Saturday, October 31, 2015

Inverting The Education-to-Employment Debate

The Education-to-Employment transition is one hot debate worldwide, with a host of endeavours, both within traditional education and outside it, directing enormous amounts of money and innovation towards solving it. And, despite all these efforts, gap is just getting wider, and more and more people are completing education but not getting a job. And, besides, if one looks at starting salaries, the problem is even worse - underemployment is rife and level of jobs that these candidates get often do not need the education they have got.

All of us possibly know people who did not get a job after finishing education, and indeed, people who are underemployed. But, chances are, we also know people who found their groove, as one would say, after a few years of drifting around. I almost see a pattern with people who come out of school with a degree in, say, Arts, that they would have a succession of poorly paid jobs and internships, and then, the most resilient of them, would actually start off on a promising career. So, while the education-to-employment looks severe if we solely focus on the fate of recent graduates, but it may not be quite so bad if one takes their longer term prospects into account.

I have been working on the Education-to-Employment fault-line for many years, almost two decades excepting a few brief stints in technology. Most of it felt like a combination of banging my head against a brick wall and trying to talk about a problem that no one, those who are really concerned, really cares about. Consultancies may do, as they have to sell their reports to governments, but the educators, who think, rightly, the end of education should be more about mere employment, and employers, who really see them as consumers of talent but do not want to have anything with educating them, couldn't care less for this transition. 

However, my feel is that there is more than just indifference. For one, the For-Profit schools, whose business model really depends on getting their graduates jobs, have not done too well either. In fact, the For-Profit schools have made the loan default problem worse in the United States. Employers, who chronically complain about talent shortages and pour money into universities to help create talent they need, have had limited impact. It seems that we need a complete paradigm shift if we have to problem substantially.

One such paradigmatic question is to ask whether it is relevant to talk about Education-to-Employment anymore. This implies a sequence, which may or may not be valid any longer. It is definitely not valid for those early-career drifters who really learn from those years of drifting before settling into a career. And, indeed, the growing wave of boot camps and uncollege movement, is directly challenging the traditional sequence of life. One could claim that these are still outliers, and more and more people are going to college, but the point is to think whether the traditional assumptions about stages of life is still valid.

It makes sense to point out that what we just called the traditional assumptions are not that traditional. Even in the eighties, the expectation was that High School would develop job specific skills, and the college, both in Europe and North America, would develop leaders, entrepreneurs etc. Somewhere in the nineties, this switched to the modern idea of mass Higher Education, primarily because of the expansion of technology jobs (and growing automation in other jobs). Thinkers like Charles Handy may have predicted it (different types of organisations and careers that start and end later), but college was not about entry-level jobs at all. Since then, we have had enormous expansion of college infrastructure, without necessarily updating the mindset. So, if the entry level jobs still remained at High School level, but now took in graduates because they were abundant, it is a self-inflicted problem. We may find Charles Murray elitist, but this is the point he seems to be making - too many people are going to the college - and we need to think whether we can do better.

One idea for doing better is to invert the Education-to-Employment conversation. Why does it have to be education first? Lifelong Learning is now a known concept, at least in Europe, and we have learned to accept education as a continuing process. Building an intertwined education-and-employment process may be one solution to the equation we are trying to solve. 

In practice, this would look like a sequence of boot camps and employment for people coming out of High School, all of which will earn college credits. This is not about simulations, project placements or internships (most meaningless of all), but real work, for which one gets paid for. This should be employment leading to education, rather than the other way round. And, indeed, education, in this model, would mean more than getting a job, as the students would be in employment first, and more than job skills, because one has to do more than just learning the technical and professional skills to get a degree. 

One could question whether employers would readily participate in a scheme like this. This is a question of design, as this model is more relevant in some sectors than others. It is indeed a question of carefully mapping labour markets, projecting demand and focusing on areas of high growth, rather than going after jobs that exist today. This is indeed where private capital fails to see this model, in its quest for scale, and it is only visible from the vantage point of an educator. My work in the last few years have convinced me that even in more traditional countries like India and China, employers are ready to participate in such projects, if, instead of starting with academic subjects, the educators are ready to start with their needs - and look to top up a students readiness for life with academic abilities. 

One can possibly see this idea to be consistent with the culture of vocational education, a predominantly European theme increasingly popular in the developing world. However, because the model is broken, the conversations about vocational education has been more like the higher education, scholastic and classroom-based, without its prestige. In some ways, inverting this education/employment conversation is also about ending the false divide between vocational and academic education, and creating, at once, a more unified but a more nuanced structure.



The Question of Company Culture

There is a conflict at the heart of management - the question of culture.

Culture will eat strategy for breakfast, said Peter Drucker, and he, as always, was right on the money. And, yet, culture gets insufficient attention in management practise, although not in management theory. Many small companies, who collectively employ more people than ever, think of the question of culture really as a big company thing. 

The underlying view is simple - you worry about culture when you are a big company! It is logical too, because big companies are large, somewhat inorganic entity, having to align diverse elements all the time in pursuit of certain objectives. In contrast, small companies are, well, small, organic entities often consisting of a man and his dog, where the business is defined by the opportunity of the day. The day-to-day reality of the small company makes the question of culture, which is often long term both as a concept and in impact, a luxury.

But, the point is - even in this hand-to-mouth existence of a small company - one can rarely escape the question of culture. It is one of those things that live in the detail of the day-to-day life, defining, even if one is unaware, staffing and retention, products and customers, and ultimately, life and death.

This relative indifference towards culture - or, the approach of taking culture as a given thing - creates some interesting paradoxes. For one, it is easy to notice that while all big companies are trying to be more like small companies, talking about empowered teams, entrepreneurial managers etc, small companies are trying to be like big companies, trying to talk about processes and hierarchy. Steven Gary Blank's observation that a start-up is not a small version of a big company, but a really different form of business, is lost more often than not.

