Max H Bazerman and Ann E Tenbrunsel write about Ethical Breakdowns in organizations. They are concerned about the sort of ethical problems that happen with perfectly good people, who are responsible family men and reasonable neighbours, do wrong things. Indeed, there will be corporate greed, cowboy businesses and an eternal hide-and-seek with regulators, but we are to assume business to be a positive force in the society, which can get us out of the current recession, we need to have our faith back average businesses run by average people: That way, this is an interesting essay to read.
The authors point to five barriers to an ethical organization: Shall we say five excuses. To their credit, the barriers they cite sound remarkably familiar. It is worth recounting them here, therefore:
First, there are Ill-conceived Goals. To quote, "we set goals to promote a desired behaviour, but they encourage a negative one". Edward Demming talked about the role quantitative goal-setting plays in lowering quality standards decades ago, and we all know how counter-productive simplistic sales targets can be. The authors also talk about the pressure to maximize billable hours in accounting, legal or consulting practices, and indeed, Clinton administrations perfectly reasonable goal of increasing home ownership in America (which led to easy mortgages in a way, and this recession, the authors argue).
One possible remedy is to brainstorm such intended consequences while setting the goal. This sounds simple, but I shall agree that most organizations don't even try to do this. I shall argue this is one of consequences of 'Best Practice' thinking, or in other words, the propensity to use a template which worked elsewhere. For example, in the Private Education industry, rewarding sales teams for student recruitment has proved to be problematic, as this leads to less than honest promises made to students, less consideration of academic ability of the students vis-a-vis courses chosen and other unethical behaviour. However, it is very difficult to challenge the practice as this will fly in the face of convention, every college follows the same practice. However, as American For Profit players are finding out, such sales practice is unsustainable and this is the key reason they have landed in regulatory hot water. In Britain, the new, harsh immigration regime has come into force primarily because of the commission driven agencies that British colleges and universities use, though so far the regulators failed to pin down the problems to recruitment practices. The moot point is that changing the goals may need more than just brainstorming, and often regulatory pressures are needed. [I know this sounds cynical and sometimes, industry practices change as a leading player changes the rules of the game, or a fad catches up. In a way, we don't give enough credits to fads.]
Next, there is Motivated Blindness. This is when we overlook other people's unethical behaviour when it pays to remain ignorant. The authors cite Baseball officials who failed to notice widespread steroid use. The same can be said, with caution, about game-fixing in professional sports. Bribery and match fixing may be common in Cricket (and it is easy to do so, given the individual roles in the game), but the officials may just pay no heed as unearthing such practices may undermine the game and drive spectators and sponsorship money away from them.
The solution to this is rooting out conflicts of interest. Businesses are not very good at doing this, and yet again, regulatory pressures may be needed to sort things out. Returning to my familiar territory, For Profit colleges in Britain, I know that many of the college admission departments employ staff who are related to, or have a direct or indirect interest in, the recruitment agencies that the college employ. In a way, this is common sense for the college administrators - they are employing people with best relationships and knowledge of the market - but they are intentionally turning a blind eye to the conflicts of interest and ethical problems this cause.
Third, there is the phenomena of Indirect Blindness, the cases where the unethical practices are carried out through third parties, with our indirect involvement and sanction. The authors cite a case of a drug company which sold the rights to another company, who imposed a price increase, to deflect attention from itself. One can also talk about thousands of mortgage advisors who worked on behalf of banks etc handling the housing loans during the past boom, who encouraged the customers to apply for mortgages beyond their usual paying capacity, and banks turned a blind eye as they did not think they can control the mortgage advisors without rocking the boat and losing business.
Again, employing agents in For Profit Education is an endeavour to allow, but keep a distance at the same time, unethical recruitment practices. The college administrators often fail to accept the responsibility of wrong promises made to the students, though they were fully aware of the possibility and failed to ensure that the students were properly informed in the first place.
A 'pre-mortem' of an outsourcing operation is a good place to start. But, again, institutional blindness and management by templates is likely to come in the way. Regulatory pressure is often the only way to keep things in check. However, I shall argue that the educational institutions, particularly business schools, can and should play a role - indeed, making people feel committed to the broader goal of building a better society ahead of making money and staying safe should be a key goal of any business education.
Then, there is the problem of Slippery Slope. We are less able to detect unethical behaviour if it develops gradually, which it usually does. There is always the small corner-cutting which the problem starts with. This is the problem of 'Let Go' which we do all the time. I shall argue that the problem of plagiarism, which is widespread in higher education these days, grow up in this way, when the assessors let go of small transgressions noted in coursework and regular class assignments. And, catching this early is only a part of the solution; following up and making sure that the practice is stopped is required at the same time.
Finally, the Outcome Centricity, the thinking that 'the end justifies the means' allows unethical behaviour. This is a key point, as ethics is not a end of the year product to be shown in the balance sheet, but a matter of everyday responsibility. Too many organizations approach ethics as an objective to be met to satisfy external parties, regulators, customers and suppliers as the case may be, and intend to do as much as they can get away with. Often, these things end up in disasters, though not in the scale of Deepwater Horizon that BP had to contend with last year. This was one case where incremental negligence and a focus on outcome undermined all sorts of internal and external controls: The manager who let a less than optimal valve remain in its place because the end of year production targets were more important helped to cause the one of the biggest environmental damages in recent history.
This is one area, unlike others, regulatory pressures are ineffective. Outcome centricity is life-blood of business and one can not legislate this out. However, consumer awareness, the need for transparency about the process as much as the product, media scrutiny and a more responsible business education can make an impact here.
The reason why ethics is so important is because we are usually bad at counting the costs when making business decisions. While all of us want to create organizations which last longer and turn profits over a longer period of time, available methods of accounting and decision making are quite limited in scope. We only measure one dimension of business (okay, four, if you have got to Balanced Scorecard) and usually have a narrow view of resources we consume. For a business to function, it consumes many social (people's time, family support, health care, busy traffic situation during the peak hours, holiday rushes are all examples of society paying for a business to work) and natural resources which we don't account for adequately. However, if the give-and-take balance isn't right, the businesses we build are likely to be unsustainable. A constant vigil on ethical practices in the organization helps to keep the business on the ball. A business leader can only ignore this at his/her peril.
Saturday, April 30, 2011
Max H Bazerman and Ann E Tenbrunsel write about Ethical Breakdowns in organizations. They are concerned about the sort of ethical problems that happen with perfectly good people, who are responsible family men and reasonable neighbours, do wrong things. Indeed, there will be corporate greed, cowboy businesses and an eternal hide-and-seek with regulators, but we are to assume business to be a positive force in the society, which can get us out of the current recession, we need to have our faith back average businesses run by average people: That way, this is an interesting essay to read.
Thursday, April 28, 2011
From McKinsey Quarterly:
"When Michael Crow became president of Arizona State University, in 2002, the former Columbia University vice provost had ambitious plans to turn the school into a new American university devoted to educating a wider swath of students and focused on higher productivity in cultivating competitive graduates who can succeed in today’s volatile job market.
Nine years and a 25 percent increase in student enrollment later, Crow, 56, has delivered big changes in those areas and others at ASU and has garnered a growing reputation as a pace-setting thinker on higher education. He has made strides toward expanding ASU in areas such as ethnic and economic diversity, graduation rates, freshman retention rates, and in the number and intellectual reach of graduates. In fall 2010, ASU boasted an 83 percent first-year retention rate, up from 75 percent in the mid-2000s, and a record enrollment of more than 70,000 undergraduate and graduate students. A survey of recruiters by the Wall Street Journal in September 2010 ranked ASU as the fifth-best American university in terms of quality of graduates.
Crow has been outspoken on the topic of government support for schools, pushing for an output-based model that links funding with the ability of universities to produce large numbers of graduates with literacy across multiple disciplines. He has developed close working ties with businesses to develop a higher profile and value proposition for ASU in its surrounding community. In this video interview at his office in Tempe, Arizona, Crow sat down with McKinsey’s Lenny Mendonca to discuss the challenges of restructuring the intellectual enterprise of today’s public universities."
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
I have been to many interviews where the dreaded question - what's your greatest weakness (or variations thereof) - came up. This was always a strange, conversation stopping, awkward moment. As an interviewee, this is a moment of judging the mood: Should I be honest or not? I have blown my chances before by trying to be honest. On the other hand, it is that moment when one can look arrogant or plain dumb. I have no weaknesses - whichever way you say it - proves that you are either lying, or completely self-oblivious.
For the interviewer, this is an important question. That question establishes power equations in an interview: The candidate can not turn around and say, what's yours? It is the interviewee who has to disclose his weaknesses, he is obligated to have a sense of waekness because he is sitting at the other side of the table.
