Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Algorithm for Serendipidity

I have resisted Kindle, again. Despite the state of my room, and the fact that I plan to relocate to another country sometime soon. It is slightly ironic that I am studying the relationship between technology and knowledge, and yet I am reluctant to surrender my book-reading habits to Amazon, however much I may love it. 

The reason is, for me, serendipity trumps convenience.

In Too Big To Know, David Weinberger talks about our two kinds of attempts to organise the world: Algorithmic and Social. The first one is to let the machine organise, based on a secret sauce of behavioral prediction. The other is to let our friends recommend what we may like, leveraging the possibility that we may now have a network of 'weak connections', who might be able to provide us with insights beyond our immediate environment. The holy grail of this organised world is indeed to optimally combine the two, because we can easily point to the limitations of each approach on its own: This is about machines aggregating behavioural predictions of a great network of similarly inclined people and then extrapolating statistical possibilities of me liking something (or someone). 

Yet, at the heart of all this remain the same principle that we followed ever since we felt the need to filter our knowledge: The surrender of the possibilities that come from experience. Earlier, we listened to our Gurus and friends, and followed Coffee House gossip to engage selectively with our world. The better ways that we invented today is to seek such information more passively, in one click as they say, by mining the data from around the world and listening to the wisdom of the machines. It does work perfectly to a degree, but as I have learned checking about Amazon's recommendations for me over the last 15 years that I used the service, it actually works too perfectly by shutting down all possibilities of serendipity and consigning me to a neat echo-chamber of my own walled garden.

Amazon's top recommendation for me this Christmas was a Nintendo 3DS game, as I have bought a console as a gift a few months ago. This is a perfectly logical way of predicting behaviour, and I am sure it is correct both in algorithmic and social sense. Such simple irrationalities are to be expected: we are still a long way off from building algorithms that can work out correctly the occasional quirks of human social life and unexpected (not to mention unreasonable) behaviour. One could argue that over a longer period of time, such issues can be smoothed out, but regarding this, Keynes was prescient - "In the long run, we are all dead" - and the consumer and the entrepreneur have no use for "long run". 

Indeed, this is not about Amazon making me stupid: It sure doesn't, as I look up books on it constantly to learn more about them, and also to check out similar items, recommendations and all. It is a more relative thing about how much of my reading preferences I want to give up to its algorithm. The most beautiful moments of my rather mediocre life are usually the fifteen minutes I steal from my Saturday shopping trips to stop by at the local library, where I make, more usually than not, unexpected discoveries every week. The world's information stock may be doubling every three years thanks to Digital explosion, but this is more about obscuring more than knowing more: The best moments for a book lover now-a-days is still about finding out-of-print books left untouched on Library shelves for years waiting for the perfect moment for a man with odd tastes feeling through it.

The dishevelled state of my room, I shall claim, is a design: An intentional construction of clutter, shaped and reshaped by constant churn of my interests and imagination, conversations and connections. In a world where my life is perhaps transparently viewable online, this is a little game of discovery I perhaps play with myself - with no objective other than a tame search for Nietzschian intensity - where interests and preferences must not stand in stillness, but be allowed to disappear, combine, recombine, up and down a physical stack of books, and of mind. The pristine world of Kindle, I fear, perhaps irrationally, shut me out of this stimulation, and make me a prisoner of my own reading habits.

So, in the end, I decided to keep myself a prisoner of the analog chaos - one more year perhaps! There is an element of nostalgia, surely, but also a search for the algorithm of serendipity. The point about the submersion in books (literally, as you can see) is not just about the musty smell and all that, but the physical nature of engagement (a visit to the library as opposed to online browsing) that creates a stimulation that our poor simian brains need for engagement. I would rather spend a few hours playing Plants-versus-Zombies rather than turning a zombie in my book buying.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2015: The New Higher Education

Brookings commentators see rapid emergence of new Higher Education models in 2015. (see here)

This is a reasonable expectation, given that so much money has gone into the sector since 2011, and some of the models should now start maturing - and VCs looking for exit - and delivering the goods.

