Saturday, June 27, 2009
For the political correctness, it will not be last time that a migrant community will feel threatened in Northern Ireland. The sectarian violence has subsided, but the recent recession needed its own demons and the immigrants were the easy ones. Romanians bore the brunt - they were indeed one of the most hated immigrant communities in Northern Ireland [and possibly across the UK] - but it will soon be other communities. Polish, for example, who has a large presence in Northern Ireland, and have been involved in a number of conflicts both in Northern Ireland and also in Poland. There are a number of Indians settling in Belfast, Derry and other areas, and it would not be too long before the attention is shone on them as well.
Indeed, the Northern Ireland Executive is penitent [unlike the Australians after the recent attack on Indian students, who seemed to be in denial] and did act to provide the Romanians with safe shelters during the trouble and then paid for their flight back home. It is difficult to say how much of that came from political correctness, and the concern of offending a fellow EU state. Indeed, the economic benefits of migration is hotly disputed and there is no political consensus in the Western World about it. Northern Ireland, in particular, is a false economy anyway, where the lifestyle is mostly funded by British government subsidies and where a disproportionate number of people work for the government. This cosy life makes the people more disconnected than their compatriots on the British Isles regarding the need, and the economic benefits, of migration. With a fixed number of government jobs to queue for, less is indeed better.
And, indeed, do they really have to pay for this racial violence at all? Romanians are not the wealthiest people on earth. And, Northern Irelanders are not exactly expecting a lot of investment from Romania and not investing back there as well. [The Polish will be a different ball game though] I watched with interest the BBC street interviews after the attacks on the Romanians, and the usual British political correctness was completely missing. On camera, the street folks were saying that the attacks were provoked by the Romanians themselves and 'they should not be here in the first place'.
One can also look at the effect this is going to have on other communities. Like Indians, who are now going in relatively large numbers to Northern Ireland, as this is an attractive near-shore destination for outsourced services and many financial service organizations are shifting their back-offices there. Besides, the Northern Irish universities are trying to take advantage of Australian troubles and trying to recruit Indian students, and it will be interesting to see how the Indian community takes this and react to it. [Indeed, some Indians are very successful in Northern Ireland and they are unlikely to be affected. The rich rarely get affected till things have turned very bad and reached war-like proportion. And, for that reason, they are not the real role models to follow.]
Whatever the reaction, however, this will be recorded as yet another example of a community failing to adjust to the effects of globalization. Of migration, and of recession - at the same time. I, for one, believe that we can not achieve a flat world unless we have allowed free mobility of labour - like capital and trade flows - but events like this will show that the nationalism is far from dead. It is in fact increasingly likely that this recession will bring back the demons of the past [indeed, quotes from Mein Kampf were posted through letterboxes in Belfast] and set us back many years yet again.
Friday, June 26, 2009
But, to my eye-popping surprise, the excitement was about Indian education sector, and not about Michael Jackson at all [and there was no fire]. Indian education has long been one of the most boring subjects to talk about, but suddenly, in barely a month after the new Minister has taken over, there are debates, new initiatives and noise in Indian education. And, there are exciting ideas being floated - abolition of tests at 10th grade, proposal to abolish various agencies governing education and consolidating the administration in one over-arching regulator, and liberalization of education sector as a whole and to make it more exciting and inviting for responsible corporate investment.
But the excitement this morning was about Pearson Education's decision to invest in the Indian vocational education. They have announced plans to invest $30 million in a 50:50 Joint Venture with Educomp, a group known for its efforts to modernise school education in India, to enter into vocational education in India. Obviously, this will make it to morning news, and look like a huge endorsement to Kapil Sibal's already troubled reform plans. It can indeed work both way: this show of confidence in the business potential of Indian Education in the light of reforms will help project Mr. Sibal's cause, and will further advance the argument of various offended parties - mostly vested interests who profited from the corruption of India's education system - that the government is inclined to build an elitist system of education.
One moment on that argument: The standard argument against any reformist attempts in Indian education was that we can not afford an elitist system. But, indeed, that's exactly what it is - an elitist system now - and efforts and reforms are needed to extend access. Education, given India's diverse nature, is a concurrent subject - where the constituent states have a say, and this is going to be biggest roadblock of any attempt to change things. But, then, this time, a courageous start has been made and I feel optimistic that some day, we shall be able to change our antiquated, out of step education system to meet the requirements of a modern economy.
Pearson's investment in India - and to infuse some reality, deals of this size must have been in the works for a while and did not spring up at the wake of our new ministerial announcements - will bring to focus the vocational education system, which is going to be the mainstay of this reform. Whatever we do about Indian education, it must start with the very Indian fetish of the degree - the useless BA, B COM, BBA, B Es Indian graduates spend their best years doing - and the world view based on a lifetime desk job. This is the centre-piece of the elitism as well, a degree is middle class and the lack of one is not. This has to change. We don't need a BA in English doing our electrical work at home; we need a trained electrician, who does not waste three years in the pursuit of a degree, but rather gets to learn his trade well and ends up making the most of the unfolding economic opportunity.
It is not that we don't have a vocational education infrastructure already. But it's not feted - and our disregard for physical work as a culture has a lot to do with it. But then, we also have successful examples of educational efforts to break the barrier - navodaya schools which taught the students various life skills including handy jobs - and we must go whole-hearted to set the age-old preconceptions away and teach our children how to fix a broken door. I know the logic why we don't - there is always a person who will do it for us for nothing - but then, in another generation, this work will cost as the person who did it for nothing today would surely want to do something better, more rewarding, and as a progressive, democratic society, that opportunity must be created.
Besides this, of course, our vocational education infrastructure is terrible, with unimaginative leadership and without any plans. My house in Howrah is situated next to a huge ITI, government owned Industrial Training Institute, which was to drive the vocational training agenda. The problem is that most of the infrastructure is unkempt, without maintenance and run without imagination. I am sure a private organization taking over this dinosaur and turning it into a dynamic institution will be a possibility worth pursuing, especially if some of Pearson's glamour rubs off on such ventures.
