Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Negotiating Change

Over the last 12 months, I have been doing some interesting work to bring change into a well-established organization. Indeed, the change that I was tasked to bring in was absolutely essential: The marketplace was changing rapidly and the company needed to move accordingly. I bore the title of 'Head of Strategy and Planning' for a while, as the key task was to interpret the change outside and formulate the change inside. At the end of 12 months, my job is still incomplete, but I have a perspective of the job: I look back with satisfaction with what we have achieved collectively, but also realize the task was full of surprises. In summary, I shall treat these 12 months as my life on the crust of change, a deeply satisfying experience if it is ever over.

I think the key lesson that I learned being on the coalface of change is that it is messier than the textbooks and theories make it sound. Most of my frustrations - and I must admit that I had a fair share - came from anchoring my expectations too much into what I read. For example, I kept expecting people to be rational, and only learned along the way that they are not. And, it took some reflection to accept that this is not necessarily a bad thing: In fact, what seemed dysfunctional at first appeared to me as a deeply social organization to me with perspective, just the kind of business I usually talk about, where people care about each other. While what I have been doing meant dismantling part of this social infrastructure and replacing it with a more rational business model, and I shall reason we had to do it to remain competitive, I felt a sense of regret having to do it in the first place. However, the lesson I learned from this is that while we should see business as a social organization, the big problem with that model is - as in society - you would invariably end up getting some free-loaders and some self-interested individuals who tend to abuse such environment and corrupt this with cronyism and other sub-optimal practices. So, any business based on social bonding must start with a set of well-defined values, like a family run by a benevolent autocrat (I grew up in one; I know). One must strive to maintain the values, and only by keeping these values intact, and judgements fair, one can preserve the social core of the business. In that light, I have guided my efforts to build a 'coalition of the willing', a team of capable and independent individuals who are committed to a somewhat similar vision. This, in my mind, is the first step to build a socially connected business, based on values and common goals, rather than privileges and hand-outs.

There were other interesting dilemmas to negotiate as well. The two key issues were education versus training debate, and whether one can reconcile the 'profit motive' with slightly longer term business model of education. These indeed provided me the landscape for intellectual exploration, just as the kind I adore. Having come from training, I started with the discipline and employability as the core objectives for everything, only to discover, only serendipitously, the value of education in answering the various 'why' questions in our lives. This came with the rather strange realization that despite the talk, what most British universities are interested in is narrow skills training, because they have themselves given up the cause of education at a time when market rules everything. My conversations with university administrators also unveiled an interesting point - that universities usually blame the students for such a drift. Students are no longer interested in education, they would say, and that they, as institutions, are powerless to change the agenda in 'student as consumer' age. To my mind, this is sheer laziness: I only need to look at the businesses of internet services and software where innovation transformed consumer preferences. Universities have one advantage - students come to them to learn - but by surrendering their thinking to bureaucratic oversight, the universities are no longer interested to innovate, and to inform students' choices. This made me reach a counter-intuitive conclusion: That privately owned businesses may have a greater chance of driving teaching innovation and changing students' choices than publicly funded universities. This is an untested assumption, but I am willing to risk it and make it the central premise of all the change I am working towards.

The other question of reconciling profit motive with longer term nature of education was a relatively easier one. It is possible to see the output of an educational institution in terms of customer equity, over and beyond the simple bottom line. If one can align the nature of investment - to those of a legacy kind rather than market-driven equity - it is possible to build great educational institutions with profit motive. Indeed, the choices I faced were more stark: The immediate choice of fresh investment always came from venture capitalists trying to capitalize on the high-growth HE sector, which is currently highly fragmented in Britain. Their business models are usually based on combining several small businesses on a PLATFORM, and then sell it on to a more long term investor. For me, such ownership transition is an essential part of reforming the business: A painful transition period perhaps, but leading to a more sustainable future.

So, in summary, interesting times, and I am just about getting started now.

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

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