Wednesday, May 25, 2016

6/100: On The Question of Priorities

Sometimes manic workdays provide the best opportunity to reflect: Why am I doing all this? 

Today is one of those, and I am pausing to write this post after a few crazy hours of clearing my inbox, so to say. In a few hours, I am off to catch a flight, in anticipation of a family event in Kolkata over the weekend, where I get to see almost everyone I call family (including some who I have not met since emigrating, though Facebook was handy). But, for that, I am squeezing in a week's worth of work in a day - and that brings out, in sharp relief, what I do and that my life has become way too complicated.

At this very point, as the diverse nature of today's work tells me, I am doing far too many things, for far too many reasons. The truth is, I already know this, and have started pulling out of activities. The first casualty of this quest of simple is a community event that I got interested in, and spent some time exploring. However, this realisation - that I am doing far too many things - came early, and I have now completely pulled out of this. And, this is an useful model for me to follow. I did spend considerable amount of time trying to pull the event together, and even when it became obvious that the event, if staged, would never be anything close to the idea I initially had, I dithered about pulling out just because of all that invested time, effort and ego in it. But, then, the penny dropped - it was obvious that staying in and continuing what I was doing is no solution - and I was out of it completely.

For some, this is plain prioritisation, but I have never been very good at it. Just as I am now taking time to write this post, I spend time without necessarily prioritising on the basis of my own good. Therefore, I fall behind on many essential tasks - expense claims are one good example - but have time to pursue conversations if it interests me, write this blog, read books, and make many serendipitous connections. And, I have no desire to change this and become a priority-bound businessperson: That is simply not who I am, or will be - and such 'good practices' would make me a bit more mediocre and a lot less effective in things that I do.

So, here is the dilemma - I complain as multiple things claim my attention this morning and yet, I do not really want to change my ways and do things almost everyone else does! That I just need to prioritise - for example, not write this post and get going on things that have to be done - is just one, conventional, and in my view, unimaginative answer. If I remain true to my other quest, being authentic to myself and not try to live someone else's life, I can indeed write this post and not to things which would be more beneficial to myself. I am only being conventional - following an order of priority - with the exception that I define that priority in terms of authenticity, what my heart tells me to do, rather than conventional wisdom, what everyone else thinks I should do.

However, days like this also help distill those ideas on what is expendable and what is not, and what I should be doing more of and where I should cut and run. It is clear to me that my most promising idea is the one about creating a Liberal Learning institution, something I worked for several years now, to bring together a multidisciplinary environment for education, enterprise and research. This was the 'big' project that I conceived when I decided to walk away from my earlier business, and while I made compromises along the way and took on other jobs, this remained my idea of the new, new thing that I shall do next. The problem that I have right now is not fragmentation of my current commitments - I have always been doing different things - but the fragmentation of how I see my own future. And, this, rather than computation of present and clear advantages, should be the basis of prioritisation for me, one that allows the best use of my time as well as enabling those serendipity and chance connections that make me.

My thinking this moment is like this: Which, of all these competing demands on my time, moves me forward to my goal of being able to create that Liberal Learning institution, which will encourage studies and research of human sciences (I have borrowed the term from Quentin Skinner) but within a contemporary, practical life perspective? If something, even in a roundabout way, contribute to that end goal, it is worth spending my time on. If it is not, I would rather give up that opportunity and move on. Applying this test, one of my endeavours - talking to a big company which has been courting me for a job - is completely without merit, and needs to be abandoned. And, so is my various efforts to remain involved in my previous business that other people have already taken over; while I am happy to advice and help for the sake of friendship and past connections, this is one I should be drawing a line on and exclude from the priorities that drive my life. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

5/100: A Tale of Two Airlines

In the last 24 hours, I had two very contrasting experiences with air travel, which, I believe, illustrate how to (and not to) compete globally.

The first event happened around yesterday afternoon. My Sister and Brother-in-Law, along with their 5 year old daughter, turned up at the Delhi airport for their 530pm flight to Kolkata. Indigo, an Indian airline whose principal claim of differentiation is based on their punctuality and professionalism, informed them that the flight is late, delayed by an hour or so. As they checked in, though, the flight continued to be delayed. By the time my sister started talking about this in WhatsApp, it was already around 9pm. I, with many experiences with delayed flights, almost casually commented that the airline must have been taking good care of them! To my surprise, it turned out that not only the airline has not been able to confirm when the flight would leave, they did not offer food, any place to stay, and their ground staff has simply disappeared. When some people enquired whether they can get a refund, they were told they can not, unless the flight was cancelled.

I was surprised to hear this, and was forced to look up passenger rights in India. I did find it - the Ministry of Civil Aviation (see here) clearly mandates the airlines to provide food in case of a delay and accommodation if the delay is too long - and sent it to my sister over WhatsApp. They had to then go into a wild goose chase around the airport trying to find a person to talk to, and once they found someone, the answer they got was surreal: Because Indigo is a budget airline and do not serve dinner, they would not offer food even if the flight is delayed. This was late in Delhi - already 10pm by then - and clearly, the Indigo staff was bluffing, evading and mostly staying away. 

At this point, I took on Twitter. My few messages brought stock replies - sorry for the inconvenience and we are doing our best - but it did connect me to many other people reporting horror stories from Jaipur and Delhi. The experience was similar: Indigo flights are delayed, 6 hours and more, and the staff has run away, the phones are not being answered, social media messages are being stonewalled with stock statements, and if a stray staff could be confronted, they are trying to bluff or bully.

The flight ultimately left at 3am, with a 10 hour delay, and some food was offered at around midnight. If the whole thing was not so painful, it would have been a hilarious spectacle of incompetence - aborted boardings, confusions about baggage loading, mistakes about boarding passes, everything at the same time! There might have been a real reason - weather and airport congestion were mentioned (though neither explains the extent of the delay) - but the whole storied Indigo punctuality seemed to have fallen away at the first sight of trouble. The airline clearly was not accountable - it treated the inconvenienced passengers with contempt and bureaucratic indifference - and its staff spun stories, regardless of their obligations by law, to mislead and to bully.

However, if my faith on the whole Airline business was about to be lost, I was pleasantly surprised this morning. I am also going to India and when I tried to book the Emirates Chauffeur Drive service, I was told it was too late. So I called the Emirates Call Centre, and a helpful agent booked the service for me. She was so helpful and forthcoming that I thought of making a request: Few days ago, I made an upgrade for my wife and my son, but made a mistake so that only a segment of the journey, and not the whole journey, was upgraded. It was clearly my mistake, and the only way to rectify it is to pay a $1000 fee and upgrade the bookings in a different way. However, I requested, could she possibly look into it and help me rectify the booking? If she said no - and I was expecting her to say no - I had nothing to say. For all commercial reasons, I was expecting, she would ask me to pay the additional $1000, which is an option I could see on my booking screen. Instead, however, she listens to me and then explains why this is very difficult, as my previous upgrade has to be cancelled without a penalty and a re booking has to be made - not a straightforward thing that the system allows! She said she would try - and call me back if she managed to do this. 

