Monday, July 26, 2010

Jana Gana Mana: India's National Anthem

Glory to you, the ruler of our consciousness,
You, the dispenser of India's destiny!

Punjab, Sind, Gujrat, Maratha,
The Dravidian Plains,
Utkal and Bengal,
The mountains of Vindhya and Himalaya,
The waters of Jamuna and the Ganges,
The dancing waves of the ocean,
Rise up chanting your name,
Pray for your blessings,
And sing your glory.

You, the gracious Lord, our keeper,
The dispenser of India's destiny,
Victory, victory, victory to thee.

You invite everyone, with open arms,
Hindus, Budhdhists, Sikhs, Jains,
Persians, Muslims and Christians;

East and West come together
And script a new unity
In front of your throne.

The unifier of all, the dispenser of India's destiny,
Glory, glory, glory to thee.

Our endless journey,
Through decline, fall, ascendancy, and difficulties,
Steered through by you, you Charioteer!

Your clarion call
Led us through the revolution,
You reliever of all.

You, the guide of all,
The dispenser of India's destiny,
Victory, victory, victory to thee.

As we slept, ill and unaware,
Through the dark night of Fear and Nightmare,
You stood by us,
Unwavering in your blessing, you untired!

Your unblinking eyes,
Protect us in our sorrow,
You the loving mother!

The protector of all, you,
The dispenser of India's destiny,
Glory, glory, glory to thee.

As the night ends and the Sun rises in the East,
Birds sing and the air brings the smell of fresh life,
India awakens to your subtle tune.

We salute you
We give ourselves to you,
Oh Lord of Lords, the Lord of India,
Victory, victory, victory to thee.

Note: I tried a translation before when writing about Tagore and then some of the readers wanted a more consistent one. So, here it is.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Future for Kolkata

There is no other city like Kolkata for me: It is Home. The only city where I don't have to find a reason to go to, or to love. It is one city hardwired into my identity, and despite being away for a decade, that refuses to go away.

People stay away from their homeland for a variety of reasons. But, as I have come to feel, no one can be completely happy to be away. One may find fame or fortune, love and learning, in another land, but they always live an incomplete life. They bring home broken bits of their homeland into their awkward daily existence, a cushion somewhere, a broken conversation in mother tongue some other time, always rediscovering the land they left behind for that brief moment of wanting to be themselves.

The cruelest punishment, therefore, for a man who lives abroad is when his love for his land is denied. It is indeed often denied, because the pursuit of work, knowledge or love seemed to have gotten priority over the attraction of the land. This is particularly true in India: The diaspora Indians are mostly reviled, because they left, by those who stayed, for one reason or other, and enjoyed the return to prosperity. But, that's harsh - because people leave for a variety of reasons, and no one leaves the land where one's parents have lived and died. A procedural exclusion is possible, but unreasonable and inhuman indeed.

So, without apologies, I talk about Kolkata. Without being ashamed or hesitant, this remains my home and always will be. I travelled to know the world, and I have been away for a decade. Many things have changed: My life situation, the things I believe in, the values I cherish and the things I love, but regardless, Kolkata remained at the centre of my identity. It is a place I wish to go back, and that return, and that alone, can complete my journey.

I have always been an idealist, a bit romantic. Earlier, I used to be ashamed about my flights of idealism; no longer, because I have realized that the idealism is a central ingredient of being human. It is that dream that keeps me alive, not content and dead, but alive and wanting. It is the idealism that allows me to think of future rather than the past, and go beyond the mediocrity of my unfulfilled life and dream of world-changing accomplishments. In a way, my quixotic enterprise is my identity, but living through it, every bit is as real as someone else's selfish dreams could be.

So, with this love, this idealism, I think of Kolkata. This is not to deny its air of hopelessness and sloth, that any visitor invariably feels everywhere. Thirty years of unchanged bureaucratic rule have taken away all forms of imagination from the city. The cosy builder/politician nexus, deep politicization of police, health care and education - have helped the city into irreversible decline. While the other Indian cities have taken the bus to modernity and growth, Kolkata has been left behind. Ernest Gellner saw one of the two principal planks of the modern state to be economic growth: The city has been deprived of growth, and the sense of growth, for a long time, and now nurture a deep sense of resentment to the state apparatus altogether.

But change is coming to Kolkata. I am not entirely comfortable with the shape of the change, because I see chaos. I, like others who love Kolkata, see hoodlums being replaced by a new set of hoodlums, one corrupt police officer replacing another, one inept school teacher getting upper hand on another inept colleague. But, at this point, I am possibly unduly pessimistic. Change often happen through chaos, a root-and-branch shake-up of layers which gathered over many years. This, possibly, the nature of any change.

