreen in effect, and some professions are less ready for this transparency than others. And, finally, expectations are changing too: As professionals change from 'knowledge workers' to 'realtionship workers', the concept of professional distinction and paths of professional progress are being redefined. 
The problem that the Professional Bodies face in redefining their trade is that their charter, their reason for existence, is built around protecting the profession and its privileges, and not to push an agenda for change. Most changes, particularly the self-sufficient customers, are likely to be a threat to the very existence of the professions. And, this is not just a technology-versus-profession narrative in which the profession should be the 'bad guy'; Intuit, a technology company which made its fortune by disrupting the accounting profession through its book-keeping software, fought change in their turn when the Federal Government wanted to simplify individual tax returns that may have eliminated or reduced the need of its software. However, Professional Bodies are designed for a state of stability, rather than the flux we are into, and are often low on imagination how the next generation of professionals need to be trained.
While some aspects of the answer are obvious, that the next generation of professionals need to be more global, more relationship oriented, more technology savvy, and more transparent, it is more complicated to create a workable model within the current professional structures. Take any of these aspects - the balance between regulated processes and global-mindedness, for example - and the emergent picture is always more challenging. The mindset, inevitable at the time of great change, is that there is an inevitable trade-off between these newly preferred abilities and the traditionally defined competences. While a customer may not see the logic why a friendly doctor may not be competent as well, for the Professions itself, whose job it is to define the standards and work as a gatekeeper, there may be a real trade-off in valuing one competence over the other. For them, it is also accepting broader, externally defined standards in the place of well-established code of practices: The professional oath of a lawyer has now somewhat been superseded by the demands of transparency, and this may indeed mean a new way of looking at, and doing, things.
While these conflicts and trade-offs often make the conversation about change of professions into one of entitlements, of winners and losers, with technologies on one side and professionals on another, the true challenge for professional bodies to meet is one of rising expectations. What the customers (or society, if you wish) want is faster service, greater empathy, more inclusivity and deeper transparency. Framing the story as one of 'disruption', though the word means two different things for technologists and professionals,  does an enormous disservice, and take the focus away from how we should train the next generation of professionals. 

Indeed, these demands are not new, but we are at a point when these demands have become so crucial to the professions that they are fundamentally different. So far, the Professional bodies responded to these 'additional' demands by creating 'Plus' models - introducing requirements of soft skills, adding technology training, creating premium Continuous Professional Development courses for global exposure, and upping the standards of transparency - but stopped short of redefining what the Professional Expertise meant. So, even with this new and updated standards, an Accountant is meant to be an Accountant, not a Finance professional trained to measure risks in a global and technological environment, adept at making decisions and communicating this to the wider world. This has led to crisis of the professions: Professional Accountants ignored strategic risks, respected organisations failed to detect their own conflicts of interest in advising and auditing the client at the same time, etc. 

My work now is focused on creating models for a new professional education - globally conscious, technology enabled, relationship centred - in a variety of ways, through deeper employer engagement, set in a global environment and built around ethical and strategic reflections within the context of professional work. The starting point of this is an Accounting programme delivered remotely in various countries, and I am hoping to transition that into various professional areas and in a global setting, combining travel, work and collaborative study.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Gold Standard of 'Experience'

There is a certain role of 'degree' and 'diploma' in our society. 

These, supported by a generally elaborate regulation structure and recognition from Governments, are not unlike the currency: A diploma holder's worth is transparent and understood generally as a mark of competence.

Also, it is important to acknowledge the link between the degree and diploma and commercial employment. We can indulge in as much fantasy about monastic life and pure quest of knowledge for its own sake, but most of the state-funded, modern, mass education system is closely tied to the requirements of the industrial society and its employers, both state and commercial houses [as well as the Research Universities, which should be seen as a specific kind of employer with a specific requirement].

Degrees and Diplomas, therefore, are currencies of competence, to be accepted by the employers. However, we have arrived at a stage where the regulation structure is too elaborate and state recognition is omnipresent, and recognition has become be-all and end-all in the education trade. The purpose, recognition by the employers as mark of competence, has been lost in the mire of approvals, structured for its own sake. 

