Wednesday, April 29, 2015

New Education Business - Scale, Access and Relevance

There are two problems in modern education - access and relevance. 

Access is an economic issue, and it is mainly a developing country issue. The developed countries mostly have access issues sorted out, through various funding mechanisms, particularly educational loans. In developing countries, however, a number of issues come in the way of access, including physical (there are no schools to go to), social (people of certain caste, class or gender are not welcome) and indeed, financial (one can not pay for school or afford to be in the school). 

Relevance, on the other hand, is a more complex issue, and afflicts developed countries as well as the developing. At one level, educational relevance is about whether the person is getting educated at all, and we know that many people come out of school/ college not being able to do even the basic tasks meant for that level of education. And, at another, related, level, education does not deliver the expected outcome, job, career, self-actualisation, whatever it may be. Relevance is a big issue in developed countries, particularly as they toiled hard to solve the problem of access. Given that the educational access was created primarily by funding with public money, and more recently with loan funds underwritten by public money, educational relevance is becoming a really hard issue.

I wrote about scale as the key objective for new educational enterprises (see Exponential Education) and the investors who look to invest in the sector. To achieve scale, an educational enterprise should try to solve both the problems of access and relevance. In one way, if the enterprise is focused on developing countries, then access may come before relevance, and in developed countries, the other way around. However, at another level, considering that education is an investment good which eventually pays for itself many times over, the two issues go hand in hand. In other words, there is no point trying to solve the access problem without consideration of relevance, and a solution solely focused on relevance is inherently about improving access, and should say so.

Admittedly, this is old news. We have already seen a surge in private education investment and these two goals were often at the forefront. However, there is one key challenge to solve. The founding assumption of many new education companies is that one can not achieve scale without solving the issue of Access AND Relevance. On the other hand, one could also argue that the quest for Access and Relevance may really constrain the scale of the enterprise.

How pursuit of access can constrain scale is easy to see. Infrastructure is costly, social attitudes are hard to change. Creating a funding structure, even a sustainable one built around loans and repayments, requires really large scale funding and is not easy to create without solving the relevance problem first. On the relevance aspect, one is usually up against the might of regulatory agencies, which are all too keen to protect their domain and reject any new ideas either for sheer inertia or vested interests. One could perhaps enlist the support of key employers to mitigate the regulatory speedbrakers and build relevance through project-based learning, but project-based learning may have its own scaling issues and employer engagement at large global scale, with its infinite varieties and cultural preferences, may indeed need specific focus.

So, in context, the challenge of the new education enterprise is to scale while addressing the twin challenges of access and relevance. The key to this may be is to reject institutional thinking, which has been the structure of all educational enterprise so far, and embrace framework thinking. Too many new educational enterprises today see themselves in dichotomous terms with the existing educational infrastructure, and attempt to reinvent the whole wheel. However, the new education may come as an open framework, which can integrate the existing institutional framework into a new way of doing things. AirBnB does not build houses and employ the hosts, nor does Uber buy cars or try to change the traffic rules. Even more appropriately, the Internet would not have happened if the initial proposition included paying for all the Fibre optic and submarine cables. Similarly, the new educational enterprise needs to create an enabling network, enabling players and connecting possibilities that exist within the current system, rather than creating a system from scratch.


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Exponential Education

Investing in education is the rage. Given that there is a really big problem globally - of educational access as well as educational relevance - investing to create solutions that can scale is naturally attractive. At the same time, however, education does not scale very well, given the regulation, cultural barriers and deeply held conservatism that come with it. The current models of education, the ideal of personalised instruction, models of exclusive privilege, the idea of deep thinking away from the humdrum of daily life, the connotation of cultural development as a slow process, are all anti-scale. In fact, many people will privately deride any goals of scaling education, the idea that education is only for a privileged few is so entrenched.

The investors in new educational models put their faith on technology. Technology can help scale the classroom and beat the cost disease of education, as conceptualised by economists William Baumol and William Bowen. The point is to replace the teacher - who in the Cost Disease model have a limited productivity (because of the class size) - and augment her services through the use of technology, just as the string quartet would have been augmented by various forms of audio and video technologies. This is the underlying assumption behind various MOOCs, one form of exponential model for education, which puts the best professors from the top universities in front of the camera and allow people, regardless of their academic background, location or ability to pay to join in.