So, just ahead of this inevitable mindlessness, we should gather strength and dream one last time. It is important that we return the imagination to Kolkata, because doing what has been done in other places will never help the city make up for lost time. This is where we saw the current government losing the plot: Pressured by the responsibility to provide economic growth and opportunity, they pursued what some of India's southern states have done, tried to attract large IT employers by providing out-of-turn incentives to set up shop in Kolkata. Some of it has been successful, but yet, it did not feel like growth.

This is the problem statement: Kolkata is so deep into hopelessness, that it will require a sort of great leap to restore its sense of identity. Yes, that 'great leap' bit was a deliberate play - we don't need the disastrous social engineering that Mao tried and failed - but nonetheless we need new ideas and new ways of thinking to make Kolkata count, in India and in the wider world.

I hope a conversation will start soon, involving people from Kolkata and of Kolkata, and others who have loved the city and admired its spirit. Hopefully, some of these will be knitted together in an organized effort - something like a Concern for Kolkata - and people will join in to make the endeavour meaningful. I also hope that this will be able to rise above the self-centeredness and egoticism that invariably mars such enterprises, and some of the words and ideas will be translated into action. As I mentioned, I am an optimist, and there is never a wrong time to do the right thing: We must now seek a future for Kolkata or be condemned in long decline and darkness.

Here are my ideas about a future for Kolkata:

I see Kolkata to be a truly global city, with respect for diversity and commitment to harmony; we would have none of the narrow provincialism and fundamentalism that mar India's other great cities: We must all be proud, to be from Kolkata, and accept and propagate openness and acceptance of others as our key values.

I see Kolkata to be India's bridge to Asia. I think it is one of the great follies of modern India to drift away from its Asian-ness, to undermine its deep ties with the great Eastern civilizations and neighbours, and seek, instead, a cocky individualism and materialism inherited from our colonial masters. I see a conscious rejuvenation of cultural and economic ties with Asian nations starting in Kolkata, with institutions offering courses on Asian cultures, people exchanges and businesses expanding eastwards, facilitated by increased transport links.

I see Kolkata to become a great centre to creative industries in India, in Asia; again, I see an expansion of educational opportunities, incentive-driven expansion of commerce in culture industries, and community-based activities which will expand the horizons of the office-bound Bengali middle class.

I see freedom to return to Kolkata without fear of persecution. This will indeed start with de-politicization of education, police and hospitals, and will need constant vigil by each individual citizen. We are closer to this than it feels; people are disgusted with the corruption and ineptness in every corner of the public sphere.

Finally, I see governance coming close to people in Kolkata. Like rest of India, the problem in Kolkata is that while politics have entered family homes, the government remained as far as ever. It can be said that the modern Indian government is farther from its people, and more insensitive to their feelings than the British Raj. And, nowhere this distance is hurting more than in Kolkata; and since this has to start from somewhere, before the whole country implodes into a civil war, this may as well start in Kolkata.

If this sounds all too Utopian, this is what it should have been. A government close to people, was that not we were trying for last three decades, but ended up degenerating everything into political dogmatism and factions? The linkage to Asia is as close as it gets in Bengal - the ports in Southern Bengal launched the ships of commerce to Java and elsewhere in South-East Asia many centuries ago. The Bengali creativity, conveniently protected by distance from the Indian heartlands of Hindu and later Muslim dominance, prospered with the air of non-conformity and inventiveness. We have indeed forgotten the spirit, but the forgetfulness is only recent and hopefully could be overturned.

All of this can happen, but will not happen without Education, Community and Public Action. The 'intellectuals' of Kolkata have manifestly failed, over years, to provide leadership and contribute in public action: Their rare gestures were self interested, egoistic and disconnected from the aspirations of the proverbial people on the street. It is time for a new generation, people in Kolkata and outside, people in business, education and government, to seize the initiative. We all can do our bits to change, indeed, create a future for Kolkata: Let us not fail yet again, like the generation before us, to make a difference.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

On 'Breaking Out'

Most of my life, I worked for SMEs. For those entities which is below the radar of business press, but still employ most of the people [more than 80% of all workers in Britain] and generate most of the output. I know it is a broad range, which include self-employed accountants as well as mid-sized companies with 150 employees, but they are the real movers-and-shakers of an economy. Besides, it is also true that most large companies were SMEs when they started; those which were not, were usually public corporations which got sold out.

The problem is that SMEs don't think much. That's so counter-intuitive; the SME mythology, as spun out in the Silicon Valley lore, SMEs should be full of ideas. They are the new world: The anti-thesis of big bad industrial companies. However, the truth is quite the opposite. Some SMEs are plain oppressive. They are more 'fordist' than anyone else. The environment is often akin to boiler room than start-up utopia. The SMEs often seem chained to ONE idea, their founding one, no matter what changes in the world. Instead of being innovative, most of the time the environment is uncritical, based on anecdotes and received wisdom and the strategy is driven by 7 O'clock news and morning tabloids, but not much else.