The change is already in the air. The College for America has somehow set the benchmark tuition fee rate at $10,000 for the entire undergraduate degree and there are a number of ventures seeking to replicate that. Udacity starts the year by launching an University by Industry, one by Silicon Valley for Silicon Valley, by breaking down the college credentials into 'nanodegrees' (see here). As predicted in the Brookings piece, new MOOCs are also emerging - more credit bearing programmes focused on fee-paying students - and a slew of innovative tech-enhanced models coming into the market.

The big frontier of all the change is still the emerging markets. There is not much happening still, with most of education venture capital and technology shying away from the twin problems of regulation and bandwidth so far. But, given the population growth in these markets, this is where the action will be. I see more ventures focused on these markets in 2015, and the local education offerings strengthening and receiving new investments.

On that front, I believe that the ventures coming out of the emerging markets have a greater chance of winning there. This is self-explanatory: The emerging market companies are better in dealing with constraints (like bandwidth) and psychologically able to deal with ability-to-pay issues (even $10,000 in India is like $55,000, based on Purchasing Power Parity, hardly a disruptive figure). As is the case in other sectors, one may see emerging market companies leapfrogging in technology and business models - and getting into the export mode, initially leveraging their own diaspora in different regions. 

Indeed, there will be more action outside the For-Profit space, particularly in the emerging markets. The governments in countries like India don't treat education as one of the areas government should get out of: There is a new wave of nation-building sentiment and one would expect to see more state action on this front, both in setting up new colleges and universities, and in investment in other support areas, such as teacher training. Governments are also becoming smarter with technology and I wouldn't necessarily rule them out in terms of new applications of technology in furthering their objectives.


Monday, December 29, 2014

Kolkata 2020: An Act of Imagination

An old, dated piece on Kolkata, titled 'Why Kolkata will win in 20 Years', came to my attention. There are a number of things mentioned in this article that I don't agree with: The statement that Mamta Banerjee represents the moral end of Indian politics may invoke ridicule today, and the stereotype of Bengalis as business-averse and that they would need a Bengali-speaking non-Bengali for saving is mind-bogglingly absurd. But the two key propositions articulated here - that Kolkata is one of the most sustainable of the Indian cities, and that it can be fixed with good governance - are rather self-evident.

Of course, Kolkata is home and I am partial, and I shall make no claims to objectivity here. However, the fact that I keep writing about it - and indeed, there are many many people from Kolkata spread all around the world will do the same - proves perhaps that there is more to it than the dirty, dreary, poor city that the place appears to be to a casual visitor. Indeed, I meet people who will never ever dream of going back to Kolkata, simply because the place is too daunting and life is good elsewhere; but Kolkata remains a place to be imagined - and with imagination, it can win.

A city is its people, first and foremost. That goes both for and against Kolkata. It is the cosmopolitan network of love that Kolkata enjoys, from its suave residents and its wide diaspora, that should work for the City. At the same time, letting it degenerate into a kind of self-destructive politics is also the making of its people, and needs correcting. However, beyond all the political mess that Kolkata has found itself into, there is one common strand which should work for the city: Not many in the city, not even the 'emerging middle class' who are supposed to watch English language TV and be completely insensitive to the reality around themselves, will readily buy into a development model that bulldoze the poor and the weak, and present all opportunities on a plate to a few crony industrialists. Empathy still lives on in Kolkata, though one may, therefore, be accused of not striving.

This is a point missed in the article I quote, and perhaps this is an intentional act of omission. We have somehow decided that the new Indian development model has no space for the weak and the poor, and set out on a path of industrial development solely dependent on a few tycoons. The evidence that this does not work anywhere - and only leaves an impoverished society and people - doesn't seem to matter to the Indian commentators. That the farmers suicides are on the rise across the country, and will continue as most of Western India is running dry, is only a moot fact: There is also an urgent attempt to dress up the dreary urban poverty of all other Indian cities as some kind of entrepreneurialism. Within this myth of 'emergence', soft feelings such as empathy has no place.

This makes the conversation about Kolkata's future harder and easier at the same time. It is difficult to see Kolkata 'developing' just as the powers that be wishes to see. It will be difficult to catch up with the cut-throat winner takes all mantra without extinguishing all that is distinctive in the Bengali psyche. The culture that binds - much was made of it in the article I cited - is less about fine songs, books or movies, and more about being sensitive to those who have less, who could do less. It is also about loving the landscape, the countryside, rivers and all, and even the most ardent developer will have a family member, perhaps old, who may balk at poring concrete over the land perhaps most fertile in the world. 'Development' in its current Indian avatar will be a joke to most Bengalis, as they have a clear premonition how it usually ends.