The other model for exponential education is based on an even more radical doctrine of Self-organising Learning Environments (SOLE), championed by Dr Sugata Mitra, whose early work on this area I had experienced first hand during my work in NIIT. The idea here is that with right enablers, which, in Dr Mitra's terms, are inspiration and encouragement, students can learn themselves, playing with machines which are designed for self-learning. This has also been tried and tested in various parts of the world, and gaining traction. In one way, this is radically different from the MOOCs, because the teacher here is not the Subject Matter Expert, but, as Dr Mitra is building, a Granny Cloud, a group of British grandmothers who just prod and encourage.

Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, in their new book, Bold, talk about a 6-D framework for exponential transformation of an industry. The D-list starts with Digitization, which has started in Education, with Google et al, creating vast stores of digital content. The next D is Deception, which is about that sinking feeling everyone had about electronic learning, all those shortcomings and poor performances that seem to say that this was going nowhere. Next is Disruption, the time to come of age, and this is where Education perhaps currently is. Whether or not MOOCs replace the college, it is already impacting the Lifelong Learning sector, perhaps the fastest growing segment of Higher Education, significantly. MOOCs, SOLEs and other initiatives are reaching out to the previously excluded, bringing non-users to access education, which is one key step in disruption. The last three Ds, Dematerialisation, Demonetisation and Democratisation, still lie in the future, though we have seen some significant movements towards the same. It is the last three Ds that could indeed unlock the exponential potential of education.

This next level transformation will of course need thinking beyond just the role of the teacher. The biggest challenge of scaling education is often the regulatory frameworks. In fact, education might not have been transformed as fast as some of the other industries just because it is regulated. Being educated is usually not about learning something but gaining credentials, and this credentialing function reflect the vested interests in the society. Therefore, even if the technologies exist, the educational consumption is not venturesome. If one is taking chances, they would not be talking about doing a degree. Rather, being educated is a very conformist activity, at least so far.

Getting outside this framework of conformity is what will get the new educational enterprises on the path of Exponential growth. Dematerialisation of education is not about getting away from the teacher-led classrooms and getting content on the cloud, but to go beyond the credentials as it exists today and avoid being degree sellers. This is also an essential step for demonetisation, because come to think of it, the huge costs of education has nothing to do with learning - because one can learn for free or at a little cost - but the regulatory structure whose sole purpose is to deny the validity of such open learning. And, surely, this is why education is not democratised, because non-recognition of open education is one essential part why regulatory structures remain in place.

There are some discussions about how to create a new, inclusive credentialing mechanism. Much of this discussion assume a central role for the employers, and seek to create a framework by which real experience could replace academic credentials. However, as I now know from experience, the employers are as much an entrenched part of the credentialing business as any other. The big employers, particularly in developing countries, are happy to replicate the social pyramid of privilege and exclusion, as they sit atop the food chain for talent. The disruption of academic credentialism is much more likely to come from start-ups and ecosystems that surround them, because they gain the most from disrupting the settled order. Indeed, the movements such as Uncollege married with start-up ecosystems stand the best chance in the dematerialisation stage of education, rather than the University of Phoenix model or even the MOOCs, which has only a limited ambition to undermine the academic credentials.




Saturday, April 25, 2015

Time for A Sunday Post!

My silence over the last few weeks - I did only a few posts since the beginning of April - was only partly intentional. As much I would like to claim I was busy, I was on holiday, traveling through Middle Europe and taking a train journey through the Alps, something I wanted to do for a long time. A family of friends joined us, so all this was family and friends time, as relaxing I could perhaps ever expect. It was full of beautiful sights, the grandeur of Vienna rather overwhelmed by dark romantic Prague and natural magnificence of Salzburg mountains, and of contrasting experience, very touristy Sound of Music trip around Salzburg contrasted starkly with a monastery stay at the centre of Vienna. It was my time to be with others, and go around in a bus ride across Schonbrunn Palace endlessly for a day, and of being myself, an early morning walk through Bergstrasse to stop across the road from No. 19, where Freud lived and worked most of his life. 

But, this holiday, and the few weeks that followed it - busy and traveling - was also about a pivot. I planned the holiday just because I needed to be away from everything else to be able to pause and reflect. While I often do so while working, particularly taking advantage of this blog (which is really one conversation with many of my friends) - and this was indeed my intention - I could see the benefit of being silent and withdrawn for a while. That way, I could think of big questions, returning to India versus thinking longer term in Britain, taking up a professional life versus going back to entrepreneurial life, about what I do in the future etc. 