There are some 'strategies' for handling this question, indeed. Some good advice came from this month's Harvard Business Review, which suggested that the candidate should talk about something which is external, which s/he has no control over.
In my infinite witness of trying, I discovered that somewhat - to project weakness as an inverted strength. Something like, my pet line once I learned the trick: My greatest weakness is that I went to school in Pre-Liberalization India and never prepared for a 'global' career, because in small town India those days, there was nothing as such. This is indeed true, and this is a great weakness in me. I have gone to a local school, never learned English much, never learned to dress properly, never met someone outside my locality and grew up prepared to be a small town clerk. Indeed, the point of saying this in an interview is to say that I have tried to overcome this weakness later in life (and that sitting in that interview itself is part of my efforts).
But, while the point is usually made, it conceals the point. This indeed is my greatest weakness, and however much I try to externalize it and project that I have no control, that's not particularly true. What did happen is that this lack of preparation remained with me and grew up to be a sort of back-of-the-mind complex. This is possibly called the 'impostor syndrome' - I always feel out of place, and often, even if I achieve something, I feel this is plain chance or luck and I have actually played no role. In summary, I have let that point about schooling and lack of smartness hang over my head all the time.
At this time, when I am trying to break free from the past and to do things what I wanted to do, it is important for me to accept this weakness in its face value and reconcile with this, if possible. The problem of 'impostor syndrome' is that one remains defensive and forever shackled in the past, and even when future meets the person half way down the road, he passes it off as an illusion. I can't deny that happened to me before: I only realized that once the moment has passed.
For example, the business I started in 1999, which was just right on time, full of new ideas. I couldn't sustain it because I did bad deals to secure the money needed, and the investors sucked off all the profits the moment the company started making any money. The reason I did bad deals is because I did not feel confident to propose a better deal. When I was negotiating the deals, it did not matter to me what value I am bringing in to table: I was more concerned thinking about my provincial background and that of my rich and famous investor, a smart, good-looking rich man who graduated from Babson College.
The problem of such bad deals is that it quickly assumes a life of its own and my sense of limitation quickly compounded into a sure road to failure. I tried to make it up by being heroic - doing all sorts of sacrifices which stretched me to an extreme - but this actually pushed me down to the point where I had to give up, sell off and go away.
Thinking through, this is possibly one lesson I should have taken, but did not, as I was too concerned about how to answer the interview questions (which came up in many other occasions since) than to understand the weakness. And, seek closure, if I may say. Unless I could really believe that I am not what my past mandates me to be, but what I define as my future, I shall never get out of this cage. I shall always be cowered in an interview, trying to judge the mood, working out a smart-sounding answer which shows my vulnerability in a controlled sequence.
If and when I am asked this question next time, therefore, my answer will be counter-strategic: My weakness used to be to have this sense of limitation, but I have decided to grow up. This may not get me a job, but then, I am not looking for one.
Monday, April 25, 2011
I have done a lot of reading lately, more so for the demands of my MA course. This is my second year into it, and I had taken 75 credits worth of courses this year. My idea is obviously to finish off as soon as possible, and if everything works out, I may end up doing another 15 credits over the summer (through a special course) and only leave the dissertation for the next year. I have enjoyed doing the course, though the coursework, coming on top of my work, the disarray at home and the house-move, is killing me. The good thing is of course that I have a good grounding in the business of adult education now, which adds me to my knowledge about processes and of the business side of it.
In a way, this is an interesting bit of my life as this comes hand in hand with my exposure to For Profit Higher Education. I have done various things in life - managed electronic communication businesses (the business of email, before Internet happened), sold and managed large scale computer training operations, owned and ran high end IT training business, worked in e-learning in public and private sectors, sold and managed language training operations internationally, ran corporate training businesses in sales and leadership and finally doing this stint at Higher Education end of things. I have never planned things like this, but, as it happened, I had quite a guided tour through the business of adult education: With the course, it feels that I am reading the guidebook now.
This four day break was helpful in another sense: I did find time to re-evaluate what I am doing and think what I shall do in future. There are things to do at work, indeed: I have to tone down my reformist zeal and focus on things, transactional things, that I have to do. Indeed, I have overdone my crusade for quality quite a bit, and it is time for me to accept that certain things can not be changed. I behaved so far as if I had the mandate, but I didn't, and the best thing for me is to know accept that I can't achieve all the things that I am gunning for within the current business.
This is not being pessimistic, which I shall loath to be - I am just being a realist and trying to refocus my efforts. I have put some of my bold and beautiful ideas on the back-burner and it is time for me to re-look at some of them with a fresh perspective. I feel ready, despite the intense pressure I am under, to restart my efforts yet again.
And, pessimistic I am not, as I look at life with optimism and joy. I see this period of hardship as only a passing phase and I am already making plans for life beyond. Like, I have put a time frame, two years, that I intend to stay in the house that I have just moved into. I know it is odd, but this is such an enormous relief for me, knowing that I am not going to stuck with something forever and that I have something to work for. Indeed, I am already two months in this house - into third month technically - this means I have to keep living the life I am living now for another 21 months, at best 22.
It is the promise of freedom at the end, the setting of goal that I want to go and live somewhere else once I have spent these months, that keeps me going. My next goal is to go and live in another country, if possible a non-English speaking country. This strange goal will give me the incentive to learn another language, though this has to wait till my MA course is complete. In a way, this is crazy: I am just thinking of building up some of the projects I thought about before. But, in a way, this is how it is: All the projects I ever think of are mobile and can be done from anywhere; my current pet project particularly so.
I shall not publish this note just now, but save it: The intention is to publish it in a month's time when I have made some progress. This is another game that I keep playing with myself - make the promise first - and see whether I can measure up against the promises made. I wish to come back to this post on 2nd June, my 44th birthday (that makes me feel old, but I should not), and see what progress I have made till then.
Sunday, April 24, 2011
The impending State Assembly elections in West Bengal, due over next couple of weeks, remind me that I have been writing this blog for more than five years. I suddenly recall my post after the results were published last time, and my arguments that the Communist Party led Left Front remained the best alternative for West Bengal.
I returned to this subject often thereafter, given that Kolkata is still home, wherever in the world I may live. My stance rarely changed, though. I maintained, for the most part of the last five years, that the Left Front remained the best options for the people in Bengal. I despaired at the personality cult of the opposition leader and her tantrum-prone politics. I deplored her populist stances over the industrial projects in West Bengal, and wished that her alliance partners, the Congress Party, will abandon her in time for 2011 elections. But, by 2009, for all my affiliations to the left of the centre parties and my dislike of leaders like Ms Banerjee, I was reconciled to the fact that the Left Front is on its way out.
I chronicle this now because it indeed seems to be the case. Apart from a series of bad news, stalling of industrial development of West Bengal, a general deterioration of law and order, an acceleration of Maoist insurgency in certain parts of the state, the government seemed to be losing its way every passing day. The ruling Communist Party added to its record of committing historical blunders by exiting the Centre-Left coalition in India's Federal government in 2008, handing Ms Banerjee a much needed second life in coalition with Indian National Congress. Her leadership skills did not improve a bit, but her politics gained some gravitas in comparison to the infantile ramblings of the left.
The latest case, which will possibly become one of the most prominent examples of electoral suicide, is demonstrated by a viral video of a speech made by one of the leading Left leaders of the state. In what would have looked comic but for its obscenity, the speaker calls Ms Banerjee a prostitute who is selling herself to the highest, foreign, bidders. Even the audience, most certainly the party faithfuls, were muted in their clapping; the reaction of the general public was furious. Even the Communist Party bosses, who are usually quick to defend even the most atrocious actions by the party cadre, are unusually apologetic: Possibly they understood how much damage the video would have done.
The video is symptomatic, though. This shows why the Left will lose this election: Their leaders are completely out of date and out of touch. The speaker in question, a veteran street campaigner, was completely oblivious of the power of television, let alone the viral videos. He forgot that there was no 'local' audience any more. The point he made - when put in general context by worldwide viewership - was no longer about the opposition leader: It was a dig against all women. The video is still dominating the Bengali news channels and Facebook, and the derelict Communist Party Election Managers simply does not know how these things work anymore. One way, the Television is putting the last nail in the coffin for the Communist Party in India (Live Television made their 2008 No-Confidence motion against the Indian Government look silly), and Internet has now joined the force.
