Thursday, July 30, 2009

At Crossroads Yet Again

Being someone else is too much of a waste of a person you are. The Google quote hit home. My life is more or less about playing out role types set for me by others. Parents, family, friends, all others who I thought mattered - it was always about meeting the expectations. And, so I did - lived a spectacularly ordinary life of meeting expectations.

But I fail, as I must. It is never possible to be someone else too well. You can at best achieve mediocrity, and let your senses die, and live somewhat longer. But be conscious and hungry and yet being someone else is a tough ask. Most people - no, no one - can actually do it.

Yes, I am back to square one, where I was. It seemed like a big loop, where at certain times I seemed to be on top, master of own fate, but invariably it must turn and I am down again. This is one of those moments. Over last many years, I have not accepted one clear fact, that I have changed. My expectations have changed, the way I behave has changed. I have become far more intolerant to mediocrity, to the pointless opportunism and provincial narrowness once I was comfortable with. And, yet, I always fail to acknowledge the change and crave for my old life, which, for all its faults, were sweet and full of happy memories.

But then, I am awakened to the rude fact that I can possibly never go back to Kolkata, ever again. I can not find work, I concluded, of any kind which will give me the intellectual opportunity that I seek from my profession. Some recent experiences with a Kolkata businessman was instructive. I have possibly never wasted so much time and felt so frustrated about it. It was all talk and no action, with this terrible elitism that comes in the package whenever one gets to talk to someone who thinks he is someone in India. The point is that I find this behaviour consistently rude, unprofessional and unethical at all times: this is a change, I have grown up tolerating such behaviour.

So, my plans to go back to India anytime soon lie in tatters. I don't see myself setlling in the familiar provincial cosyness anymore than I do see myself going back to my neighbourhood school. England has not been uniformly kind, but I do owe lots of my life education to these expositions to the foreign land. And, I see the value in that more deeply than ever - I have come to appreciate things which I did not see earlier and to feel offended by things which I did not feel around me as I do now.

Like this whole class thing in India. The fact that most people feel they are someone and treat everyone else like dirt. And, the consequent lack of respect, which is infurating, but is institutionalized in the education system. The fact that no one wants to do a thing by hand, they treat physical work beneath dignity, and expect others, less fortunate people, to do this out for them.

Why Training & Recruitment synergy seems common sense, but does not work

I speak about this every day and thought of making this a public note that I can share. The synergy between training and recruitment businesses appears to be common sense, but it rarely works in practise. I have seen this in a number of training organizations - who see value in adding a recruitment wing as their trainees can find a job - and then expect that recruitment function to compete in the market. I have seen mergers committed on the basis of this common sense expectation, as well as recruitment organizations trying to get into training, as 'our candidates regularly fall short and we must assist them'. 
The problem is that this does not work in practise. Well, mostly, because of two key reasons:

Bias: Recruitment businesses are supposed to be independent arbitrators of jobs and candidates, but if it is to complement a training organization, it must necessarily operate with a bias, that in favour of students trained.

Time: Recruitment is a here-and-now business, while training is essentially long term. One can not find a job for the candidate who will be ready in a year’s time, nor is it possible to place a trainee in a job which requires his end-of-course skills.

This is not to say that this can not work, though. All I am saying is that there is no easy way of marrying an usual recruitment business model with an usual training business model and expect that everything will work better. My point is that there is a separate recruitment-and-training business model, which is separate from the standalone business models, and some organizations have perfected this already.

I have studied those who have done this, and I think there are three distinctive traits in these models which make them different from an usual training or an usual recruitment model. Here are those three differences:
  1. Capacity building as the goal: The organization creates a phased plan to create a full-blown recruitment and training model, building capacity on both sides in the initial phases. So, a best practise model will create capacity on the supply side [by equipping students with workplace skills and seeking employer endorsements of the training courses] and on the demand side [by developing employer preference for its students and by arranging internships which allow closer employer-student interaction]. In fact, I have hardly seen a successful company which has created a recruitment complement straight from their very successful training operations. It has always been gradual and almost always started with an altruistic goal of finding learners jobs.
  2. Benchmarking as the critical skill: The core assumption from the recruiter’s side is that there must be a perfect candidate for every job. The educator’s assumption is that there must be a perfect job for every candidate. The truth is somewhat in-between these two extremes, and a business model, which excels in benchmarking and competence building can successfully bring the two poles together. The benchmarking works both ways - by exposing students as interns or trainees in the businesses and making businesses involved, in a close engagement, with the training process. Most successful business models come out of years of engagement in such interaction activities.
  3. Learner-funded to Employer-funded as the commercial model: There is a shortage of jobs for under-skilled people, and a shortage of people for skilled jobs, at the same time. The training-recruitment business model, while trying to profit from the economic opportunity, needs to move from one end to another. In the context of an existing training organization, the logical path is move from learner funded capacity building to employer funded training and skills search. This gradual transition of the business model has been the key differentiator of all successful combination models, and these stand apart from the usual each-on-their-own business model that most people cherish.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

About Pakistan: An Indian View

In India, the most distant country in the world is Pakistan. The country we always watch with the corners of our eyes, the one whose mention makes us cringe and the one we almost always wish should never have been. We share a long border, similar food and culture. Pakistanis use a language, Urdu, which originated in an Indian court, Lucknow, and our histories were identical up to 1947. Indians have a strange feeling about Pakistan - most of us believe that we should drive all our Muslim citizens out of India and into Pakistan, and also that we should conquer Pakistan and undo the partition. Also, the ultimate blasphemy in India is to state the obvious - India can not conquer Pakistan, as it is a strong country with plenty of nuclear weapons and missiles, which can wipe out most Indian cities if an invasion was ever attempted.

Because of Pakistan, India has a seize within. We remain a country in fear. We always see the world conspiring against us. We have created a permanent schism with China as it got closer to Pakistan after we refused to acknowledge their accession of Tibet. We were hurt when the great democrats of the United States treated Pakistan as a strategic priority and armed it, but regarded India as a Soviet lackey despite our firm commitment to non-alignment. We don't know what to think of the British, as it is they whose mischief is it all, and who always strategically supported Pakistan and created the expression we hate most, the hyphenated India-Pakistan.