Now, I feel reasonably settled - and therefore, it is time to return to blogging. In fact, this is time to do a real Sunday Post, which was intended to be personal, fragmented and momentary, but honest, and from the heart. It is a moment to dream again, for me, and to redefine my ambitions - a beautiful context to reshape what I do, think and write about. The fact that I started writing this post sitting in an apartment in Manila last Sunday, back in my nomadic work life, could not perhaps be more appropriate, as is the fact that I only finish writing this today, as I returned home to London after a gap of almost five weeks, during which I have been to eleven different cities.

The conflicts that define my life - a global ambition versus a wish to live a serene life, the desire for creative space versus a working life in various business roles, attachment to family versus a designed bohemianism - were all captured, in one way or other, in the last few weeks. I had some emotionally excruciating moments, times when I felt deeply offended, when the silliness of my current occupation was abundantly demonstrated, and times when I felt so grateful, when I knew how lucky I was to be able to live the way I do and do the work that I do. It was open season for imagination, and in many ways, best time to re-imagine my life.

I come through it with an urgent desire to change my life. What I do now is temporary, I felt more clearly than ever. There are professional reasons for this - my work is only marginal in the scheme of things - but most importantly, this is not in sync with my personal ambitions anymore. In the past few months, I reviewed my plans to return to India in the immediate future and also to settle in South-East Asia, particularly Philippines. Because I was close to the ground, it was easier for me to engage and test various assumptions I was making about both the moves, only to decide that both the plans are rather unrealistic. I return to the obvious, planning to stay where I am and giving it another three to five years before I think of moving again, while consolidating my engagements in Kolkata by sorting out where I stay and expanding social and work connections in the city.

This shifts my focus back on UK, my adapted country. I have effectively banished all talk of return, at least for the moment, and intend to focus on the practicalities of settling in the UK, which I did not do since I came here in 2004. I was always half-committed, and I have finally grown tired of being in transition. Indeed, this means work, and in many senses, starting from scratch on some areas. I have been developing my expertise in the International Markets for several years now, which was consistent with my intent to return. However, with the change of plans, I intend to work further on the areas of expertise which are valuable for the UK marketplace and recalibrate my engagements accordingly.

The work I do is, and will perhaps remain, global, but it is time for me to think through my priorities all over again. I tried and failed, but at this very moment, I am realising that this failure has only augmented my expertise and networks further. The limits that I put on myself is completely self-imposed and I feel ready again to resurrect my entrepreneurial ambitions. The only adjustment perhaps is that I wish to do this on a more realistic scale - I am now focused on UK and Europe - but essentially, I wish to draw upon all the things I have done so far. Indeed, I have some commitments to fulfill, and this should take me the best part of the next six months or so, but I want to set things in motion now rather than later. This blog, therefore, is due for a pivot - I record my progress as I go along - to become the chronicle of a new journey that I am set to begin.


Thursday, April 23, 2015

The SIM Model of Employability

In my conversations about Skills Training and Employability, I have started using the SIM model. This is indeed based on my various conversations over the last five years with employers and educators, and attempts to understand why the Employment-to-Education gap persists. And, indeed, SIM is the shorthand for the three dimensions of this gap, Skills, Information and Mobility, which I wrote about earlier. (See here)

Instead of seeing Education-to-Employment gap as a massive cognitive failure for the Educators, or an original sin emerging out of narrow self-serving attitudes of the employers, this model allows me to see why such a gap may exist. Indeed, over time, I have come to feel that I should be speaking about the problem in plural, or problems, because these three dimensions are really three distinct challenges to be overcome. And, anyone focusing on any one aspect of it is likely to be frustrated by the outcomes.

Consider the frequent complaints from the Skills Training providers and the policy-makers in India. They complain that they can not meet the targets because people do not want to move, while jobs and people are in different areas more often than not. Focusing on skills development, they tend to overlook that mobility is part of the problem that they were paid to solve. The more focused Hiring Departments spend a lot of time on Information part of the equation, reaching out to as many college campuses as they can, but remain disengaged from the skills part of the equation. And, while educational exchange programmes target mobility and cultural familiarity, they often become social exchanges disconnected from the skills aspect of the discussion.