This is particularly critical for medium size organizations, which has grown out of its initial core and face an increasingly complex business context. This is a life-and-death question for some SMEs, those in businesses where scale matters. In some businesses more than others, scale makes a difference: You can't just afford to remain small in those sectors. This is where the unavoidable pull of bigness invades the insular SME agenda. The problem is, even then, SMEs can't escape their foundational constraints; they become bigger, but still don't think. It is like a downs syndrome baby, they never grow up; what was great at the start-up stage, soon becomes ugly and out of place.

Indeed, there is this concept of break out which I learnt from Dr David Crick, my dissertation supervisor in Birmingham City University. David's work was primarily on SMEs, with a particular focus on Asian entrepreneurs. His thesis was that the minority-owned businesses usually grow in their own ethnic environments till a certain point; then, some of them break out and compete in the open, multi-ethnic market. These are the break-out successes we see in the newspaper or TV and their owners get the peerage. People like Lord Karan Bilimoria or Sir Ghulam Noon belong to this category. Countless others stay small and keep operating in their original market, like my corner shop owner and the owner of the brilliant Indian takeaway or the cab company on the neighbourhood high street - they never bother about scaling up or breaking out.

However, there are companies which are in industries which demand scale, education is one, manufacturing can be another; in these industries, benefits of scale are all too obvious. You end up competing face to face with larger companies. The contracts you sign require financial strength. Smarter people work with you if you get bigger and afford to pay their salaries and offer them security. The good companies in these sector invariably grow with time and reach the break-out period, and whether or not they can break out, often becomes critical for their ongoing survival.

Break out becomes important for survival because at this threshold level, most companies are often too big to survive on their original, narrow, customer base. This is the twilight zone of corporate size, where you are not big enough to break out nor small enough to maintain close customer contacts and offer employees that unrestricted access and freedom. I am not just talking about David's research sample here: This is more or less true for most companies I know, whether minority owned or not. So, not breaking out is not a choice here: Unless the company works on a niche or inextricably local, every company grows to reach its size of incompetence, a point where it must reinvent itself and be ready for a wider market, or degenerate into a rumbling mess, either within the lifespan of its founder or shortly after it.

Being in smaller companies, I have been endlessly engaged in these debates and learnt a lot from them. I have seen that very few companies want to remain small consciously, but those who do are usually driven by deep values and passions of the founder and usually do well in meeting their original objectives [not necessarily in terms of financial profit, but in terms of satisfaction of the owner and those around him]. Most others want to be bigger, but get stalled by either of three factors: Let's call them the fear of loss of control, the difficulty with perspective and the loyalty trap.

The fear of loss of control is the most rational of these problems. Most people who opt to stay small consciously do so for this reason. The ones which want to be big - either for market reasons or personal ambitions - get stalled because the founder often can't let go.

The lack of perspective is very real in an SME environment, particularly inside a growing one. The environment is often frantic and the resources short. So, the whole work culture is here and now, without any opportunity to stop and think. Indeed, I have seen SMEs which sincerely believe that talk is cheap and action is what is needed. It is not far from reality in the SME environment, but this becomes a big problem as the company reaches the break out stage. The thinking becomes critical, the perspective crucial to be able to move forward.

The loyalty trap is again one of the good things of the SME environment which comes on its way at the break-out stage. The small enterprise is all about loyalties, to a particular set of customers, a small community and above all, to a set of employees. These are all good things, key values that sustain a small enterprise. But, when the context changes, these things need to be redefined; not set aside, redefined. But since, in most cases, these are not a set of strategies but personal relationships, mostly with and by the founder, they are less transitory in nature.

Considering all these, the key to success in an SME environment, while it is small but as crucially when it reaches the breakout stage, is LEADERSHIP, the sense of purpose in the leading man/woman and the commitment to the business. In all cases, where the business is driven by a deep sense of purpose and a commitment to the objectives of the business [which isn't, and can't be, making money], the question is relatively straightforward. I have noticed that these people who knew what the business is about and what they want to do never failed to decide whether to remain small, or, in other cases, whether to scale up effectively, build a new set of relationships and let go off some of the details they have handled for long enough to know it by heart.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

White Men's Leftover: The Legacy of Imperial Britain

I have been following an interesting debate on the Amazon site on the legacy of British imperialism. The discussion was dominated by the arguments of 'benign empire', the deeply nationalist feeling that the British stood for freedom and fought Hitler, and that it liberated many societies which have gone a step backward since the British left. As an Indian living in Britain and conducting most of my work and life in the English language, this debate is deeply relevant to me: Hence, I comment.

The starting point here is that history is inevitable because it happened. One can indulge in what-if fantasies but they have no practical relevance. So, British empire is a fact one can't deny, and there is no point mulling over whether India, the country I come from, would have been better or worse off without the empire.