These are indeed broad terms - big company and small company culture - and admittedly, there are many shades of grey inbetween. However, there is one way of clearly delineating whether the culture of a company tend to be more like a big company, or like an ideal small company, and that is by looking at the ownership of the outcome. Frederick Brooks Jr's description of the software development process - producing a baby through one woman being pregnant for nine months as opposed to nine women being pregnant for one month apiece - is handy here. In a small company culture, designated people tend to own the outcome, and have considerable autonomy about the processes. In contrast, big companies have process owners, who is more concerned about doing things right rather than doing the right thing.

However, isn't it true that the organisations may start in the small form, but eventually, all the successful ones must become big ones, just like all children must go into adults? If we accept this, the question of distinctiveness of small company versus big company culture becomes one of when, not if. From this vantage point, companies that are called Unicorns, start-ups with big valuations, should go for the big company culture, as they have achieved maturity in some sense. 

However, the appeal of process-driven culture is not dependent on the bigness or maturity of the company, but in the nature of the business (as evident in the attempts of big companies to become like small companies). It is dependent on whether these processes, within the boundaries of a single firm, reduce the transaction costs and make the outcome more efficient. So, if a company could break down the lifecycle of doing something into discreet and efficient steps, resulting in lower transaction costs and efficiencies, a process culture would suit it best, regardless of the size of the business.

From this vantage point, it may seem that the big company culture that we have become familiar with is not the matured form of doing business, but an appropriate form of doing certain businesses. For example, this may be work perfectly in large scale manufacturing, or trading. But, equally, it may not work in business areas, which are centered on innovation or personal connection, and therefore, must give meaning to work (think of the metaphor Frederick Brooks Jr used).     

So, if one is in disruption business, being like a big company is the worst possible course of action a small company can take. This is because such efforts attract only the wrong sort of people. Big companies, despite the bureaucratic overhang, offer some good things - better salaries, job security, prestige. There are some people who would still spurn the lure of a big company because they want other things which these big companies can not give - ownership, meaning at work, quick growth! But a small company that wants to be a big company, and institute the big company culture, would drive these people away. It would also produce inferior work, one that values activities rather than outcomes, and create an illusion of progress. And, indeed, it won't be able to disrupt, only imitate, because doing things the right way is essentially about following established practice, rather than talking about breaking them down in the quest of a different outcome.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Three Identities and The Story of India

Simplifications are good for focusing our minds. Without claims of being exhaustive, they are wonderful tools for us to see what really matters. Hence, here is my attempt to portray the story of Independent India in the story of three competing identities.

It must be said that the politics of identity is indeed all about simplifications, with the pretencion of being exhaustive. You can be one thing, and nothing else. Though in real life we carry multiple identities - a British Citizen, Indian by heritage, Entrepreneur, Blogger, Teacher, Liberal, Friend, Son, Brother, Husband and Father can all be the description of the same person at the same time - Identity Politics is all about highlighting one primary identity at the expense of all other. In that formulation, a Socialist may become a Socialist Father, even if there is no such thing. But, despite its apparent absurdity when seen in the context of individual life, such simplified identities are the life-blood of group life in the context where individuals, rather than communities, are building blocks of our world. Once we have moved from the idea that individuals are parts of a community, which by design are idiosyncratic, to the idea that self-interested individuals collaborate to build communities, we must try to distill our engagements into groups on the basis of one or a few ideas. These ideas are the basis of the construction, and evolution, of identity that we use in politics.

India, and almost all other modern nations emerging from colonialism, had this particular problem of identity. It needed to find an independent existence in a system of nations already preexisting, with the idea of nation already spoken for, one that proved resilient despite the calamities of World Wars. From the vantage point of modern nationhood, India looked chaotic, a mess of class, caste, religion, regions and culture. Winston Churchill summarised well the imperialist disdain - India is no more a country than the Equator, he said. Generations of British Historians claimed that India is a nation primarily forged by the British, predicting, by implication, that India may fall apart without the enlightened overlordship of the empire. 

Indian politics, therefore, at the very beginning of its modern nationhood, was about constructing a sense of identity. Partly to defy the imperial vision and the prognosis, and partly to find an workable and unifying political idea, a secular, liberal, egalitarian state was conceived. Following the commonplace ideas of nationhood, the justification was sought in history, highlighting examples of common cultural heritage of the epics and the enlightened multi-faith empires of Ashoka and Akbar, which predated the British unification of India by tax codes by centuries. But, at the same time, the Indian identity was an eclectic one, combining American Federalism, English Common Law, French Secularism, Socialist Thought, all in one modern, ambitious, cosmopolitan constitutional tradition.

This was the identity lived by the makers of India, who, despite later attempts, defy the typical right-wing, left-wing labels. Instead, they all lived this idea. Nehru may have embodied this idea par excellence, but his colleagues, across the spectrum from Sardar Patel and Rajendra Prasad to Acharya Kripalani and Maulana Azad, all represented the confident cosmopolitanism of this early identity, and sought to supersede all the other competing conceptions, including the left-wing class war and right-wing Hindu majoritarianism.

However, in a generation, one started to take the cosmopolitan identity as a given, and stopped working for it. Instead of an active idea that needed building, the generation that followed the founders took it to be a part of the furniture. One can draw parallels to the history of Classical Greece or Roman Republic - there are always points in history when active moral ideas become rhetorical instruments of wily politicians - and so in India, the quest for cosmopolitanism, which always had an element of patron state in its construction, weakened in the face of vote-bank pragmatism. As the independence started being taken as a given, and no one seemed to require to do anything for the country anymore, the consensus that built the new Indian identity fell apart. From that point, starting in the Seventies and accelerating in the Eighties, the sub-identities of caste and language triumphed, each providing a secure block of votes to the cynical politicians to win in a first-past-the-post system. 

This emergent identity had none of the intellectualism of Indianness, and all the appeals of easy gains, votes for politicians and sops of voters, including reservation in jobs. The idea of sacrifice to build a nation, which would have influenced those who lived through colonial times, and which justified the relatively austere planned economy, was superfluous at this point. At the wake of liberalisation, the State was retreating backwards, a new Indian consumer identity was being fashioned, no less  by the spread television and the rise of common entertainment (bollywood and cricket being pre-eminent) allowing a common minimum idea of Indianness.