Indeed, the problem is not just about partial perspective, but even within categories. Employers often define their requirements in hard skill terms, sending educators scrambling to prepare people for Analytics or Cyber-security, while looking implicitly for softer abilities such as ability to learn. The employers have no handy metric to ascertain such softer aspects, and the leading employers, being at the top of food chain, do not feel the necessity to lead the way. On the Information side, the real time change in skills and jobs are poorly understood by the educators, and often too disruptive for their content-heavy model to adapt to. And, finally, education mostly remain a place-bound activity, made attractive by an idea of social life and middle class stability, and the question of mobility remains somewhat uncomfortable, at least in the developing societies where such mobility is perhaps most needed.

My work, and some of this blog, will be now focused on developing this model further, as I plan to do in my work context. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Explaining The E2E Gap

Education does not readily translate into employment, hence there is a E2E gap, says McKinsey. It is a double whammy - we face an unemployment problem as well as a labour force problem - and causes all kinds of difficulties. On one hand, growing populations of young people, unable to find gainful employment, become disaffected. On the other, companies can not achieve optimum levels of production or service, and often operate sub par. This is a big problem, getting bigger, and this has resulted in some earnest discussion about all the elements of the E2E chain, flexible labour force strategies, more employment orientated education etc. 

While the Skills gap - education is not creating enough skilled workers - gets the maximum exposure, it is only a partial reason for the E2E gap. The reasons why E2E gap exists can be classified in three parts - Skills, Information and Mobility (how is SIM for an acronym?). 

Skills is a big problem, and educators endlessly debate why this is so. Driven by student desire, they are frantically looking for ways to find better curriculum. However, it is the key assumption - that one can develop a technical/ professional rationality divorced from practice, as embodied in curriculum of any kind - is the problem. In a fast-moving real world, practice has come to demand all those things we assume one needs to do in detachment - critical thinking, creative imagination, analysis - and the practice of education has no answer for this. The skills side of E2E gap can not be closed by better curriculum unless it is conjoined with practice.

Information is the other big problem. Most students only have a fairly vague idea about the world of work, and often they are driven by wrong expectations. The educational institutions only make it worse, as they sell hopes of a better life. Again, such hopes are disconnected from the real world, and the student can not begin to grow an idea about career before they have plunged into it. The educators often try to help with Career Planning, but in the fast-moving context of jobs and careers, planning is no longer possible. The only way to develop an idea about a career is to observe one, or multiple careers, and draw lessons from it. (See my earlier post about Career Planning Vs Career Design)

The third problem for E2E gap is Mobility. In most cases, the people and the jobs are not at the same place. At one level, capital is more mobile than labour and always will be. The social ties hinder how mobile a jobseeker could be, and various visa restrictions put additional barriers to it. But, even within geographies, this remains an issue. This needs to be addressed at several levels. In a global mobile world, some form of mobility training should be part of the educators agenda. Indeed, with efficient availability of information, some of the barriers of mobility should go down, but given that the less mobile are often not connected and do not speak in English (or in any other language other than their local one) will still pose some challenges to information dissemination.

Closing the E2E gap is a big agenda for educators, companies, investors and governments. At one level, everyone seems to be talking about it. But we rarely see anyone taking a holistic view of the problem, and dealing with all three components of the SIM. It is a big and urgent problem, and we will do better a joined-up approach to this.

Digital Native, Digital Immigrant and Digital Refugee

At a recent event, the oft-mentioned terms - Digital Native and Digital Immigrant - were invoked, with the cast-iron borders set by birth on or before 1985. I come from the wrong country here, but that is only part of my discomfort with the doctrine. This, and other generational divides, handy as they are, represent, for me, both a tendency to generalise and at the same time, to divide, representing two wrong ideas at once.

My first problem with this doctrine is even more personal than my age. Are the immigrants not the drivers of change and innovation? At a time when immigrants are being called Feral Human Beings by The Sun, the hateful British newspapers which would give up decency for sensation at the drop of a hat, being hunted down by bullies in South Africa, being demonised in Mexico and Germany, they are still proof of human energy and human enterprise, an essential part of what made the world we live in. Civilisations, as much as they may seem to be, are not monoculture - they are living, evolving entities with migration, and the ideas they bring with, as its lifeblood. The immigrant in Digital Immigrant, though, has none of these redemptive opportunities, only their intruding selves that refuse to die (Katie Hopkins calls them cockroaches!) and claim real estate that, by some strange twist of fate, is claimed to belong to the natives.