In the end, the end of Left rule may not be a bad thing for West Bengal. It will be chaos in the short run, but chaos is possibly better than stalemate. The disease that plagued Bengal for last two decades (after the initial reforms of the left rule) is the monopoly of political power and consequent rise of Representatives-for-Life which rendered democracy quite useless. In fact, the Left parties kept doing this for so long despite losing their appeal, thanks for the First-Past-The-Post system (a system like Alternative Voting would have pushed them out a good twenty years back).
In the end, I am hopeful about Bengal. I am hopeful that a new start will now be made. Green shoots of entrepreneurship and innovation will emerge after the chaos. People of Bengal, long suppressed and devoid of opportunities, will find the expression and energy to shape their own future. May be, the moment of West Bengal will now finally arrive.
I received a leaflet on post yesterday urging me to vote NO on the 5th of May, helping to keep Britain's First Past The Post voting system intact. There is a photo of runners on the finishing line, and the message that under AV, the person coming second may be the winner. Like everything in today's Britain, it is an appeal to my fear: It is based on the assumption that I can be fooled, and misled easily.
This informative video from BBC will tell anyone that AV is not about the losers winning, which the right-wingers are trying to establish, but about public having more choice, elections producing results and candidates winning fairly and squarely. It is giving the public more say and MPs less to play with. It will reduce the premium on the kind of dishonest politics of fear that the NO camp is playing.
I shall argue that AV reflects the realities of political life in the modern times. Rarely, it is a straightforward choice between two clear alternatives, but many shades of the same opinion and many imperfect candidates. Indeed, one may say that the voters are frightened by choice: Indeed, they may be. I know people like straightforward options, choices between black and white. This is how politics in most democratic nations are played out, reducing democracy to a number game of 'vote banks' and tribal affiliations. But, AV forces no one to declare their second or third choices. It just provides the option to those who is interested in making the political system better and more responsive. And, given the deep effect politicians have over our lives, I would rather vote YES and have more choice.
One reason why many people like me may not vote at all or end up voting NO is because of the deep distrust we have for Lib-Dems. For all their high-pitched politics, they have proved themselves capable of most astonishing political somersaults. But this is choice for the future, of British democracy, and democracy in general in other parts of the world. I see this not being about endorsing Lib-Dems, which I shall loath to do, but about giving a new life to democracy and save it from the clans-and-cronies degeneration that currently plagues it.
So, indeed, I shall turn up and vote YES.
Saturday, April 23, 2011
My takeaways (The interesting bits that I noted while watching the video):
1. The User-led Mission Statement: To make people happy for 5 minutes a day! That's cool, and profound, at the same time.
2. Defining the business as the 'Business of Humour' rather than the 'business of photos of Cats' or the 'business of animal photos'. Again, listening to the users at its best.
3. The distinction between Popular Culture and Internet Culture: That there is such a thing. It is indeed different from celebrity gossip and all that. The Angry Birds that make the wave is not to be seen anywhere near the Westminster Abbey on the Royal Wedding day.
4. The definition of Internet 1.0 as 'transactional' - where people went to do a thing - against the Web 2.0 as 'cultural', where people express and connect. In fact, I disagree slightly: I used Bulletin Board services and made friends there, but I get the point.
5. Interesting point about sites, as they grow, shed some original users to become mainstream. Most 'cool' or 'fringe' or 'cultural' businesses have to do that, don't they?
6. The idea of 'Positive Risk' and the risk of failure as against risk of not taking risks. How many businesses decide on the contrary and die?
7. Failure as a process - I shall include this in my list of favourite expressions from now on.
8. Lowering the cost of failure - this seems to be a recurrent theme among the studies of failure. Jim Collins will call it 'Above The Water Level' risk taking.
9. Message to mainstream business: Let employees take a 5 minute mental break. I see the point.
10. The product development philosophy: Start with a minimally lovable product and incrementally add features. After two releases, let the market forces decide. I may use this in my own business.
I say, on my Linkedin profile, that I wish to work to build a great organization ready for Globalization 3.0. Indeed, there is some justification in the labeling - I saw the resolution (seemingly) of Capitalism/ Socialism debate and the globalization of technologies (Internet) as the first wave and the globalization of skills and people, mainly through cheap air travel and cheap phone calls, as the Second. Indeed, there are other people who would think that this is quite a narrow generalization, globalization was indeed a process that started with Italian merchants; and there are others who would say that globalization was always there - in fact, it was nations which are a later invention.
This is a truly many-sided debate. The most high-pitched battles are indeed fought between the 'World is Flat' people, who believe that the global corporations are making national boundaries irrelevant, and the 'Shock Doctrine' people, who believe in exactly the same thing, but think that's necessarily bad. However, there is a school of thought that the world is less global than one thinks, and the global prosperity remains stunted under the divisions still. Pankaj Ghemawat, who made the point before in his Redefining Global Strategy: Crossing Borders in a World Where Differences Still Matter, has written a new book, eerily named World 3.0, making the case why we haven't seen true globalization yet.
Some of the statistic he presents is self-explanatory:
1. Only 3% of the people live outside their country of birth
2. Only 2% of the students are at universities outside their home countries
3. Only 7% of the Rice traded across borders
4. Only 7% of the directors in S&P 500 companies are foreign born
5. Less than 1% of all American companies have foreign operations
6. Exports are equivalent to only 20% of global GDP
7. Air Travel is still restricted by bilateral treaties
8. Ocean shipping is dominated by global cartels
9. Foreign Direct Investment accounts for only 9% of fixed investments
10. Less than 20% of venture capital is deployed outside the fund's home country
11. Less than 20% of shares traded in stock markets are owned by foreign investors
12. Less than 20% of Internet traffic crosses national borders
(Examples as cited by The Economist, April 23rd)
This is not the death of distance, but a reassertion of the love of the familiar and the local. By this standard, David Cameron's recent concern that local communities are falling apart with people arriving with strange dialects is not out of place. Professor Ghemawat cites more data (again I have drawn on The Economist's review of the book): Two otherwise identical countries will engage in 42% more trade if they share a common language than if they don't, 47% more if they belong to a common trading block, 114% more if they have a common currency and 188% more if they have a common colonial past (which may mean they also share a common language).
This indeed blows my ideas of globalization of people and skills out of water. Today less people, as a percentage of population, cross national borders. A century ago, 14% of Irish-born people and 10% of native Norwegians emigrated. There were no visas and passports, as opposed to today's $88 billion a year spend on visa processing. Professor Ghemawat points to the fact that in some countries, a passport costs more than a tenth of a person's average annual income.
In fact, the local is alive and well. The march of the extreme right across Europe and the Tea Party-goers in America, the adolescent national sensibilities in Asia, the roll-back of various national union projects (including the precarious state of the EU, where the French has now closed the borders with Italy effectively), all point to this direction. The FDI fell from $2 trillion in 2007 to $1 trillion in 2009, and nearly a quarter of North American and European companies shortened their supply chain in 2008. 'Near-shore' is becoming as much a common term as 'Offshore'. It actually seems globalization is in full retreat.
The point here is the difference between the rhetoric of globalization and the state of the phenomenon. It is possible to see all of this as a huge global opportunity, of unlocking the potential of connections and co-working. I am very much the 'nationality as an invented identity' school, though I shall agree that this was a convenient identity at a time in history. I am firmly of the belief that the time for national divisions are over and a global generation is beginning to emerge. Professor Ghemawat is right in pointing to the unfinished globalization; I shall sign off with a realization of how much is left to be done.
Friday, April 22, 2011
Indeed, students as consumers is at the heart of the argument for private provision of education. But I shall say that this is a false argument. It is possible to see the student as a 'citizen', a participant, someone who must be actively engaged in the process of education and whose education will impact the wider society, and provide education for a profit. In fact, the reductionist arguments of students as consumers and consequent efforts like League Tables (and I must cite Malcolm Gladwell's excellent 'The Order of Things' here) are completely off the mark.
Krugman says that reducing patients to just 'consumers' and doctors as 'providers' say something about the society's values; the same indeed can be said about the 'student as consumer' debate.
India has a problem. Its many million middle class needs opportunities, so that they can make their lives better and get a share of the new prosperity. This should be easy: The Indian companies are going places and foreign companies are coming to India. In the world which is claimed to be flat, a world of opportunities have opened up to the Indian middle class. Only if they could get it.
It should be easy, but it isn't. The problem is - India's higher education system is seriously out of date and out of depth. Its initial problem was that it did not have the capacity to serve the middle class. With the government opening up the market to private investment, however reluctantly, the capacity problem seems to have been solved for the moment. Suddenly, there are vacant seats in the management and technology schools. But this could be symptomatic of their poor quality, and not a case of supply outstripping demand.