Of course, Pearson's investment will focus the attention on India's education sector at another level - among the venture capitalists and investors around the world. Pearson is a huge name and there will be a number of people trying to follow their lead. Obviously, mistakes will be made. There will be go-it-alone suicidal ventures, which will run into ground because of the lack of understanding of the Indian market. There will be never-taken-off joint ventures with Indian partners who were in it for money alone. And, there will be chickened-out-never-there ventures which will try too little too slowly, misjudging the scale of the market and the brutal competition that will invariably come. But, then, there will be some which will still make it - one that understand the scope and rise up to it.
For next few months, I got to get up early and keep an eye on my phone.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Saturday, June 20, 2009
So, I was advised proper treatment and consultation with a physician, but as first aid, told to meditate, every day. Quite fearful to be sick, and indeed out of that sinking feeling that things are not as rosy as it feels, I started off immediately - taking time out every morning to walk alone for an hour, more for the sake of clearing my mind but also to burn some extra pounds earned through continuous travelling over last couple of years.
I had discovered this park in Croydon not very long ago, despite living in this town for five years now, which surely tells a story about the level of my physical activity as well as social life. This is a lovely green patch right in the middle of Central Croydon, a few minutes walk from the High Street, the Station and my house, but inside, it is unseemingly quiet and lush green during the summer. The only noises you hear there are from the passing train, which add a dimension of movement in the middle of the solid steadiness of the park, and therefore, do not distract. In fact, I am having a lovely time, walking around all by myself and having this time to reflect and recalibrate my life.
As usual, I have an unclear future. In my heart, I would indeed want to go back and live in India. But then, I am not finished with the agenda of seeing the world, which I initially set out to do. Besides, I have just started enjoying the social and intellectual life in London, which is unsurpassable in variety and richness, and I am not sure whether I shall enjoy going back to Kolkata now, where the intellectual vigour is in decline and the environment is tribal and provincial rather than open and dynamic. I am aware that there is a question of responsibility towards one's own homeland - India remains my country and I can not wish it away. No existing template will be good for me actually, as I have already chosen the 'road less travelled by'. That does not exempt me from what I must do, but what I shall need to do will be quite different. I must complete seeing the world and gather knowledge to go back and try to make a difference.
But then, I love this. Those who know me know that I thrive at bad times, at difficult moments, when everything seems bleak and dark and hopeless. In fact, some people told me that I get bored by happiness and consistency. All of this may have been coming out of the same disease, but it is true, I actively burnt my boat so many times and moved on - stability did not seem to have its usual appeals to me. And, indeed, I have been a failure - not achieved any personal wealth, skills or fame one would wish for - and do not see that I can achieve anything of considerable proportion in future as well. The only thing, I suppose, I shall have in abundance is fun, a sort of playful existence and joys of seeing the world, which may not be calibrated as success in any given sense.
The good thing, I suppose, is that I do not feel inadequate with the lack of success that I have. This must be from the people who brought me up, I am quite comfortable with who I am. But then I don't live in a cocoon, in the comfort of benchmarking myself with people less successful than me. I have seen many people living a fairly comfortable and uneventful life just by looking at people who have achieved lesser than themselves, but I instead tried to look at people who made a difference - not just to themselves, but to people around them too - and aspired to live a meaningful life.
In the end, I believe I am at a disconnect with the world as it is. I would have fit into the mould of a nineteenth century liberal, but not a twenty-first century business executive. What I am sure I lacked is courage and imagination, despite my efforts to break the mould, because I did not follow my heart but tried to be ordinary. And, this, through my meditations :) I reach at the end of the week: That I am not so different after all. I have lived a life so far where I aspired to live an usual life, but dreamt of an unusual one. I thought the bold dreams can wait, till I sort out the usual trivial business of living - money, mortgages etc. Of course, the only good thing here is the lack of success so far - if I was successful being someone else, I would have become someone else wholeheartedly - and this presents me an way of escape from my own Alcartez somehow.
My friend indeed hoped that my meditations will help me focus my mind and allow me to become a more consistent person. None of us have actually foreseen that the person that emerges at the end of it would be quite different from the one who started it.
Friday, June 19, 2009
In this video, tThe ex-Chief Economist of European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, Willem Buiter, discusses how Eastern European countries handled the recession, and seemed to be coming back from the brink. I found this interview on The Economist website and believed it is worth sharing.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
The key to democratic election is that the opposing parties come together to agree on the basis of the number of people they get to support them. It becomes not a debate who is right, or better, but who has the maximum number. It is an incredibly simple system, indeed a stupid system that is so easy to manipulate. This is really how all the dictators around the world get elected at a regular interval - they obviously always win by a resounding margin - and depending on who is protecting them, gets away.
The Iranian regime, by no means, is friendless. It has the support of China, which is the anti-democracy in chief of the world, and of Russia, despite the not-so-friendly history of these two countries in the past. But, this time, it has staged an election too far, not unlike the other inefficient and crumbling regimes before, and currently trying to manage its way out of the crisis.
The whole point is that they have a rabble-rousing President who seemed to have Ayatollah's blessings. But, unbeknown to the powerful, it seemed that the Iranian society has been changing and the ghosts of the past have long disappeared. One would think the big change has been the standing down of the big Satan, the switch from the diplomacy of fear to the diplomacy of faith under Barack Obama, and its message - a message of optimism and hope rather than one of belligerence - to the Iranian voters. Mostly young, they want to vote not unlike the way the rest of Asia voted in the recent elections, in Bangladesh and in India, and gave the mandate, we presume, for change and moving forward. For embracing the world rather than staying permanently in the shadows of the past.
One may argue that there is no confirmation that the election results were indeed stolen. But there is. When would an Authoritarian regime agree to a recount? Or let the protesters march? There are only two situations - when they are indecisive or when they are weak, and usually when they are both. They are suddenly in the world which they don't understand.