At the same time, it is worth mentioning that history is usually a complex and discreet process. While 'creating history' is a popular expression, it is usually not created consciously or in a moment, though it may appear to have happened in that way with the benefit of hindsight. So, while talking about empire now may make it seem like a grand design or a great conspiracy, it was usually not so during the time it happened. The course of empire, now captured as a neat sequence in history books, was always far more chaotic, a sequence of unrelated actions and decisions made by people without regard to 'legacy'.

Let me stop and illustrate this point for a moment. Let's talk about Churchill, the last great hero of the empire. Looking at him today, we know that he was deeply conscious of his legacy. However, it was legacy in his own terms. By today's standard, he was a bigoted anti-Semitic racist bully, but none of these value judgements existed at the time of his actions, and definitely not at the time of his formative experiences. Most of his political life, he was seen as a mediocre politician with erratic views, destined to have a backbench career in a democracy increasingly dominated by the middle classes: But history presented an opportunity and Britain needed all his chivalrous energy to withstand the Nazi onslaught, giving him his moment of glory and his legacy.

Niall Ferguson argues that the end of empires are usually chaotic and unpredictable; the formation and existence of them are even more so.

So, there is little logic in the greatness of the British nation and its high moral purpose: It is as phony as the corporate mission statements invented post facto. One lesson in human history is that actors, almost always, act expediently rather than morally, and morality is usually an argument invented later. So, the trail of nonsense from white men's burden to fight for freedom may have its purpose, but has nothing to do with the high moral ground it claims.

For the nations which Britain ruled, the value judgements are more difficult to make and the question of whether these would have been worse off without the imperial intervention invariably crops up. But, in a way, that is a pointless question: As experiences post-imperialism has shown, the rule of domestic elite can be as oppressive as the imperial masters. Framed in context, the question is whether a society is better off with freedom or without it, whether one should give up freedom for progress, at least for a little while. In this regard, the debate is not settled yet: conservative argument in the post-war age suddenly discovered the love of freedom over progress.

But, in a way, it should never be so. As post-imperialism experiences of countries have shown, the lasting legacy of imperialism is to steal the ability of critical thinking from the societies by endowing it with a lasting legacy of division and technocracy. People like me is possibly materially better off by learning English and computers and by being able to participate in the affairs of world commerce; but at the same time, this comes at a cost of disenfranchisement and exclusion of many citizens from my home country's political process, which is invariably dominated by a small political elite created as a direct consequence of imperialism.

So, imperialism may have made the world flatter, but that flatness may be somewhat vertical - a steep slope as seen from most vantage points. Notwithstanding its rhetoric of convenience, it may indeed have promoted the primacy of material progress over 'freedom', as in being one's own people. However, as time goes, the shortcomings of imperial legacy become clearer: It is degenerative not to be able to think critically. The societies touched by imperialism have stalled, and have degenerated into technocratic mediocrity.

But, then, this may not happen. Indeed, it will not happen. No matter what the economic or cultural incentives are, there will always be people who would defy the trends and think critically, do exceptional things and dream of a better society.

Imperial armies and ideologies were powerful, but not powerful enough to deprive us of our humanity.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Why Globalize Education?

I am back in my usual reflective mood and enjoying it.

I was in action mode for last few weeks, which allowed me to achieve quite a bit, but this caused a sort of writing block too. Indeed, this is what I wished for - something worthwhile to do. All my stated wishes, hands-on exposure, opportunity to work on an assortment of various little projects [so that I am never bored], regular life, and a piece of action in global higher education, have all been granted: But, strangely, this has taken away my ability to write. Much to the relief of my sister, I admit, but I struggled with thoughts and words every morning. It was not comforting: The thoughts seem all too fragmented and words so ungenerous that they would not come together in a sentence. I felt laden with ideas, but all clotted up in a pre-migraine kaleidoscope of visions, not making any sense whatsoever.

However, a visit unlocked all this, and as I expected, it started with a question. I spent the day in Oxford, attending a session in Oxford Brookes University training up to be a mentor for a Bachelors programme for ACCA students. The city, the old buildings, the casual atmosphere of an university town, the sense of history, gets into one's skin the moment you set foot, though, admittedly, there was none of that in the actual, relatively modern, classroom we sat in a rather faraway village of Wheatley. In fact, the campus was useful - to put things in perspective, compare and contrast, the modernity and the tradition, the professionalism and managerialism in education and the casual colloquy of intellectual life, the industry of education and the education industry.

So, this gave me the leading question that I needed - isn't all education inherently local and is it desirable, if indeed possible, to globalize education? Indeed, in this context, I am talking about 'education' as in educational institution, particularly the universities, rather than the general idea of education, which is inherently borderless.