Another final twist, the third wave of identity, got us where we are today. Admittedly, it is work in progress - but clearly emergent and visible, and worthy of being remarked upon. Indian politics today is a departure from both the founding idea of cosmopolitanism and the intermittent flirtation of vote-banks, and represent an irreversible quest to refashion India as a Hindu nation. Indeed, India without its diversity is an appealing market prospect, and worth backing by international finance. The political strategy of this new identity is not unlike its vote-bank predecessor, expressed in a naive middle class thesis that one would unite the Hindu vote by acts of hatred (such as the politics of beef, complete with mob action and lynching) and then, after electoral wins, change the constitution of India, which still carries on the cosmopolitan legacy.

Indeed, this is as imaginary as the idea of India, and a Polytheistic religion such as Hinduism is hardly a secure basis of building an uniform identity (there are simply too many gods and their ways). Besides, every one is a minority in India, and the affiliations to local communities, particularly those based on language, are likely to grow stronger when facing an onslaught of Hindutva ideology. The obvious risk of the cosmopolitan idea of India was that it was too distant, too idealistic, too intellectual, and it degenerated into a morass of corrupt state intervention. The risk of vote-bank politics was a fragmentation of politics into interest groups and stagnation of the economy, which India duly suffered. And, the risk of the Majoritarianism is that the genie may never go back to the bottle, and the centrifugal tendencies of a diverse state, which the imperial administrators loved playing with, would tear apart the state itself, or launch it into military adventurism. 

Foretelling is a dangerous enterprise, and I must not indulge in it. Besides, the Hindutva identity is still work-in-progress, and it would play out in the context of complex global-local interactions. But my enterprise is not to second-guess where Hinduvta identity is going, but to highlight that the Indian identity, taken for granted in all those talk shows, may be dead. For those who care about a different India, there is work to be done. 




Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Degrees - Foreign or Local?

I get asked a lot - what is the value of a foreign degree?

The correct answer is - it depends. It depends on where you study, what you study and where you are from.

We know the first part already - where you study matters. This is both in terms of the country where you went to school, and the school you went to. The school matters more than the country, but if the school is obscure, the country counts.

The effects of other two parameters - what you study and where you come from - are seldom talked about.

The discipline matters a lot. Parthenon, a consultancy (now part of EY), studied the effect of foreign qualification on job prospects of a candidate and pay. They concluded that while employers prefer a candidate with foreign qualification over others, it has no discernible impact on pay, except in some disciplines. They pointed out Hospitality and Digital Media as two of the areas where foreign education impacts pay, and perhaps it is easy to guess why that would be so.  In other areas, such as Business, the candidate with a foreign qualification may have a preference over those who did not have one, but have to live with the same salary levels.

Studies such as these, which deal with an aggregate picture (which is useful in itself), miss some details that are needed to answer a specific question. One has to remember that more often than not, the Foreign Degree holding candidate is more educated (often having additional qualification) and has more social capital, so the preference can not really be understood without controlling for all these other factors. The question to ask is whether the employers would prefer those with a foreign undergraduate degree, which, in most cases, would not be recognised in the country, over those who have a local degree? Would it happen if one has got the foreign degree from a relatively less known university? What if they have got it from a country other than the metropolitan centres of Higher Education (like US, UK, Australia and lately, Canada)? How much does the degree itself matter, and how valuable is the experience of being abroad?

The pay question also has some implication, in fact, a big one now that the practice of allowing students to stay on after their degree studies have become rarer in major countries. This means that the students often have no international degree-level work experience when they would be applying for a home country job, and they have no other mechanism of recuperating the premium they have paid for a foreign qualification. This makes most foreign degrees poor value, though this factor is often overlooked while pricing courses and recruiting students.

 Finally, as I have learnt by making my share of mistakes, the value of a foreign qualification depends on where the student is from. As an example, it may make more sense for a Chinese student to study for a global qualification than an Indian student. This may be a broad generalisation, but one must note that the Chinese economy is built around creating cost-effective production capability to service the needs of the world. The Indian prosperity, however, is based on stimulating demand from its millions of citizens living in small towns and villages, and satisfying them. In an economic sense, China is looking outward whereas India is looking inward. The most important thing for an Indian graduate is not a fancy foreign degree, but mastery of the landscape of her own country.

This is not to say that Indian students do not need global expertise and ideas. Surely they do. But their requirements may be different from that of the Chinese, a point that gets missed very often. And this plays out in a similar way for other countries too. Commodity based economies like Russia and Brazil may have a completely different dynamic. Indeed, no one in International Higher Education wants to understand the local labour market dynamics, but this matters hugely for the students and their funders, either their families or the banks that lend them money.

International Higher Education is seen as an industry now, with the talk of export earning, venture investments and technical innovation. But the conversations within it are still fairly immature, and have hardly moved forward from those days of Western economic dominance and relatively free student movements. The international student, in the mental models one uses, still goes to an English speaking country for a study and perhaps continues all the way to a Research degree, and thereafter, lives and works there. This has no connection with reality, as many students now study off-campus, for a variety of qualifications, and not all students of this vastly expanded numbers are keen on research. The labour market factors as those mentioned above remain on the margins. But its significance can not be overstated - an understanding of various labour markets is the key to building successful propositions in International Higher Education - and this, and only this, can help an institution construct a meaningful strategy.


Monday, October 19, 2015

On Open Frameworks and Talent Exchanges

In my work at the fault line between Education and Employment, it seems obvious that we have this problem in the first place because of the closed frameworks we have built. In Education, the accreditation has become an end in itself, and educators try to solve all the problems with a course, a big hammer no matter how tiny is the nail. Employers, on their part, are focused on identifying and attracting employees who have specific skills as required, another closed framework with a tiny opening. 