There is an element of tragedy in this stalemate. It could have been the Ayatollah's moment. Through the years of suppression of the Iranian republic by the CIA, misrule of a brutal Shah and an even more brutal war imposed on them by a scorned America [through their handyman at the time, Saddam Hussein], the Ayatollahs fought fear with fear, to give the people of Iran strength to face the world, the courage to believe in their own power and imagine a future for themselves. Today, they win. America stands down, exhausted after a prolonged war in Iraq and somewhat doubtful whether its vast Military power is as invincible as it appears, and extends a hand of friendship to Iran. Suddenly the veil of fear is gone and the choice is starkly apparent - move forward with hope or hold back in hopelessness. The Iranian people makes their choice - for hope - with confidence, imagination and courage. The Ayatollah's promise was to deliver the people of Iran exactly into a moment like this. But, when, the moment arrived, they cling to the mask of fear they are used to, and failed to take up the mantle of freedom.
This has always been the problem with great wise men and dictators, they hardly know when to stand down. They are generally swept away - by the rising tide of hope and freedom - at moments like this. It seems that the moment has come in Iran. The Ayatollahs are capitulating. They know they are at the breaking point, but in denial that the party looks over so soon.
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
- George Santayana [1863 - 1952]
An email made my day. As I opened my mailbox, I saw a mail from Gaurav, someone who I did not meet before. The subject line is Macaulay, our favorite whipping boy, and it reads:
your article is fantastic but the issue is are we doing anything to change the tomorrow or we are just cribbing of the past.
This is our country we need to change the tomorrow.
This is indeed the first time anyone had anything nice to say about the impromptu post I made about the spoof passed on in Macaulay's name. I am indeed grateful, thanks Gaurav, but he makes a very valid point. Does Macaulay matter any more?
I gave away my answer pre-emptively in the quote I have put at the beginning of this post - I do think he matters and we need to have this discussion. In my mind, there are three reasons why he does still matter.
First, because, he invented the model of colonialism that helped the British monarchy rule us for two centuries. We were fooled into submission, one can say. Alternately, one can admire the ingenuity of his scheme and the fact that he invented modern colonialism. He divided us, effectively, and let us rule ourselves on someone else's command. It was he, and not Robert Clive, who actually won India for the British.
Second, because we are still having that chasm invented by him. We still live the legacy of Macaulay. We still have the big and the powerful, the VIPs, who are 'different'. Any argument in today's India starts with 'you know who I am' - we created a who's who society. Of course, we do nothing to bridge that gap - this will require a full-fledged social revolution in India - rather we enjoy the divide and blame Macaulay and 'his children'. We still pass on spoofs in his name projecting what he may have thought. He matters because we are still having this conversation.
Third, because Macaulay's success was accidental. He invented the colonial model, and it suited us so perfectly. We were always a divided society, and this is why it was so easy to conquer India. We had different layers - castes and jatis - and we never worked together. So, when, Macaulay wanted to create an Indian ruling class who will lord over the rest of us on behalf of the British, he accidentally created a scheme that came naturally to us.
But, then, we need to look at this critically and see whether we have learnt anything from our past. I guess we have not, as the same people who object to Macaulay so vehemently, and blame him for all our woes, try to take us back to the glories of Ancient India. Of course, we made great progress in science, philosophy and literature [and so did Egypt and many other nations around the world], but it all comes in a package. We also invented this terrible system of caste, which was not the brilliant division of labour as its apologists project it to be, but a harsh social hierarchy, rigid and without any mobility, which undermined us as a community and a nation for centuries. While we blame Macaulay, we want to perpetuate the same system of privilege indefinitely.
This is exactly what we need to change tomorrow. The debate about India's future starts at the very root of the idea of India - who are we inviting to the party. We keep talking about this metaphor, that there are two Indias, one brightly lit up, urban, educated and ready to go; the other, dark, rural, stilted and condemned to stay. I know I am indulging in a bit of generalization for some impact, but it is as if one is catching the bus and the other is sure to miss it. That's indeed a nightmare of pure Macaulay vintage.
The best way to understand Macaulay is also in trying to understand how we eventually defeated him and became an independent nation. I shall attribute this to the genius of Gandhi, whose singular achievement was to attempt the bridge the chasm that divided India and in bringing everyone together. Before Gandhi, Congress was a talking shop of Babus; after him, it was the biggest modern mass political organization the world has ever seen. And, if one reflects back on what Gandhi actually did, one will see he reached out - to Muslims with the cause of Khilafat, to villages with causes close to their heart and livelihood, with lower castes, to everyone. He started building India as a nation, and Congress as a microsm of it. If one wants to envision Colonialism and Independence as a battle of ideas, it would essentially reduce into this Exclusiveness and Inclusiveness face-off. And, the two symbolic figures here will be Macaulay and Gandhi.
However, despite the fact our independence was earned by following the inclusiveness principle espoused by Gandhi, we seemed to have resented the idea from the very start of Independent India. We maintained the British bureaucracy, along with all its traditions and practises and nomenclatures, and rejected Gandhi's suggestion of a ground-up rebuilding of the Indian administration. We defined our ambitions in terms of what rank we can achieve in the babudom, rather than the pre-independence spirit of public service. We invested heavily in the world-class institutes of technology and management, but neglected general education and literacy. We wanted to leave out the Muslims, though they are the ones who fought Macaulay the most, and showed great courage by staying in the Independent India despite the lure of a Muslim homeland in Pakistan. We wanted to leave out the uneducated [who, mind you, are uneducated by our own design], the villagers [who remain excluded, despite Gandhi's best attempts] and the lower castes [we actually employed Macaulay's designs to divide the lower castes and created an upper-lower and lower-lower caste, and left out most of them]. We basically wanted to create an Independent India following Macaulay's designs and sent Gandhi to exile.
How many times have we heard that our population is our problem and it won't be too bad if some poor people die in a war or famine? How many times have we resented the villagers polluting our cityscape? How many times have we said that Muslims should go to Pakistan? How many times have we wanted to believe that India was a great country before the Muslims came? How many times have we tried to undermine all our social, economic and scientific achievements during the middle ages, when Muslim rulers ruled India?