Think America! This is one place the meaning of immigrants and natives flipped so many times! Indeed, the same applies to current context - people born before 1985 made the digital world and now they should be counted strangers in their own land. Surely, the immigrants are those who come, as people born after 1985 did, rather than those who created the territory in the first place. For all those who called out Digital Immigrants, it was a great expression invoking a revolution, a magical sort which happens overnight without the blood and sweat, a new land is created and new owners are proclaimed, but in one where no Newton could climb onto the shoulders of the giants as they would be alien shoulders. This is the usual problem in any theory of divide, it undermines the continuity of our knowledge and heritage, and indeed, barriers, mental or legal, usually condemn the fenced territory to decline by lack of ideas. 

The second problem with this use of Native/ Immigrant duality is that this bears, at its core, a sense of entitlement. And, any entitlement, including this one, seeks to establish a status quo, a sort of gated community with its own rules, which justifies counting others out. We must not overlook the fact the geographical and economic divide create great havoc with this beautiful construct of in/out phenomena happening around 1985, as does time. There are plenty of people born after 1985, because they were born in wrong places or circumstances, remain digitally excluded. Besides, as technologies keep changing, even the insiders become outsiders overnight. I did love Unix and the advent of Windows ended my nascent SysAdmin career, and the same tragedy plays out over and over again between siblings these days.

I have met Mark Prensky, who coined the terms, in person. Mark is a highly educated and thoroughly decent human being who may have nothing in common with the scandal-mongering Katie Hopkins of The Sun. Instead, he likes coining pithy terms that contain the possibility of future. Insightful as he is, I wished he did coin a third term alongwith - Digital Refugee! Because, this, refugee, is perhaps the most apt description of what people, born on planet earth at any point of time, really are. The cycles of technology are anti-entitlement, indulging in creative destruction in short cycles, and you and me, no matter when we were born, are both likely to be disenfranchised at one point or another, and have to crawl our way back, learning our way through newer terrains no less hazardous than the Libyan seas.    

Monday, April 20, 2015

College Or No College?

Universities are dying, we hear. This is a strange announcement, because more people than ever are going to the universities. The achievement gap between those who go to the university and those who do not are growing. And, going to university has become an universal aspiration, swelling in Sub-Saharan Africa and remote islands in the Pacific alike. This is an institutional form at the peak of its power, prestige and popularity. 

The point of pessimism is indeed that the promise this popularity is based on is floundering. The allure of middle class life, that of stable life, job and income, drives the millions to the University. Yet, the middle class escalator is jammed, as Linkedin founder Reid Hoffman says, and not many of the teeming millions going to the university can really realise that dream. The alternate promise, that there will be entrepreneurs, is perhaps all too optimistic - and, in any case, unrelated to the proposition of the university. So, while the universities are doing well, its promise has gone bust.

There are others, of course, who talk about the timeless values that the university represents. Freedom, democracy and advancement of knowledge wouldn't happen without these institutions, they claim. Who will do the research if we let universities fail? Who will lead, if we are not teaching the citizens higher order thinking? What will happen to democracy if we don't learn to argue rationally, tolerantly and in a civil manner? All those, and more, are reasons beyond the simple commercial justification of going to the university, they say, and advocate that the state should keep paying for the university.

While the social contribution of the modern university is undeniable, there are a few problems with this latter view. First, this position refuses to accept social change, and that the universities may need to justify itself in the context of our society. Second, it also ignores the fact that the State itself is in trouble, and the discussions about the State are no longer about any unquestionable divine authority. What the state should or should not do has become an accounting discussion, and the tax has become taxpayers money (and no one, including those who advocate an expanded state funding, wants to pay more tax). Third, they also gloss over the fact that few students go to the university to become conscious citizens or civic leaders, and many more go there to get a job and a career. There are indeed a few who wants to create new knowledge and achieve fame and distinction in the process, but the recent expansion of university enrolments has nothing to do with this tiny minority. The university, as it stands today, represents a middle class dream, and must also reflect its crisis.

However, the proponents of no college (we are using the terms interchangeably, as in America) miss the fact that because of the preponderance of college-educated graduates, it is hard for those who did not go to college to compete. In short, the Code Academies (or movements such as UnCollege) could work in entrepreneurial hot spots such as Silicon Valley, and indeed, for a few star programmers, but it is hard to make such things work for everyone. Fellowships such as entrepreneurial Thiel Fellowship, backed by Billionaire Peter Thiel, which encourages bright pupils to leave college to start their own businesses, are based on an inverted view of humanity. Leaving college hardly guarantees that one would become Steve Jobs, but rather raises the odds of not becoming one. There is a case to be made for life experience to be part of the college proposition, but proving that it is going to be one or the other is much more difficult.