I know this is a dumb question, counter-intuitive and all that. Dated, even, because the accepted wisdom is that everything should be - must be - globalized. The question is also undeniably linked to some fundamental definitions and understanding of the nature of universities. It is equally possible to say the concept of university education is fundamentally global, to be a man in the society, and in the context of interconnectedness, to be a man in the world. In other ways too, we all know people who earned summa cum laude in the university of hard knocks, and education for them is a contingent reality rather than the slow and situated experience in Oxford.

However, here is a contra point: We are somewhat enveloped by our surroundings, and our thoughts and enquiries are guided by them. And, those experiences are local, situated in the physical realities of the existence, rather than global, which exists in the realm of concepts. The flatness of the world, as experienced in the stand-out billboards carrying global brand names, adds a dimension to our experience but may not fundamentally alter who we are and what we think. And, if we consider education either as a way of being ourselves, or as a person of the society, the local contexts override the feeling of globality. As it will do, inside a classroom, the teacher and his sense of [or lack of] humour, the other learners and the collaborative context - that's what counts as the education experience. The label does not matter at this level.

So, back to my favourite subject - Oxford in Lavasa, or whatever - what horror! That indeed is narrowing down the university as a sort of a production process, which can be carried around, exported and imported, and if so, presumably can be consumed. It will be interesting to ask questions like whether an University of Lavasa will be better in Lavasa.

Too many businessmen, and there is a surplus of them in the education sector these days, see universities as buildings and a collection of eccentric people who do not understand business. I spoke about the reductive power of money in the context of immigrant experience, and it is equally true for education: Oxford as a label can indeed be stuck on a set of oddly designed buildings in Lavasa and that may indeed drive the property value upwards. But that does nothing to transpose the educational experience: To be fair, it creates a different experience which is best taken as it is.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Somewhere Down The Road

I am on my journey, as reported, to understand the business of private education. It is not new for me - I have already seen the downside and this is why I sometimes sound full of foreboding. However, I have also come to realize that for-profit performs an important role - that of expanding access - more important than ever in helping the rising middle class in the newly industrialised countries.

There is a bit of a paradox here. Isn't public education all about expanding access? Yes, most of the publicly funded institutions abandoned their roles or failed to do it miserably. The scarcity of resources has either led to poor quality education in public institutions or an elitism, and in most cases, both. The commonest thing in the education sector is an University which pretends to be Harvard but dish out poor quality teaching and research, and suffer from a deep 'we know best' attitude and gets pushed backwards every day.

Private education solves some of the problems. One good thing is that elitism, at least the unjust ones, is difficult to maintain in private education, especially as the regulatory hurdles are being dismantled and the field is being opened up for competition. Competition also makes education affordable. We are on the reverse gear as far as universal education is concerned, and in many places, policy makers have concluded universal access to education does not help and rather hinder the quality of education. Private education providers often fill a gap, particularly in adult and tertiary education, by creating education packages which a cross-section of the population can afford.

However, private education indeed has its share of problems. Like any business, the providers are continually seeking to maximize profits and this leads to some very questionable practices. The debate in America is currently centred around student loans and some very bad quality degrees handed out to students, sinking them in the hopelessness of unemployment doubled up by the burden of student loans. In Britain, where such practices are rare, other problems persist. The very questionable practice of British universities of charging overseas students a premium and dishing out a part of the extra fee to 'agents', individuals or businesses which help them get the students, have been taken to its extreme by some private colleges. Some agents have become, by extension, human traffickers, luring students with a promise of a post-study visa and helping them to explore the possibilities of jumping the visa and pursue illegal work instead.

The colleges are indeed party in the crime and despite multiple expose, visa colleges continue to persist in Britain. The British Home Office is apparently clueless how to deal with the problem, adopting a micro-level case by case scrutiny, which is ineffective and costly. In the absence of a systemic solution, for example, tweaking the post-study visa programme in favour of more skilled areas, or providing the good private education providers financial incentives to focus on the quality of education rather than the numbers of students imported, the private education industry as a whole has suffered and quality deteriorated. Being inside a college myself, I can see how difficult it is to live with the micro-managed immigration regime, and at the same time, compete in a marketplace dominated by questionable recruitment linkages and practices.

So, the view from the road is centering around one question - how to create access and affordability combined with quality and success. It needs some clever strategic work, but that's not all: It is also about rediscovering the core values of education in the context of a cut-throat marketplace. Education in the age of Bazaar, so to say. However, this is not about criticising the notion of private education, but to accept the realities as they are and try to find a model that works. Quality is a relative concept, and the current disregard for 'quality' in the field in favour of expanding access is endemic; however, a balance must be stuck because otherwise access to poor quality education will do more harm than good, as it is already doing in America.