On the other hand, talking about Kolkata's future is easy because this needs imagination, one thing that people of the city has lost and is trying to hard to get back. It needs capital to back the imagination, but, as with modern economies, Capital always follows once imagination is found. It needs a few leaders who will cut through the morass of corruption - and inspire hope. This is the only catalyst that Kolkata needs, hope, and this is one thing it is denuded of, as the other 'models of development' is promoted in India. It is a renewed commitment to Kolkata's future, emanating, most appropriately, from its nature and its people, that can turn everything around. One could claim that this is, in many ways, crucial to India that we don't lose alternate perspectives about our future, which Kolkata is capable of providing.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Global Workforce Crisis: Why For-Profits Will NOT Save The World?

Parag Khanna and Karan Khemka's 'audacious idea', published by Harvard Business Review in 2012, was to 'enrol the world in For-Profit Universities' in 10 years. They were talking about the 'Global Workforce Crisis' as we are trying to frame it today, along with another issue that we seldom discuss now - that of population! Since then, both of these issues have accentuated: The global workforce crisis has reached serious proportions to start threatening economic expansion (with its short term solutions, such as immigration being politically unacceptable), and the surge of population, which the expansion of global markets was supposed to have absorbed into productive work, caused serious disruptions in a number of countries when such market magic failed to materialise. If anything, the need for an education solution is ever more urgent and important.

The 'audacious idea' was however not too audacious as this simply recycled market orthodoxy without regard to the track record of the For-Profits around the world. Simply put, For-Profits have done a fairly bad job at educating so far. The presumption that everything will be alright once the regulators are removed from the equation runs counter to the experience of countries which have had large For-Profit participation in education, as well as what we know about how markets work. In the United States, For-Profit Universities have distinguished themselves for all kinds of unsavoury practises, particularly for making tall claims and misleading their customers: This can hardly be the context for arguing for less regulation. Besides, the mainstream economic theory has now examined the problem of 'assymetric information' in some detail, and we have come to accept that in markets where sellers have more information than the buyers, as it does in education, market mechanisms allow fraudulent providers to operate - and to drive away any scrupulous provider that may be there. Again, this can hardly be the case for unregulated For-Profit expansion in education, as the authors seem to argue.

Apocalyptic proclamations such as these, in fact, undermine the case for For-Profits rather than help it. There are several examples of specific For-Profit companies doing good work of educating skilled workers. These examples are mostly anecdotal though, and there are several cases of even such companies falling into disrepute, reaffirming the 'assymetric information' problem. Indeed, there are more than one solution to such market failure and intrusive regulation can make the problem worse (for example, India's regulatory system has created a morass of corruption and black money in education) but a failure to acknowledge such issues from the For-Profits themselves meant that the sector gained no credibility in tackling the issues that persistently surfaced in their operations. The solutions proposed by Oxford academic Colin Mayer - set in context of restoring trust in corporations but particularly relevant to businesses involved in 'public services' - were passed off without serious consideration. This, and similar approaches which dominated the For-Profit conversation, shows that, despite the isolated examples, the For-Profit Education industry globally is wholly unprepared to tackle its own crisis, much less the wider issues concerning the global workforce.

However, even if we assume that there is a serious soul-searching underway and a new breed of investors are going to transform the industry, there are still two fundamental structural issues that would prevent the For-Profits to become a serious solution for the Global Workforce Crisis. 

First, the For-Profits have done well in delivering education in the specific areas where there could be a tangible economic benefit in the short run - a pay-off - and hence, limited themselves to certain areas and disciplines that could guarantee the same. By their business model, which needs to be predicated on growth in numbers for their investors, For-Profits can do well educating for skills which are already in demand, but not those which may become relevant in the future. Given that Global Workforce Crisis is only partly about simple supply-and-demand for bodies, and a large part of the problem is that we may be at a point of discontinuity in terms of skills and abilities, the solution can not depend on For-Profits. The endeavour to train for the new economy must be driven by the state, as old-fashioned as it may sound.