At this point, my faith in humanity was almost restored. That she called me back in an hour, apologised for the delay as the process was complicated and she needed her manager to approve a few things, and then informed me that she had done the necessary upgrades, made me write this post. The person I spoke to is a Customer Service Agent, possibly lower in status and pay than the Managers of Ground Staff in Indigo Airlines in Delhi. Irrespective of the situation, both were non-standard contexts: In the earlier, the airline had an obligation; in the latter, it was I who made the mistake. One set of people, in Delhi, go into hiding and mislead the passengers; the other person goes out of her way to help me.

So, as I write this, my head is filled with the Why question. Why do people behave so differently? Is it because the people are so different? Can Indigo really rectify the situation, if they wanted to, by singling out who was at fault in Delhi and firing that person (which is what they would possibly do when the brand damage from yesterday night becomes clear, or complaints of DGCA come to bear)?

The obvious answer is that this is a culture question. Indigo, enjoying the boom in Indian passenger numbers, have forgotten the future. Though its success depends a lot on people's disaffection with India's state-owned Air India, infamous for its indifference to passengers, it has adopted the same bureaucratic indifference to people who fly them. In contrast, Emirates, which came from behind and built the world's largest airline, still faces the pinch of global competition, and has built a culture of treating its passengers as people, who need some respect and little indulgences, just as I did this morning. My sister felt powerless and humiliated by Indigo yesterday; I felt respected and loved by Emirates today, but both those emotions stemmed from essential strategic assumptions that these companies built their businesses on. 

One of my objective is to build the World's Friendliest Business, something that would treat people who work for it and who do business with it with respect, love and humility. This puts me at odds with many businesses, which would rather define everything by a process and leave little for human discretion: My point is that even if I want to build a process for 'friendliness', processes always bureaucratize and process-owners would always aim to accumulate power - in the end, dumbing down in a zombie form like Indigo in my example. My thesis is that one needs to build it around people - and make everyone empowered like the person in Emirates who made my day today!


Sunday, May 22, 2016

4/100: On The Great Courses

I have an aversion to the word Great! This is one of the words in English language, employed to describe a little island, which has taken an altogether new level of superficiality in the usual American habit of splashing it onto anything: For example, "the Great Country of North Korea" - ok, except that!

I was, therefore, naturally suspicious when I come across The Great Courses, the audio/video learning content aimed at Lifelong Learning (another meaningless expression, admittedly, except that it has a specific meaning in the European Union). I came across these through the regular advertisements in The New Yorker and The London Review of Books, and also, in a Bill Gates interview, where he mentioned that he uses The Great Courses to learn about different subjects. Gates' point was interesting: He was arguing that more than the MOOCs, The Great Courses, high quality recorded videos on a rage of subjects, designed for self-study, has great potential to change Education. Indeed, Gates seems to have put his money on this since then, as this story in The New York Times reports.

Bill Gates' views on education is not everyone's cup of tea. Surely, his Common Core idea has many opponents. Besides, he seems to focus on 'Content' more than the process of education, which is perhaps quite normal from his vantage point, a highly intelligent self-educated geek billionaire who made money out of selling software! Usually, I hang out with the crowd who would say, Content does not matter: As content is costly to produce and to refresh, it does not therefore fit the quest for efficiency some investors in For-Profit Education or EdTech are focused on. In a paradox worth noting, despite the talk, most big EdTech or Education deals are done in content - think of Linkedin buying - and the excitement about MOOCs were all about content or elements related to that (universities involved, courses offered etc).

I have now become a convert to The Great Courses though. I am now working through a course on The American History and have already finished a couple: One on the Cultural History of Japan and another on Masters of War, the great strategic thinkers in History. These courses, though I usually bought them on special offers in the magazines I mentioned, are not cheap: The American History course retails at $200! I bought the DVD versions using the free postage offering, but mostly used the Free Video Streaming offered alongside. These courses are, expectedly, courses - scholarly material delivered by learnt men - and not the usual TV programmes that I was expecting initially. They use complex concepts and ideas, delve into a level of detail that should be expected in a college course and usually presented by people with real credentials (I am eyeing now a course on Existentialism taught by the philosopher late Robert Solomon, an authority on the subject, for example). 

Here is my point why I think these courses make a difference in my personal context. I am passionate about Liberal Education, and believe, particularly in the context of India, that too much focus on Technical Education is now leading the country to a crisis, as the process-based jobs get increasingly automated. But while I argue passionately about humanities and social sciences and have argued that the Government should stop giving university licenses to single discipline Engineering schools (many technical schools try to get 'university status' to start granting their degrees) and that Undergraduate Business courses should be based on a Liberal Education structure, I have found that these arguments have few takers in India (though an argument being unpopular does not mean it is wrong: A lot of people in India believe that they should not bother about environment as catching up on development should come first). The Great Courses does two things for me: One, it allows me to work on my own knowledge and understanding, a critical requirement for my long term objective to set up a Liberal Learning institution in India. Two, it shows me a way how good Liberal Learning can be made available to all classrooms: I can see the magic in Gates' method.

Therefore, The Great Courses - really great stuff, for once! It is something I shall continue buying and studying through, but this also gives me all sorts of new ideas for things that can be done in India. I have started reaching out to people I know and encouraged them to buy and start doing a course of their own choice. This has also given me an impetus for looking at the whole idea of liberal learning from a new perspective, and connecting my other ideas, an education based on practise and connection with real life, and usage of human-centred technologies in Education (rather than those to replace people), I feel somewhat close to a model that I should pursue. Someday!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Changing World of Work and How To Think About Skills Training

The conversation started with a question: What would you do if you have to re-imagine Skills Training in India? It was prompted by, no doubt, my posts in the past regarding the trajectory of skills training sector in India, which, I argued, took the eye off the ball - the demands of real workplaces - because the Government was throwing so much money into it. The correspondent, a retired Senior Executive with portfolio interests in skills training businesses, had a clear idea of both sides - he knew the changing nature of work and he knew the demand for skills education and its challenges - and he and I found ourselves in perfect agreement that government-funded skills training almost always changes priorities, from the student-centric priorities to one of pleasing bureaucrats and winning grants. This is a persistent problem in all countries - the education providers in the UK are no exception - but the absence of other safeguards, consumer rights of students, health and safety standards, standards of contractual arrangements and trust and ethical standards in general, poses particular challenges for skills education in India. 

However, this conversation is about particular challenges for India and not universal ones. On the same token, my broader point that employers and trade unions are much better placed than education providers, who often do not have access to skilled 'masters' and only have a theoretical understanding of the changing workplaces, may also be set aside. What is more relevant perhaps is that we are entering a phase of globalisation when the earlier dispersion of jobs - the big outsourcing wave that India has benefited so spectacularly from - has stopped and being reversed. This is perhaps quite obvious in India already, as the job growth in the country over the last several years came from sectors driven by domestic demand - retail, beauty and wellness, healthcare, banking and insurance, automotive, education, real estate and telecom - rather than export demand. However, at the same time, growth of the domestic demand itself was closely linked to the urban prosperity and growth of the cities, a large part of which can be attributed to the large and maturing industries such as IT and IT Services, which, with earnings in stronger currencies, had a disproportionate effect on middle class consumption compared to the number of jobs they created. 