The debate about India's future should start here. Yes, with a wholehearted rejection of Macaulay, but also with a redefinition of our society and rejection of modern Macaulayism. It will be whether we can unlock our talent potential, build an inclusive society and bring everyone to party. But till we do so, Macaulay will remain terrifyingly relevant.
Sunday, June 14, 2009
But then, to state the obvious, time is more valuable than money. To quote Edmund Wilson, there is nothing more demoralizing than a small but adequate income. One can waste a lifetime just being contented, being in a box, recession or no recession. And, so, I must do what I must do, because it's time has come.
Why must I move on - I was thinking for a moment last week - when I was sitting with my MD and he was describing the grand vision he had for our International business. He was indeed sincere, speaking from the heart, and was talking about what he wanted to achieve. He is indeed a brilliant man, ambitious and persuasive, and I did, for a moment, believe in it. Paused and thought about staying on, and playing my part in accomplishing that dream.
But, the problem was that it was an impossible dream. From the experience, I knew that while he is sincere in his dreaming, he is not a details man and he missed out what would be required to build such a great, international organization. Roughly, this was what he thought would be needed - a set of entrepreneurial men who would work for him for a salary. He would create a salary fund and pay them for three months. If they are good, they will produce results in three months. If they are not, he should be able to get rid of them in three months.
A stunningly simple vision and indeed, entrepreneurial and persuasive on the surface! But then, if the world was so easy. If only there were legions of entrepreneurial men who could play that magic and produce results, but worked for a small salary that he was ready to give. Only if there was a way to induce brilliant men to work for an organization which would want them out - if they do not meet targets set abruptly and without a clear understanding of the business model, in three months.
This has been the disconnect I lived with from day one. The audacity of the dream complemented with the naivity of the plan, only that I discovered the latter part down the road. I have no problems with the entrepreneurial, opportunity driven nature of the business that gets successful in best of times, but I was, and still is, convinced that a complex international business, especially a high involvement one like training, needed a bit of institution building. I don't really mean big offices and perks, really, but a sincere and deep commitment to the business and its people, rather than throwing a bit of money in the hope of gold in three months.
Thinking back, I surely should have walked that day and should not have chosen to figure it out as we go along. If one thing I learnt about startups by now that values needed to be fixed first and not later, not on the go. This must be sounding terribly pompous and unbusinesslike to many people, and this may exactly be why I may never succeed in a business career, but I have reflected on this many times over last two years and have now decided that I should not waste another day in trying to push the impossible.
Well, thinking that way, I have already lost quite a bit of time - almost eight months since I first notified my employers that I shall move on in November - waiting to sort things out. However, it is only my sense of responsibility, towards the people I interviewed and hired, worked with, partners who put faith on my words and signed contracts, students who came to us with hopes and dreams and suppliers who have put up with us though facing difficulty, that I should not just fold and go, without having a clear sense that they would be taken care of. I wonder, at certain moment of doubt, whether this was pure self-indulgence, or a real sense of burden which pinned me down and stopped me from walking away. I shall say it is indeed the latter, especially because there are a number of people among our staff who I treat as friends [I have already been accused of being soft on friends, and too friendly to staff, but that's sincere - that's exactly how I work with people], and also among our partners, who I deeply respect and admire. Going away, just like a professional should do, did not seem like a possibility.
This indeed tells me that I am grossly unsuitable for the result-driven Anglo-Saxon business world. I know I bring in an unique mix of experience, perspective, right brain thinking and intuition that some businesses need. But, I am possibly too long term, too old fashioned yet to run a modern business. I have flirted with the idea of doing an MBA and getting some of the skills and different sensibilities that the world of business requires. However, at the time of writing this note, my thoughts are very different, particularly after this on-again, off-again business in my current employment. I am now more or less ready to take a break from my career in business, and go into, at least for a period, academia and a career in writing, which, I am told, may suit me better.
One of those pointless polemic against the Internet and participative content - Web 2.0 - by an author who seemed to be bitter about everything. He blames internet for the demise of all the good things in life - Newspapers, Music, Hollywood, Encyclopedias, Universities, Bookstores, Music Shops - and for the rise of all the bad things - Intellectual Theft, Pornography, Gambling etc.
I must admit that I skimmed through most of it, and thanked myself that I did not waste my money by buying it. In the end, I came to one conclusion - only a Public School Brit can write such a book [and though I have no idea about Andrew Keen's political pursuation, I suspect he must be an old school Tory]. He refuses to admit that the technology of the day shapes the legal and moral context, and not the other way round.
I would not recommend anyone wasting any money on buying the book. You will usually find a fresh, largely untouched copy in the Library. Read it if you have a couple of evenings without anything to do, or looking for some distractive amusement other than pornography.
Saturday, June 13, 2009
Including me, of course. One rare book which I managed to read from start to end. Primarily because of Mr. Carr's caustic, very British sense of humour. Mr. Carr starts from his law school days of Nottingham, first book deals, his time with the Guardian and finally into his projects like Friday Projects and Fridaycities, which will finally become Kudocities. On the way, he talks about the new media business scene in London, its people, its rituals and its hopes and disappointments. Most of it is very real and other parts very enlightening.
On my part, I have some experiences of raising funds in London, though what I tried to do was for a very old business - training - and for a distant land - India - without much experience or exposure. That was indeed a very long shot, as I know now. However, I tried - from lunches in Brick Lane and pubs in Clarkenwell. I must say that I was way, way off, otherwise no one should have failed to raise money in London in 2004. But then this was useful learning and I hope I shall get there some point of time again in future.
But back to Mr. Carr, who tried, and finally failed to raise money. It is a good story. Partly about business, partly about himself, partly about the city and its culture and partly about new media. I am currently reading The Cult of The Amateur, Andrew Keen's rather vicious polemic against the New Media types. It is also an interesting read, committed against the types of Mr. Carr, coming out of a part outmoded elitist thinking about culture and part jealousy. However, Bringing Nothing to Party, despite the project's apparent failure in the end, shows no bitterness, which is the beauty of the book. This makes it thousand times more readable than the Cult.