It is quite easy to see that indeed is the case. Only 2% of India's annual output of 2.9 million graduates is employable, contends Microsoft. Most large Indian companies run long term induction programmes, ranging six to nine months, to make graduates employable. An Indian software company, Infosys, was recently in the news for the alarming rate of suicide among its graduate trainees, who fail to pass its stringent qualifying criteria after such induction programmes. The country has the third largest college enrollment figures in the world, after the United States and China, but its research output and patent applications remain pitifully low. Despite certain clusters of enterprise, entrepreneurial thinking among college graduates is not a common thing.
Philip Altbach contends that India's Higher Education thinking is more aligned to its British Heritage - a ticket to privileged life - than with the more American concept of economic productivity, as in East Asia. The degree is often seen as an end objective in India, particularly in its Northern Hindi heartland (where most of its young people are), not least because obtaining a degree raises the dowry a man can get in his marriage. The White Tigers in India, the entrepreneurs, are often the ones without college education.
Indian government's approach to the solution is two-fold: First, throwing public money in building more universities and high end technical institutions, and second, allowing private investment to flow in to build even more institutions. However, these quantity solutions - indeed, the higher education capacity has gone up manifold - do not address the key problems of quality, employability and productivity. In fact, I shall argue that in a country like India, college education does more harm than good: It makes a young man (or woman) spend three to four years of his/her life in pursuit of useless knowledge, often completely divorced from what's needed in the workplace, and also gives them a sense of entitlement, which comes in the way of their own well-being. Many Indian graduates refuse to be flexible and take the job available to them because of this sense of entitlement.
The current approach of building more colleges and universities, though they satisfy the middle class voters, is neither helpful nor sustainable. Indian economy, despite the publicity, is perilously close to breaking down, with its 9% inflation and huge unemployment and underemployment, backward agriculture and corrupt politics. The publicity machine, yet again, does more harm than good to policy-making, and is sustaining a false sense of euphoria that comes in the way of serious analysis and sensible debate. The current approach to higher education adds to the plethora of misdirected policies and falls short of creating capacity and spreading prosperity: But, again, the spread of universities and colleges are seen as a sign of progress, and the resulting cacophony of Ministerial statements drown the few sensible voices in Indian Higher Education.
And, indeed, this defies common sense. Any Indian man knows that one can find a college graduate in any city street corner, but it is extremely hard to find a skilled tradesman, be it a plumber, driver of heavy vehicle, electrician or a computer repairman. The government investment in vocational training is next to nothing, and the approach to the trades is influenced by the deep-seated Indian belief in caste system and stations in life. Education policy in India completely ignores this grassroots reality (egged by its middle class voters, who want to see their sons and daughters as Engineers, and not plumbers). Interestingly, despite all the investments in educational expansion, India still lacks capacity for medical and care education: In fact, its educational provision for professional care is extremely limited and woefully poor, and I shall contend that this reflects, in an inverted way, the bias of policy making in favour of the 'Babu' class, but away from the real requirements of the economy.
So, in short, more universities and colleges will not solve India's problem, but good quality vocational training will. Consider IT programming: Private initiatives in the area, led by NIIT and Aptech, in the 1990s created more IT programmers than the colleges ever did. These vocationally trained professionals today run the Indian IT industry (at least its middle management layer) and this was the secret of India's success. I shall contend that Indian government should allow, and even support, the expansion of top quality vocational skills training, and do everything it can to encourage private investment and acceptability of the professions.
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
David Cameron is one of the more 'impressive' Prime Ministers Britain has had in the recent years. Young, handsome, articulate, someone with 'clear' views and a bias for action, who wins almost every PMQ and who has so far effectively dangled the debt question to transform almost all aspects of British life: What a contrast this makes from the unloved Gordon Brown who could get nothing done. Cameron's twelve months already make the preceding Labour years feel like ancient history, the charmed life of the boom years as well as the time of massive expansion of the 'collectivist' credo, and he seems destined, like Tony Blair, to leave a legacy, however long his coalition manages to cling together.
But, like Tony Blair, this legacy may not be a positive one for Britain. Because, David Cameron, for all his posturing, is a hopeless populist, who succumb to every opportunity to please his home crowd. He has not stopped being a publicist and start becoming a Prime Minister. He seems to believe in words, because he could spin them, and not real change. What he has led is a counter-revolution of sorts on behalf of the jilted bankers, backed by the Murdoch press, and wielded the fear of debt to destroy Britain's public services and universities. David Cameron's legacy is most likely to be a stunted Britain in the years to come.
He is a bankers' Prime Minister, indeed. He found money to save the banks here and abroad. Indeed, bankers are hardworking people working away their summer days in Golf and Yachts, and the little people who steal benefits must give up their £100 a week to pay for such noble enterprise. The charities which bumbled their way to help some disaffected young kids must give in to large, professional 'social enterprises', which must employ some retired bureaucrats and kicked-out councilors: That's Big Society as opposed to Society if indeed there is such a thing. The university professors must toil away like usual artisans because real knowledge resides only with bond traders, because they are the ones who keep the economy, as evidenced in Premier League Football Clubs, City Nightclubs and Southern European countries, going. There will be big banks, big media, big society, and a small England - that's the legacy David Cameron is destined to leave.
With hindsight, then, British public committed a Warren Harding error in the last election. They chose, egged by Presidential style TV debates, two people who 'looked' better. They got muddle and populism in return, a swath of policies that needed to changed next minute and a complete disregard of the social fabric of a country. If a Banker run the country, he would be as concerned as Cameron about the 'debt': Prime Ministers are supposed to be capable to have a broader view.
Now, the world needs one more thing: A Sarah Palin or Mitt Romney in the White House in 2013. This is how the last Great Recession was played out: A greed-led disaster, and then a follow-on with flawed economics of creative destruction (this time around, this is creative capitalism), leading to great miseries for little people and finally a great war. History need not repeat if we learn from it: But the collective coma of a crowd is harder to disperse than one may have thought.
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
In context, would people trust an online college seems daft. Indeed, there are trust instruments which can be built in to create the trust. The problem is that Online College space is littered with big failures, UNext and Universitas21 among them, but this is not about lack of trust from the students; most of it was bad business in the first place.
The problem with most Online College projects are that they are conceived for wrong reasons. Doing an Online College for vanity, for love of technology or the fact they have to be done are common, but these projects often lead straight into oblivion. The Online Colleges, which are meant to be online, serves people who are looking for online courses and offer courses which are best served online, are doing perfectly well. They are not just vanity projects or nice pieces of technology, they are real businesses meant to solve real problems.
The other big problem with online colleges, this is also the problem that plagued Universitas21, that they are often extensions of more 'important' brick-and-mortar entities. It is not that users don't trust online colleges, often the owners of online colleges don't trust them. They try to use this as a portfolio item, a sort of subsidiary that exists nicely tucked into the college as we know it.
The issue is that the Online College is a different beast than the brick-and-mortar colleges needing a different approach, a way of thinking and unadulterated commitment. Tagging it along a 'real' college often corrupt the agenda. Take course offerings, for example. The truth is that some courses are better than online than the others. But in a set up where the Online college follows the brick-and-mortar one, their courses often follow what's on offer at the other college: At least the thinking about the curriculum development lacks the 'pure' faith that an online college needs.
If having a parent college subvert the online college agenda, the other end of the spectrum is having too much of technology, believing that technology is the solution of all problems. Like a brick-and-mortar college, the online college is also about people, good curriculum, great service and student experience. This is not about the latest technology, but something which a vast majority of people would feel comfortable to use. It is perfectly understandable why Britain's highly regarded Open University still sticks to books and videos: That's what its intended user base feel comfortable with. Indeed, it uses Moodle to control work flows and disseminate information, but it has never allowed technology to steal the agenda.
The other key thing is that at an Online College, there is never a debate whether a course really needs to be online. It is indeed the founding faith of sorts that any course can be online, effectively. But this is not necessarily true: The more successful Online courses always have a reason to be online, because they can only be effectively done that way. One has to remember that education purchases are less price elastic than the providers of education services would like to believe: People buy education once in a lifetime (mostly) and this is seen as a merit, rather than a consumption, good. The reason why an Online course is on catalogue should almost never be the cost, though it is almost always is seen that way (Margaret Thatcher allowed Open University to exist because it did cost less to run), but because the inherent nature of the course demands online services. Like collaboration, for example. Course/ subject areas where collaboration enhances the value proposition of a course will always work well online, provided the course and the technologies supporting it are designed accordingly.
In summary, then, an Online College should be perceived as a separate business entity rather than the part of a face-to-face college. It should be user experience and service imperatives, which should take precedence over technology fetish or academic comfort zones. The Online College is a whole new game, and one that will change the world: It needs its own champions and own business models rather than one borrowed from another industry or another time.