But, then, India in 2009 is a different country than what we were in 1947. At least, so it should be. We should no longer live in our fear, in our cocoon. We should no longer be hurt. Our economic promise has been acknowledged. The special place in the world we longed for has been promised. The world is ready to treat us on our terms. But, before that, we must be at ease with ourselves. But, before we do that, we must address the issue of Pakistan.

Pakistan, indeed, was a creation which made no sense at that time or since. Whatever is the stated reason, it was a country created for the fear of democracy. The British administrators feared a strong India, buoyed by democracy, will become an ideal to follow for all of the colonies, and wanted to keep it poor and divided. This was their main motive in helping create Pakistan. The Indian rulers saw the exit of millions of Muslim voters as good riddance, which eliminated the need of contending with a powerful opposition at the parliament from day one. The Muslim leaders detested the dangerous idea of democracy anyway and could not stand the prospect of poor uneducated peasant Muslims challenging their landlords, who mostly made up the Muslim League, under the Nehruvian utopia of a democratic government. So, from day one, Pakistan was an impossible country, set up as a dyke on the way to progress, by the wretched colonialists, corrupt zaimnders and privileged babus.

But the promise of Pakistan was entirely different. For most of its citizens, it was freedom. It was about finding the lost glories of an Islamic country, at a time when, not unlike today, Islam seemed a religion slightly out of focus, one in decay as far as modern ideas are concerned. Pakistan was to become the land of hope and modernity in Islam, place of freedom from the British yoke and the Hindu dominance, of restoration of the Mughal grandeur and faith.

Pakistan's history always showed this divide - between what it was and what it was meant to be. The first schism in Pakistan when the bengalis, mostly farmers who loved to secede from India as this meant walking on their corrupt, absentee Hindu landlords and starting a new life of dignity, were horrified to find that the new Pakistani government wants them to speak in Urdu, a court language which they did not know or cared for. This schism continued, between the elite rulers of Western Pakistani origin and the farmers of East Pakistan, until it came to a breaking point when East Pakistan finally seceded after a bloody war and became Bangladesh. Not unexpectedly, this terminal crisis of Pakistan as it was came because of democracy, because the West Pakistani aristocrats refused to accept the verdict of a general election of 1970.

In Pakistan's history, democracy always remained a disruptive force. The cause is straightforward, it was a country built on the fear of democracy and remained as such. Pakistan remained a stolen dream, where a set of rich and powerful conspirators fooled a hardworking and honest populace into violence, war and ruin, and the history of Pakistan remained that way all these sixty odd years. George Washington warned Americans to avoid foreign entanglements; had he lived today, he would have added - see Pakistan - as this country ruined itself fighting other people's wars. And, this they had to, because by itself, the country represented nothing and the truth about Pakistan remained the most dangerous fact that its rulers needed to hide from its own people.

So, Pakistan will remain, as long as it exists as a state, a country perpetually in crisis, looking to send its people to other people's wars, so that they don't have time to seek the nation they were promised. India has so far played an ideal target - we tore ourselves in the middle out an imagined fear and became a mirror image of Pakistan ourselves. We positioned ourselves against the people of Pakistan, and our own Muslim citizens, and threw ourselves into a seize we laid on ourselves. We feared everything and let the fear-mongers, like the genocidal Narendra Modi, steal our country, our ideals, from ourselves too. The stealing of Pakistan is gradually leading to stealing of the whole South Asia.

Just as our British masters wished. But the success of the scheme has gone beyond their wildest imagination. South Asia, which could have become one of the world's richest, most powerful, regions, remain mired in poverty, violence and hopelessness. The problem with this scheme is that this was essentially hatched by a few out of touch colonialists, who saw the world in terms of zero-sum sphere of influence and wanted everyone else, other than themselves, miserable. Though the leadership thinking is still shaped by such ideas even today, the world has changed fundamentally and has become far more interconnected and interdependent than those days. It is a more challenging world - with weapons on more hands, poverty and deprivation in more homes, more reasons to kill and the fact that we are to run out of breathable air and all be submerged in water soon if we don't act together - but then it is still a world full of possibilities, one that allows us more opportunities and more excuses to be more sensible, more compassionate towards others and better, in the widest sense of the word, people. The colonial zero-sum vision was always grossly inadequate for these challenges and these opportunities, and in South Asia, more than in any other region in the world, such limitations have become plain to see.

But then, it is in no one's interest to continue things as it is, least of all India's. The failure to imagine should be the last reason for us to succumb to and shy away from the historic opportunity that we have to turn the clock and play our rightful role in the world. And, in this context, we must solve the issue of Pakistan with matching realism, escaping the trap set out by Pakistan's rulers and putting things in broader context. Peace with India will actually lead to an existential problem in Pakistan, as will any grassroots democratic reform away from the clutches of the army and the usual oligarchs. But, one would hope that whatever comes of it will be a more sustainable state than the current post-colonial aberration of a state. People of current Pakistan and people of South Asia indeed deserves better: we should indeed try to create a new Pakistan based on democracy and tolerance rather than pakistanizing the whole region based on violence and chauvinism.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Private Notes: Returning From India

I am now through with what has been an extremely demanding visit - to India - during which I got caught inside general strikes, a sudden flu, some very unpleasant business transactions, and yet, going back with a fair amount of hope and optimism. This visit was an eye-opener, unusually quiet in a sense, allowing me more than average time to reflect on what I am planning to do, and what I wish to do. I also got the feeling that with age, some amount of maturity, shall we say realism, is also seeping into my character, and where none existed before, this is indeed a welcome change.