Friday, June 12, 2009
But then, one appointment is far too significant to be ignored, that of Kapil Sibal in the HRD Ministry. I like Kapil Sibal, an erudite man and a successful lawyer, and wished to see him as the Minister of Law. Our legal system is indeed in the need of an urgent overhaul, and I thought he will be the man for it. However, I was not aware of his conflict of interest issues - his two sons are practising lawyers - and the fact that he did not want to take the Ministry reflected well on his judgement. While my wish of renaming the HRD Ministry to the Ministry of Talent Development [or, if that's too much, just Ministry of Education] was overlooked, Kapil Sibal looks a man fit for the job [I wished Rahul Gandhi takes the job].
Because, this indeed is the biggest ministry, in terms of long term impact, in India. And, it is even more important than ever before, while Indian economy is chugging along and the Indian education system is breaking down. There has never been a time so crucial to revitalize the Education system, if we have to maintain the economic growth and realize the dreams of India arriving at the Global top table.
For many years after Independence, Indian Education system was built for, by and of the old gentlemen of the British Imperial Babudom. We invested in world class technology colleges, administrative staff education system, military academies and later Management Colleges. We endowed these institutions vast sums of money, and granted them independence and autonomy. In doing so, we created one of the world's best Higher Education system, accessible to about less than 1% of the population. In all fairness, the system was highly meritocratic and therefore, there was some sense of fairness in the disproportionate focus on these institutions of excellence. But, then, academic merit in India is largely measured in English language in India, and this being the language of privilege [you won't learn English at school, mostly, unless your parents can afford to send you to a Private School], the logic of pure meritocracy does not mean much.
The scandal, however, was in what we did with rest of our education system. The British Empire was built on a privilege based system, with central universities designed to meet the requirements of clerks and officers in the British colonial structure. The reach of education was primarily urban, largely segregated [along religious and gender lines] and severely out of touch. The reach of Primary education was fairly limited, leaving most of India illiterate. That suited the British administration well. However, after Independence, we did very little to change the general education system. We underfunded the primary education, and left more than half of our people illiterate. We underfunded Secondary Education and allowed private schools to create a privilege-based pseudo meritocratic system, which allowed us to function as a democratic society without disturbing the social order. And, we let the colleges and the universities rot, stuck in the same old curricula for half a century. We created a mirage of education, while letting the nation's talent go wasted.
Despite all the hoopla about liberalization and general sense of progress, there are many people in India who look back at Nehruvian socialism with admiration. Including me, admittedly, because I do believe (1) that was indeed a very progressive thing to do in the context of that time, when all the world looked at the Welfare State model; and (2) that it did build our economic capability and allowed us to become competitive in the world stage. But, undeniably, the same experiment made us corrupt and lethargic, and this pushed us back many many years. The biggest damage arising out of this Nehruvian legacy is in Education though, where that's exactly what we are, corrupt and lethargic, and not even in a mood to look at the world.
To its merit, our education system, as is, is politically cosy and socially convenient. It is a great way of assuring that rich families remain rich and most poor families remain poor. It guarantees continuity, by maintaining a power elite who keeps running the affairs of the state regardless of the ministers. It keeps continuity in business, media and public life. And everyone is happy. The motto of Indian higher education so far has been - Do Not Disrupt.
But, then, that does not get us to global top table. Today, to repeat a cliche, it is all about talent. Suddenly, population is no longer seen as a problem - as it used to be in 1990s - and it is a resource to feed the economic engine. Suddenly, all our ideas are reversed - opportunity is no longer a constraint. Our Babu-biased education system is suddenly out of sync and our economic growth is suddenly hitting the talent short supply.
The most obvious example of this is in the IT and ITES industry, where the companies are no longer restricted to recruitment from elite institutions. They hand out much lower salary to the graduates from other Engineering colleges, but that was still good enough for them because their starting annual salaries were equivalent to what their parents retired with. But then, that also is reaching its breaking points and suddenly there is a salary inflation pushing the margins hard. I remember, about five years back, when I came to Britain and started looking for outsourcing contracts, it used to be five days work in India costing equivalent to a day's work in Britain; by 2007, it came down to three days' work, a more than 50% cost increase though the British salaries went up as well.
The problem is that while the costs increased, the productivity of Indian workers were not going up. This is because the Indian universities could not only match the expanded demand, but also failed to improve the quality of the graduates. The reason, well, is linked to how we approached this issue at a policy level, and somewhat related to the nomenclature of the ministry I love to hate.
Of course, we wanted to develop Human Resource and therefore, our solution to the demands of the industry for more Engineering Graduates [and also, for Management Graduates, Teachers, Nurses, Doctors - so on and so forth] was primarily a Resource problem. We sought a quantitative solution, more resources. We went around giving out Private University licenses. Of course, we remembered the dictum - Do Not Disrupt - and so tightly and corruptly controlled education that it became a money game. The Indian businessmen saw the demand-supply gap and jumped into it, trying to dish out degrees for a price without maintaining the pretence of education. And, the Ministry of HRD, under the stewardship of two very reactionary ministers who are clearly past their sell-by date, Murli Manohar Joshi and Arjun Singh [we wasted more than a decade under them, without any new ideas], was happy too - they were presiding over the worst ever hijacking of education in any modern country.
Kapil Sibal's appointment, hopefully, indicates a departure. First, it projects a sense of urgency - something must be done. Also, as the speeches of our Prime Minister over last few years indicate, the government sees education as a priority and wants to 'reform' it. This will actually mean liberalization, retiring the license raj that currently gags education and becoming serious about the mafiosi which has currently taken control of higher education in India.
I can not hide how excited I am about the prospect of change in Higher Education in India. This is make or break moment for the country. I am optimistic about this government, which I indicated before, and I think they understand the enormity of the task. But, Kapil Sibal and his colleagues are serious people, right for the job. I shall keep watching the IndianHE space with hope and excitement.