However, while the system is broken and many people, on all sides of the equation, seems to acknowledge this, we usually still stick to it for want of an alternative. The pursuit of a diploma may waste valuable time and make little sense, we still tend to do this in the belief that there is nothing else that would be recognised by the employers. The banks and other funding organisations, which complain all too often and all too loudly about the lack of employability of students affecting their ability to repay education debt, continue to hand out more loans for degrees they know do not work.

This is not unusual. Degree and Diploma are the paradigms we live within, and they are so omnipotent that we forget to see that they are ideas with a history, rooted in economic necessities of a certain kind and meant to serve a particular purpose. Indeed, our attempts at history, linking the medieval monasteries and guilds to the modern education system as if in a natural succession, obscure the paradigm shifts in education: The idea of college in the US celebrate the pre-colonial institutions rather than the deliberateness of Morrill Act, in England, the Oxbridge mystic obscure the industrial imperatives of nineteenth century metropolitan universities. The admission of women, mass education, workers' education are all seen as footnotes in the history of post-secondary education, still enthralled with its imagined history of contemplative communities, rather than the breaking of the old and making a new idea that we live by today.

Arguably, the employers shifting away from the 'Diploma' as an automatic proxy of competence tells us that we have reached that moment of shift, though being in it, though, being frogs in boiling water, we do not know any alternative reality. But, there is one - and one can figure it out quickly if one is talking to employers: They want Experience! More and more, employers want to broaden their spectrum and hire people who can demonstrate competence not by possessing a piece of paper, but by able to show that they have done things. Experience - work experience, experience of life, demonstration of real abilities - is sought by employers, and they are not ready to accept that degrees guarantee the same.

I have been working with a large multinational IT company for some time, trying to develop a strategic talent pipeline for them. When I started, about two years ago, their minimum cut-off was an Engineering graduate: Anyone wanting a job needed to have an Engineering degree first. They acknowledged the degree is not enough though - 80% of their recruits were not fit for purpose - and wanted us to build a system that gives them 'experience'. 

This should all sound very familiar to all the university graduates who toil away for nothing as interns, and those who are stuck with their degrees but no job. But this is not the story I am telling here. While we built the system they desired, the conversation in the company has changed dramatically: This company, a top employer and a great brand known for its path-breaking research and global reach, now wants to hire through 'hackathons', open events which anyone can join, with degrees or not. This is one of those defining moments when a major employer is trying to change the game, and creating a new currency more directly linked to ability than the proxy of a diploma.

This will happen more and more, I expect. And, in this world of employers looking away from the degree, there is still a currency what everyone would accept: Experience. Real life, hands on work experience, properly credentialed and referenced, is already more valuable than degrees : This is what internships are for and this is why they make such a huge difference. As the spotlight falls on it, there will be more and more education providers who would add a third dimension to it - transparently assessed - to make it all the things Diplomas should be: Transferable, Recognised, Transparent. 

So, to all those who argue that Diplomas will survive because they are transferable, this should be a penny-dropping moment: What good is transferability when acceptance is a problem in the first place? And, indeed, once we open our eyes to the possibilities of Credentialed, Referenced, Transparently Assessed Experience - imagine LinkedIn profiles with attached work portfolios and more - we would discover the shift away from useless diplomas and to a world of Experience as the gold standard of competence.

Being Political on Facebook

I took a 'Political Coordinates Test' on Facebook. This is about answering a few superficial questions on a scale of 5, and then you are placed on a strange Communitarian-Liberal-Left-Right spectrum. I was placed, predictable, slightly towards the left than the right, though right along the middle line of the communitarian and liberal. 

Admittedly, this is largely a meaningless exercise, worth attention during a few bored minutes during a train journey, but not much else. What does being indifferent on legalising Marijuana mean to me anyway? Or for that matter, why do I agree on legalising prostitution rather than strongly agree? Besides, there are the question of terminology. Communitarian is a strange label to be put on the other end of being a Liberal, the latter term representing its American meaning, for individualism, rather than the European one, for state provisions.