Last two years have been quite an experience in my life. Never before I was expected to rely on my own personal abilities so much. It was the nearest thing to entrepreneurial existence I ever got to, in terms of brinksmanship, though not in terms of freedom. My abilities, along with the commitment to remain ethical, fair and open was constantly tested, and the highest amount of personal sacrifice was constantly demanded. Looking back, I almost have a melancholy feeling , while I may have fared well on some of those intangible aspects, I have indeed come up short on the hard ones. I have made some, well, several mistakes, mostly in the personal sphere, where the despair pushed me over the edge and I lost my usual sense of balance and tried to live a life very unlike myself.

All that comes back to me now. This going back is unlike any other. This is one when I bid audieu to whatever I have done so far - the centre is sold and the apartment tenancy is up and the people I worked with for last two years have already been retrenched or reassigned. Sentimentality is not one of the characteristics I value most, but at times like this, as I wait for the cab to take me to airport at midnight, I feel the alienation so central to our existence, a period of my life stolen, gone, without a trace.

I am not one to start thinking what could have been different. That's not my natural style. I am more of a what is different type of a person. So, I saw today's long walk at the end of work today as the one which will not be reversed, rewalked. Today's goodbyes were one for life. I have been here once before - when I left Calcutta, disillussioned, for good at the wake of the dotcom crash - and certainly know the feeling. Like that time, I feel open and ready for a change, a deep change, a going beyond the usual cycle of life as I know it and initiation of something which I long waited for.

Having been brought up as a Hindu, this thought comes naturally to me: Every end is a beginning. A beautifully simple thought that every event in this world has a purpose, sometimes obvious and some times hidden, and even if I don't know it yet, this journey must end somewhere. It is important to keep faith, complete the journey - do the job without thinking about the outcome - and in the end, the rationale will reveal itself.

As it does now, ironically, for my quixotic attempt to spread English language training in India. I may have become an enriched person, with a deeper understanding of the modern money mechanics, and an aversion to those entrepreneurs who pursue money alone in a business, but the whole effort has hardly even scratched the surface. I must leave this now to whoever comes next, an unfortunate mess though I have cleaned up quite a bit in the end, but that's life.

So, I go. It is almost the Browning's hero who thought the God will repay. But I won't wait for God, because I know He is still a long walk away.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

United States and India: A Special Relationship

I was in India last couple of weeks and noticed the debate around 'selling out' of India following Hillary Clinton's visit to Mumbai and Delhi last week. The principal debate is focused on the End Use Monitoring Agreement that the Indian government agreed to sign with the United States, allowing, theoretically, Americans access to monitor all dual-use and military technology bought from them. The opposition parties immediately conjured up the image of US inspectors, mostly CIA operatives, roaming around freely inside our most secret and sensitive military facilities and Indian government having to ask the US bosses before they use an weapon. Much of this is indeed nonsense, as India has been signing such agreements in every high technology deal entered into since 1998 and this umbrella arrangement will actually eliminate the need of negotiating such arrangements for every deal. Besides, United States is only one of the suppliers, and there is indeed an open and competitive market for all kinds of military and dual use technologies. India does not have to buy from the United States and does not have to answer all the time. But, then, truth in democracies are usually shaped by decibel value and the fickleness of public memory, and currently this debate is in the centre stage.

The curious thing about these Indian debates is also about the duality. As I followed the press coverage of Hillary Clinton's visit, there were two rather obscure facts which got more than average attention. First that Mrs. Clinton did not make the customary visit to Islamabad. It is an usual practise for all senior US officials to always visit Pakistan when they visit India. The fact that Madam Secretary did not do it was perceived as the end of India-Pakistan hyphenation by the Indian press. I am sure this is a significant and a deliberate gesture, but the fact that Indian press treated this with the pride befitting a schoolboy getting a book prize did look a bit silly. Next, to take things further, Hillary Clinton spent an extra 30 minutes over and above the initially planned hour of one-to-one discussion with Sonia Gandhi, without any US official being present [and no Indian official as well, except for Dr. Karan Singh], and instead of sniffing out a conspiracy theory, the Indian press treated this as a mark of acknowledgement of India's growing role in geopolitics.

In my mind, both, this taking offence in being asked about the deployment of dual use or sensitive technology, and the glee of being treated extra special by a visiting US official, are typical of the adolescent personality of our country. The Indian attitude towards the United States is (a) we should have a special relationship, as two of world's leading democracies and English speaking nations; (b) the United States is still locked in the cold war era thinking long after the loyalties have changed. Indians believe that the United States misestimates India and it should correct the mistake and accept India as an equal, okay, important, partner in their scheme of things for the world. We feel good when this feeling is acknowledged, and offended when that partnership turns out to be of the same grade between the CEO and the office boy. But more about that later.

Before that, we should know how US sees the world. Consistently, after George Washington's warning to his nation to avoid 'foreign entanglements', the United States public opinion never favoured sending troops to sort our faraway wars. Our boys dying - was always a problem that every United States President needed to solve. Not that the United States never harboured any imperial agenda - from the Monroe doctrine of keeping Europeans out of Western hemisphere to Truman doctrine of keeping soviet influence limited to a small band of countries, the US governments sought to maximize their influence on the business of other sovereign nations continuously. The point is that they never wanted to 'die' for it. The key United States policy, which existed before the Cold War and continued without change thereafter, was to become the supplier of choice for World's conflicts and expand the influence of United States commerce in all countries of the globe, by supplying arms, technologies, information and know how, and allowing other countries to supply the 'lives'. This perception has only been reinforced by George W. Bush's foolhardy engagements in Iraq, and the fact that the United States army always looked far too vulnerable whenever they were involved in any ground engagement. Given that no conflict can actually be won without a ground engagement, particularly if the aim of the conflict is to preserve or promote the current 'way of life' and expand the United States commercial interests, the United States must find a set of suitable 'lives' supplier for its future conflicts. There are very few nations in the world which are as fit as India for that role.