The conversation about skills training, therefore, should start with an appreciation of these broader economic factors. And, as evident, there is global aspect of all this, as well as domestic implications. The Indian Skills Development agenda so far has ignored the globalisation aspect, as if it did not happen, primarily because it focused on jobs created by domestic demand. However, this needs to be readjusted in view of the changing needs of the export-facing sectors (IT and IT Services, but also modern manufacturing, with the current government has made the linchpin of its development plan) as well as to accommodate the global transformation of the sectors such as retail. For example, India has become the world's fastest growing e-commerce market, creating a whole new range of skills demand, which the national skills development policies, despite identifying retail as a key sector, mostly overlooked.

The basic premise of Indian Skills Development policies, which has shaped the focus of skills training businesses in India, is the transformation of Indian workforce from unorganised to organised sector, and consequently, focused on the transition of rural, casual workmen into urban workers in a factory setting. The underlying assumption here is that the Indian Economy will go through a transition just like the Nineteenth century industrial economies (an assumption that frames other policies of the Indian state, including those towards environment, education and health). This, however, leads to the problem of ignoring the role of the skills training in a rapidly globalising economy facing the full force of automation and technological transformation, both in export-facing sectors and in domestic demand. 

To conceptualise this, my proposal has always been to stop viewing skills training as a supply side phenomena - a pipeline to transform rural folk to urban workers - and start imagining it as a demand creation tool - a skilled workforce facilitating expansion of economic activities, creating demand and expanding jobs and growth. This would need a redefinition of priorities in policy-making, but if that is driven by political considerations of rural vote bank, we already know the solution to India's bulging demographics does not lie in unorganised-to-organised sector transition, important as it may be for the functioning of the welfare state, but in the expansion of the urban economy and jobs. This is what informs the government policy towards entrepreneurship development and campaigns such as 'Make in India' and the skills policy should be seen in line with these broad economic measures.

To return to the question we began with - how should one build a new skills training business in India - one should look beyond the dictates of the government policy and be guided by economic fundamentals. There is always an incentive for private investment backed education businesses to chase the existing pots of money - and follow the government mandates however misdirected they may be - rather than crafting a strategy around economic fundamentals of a changing economy. However, this is why private education businesses, more often than not, fail to create long term value for its investors, as a business aligned with government priorities may create value for its primary customers, government itself, but not for learners, whose fates are more tied to economic fundamentals.

Therefore, we are talking about creating a skills training business that is aligned with long term trends of the Indian economy, which will be equipped to create long term value for its investors. I shall propose five principles in designing the business model for this.

First, I shall design it as a platform that can engage employers flexibly, rather than a close-ended education provider. So, instead of a 'college', one is building the equivalent of an external 'HR Business Partner', a service provider who aligns with strategic needs of a large employer and designs a range of solutions, encompassing immediate as well as long term needs, for identification, recruitment, development and retention of talent.

Second, this platform would, at its heart, have a framework that takes a broader perspective of 'skill'. In today's workplaces, it is not enough to know 'how to', because 'how to' is constantly changing and always facing disruption from technological change, but also 'why' and 'what'. So, to use a metaphor, every mason needs to be able to visualise the cathedral they are building, or at least the corner of the spire that they are building themselves. This may be common sense, but this is hardly promoted when one seeks to divide between Education and Skills Training, confining the latter to the limited scope of 'How To' knowledge.

Third, this platform would be founded on workplace realities of our time: Collaborative Work, an appreciation of available and emerging technologies, global outlook and appreciation of competitive environment, and the changing nature of workplace relationships and contracts. Because skills training is often run with outdated assumptions about working relationships and environments, the learners miss out an appreciation of what work would be like in real life. Many Indian skills training providers complain that their learners do not find jobs because they are not ready to move, or that they have unreal expectations about their contracts etc. One can blame the social realities of India, and in this, there is some justification; but that the skills training completely usually miss the subject of what is to be expected at the end does not reflect well on the sector.

Fourth, this platform should recognise an important reality of the Indian workplaces - that ability to speak fluently in multiple languages is one of the, perhaps the most, valuable skill in the Indian workplace. For most cases, it is English which makes a difference; but in other cases, for jobs focused on domestic consumption, speaking in Hindi or one of Southern tongues (or in all four major Southern languages) create an immense advantage. Depending on the job/ sector, language training, alongside the attendant behaviours and professional abilities, should be an essential part of the proposition.

Fifth, one of the reason college students do not transition well into jobs because they continue to think of themselves as 'students' longer than they should: This is a persistent complaint one hears from large employers of graduates in India. This is indeed a global problem: That the environment education providers create, and the expectations they place on their learners, are often defined in terms of mastery of given knowledge, but not sufficiently focused on development of their professional identities (other than as academics). If this is an annoying problem with formal education, in skills training, this is a deal-breaker. The objective of skills training is to develop the 'Working Identity' - my favourite term borrowed from INSEAD's Herminia Ibarra - and the whole environment should be geared towards creation of this identity for the learners, through performance of real life work, through interactions with practitioner mentors and through partnership in appropriate communities.

So, what would a skills training business look like if constructed around these principles? It would look like a Service, rather than a chain of training centres, for sure. It would work in partnership with owners of training facilities, which is a well-established model, but this partnership would operate with certain parameters, rather than a current, free-for-all model that has turned the model into a MLM business. The core competencies of this business would be strategic engagement with the employers and ability to structure experiences leading to the mastery of high demand and emergent skills. The key assets in this business model would indeed include technological capability to own the learner experience over the full life-cycle, as well as complete control over the value-creating levers such as the mentors and the activities that the learner performs. The objective of the business would be to develop the learners' 'working identities', which is an aggregate of job related abilities, career mindset, softer skills, technological literacy and professional language skills. This model would fit perfectly with the current conversation in India to create clear educational pathways from vocational to academic credentials, and while I do not subscribe to the oft-stated view that one should be able to do a Ph D in Plumbing (I have heard this many times as an illustration of the portability of vocational qualifications into the academic world, but this reflects a complete ignorance of what either Ph D, or Plumbing, is about), I believe that recognising Professional Skills within an academic framework is eminently possible and many Indian universities are very keen to create such pathways and many employers looking for skills are often constrained by contract terms to hire degree holders.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

3/100: The Two Lives

My whole project of 100 days, which, by the way, I am doing well with, is about changing my life. However, changing my life to what is still perhaps unresolved. The overall goal, to go beyond the compromises I had to do after my last experiment at a breakout, remains: But what the next breakout is about needs more thinking.

As I noted in an earlier post, my enthusiasm about the world of education ventures have now somewhat dampened. The reason for this is a realisation, which comes with the exposure I have had over the last several years, that all the talk about education innovation is really neither about education nor about innovation. It is, mostly, about some desperate excess money following concepts and ideas past their sale-by date. And, this does not excite me enough: Or, let's say, it does not make me feel that any hardship is worthwhile to build another of those education apps that no one wants to pay for, or, for that matter, that For-Profit school that would peddle vocational courses and build on a credulous student population which craves for an 'foreign' degree. This is what education innovation in the venture world really is: It is not about new ideas but rather 'scale', a word which has come to mean more students for less cost, and that pursuit of efficiency, rather than effectiveness, dominate all the conversations.

Which is a big mistake. Economists are quite good at formulating theories and models, but have not done, for understandable reasons, one for the self-destruction of capital. The Schumpeterian vision of creative destructuction can be seen in action in the world of venture investment, in education as in others, where the herd mentality rules supreme, and the supposed smart money goes dumb as it follows the boastful illusions created by the few pied-pipers, who produce glitzy reports, collect their fees and watch other peoples' money to line up and self-destruct. This world, which I have become familiar with, runs on gossip, rumours, half-truths, urban legends and usual unfounded claims which the bankers are so capable of. 