But in any case, these questions allow me to think about my 'political' self, the part that is almost a taboo in professional conversations, something to be hidden and overlooked rather than being advertised or explained. In a sense, being political mean something - belonging to one party or another and having a more disciplined approach to the issues involved - and accepting that frame of reference can help resolve the dilemma around the questions like the ones mentioned above: Just stick to the party line and just strongly agree or disagree to all things! Being ambivalent, not having opinions, in that sense, show only lack of commitment, an inability to believe deeply and completely.

Does not having an opinion about marijuana therefore show a lack of clarity? Or, does my ambivalence about prostitution - that I do not think it should be illegal as that would be encroachment on individual freedom (and would surely create an underground market as it did throughout history) and yet, do not strongly support it either as this may mean wanting to have branded brothels and exploitation of women on an industrial scale - show that I am unable to believe in anything? Further, going beyond politics, not being able to decide on questions such as these, as urgent and relevant as they are, may actually indicate a failing, of being able to take a moral stance - a slippery slope of uncommitted life leading to opportunism and self-obsession.

This, indeed, the big problem of not having a politics. But, I shall argue that my stance, ambivalent and uncommitted as it may seem, may have a moral bearing after all. One could start with the principle that ideas should not become ideology after all, as John Dewey and other pragmatists would say. I can indeed be undecided on some questions on which I do not have experience or full information, such as marijuana usage. Rather than embracing a stance of right or left, one is indeed free to be undecided. And, while I may believe that individuals may have freedom to choose, I also believe that a rule of law demands conscious abrogation of some freedoms, including the freedom to harm oneself. And, barring medical requirements, an addiction of any kind may indeed be mentally, financially and physiologically harmful.

Now, the question of morality can be tricky in questions such as prostitution, as this is essentially posed as a moral question. However, unlike the case of marijuana, I am not so sure! The black-and-white stance of marriage as moral and everything else is immoral is too much of a received wisdom, and I would rather see marriage - with the accompanied fascination of romantic love - as a historical institution wedded to sensibilities and requirements of a particular social structure. This is also defined by particular Western sensibilities - are we not routinely scandalised by polygamy as practised in certain societies - and economic requirements of landed property. So, using the blunt instrument of legality - I am sure no one is under any illusion that it would eradicate the practise as it existed so long - purely to affirm a moral stance needs one to be sure that it is the only moral position possible, and I am not sure.

On the other hand, though, I am not sure that trading of sex is desirable either. For me to 'Strongly Believe' that prostitution should be legal would mean accepting the possibility that this would become like any other business, guided by trading norms and restrictions, but socially acceptable, branded and all that. Here, my ambivalence creeps in - while branded brothels are indeed a historical reality and countries and cities thrive on prostitution, I am not sure that this is socially desirable, one that should 'promoted' by law. In practical stance, my mild agreement with the legality of prostitution, therefore, stands for just one thing - rejection of the state's right to define the morality of sexual relationships either way.

This may or may not be definitive, and, as I must agree, defensible. But this is indeed what means to be political, taking a stance on issues that is outside one's immediate self interest based on a set of values, assumptions and judgements. From this standpoint, I would much prefer my ambivalence, indecision and efforts to make things up over the lazy surrender of our opinions to the judgement of pundits and leaders. This, political with a small p, I shall argue, is an essential condition of existence in a complex society such as ours, and that, Political with a big P, where every opinion is predefined by the allegiance to a party, leader or an ideology, is actually an anomaly in a modern society with individual freedoms and rights.

Before I leave this question, I must state that I know the usual objection: That this stance, atomistic, every person to himself/herself, would make political action impossible. Discipline, commitment, allegiance to a party-political view are essential to political action and social change, I would be told. However, isn't that an illusion in itself? Has society really changed by deliberate political action of a party or a group, ever? Have we not faltered more often when we forced change by demanding unquestioning compliance? Real change, I shall argue, comes through consciousness, of indeed every person being on herself/himself, and arriving at a view, slowly, confusingly, but assuredly. Political action should not just be seen as those political rallies and revolutions, but what people do in their daily lives, through the choices they make in their consumption, companionship, craft and connections. It is changing those ways of being, and seeing the world, rather than grabbing power and mastering the state instrument, brings out political and social change.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Battle of Britain!

Or, 20 days that shook Britain, one could say!