Monday, June 08, 2009
I have again lost track of my 100 day plans, but it does not matter anymore. I am clearly at an end now - which means a new beginning for my kind of people - my patience running thin, and my enthusiasm surging ahead. At precisely the wrong time to start a business, when one predicts the British economy is deeply hit by this recession, when Gordon Brown is floundering at the top and the nation's morale could not be any worse, I am raring to go.
This is possibly because I am forty. I got the sense of urgency back in my life with that magic moment of Birthday - or should I call it rebrithday - which opened an window for me to re-see everything, everything including myself. I am still killing time. Killing time is just an essential part of middle class life, it is as if we wait for our retirement benefits are handed over to us, that we don't seem to find an escape route easily. But, I am tired - let me go.
There were momentus decisions to be taken. Like, on my future in Indian politics. Without having started, of course, I got into a lecturing mode and started expressing my deepest opinions. As if they matter. This step back allows me to see the quixotic proportion of the project. Who am I - a tired blogger - to tell the nation what to do? But then I never meant to - all I wanted to say is what I felt - but somehow got into the notion that what I say matters. My blog got me, that's it, and now I am trying to run away from it. There are two clear things coming out of it.
One, I simply have no future in Indian politics. I am upper caste, come from a reasonably well-off family, have a problem with authority, stayed abroad for a long time and even have taken an Indefinite Leave to Remain in Britain. Besides, I have a terribly out-of-date liberal view, which automatically disqualifies me. So, I think I should give up and do what I do best - work in business and try to create wealth and employment - and if I can do anything for India, it will happen through this path.
Two, I am still planning to venture further afield. Britain was just one step, a beginning, but I was not supposed to end here. The original plan was to spend a decade in different countries, and I am only halfway through. I still have five more years and I got to see the world. So, I must do things what gets me there. Which means picking up a transferable skill and focusing on making some money, which I have not cared for, so far.
That brings back to the core word - Focus - which I must get in my life. Next few months, I know the work is cut out - setting the current work systematically off my back. I do not want any discontinuity, but I have done enough, investing a number of months after I gave up on this business. I need to focus now on future - going ahead and building on my understanding and my skills of marketing, particularly Direct Marketing. I am considering an Academic stint now - opportunities to teach - and I think I shall do quite well there.
I shall also turn this blog accordingly. I get a lot of visitors for my writing on International Relations and History, but not so much for the ones on business. I am planning to start a business blog and focus on it more regularly. I shall turn this into a complete series of private reflections - a diary of a Socially conscious individual so to say - and comment on important political, economic and social developments of our time.
Sunday, June 07, 2009
England's department for higher and further education has been scrapped, just two years after its creation.
The prime minister has created a new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills under Lord Mandelson.
Universities do not figure in the name of the new department, whose remit is "to build Britain's capabilities to compete in the global economy".
Number 10 said it would invest in a higher education system committed to widening participation.
The role would include "maintaining world class universities, expanding access to higher education, investing in the UK's science base and shaping skills policy and innovation".
"It also puts the UK's further education system and universities closer to the heart of government thinking about building now for the upturn," the statement said.
The new department will be headed by Lord Mandelson.
John Denham, the secretary of state for the former Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Dius), has become Communities Secretary.
Mr Denham had run Dius since June 2007, when it was created from the division of the education department, when Gordon Brown became prime minister.
Dius had been created as a separate department for higher and further education - with the remainder of education becoming the Department for Children, Schools and Families, currently headed by Ed Balls.
The schools minister, Jim Knight, has also moved in the reshuffle, becoming minister of state for employment in the Department for Work and Pensions.
In response to the latest shake-up, the further education organisation, the Association of Colleges, said that "in the middle of a recession and with less than a year to run to an election it's unhelpful to introduce this degree of change in terms of ministerial responsibility".
Diana Warwick, head of the higher education body, Universities UK, said: "We are looking forward to an early meeting with Lord Mandelson."
"We want to work with him to continue the momentum in developing a higher education system that will equip people with the knowledge and skills to compete in a global economy and enhance Britain's existing world-class research base."
Pressure on places
The Million+ group, representing new universities, said that the department would have to address "immediate challenges".
"In particular the tens of thousands of potential students who will be turned away because there are no places for them at university this year."
This refers to a problem facing the new department this summer if, as has been forecast by universities, there is a shortfall of places following a surge in applications.
The UCU lecturers union expressed its disappointment at the scrapping of Dius.
General secretary Sally Hunt said she was "very concerned" that the "merger seems to signal that further and higher education are no longer considered important enough to have a department of their own".
"The fact they have been lumped in with business appears to be a clear signal of how the government views colleges and universities and their main roles in this country."
It is not yet clear how the new department will work in terms of devolved government, as the defunct department was an England-only structure.
Saturday, June 06, 2009
But before we plunge into this discussion, a moment on my favourite topic - the training / education divide. The lines are surely getting blurred. The educational institutes are often judged by the starting salaries of their graduates, not unfairly, because most of these education courses have to be privately paid for. But, in my mind, education still remains distinctly different from training. Education is about broadening the perspective and preparing the learner with a wide variety of knowledge, so that s/he is prepared to meet the world half way and with an engaged mind. Training, on the other hand, needs to be narrower and deeper, focused on a specific skill, based on the assumption of certainty - we know what's needed - and the learner, in the end, should be equipped to carry out the specific task/ role that the trainer had in mind.
There are obvious overlaps. Like Management Education, where the whole thing revolves around an assumption of certainty of knowing what's needed. On the other end, this whole discipline of Leadership Training, which I am trying to get involved into, aims to prepare the learners with the uncertain, the unknown and the fuzzy. Indeed, not an easy thing to do within the four walls of a classroom and a given timetable, but then people are constantly discovering anchoring principles which help in the middle of chaos, and the training programmes are actually designed to transfer those principles.
But, anyway, given this broad perspective on the nature of training - transference of specific skills - I see five forces that determine the effectiveness of the programmes. These are:
1. Globalism: The work is global in most cases. So, the behaviour expectations, performance benchmarks, productivity standards, and operations systems are mostly global. The training programmes today must prepare the learner to enter and thrive in such a workplace. I am not exactly talking about teaching American culture in every training programme here. But, it is important that even if this is a training programme about The Principles of Family Business, the training design must take into account global practises, benchmarks and expectations out of the programme. If not, this is not doing justice to the learners' time and the sponsors' money.