My predicament, of course, is that I am somehow stuck in this world. If I set my goal to build a better education offering, I have no other alternative, or not any in plain sight, but to turn to one of these sources of funds and get consumed in and by various ideas of better education spun by people who never taught for a day in their lives. Besides, that mad pursuit of scale is always usually focused on tried and tested new ideas, the pun is entirely intended, and the whole conversation is about copy-and-catchup route of being unique. The conversations are always centered on Cost of Student Acquisition and Teacher-Student Ratios, the analysts' prisms to measure efficacy of education, and almost never about what and how they learn. My aims of building an education to make better citizens and leaders have really no chance of surviving in this world.

So, I continue to live two lives, or, really, two and half lives. One of these would continue, from right now to beyond the 100 day mark, and I shall continue to hawk my business experience and knowledge of markets to whoever would pay for it. The key realisation in the last several years is that it is not worth making sacrifices for to build a For-Profit Education business. I should continue to work, perhaps outside the boring bounds of big companies where executives are more concerned about keeping their jobs than doing anything worthwhile. Something worthwhile may indeed come from it - there are some things which I am involved in may have some potential - but it is not something I wanted to define my life with.

Here, therefore, is the scope for a second life, which I live in waiting. I can afford to be estoteric here - I want to build a humanities education offering using all the tools of the trade that I have learnt through my day jobs, like education technology, project-based and activity-based learning, commitment to practice rather than theory - as I am getting ready to make the sacrifices necessary for it. I am acutely aware that this is not for any venture money - that is after an instrumentalist version of education and completely oblivious of the social and political change around us - and I have to find different kinds of money, public, philanthropic or crowdsourced, to do this effectively. This is what I spend time preparing for: Thinking about how to make humanities education come alive, to break out from its implicitly elitist assumptions (not just those backing technical education thinks humanities is for the leisurely, most people in humanities departments in the universities emphasize that they serve no immediate practical purpose, and are taken to imply that there is no practical objective for a humanities education at all) and to make good humanities education available to a large number of people.

Between the idea and reality, the future and current projects, is my half life, which is my quest of building an working identity, just as I believe one has to do to effect a change in career (an idea advocated by Herminia Ibarra of Insead). I am working to build a business model for a Leadership and Strategy Education, for students in High Schools or College (that bit is yet to be determined) using History, Literature and Philosophy, and through projects, travel and conversations. This is all an imaginary exercise right now - I have no funds and no ability to work on this - but I am hoping that this would provide me with something to focus my mind on, to build partnerships and conversations with like-minded people from across the world and even a context to explore the economic and operational model seriously. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

2/100: India's Coming Job Crisis & Education

India is set to face a jobs crisis. 

One needs to look at three things to understand that a crisis is imminent.

First, the numbers. On average, 69,000 people turn 25 every single day in India, or more than 2 million every month. Women's participation in the workforce remain small and a large number of people get absorbed in family enterprises. There are about 12 million new people enter the workforce every year. Against this, about 5.5 million new jobs are created every year, many of these being in the informal sector, and lowly paid. The key sectors, the Government identifies 8 of them, usually creates about 200,000 jobs a quarter on average, nowhere close to what may be required.

Second, the most spectacular job growth in the last two decades have come from Indian IT Services sector, which is going to face a crisis of its own. A large proportion of workforce in the sector is engaged in low-cost, process based work, the kind of work which is being automated fast. Many jobs in Indian IT are also focused on Legacy systems, which are being retired and replaced by new generation technologies which require a lot less people. But this shifting demand for IT workers has not dampened the costs of employing them, as the soaring real estate and other costs in Indian cities - and most large companies remained clustered in a few Indian cities due to uneven regional development and poor infrastructure - have kept the costs of employing people high. 

Third, the Government's big plan - with an aim of creating 400 million new jobs by 2020 - rests on plans like creating new manufacturing bases in India (as envisioned in the global campaign 'Make in India'). This, however, requires, as a pre-requisite, great infrastructure, abundant energy and healthy and educated workforce, all the elements India lacks at this time and all of which will take time to build up. The government policy has, so far, focused on building transport infrastructure by simplifying land acquision and grant of permits, and on 'liberalising' labour laws, but ignored the other important areas such as health, education and environment, all of which are crucially important for modern manufacturing. On the energy front, India is only doing a catch-up, and its plan to increase the reliance on fossil fuel, clearly emulating China, may be a couple of decades too late. Given the paucity of ideas, India is likely to miss its job creation target by a wide margin.

Looking at the numbers, it may be obvious that there would never be enough jobs for all the people. And, as some will say, the solution lies in creating Job Givers, Entrepreneurs. That conversation is alive and kicking in India - the Government has announced 'Start-Up India' programme with great fanfare - and many of the new 400 million jobs are supposed to come from this. However, one also knows that nothing will happen when it is so difficult to set up and run small businesses in India. The state remains intrusive - and indeed intrude all too often - and usually tilts the scale, through direct and indirect intervention, towards bigger businesses. And, besides, continued neglect of basic social infrastructure like Health and Education hurts the Entrepreneurial ecosystem even more than the climate for foreign investment for Manufacturing industries. In fact, if anything, the political interference in Indian universities have increased, rather than decreased, over the years, and the commitment to research and study has dwindled. While its neighbouring China has taken up a target of building 20 world leading universities by 2020, and mostly achieved it, the Indian government's response was to reject international rankings, for whatever they are worth, and try to rank its universities itself, with an India-only ranking.

I am not arguing that internationally ranked universities is the way to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem and I am indeed acutely aware of the perverse incentives ranking systems create. But, instilling a government defined ranking has the worst of both the worlds: It creates perverse incentives (more so if you consider how corrupt the Indian education regulatory bodies have been) but it does not create true benchmarks, only inward-looking ones. Add to this the fact that most State Governments in India have stepped back from Higher Education altogether, and have indiscriminately allowed mostly corrupt businesses to set up private universities (against a large contribution to the coffers of various ruling parties), the whole climate of education has declined precipitously with a host of officially sanctioned Diploma mills, which students are forced to turn to because there is not much alternative (the alternative is not going to college). In context, the idea that the Government policy can create an environment of Entrepreneurship, that would create a large number of well-paying jobs, without a dynamic, forward-looking, world class education system, seems absurd at best.

The other big thing that the Government has done to avert the job crisis is to set up an extensive programme for skills training. Though this has been, so far, many overlapping initiatives running in various directions, and poorly implemented. But, even its key premise - that young people in India needs technical skills - is flawed, because India already produces the largest number of technically qualified manpower and most of them remain unemployed. Besides, the attempt to create a separate 'skills training infrastructure' is a colossal waste of public money, and while India's colleges remain poorly funded, such parallel efforts make no sense other than another way of channelling money to politically connected (I did ask the question - why does the funding body, NSDC, fund new training providers to set up infrastructure, while the public colleges sit with idle capacity and poor infrastructure - to many well-placed individuals, but never got a satisfactory answer). While globally distinctions between Education and Skills are being questioned and eliminated, India has found a way to institutionalise it. In that sense, the Government's various efforts to intervene in skills has been entirely counterproductive.