With the Prime Minister moving out, and the most xenophobic and incompetent Minister of his Cabinet earning the job by an astonishing double-default - first failing to campaign for the side she was backing and then by a House-of-Cards show with her potential challengers killing each other off - this is surely an extra-ordinary time.

If only this was all! Across the aisle, Labour MPs have set themselves up for a farce, as a befitting aftermath of the tragedy of Brexit. They first bring a 'no confidence' motion on their leader, ignoring one of the most crucial distinction - that Labour leader is chosen by the party members and not the MPs - between Labour and the Tory party. Then, they try to trigger a 'leadership challenge' and keep the current leader off the ballot, with an extra-ordinary excuse that this leader fails to connect with Labour voters and therefore, if he is on the ballot, he may win!

In all, Britain's revered political institutions seemed to appear as fragile as ever.

Indeed, the British voters, nonchalant as they usually are, know that the dust will eventually settle. It always does, though it does not necessarily mean we would be any better off in the end. The uneasy stability that was in place since the Recession of 2008 - held together by the Governments and Men of Money in different countries - has now been disturbed. No one knows what really comes after.

Some people are celebrating the fact that the new Prime Minister is a woman. And, with the prospect of Hillary Clinton, who seemed to be running her campaign on the sole premise that she is a woman, becoming the US President, they are claiming that this is a particularly high point of Women's power. However, Ms May has been a consistent denier of Human Rights and an arch-conservative who would curtail civil liberties wherever she could - Civil Liberties were indeed her main issue with Europe - and if anything less bad happened in her tenure as Home Secretary, those were because of her incompetence rather than intention. And, that is the broader point of Women's Lib: It is not about women getting this chair or that, but whether we are becoming a fairer and a more decent society overall. With Ms May in charge, we are set to go backwards and not forward.

Labour Party, whether it gets its own woman leader or not, has now matched the Tories in showing contempt for the common voters. Cynically manipulative as Tony Blair taught them to be, the Party MPs have seized the moment of Britain's existential crisis to reverse their shock defeat in the hands of a people's candidate, Jeremy Corbyn. Mr Corbyn turned out to be a flawed man, lukewarm in his support of Europe (the same trait that helped Ms May to win the premiership) and perhaps not as smooth and nicely dressed as the Labour lobbyists want their Leader to be. But, the opportunistic counter-revolution at the most inconvenient time, when both people and markets wanted unity, direction and leadership, demonstrated what everyone long suspected to be the existential flaw of democratic socialism - that its leaders are only interested in leveraging its electorate's legitimate concerns for their own quest of perks and privileges! The very moment when the economic and social stability of the country was threatened, they did not see their responsibility - but rather an opportunity to settle some old scores.

This - 20 Days That Shook Britain - is a story of Revolt of the Elites. Its brief flirtation with direct democracy has spectacularly backfired. But instead of 'listening and learning', an overused phrase which has stopped to mean anything whatsoever, the political elite indulged in an internecine strife. At a moment when the lesson should have been that all the people can not be fooled all the time, everyone in Westminster indulged in an extraordinary orgy of self-centred politicking, bringing out the worst of the political culture built around 'elegant vowel sounds' without compassion or understanding.  

Monday, July 11, 2016

What A Cabinet Reshuffle Tells About Indian Higher Education

Just after the new Government in Delhi was installed in May 2010, I was asked, while speaking at an event in London, how I saw its choice of Human Resources Minister, of relatively inexperienced Ms Smriti Irani. I was unsure but hopeful: I said, if this was about bringing a fresh perspective to education, which India sorely needs, she should be welcome; on the other hand, if this was a signal that the Ministry was deemed unimportant, there was a grave danger.

Ms Irani turned out to be an unmitigated disaster nonetheless. She tried to bring a fresh perspective to education, but of wrong kind. Instead of seeking to restore autonomy, she worked under the assumption that the education sector is under the influence of 'wrong kind of politics', and sought to spread the 'right kind of politics'. Instead of seeking to create a more global open and responsive system, she looked to 'indianise' the system, discouraging connections, exchanges and research collaborations, and creating, as an example, government-sponsored ranking system of educational institutions. Her ministry energetically meddled in key appointments, tried to control the student politics and peddled an ideology as a policy. At best indifferent, her legacy, though short, would bear negative consequences for India far into future.