At one level, everyone seems to be happy with the situation as it is. Educators are intent on building a complete person who does not need a job, and employers are happy with that perfect employee whose education does not matter. At another level, this is a big social problem, as politicians sell their middle class economics on the basis of education-to-employment transition. They usher in globalisation at will and hail technological progress, and promise the magic of education to make this all work. They court new investments, which often threaten or at least transform local livelihood, and sell it to their electorate with the promise of jobs. When a company closes shop, they appear teary-eyed on television denouncing job losses, and promise better education as a path to new economy.

All of this fall apart in the world of closed frameworks of education and employment. The public policy, recognising this chasm, has tried to prise open the boxes, either by tying public money to employability of students, and creating incentives for more apprenticeship offerings by employers. But these solutions often indicate rear-view thinking, a sense of nostalgia rather than practicality. These solutions are designed to keep the boxes as they are, and ignore the emergent realities of global work or man-machine competition. These solutions often fall short of the requirements of a fast-growing population of job seekers, powered by demography in the developing world and by the loss of welfare state in the developed. These solutions, therefore, are often too little, too late.

The talk of Open Frameworks, which would perhaps be the logical way-forward, is an anathema. Educators can not see how it can fit into their world of degrees and courses. Even those who claim to be innovative, their innovation is limited to creating a better box - rather than not having to have the box at all. Employers, in their turn, are increasingly in love with a mythical ever-better mousetrap, one that attracts Mr and Ms Just-Rights into their fold, creating a super-star culture that push them more into a superstar culture and the search for automation. And, in the meantime, the education-to-employment conversation, despite its political potency and social impact, is reduced to meaninglessness - Educators resorting to voodoo of soft skills that they claim can just make anyone succeed, Employers obsessed with their sieve so that they can catch the tiny flicker of talent from anywhere.

And, besides the political problem this creates, there is the question of waste! The employers, though they never may fully appreciate the absurdity of the enterprise, often recruit people to find out they do not fit - more than 50% of the new recruits falling into this category, as some employers report. The educators, at great expense of students time and money, labour with concepts and ideas that go nowhere - and report the students to be disengaged. The poor students, caught up in the triple whammy of middle class dream, scholasticism and commercialism, end raking up student debt, waste years of figuring-out-what-to-do and get a poor start, if at all, in a career.

Contrast this with how the Open Frameworks could work. This will need, to start with, a social consensus around the importance of employment, which is the difficult bit. But if we all agree that a healthy society is one where all members are gainfully engaged or employed, we need to integrate various institutions of that society, political, academic and commercial, in the pursuit of that goal. This means rolling back some of the practises that we have become comfortable with - the political rhetoric without substance, narrow bureaucratic focus of Higher Education accreditation and the tyranny of the stock-market analysts who endlessly punish companies if they raise their head above the parapet and look out to long horizon - and thinking about new habits and practises. 

This leads to the point, the starting point of creating an Open Framework for Education-to-Employment transition, that thinking about Education-to-Employment gap is a wrong start. We should recognise, and reconcile, the three other chasm that put our society under stress. 

First, the chasm between Political Reality and Educational Practise should be resolved. Educators should recognise the centrality of work in our daily lives, and its meaning, not just in terms of economic sustenance but also identity. The monastic dream of education, of quiet, disinterested pursuit of knowledge should be reconciled with the modern peak experience of the Flow, defined and sustained by work, rather than leisure. 

Second, the chasm between business rhetoric of investment needs to be aligned with political requirement of full employment - a society that succeeds, and one can produce historical evidence for that, is the one which engages and employs its people as broadly as possible. So, it is not any investment, and not a meaningless number of jobs quoted at every pretext, but investments that create capability should be invited in. This means many things and may require elaboration, but at even the very superficial level, exclude the pursuit of hazardous industries, or those automated factories which gobble up land in turn of some hand-outs to destitute local population, often aimed to create incentives to never return home again.

Third, and this follows from the one immediately above, once we start recognising the social goals of commercial activities, we should be able to reconcile the educators goal of creating functional communities with the commercial goal of turning profits. The current export-led economic development often create an imbalance, as it is predicated on cheapness of the resources of the producing country and the affluence of a distant land. However, we may be experiencing the limits of this model, with the oncoming automation but also various social and cultural shifts, and in any case, such models of development have proved transient. The commercial models that served the local market, gained expertise and created clusters of experience, have proved to be much better value, and this may be perfectly consistent with the educational ideas of community and sustainability.

Taking all these fault lines together, rather than in isolation as we tend to do now, has one benefit - that it allows us to see the benefits of exploring an Open Framework, as opposed to currently closed and defined boxes that we tend to put economy, community, education and employment in. The basic issue, the disconnection and misalignment of various parts of an organic system, is somewhat obscured when we talk about education-to-employment gap. It is no wonder that we believe a better course (or content or pedagogy) can be the solution without having to change how we do things.

However, once we take all these various aspects of our broken social arrangement together, we should be able to see that the solution may be in designing Open Framework talent exchanges. This is about putting work at the core of the educational proposition, aim of capacity creation and utilisation as the core objective of social policy and creating sustainable, community oriented business models as the way of doing business. In this framework, students should be able to work on various projects available with employers and be able to claim academic credits using a framework available from the educational institutions. The employers should open their doors to students as much as possible - which is not very different from what small and medium sized firms do all too often, and apprenticeships are all about - and educators should take responsibility of their students working within the framework set by employers. In this, the employers should not just pretend to set up a campus and rather behave like a campus, and educators, instead of seeking out placements and hankering after employability, just recognise the value of real work and produce frameworks of learning around that.  Once this happens, instead of billeting for superstars, the employers will find it more attractive to continually engage and fund the talent exchange itself, hopefully lessening the debt burdens of the students. And, indeed, the governments would, should, do the same, facilitating it by tax credits to companies for helping the full employment come about.

This may all too utopian now, but as the pace of globalisation and automation quickens, we are in a brave new world, when closed frameworks will indeed come under stress. And, all closed frameworks, including the artificial dichotomies between skills and education, higher and lower education, apprenticeships and degrees, education and employment being one of these.



Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Going Beyond Happiness

Whatever Jefferson meant with Pursuit of Happiness, it has become a global mantra.

We may like, hate or be indifferent to different aspects of American life and culture, but this essential American Dream now underpins the Chinese Dream, Turkish Dream, African Dream, Indian Dream - dreams everywhere! It has become a governing philosophy, and sometimes at the expense of the other two essential aspects of life Jefferson had in mind.

True, happiness means different things to different people. An Indian may see it as a comfortable life alongside his parents, which would perhaps be unbearable for a Brit. A man would define happiness differently from a woman. But, despite all these differences, our society could be defined as one unified in pursuit of happiness.

Why did this catch on? When Jefferson was writing, Life would have been the most important goal, given the number of autocrats then ruled the world, followed by Liberty, which was perhaps the point of his writing. Pursuit of Happiness would have been a distant third, important as it is, but the other battles had to be won first.

There may be different explanations to this. First, that the right to pursue Happiness came after we secured the rights of life and liberty well enough. And, indeed, happiness was, is, an individual thing. As individuals, not societies, became the centre of our universe, pursuit of happiness caught on.

But these are retroactive justifications. Most plausible is the nature of our industrial society, which now produces many, most, things that we require to live without us having to do anything about it. We have, collectively, moved from a producer to a consumer life, as Zygmunt Baumann would say, and indeed, our best social contribution, if newspapers have to be believed, is to consume more and more and pursue individual happiness. This indicates a change of ethics - we forgive banks of creating serious imbalances because they (often, not they, but people employed by them) pay taxes, and get angry at Facebook or Google for not paying them - and what is important to us. As a recent book proclaims, only if satirically, I consume, therefore I am!

Where does this lead to, though? To a world of consumers where machines do all the productive activities, and the only thing we get to do is leisure. Even if such a world is possible, which it is not without making a lot of people worse off, would that really be desirable? I know there are many people who do not have to have to do a decent day of work in life and they get to decide how we live, and surely, from their vantage point, being there is a great thing. This pursuit of happiness, in its pure form - one can call this laziness - drives all our activities and direct our thinking.

However, there are two problems with it. First, this works against the fight for life and liberty. As we desperately look to protect our cocoons of happiness, we send out Bombers on the skies of Syria, Libya and Iraq. We manipulate the grain prices in Africa, and quarantine, rather than seek to cure, those poor West Africans suffering from Ebola. We fund dictators when it suits our pursuit of happiness, and indeed, install them in office as long as they promise good days.

The second is that as human beings, we undermine the very thing that made us. We thrived as social beings, but in our happiness induced trance, we seek to retire into lazy cocoons. When some people disagree - there are always people who are seeking other things, like meaning in life - we shut them out of our lives, brand them as eccentrics or failures. But, then, we find ourselves lonely in our happiness, like a drug-induced paradise that only lasts as long as the illusion. Being in happiness is not we desire, we figure out, and Jefferson may have meant that only the pursuit that matters. That is exactly what he said, we remember, and said that in conjunction with two other things. That journey, and only that journey that combines meaningful life, freedom and an unending quest for happiness, may be what makes us human, and keep us that.

Monday, October 12, 2015

A Model for Global Professional Training

The time to change Professional Training has come.

Despite its prominence, Professional Training hardly features on the agenda of Education Innovators. This is because of its legacy - clearly defined professional bodies, enabled by charters, defining the standards and assessing the competence - and its clear linkages to jobs. In many ways, this is the least broken part of the modern, industrial age, education system.

But this is perhaps not the picture one gets to see from inside. The professions, and the national monopolies that they implicitly draw upon, are indeed challenged by the same two forces that are transforming education - globalization and automation! Some professions are more exposed than others, and in some countries more than others, but there is an unmissable case for transformation. 

To understand why it is so, one needs to look at the changing nature of professional knowledge. That there is self-service (or should we call it DIY?) in many areas from tax returns to legal claims aided by automation, simplified processes and more educated consumers come on top of the increasingly open nature of expertise! There is simply more information available on how to arrive at a diagnosis, and indeed more scope to self-diagnose (and for those difficult patients, to make Doctors miserable by asking silly questions), rather than leaving all of it to the black box of medical expertise. And, this means breaking down of jobs, and drawing on global resources to complete a task, referring only a fraction of it to the Professionals. 

Indeed, this elevates professional work - but also creates new challenges! A doctor has to explain more, a lawyer has to be more careful, the accountant is compiling income and cost streams arising out of different countries, marketers are dealing with soft issues of culture, so on and so forth. Global labour market may not still be a reality, but there is a clear global competition for coveted professional titles - creating opportunities for professional bodies while creating challenges for the professionals. 

A new paradigm of professional education is therefore needed, one that integrates the opportunities and the challenges of this new professional identity, and draws on to the future more closely than it basks in its past glory. While much of the thinking in professional education still evolves around the past models of charters and national monopolies, there are some, highly successful, global attempts to develop frameworks and memberships across the world. I see the renaming of well-known American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) to a more supra-national Association for Talent Development (ATD) a step in that direction, though the name change may not have been backed up a corresponding change in thinking. But this is just one step in a great chain of transformation, and I see an opportunity here among the training providers, who can use their deep knowledge of professional standards and competency development and leverage that to create open training frameworks leading to experiences and awards from different countries and bodies. In my work, I am exploring the possibility of creating one such platform, that would work closely with professional bodies and employers to create an open framework of competency development, enabling a sort of global talent exchange.  

Friday, October 09, 2015

From Knowledge Workers to Relationship Workers

As Machine Learning becomes real, our minds are focusing on what really is human. There has been a flurry of publications, both scholarly and popular, exploring this - some looked at which areas humans can trump the machines, and others at how to organise the human society when we arrive at the age of intelligent machines. We are looking at anywhere between 2030 to 2045 for Singularity to be achieved - the machines become generally intelligent then (instead of the current special purpose intelligence they are now programmed with) - and while some may have a different view on this, no one is doubting their effect on the workplace. Automation is reconfiguring all human work, and by extension human societies. It is time to explore what this really means.