That, in summary, is the state of my intellectual enquiry. It is interesting, and though I realize that I have gone through this access versus quality debate many times over in my work life, the current exposure is allowing me a fresh new look at the issues with some power to make a difference.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Question of Return

This is the eternal question in an immigrant's life. In fact, in all lives, perhaps, because living is always about moving forward, and being alive is about feeling attached. In fact, this is the unending see-saw, call it dialectics if you are intellectually inclined, which passes off as life. But while return is metaphorical in some contexts, for an immigrant, it is omnipresent, an issue which returns every weekend, every festival, with every bits of good and bad news from home. Return is what one waits for, or, one lives in denial of. So, either, it is 'I wish I could' or 'I must, one day', that sum up the immigrant experience.

That way, we all return. Some make the journey, but most bring home broken bits of their homeland. Just as our adult lives are about playing out the questions and emotions that we learnt in childhood, the return of the latter kind is about stocking up India, Pakistan, Africa or Poland, or whichever land one has come from, and carving out a little space and a little time for the homeland. It is the same two minutes of Bengali talk that I shall do with Dr. I, a colleague from Commilla who speaks the same language as I, and the weekend that I shall spend in South London 'Puja' - that's my way of return. Everyone has their own, indeed.

Couple of years ago, I excitedly wrote about reverse migration, after reading a Businessweek story how intelligent and enterprising Indians and the Chinese are heading home in the wake of the recession. Immediately afterwards, I was awakened by the angry discussion on forums about how the returnees are stealing 'Indian Jobs': The strain was recognizable, we just heard then British Prime Minister talk about 'British Jobs for British Workers'. Economics and Nationalism were in conflict, as ever.

That brought up an interesting point - the love of one's country. Admittedly, the return of the migrants were all about economics. There was no love of land there, or, there should not be, as angry commentators in India were proclaiming. The view at this end were as confused as ever. 'I love the money, and as long as it is in India, I love India', an investment banker told me. It seems though, either way, it did not matter. One stays because one has to, and one goes back because it is better there. Nationalism is dated, and is fading away: indeed. But, it goes even a step further, whether identities matter any more.

The immigrant feeling is that they do. It is not a matter of wanting: It is something that gets thrust on you. I recall one staff meeting when a Senior Manager of the company I worked for then refused to sit next to me. I was offended and brought it to the notice of the owners; they tried to explain it away saying that he was angry because I make more money than him, but my business unit did not make profits. Two identities were thrust on me at the same time - of what my skin colour is and the fact I was expected to be stupid, at least act stupid. This, of course, happens every day - explicitly or implicitly - in an immigrant life. However much you want to believe in the post-modern conception of identity that you make it up as you go along, but certain things invariably sticks.

It sure should not, in theory. Not just because of globalization, which certainly seems like made up. But because money is everything and as long as one can follow the money, no identity troubles should arise. In the wonderfully reductive way of money, we can measure skills, loyalty, work, achievement, being and nothingness: In that alternate world of money, identities are surely transitory and return is meaningless. This is why those proposing the question of return look like a sissy, and for those on the other end, those who never left, the proposition is surreal.

But, in the grubby world of immigrant life, in the eternal cycle of births and deaths, CONTEXT refuses to die a quiet death. Information does not seem to want to be free, identities are no more transitory than it ever was, and for all the talk, my skin colour and my memories refuse to leave me. Not even when I am not wanted back. Not even it makes no difference to anyone. The question of return is about remaining myself.

Once I get that, I get this whole promise-of-return thing. Sometimes, generations live with the promise. On the hope of return, some day. Even in today's world of bits, the roots only grow in the soil; the rest are all vacuous, which does not take hold. I, therefore, endure the ridicule but keep the question of return alive; in a world of wastelands, that is my only link to sanity.

My Take on Education: What Changed?

I am engaged in the business of learning, literally. I don’t teach. I am engaged in managing a for-profit education enterprise. The focus of the business is on developing leaders, who, as I usually proclaim, are a special type of people different from ‘managers’ and in short supply, in communities and inside companies.

My special skill is in creating business models and partnerships to take training programmes globally. I enjoy the work and always felt a certain sense of mission in doing what I did. Starting my career in India, where the business I worked for offered IT Training to inner city graduates, this was easy: I saw a lot of lives ‘transformed’ for real. I used the experience in the international training market, first in South East Asia, and then in Eastern Europe and Middle East, over last ten years. I dealt with various learning programmes and varied customers along the way. I gradually became confident of what I did, though I never ever taught myself.

Practice invariably develops a theory, and I had mine: Something I needed to justify the decisions I took, accepted my own bias uncritically and made business sense. Like, my university degree made little difference in my life, and hence, I concluded that university style teaching does not help much. I concluded learning that really matter is the one allows people to change their circumstances, like IT training did for me. To me, a worthwhile exercise of teaching was about teaching ‘marketable’ skills and leading students to ‘recognized’ diplomas and degrees.