Monday, April 18, 2011
The problem of Indian Higher Education does not come from the poverty of ideas, but the populism and vested interests that drive the policy-making. This plagued India's past, and just when it seemed to be emerging out of lumber, the same disease caught up with it again. Indeed, Higher Ed is good business and most politicians keep their money invested in it, but by continuing to protect their interests, the country risks missing out on its demographic dividend and getting itself on the slippery slope of missing a historical opportunity.
India is Higher Education's most attractive market. It has all the ingredients of a Higher Education revolution of sorts: Millions of young people, growing economy, skill hungry employers and an education system not fit for purpose from the word go. Higher Ed in India, in particular, is a game of political privileges and cronyism; consequently, Indian institutions fail to make it to global top table and also fail to equip its 2.9 million graduates a year with basic employment skills. It is common to hear from Indian employers that only 1% to 2% applications they receive are fit to be employed, and there is talk of a 'manpower mirage', that the promised manpower pool fails to realize once a company has invested in India.
This is clearly affecting India's economy. Not only the shortage of skilled people will drive away foreign companies from India, but it will also make Indian companies go elsewhere. Besides, with so many hardworking young people looking for opportunities, not being able to give them a proper education is demographic suicide: Nandan Nilkeni, in his excellent book, did cite Soviet Union which failed to take advantage of its demographic moment, the sort of peak India is experiencing now, and imploded as a result.
India's approach to the question of expanding Higher Ed was as muddled as it could be. Instead of less regulation, which seems to have worked for the economy, Indian government has opted for more regulation. Instead of focusing on skills standards and quality control, the government policies seem to be centering around licensing of the businesses. While the country has failed to come up with a system of credit transfer between its own universities, it has put an enormous amount of resource behind its regulatory body, AICTE, which works with the sole intent of gagging any innovation in education. Indeed, a number of AICTE officials have been arrested last year for taking bribes: Indian government has not learned the lesson that bureaucratic control of education will not work.
This is evident in India's new Foreign Education Providers' Bill, which raised big expectations in the Western Academia, and at one point, there was even talk that India would be the new Malaysia, Education's silicon valley of sorts. Indian government has failed to pass the bill, which was expected to allow foreign educational institutions to operate in India, for more than ten years now. The new government came to power a couple of years ago, raising great expectations that they would treat this as a priority, as India needed foreign investment in education and human infrastructure as much as it does in the energy sector. But, since then, the reformers in the government, including the current Human Resource Development Minister and the Prime Minister, have surrendered to the old guards of Indian politics, the all-mighty lobbies of black money and education mafiosi, and come up with a pathetic legislation that will rather drive away foreign education providers from India.
The current legislation is about tightening control and not expanding access. The legislation is written with the attitude - we know what needs to be done - rather than, let innovation happen. This is a surprising piece of work for a country like India which needs to up its game for Higher Ed and give its students a better deal. This legislation is keen to further the powers of education police and give them the power to fine anyone who is caught offering 'unauthorized' foreign education. And, also, it lays the rules for authorization for foreign education: The provider must maintain a corpus fund of £7 million (US $10 million) at any time, apart from its investments in India. And, after all the trouble, they can't take home a profit, all profits made in India must be reinvested in India, 75% of it must go to the building and infrastructure and the balance 25% must go to the corpus fund. And, finally, in the classic Indian style, a discretionary loophole: A committee formed by the Prime Minister can exempt any institution from these requirements.
Someone, who may have drafted the bill, thought this discretion bit was a stroke of genius. They must have thought this would be the mechanism that will attract the Harvard and Yale of the world to India. And, this, in a way, what ails India as a country: The elite has usurped the country and imposed its tunnel vision without regard to reality. The question to ask is whether India needs a Harvard or Yale in India (and a lesser question, why they would come). India's challenge is to create high quality education provision for its emerging middle classes, not its elite 2% of the population. This could be achieved through the foreign investment in expanding higher education, and that investment is unlikely to come from universities like Harvard and Yale. The more common sense solution lies in attracting the huge corpus of Higher Ed investment available in the Western countries as of today: Indian policy-makers are completely oblivious of the possibility.
This is yet another example, I shall contend, of India's inward looking thinking that ailed the country for so long. India has the world's most attractive higher ed market, the policy-makers thought, and they thought they could pick and choose who they allow to come to India. They did not take Malaysia's lead, which laid down the norms in a fair and square way, letting everyone compete: They would rather stick to the bureaucratic tinkering which is anti-meritocracy and anti-innovation. This would allow other neighbouring countries, for example, Sri Lanka, or Mauritius, to re-invent itself as an Education Island, and steal India's show under its noses. Higher Ed is a global growth industry, but India's politicians and policy-makers are too disconnected and too corrupt to pay any heed to that.
Sunday, April 17, 2011
At the end of it, however, I feel quite ready now to try again.
The business that I work for is at an interesting juncture. Its traditional market has just disappeared, as the UK government is making some fundamental changes in the immigration policies for students. This change, while others and me predicted long time coming, has happened almost overnight. The pace of change presents some existential issues, indeed, and my time is currently devoted in dealing with them. But, at the same time, the changes present an opportunity to open new grounds and attract new customers, basically to reinvent the business model completely. In a way, perfect timing for me!
I must also add that I loved what I did for the last year and moving forward, I would like to do more of the teaching and writing, and less of managing, if I could. I am quite good with people, but I am better in teaching kind of work. I have been teaching marketing at the college, but now developing a programme on Entrepreneurship and this is what I shall spend my time on. This means stepping back from the more difficult things that I do, like pushing through the change in the organization, but I shall miss nothing: We have a new CEO now who is getting things done, and in any case, I did not enjoy that kind of work.
My studies at UCL are also at an interesting point. The funding cuts meant that the course I am on - MA in Education - will not be offered for much longer, and we are now on an accelerated delivery schedule, which may mean that we have to complete all our coursework etc by this summer. This suits me, though this is extremely demanding: I anyway wanted to complete the MA by 2012. I am therefore devoting a large amount of time on reading academic literature and writing essays. I have also noted that this exercise - this doing of an MA in Education - has a fundamental effect on me: Not just I realized what I am good at, and would love doing, this has also changed the way I speak and think. I have been taught the business of training and education working through the various companies, in IT Training, Vocational Guidance and e-Learning, but having this idea of what actually goes on in the classroom (as well as in learners' mind) opened a whole new area for me.
I have also made a decision that I shall not try to go back to India to work anymore. I think the trigger here is my brother's death, which removes the principal reason I had for wanting this (truth be told, I wanted to live close to him). This sets me free, in a way, to spend the next 20 years of my working life traveling around the world, and this is exactly what I have decided to do. My idea will be to spend the next few years in England and then move on: In the meantime, however, I wanted to do something worthwhile.
Developing the 'world college', for one. I shall return to this project, an idea that I have worked on for so many years, as soon as I feel ready. I have learned much more about the technology and the teaching online in the intervening period, and I am focused on collecting the necessary crumbs of knowledge everyday. I have focused my coursework and dissertation at UCL on transnational education and usage of technology in context, and have sought to connect with people around the world working on similar, exciting, projects. I am hopeful that I can bring this to a meaningful conclusion some day soon.
Among the other things I am doing, working to be fit comes up top of the list. Again, my brother's death shook me to the core and the fact that I am not keeping too well and the stress at work is catching up with me somewhat have also triggered the decision to follow an exercise and diet regime. I have only just started and have so far been quite irregular, but this is now somewhat top in my agenda.
I am also keen on learning another language, and may invest time next year in learning one of the global languages. This will be my preparation for the traveling life that I want to live. In summary, I am looking forward to live the life exactly the same way I lived so far, and have no regrets. That's possibly what counts most: No regrets.
Friday, April 15, 2011
David Cameron made a speech on immigration. This was not a policy speech - there was no new announcements made - but rather a politics speech. This speech did indicate where the government stands on immigration. Everyone should have known where the government stands on immigration, but we forget that this is a coalition government. We know where the Tories stand, but Prime Minister, who is not just leading the Tories but the Government, needs to carry the coalition's vision. Indeed, his speech was far too xenophobic to be accepted by the more liberal elements of his own party, let alone his coalition partners.
Interestingly, David Cameron's objection to immigration was social, rather than economic. This is rather strange as his other policies seem to echo Thatcher's dictum: There is no such thing as society. This is also an interesting shift from Gordon Brown's 'British Jobs For British Workers' politics, almost an acknowledgement that there is a strong economic justification for immigration.