Apart from the usual demographic factors - large and young population - India fits the role in three other counts as well. First, geographically, India is standing in the centre of today's world. The imaginary centre has long shifted from Western Europe to Asia both culturally and financially, and India and China are fast emerging to be the competitors for the new centre. Besides, India shares a long mountainous border with China, which can become the frontier for the world's bloodiest battle if we wish. China, on the other hand, has emerged as the world's second most feared power, its most efficient and agile small arms producer, an effective world power with its own client states and supply network for most of the world's non-state powers, including the likes of Mr. Bin Laden. China, someday, will become the most obvious enemy and the competitor for world dominance to the United States [just as Germany challenged Britain in early twentieth century]. And, despite the fact that this may bring about the end of the world, the conflict will not be about destroying the world but about owning it, and hence, this is more likely to take a cold, low intensity form with some ground engagements rather than the self-destructive mushroom cloud form. And, in this conflict, United States, despite its vast power, stands no chance. Napoleon knew it long time back; but, even today, China has the world's biggest standing army. The United States needs its foot soldiers right next door to the middle kingdom to contain it and conquer it some day.

Secondly, India meets the United States half way in the culture front as well. The idea of an Anglophone world isn't new among the foreign policy circles; this will only be reinforced with a closer India-US tie, and increasing divergence between the Franco-German EU and Britain, an emerging China and an increasingly hostile Russia. While the interconnections of interests are not always predictable or linear, the Anglophone world is increasingly the new formation in the world power dynamic.

Third, India is democratic, which is in line with the chief idea export of the United States. Connecting with India does not come with the embarrassment of supporting a dictatorial regime in the Middle East, and the United States administration can sell this to their public quite easily in the name of democracy and freedom, as they have always done since the cold war era.

Hence, the current special relationship between India and the United States is common sense, at least from the US side. Given that India is so easily satisfied with the display of a little special arrangement, I am sure the US administration will also find it gratifying to deal with a partner who likes them so much. However, there are a number of problems at the Indian side that require a more detailed consideration.

The first factor is that India is a democracy and a truly entrenched one. Wars in democracies were always problematic, not because they are against the principle, but because they are unpopular. As United States have learnt by experience, democratic wars must be short, focused on key objectives and facilitated by non-contact warfare. Indian government would face a similar set of challenge while committing troops to a long and bloody war. So, despite obvious advantages, India isn't the ideal war outsourcing partner for the United States.

Second, India's interests lie closer to China and rest of Asia than with United States. While we can talk about persisting regional rivalries between China and India, and states like Nepal and Burma which are real sticking points, China's aspirations today are global. So is India's. Increasingly, the need for a sphere of control is larger and regional alignments to sustain that wider sphere of control are in both country's interest. In fact, United States would want India to be a regional power, but the expectations of the Indian populace has already been uncorked. India wants to see itself as a responsible global power, not some one's lackey and backroom boy for Asia. In this front, India's interests are better served by a deeper regional cooperation instead of a defence treaty with the United States leading to a face-off with China.

Indeed, China can be a troublesome friend, with its interests in Pakistan and various terror outfits inside India and in the region. But the current relationship has been formed in the context of bygone era of competition of regional leadership. If the strategic movements of the Chinese are any guide - like the increased focus on the blue-water navy, a sort of disengagement on Taiwan and a responsible plodding of North Korea - one sees China shifting its agenda to become a major player in the world. In this context, the Indian government can choose its role - of being an ally or an adversary. Like the United States, we should remain prisoners of a bygone era and must re-evaluate our priorities in the context of our new-found aspirations and ground realities of modern commerce. Seen in this perspective, I would think India's own national interests are better served in accepting the US overtures of friendship only to strike a better partnership deal with China, and in engaging in the world with peace in our mind and with prosperity as our only goal.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Private Notes: Off to India

I am off to India tomorrow early morning, and this one promises to be one of the most interesting, make-or-break trip. First, because I am planning to make a complete overhaul of how we operate there. Time has come to settle for a more realistic course and acknowledge that we can not do all things ourselves. Also, it is important to factor in the shifting nature of the world economy and the fact that while there are signs of recovery, but no one really knows that for certain yet. For a long time, I have followed a strategy of holding the fort, keep my head low and somehow wither the storm; and, indeed, this came at a significant personal cost to myself, as well as others involved in the process. The current trip, starting tomorrow, will indicate a tipping point, a departure from the wait and watch and a full fledged transition into a more realistic course of action.

Second, this will also signify a shift in my personal commitments. I have stated that I wished to continue with my current position for a little while longer, which possibly I shall, though I am unable and unwilling to put a commitment for a far too longer period. I just want enough time to execute my plans for reorganization, which I believe will benefit everyone involved and allow me to feel that I have carried out my professional obligations. But I am surely not going to spend a lifetime in this project, because I see other opportunities and I am unwilling to let these pass while I sit idly.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Eurocentricism in Business

The last two years have been extremely useful to me in studying and understanding how cultural differences come in the way of business and working relationships. Elsewhere in this blog, I have referred to the phenomena of Anglo-Saxon arrogance, something which I experienced on a day to day life in business. But, in a broader sense, and when I reflect with neutrality and perspective, I realize that this odd arrogance - the assumption that the Asian business culture is essentially backward and wants to emulate the West - comes from the pervasive eurocentric concept of civilization. Therefore, it is harder indeed to explain and teach a western business executive ways of the East, though I must not apply a stereotype and there are many exceptions of conscious efforts made by western executives to be truly global citizens.

The problem of this eurocentricism, apart from the brazen disregard of other people's sensibilities [which are usually toned down by good manners], is that any exposure to a different business culture is usually treated with the amusement befitting a visit to the zoo. Besides, usually professional behaviour is benchmarked against the acceptable western business behaviour, and most corporate strategies and operational tactics presuppose a western cultural mindset. I remember explaining to someone how the Indians treat time - the concept of poly chronic time - but was told that after all the Indian executives want to become like the westerners, and therefore, good and acceptable behaviour must be benchmarked so and may not necessarily make adjustments for the native conceptions.

In the social sciences, some limited enquiry has been made regarding the pre-European past, and allowed for a more nuanced view beyond the 'white man's burden' version of the East. While the euro-centric version of history usually equated progress with adoption of western practises, there are a number of alternate views on the rise, notably in the Islamic world but not limited to it, which do not see western practises as the most advanced and sophisticated.