There are some excellent studies that I wrote about earlier which assess what humans can do better than machines. These superior human abilities, as Researchers figure out, fall under three categories - Dexterity (our fingers and bodies are more nimble, so a human dentist can do better jobs than robots), Creativity (who wants Robot poetry) and Negotiations (where relationships play a role). While the message is optimistic, its conclusions are not. In that scale, half of the current occupational categories face the risk of significant automation within the next two decades, and that, without accounting for Singularity! These occupational categories may together count for more than half of the jobs in urban societies, and include many of the popular jobs in hospitality, office work, even in accounting and programming. These studies should serve as a clarion call for a fundamental rethink about education and skills in every country.

In this conversation, Geoff Colvin makes an important point in his new book, Humans Are Underrated. His message is that it is futile to try to figure out what jobs humans can do better than machines, because, with Moores Law in action, machines will always catch up. The right question to ask, Colvin suggests, is which jobs do we prefer humans to do for us. For example, would you prefer a human doctor or an impersonal algorithm? What about teachers? Or Judges? While the whole human society may turn into, without exception, a society of consumers, we may display distinct consumer preferences for humans being in some roles.

This is a different take on the Ability question, one based on emotional, rather than rational, view. Following this, Colvin reaches a similar conclusion like the others studying human ability. In his formulation, human workers of tomorrow will do less of knowledge work and more of relationship work. So, while the Dentists may not be as safe in his world, his emotional abilities of reassuring a frightened patient (I am thinking of myself) would count more than the nimbleness of his fingers. No wonder that top medical schools now require their students to read literature involving complex characters, because they seemed to have decided that relationship skills and understanding the patients are crucial for a successful medical professional. 

However, most of the educational establishment is blissfully unaware of this possibility, being wedded, as they were for last half a century, to knowledge work. The policy-makers are also sleepwalking into this automated future, as they continue to follow the models of earlier industrial successes and standards-based education. The Relationship Worker is still a novel term, and have not made its appearance in business conferences yet, though we seem to appreciate it in our personal lives and experiences so much more. 



Wednesday, October 07, 2015

The New Global Higher Education

To paraphrase Dickens, this is the best and the worst of the times for Global Higher Education.

There has never been a time of greater demand and greater desire for it. As millions join the ranks of middle classes in Asia and Africa, the West, its lifestyle, income levels and culture define the shape of the dream - and global higher education represent the pathway to it.

On the other hand, these students were never less welcome in the metropolitan centres of Europe, Australia and the United States. For all the high-minded rhetoric of borderless knowledge, the West feels overcome with migration, the modern-era exodus through the heart of Europe being its most visible manifestation. It is under an intellectual seize, with extremist rhetoric and isolationist tendencies on the ascendance. Global education, in the form we came to know it, has never been more difficult to attain or costlier.

One crucial factor that opens this chasm is the nature of the new middle classes. In a sense, the middle has shifted. While the label of middle classes was slapped on a vast multitude of people defined by their aspiration to do better than their parents, this new class has nothing in common with the settled, economically secure middle classes of the West, who have had their political victories and left their time scraping at the bottle of the barrel behind long time ago. The new middle class falls short of even the minimum global benchmark of earning an average of $20 a day, which will make them poorer than even the poorest of the West. And, yet they are united in aspiration, even if only by Facebook memes and Twitter gossip, and Global Education, in its current incarnation, has captured their imagination.

The peculiarity of the new middle classes complicate things. They are the engine behind the expansion of Higher Education globally, but their aspirations, interests and abilities are miles apart from those of the traditional middle classes. Consequently, they also upset the neat formulation that we may be tempted to make about who is for and who is against the Global Higher Education. Apparently, those right-wing politicians in Europe, North America and Australia, who wants to curb migration, want to create a global consumer class and a global labour market, and hence, are for Global Higher Education. And, those progressive, left-wing educators, who are for free movement of people and ideas, are often enthralled by values and commitments of the traditional Western middle classes, and would have none of the vocationalism of newcomers, or their apathy towards the cultural assumptions behind education (think of the debate about plagiarism).

This renders most of the Academic discussions about how to rise to the challenges of internationalisation out of date. The context of most of the conversation makes an unspoken assumption about the shape of the middle classes, which fall apart at the first contact with reality. The time-tested formats, student exchanges, franchising, international campuses, falter, and do not meet expectations, as they were built for a middle class that did not exist. The colonial clusters of cultural supremacy wither away, as the fancy education at metropolitan centres fail to redeem and lead to debt. 

The For-Profits of Global Education, which has grown in this vacuum, fall short in their own way. Their strategies may be perfectly aligned with vocationalism and global labour markets, but they fail to recognise that the global labour markets are clustered - the interconnected economy does not mean everyone is doing the same thing, but people are specialising on different things at different places - and the quest for scale is often fraught with disappointment. Their favoured form, Online, struggles with the variability of Internet. English and other metropolitan languages, the great enablers of scale, become barriers, as localised consumer markets often unite in the form, but not in taste.

This fragmented reality of Global Higher Education is well-acknowledged. While the talk about Glocal Education has gained traction in blogosphere, it has hardly been well-defined or translated into a coherent strategy. Except indeed for a natural hierarchy of institutions arising out of the melee, just as it did when the industrial middle classes came to Higher Education, creating the tiered system of Higher Education that see today. While a global hierarchy is now well entrenched, the picture is complicated by four different forces - automation-led redefinition of work, the global spread of consumer markets, aging of the Western workforce and increasing cultural and political self-assertion of emerging country governments. These trends, taken together, mean a loss of influence of the Western and Western-inspired traditional middle classes, increased emphasis of local production and consumption while establishing underlying global uniformity of norms and practices, reconfiguration of the defined disciplinary boundaries and critical revaluation of all culturally supremacist assumptions. Almost all this happens outside what we are calling Higher Education today, and in the end, these would reset what we mean by Higher Education. It would mean that we shall move away from the conception of Global Higher Education as the white professor on stage (or on computer screen) or the degrees from Western universities, and would arrive at a point of local/ global talent exchanges. 