David Cameron spent a few minutes doing the usual pleasantries, talking about the contributions immigrants made. Indeed, this was as superficial as this was expected to be, and hardly accepted the fact that a modern economy needs immigrants to move forward. After a few soundbites about immigrants serving at hospitals and schools, and running high street businesses (he forgot to mention that they run Britain's IT industry, own some of the largest companies, won a few Nobel prizes etc), he immediately pounced on Labour and a figure of net migration of 2.2 million in the twelve years of Labour rule.
The figure may or may not be right - politicians are usually not to be trusted with figures - but the conclusion, that there are too many non-European migrants coming to this country, is wrong. The period, 1997 to 2009, was not just the period of Labour rule, but of four other things. First, there was something called Globalization, just in case Mr Cameron was sleepwalking through the years, where the movement of capital and people across the world accelerated in an unprecedented way. Second, this is also the time when rapid expansion of Internet led to a global cultural and expanded access to information, liberalization of aviation industry made air travel accessible to many more people and expanded international travel hugely. Third, the European project assumed a new dimension, with new countries joining in and the community moving towards even closer integration. And, finally, Britain went through a time of economic expansion, possibly the first time since its colonial cookie crumbled, expanding its need for 'workies' and attracting companies from all over the world set up shop in this island. The expression, 'too many people', may play on the seize mentality of an island nation, but out of touch and out of date from the reality of the connected age.
Further, Cameron's case for curbing immigration - that communities are under pressure because strange people are arriving in droves - is completely xenophobic. If someone in Saudi Arabia complains that his way of life is being threatened by people arriving in his country, who do not speak Arabic and are not seen in the Mosque on Friday afternoons, he would surely be branded a fundamentalist. In cities all over the world, the strange people are invading, bringing with them a strange dialect called English and love for a game called Football, and I was brought up to believe that this is a sign of progress. Not so for David Cameron, it seems, who believes that the responsibility of integration remains with the immigrant and it is okay to be a Closet Colonialist and expect everyone to speak English. Vince Cable rightly called this speech 'unwise': Cameron is playing a dangerous game of inflaming racial hatred at a time of social unrest (may be he is doing this to deflect the blame of economic hardships from himself).
In the end, this is only going to hurt Britain. The world economy would not remain where it is now, and the future of prosperity remains in openness, not behind closed doors; in connections, not in fear. Cameron just emerged as the cheerleader of a dead past, and showed why he would be incapable to lead Britain to a sustainable future.
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Writing my CV and my profile on Linkedin and the like, I have always visualized life as a journey and I as a traveller. In a way, this is more uplifting than imagining this to be a play and I as an actor, as I would love to reach somewhere after all these efforts and not return to where I was before, as an actor invariably does. But the implicit assumption of a journey that you know where you are going, and what should happen next: Not so in this case, life is indeed more serendipitous than a rail trip.
These unexpected twists and turns remain no longer unexpected as I get used to it. I laugh, therefore, when I see an younger colleague flustered when her neatly planned seating arrangement in a student event goes wrong. I tell her in private that planning it out was still a great achievement, and the expectation that things would go according to plan was an act of great valour, but accepting that things would go wrong is an essential part of sentient existence. She tells me that I have grown old and cynical.
But, as a traveller must, noting what I saw on the road is claiming the reward for my trouble. But this does not necessarily mean being old, because time well spent is preserved in a way. That's the other thing I learned. We tend to measure time from either end, how much time have I spent and how much have I got: But once you are on a journey like this, both of these measures do not matter any more. This is a journey of no return, remember, and your starting point has been lost forever. Hence, there isn't a point going back measuring where you started from. On the other hand, since you don't know the end, and this may come suddenly and now, there is no way you can measure what you have got. That's my way of saying that I am not old, because no one can actually be old as long as they are alive.
Am I saying, then, that time does not matter and it does not need to be measured? No, just that it should not be measured from either end, because those ends are either irrelevant or invisible. I am saying that time matters here and now, and it matters what you are doing with time. Each moment, take it as a moving scene outside your train window, has so many intricate details and possibilities, and one can note as many details and explore as many possibilities: That way, each moment is enhanced, many times than its original deflated self, a movement of the slightest hand of a tiny watch. That way, each moment is lived many times, like the slow-motion sequence of a football match. That's my point: It is almost making our lives like a football match where hundred goals are scored rather than one or two, thus making it a fifty or hundred times enhanced experience.
This does not mean life on steroids though, as the football analogy just got us into. It is rather a life of detail and pleasure, of connection and engagement, of exploring and extracting each moments' worth of living experience, and of crafting possibilities like writing a beautiful poem on an interminable journey on trans-Siberian railway (or a journey from Guwahati to Kochi on Indian rail). If I double the possibilities, I live twice as much.
So, this is my summary then: Live every moment. I have also learned the enabling (and disabling) power of language, but that's a discussion for another day. I have learned that words have their own lives: using my journey metaphor, their journey is different, more like fireflies you will see if you look out from a train window in a summer evening. They live and die along the road, but illuminate and capture a moment or two, immerse a thought and emerge as one. They let you construct the possibilities of embarking on another journey and they make, if they live in a moment, the moment seem eternal. I love the words, you can say: I love the music of the prose, the sheer poetry of the otherwise dry marching sound of the keyboard, the meaning arising out of sequenced letters, just as beauty arise from apparently meaningless brush-strokes of a painter. They are the children of possibilities and they bear possibilities in their womb. In a way, they are time's message to us, and we catch some and craft some, and we build our time with them all over again.
But, work calls and I must go, suspend this discussion full of possibilities and meaningfulness, with a promise of return. I learned this too: You never return. But this does not take anything away from the promise, and the possibilities.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
One year into the Tory rule, Britain looks seriously out of sorts. It is quite difficult to keep a tab of all the policy announcements, and all the U-turns, that happened since. The over-riding theme, however, was the 'cuts', the systematic dismantling of the welfare state, and the Utopian hope that something else will take its place. The consequences are bound to be severe: This is exactly the kind of policy US government followed in the years leading to Great Depression. There are many similarities: The faith in market forces, the almost sadistic celebration of creative destruction, the bookish hope that enterprise is a cure-all, and finally, the very British habit of watching the weather, in the housing market.
Which has now effectively stalled. The declaration of victory against recession was surely premature, and the double-dip seems to be back in force. The housing market, except in London, has stalled completely, and this is before further mortgage crunch and higher interest rates that are almost sure to follow. London market is atypical, so far as the continued foreign demand keeps it afloat. The recent bounce in house sales in London, for example, may have nothing to do with the economic realities of the UK, but more deeply correlated with the going up of taxes on property sales of worth more than £1 million and the fleeing Sheikhs from Middle Eastern unrests. Besides, the pound is quite cheap now, and it will continue to be in the days to come. That makes London quite attractive to Russians looking for nightclubs, Arabs fleeing the street protests and the Japanese fleeing nuclear radiation: As long as there is trouble around the world, one is safe with the property investments in London.
But there is still one thing that can spoil the party. The return of racism in Britain is quite clear. The Tory party indeed played on this, and the recent bungling attempts of the Home Minister to do 'something' made things worse. Suddenly, racism is back in vogue, and the closet racists are out in force. The systematic discrimination of people from outside Europe has started and the Government has progressed in making Britain an unattractive place for would-be migrants. The only issue with that is this does not help Government's cause of building an enterprise economy, as social protectionism and economic liberalism do not go hand in hand.
Indeed, the Tory policy-makers are sticking to their playbook, which starts with the Thatcherite dictum: There is no thing as the Society. Using the Liberal Democrats as human shields, they are continuing the funeral march of British society, that as an open, liberal entity capable of producing new ideas and durable institutions. Their rather pathetic attempts to supplement it with a textbookish 'Big Society' turned out to be stillborn: The concept proved out-of-touch and out-of-date. What we get instead is social nihilism, the dismantling of 'British' liberal values in a hurry.
The outlook for Britain is, thus, grave. The British institutions are falling down as the wheels of Westminster are going round and round. The Labour Party is as clueless as ever, being the bureaucrat's party as they are now. They failed, so far, to offer an alternative story, criticising the government policy-by-policy almost out of compulsion. The abdication of responsibility both by Liberal Democrats and Labour left the people in Britain in the clutches of a bunch of out-of-touch, elitist Tories, and their Edwardian age economic thinking and Mid-Victorian nationalist pretension is destroying the post-industrial consensus of Britain. Thus, the public universities are being destroyed, public healthcare is being subverted, diversity has gone out of fashion and local administration is being systematically undermined in favour of central decision-making.
Hope is possibly the only strategy left for Britain waiting for an upturn.