So, when I attempted to set up a learning business of my own, with support and encouragement from a few wealthy individuals, I set out to establish a World Campus: A distributed, technology enabled facility, which offered standardized tuition on various business and technical subjects, leading to recognized, mostly British, awards. The idea was to set up a network of partnerships in various countries, with colleges with real buildings and people, which will support and advice the students; but, learning, primarily, will happen over the Internet, in virtual groups.

As a preparation to this venture, I did several things. I put a notice to my employers, giving them a reasonable time to find my replacement. I refreshed my IT skills, which became rusty after years of disuse. And, almost out of freak interest, I enrolled in a course on Adult Learning.

This last bit – learning consciously about adult learning – has quite a transformational effect on my thinking, which I shall summarize here. In fact, it has changed my approach to my professional practice in a number of ways. Part of this came from my own commitment to try to understand various theories of adult learning, which exposed the limitations of the one I had myself. However, a lot of this fresh perspective also came from interacting with people who actually teach. Some of this learning was anecdotal, but in the context of the literature I was exploring at the same time, this opened up alternative possibilities of looking at my own professional practice. There were many strands of thought, but I shall only talk about three main ones:

First, I started to appreciate the role of the teacher somewhat. In my scheme of things, which was built on years of experience of trying to deliver standardized learning experiences over multiple locations [thus building education ‘brands’], the teacher was an unnecessary distraction. It is s/he who usually upset the formulaic scheme of things, which I could control; often, my professional struggles were struggles for control – between the classroom driven by teacher’s personality and the idealized, impersonal ‘branded’ classroom of standardized learning experience. I usually wanted to leave the teacher as little space as I could, reducing him/her to mere administrators of learning, handing out course notes and filtering out ‘noise’. My theory – justification – behind doing so was that the learners demanded what was written on ‘the tin’, the marketing brochure that was written by the expensive advertising agency I spent money on.

My reflections based on literature and conversations with practising teachers opened up an alternative way thinking: Should learning be viewed as impersonal acquisition of competence, or a way to be ‘a person in the society’[Jarvis, 2009]? Also, since our understanding of learning is still so limited, is it possible to reduce the business of learning into structured steps, however well designed, because the learning style of students [Kolb, 1984; Honey, 1994] could not be ignored for the sake of political correctness. However much I disliked the ‘human’ intervention of the teacher in the uncorrupted bliss of technology-based training, I have come to appreciate the role s/he plays: An understanding further enhanced by the discussion of Social Life of Information [Brown and Duguid, 2000] and the importance of personal and social context of knowledge, which is enhanced by the social participation in the classroom.

Secondly, my simple scheme of skills training and certification, leading to ‘transformation’, stood exposed with a greater understanding of what education attempts to do. The idea of critical thinking [Brookefield, 1987], being able to examine the ‘given’, appeared important. It was not just about the literature of critical consciousness that mattered; in the backdrop of the severe global recession, brought about by a collective cognitive failure, the mainstream economists [Rajan, 2010], popular authors [Pink, 2010] and psychologists [James, 2007] were discussing how the inherent limitations of our educational system, the focus on creating ‘clever rogues’ rather than promoting ‘legitimate peripheral participation’, lead directly to some very bad economics and policy decisions.

Finally, I learnt to reflect and use the reflections in practice. Till this point, I, like many others, took Management as a science. Though we were aware of the uncertainties inherent in the environment, we believed there existed formulaic answer to all problems. Statistical models reigned supreme, and uncertainty was, in a sense, just one factor to be measured. This not only reflected in what I did, but also in what I wanted to offer to the learners in the World Campus: A simple, memorable step-by-step exposure to how to manage.

I was not alone, most business school teaching is indeed based on such formulation. In 1962, Chris Argyris predicted moving from management development programmes that teach managers how they ought to think and behave to programmes, which help managers to learn from experience (Honey, 1994). But, the practice still lagged behind.

Again, conversation and engagement with academic and professional literature, such as Donald Schon’s Educating The Reflective Practitioner (1990); Henry Mintzberg’s Managing (2009) and subsequent interview in Strategy & Business (March 15th, 2010) opened my eyes to an obvious truth: Management is a practice, not science. We do not know most answers, but that does not matter as long as we don’t pretend to know and actively seek to find.

So, in summary, my professional practice has changed. I have a much greater appreciation of the social nature of learning and the role that the teacher in particular and the classroom in general plays. My World Campus is no longer an impersonal technology-driven entity, but a technology facilitated global community where real teachers and real students work side by side. I have consciously moved away from the simplified formulaic offerings of MBA and other such degrees, but started exploring various peripheral possibilities instead. And, finally, I have embraced reflection as a core attribute of managerial practice, and accepted that being open to learning is the best way to deal with a confusing, fast changing world.


Brookfield, S. (1987), Developing Critical Thinkers, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brown, J.S. and Duguid, P. (2000) The Social Life of Information. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

Honey, P (1994), Styles of Learning, in Gower Handbook of Management Development, Edited by Alan Mumford. Vermont, USA: Gower.