This would be different from hierarchy of universities and would represent globally visible exchanges for talent. Even the top-down world of Glocal would be challenged by local platforms eclectically engaging globally, enabling and then opening up talent exchanges for global and local work. For all the international engagements, the universities have done little to create information interfaces with the varieties of talent markets, and instead concerned themselves solely with culture and preservation of privileges of a middle class. Now, this class starts to lose its ground demographically and politically to the newer middle classes, economically to intelligent machines. The new Global Higher Education models would emerge from this reality - and my contention is that it would look very different from what we have on the table as of now.

Monday, October 05, 2015

India - What's The Beef?

If it was not so tragic, it would be amusing to watch Indian politicians fight it out on television on the issue of eating beef.

The facts are indeed tragic. A family was accused of - wrongly, they claim - eating beef at their home. So, a lynch mob sets on them, kills the father and mortally wounds the son. Politicians appear on TV, with Ministers quoting Gandhi how he would have preferred a beef ban. The ruling party, true to its Hinduvta, proclaim that, for them, life of a cow is sacred, though human life may not be (in context). 

This is indeed supposed to be the most populous democracy on earth! And, one that revels on its diversity and culture of tolerance! That rhetoric is alive and kicking, but the ruling party, elected on a mandate of economic development, has been pursuing a social agenda by stealth. This is just the latest flash point in the silent transformation of India.

Regardless of the party in power, though, India has an appalling attitude towards lives of its ordinary citizens. No one is really outraged when someone is killed, even if scores, or hundreds, are killed. Train accidents, riots, hospital infections, all come and go, people die - but accountability, resignation, shame etc are treated as very Un-Indian. So, this time, as this seems to be a lower middle class, ordinary citizen, who is dead (and another one fighting for life in the hospital), it is completely unremarkable - and Ministers are forbidding people to do politics with it. The inconvenient fact that the dead man's son is an Indian Air Force personnel is perhaps the only source of unease, but otherwise, whats the beef?

So, here is the bit to watch out for! On the table, there is a rather tall promise of better days, and no Indian politician, not just the one who made the promise, have a clue how to deliver it. Some neo-liberal economists may have concocted a formula of slave labour plus environmentally blind natural resource extraction plus global finance capital and hoping that this would bring about an economic transformation of India, but if they have not noticed, the horse has already bolted. That formula, based on the assumption that if one can allow industrial era free-for-all for factory owners, no longer possible in the developed world, all the world's manufacturing will converge in India and bring about jobs, is seriously flawed in the age of automation, more aware customers, precarious environment and more connected world where sensibilities are not confined to certain liberal circles! Anything else - entrepreneurial revolution, innovation and all that (which Indian politicians talk little of anyway) - is also excruciatingly difficult in India because the vested interested are so deeply entrenched everywhere that nothing short of a complete revolution can dethrone them, and make room for new ideas [and people; in a society where rich men's sons have all the good ideas, not many new things will happen!].

Therefore, we must turn to banning books and beef, must discover enemies to beat up, inside and outside. We must create a culture of spectacle, all the foreign tours and Louis Vuitton suits, nice little rainbow logos laden with promise but little else. The point, of course, is - we have been here before! This combination of free-for-all economics and majoritarian society, backed by lynch mobs and gaudy spectacle, is a throwback from past, a dark past, rather than symptoms of a promising future. This road of unsustainable economic promise, followed by social designs and strife, have led to disaster before. This is indeed the past India wanted to escape (while so many new nations fell into it, notably in Africa) when it won its independence, but that experiment is now unraveling. Yes, this one death has that pointed significance - a bigger political design that we must urgently watch out for and guard ourselves from! It is time to be political, as all this, inherently, is political indeed.

Exit and Voice in Higher Education

Rajiv Sethi, Professor of Economics at Columbia University, calls Albert Hirschman's book, Exit, Voice and Loyalty Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States, one of the finest books ever written by an economist. However, while by that description this short treatise stands alongside Keynes General Theory or Adam Smiths The Wealth of Nations, it has none of the glamour and recognition of these peers. Yet, in some ways, Hirschman's work has a timeless quality about it - its topic and its exposition appears strangely contemporary despite the frantic transformation of our world and our thinking since the book was published in 1970. 

Hirschman was dealing with an unconventional subject in Economics - decline in firms, when they do not do things well - and therefore, his work stood outside the mainstream economics. Mainstream economics, as Hirschman himself pointed out, operates on the basis of 'Consistent Rationality', which means decline of operating performance of an organisation leads to its exit from the market. As Professor Sethi quotes Hirschman

While moralists and political scientists have been much concerned with rescuing individuals from immoral behavior, societies from corruption, and governments from decay, economists have paid little attention to repairable lapses of economic actors. There are two reasons for this neglect. 

First, in economics one assumes either fully and undeviatingly rational behavior, or, at the very least, an unchanging level of rationality... In other words, economists have typically assumed that a firm that falls behind... does so "for a good reason"; the concept... of a... "repairable lapse" has been alien to their reasoning. 

The second cause of the economist's unconcern about lapses is related to the first. In the traditional model of the competitive economy, recovery from any lapse is not really essential. As one firm loses out in the struggle, its market share is taken up and its factors are hired by others... in the upshot, total resources may well be better allocated. With this picture in mind, the economist can afford to watch lapses of any one of his patients... with far greater equanimity than either the moralist who is convinced of the intrinsic worth of every one of his patients (individuals) or the political scientist whose patient (the state) is unique and irreplaceable. 

Hirschman pointed out that this neglect is not justified, as we have an economy which has consistently produced surpluses since the Second World War - an observation which is even more true today than it was when Hirschman was writing - and the existence of the surplus points to the existence of slack, by definition, at any point of time. This means sub-par performers can exist, and the responses to the sub-optimal is worth studying.