2. Diversity: At the same time that work is becoming global, our lives are becoming more local and our uniqueness of cultures more distinct. Training must acknowledge the diversity and work with it. Here, the reverse - a programme on American Business Practises must take into account the host culture and its nuances. I have seen many Time Management programmes which impose the American way of managing time - where time is a discreet object which can be saved, stored, wasted and used - on a largely Eastern Audience, who lives within time, culturally, and where the world waits for the right time, a confluence of circumstances and abilities which happen to come together at that moment. A training programme must go beyond the superficial to be successful, and factoring in the diversity [but not get overwhelmed with stereotyping] is crucially important.
3. Talent Bias: The work is also individual. Most work, which could be carried out without thinking, have been automated. Or, are in the process of being so. Today, individuals must bring to table their unique value propositions. And, training must start with an acknowledgement that every participating individual has something to offer, and identify and sharpen that talent. Some training programmes, designed to fit the straight jacket, fails to do that completely, imposing a view on the individuals and forcing them to conform [or, at least nod their head]. However, a more successful training programme will actually lay down the framework for excellence, a clear understanding of the target skills, and let individual learners travel to it in their own unique way.
4. Asynchorinity: As it is important to bring out, or help to bring out, the participants' distinct talents, so is it to allow them their own travel gear in this journey. If we learnt anything new about learning in last two decades, it is that different people learn differently, using their unique blend of intelligences and abilities. And, yet, we try to create skills factories, a set of windowless classrooms run on a fixed schedule, to make people learn. However much we talk about it, I do see that such a 1984-esque solution dominate our view of training all the time. The ability of training programmes to allow asynchronous learning will differentiate good programmes from bad.
5. Technology: Yes, it had to come to that - technology. Because it is changing everything that we do, and how we do it, so fundamentally. Like globalism, technology orientation is important because the world of work is going to be technology centric. If it is already not there today. One would not dismiss Linkedin or Facebook as fads anymore. Twitter is still on the threshold, but as TIME magazine runs a cover story about it and lawsuits are being filed against it, it may enter the mainstream fairly soon. And, the learning must adjust to this free-flow, information abundant, judgement critical world. It must move from searching, seeking and storing information to analysing, referencing and operationalising the available knowledge, in line with today's technology-enabled workplaces.
I see these five forces changing all kinds of learning. This is not a suggestion that all training will now become e-training and most trainers will be job seekers' allowance. I think most of the training will remain instructor-led and there will actually be an expanded, value-added role for the instructor, rather than acting like a foreman in a Factory floor. However, I have seen the training industry evolve over last 15 years and changes have been faster than anyone else imagined. We are reaching that inflection point, like the rest of the things and hastened, in some way, by the current recession, when these five forces will mark the difference between the survival and the obsolescence.
Friday, June 05, 2009
It is indeed ironical how fast good things turn to bad. In the harsh light of reality, how a thorough and professional Chancellor turn into an incompetent, radar less Prime Minister. There is also a sense of tragedy in observing the flighty nature of public attention - the man was seen as one of the finest Chancellors in history who led the British economy to an unparalleled revival only a couple of months ago.
There are certain factors outside Mr. Brown's control, obviously. The global recession for one, which made his vaunted economic success look like a scam. The New Labour has indeed become old, tired and its newness forgotten, and their great achievements, like a rekindling of the NHS and the resurgence of the British public Transport system, have become things to be taken for granted. Besides, some of nasty things were handed down to him by Tony Blair, like the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, which does not seem to end.
But then, there are other things which could have been different. For example, the nature of Mr. Brown's elevation to power - following the stepping down of Tony Blair as if in a royal succession - made his authority seem dubious from day one. Mr. Brown did not face an election in the labour party, and refused to face a General Election, as if his backroom dealings with Tony Blair was a given and the whole nation must abide by how they decided to rule.
This sense of entitlement has finally come to be Mr. Brown's undoing. He seemed to have expected people to understand him - a man of substance and record - but made very little effort to understand the people in his part. He seemed to have lived, through his 1o years as a Chancellor, as a special man - something like a second among equals - and that made his transition as a top dog even more difficult. He seemed to pursue an agenda he kept in his purse for all these ten years, being completely oblivious that the world has changed and many of those things do not matter anymore.
And, he failed to communicate. His misfortunes do not come from the boyish David Cameron - who is widely seen as a lightweight and is very unlikely to be trusted to run Britain in these troubled times - but from his own fumbling, an antiquated vision and his intent to please everyone. He looked like a very confused man, regularly overturning policy decisions made after great deliberations.
He lost the game, thus. He showed a certain arrogance - that the Prime Minister's position is his - and failed to realize that it does not work that way in a democracy. His greatest opportunity - to take the people in his side by being forthright and humble - was squandered [he possibly had too many technocrats as his advisor rather than people politicians], and he seemed like a closet Stalinist preaching unity and in trying to sound mock-Churchill. In essence, he failed to lead.
It is only a matter of time before he goes, either through a Cabinet coup, or through an orderly handover or through a defeat in General Election. But, this will remain as a tragedy for Britain. Its best shot at becoming a modern powerful economy will lay wasted now, especially if the Tories take over and follow their usual, disastrous agenda of pampering the rich. Gordon Brown will pay the price of being egoistical, but so will the whole country. Indeed, it will be far better if he sees things early and decides to leave for the sake of protecting a legacy, for which he played no small part.
Thursday, June 04, 2009
As I start this, my agenda is more or less set. As I write, my application is being reviewed by the Home Office for an Indefinite Leave to Remain in Britain. If this comes through, and I shall know by today end, this will mark an end of a five year long project, when I stayed in this country, in the middle of various restrictions and meeting various odd and awkward criteria, to go through the process of settlement. Indeed, I wanted to experience how one settles in a different country, and today should be the last day of that process.