Monday, April 11, 2011
A tune melancholy
The foreglow of the Sun,
A morning quiet
Without the city-burn.
A few minutes perhaps
Of watching nature's glory,
Triumph over the skyline
And start the daily story.
What is past was once the future
And so would this moment be
Before the noise steals it, however,
Consign it to memory.
Saturday, April 09, 2011
Finally, an weekend: One with no prior commitments, no pressing housework, no coursework to be turned in on Monday, nothing to prepare for, nowhere to go. I knew this was coming and hence, had a late night yesterday and returned home quite drunk: So, as usual, half of Saturday was over even before I started. But, even with that slight regret, that of missing a gorgeous, blossoming spring day, complete with pure blue sky and chirping birds on the street corner and an unusually light traffic on the road outside my window, I feel happy. That deep happiness, which is only a fine line apart from melancholy, that of being alive at this gorgeous moment, as if I have waited my whole life to be here; but only a whisker apart from missing everyone else, all those who should have been here with me, and of all the imperfections of this steady state and indeed knowing, back of my mind, that this is not the steady state.
The only way I can explain happiness is as a momentary feeling that you don't want to move on. It is that sense of wanting to freeze time that defines it. Everything else that we live by - ambition, desire, curiosity - suspend themselves at this point, only if momentarily. In a way, one feels weightless in happiness, suspended in the unending journey of time, as if all the frames from all the beautiful moments of one's life mesh together in one perfect picture. But then, past takes us back.
As it did to me, a while ago. My one beautiful moment of a late morning cup of tea and of looking without intention towards the Jet leaving a trail of white line on the otherwise unstirred sky took me back to the autumn days in Calcutta, when we would usually see the blueness of the sky first time in a year after the unending rainy season. This might as well be the last day of school before a month-long break, and that last maths class, almost bearable, before the sound of the school gong set us free. I could see myself stepping out of the windowless class into a bright late afternoon, with no hurry to go anywhere, no classwork to do, no commitments to run after. And, then, the evening at home, full with people, with my brothers, sister and everyone else, and that naive feeling that the moment would go on forever.
As that past reclaimed me from my present weightlessness, just before that very briefly, that moment returned again. A bit faded perhaps, smudged on the edges like an old photo, but with a beautiful smell and the softness of the corner of my mother's saree (with which I shall wipe my hands), but it seemed that moment never ended, just subsided in a stream of desire, ambition and quest that followed, only to wait for and to surface at this perfect moment. It seemed no less real than all the other events, all successes and failures, all the journeys and all the returns, of my life. In a way, it is as if I have always lived at the core of that perfect happiness without ever having left.
Then I returned to now. The post arrived, with bills and all. The computer screen announced the coming into being of some of my 'contacts' on Skype. A bus whirled past the fences, to the stop nearby. I knew I had to get up and use some of this time into reading up a few reports that I did not find time to read earlier. I left the morning on its own, and resumed my quest of happiness all over again.
The Creativity Imperative
Businesses today consider creativity of their staff as a critical, possibly the most critical, factor for their ongoing survival.
This is because the environment, political, social and commercial, has become so fluid; as Yogi Berra put it, “the future isn’t what it used to be”. Constant change, demanding and more aware customers and citizens, rapid information dissemination through new technologies of information and communication, and intense competitive and regulatory pressures, are pushing companies and people who work for them to innovate and adapt continuously.
Set in this context, employee creativity has a whole new meaning. It is traditionally understood as people thinking about products and services, which did not exist before, or tweaking and improving the existing ones. Competitive pressures add to this creativity imperative. Information is fast and cheap, and communication technology is driving the costs of production and distribution constantly. Besides, in this age of Wikileaks, the companies are under continuous scrutiny or fear of scrutiny to do things right. The imperative for survival is therefore to be continuously improving, doing better with lesser resources, knowing what is being said of it and be seen acting on it.
But the scope of creativity has expanded beyond this. Today, an employee needs to be creative even at the shop-floor level, connecting with consumers and responding to unanticipated demands and unforeseen events, because a wrong transaction can potentially land a business on the front page of a newspaper. Rules and processes, usually the cornerstone of good management, are no longer enough. Human imagination at work is regularly demanded, and the companies that fail to provide this usually land up in the wrong side.
So, ironically, while robots are replacing people in a Japanese restaurant to serve patrons, employees in organizations across the world are being told to become more creative. Creative thinking is central to management’s agenda in all kinds of organization, and training programmes offering to make people creative are flourishing. In fact, governments across Atlantic are united in thinking that creativity and innovation led by For-Profit businesses are the panacea to the great economic recession faced by the G8 economies at this time.
However, while the case for creativity is clear and expectations are high, businesses often struggle to make their staff think creatively. The usual motivational techniques, those of extrinsic rewards in the form of bonuses and incentives, do not seem to generate a proportionate creative output. While training methods abound to teach staff creativity, their results are often questionable and at best, limited.
It is appropriate, therefore, to seek to understand the phenomenon of creativity and the approaches of teaching people creativity inside the organizations. This involves an exploration of theories of creativity and of organizational learning, as well as of motivation theories. Finally, because business creativity is seen as the panacea in context of the current recession, it is also appropriate to examine how some of these practices could be applied in a different organizational setting, for example, in modern universities.
Geoffrey Petty (1997) defines creativity as:
“Whenever a problem is solved or a difficulty overcome, whenever something new is made or something old adapted, creativity has been at work.”
This definition broadens the popular concepts about creativity, which revolves around big events and rare geniuses. While the street-view of creativity is that it is an exceptional gift, businesses contend, rightly, that everyone can learn to be creative.
David Bohm (1998) presents a model of ‘two interpenetrating activities of the mind – imaginative and rational insight and imaginative and rational fancy’. The rational insight is the way, for example, Sir Isaac Newton would have wondered ‘why doesn’t moon fall on something’ and questioned the then common wisdom that earthly matters follow different rules than heavenly bodies. To seek an answer to this, Newton made associative links with existing scientific knowledge and emerged with a precise hypothesis, against which his original insight was to be tested. This associative process, according to Bohm, is the imaginative fancy at work.
While the example cited by Bohm is Sir Isaac Newton, the doyen of ‘romantic science’ and around whom one of the great mythologies of the creative process, the fall of the apple, revolves, the process of rational insight and rational fancy is at the core of everyday business creativity. Creativity training in work settings revolves around asking appropriate questions and making associative links.
A more recent work on the nature of creativity closely follows Bohm’s ideas, and backs it up with some detailed empirical and historical evidence. Steven Johnson explores the nature of creativity in his ‘Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation’ (2010). Johnson’s understanding of creativity centres on the exploration of the ‘Adjacent Possible’, the exploration of ideas or possibilities one small step at a time. Johnson writes:
“The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries. Each new combination ushers new combinations into the adjacent possible. Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin with a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Those four rooms are the adjacent possible. But once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you’ll have built a palace.”
Johnson describes the act of Stephane Tarnier, a Parisian obstetrician, who watched Chicken Incubators on a day off to Paris Zoo, to come up with the idea of human incubators, as an act of exploring the adjacent possible. The opening of the door, the question, needed rational insight; stepping into the next room, the associative link, was an act of rational fancy.
Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (1999) asserts,
“Psychologists tend to see creativity exclusively as a mental process [but] creativity is as much a cultural and social as it is a psychological event. Therefore what we call creativity is not the product of single individuals, but of social systems making judgements about individual’s products. Any definition of creativity that aspires to objectivity, and therefore requires an intersubjective dimension, will have to recognize the fact that the audience is as important to its constitution as the individual to whom it is credited.’
This conception, termed ‘Systems Perspective of Creativity’, which sees creativity as a process where individuals, the cultural aspects of the environment, or the domain, and the social aspect, the field, interact, is inherently consistent with what Steven Johnson finds in his historical survey of creativity. Johnson’s history shows how ideas had to build up over time with contributions from a diverse set of individuals but came to be accepted only when the wait for the right moment to be accepted, like De Forest’s experiments with electro-magnetism which formed the basis of vacuum tubes and early computers three decades later, when both the additional knowledge and technologies evolved sufficiently to make the idea possible.
Learning to be Creative
Companies usually approach creativity on the basis of the popular notions around it – that this is the preserve of rare geniuses, who must be separated from the rest of the organization to come up with big ideas. Often, creativity gets boxed in a separate ‘creative’ department, where privileged few is treated differently (starting with dress codes) from the rest of the organization. This approach, one can argue, is counter-productive, as this limits rather than expands an organization’s creative capacity, and makes other employees, for example those working on the shop-floor, feel unable to be creative and imaginative.