What would be a reasonable view of the future of the college, then? Would we see universities/ colleges dying, and numerous alternate programmes springing up to take its place? Or would it carry on, despite its central premises breaking down, at least in those places where millions of young people would continue to believe (blindly) in the middle class dream? History, and we must indulge the past to understand future at times, point to neither. In our thesis about the college as a teaching or a research institution, we ignore the other function of the college - a sorting mechanism, an enabler of the social order that we have come to create. This is what college did, from the time it existed, and as the social requirements have changed, so did the college. The point is - short of total extinction of human civilisation, in which case none of this will matter, the need for such social arrangements is unlikely to go away. It may be different from what industrial societies, with its vast army of middle classes, needed, or, what nations that wanted to build a law-abiding citizenry depended upon. But we will have a social order, and need to arrange people according to the same. The university will continue to exist, in its credentialing role, even after its teaching roles have migrated. 

Now, everyone may have a view about this, and the greater and lesser purpose of the college all exist. However, while all of this may be replicated on a iPhone somewhere, a man and his dog would still not be able to assume the credentialing role that the college plays. The real danger to the college is really making a mockery of these credentials, as some, intent on pure pursuit of profit, have done. But we know the institutional form is resilient as those diploma-mills usually withered, and we have seen additional layers of validation (ranking, regulatory transparency etc) come in place to make some college credentials more valuable than others. 

So, those putting money on college are better off looking in the credentialing function over and above other things. It does not mean that everyone needs to go to the top universities - that would never work - but only that a natural order of colleges would come to exist which reflect the social ranking of the host societies. The college, instead of being a provider of hope, may just become a rubber-stamp of legitimacy for privilege. This is a far cry from the lofty view of college education that once existed, but the previous view was deeply embedded in the belief that the social order is changeable. That we have given up on that change, must now reflect on what the college does.

However, this is indeed the point of departure. The college credentials, as good as they may be, are meaningless without the underlying promise of progress and hope. Once the college just clings onto it without its content, its future may have really gone bust. And, precisely at this point, there is no consensus whether the college is dying. In the West, allowing some generalisation, with all its famed universities, great tradition, brilliant professors, the hope of change has withered. So have all the other functions of the college, save the legitimisation of social privilege. In developing countries, with some generalisation, the hope of a changing social order, that the children will have a better life than their parents, is alive and well - and indeed, the promise of college is much more than rubber stamping privilege.

The debate about end of college, carried out usually in American terms (perhaps not unfairly, because college was so successful there), is therefore misleading. The global trends are not just lagged version of American trends. The dreams of social change is alive in many societies, in different forms, and that provides the life blood of college. The inverted form of this also true and treating college as a fountain of progress rather than a source of educated workers predestined to carry out social functions meant for them will keep the belief in social change alive. College still works, but only in some places where its promise is sorely needed.


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Foreign Universities in India - Right Thing, Wrong Reasons

India is looking to fast track the legislation to allow Foreign Universities to set up campuses and even operate as For-Profits, Hindu Business Line claims. Indian media could be excitable, and we have seen such stories before, so this should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt. However, given that this is a story on the Front Page of a respected newspaper, it deserves some commentary.

I noted in this blog earlier that I would be surprised if the Government does anything on the foreign education front. This scepticism was based on observations about the general approach of this government to Higher Education, with its urgency to indianise education and introduce, as much as possible, traditional Indian values into it. While this story only confirms some of the feelers I received earlier from people in the know, the consensus was that the Government would bring some new legislation just after the Budget session, it directly runs counter to the approach of controlling Higher Education, even directing previously autonomous institutions about their curriculum etc. 

This liberal leap, if it at all happens, will be good for Indian Higher Education. It is not that all foreign providers are good, and indeed, most For-Profits are justifiably viewed with suspicion, but the alternative - a badly regulated and protected market where only the corrupt can survive - is doing enormous harm to India's prospects. One would hope that the policy thinking is broader than this story suggests as one can not readily see how the Government could allow Foreign Universities working as For-Profits while barring the domestic players from it. But opening up the opportunity to new players and making it easier to operate would indeed lesser the scope of corruption, increase market competition and improve the educational experience.