However, it is generally regarded as a mistake, in the realm of social sciences, to see the world in terms of competing civilizations, and indeed, in terms of the clash of civilizations. There are two clear reasons for this. One, indeed, is that we all have multi-dimensional identities - father, friend, husband, Muslim, shia, Indian, doctor, lover of music and football fan rolled into one - and human connections usually flow different paths and shape the civilizations [and it is not the other way round]. And, as a result of this, there is more cross-pollination of culture than armchair theorists or cubicle-bound politicians know or dare to admit.

While the European pre-eminence is currently contested in social sciences, and alternate perspectives are gaining ground, there is an automatic assumption that European/western approach is the only way to go. But then, as in civilizational matters, the people contexts are far more complex and dynamic than one can theorize and one can clearly see different approaches to business emerging already. In a way, it is easier to define success in business than social sciences - profits and long term competitiveness perhaps - and one can already see a number of Asian companies stealing the march over their western rivals. There are a number of complaints over the business practises of these Asian companies, specifically against the Chinese, who seem to adapt a particularly cavalier approach towards intellectual property rights and get lambasted in Western press for doing so. However, one has to remember that these companies are not exactly on a level playing field; in most cases, they are up against entrenched competition which has come into being not just by hard work and ethics as the corporate mythologies proclaim, but also employing a number of dirty tricks and often 'stealing' the natural resources of the Asian nations in the first place. In every stage of civilization, the successful try to protect the status quo and the aspirational challenges it; without going into any value judgements, we are at another inflection point in history where a similar conflict is being mounted.

And, in this context, one may say the European/ Western thinking of business is not the only correct way to conduct oneself. Increasingly, the less individualistic, more collective way of doing business - the Asian way - seems relevant in the context of shrinking natural resources. Besides, from my very Asian/Indian point of view, I realize that Western business executives often build relationships at a superficial level, which may not be very helpful as the world faces a talent shortage and business problems become more complex than ever and businesses need to foster collaboration across diverse teams. In my view, both globalization and collaborative nature of the business is better served by the deep relationship based Asian cultures.

In my quest to build a cross-culture training organization, I am increasingly inclined to build this balanced approach - away from the current euro-centric paradigm and based on a clearer understanding of one's own culture first. I am indeed not into spiritualism or any such thinking, but I think that we need global Indians - who are proud and confident Indians at heart, at ease with their own identity and independent in their business thinking - and who meet the world half way down the road.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Fixing Higher Education in India

Kapil Sibal is trying to fix education in India. Hard task, indeed, and a thankless one. Somehow, education never received the priority that it deserves in Independent India. Surprisingly so. When one looks at the nations emerging from colonialism, the most successful ones are always seen to have focused on education. India's recent success story also has a lot to do with its limited experiments with educational excellence with IITs and IIMs. But, then, Education, like every other country, is a political subject, and somehow it never got the political prominence it deserves.

Compare it against the South-East Asian countries and one knows that we never cared much for education. For example, almost all Malaysian Prime Ministers held the Education portfolio before they became prime ministers - education was always a politically sensitive, high profile portfolio. To draw a parallel, I wanted to search how many Indian Prime Ministers actually held the Education portfolio before they became Prime Ministers. I searched for and could not get a credible list of all education ministers. And, then, I tried to list all Indian Prime Ministers and looked into what portfolios they held before they became Prime Ministers. Here is the list I came up with:

Jawaharlal Nehru - None, he was inaugurated as Prime Minister
Lal Bahadur Shastri - Railways [Resigned] and Transport & Communication
Indira Gandhi - Information & Broadcasting
Morarji Desai - Finance & Deputy Prime Minister
Charan Singh - Finance Minister & Deputy Prime Minister
Rajiv Gandhi - None before he became Prime Minister
V P Singh - Finance & Defence
Chandra Sekhar - Not a cabinet position before he became PM
P V Narsimha Rao - External Affairs, a brief stint at HRD [he was India's first HRD Minister when the ministry was renamed], and Home [Indira Gandhi was assassinated under his watch]
Atal Bihari Vajpayee - External Affairs
H D Deve Gowda - No federal office before becoming PM
I K Gujral - External Affairs
Dr Manmohan Singh - Finance

No one, except the perennial PVN, even held the Education [or HRD, whichever name one prefers or uses] portfolio. One can also add to this list Pranab Mukherjee and L K Advani, two men who spent their lifetimes being the PM-in-Waiting, but none of them also ever aspired for anything like the HRD ministry. The point I am making is that it was never seen as a glamorous ministry. This is surprising, given the fact that India was emerging from two centuries of colonial rule, majority of its people were illiterate and we wanted to achieve thought leadership in the world.

One reason why education never held the centre-stage in the governance of India because this is a concurrent subject, the states have a say, and therefore, it is indeed a political minefield. Since various states, most notably West Bengal, are ruled by parties in opposition than the central government, they are perennially at loggerheads with any central initiative.

Besides, education policy in India, like many other countries, is governed by political motivations of whoever is in power in the states. Take West Bengal, for example. The education infrastructure here were abused by the Communist Party functionaries as schools of indoctrination for last three decades. The educational institutions in the state, universities downwards, were allowed to rot, and the meritocracy, crucial to the quality and efficacy of education, were replaced by a system of mediocrity and political patronage. And, of course, West Bengal government was always off the block first protesting against any central 'intervention', and the objective of partnership - the key reason to keep some areas in the concurrent list in the Constitution - has been completely lost in Education.

It did not help that the Union Government also treated the Ministry of Education [or HRD, as it was later renamed] as a status quo ministry, sending out political misfits and retirees to head the departments. The most glaring example was obviously Arjun Singh, the bumbling minister who saw his survival in blocking, rather than promoting, new ideas. He did slightly worse than Murli Manohar Joshi, the ideologue who wanted to change the history books and start the patronage system in IITs and IIMs, the only bright spots in the Indian education system.