From my vantage point, the impending jobs crisis - which will surely result in a political crisis some years down the line - needs fundamental and interconnected solutions, to build physical and social infrastructure, urgent action on regional developmental disparity (which always creates bottlenecks in distribution of opportunities and therefore, create unemployment) and a national action plan for education, side by side with the policy measures of the Government. The key may lie in reforming India's general education system, and the colleges that offer them. And, it is not just colleges: The schools and High Schools must be equipped to imbibe the skills part that the government is so keen on, and make efforts to erase the age-old dislike of practical work. It is an wonderful entrepreneurial opportunity for people like me, working to erase the distinction between education and skills, and professional education and 'liberal arts', as India needs more people who can think and act at the same time, at all levels. And, this has global significance: As India is set to supply a quarter of the global workforce in the coming years, the educational experiments of the next decades should happen in India. This I see as my own big thing to do in life.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

1/100: A New Kind of Enterprise

Today is the first day of rest of my life. I have written this line before, and write it again now. This quote, whoever it is from, is some kind of tag line that describes how I live fairly well. 

It is true that I feel like being at an inflection point. I have lived far too long in a survival mode, licking my wounds for a past adventure and unsure of when and what I should embark on next. As it always comes with failure, I had the endless re-run of the past in my mind - if only I did that - but also what Emily Dickinson would call 'precarious gait', experience, that told me I am not ready yet.

But, then, one is always ready. The sense of failure that I describe, a combination of re-runs and caution, is too attached to living a past life. Life, however, is lived forwards, and the secret of being ready, as this very moment signify, is to stop living what has been lived, and start living what is to be lived from this point on. This is not about wiping out any memory, but recognising the memory and moving on.

The biggest gift that comes with such recognition is indeed the clarity of freedom. And, freeing myself fully from the past failure also frees me from this tortured sense of survival that I lived with, all of last two years, and, all of a sudden, recognise the promise of what may lie ahead and see what I do today as a building block of that future. And, this change, all within myself, without a single drop of rain touching the earth or a new plant sprouting, is as significant and world-changing as any transformation to rewrite the world history could be, in the private world that I build for myself.

So much for that, but this is why I write this. I always wanted to keep this blog as my Commonplace Book, the nineteenth century practice of keeping a scrapbook of ideas, but of late, I have been forced - forced because I was just surviving - to turn this into some kind of professional billboard, projecting to show off 'thought leadership', despite my distaste for the expression as it claims to turn 'thought' into property and a game of oneupmanship, and not, as I believe, a shared opportunity to be human.

This freedom, then, returns me to banter, to write as it comes, to bare my feelings and to write without expectations. This writing without restraint, showing off my deepest inconsistencies and vulnerabilities, is the opposite of the polished pretence of thought leadership. However, I would deny that this is some kind of release, 'transference' of own hope and frustration into a public display, a sort of massive game of virtual sympathy. It is rather for me a conversation, one with many, the kind of connection I sought out when I started writing at all and chose a blog to be my platform: It is reaching out, not to anyone in particular, but the metaphorical human soul, to everyone, and to everytime.

In a sense, this act itself defines the very breaking point that it seeks to describe. Stopping by - no woods or snowy evening here, but a just a sunny, warm, suburban spring morning - I steal a moment to recognise I have no time to stop and look back, but just chart a new path ahead. That failure that may have marked my past would not define my future; the meekness and indecision that I lived with in the present should not depress or cloud what I do in the future. 

In practical terms, what this means that I stop being an entrepreneur. This has been my quest of the past, and I sure tried as intently as possible. But the quest of that label obscured to me the variety and multiplicity of human enterprise. This life-form, endowed with gloamour in modern imagination, somewhat dominated my thinking and ruled out the other possibilities that existed before me. As I claim to be innovative and imaginative, refused, in search of authenticity and happiness, the boring idea of becoming a company man, the accepted role-model of my childhood world of suburban Calcutta. However, while I wanted, and chose, to be different, that label itself became conventional, a straightjacket ruling out all other possibilities of living a life of making a difference, replacing excitement for authenticity, glamour for understanding and in the end, an all-purpose illusion to destroy the creative possibilities.

This is not just about my entrepreneurial failure though: I tried and failed to make money, true. But I overlooked, in the process of my sulking, the variety of ways I lived, all those small acts of difference that extracted me from the constricted world of limited possibilities to now, when, by the very act of being able to start again, I authenticate myself. This apparently meaningless blog, spreading over 10 years and more than 1600 posts, worthless in terms of entrepreneurship as it never made money (though that is not true) but an essential enterprise, a building block of what I am, a signature of my progress. The obsession with entrepreneurial reward may have been obscuring all these other possibilities that were open to me.

Like, being a teacher. Or, taking writing seriously. Or, doing something I have always wanted to do, to study history. Or, just to up anchor and being a nomad. True, all these need sacrifices, compromises, reining in one desire or another, but what determines the worth of anything. And, this is indeed true enterprise - balancing desires and making sacrifices to achieve the one true goal! However much one may take to heart the Silicon Valley slogan of making a dent in the universe, one that I clung to since I came across it in the 1990s, it is a woolly dream not to recognise that this is a product of a given setting at a given time, and spending my life in the elusive quest of such may have the real risk of becoming empty sloganeering, which it indeed may have become, or worse, ruling out other possibilities of enterprise, like setting up a small school that really makes a difference to a small local group of people but never scale to change the world, that could endow a deep meaning to life.

Therefore, 1 of 100: I set myself on a hundred days plan to change. This is not about starting another business, which I conspire to do all too often, but to go back studying history and writing meaningfully, building connections and friendships with an altogether new world of people who are very different from the world of business that I have lived in so far, and accepting the compromises that signal I shall perhaps never become an entrepreneur. 



Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The E-School Method

The new Digital Economy demands new sets of competences and abilities, enterprise being the most critical. While one may think of Enterprise as critical for those who set up and run businesses, enterprise with the small ‘e’ is the everyday ability to find problems, optimise resources and think creatively, opening up possibilities of doing better even within the most process-orientated of the jobs.
Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University estimate that more than half of the current occupational categories face significant risk of being automated within foreseeable future, and for many professions, this is real and the job roles are already changing. Even as we get used to the term ‘Knowledge Economy’, the process-orientated, middle skill jobs that were the mainstay of the Middle Class economy, are fast disappearing, taking the ‘Knowledge Worker’ with them. What is coming in its place are jobs that demand innovation, creativity and person-to-person contact, jobs that one would not prefer machines doing - jobs of ‘Relationship Workers’ , as Geoff Colvin will call them. And, in this new world of work, that old bedrock of ‘Process’ which made Industrial Economy possible is being replaced by the agile abilities of ‘Enterprise’, a constant search of possibilities that unlock a new era of competitiveness in people and in companies.
This change, very real in the workplaces, has overtaken our systems of education and how it is designed to interface with the world of work. The usual systems of education, built around the mastery of processes and pre-defined systems, has fallen short of preparing the candidates for a world of shifting paradigms, agile processes and emergent, rather than defined, possibilities. The focus on ‘Skills Education’ has done little to solve this problem, as its emphasis on process mastery and craftsmanship have not adequately addressed thedemands of thinking, innovating and ideating that the modern workplaces demand.
In the recent past, this disconnect has become clear. Despite clever technology, productivity growth, the source of prosperity in the United States and elsewhere, has stalled. The workforce has lagged in the learning curve of many of today’s most promising technologies, creating the two massive problems of underemployment of skilled people and talent shortages in the key technology sectors.
The ‘Enterprise School’ method is designed to create an alternative to both Higher Education and Skills Training, providing a platform where the learners can build their ‘working identities’ through application of knowledge and reflective analysis, working with peers and experienced mentors to solve real life problems. Built around close engagement with employers, which help define the key skills and technologies needed to solve their talent gap, the ‘Enterprise School’ method makes the learners find and solve problems, through a progression from generic to specific problems, from those with defined outcomes to those with emergent possibilities. It combines the technical competencies, as demanded and defined by employer partners, along with the relational and reflective abilities, and makes discovery of relevant knowledge, rather than mastery of predefined content, and its application in context, the goal of all learning.
‘Enterprise School’ is designed to be a platform that connects the rapidly evolving world of work and emerging professional identity of a young person, who can fully explore her true talents by seeking out real life roles within the safe environment of learning - and progressively becoming the Professional. For the employers, it is an easy framework to plug  their key talent requirements, allowing their recruitment processes to change from a specific event on a given day (or days) to a continuous assessment over a longer period of time, dealing with extensive data and valuable insight into the true talents of the candidates concerned, that leads to a much better role-fit than would be otherwise possible.
In summary, then, the ‘Enterprise School’ method allows experimentation and early development of working identities of the candidates and fuller exploration of their true talents. It also transforms the recruitment processes from a time-specific comparison between different candidates on a set of criteria, usually based on historic performance indicators, to a whole-person engagement, opening up possibilities of discovery of abilities and competencies fit for the future. This makes for not just better role-fits and greater competitiveness, but shorter learning curve, happier workplaces, greater job and life stabilities and all-round prosperity and happiness.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Tagore The Educator: The Two Demons of 'Traditionalism' and 'Technological Attitude'

I was asked recently in a NDTV interview: What do you think Tagore would if he was alive today? My answer was that he would remain, first and foremost, a poet. That was indeed the safe answer, but I disappointed the interviewer. She was asking how Tagore would react to today's world - what life of action he might have chosen! Besides, Tagore the poet, however ubiquitous he may be in the life of the Bengalis, is less known: Most of the available translations are quite pedestrian, and his unique evocation of rural Bengal and his lyricism makes him somewhat out of time in our sceptical world. To imagine him as a poet in our day would involve imagining Tagore as a writer of blank verse and pop music, a leap of imagine that may not come very naturally.

However, my answer was flawed: Tagore perhaps wanted people to see him as a poet and a mystic, and to remember him as such, but he lived a life of action. His most cogent identity was that of an education reformer and an educator, founder of a great Indian University and an education philosophy that we may have somewhat lost sight of. My inaccurate reflexes during my two minutes before a TV camera clouded my thinking and the right answer indeed is that Tagore would have been an Educator if he was alive today.

This is, however, not an idle reflection on a missed opportunity, but rather an idea that I persistently talk about. Tagore's educational ideas have not been widely explored or discussed in India, and its application remained limited. The most surprising thing about this neglect is that this is not about the ideas remaining hidden in Bengali, but rather that they are most neglected in Bengal itself. In a sense, Bengalis like me have done two things to obscure Tagore the Educator: We promoted Tagore the Poet at every conceivable opportunity, neglecting all else; and we somewhat dismissed his educational ideas, innovative and relevant as they may be, perhaps by design.

It is a mistake that needs correcting, I shall argue. Tagore's educational ideas are more, not less, relevant today, and they present useful, actionable ideas for education innovation at the present time. Suitably for a person who lived through changing times and had been a practitioner, these ideas are complex, multifaceted, and worthy of extensive analysis and debate. And, while this should be urgently attended to, as widely and deeply as possible, my goal in the limited context of this post is rather narrow. All I want to do is to make good of my omission above and make my case about why Tagore the Educator takes a back-seat, and why his ideas are much more potent than what it is perceived to be - a poetic flight-of-fancy!

At the heart of Tagore's educational project, as I see it, is an attempt at a synthesis, of 'Western' ideas of science and progress, and 'Eastern' values of harmony and commitment to nature. I put these labels within quotes to indicate that these general categories may be only broadly accurate, and Tagore would have drawn his ideas from a wide variety of sources, Western and Eastern, to shape his worldview and his practise. And, this synthesis, despite being all-welcoming, was also a battle with two demons, as relevant in Tagore's days as they are today: The twin traps of 'traditionalism' and 'technological attitude'.

Tagore's school, and the subsequent university project, has traditionally been portrayed to have been formed in reaction to the Colonial English Language schooling system. However, this was very different from other similar projects undertaken at other parts of India, most notably in Benares and Annamalai, where the study of Sanskrit texts and preservation of Indian Heritage and Thought was the central objective. Tagore's worldview was deeply shaped by Upanishad, and he saw the limitations of colonial education in terms of neglect of the Indian culture and languages, and yet, his educational project was not to be a rejection of English ideas and return to tradition. In fact, 'Tradionalism' was his first demon to slay [Tagore was born and raised in a Brahma family, a reformist but conservative sect, and while he embraced the reformist spirit of it, he battled with its conservatism all his life]. At the core of his educational vision is an optimistic, forward-looking idea of the world, with science - Western Science as it happened to be - as the key to an understanding of the world.

At the same time, however, it is premised upon a complete rejection of 'technological attitude'. His rejection of the colonial system of education was not just about rejecting its limited nature of making clerks out of Indians, a point that he made forcefully (see my other post here),  but its unspoken assumption that the world exists for use of humans, something that Martin Heidegger would call 'technological attitude'. In a world where we are used twining Science and Technology, this is not an easy distinction to follow. It is, however, a crucial one, in our time as it was in his, to appreciate that a scientific approach can exist in perfect harmony with an attitude of 'Care', another Heidegger term, that posits human beings in its relation to nature and everything else. Tagore's approach, both in terms of conceptualising education beyond its limited goal of 'getting a job' and envisioning it for the development of the whole human being, and his commitment to imbibe a philosophy of living in relation of the nature and the universe, with all its beauty and possibilities, defined his educational ideas.

The reason why Tagore remained in the margin of educational thinking in India is precisely because the driving forces of modern Indian Education were the two very demons he wanted to battle at the same time. Indian Education debate since Independence has been shaped by the contest between 'Traditionalism' versus 'Technological Attitude', and Tagore remained a weak proponent and inveritable antagonist of both. The 'poet' label, therefore, suited him best: His ideas were affectionately ignored. And, Bengalis in particular, who mastered the colonial education system and revelled at professional success, both in Colonial India and thereafter, could never wholly come to terms with Tagore's conceptions of a broader education for development of human beings. While Tagore the Eastern thinker inspired some educational projects in India and elsewhere in Asia (and further afield, but I have no reliable knowledge of it), his educational ideas remained decidedly marginal in his native Kolkata, the ultimate city of professionals that powered the empire.