It is not without reason, therefore, that the recent Cabinet reshuffle, which unceremoniously moved her to a less important Textiles Ministry, has been dubbed by some as 'the biggest reform in Indian Education, ever'.

This is an experimentation that indeed failed. In a country like India, where 25 million turn 25 every year, not going forward is going backwards. There is no comfort in stagnation in a country where three-quarters of the jobs are being threatened by automation of global value chains. The biggest risk, though, is to see the failure of an experiment as the failure of experimentation, and to try to return to safer grounds and one or the other tried and tested formula.

Despite the fundamental shifts in the Indian and the global economy, India has not had an attempt an education policy making for thirty years, the last time being in 1986! This somewhat indicates the educational priorities of the Government. There are other indicators too: Whereas all future Prime Ministers of Malaysia had to serve as the Education Minister on their way in, Human Resource Development ministry in India is usually the way out in India, a safe abode for retiring leaders (we can only hope that Ms Irani will still have a future).

However, it is naive to celebrate the reshuffle. One can only guess but what may have cost Ms Irani her job may be her incompetence in managing the public opinion, particularly in the wake of the New Education Policy, now in the works. This is likely to be a fundamental restatement of the Government's educational approach, including a greater role for private sector and perhaps a clearer definition of how international universities can operate in India. However, newspapers reported a very public friction between Ms Irani and the committee drafting the recommendations, and Ms Irani was on unsure grounds when, against the wishes of the drafting committee, chose not to make the recommendations public. Her excuse, that the Government wishes to have recommendations from the State governments before making anything public, was weak, as the drafting committee would have consulted the state governments already. This also demonstrated what is really wrong with Indian policy making - that the general public is usually excluded from it. However, Ms Irani's folly was not to exclude the public, as most of the Government, past and present, operates similarly, but to end up causing a flutter, and the choice of her successor, an ever smiling and discreet Prakash Javadekar, may indicate what she was deemed to have done wrong.

So, with this episode behind us, all eyes are now on the New Education Policy, due later this year or early next year. The point of Ms Irani's existence was to deliver a nationalist transformation of Indian Higher Education, and run an interventionist administration with an agenda. With Mr Javadekar in charge, the approach may be more nuanced now, but the ideological agenda is unlikely to recede in the background; it is likely to become more discreet, and hopefully for the Government, less controversial.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Shaping Indian Education in the Age of 'De-Globalisation'

It is important to recognise that the form and the vector of globalisation is changing. The expression 'deglobalisation' is in vogue, and provides a handy framework to explain outlier events such as the Brexit, rise of Trump and the ascendance of various politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. One way to look at it is compare it with the inflection of 1914, when, after half a century of expansion of global trade and movement of people, globalisation came to a sudden halt and went into a long decline, with the Great War, collapse of the Gold Standard and the general breakdown of the global system. This is the idea that underpin the idea of 'de-globalisation', and many claim that what we see is the beginning of a long process, one that would end in separate countries pursuing policies aimed at national prosperity rather than global connectivity and commerce.

However, this view, and the coining of the expression, betray a kind of historical determinism that we have known to be false, as well as a view centred on the West, which we should have left behind many years ago. The trajectory in the emerging countries is not towards less globalisation, but more. Countries such as China and India, which reaped huge benefits by being integrated to the global value chain, do not want its demise. Besides, the global monetary system, as it exists right now, has effectively created an unrestrained global flow of capital. Britain may have voted for Brexit, but it is still very much welcoming to the citizens of the developing world who stash their wealth in British Real Estate, even if that makes housing unaffordable for its own people. Americans may choose Trump, but even in his infitite wisdom, he would want the rest of the world to keep buying American bonds. And, even if we look at Culture and claim that there is a resurgence of national preferences, we know that there is, in equal measure, a convergence of consumer aspirations, a desire for global identities, tastes, brands and levels of service.