Bringing Kapil Sibal into this ministry signals a change, but only a half-hearted one. Kapil Sibal is young [relatively speaking] and dynamic [definitely in contrast to Arjun Singh] and modern [in contrast to Murli Manohar Joshi]. He is seen as close to powers-that-be in Congress, has Prime Minister's confidence, an articulate, educated and successful man, and has been the party's public face for a long time. But, still, he is no heavyweight. He does not have the guile of a Pranab Mukherjee to shift things in the face of determined opposition, or the momentum of Rahul Gandhi. Of course, he is one of those who is acutely aware of the bigness of task at hand, and also eager to get on with it, but if one has to pick up the early signals, he may falter and he may fail - because fixing education is a political minefield and the government as a whole is not focused enough.

So, for example, when a trade-off has to be made, let's say between a crucial vote on whether there should be a subsidy on cow dung and whether the school system needs to be modernized, the government will secure support of various state parties, some of it part of the coalition, to vote the cow dung subsidy in, at the cost of shelving any modernization agenda of the school system. This will indeed be a strategy, but India's is a chaotic, here-and-now democracy and the government, or anyone else for that matter, may not have the bandwidth to do anything significant which only gets benefits long term.

But, then, Kapil Sibal is trying. One must give this to him - he has brought more new ideas within the first 100 days in office than Arjun Singh did in his whole tenure in the ministry [eight years, if one counts his years in the PVN cabinet in the early 1990s]. The openness that Mr. Sibal brings in is also refreshing - he seems to be open to listen to other ideas - and one can not stop being hopeful about progress.

One note of caution, though. I think the key debate about higher education in a developing country like India is still unresolved. There is a solution currently in fashion - let Private operators play! - but this corporatist solution is not fix-all as one is persuaded to believe. Besides, in India, the philanthropic institutions are weak and often built for corrupt purposes, and therefore, may not be able to take the lead, as in some other countries, in fixing the education system. I think handing over the responsibility to run the education system to private businessmen is actually an abdication of responsibility by the government, and expect that Mr. Sibal will understand the issues and not push for unilateral privatization of education. There are some signs that he believes that progress can come through getting FDI in education, but he has to balance it with the risk of creating even greater division in our already fractured country.

So, in the end, there is no easy solution in fixing education. Also, like leadership, a country gets the education it deserves. This is one area where the people themselves have to come forward and build and maintain the infrastructure. Not for profits, but for the sheer necessity and the pleasure of it. That's how it worked in any other country where it worked. I noticed the Times of India's movement of Teach India, but was soon dismayed to see that their Lead India, one that was to choose potent leaders and send them to Harvard for governance training, was far more successful and prominent. This is indeed the key problem in India today- everyone wants to lead, and no one wants to serve. And, paradoxically, it falls upon the HRD minister to lead, and not follow the precedent, and unmess the mess that we are in.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

An Uncertain World

Have we reached the end of recession yet? The global business confidence is up, in the sense that it is not down, and though many people expect the state of affairs to be gloomy for at least another 12 months, there is this undying optimism that things can not go worse than this.

Indeed, there are some positive signs. Stock markets are up. Historically, stock markets recover about six months ahead of the real economy starts recovering. But then, one can not feel optimistic because stock markets are up, because stock markets are up because people are feeling optimistic.

There are other things too. The inventory levels are down. Primarily in the United States. The commodity prices are moving up. Some credit, though at a high interest rate, started flowing through the banking system. So, it seems modern governments could beat the recession down, somewhat midway, by resorting to Keynesian public spending schemes. All the economics education then did not go waste - we have almost tamed recession.

The point, of course, is that no one knows yet. Except for the feel-good pundits of the financial press, who of course have a vested interest in keeping people interested in the modern financial wonders. The inventories may be down, but so are jobs. The unemployment rates are highest in half-century. Interest rates are too high, despite the near-zero base rate in America and Britain. Most of the public spending, and public effort, have gone into propping up our economic system as it was - saving banks and companies which were too big to fail - and not enough has been done to correct the systemic problems that got us here in the first place. In the end, our economy-on-steroids has been transformed into economy-on-life-support, and as in such emergencies, we have learnt to accept that an absence of deterioration can be viewed as improvement.

That leads us to an uncertain world, where, despite the optimism, we would not know where we are heading. Here is a question that I do not the answer to: Was sub-prime lending was the problem, or was sub-prime lending was a symptom of a bigger problem? The conventional wisdom is of course that banks, through various non-banking channel which was not effectively regulated, lent lots of money to people who did not have the necessary credit-worthiness, and the house of cards unravelled when inflation drove interest rates up and they started defaulting on what they borrowed. But, here is my question - why did the lenders have to go sub-prime? The obvious answer is that there was not enough demand for credit in the 'prime', credit-worthy market to sustain the expansion that the shareholders of these financial institutions, us in turn, demanded. So, this was an amphitheatre of sorts where caution and decency had to be thrown away to sustain share prices, which was tied to various 'variable' components of pay of the bankers. The point is - the credit had to flow - from those who had more than they consume to those who consume more than they have. At some point, the connection snapped, and the whole system caved in.

The key point, however, is our dependence on sub-prime and its role in creating the 'longest period of continuous economic expansion in history' [poor Gordon Brown!]. The problem is that we have an inequal world, and as rich become richer, we shall discuss the possibility to moon tourism, agelessness and sprawling estates, but we shall also have abundant food and death in starvation at the same time, and research in plastic surgery and death in Malaria at the same point. The bigger problem is that the demand will remain sluggish, however much we try to build a middle class who will keep money going with their aspirational lifestyle. The people who has money to spend are too small, and the people who need money to spend are too large.

So far, we have hardly solved the problem. We threw money at institutions as they were, and kept them going. A new thinking about how the wealth gets distributed was needed, but was not forthcoming. The fact that markets are no more efficient than governments in creating sustained prosperity was illustrated, but we almost wished that this was not true. The faith in markets is indeed convenient in a way - it allows us to shrugg off our responsibility to behave, to be decent - and everyone wanted to go back to this familiar world.