My case is that Tagore's educational ideas need a 'resurrection'. Its optimism and commitment to human progress represents all those good enlightenment values that got lost in the wars of the Twentieth century, but serve as powerful bulwork against the rising traditionalism and chauvinism. At the same time, his commitment to harmony with nature and rejection of 'technological attitude' is a helpful guide not just for our ecologically challenged time, but also for future development of technologies, when we must, for the sake the future of the human race as it seems, liberate it from being a tool for replacing human labour and seek out human-centered applications with a new goal of making lives better. Hypothetically speaking, if Tagore was alive today, he would have recognised that being an Educator, of progress and of care, is his greatest contribution to humanity.


Sunday, May 08, 2016

India 101 for Global Education Start-Ups

In discussing a global education business, someone asked me why one should do India if India is complex and one of the most difficult in the world. 

This echoed my own position as it used to be. When I was trying to raise money to do UAspire, if anyone asked which countries we were planning to aim for, my answer used to be - "not India"! It was an awkward answer given my Indian heritage and connections, but one I thought was most pertinent, given that we were raising a small amount of money. And, sure enough, my assumption was right - despite getting most of our time and effort in India, all of our signups came from China, where we spent a lot less time! 

However, that was 2012. My views have changed since, not least because of the economic instability in China, and a change in the political environment which has made doing business there a lot more complicated. India, in the meantime, established a demographic pole position - a quarter of the world's new workforce will be in India, a fact that is now reflected in the hiring plans of most global companies - and despite its complexity, if a global education business does not operate in India, it is not a global business at all.

And, dare I say this, it is becoming a lot less complex over time. In 2012, it was difficult to enter India and compete with local providers in the middle of an unbriddled expansion of Higher Education: From 2006 to 2012, 10 new colleges were being set up in India every single day and seats, particularly in technical and management education, were expanding rapidly. The regulatory structure was at a breaking point - it did break eventually - under the pressure of rapid expansion and new business formats (like, Distance Learning). The government was not sure about private education businesses, and have shied away from inviting in foreign institutions, a stalement which was unlikely to be broken.

However, things have changed since. The first significant change is the inevitable rationalisation that comes after unchecked expansion - colleges have started failing! The reason they are failing is also significant: It is not for the want of demand, because the student numbers continue to rise. The primary reason colleges failed in India are for the unsustainable financial model underlying it - high cost of land, hight borrowing costs and the regulated fees that are designed to keep the colleges without surplus. But, poor education delivery and lack of employment outcomes, particularly for Business Schools, have played a big role too. This has created an environment, both with students and within schools themselves, which is more open to experimentation than it was.

Indian employers are also becoming more open to innovation. Indian employers in the IT Services sector, the main employers for the new graduate output, usually have indulged with recruitment models unique in many senses, based on volume recruitment of overqualified personnel. Many companies took advantage of abundant supply of Engineering and Business graduates to fill non-graduate positions, propping up the expansion of Engineering Education but also, at the same time, lowering the competence expectations in general. This model is now coming under threat from automation and technological change. As the jobs become more complex, the skills gap is now somewhat obvious - and will become more problematic with time. This creates 'extinction-level' risk for many IT/ IT Services organisations. While it will take time for a strategic approach to emerge in general, there are piecemeal projects and initiatives already under way.

Third, the financing for non-traditional education in India has become more available, not least because of the skills agenda that successive governments in Delhi has promoted. While the effort has been mostly corruption-ridden and poor on delivery, it has helped create an awareness in banks and other institutions about financing of non-traditional education.

India, therefore, has become a no-brainer, though it has remained one of the most complex of the education markets. It has become an exciting place for education innovation, despite the innate conservatism of the Indian middle classes. It is a must-do for any education start-up that intends to change the world, though only the ones which make an attempt to understand the market and respond to its peculiar demands can really win the game.

Friday, May 06, 2016

Business Model for Education Start-Ups: Three Ideas to Consider

Lean has come to Education too, but it needs some special consideration.

Education Start-Up is no longer an oxymoron, but a real thing. Venture Capitalists do invest in education, and some indeed treat this as the next big thing, a sector with abundant growth potential in an otherwise growth-less world. However, this is one sector in search of a business model: Most VCs would try to use models they use for technology or media businesses on education propositions - and they mostly do not work.

I have tried and failed with an Education Start-up. Since then, my approach has been one of caution - quite antithetical to my usual excitable nature: Whenever I have been invited to join Founding Teams, I have shied away, and stated that the education start-ups need much more capital than one could possibly project using a technology or media investment model. This, because the Customer Discovery process, central in the Lean Start-up worldview, has special challenges when it comes to Education. 

Here is what I see as the central challenge: No one, except the investors and entrepreneurs themselves, values 'New' or 'Disruptive' in Education. The students want better outcomes - better job prospects or better qualifications - but not new outcomes. The regulators, by definition, do not like the 'D' word, and most student funding options - banks, multilateral funds or charities - are tied closely to regulatory outcomes. So, an Education Start-up is often at an impossible place - trying to prove that they are innovative and disruptive to employers, conventional and rule-based to regulators and solid and predictable to students.

Einstein defined Stupidity as doing one thing over and over again expecting different results. Education Start-ups fall in this trap quite easily, trying to do standard things to satisfy the regulator and by speaking the usual language to attract the customers - and often trying to highlight little innovations as the panacea to all problems educational. However, they are usually up against established providers, with millions of dollars of Marketing budgets, sprawling campuses and list of professors with impressive sounding degrees claiming to offer better education. Even for the skeptical, who knows at heart that too many traditional players fall short, trusting an education start-up is one plunge too deep: Getting it wrong, lest we forget, cost not just money but time and opportunity!

The customer discovery process, therefore, is a much bigger challenge in education start-ups, than it would be for technology or media companies. It is not about signing up for a social network or trying out an App. Even free sign-up options, such as in the MOOCs, do not fully work as education is hardly a consumer product: The learner needs to commit to the process of education to get value out of it. So, the huge number of drop-outs is hardly a smart way for customer discovery, because the people who sign up for free education are quite different from those who would commit and complete a programme successfully.

Indeed, my own thinking is that it is easier to focus on 'enabling' start-ups rather than 'disruptive' ones in Education, those which work within the existing education ecosystem rather than attempting to create new ones. This has two obvious problems. One, it signals a lack of ambition, and I see so many businesses trying to focus on a very narrow problem to solve. While these may be worthwhile problems, they would often become too special purpose and not worthy of attention outside of one or two institutions that may have directly experienced the problem. Two, Some of the 'enabling' solutions - take the case of companies trying to solve Education-to-Employment transition problem - are too critically dependent on the rest of the ecosystem, the quality of education that precedes their intervention. Without control over this critical input, trying to focus narrowly on solving one problem may mean setting oneself up to fail.

All this tells me to follow three rules while thinking about Education Start-ups: (a) Direct-to-Student market is difficult for start-ups to break into, and the Solution Provider model, which works with existing providers to do something they can not do otherwise, works best; (b) Rather than a narrow niche built around the hope that technology makes everything scalable, it is better to aim to build platforms that may enable ecosystems, and allow connections and conversations to happen; (c) Rather than trying out a freemium model that media and technology companies often use, the education start-up may try to guarantee outcomes, if only by promising a full refund like Udacity does (and not unlike many e-commerce solutions that offer no-questions-asked return to gain trust).