The point, therefore, is to acknowledge that while the shape of the global economy is changing, it is simply not going back in time. The 'de-globalisation' may indeed be experienced in some sectors - the offshore manufacturing may decline with the rise of AI and basic programming jobs may not be as plentiful - but we may not be going back to the closed national systems and autarkies, and global competition is here to stay. Here, we may be looking at a combination of open capital and consumer markets with shorter value chains and more on-demand production, something very unlike what we have seen since 1990s. Instead of history repeating itself, this is likely to be the start of a new historical trend - reversal of the global supply chain but a new world of opportunity for hearts and minds of the global consumer.

It is, in this context, one should think about education. The wave of globalisation of production influenced work and learning in its wake, particularly in countries like India, where the economic activities were transformed by the opportunities and massive influx of process-based and technical jobs. This changed everything, including a shift of perspective from the 90s, when the growing population was seen as a burden, to the talk of 'demographic dividend', population as strength. The new jobs shaped a mass Higher Education system designed for it, crowding out the alternative possibilities and pathways. Despite its pecularities, underfunding and inefficient regulation, the Indian Education system has served its Offshoring industry well, supplying it with thousands of workers uniquely minded to do the routine jobs. That massive infrastructure, with the inflection of globalisation, is suddenly now exposed - it does indeed feel like 'de-globalisation' as jobs are drying up out there - and a new approach is urgently needed to create an education system fit for the emergent new world of jobs.

Surely, thinking in education often changes slowly. In India, despite the close linkage between the expansion of technical jobs and expansion of Engineering seats, the Education sector is not particularly exposed to the labour market trends. One major reason for this is the long tradition of teaching for process jobs in Indian Education: The Education system introduced by the British Raj in the mid-Nineteenth century was meant to create the clerks who will do the grunt work of the empire, a tradition that successfully continued over many generations. This Victorian origin, and the technocratic emphasis that came with the Independence, built a system focused on processes, tasked to prepare students for jobs, but not to sync with changing labour markets and the universe of realtionship-based jobs. And, as the reality knocks, the instinctive reaction is a flight to the past, conversations about facile changes from teaching in English to teaching in vernacular, more skills such as presentation, more technical education - metaphorically, a massive sprucing up of the decks of the Titanic just when the bottoms are falling off!

Depending on which set of figures one believes in, 50% to 70% of the jobs in India, created by the new globalised economy, are at risk. The new Government, elected with the mandate of bringing global manufacturing into India, is a prisoner of its pledge: Its slick marketing of 'Make in India' is out of step with global shifts, and hence, 'de-globalisation', for them, is a handy and vaible political excuse. In any case, with 69,000 people reaching the age of 25 every day, this is a potent destabilising factor, and such pressures should, at least in some quarters of the education community, trigger a rethink.

From that more pragmatic corner, the challenges seem huge but not insurmountable, and not unlike the ones other nations face. Globalisation is shifting from one of production lines to one of consumer aspirations, and next generation of Indian students should learn to win the hearts and minds of the global consumer, including their own. It is now about entrepreneurship, imagination, creativity, realtionships - of bold aspirations to reshape the world rather than merely knowing one's place in it and profiting from it. The starting point in this path is aspiration, one that transforms the mediocre 'Make in India' slogan to a "Made In India' vision, as such globally competitive aspirations will soon be the only game in town.

Unfortunately, much of the recent thinking in Indian Education focuses simply on doing more technology and more skills, being hopelessly caught in the paradigm of the world of 'knowledge workers'. The shift to the world of 'relationship workers', of entrepreneurs and innovators, demand a renewal of basic sciences, greater emphasis on research in all disciplines, greater cultural and social awareness and a reformed technical education system making it wholesome and involved with life.

In all this, the central point will be a timely recognition that the global system is changing, but there is no running away from globalisation. The incidents of last few days, Brexit, attacks in Dhaka and Istanbul (even if one considers Baghdad as a part of an ongoing battle), are not signs of a roll-back of globalisation, but its transformed nature - and indeed, the urgency of being global, because the negative forces will be! The legacy of Victorian Education that underpin education systems, particularly in countries like India, needs a root-and-branch rethink, not because globalisation is over but because it has now matured and stopped being an automatic job-generator. However, in this brave new world, the idea that the educated would inherit the earth still holds; it is only more true now.


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