I must admit, though, I failed to settle completely, as is my nature. No sooner that I sent my passport in for the review, I have started thinking what I do next. The agenda of setting sail out of India is to see the world and experience various cultures and learn from these. I chose Britain as a starting point because this was culturally most familiar, and wished that I move outward as I become more comfortable in this journey. That day has, almost, come.
The other thing is work. I have worked on a project most of my last five years, initially as a business idea and then in an employed position, and I am almost completing it now. In three months, that is. Indeed, the last few months are going to be busy - I am in the middle of a full-blown restructuring effort, which, if successful, will allow us greater strategic depth and operational flexibility - and I am hopeful that these efforts will help me beget a sense of professional satisfaction which comes with a job well accomplished.
The job, indeed, has given me a significant exposure. Though it may be that I am not where I wished I would be several months back, I am definitely an enriched individual and my international experience has become somewhat real, having strategized and set up businesses in a number of countries. So, while the going was tough most of the time and there is a certain sadness for not being able to reach the promised space, there isn't any regret in my mind. Instead, what I have today, what is prompting me to move, to look forward, is a certain sense of urgency that comes with being old.
So, all change in September - that's what I am moving toward. The economy has started showing the signs of revival, and I have started planning for two fresh initiative for the future. One is a Leadership College, however tacky it may sound, which, I think, is a desperate requirement in India and some of the countries I travel to. I have already talked about this before and now moved forward with its conceptualization quite a bit, and I shall devote my energies in building a model in the coming months. The way I am thinking will have some strands of continuity, but mostly not. This time, I am planning to be hands on rather than my hands off mode during the current assignment, which I know has not paid off.
The second is a more personal project, of acquiring skills and abilities, which will make me a global professional. I still wish to see the world, but not as a tourist but by living in different countries and experiencing the way of life. This is indeed difficult, given my state of life and the various things I am supposed to do. However, wonderment is core to my personality and without this pursuit, I shall not be true to myself. The settlement in Britain, ironically, will free me up from the burden that I put on myself a number of years ago. I shall surely feel free, and I would wish to use this window of opportunity to take risks, cut the anchor and follow my heart. I have a feeling that this will be a wonderful journey. It starts today.
Wednesday, June 03, 2009
At the same time, I also came across Professor Kumar's article on How Emerging Giants Are Rewriting the Rules of M&A in Harvard Business Review and thought it fit to put the two in context.
Professor Kumar's HBR article seeks to answer one important question. As most M&A activities fail [the article states that over half the mergers fail to deliver their expected business value], why then do Indian, and other important emerging nation, companies are pursuing global M&A with a vengence? Obviously, there were several high profile M&A activities made headlines recently in Britain, Arcelor-Mittal [Professor Kumar does count Mittal Steel as an Indian company, despite its country of incorporation], the purchase of Land Rover & Jaguar by Tata Motors, the acquisition of Corus by Tata Steel, the purchase of MG Rover by the Chinese car makers, the purchase of IBM's Personal Computer brand by Lenovo, etc. In some cases, we have already seen the signs of trouble - recent workers' protests in Arcelor-Mittal and the admission by Ratan Tata that Tata Motors paid way too much for the car brands - but this did not deter the emerging nation companies from seeking to enhance their business value through M&A.
Professor Kumar argues that this is because these companies have a different approach to M&A altogether, and therefore, such activities still make sense. The essence of this approach is to acquire a company not just to benefit from the economies of scale, but to acquire competences and knowledge in the first place. This approach allows the emerging nation companies to take a long view of the M&A and develop a far more modest benefit expectation in the short run. This approach is apparently supported by the emerging market financiers and shareholders, though we have seen stock prices drop with the annoucement of such gigantic M&A activites, these fluctuations were not brutal and still allowed the companies to go through with their proposed plans. The loans were forthcoming, and as Professor Kumar argued in his book about the Indian companies, these companies are used to live with a much higher debt-equity ratio than their Western counterparts anyway. All these factors together create a conducive environment for the M&A activities, which we have experiencing in the recent months.
Professor Kumar contrasts the M&A activities by emerging nation companies with that of Western corporations along five dimensions [I quote]:
Western Approach: The aim of takeover is usually to lower costs, though some companies use acquisitions to obtain technologies, enter niches or break into new countries.
Emerging Company Approach: The aim is to obtain new technologies, brands and consumers in foreign countries.
Emerging Company Approach: The acquirer is often a low cost commodity player, while the acquisition is a value-added branded products company.
Western Company Approach: The buyer makes several changes in the acquisition soon after the takeover. It slows the quest for synergies thereafter.
Emerging Company Approach: Integration is slow moving at first. After a while, the buyer starts pulling the acquisition closer.
Western Approach: High executive turnover and head-count reduction is likely at first. Culture clashes occur and productivity declines, but things settle down over time.
Emerging Company Approach: Little interference, executive turnover or head-count reduction occurs right after the acquisition. Although it is too soon to tell as of now, tensions could simmer over the long run and blow up.
Western Approach: The buyer has clear short term aims but may not have thought through the long term goals.
Emerging Company Approach: The acquirer's short term objectives may be fuzzy but its long term vision for the acquisition is clear.
As evident from the above discussion, the executives in the Western companies need not be as worried about an emerging giant takeover as they should be in case of a takeover by a competitor from their own marketspace. They can, and will be allowed to, play a far more constructive role in the former scenario than the latter. Obviously, when an emerging nation company takes over a business for the sake of knowledge and expertise, the last thing they have in mind is getting rid of the key people who run the target businesses.
Finally, from the point of view of my own interests, the need for cross-culture training and integration practises will be ever expanding in these 'reverse' takeover scenario, and therefore, I am encouraged to pursue my cross-culture interests further. As Professor Kumar points out, the risk in these emerging mergers come primarily from culture conflicts - I have recently learnt about the deep cultural division in a 20 year old $5 billion Indian infrastructure company which has taken over an 100 year old Engineer firm in England - and a lot of good work can go waste if these divisions are not bridged.
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