Monday, May 02, 2016

The Flat White Economy

There is this lovable term used in England - The Flat White Economy! For the uninitiated, this comes from the variety of coffee the twenty-something geeky youngsters working in the 'creative economy' in London, one of the world's leading. This, an uninspiring vision of placid coffee, seems to capture the great promise of economic renewal of industrial wastelands of North England, as well as the inner city precints of London: It no doubt offers me a catchy term to make my point about the City economies.

But, to clarify, while I like the term, I use it literally. As a lover of good coffee, the term conjures up milky blandness rather than exciting aroma, and regardless of the implicit euphoria behind its coinage, I see it for what it is - the really 'flat' growth in a mix that lacks proportion or equity, obscuring the inevitable disappointment in frothy rhetoric and pricey labeling (I usually order a White Americano!). 

This is not a resentment of a new taste or a doomed effort to cling to old habits, but about the wisdom of the new growth that subverts the very structure that made Cities the economic engine that it is now: Its life-form of close coexistence forstered collaboration and created ecosystems for ideas, and the new, partitioned sharing economy, built around the exclusivism of ideas and people who can fund them, is perhaps designed to make cities gentrified and flat, and lead to its decline at the very moment of our celebration.

Cities is what I love and study, from the past as walled encampments to industrial hubs to attract landless village folks as the fodder for great mills - and, then, from that chaos, powerhouses of ideas that emerged from all that variety, breaking of boundaries, on the cadavars of social convention fuelled by the aspirational burghers and lit up by inspired outcasts. Cities rose from its industrial past, and despite industrial declines - in fact, in our time, because of its decline - as the social order broke down and new ones had space to emerge. That promise is at the very heart of the bright spark that we seek in our youngness and creativity. 'Disruption' and 'Revolution' is what we celebrate in Board Rooms and Bankers' chambers, at this peculiar point in history!

While at the same time we seek to slaughter its life force, the very factors that made it possible. The Flat White Economy is a term that masks zoning laws, redevelopment ambitions to earmark spaces in the cities for the privileged and the prosperous, and zone out the immigrants, the peddlers and the small shops. This may indeed be middle class common sense, as our debt-fuelled eminences worry about little men in the neighbourhoods and would rather settle for impersonal shopping malls which could be locked away at nights: Rising real estate prices make all of us feel rich! 

But it makes us poor, culturally! It drives away variety and robs us our perspectives. It obliterates those chance encounters. Zoned cities with personalised lives put us into quarters of sameness, cushioned away from the uncomrtable, the jarring and the challenging that stood at the heart of creation. And, our reaction: A tighter embrace of the false theory that new ideas come from within, and the gifted few makes us progress, despite all evidences on the contrary. That idea is not a property that arise from within and remains owned, but rather something that we really absorb and develop, as we explore and challenge and converse, is not how lawyers see it: Strangely, our perceptions about how creativity would be encouraged come from these lawyerly visions of creation. 

This, the stealth purge of variety from city life, legal aggradisement of ideas and our obsession with real estate values, may usher us into an era of flat growth, where the words like revolution, disruption, creation lose their meaning. And, as anyone literate in modern economics will know - we are not ready for it! Our financial system revolves around the promise of growth - and thereby, creates credit! Take away that hope irredeemably, and the coffee will spill.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

In Search of Idea Cities

If this blog needed a purpose, I have one now. I started writing just for the sake of writing, and later, used this space for reflecting on my experience as well as exploring ideas and connecting with people. It was a serendipitous journey, with twists and turns of my wandering mind suitably exposed, and I assiduously avoided being boxed, or turning this blog into a commercial promotion of myself. And, this is not a holier-than-thou stance - I indulged in usual narcissism on Facebook and tried to do desperate social climbing on Linkedin - it is just plain love, of words and of ideas and of conversations, and I wanted to keep this one space uncorrupted of the other 'social me', in order to welcome them as they came. 

But then there is something I love. And, all my wandering is really a quest for that one thing, in a way. My otherwise pauseless life may not allow me the space to love anything except for the socially mandated, all the middle class stuff about careers, mortgages, grammar schools for children and advance holiday plans for the next summer, but the moments when I can be free - and I prise myself free when I write - is the quest for those conversations which expand my horizon and lift my spirit. I know this to be true deep inside, both in its absence - when a perfectly pleasant party with friends leaves me tired to the core - and by its rare appearance - when a whole day spent hopping coffee shops, restaurants and bookshops with inspiring company leaves me wanting for more. This love makes an effortless appearance when I sit down to write, in a dingy small desk cramped with books and strewn with paper, completely distinct from the laboured effort that I have to put in to write marketing materials for a new business venture. This is a personal quest, that lasted almost all my life, from my awkward youth to emigration and various attempts at being and becoming, is for an environment of ideas, of enlightened company, for exploration and creation, of freeing my mind and opening my soul, of being able to envision both my life and the world around with possibilities outside the immediately obvious. This is why conversations that zoom into the long horizon, people who transcend the obvious and friendships that go beyond the incidental, provide the necessary impetus for me to live. This blog, despite its appearance of apparent waywardness, is my insistent quest for such environments and peoples of ideas.

Lately, in my struggle with my own inauthenticity, against all those care for social mores and meek virtues of a middle class man, this love has come out in sharp relief. Part of it is a personal quest, of going beyond the incidental and the accidentally imposed, and looking out for new possibilities of friendships, connections and conversations. The other part is intellectual, a singular, even if confusing or vexed, quest for a city of ideas, the places with their moments in history which opened the doors to new ideas and newer possibilities. It is indeed my roots, my unexpurgated love for the City of Calcutta (now Kolkata), a poor malarial city teeming with people which once became the hotbed of ideas and creativity, that drives me. It is part nostalgia - what would it have been to sit in Calcutta's once-famous Coffee House, one of the most celebrated 'Third Places' in Indian Cultural History, in the 50s - but part of it is to inform and to act - to understand and to advocate and to act, to rise above the carefully cultivated myth of Bengali laziness and hopelessness, and to imagine a new future beyond the lumpen rootlessness that seems to stare in the face of people I call my own.

But, this is not just about nostalgia, going back in time or just about Kolkata. As much as anywhere else, Kolkata's own moments of enlightenment hide as much as it speaks: It remained a dirty, poor, disease- riddled place, full of superstition and ugly thoughts, nasty snobism and opportunism like anywhere else. It excluded more people than it let in, and in the end, declined and culminated in a whimper. The great metropolis of the British Empire turned into a City of Slums in a manner of decades. My romanticism about Kolkata excluded this hard reality, but eventually I had to come to terms with it. But that very process of coming to terms with it required an widening of my quest, looking out for cities of ideas all over the world, their moments of flourishing as well as decline, their heroes but also their ugly realities, what made them come into being and what made them wither. In this, I sought to find my way to come to terms with the limits and limitations of Calcutta of my imagination, and also my redemption of hope, of finding a new promise of greatness again.

This theme has now pervaded my work and my studies. I signed up to research History Of Ideas at the University of London, and this has now become the focus of all I do. Indeed, this is a nice wide lense, allowing me excuses to travel and to learn, around the great cities and about the great creative minds: How ideas emerge and disappear, transmit and transcend, rebel and return, of men and women who carry them and those who try to stop them, of its promises and hopes, as well as of its violence and abuse - have now become the thing I think and write about. And, this indeed is one worthy and meaningful thing I can write about here.

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How To Live

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

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

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

- T S Eliot

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