However, all of this may still be done for wrong reasons! Prime Minister Modi alluded to the loss of foreign exchange due to students travelling abroad in his campaign trail, and the only reason cited to explain the policy move was the preservation of foreign exchange. The fact that this comes before the sheer educational reason that India needs better and more relevant education highlight the weakness of the policy. The conversation about Higher Education in India is very rarely about Higher Education at all, and this new piece confirms that observation yet again.

This legislation, as and when it happens, will pave the way for Indian institutions to improve their quality and offering quickly, as they will face international competition as well as become attractive investment opportunities globally. Further, this will also introduce the required scale and diversity in Indian Higher Education, and create the scope building the Google or Facebook of Education out of India! This is a point sorely missed by all those Members of Parliament who keeps blocking this bill every time it came up for consideration, fearing that they would lose access to a protected market. They should now see the other side, that this would make Indian Education interesting to foreign investors and they may get an exit out of their own badly run institutions. They should vote affirmative, though this is still the wrong reason why India should allow foreign universities.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

India - Beyond The Back Office

I am in India, and one conversation that I notice is the aspiration to grow beyond the Back Office. More specifically, I am in Bangalore as I write this, the city which indeed built itself being the global back office, and one could perhaps both see the idealistic and pragmatic logic why India should grow beyond the back office.

The idealist rationale is about capturing a greater portion of the value that is created, as evident in the aspirations of the start-up networks here in Bangalore. These new entrepreneurs, unlike the generation before them, are not content building Development Centres, which will do the jobs of the Western clients. One hears conversations about building software applications that will potentially change the way things are done, here in India but also abroad. The confidence deficit that defined the Indian businesses in previous decades seemed to have lifted, and the talk of taking on the established global brands and players have started in all earnestness.

The pragmatic side of growth beyond Back Office is well understood by established businesses and policy-makers, for two different, perhaps opposite, reasons. As the established businesses compete globally - some of them rather reluctantly as their home turf gets exposed to global competition, and others with more strategic intent - they see that the rising cost structures in India, an inescapable result of globalisation that drives equalisation of input costs over time, erode their cost competitiveness.  Like China wanting to move from Made in China to Designed in China, they want to move up the value chain as an essential survival strategy. These companies see the rising incomes and consumer sophistication in India driving them into world class products and practices, and want to leverage this home-grown capability, often acquired through partnership with global players eager to enter India, in the global market eventually.

On the other hand, politicians are driven not by rising costs - they see rising lifestyle and ascendant asset costs as good things - or by scarcity of skilled manpower. Rather, they are concerned about the abundance of manpower, that 10 million people will look for non-farm employment every year, and believe service industries can not create adequate number of opportunities that will be required to gainfully employ this huge number. Their plan is not necessarily to move up the value chain, but rather move horizontally into manufacturing and infrastructure development, activities which, in theory, create more jobs than Back Offices. 

Whether this is about an entrepreneurial wave, efforts to move up the value chain on the back of domestic demand, or a more simple-minded pursuit of expansion of economic activity, the resulting consensus is the need to move beyond the Back Office economy that India has distinguished itself to be. However, India has been a Back Office economy for much longer than one could remember. This is certainly not a recent phenomenon ushered in by globalisation and Internet, but rather a trend going back a century and half, when India lost its manufacturing prowess (which made India interesting to Western traders in the early modern era, and gave it a significant share of World GDP) and was bequeathed with an education system designed to create a conforming Middle Class. India produced the officials, lawyers, accountants, doctors and engineers which serviced the British Raj all over the world, effectively being the workhorse of the most successful imperial administration in History.

While the political and economic structure may have evolved in India, the social attitudes and the educational approach of the Indian middle class remained firmly rooted in this past. This, indeed, creates enormous difficulties for any effort to move beyond the Back Office - the entrepreneurial ambitions, the big company strategy or the Government rhetoric can not really shake up the deeply held preference for a clerkship as the meaning and purpose of education! And, yet, the dead-end, the broken reality of middle class life, is only too apparent to all concerned, just that not many are ready to accept the changing nature of reality.

So, in the end, it is - education, education, education! Einstein reportedly said that the greatest form of stupidity is to do the same thing again and again and expect different results. Moving beyond back offices need, therefore, to start at the root - in the classroom! And, we have learned the sobering lesson from our Colonial masters - one can change a nation, including its politics and economy, by changing how its children are educated.

Friday, April 03, 2015

What Should You Know About Culture When Doing Business Globally?