And, that will lead us to an uncertain world. We are entering the phase now. This is one of those inflection points where our economic thinking will be challenged, and be transformed over a period of time. And, indeed, so will be our political systems. The nation state system that we have accepted as the highest and most sophisticated form of political organization is already coming under some pressure. As the economic linkages across the world becomes weaker in this recession, the unfeasibility of the nation states will become plain for everyone to see.

There are some real dangers around the corner too. The Great Depression brought Hitler to power, when the world was obsessed with the dangers of communism in Russia. So, we looked the other way while a monstrous regime took hold in a major country. History has this nasty habit of repeating itself, and as we search for Obama in the caves, a fascist dictatorship is slowly taking shape in Russia. The west has committed exactly the same set of mistakes that they did with pre-war Germany: showed little sensitivity to the suffering of the man on street, Bush (Chamberlin) looked into the eyes of Putin (Hitler) and had a feel of his soul, and Russia was allowed to carry on a sphere-of-influece thinking and lord over some of the vassal republics. And, then, suddenly, the West wakes up one day and remember their commitment to Georgia or Ukraine and promises them NATO membership, and disengage with Russia, a state with a failing economy, shrinking population and a huge nuclear arsenal!

China riots are also bad news, though we, and possibly no one, know how bad. The Chinese problem will continue to affect us in the days to come. The Chinese experiment of trying to create an economic powerhouse without political freedom can end up in only one place - a corporatist, fascist state of some form - which either crumbles from within or goes into war. Here, the comparison is not with Germany but with Pre-war Japan, whose economic development was driven by large, state-supported organizations, which had an overtly nationalistic outlook and wanted to finance the war to secure markets and energy sources [sound familiar?].

In summary, this is a time when the old system is crumbling beneath our feet. The centuries-old thinking about economics and politics are under seize. Of course, there is one thing we can be optimistic about - the power of human ideas. We are capable of inventing our way out of trouble, and I am sure the same will happen again. But, as in all the periods of history when our directions changed, the coming years will be uncertain, fraught with danger and will need us to be patient and imaginative.

But, in the end, we shall arrive at a better world. I am sure that is reward enough for our troubles.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Private Notes: Feeling Free

I am feeling free. Yes, that liberating feeling that lets you be your best. That's very me, indeed, nothing much had to change in the real world to make me feel this lightness, almost unbearable. It is not that a gate had opened yesterday. It is like the feeling of being able to swim, when the sea goes beneath you rather than being on top of you. Or, is the comparison with air more apt, for this is a flighty feeling. But the lightness, as if I am being carried, is like that of swimming, not of flying; and so is this choice that I can just be still - still as in unmoved - and enjoy the moment of lightness.

Is Ireland doing that to me? I was in County Fermanagh for most of last week, staying up at Anne's. Working indeed, but literally setting my mind free to question all old assumptions. As if I got a new slate to draw on. And, indeed, I did draw on a new slate, questioning why we do what we do and finally coming up with a plan that makes far more sense than pushing the wall pointlessly. Oh yes, that is exactly what I felt I was doing. It was not the Lough Erne and the magnificence of the Yeats country, but this new-found ability to write on an unmarked slate and start fresh.

When I took up this job couple of years back, I had a picture in mind. I thought of an integrated people recruitment and development set up, connecting up world's source regions - Asia, East Europe and Africa [and may be Latin America some day] - with the destination regions of Western Europe, Middle East and North America. With my rose-tinted spectacle [figuratively speaking] I saw what we would build will be a great enabler of Globalization 2.0, the globalization of talents and skills. Indeed, I was all too aware of that immigration is a touchy issue , but then this is no more a forward looking perspective than the early industrial age mercantilism, when everyone wanted to keep everyone else's products out of their home market. We have moved from products to services since then, and services must be produced at the point of consumption - therefore, globalization of skills and people looked common sense to me.

Besides, I also saw a transformational possibility in this job. This is of course Sandra who pointed me to this - that if we can set up a network of vocational training centres complementing the recruitment network, this will mean we can move people up the value chain, attain a better life while travelling. This was a fascinating possibility - we could possibly train for teaching and send out English speaking filipinas as teachers, and this will mean a life of dignity and respect for many.

I have always worked for meaning than money. Not always an intelligent strategy while trying to pursue a business career, but I always treated money as hygiene and searched for meaning through my work. Indeed, in certain phases in my life, especially after I migrated, money seemed crucially important, but then I only made temporary adjustments and kept looking out for meaningful assignments which would make me enjoy work.

Indeed, meaningful work is hard to come by, especially if one is in business and the overwhelming motive is profit. I had a personal view on this - I did not mind making a little money for others if the work offered me enough excitement and progress, and offered me a maintenance level of salary. The problem is that you can hardly stand still in business, and if you are not striving for the last penny, you are doing enough. Besides, business is often structured as a zero sum game, the extra penny that you make must come out of someone else's pocket, though I admit that it should not be necessarily so. However, it works usually that way, and while I dreamt about creating value, most businesses are structured for capturing value, and that alone.

Let me stay on this for a brief moment to explain why I have always found myself so out of step. In my mind, a business venture should do two things - create value, by creating new products or services, or bringing together a set of capabilities and opportunities which let other people do so; and capture a portion of that value, by employing a suitable commercial model with an understanding of the value creation process and seeking a just return, for the efforts employed. However, more often than not, businesses are structured as opportunity seeking enterprises, more focused on capturing value than creating it. So, we expect customers to buy without any clear value proposition, employees to work without salary or security, and government to dole out grant monies without a reciprocal commitment to social service - just to ensure a profit is booked at the end of the day and the entrepreneur should enjoy a pleasurable lifestyle. Yes, indeed, this means voodoo business, and modern economics, with the proposition of profit maximization, helps to create a theoretical underpinning of this speculative behaviour. Indeed, if the business is all about creating value and capturing a part of it, you have a natural limit to profit; but the maximalist proposition is all about the raider/ entrepreneur seeking out opportunities to make as many quids as he can make without breaking the law [without getting caught, that is].