Robinson (2001) argues that organizations must develop a systemic strategy to nurture creativity of the ‘whole organization’. He also defines three challenges that most organizations face in this process:
“The first is to understand the real nature of creativity..The second is to implement a systemic strategy for developing individual creative capacities. There are techniques for doing this, which build on a number of common principles. Creativity can be developed, but it must be done sensitively and well. Most people do not know what their creative capacities are and are worried about the process involved in finding out. Third, there must be a systemic strategy to facilitate and reward creative output. Occasional courses in creative thinking have limited value. Like rain-dancing, they underestimate the nature of the problems they are trying to solve.”
Robinson accepts that the challenges for the organizations are enormous, as their efforts to make people creative comes up against a formal education process based on conformity (a similar point was made by Ivan Illich in his famous Deschooling Society (1995)). However, it is the first challenge, of understanding the real nature of creativity, is where most organizations tend to stumble.
Most organizations indeed view creativity in terms of individual technical achievement, rather than as a social process. Besides, following the pre-dominant norms of scientific management, businesses want to see creativity as a defined, measurable process. Finally, most businesses tend to institute an elaborate financial reward structure for creative achievements, consistent with the bonus culture that exists in modern businesses.
In this setting, ‘occasional courses in creative thinking’ are indeed the norm. Often, such courses revolve around well-defined processes with catchy acronyms, like Petty’s ICEDIP (Petty, 1997) which follows a sequence of Inspiration-Clarification-Evaluation-Distillation-Incubation-Perspiration. Other popular models, such as Tony Buzan’s Mind Map and Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, are big multi-million pound businesses. While participants in these workshops often report finding it ‘inspiring’, ‘interesting’ and ‘insightful’, as a simple internet search may reveal, such models emphasize on the individual dimension of creativity at the expense of its social nature.
One can also argue that creativity is a process of Play (Petty, 1997) and Error (Johnson, 2010), and indeed of ‘slow hunch’ (Johnson, 2010), which modern management thinking is somewhat at odds with. Also, extrinsic rewards, such as incentives and bonuses, are often not effective in inspiring cognitively challenging work (Pink, 2009; Kohn, 1999) and fail to generate creativity. Instead, the motivation theorists like Pink (2009) suggest a system of intrinsic rewards, following the work of Edward Deci and other psychologists, which revolve around ‘autonomy, mastery and purpose’ for inspiring a creative workforce.
A number of theorists, however, place creativity firmly in the social context of the organization rather than the individual domain. These theorists place a greater emphasis on organizational conditions for fostering creativity.
For example, Jay Galbraith (1996) presents the following table, to contrast an ‘operating’ organization with an ‘innovating’ organization:
Division of Labour
Span of Control
Distribution of Power
Roles: Orchestrator, Sponsor, Idea Generator (Champion)
Providing information and communication
Planning and Budgeting
Also, Ayas (1999), citing Brown and Eisenhardt (1995) point to three distinctive streams of pioneering work on innovation effectiveness:
First, the rational stream that builds on Myers and Marquis (1969) and SAPPHO studies (Rothwell, 1972) focus on a broad range of determinants of innovation success, including interaction of the various functional groups within the organization, internal organization, market attractiveness etc.
Second, the communication stream, building on the work of Allen (1971), argues that better project performance depends on the information capacity in the system and such capacity is a function of the intensity of the communication patterns.
Third, the problem-solving stream builds on the study by Imai et al (1985) focuses on roles of leadership, a clear articulated vision of the products image, performance and fit with the company, an experiential approach to product design through frequent iteration and testing.
These authors tend to see organizational creativity in the context of the social processes within the organization, despite the popular focus on technical aspects of creativity and attempt to teach employees how to be creative.
Glaveanu (2010) summarizes the various studies of creativity in terms of three paradigms, the He-paradigm (the solitary genius), the I-Paradigm (the individualistic paradigm which asserts everyone can be creative) and the We-paradigm (which asserts the socio-cultural roots and dynamics of all our creative acts).
Finally, for a comprehensive view which balances the individual and social aspects of organizational creativity, and presents concrete suggestions on how an organization can enhance creativity of its employees, one may turn to Teresa Amabile (1998), who suggests that creativity can be taught, if only within the social context of the organization.
In her view, creativity, within every individual, is a function of three components: Expertise, Creative Thinking Skills and Motivation. Expertise, generally considered as technical skills and knowledge required, can be disseminated by training and management of knowledge in the organization. Creative thinking skills can be enhanced by various techniques, for example, the ICEDIP model (Petty, 1997), Six Thinking Hats (Bono, 2009) or Mind Map (Buzan, 2010). Motivation can be balanced in terms of intrinsic (such as passion and recognition) and extrinsic (such as money).
However, for creativity to foster, Amabile argues, managers must create the organizational conditions for creativity. Amabile’s research points to six general categories of managerial practice that affect creativity, namely, challenge, freedom, resources, work-group features, supervisory encouragement and organizational support.
Can Universities Learn Creativity from Businesses?
The question is deliberately provocative, as universities meant to be the fountain-head of ideas in a society. However, at the same time, the current government policies on both sides of the Atlantic are strongly in favour of bringing ‘business practices’ to the universities. These policies have been in place for almost three decades now, as Head (2011) argues, and many of the techniques of modern business organizations, including Balanced Scorecard and Reengineering, are already in place in universities and related funding organizations.
However, there is a case to be made for universities seeking to make their staff more creative. F M Cornford, the Cambridge classicist, wrote in his satirical guide for young academics, Microcosmographia Academica (Menand, 2010), ‘Nothing should ever be done for the first time’: His advice seems to have been taken literally at some quarters. There was indeed a point in Clark Kerr’s complaint (Kerr, 1963): “Few institutions are so conservative as the universities about their own affairs while their members are so liberal about their affairs of others.”
Despite these limitations, it may still be difficult to argue that business practices for teaching creativity to its employees have much to offer to the universities. The reason varies from the fact that businesses are not exactly good at creativity itself, and most of the practices of modern management are out of step with what makes an organization really creative, to the rather obvious statement that universities and businesses are two different kinds of organization. While policy-makers seem to want to disregard the differences, they are quite clear in areas like creativity: While businesses are only starting to learn the limits of extrinsic motivation, the universities primarily offer intrinsic motivation to its staff, and only now being pushed to the market system and extrinsic motivation by the policy-makers.
There may be a self-evident irony at a time when the businesses, primarily because of creativity imperative, are adopting a more ‘collegial’ atmosphere, whereas the universities, because innovation is needed, are being encouraged to adopt ‘managerial’ practices. It is interesting to note that while the companies increasingly realize high pressure and high creativity do not go together (except when they are on a mission, but this usually works on a short timescale; Amabile, 2002a and 2002b), the universities are put under increasing strain to make them more creative.
Therefore, while the businesses may not be able to offer universities much insight on how to foster creativity, it may guide the modern universities on how not to kill creativity. Despite the difference in setting, backgrounds and aims, the lessons learned in business are as valid as ever for the universities to look at.
Allen, T.J (1971) Communication, technology transfer and the role of technical gatekeeper, R&D Management, I: pp 14 – 21.
Amabile, T. (1998), How To Kill Creativity, Harvard Business Review, September, pp 77 -87
Amabile, T., Hadley, C.N. and Kramer, S.J. (2002a), Creativity Under The Gun, Harvard Business Review, August.
Amabile, T. (2002b), Time Pressure and Creativity: Why Time is not on Your Side, http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/3030.html ; accessed on 14/03/2011.
Ayas, K. (1999), Project Design for Learning and Innovation: Lessons Learned from Action Research in an Aircraft Manufacturing Company, in Easterby-Smith, M. et al (Eds.) (1999), Organizational Learning and the Learning Organization, Sage, London.
Brown, S.L. and Eisenhardt, K.M (1995), Product Development: Past Research, Present Findings, and Future Directions, Academy of Management Review, 20(2), pp 343 – 378.
Bohm, D. (1998), On Creativity, Routledge, London.
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Csikszentmihalyi, M.(1999) ‘A Systems Perspective of Creativity’, in Henry, J (Ed.)(2006), Creative Management and Development, 3rd Ed., pp 3 – 17, Sage, London.
Galbraith, J. (1996) ‘Designing the Innovating Organization’, in Starkey, K. (1996), How Organizations Learn, International Thomson Business Press, London.
Glăveanu, Vlad (2010) Paradigms in the study of creativity: introducing the perspective of cultural psychology. New Ideas in Psychology, 28 (1). pp. 79-93.
Head, S. (2011), The Grim Threat to British Universities, The New York Review of Books, Jan 13 – Feb 9, 2011, pp 58 -64
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