I come up a lot against the issue of culture, given that I mostly do what one would call International Business, and do so in Education, an area which is so culturally specific that most people banish both International and Business from vocabulary when dealing with it. So, in my day-to-day interactions, I both come across the Not-invented-here syndrome, that anything from a different culture should be rejected out of hand, and its inverted form, that culture does not matter.

Indeed, I have a view, and I shall claim to be qualified to have one in this case. This, not just because I migrated mid-life and settled in another country, but because I escaped the entrapment of my native culture by deliberately trying to see it from outside. This, I believe, worked better for me than just reading about culture, which I had to do for professional reasons, and indeed, doing so made me think about the limitations of engaging with culture as a technical thing, a system of acting in a certain way divorced from its reasons. I have forced myself to be an Outsider-as-Insider, questioning things that I myself do, think, believe and behave as.

So, with all that, let me return to the central question, with an added emphasis - what one must know about culture when doing business globally?

One, that Culture is NOT just Custom. The success of the culture training industry, all those Gurus and Books and Lectures, made culture a more difficult thing to handle. This is because culture has become synonymous to Custom, and every aspiring International Business Executive gets a training on assorted national peculiarities, divorced from its history, context or ideas. This will cover how to kiss, bow or shake hands (or shake heads as in case of India) but miss the stories such as why a Viennese shop may display a red-and-white spear (in memory of the Turkish siege of the city) or why the trumpet call at St Marys Church in Krakow stops so abruptly at mid-tune (because the trumpeteer was killed mid-tune by the arrows of advancing Mongolian army in the Fourteenth Century). It is stories like this, of glory, passion and victimhood, that underlie culture, which is all about understanding how people think.

Two, culture is NOT a soft thing that could be ignored. It is not a soft thing, but a hard reality. Peter Drucker said something about culture trumping strategy while talking about organisational culture. In case of global business, the culture of the market has a strategic significance many times more. It is not something that one can capture in a spreadsheet, but perhaps one can model, with a bit of effort. It is a mistake to brand culture as irrational, because it is one of the foundations of rationality - it provides the context of all thinking, in fact!

Three, that culture is NOT going to converge. This is one of the Silicon Valley assumptions, that with Internet, every one will have the same consumption pattern, and therefore, similar ways of thinking. But it is actually the opposite - cultures are diverging even further! Facebook does not change cultures, cultures change how people use Facebook! The globalisation apocalypse, the notions of flat world, has been proven to be wrong, and this is not just because of a recession. Once various cultures around the world got access to different tools of globalisation, they changed them to suit their own requirements.

Four, that cultures can NOT be good or bad. There is always a bit of evangelizing going on, given that we treat cultures as peculiarities. But then cultures are what it is - it is not a thing to be judged, but rather what defines the context of judgement. One may say that there are things which are plainly wrong, like Cannibalism or suppression of women, and surely these practises are rather abhorrent. But these debates are won or lost within the context of the culture where they were prevalent, and did not indeed invalidate the moral notion of the entire culture!

Five, that the culture of the company must NOT take precedence. And, indeed, this is a common, and common sense view! One can not run a company with multiple cultures. But, most successful global companies do exactly that - and define the company culture not around elaborate and culturally specific processes, but as a minimum common ground of ethics, commitments and ideas, where all cultures could meet. Finding this common ground is indeed the holy grail of building a successful company. In all other cases, the culture of the customer, the person who is paying, should take precedence over that of the supplier, a thumb rule I followed in my work successfully.

I made this list mostly looking at the oft-repeated mistakes, which even seasoned executives make. This is because, as Pankaj Ghemawat would say, going global is often not driven by real strategy, insight, commitment or even passion, but hubris! I have been told by companies that they dont have time, and intent, to learn too much about their markets, and I would tend to feel that this is not unusual. Such arrogance is a recipe for disaster, but they stem from the views I tried to negate here. There is indeed no royal road to cultural intelligence - it is only through humility, engagement, respect and commitment that one could learn a thing or two about how people think and behave. Angel Cabrera and Gregory Unruh of Thunderbird Business School provided an useful framework for such engagement, dividing such knowledge and ability in three CAPITALs - Intellectual Capital (knowing about the place and people one is doing business with), Psychological Capital (Understanding the place and people one is doing business with) and Social Capital (making friends with people one is doing business with) - but this, like anything serious and worthwhile, needs commitment and time to be really doing it.



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