Now, my object here is not to reproduce Professor Sethi's arguments, or that of Hirschman, but rather look at it from another angle - Higher Education! Hirschman's central thesis was that members of a community (or customers for a company) facing sub-optimal service levels have essentially two choices - either they leave (exit) or they protest (voice). In Hirschman's scheme, these two are related - people protest when they feel they think they can change things and there is enough avenues to protest. But, if they are not listened to, or voice is discouraged, they exit - which may mean moving to another firm or, in case of nations, emigrating.

This has enormous relevance for management, as we can see - in this schema - a consumer has more options than to silently leave. In fact, that was one of Hirschman's key point, that by effectively encouraging voice, an organisation can reduce exits - and increase loyalty. This is a rather radical departure from conventional economics where the exit is the only possible consequence. In this scheme, there is an overlap of the economic and the political, and, as one could paraphrase Hirschman to say, encouraging the political can salvage the economic prospects of a firm.

There could be interesting outcomes if we apply this scheme to Higher Education, where the opposite - that students will always resort to Voice - is taken for granted. Higher Education institutions have, over many years, developed cultures of student voice, and there are clear institutions and rituals to enable this to happen. Exit is not a reality Higher Education sector readily accepts - one leaves school at great cost and long term consequence - and often there is no formal provision of exit from the Higher Education system.

Hirschman explored exit and voice in the context of nations, and how people choose to immigrate when a repressive regime takes away the voice. But, the current trend in Higher Education, when, uneasy with political participation of students, different regimes use monetisation and vocationalisation of Higher Education to limit student voice, opens up the possibility of a different kind of exit - of the passive exit of a consumer! If the college is a place one goes to for a job, then one just leaves when things are not going well, just as the employees of a commercial organisation or customers of a shop would leave. However, the Exit from Higher Education is an undefined territory, something that requires as much attention as incident of Exit and Voice has been given in Business Management in recent years.
Indeed, the very practical implication of all this is how to create loyalty, and the road to loyalty lies in converting exit to voice. In everyday terms, if I care for something, I shall try to fix it. Otherwise, I would just leave. The challenge of monetised and vocationalised Higher Ed is exactly that - how to make students a participant, rather than a passive consumer. Because, if we can not, we would have too many substandard colleges survive because of the surplus demand and regulatory roadblocks on new entrants, and create a bigger and bigger mess for ourselves.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Education-for-Employment : The Role of Information

I spent a lot of time over the last few years at the fault line of education and employment. This is a sort of no man's land, a messy swamp of practice that many educators would ignore in their pursuit of an imaginary complete individual who need not care for a job! The employers, who built industrial-scale recruitment operations with the aim of commoditizing hiring, would not bother too much about this area, which fell outside their area of influence. Well-meaning executives, who privately wished for better education in their country and community, thought it best not to challenge educators in their own turf, recognizing the institutional nature of education and feeling rather powerless to change anything. However, almost everyone admitted there was indeed a big gap, and a range of initiatives were spawned in the recent years to solve the problem.

In this, I had taken the usual journey. It started with seeking out better courses - could one design courses to meet the ever-changing needs of the employers - before the realisation, that it is a moving target, set in. That led to the quest for greater employer involvement, and soon the limitations of insatiable here-and-now demands of Corporate recruiters were all too apparent. The Education-to-Employment territory, a battle zone of ideas, is indeed littered with wasted efforts, with different education providers each claiming to do a better job than others, and yet, no one formula has ever worked in scale.

My exposure to different markets and education systems give me some ideas why this may be so. Whether or not education is marketised (or should be marketised), Graduate Hiring is a market in action. The dynamic of this market varies from nation to nation, and profession to profession, but it is nonetheless a market, which, in most cases, do not work very well. It is the lack of understanding how this market works, both by the educators and the strategy-makers on the employer side, keeps the education-to-employment gap widening.

Indeed, any talk about markets is an anathema for educators, though it need not be so. Recognising the dynamic of the graduate hiring market can solve a number of dilemmas in Higher Education. A market operates on information, and enabling better information flow and influencing the market structure, can significantly enhance the ability of the educators to secure better outcome for the students. When we talk about competency-based assessment or project-based learning, we are not necessarily talking about a better pedagogy - one can argue that such methods are more suitable in specific cases and subject areas and less in others - but an information structure more readily matched with employers.

After a close involvement in the labour markets in the Developing world, I see what happens when the parties involved - colleges and corporate recruiters - do not engage in information exchange, but look for proxies instead. The most usual proxy is college ranking and prestige, which is near universal, though it creates uneven distribution of job offers and talent (because such prestige, by definition, depend on securing most offers and educating least number of graduates), and because this is an imperfect proxy of the candidates' ability to do the job, often causes disappointment. Besides, such proxies get even worse as the relative position of the graduates from top institutions in these countries, as they deem themselves to be so much better than everyone else, creates other problems, such as a sense of entitlement that prevents learning, and indeed, the desire to move overseas.

The other proxy, common in some sectors and industries, is internships of various kinds. Surveys of recruiters in the United States point to greater emphasis put on internships than academic achievement, and this is because internships convey better information to the recruiters - or at least, the kind of information they are looking for - than the transcripts. The problem is that internship is an extremely costly affair - not many can afford working without pay and paying for boarding, lodging and other associated expenses - not to mention that internships are still driven by connections rather than merit.

My point remains that the educators can do more to bridge the education-to-employment problem by seeking to assess, and to provide to recruiters better information about the students ability. To do this, they do not have to abandon the idea of broader education. In fact, this approach may rejuvenate the humanities, and other disciplines, that routinely loses out in the job markets. A scholar in history could do painstaking textual research, a graduate in psychology learns experimental design and a sociology student does fieldwork in the communities, but while certain recruiters may value these abilities, their transcripts do not talk about these things. Instead, it is littered with subjects and marks which are of no relevance to recruiters. Educators design assessments and transcripts with an inward-looking mindset -  they assume all their students are preparing for a contemplative lives of scholars - and this discriminates against those looking to pursue an active life of economic participation. Recognising this as a legitimate aspiration, and making available feedback and information that could be used for professional matching, would make education much more relevant and motivating to all concerned.

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