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.

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