In this context, indeed, meaningful work is difficult to come by. Value - social and commercial - is the key underlying proposition of meaning. The respected filipina teacher in China, who would have otherwise worked as a maid in the Middle East, underscores the value our kind of business could create. So, would the transformational effect our English and Etiquette training may have on a village boy from Bihar. I saw my work in these terms and sought meaning in doing this. However, the correct way of achieving the business objectives is indeed to define it in terms of kits shifted or profits booked, even if the kit shifted not exactly translate into a transformed life and the profits come out of nothing but a bit of corner cutting. So, for most of my career, I remained the wide-eyed optimist and a dreamer, with only moderate success and a negative satisfaction.

This is where my sense of freedom comes. The problem with me indeed was inside me - my attempts to reach an unusual destination following the well-worn path. Unfortunately, nothing in my life so far prepared me to step aside and walk into the grassland, with the courage and optimism of taking the road less travelled by. But this is exactly where I am today. I decided to stop working for others and start working for myself, towards my goals. Funnily, this does not mean, as I eluded to before, leaving my current position right away. I did decide and tell my employers that I got to go, but this was before I took up the clean slate and was given another opportunity to decide what the agenda should be. But, then, once I am at this point, when I can actually define the agenda, it is worthwhile trying it out another time and therefore I may end up staying beyond August and doing it another way. This is indeed working for myself - shaping a business up to create and capture value - and this is possibly the first opportunity in my life when I am allowed to do this.

This also means an unique opportunity to create a business model that creates and seeks to capture value by aligning skills of job seekers to the requirements of a rapidly shifting market, and connecting the deserving graduates to right jobs. What could actually be better than this? I have realized that I should shift my career gradually to not-for-profit knowledge organizations because those seem to be corresponding to my 'meaningful work' paradigm than the business organizations, but then, this project indeed is an useful introduction to what I intend to do anyway. Of course, a business needs to earn a profit and over next few months/years I am involved, I have to live a 'bottom line' life, but this also means striving for process efficiencies and seeking optimization at every step, almost as an obsession, which is an useful thing to learn by heart before making the eventual transition to non-profit.
So, I stay on, at least for the moment. With a new agenda, and hopefully with a bit of new energy - but I am now looking at February/March 2010 to make the transition rather than 31st August.

Being A Socialist

It is fashionable to be a socialist these days. Even in America, that is. In Europe, various socialist parties have always existed, though past their prime after 1970s, but in America, being called a Socialist was an abuse. That remains unchanged indeed - last week we have seen various schemes being labelled socialism - but there is a new openness to the new socialism.

The family tree of new socialism, as presented by Kevin Kelly in WIRED, traces its roots to Utopia and the high point in Paris Commune, but connect up Linux, Twitter and Blogger in the same family. Indeed, the biographies and a new film about Che Guevara has made a comeback in Europe even when we thought we have seen the last of Fidel Castro. And, the universal acceptance of capitalist way of life is suddenly looking challenged in the face of a global recession brought about by the wisdom of the markets.

But, then, what about socialism's blemishes? The state socialism is dying. Theocracy and autocracy has taken over socialist cravings in various Middle Eastern and Central Asian states. The prevailing socialist orthodoxies in North Korea and Burma look as degenerate as ever. The Chinese is following a more successful transition from Socialism to Fascism than Russia, but nonetheless they are destined to fascism indeed. And, indeed, the whole idea of the state dictating what you can eat for breakfast appears a sure road to hell in every part of the world.

The point, of course, is that whether you will have two stale pieces of bread for breakfast every day rather than not having something to eat some of the days. It also depends whether you see the world in terms of abundance - there is enough if you care to work for it - or scarcity, where resources must be shared to survive. The issue with the reigning capitalist thinking is that it does not really care whether the world has enough for everyone, as long as it has enough for the raider / entrepreneur to take. And, we know the trouble with that idea - it can collapse any time and, if you have no money, you have no choice by implication.

One curious thing about the socialist philosophy is that it flourished more or less in Continental Europe, but while this was supposed to make its journey westward, in the Anglo-Saxon world, it never gained that foothold. Marx assumed that socialism will be a more advanced stage of civilization and will therefore, come to countries which has reached an advance stage of capitalism. But he was proved wrong and socialism actually came into being more as a parallel route to capitalism, a new way of distributing wealth, and took hold in the backward, more collective cultures eastward of Western Europe, in Russia, in China and in Asia. In fact, it is interesting to note the spread of institutional socialism in Asia, Latin America and Southern Europe, and see that in contrast with the Western, Anglo-Saxon sphere, and one can get a view of a different clash of civilization and two parallel answers to question of how to build a better society.

In that sense, the socialism of Kevin Kelly is a curious invention, which connects the most individualistic tools of our civilization into a collectivist paradigm. The twitter socialism is more akin to early robber capitalism than the North Korean model of state capitalism. But then the fact is (a) we are currently in the middle of a severe recession brought about by the independent pursuit of individual well-being; (b) the world's resources are looking decidedly scarce at this time, and those who say that the world's climate problem does not exist or that this could be solved by few geniuses pursuing individual fame and fortune are looking completely out of tune.

Not that bragging of individual wealth is going to stop anytime soon, but what looked like an unchecked expansion of capitalist individualism has been suddenly stopped and even reversed, and have been alternatively replaced/ pushed back by (a) Theocratic communalism [as in Iran, and the war is on in Afghanisthan, Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia and the like]; (b) Outright autocratism [as in Saudi, Egypt, Syria and the like]; (c) Corporatist fascism [as in Russia and increasingly in China]; and (d) a mixture of chaos and confusion [as in Thailand, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Philippines etc]. I have not included Burma and North Korea as they seem to belong to different era altogether. And, if life has to go on and civilization has to progress, we must find a better answer than pro-western selfishness which can maintain the social harmony, recognize the natural limits of progress and allow everyone the basic rights to live, which it will indeed come down to when we hit the ceiling with our climate. I am sure there will be different ways - some of us will look to religion and some of us will look to technology - but being an individualist socialist certainly seems to be an IN thing for the time.

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