James, O. (2007) Affluenza, London: Vermillion.

Jarvis, P (2009) ‘Learning to be a person in the society’, in Contemporary Theories of Learning, edited by Knud Illeris, pp 21 – 34, Oxon: Routledge.

Kolb, D (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Mintzberg, H. (2009) Managing. London: Financial Times/ Prentice Hall.

Mintzberg, H. (2010), Management By Reflection: An Interview by Art Kleiner, Strategy+Business. Available on

Pink, D (2010) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Canongate Books.

Rajan, R (2010) Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten The Global Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Schon, D (1990) Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Why Business Education Must Change

Management education, from its modest beginnings, has come a long way. Its growth has largely coincided with the growth and prominence of large corporations in the United States and Europe, particularly after the end of the war. An MBA degree, from a good business school, became the ‘rites of passage’ to a good job, creating a sort of halo around those who go to a business school.

However, we are at an inflection point yet again, when things are changing. We are in the middle of a prolonged recession, the worst since the pre-war Great Depression which defined a generation and shaped human thinking deeply. If anything, this is a time when private enterprise, at least the large corporations, loses its halo of infallibility. With that, the prestige and status of business education will become severely dented.

So, what’s needed is a fundamental rethink, of business and business education. The economists are calling for it. Raghuram Rajan, formerly the Chief Economist of World Bank and now in University of Chicago, warns of the hidden dangers which can reverse the current, fragile, global economic recovery. One of the things he wants to see changed is the culture of business education [Rajan, 2010].

Such demands are not new. Practitioners such as Henry Mintzberg has been demanding a change for a long time. Mintzberg’s [Mintzberg, 2004] objections to the current credo of business education are manifold, but they centre around the practice of teaching management as a school leaving qualification. However bright the person may be, how can one be taught management if one has never managed, and therefore, does not know whether s/he has the ‘will to manage’? Mintzberg went as far as to create an alternate global programme, International Masters Programme in Practising Managers [IMPM], which brought together business schools from different countries to offer a unified, global programme for people with prior management experience.

The lack of prior management experience may hinder the effectiveness of the skills taught, but there are other, deeper problems which Mintzberg himself points out in a recent interview [Mintzberg, 2010]. Owing to its origins in sciences like Economics and Psychology, and due to the popularization of concepts like Scientific Management by FW Taylor in the early Twentieth century, there is a tendency to see Management as a science. This is why business education has become a lot about understanding set concepts and formulas, or at least ‘best practices’, which creates a mindset of infallibility. However, as Mintzberg points out, we know far less than we pretend to about management. Since the people, the subject of management, and the business environment, are both so unpredictable, almost somewhat messy, it is only fair to define management as a practice, where you generate knowledge as you go along and learn further by application. [Mintzbeg, 2009] A similar point was made by Donald Schon (schon, 1990) in his seminal work on Reflective Practice. The current events have demonstrated the limitations of the scientific approach: Uncertainty is indeed not a probability to be considered into an equation, but a hard truth of life. The scientific approach to business education often attempts to provide all answers, and therefore, come in the way of maintaining the spirit of generative enquiry.

The other key issue in business education is the narrow focus on tools and technologies of management, which strips it of its social context. Businesses primarily were, and still are, social organizations where people came together in the interest of economic activity. The fundamental social nature of business is all too evident for many commentators, including Mintzberg(2009) and Birkenshaw(2010).

However, the tool-based structure and focus of business education, not to mention the reward structures that follows completion of it, significantly undermines the social nature of business itself. After a stream of well-publicised run-ins with community and governments [latest of which is currently played out in the Gulf of Mexico by BP], there is an increased consciousness about the ‘social responsibility’ of business: Business schools now pride themselves about inclusion of subjects such as Corporate Social Responsibility and Ethics in the curriculum they teach. However, the very inclusion of those subjects help to highlight the current limbo the business education is into; the socially unconnected nature of a practice which play a large role in our society today.

So, the current attention on the state of business education, put in prominence by the current state of disrepair our economies and businesses are in, is welcome. This may start a process of lasting change, leading to a more liberal curriculum, which may have lower doses of blind self-confidence and greater humility and ability to reflect. The social situatedness of effective business education is all too obvious from the lives of successful business people. Successful businesses have already understood the maxim – the workers are paid for certain types of work, but it is the whole person comes to work: Such ideas need to percolate down to the business of business education.

Birkenshaw, J (2010) Reinventing Management. London: John Wiley & Sons.
Mintzberg, H. (2004) Managers Not MBAs. London: Financial Times/ Prentice Hall.
Mintzberg, H. (2009) Managing. London: Financial Times/ Prentice Hall.
Mintzberg, H. (2010), Management By Reflection: An Interview by Art Kleiner, Strategy+Business. Available on
Rajan, R (2010) Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten The Global Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Schon, D (1990) Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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