Second, the For-Profits, by their existential logic, have to focus on people with abilities to pay. Again, broadening the reach of creative and imaginative education (and not just process training) is an essential part of the solution for the Global Workforce Crisis, but, instead of acknowledging the role that For-Profits can play in training a limited population for a specific set of skills, the claims that they represent the whole solution is likely to make the crisis worse. Various bottom-of-the-pyramid schemes are being tried right now, but education itself is a demand catalyst for consumption - a n enabler for bottom-of-pyramid mechanics to even start working. The other solutions, such as extensive public education programmes that was a hallmark of nineteenth century educational expansion, have been largely ignored, primarily because we have caught onto this For-Profit as the panacea mindset. 

The point, then, is that the proposition that For-Profits will solve the Global Workforce Crisis is merely an empty rhetoric of market fundamentalism, which does neither work in theory nor in practise; rather, it undermines the roles For-Profits can play in specific kinds of education, it undermines public education that can bring the bottom-of-pyramid to work for the global economy and it undermines the state and the role of an educated citizenry. We need better and more audacious ideas than this if we have to address the Global Workforce Crisis in any meaningful way.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Coming of The Global Hindu

India, after sixty years of committed secularism, has turned a corner.

The founding assumptions of India was that in order to survive, it must become a secular country. Indeed, such thinking was shaped by the then recent battles with two-nation theory, which the Indian nationalists lost and the country was divided, and the persistent British argument that India couldn't be a viable country because of its diversity. It was all but natural to make diversity a central theme of the constitution that was drafted - it was avowedly secular and non-sectarian and allowed the Indian states to retain many powers - and the subsequent efforts of the nation's leaders were to commit to an 'idea of India' free of any religious or cultural definition.

We are now entering the second stage of the process, when the partition, and all the doubts about viability of India, are distant memories. A new confidence has now replaced the insecurities and doubts that shaped the responses of the founding brothers of Indian Independence, and the moral purpose that they chose as their only guide seem redundant in favour of a sense of entitlement as a great nation by virtue of economic importance. 

For many, this is a time to make a fresh start. This cause is helped by an unique demographic point that India is at - itself a result of hope in the future - that makes this country as young as ever. The fresh start, therefore, isn't just about making amends and leaping forward for the nation that was constructed for this purpose, but rather discovering a new purpose: One that would go beyond the aspirations of 'rebuilding' and claim India's 'rightful place' in the world.

This is now underway. A newly ascendant creed of Hindu politics has caught the imagination of the young, cloaked conveniently, and non-threateningly, as 'development politics' for many Western financiers whose backing was needed for its triumph. For an Indian though, the proposition is abundantly clear: The 'development' promised can only be realised after the social and political 'homogeneity' can be achieved. The diversity toolkit, including the secularist credo, underlying the modern Indian state has lost its relevance, as the nation has overcome its phase of reconstruction, claims the new leaders; they instead promote a willful historical amnesia - clever as this naturally suits the young - and endeavour to reclaim an ancient glory which, free of historical details, can now fashion a fantastic national identity.

Indian state, from this point on, will take a new road. The statue of Nathuram Godse, the man who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, came up in Meerut, an Indian town, last month. This is perhaps more symbolic than just an aberration - a declaration of intent to break with the past, the announcement, if brash in tone, of a new nation. The government's cultural agenda, manifested in top-down moves in assertion of authority of Central Ministry over the Universities, or the stealthy moves to convert minorities to Hinduism, all point to a new agenda of homogeneity, legitimised by the promise of development. 

This, I shall argue, the form the basis for coming of the Global Hindu. Indeed, they are already there, much evidenced in the cities of London, New York and San Fransisco, but no less measure elsewhere. But Hindus were always suspicious of the global, mostly excommunicating those who dared to cross the sea, and maintaining a disdain for those who left the country. However, this redefinition of new India, which the Global Hindus played a lead role bring about, gives them the spiritual home that they sorely lacked. Hinduism, as this new form emerges, will not any longer be identified by magical but lethargic and poor India, but a wakeful land of spiritual expediency that could sustain a better business culture as any other. However, Global Hinduism, like the new India, wouldn't be just the ancient Hinduism reborn, but a new religion altogether.

The global spread of ideas, as closely entwined with the rise of the new Indian state, and indeed, powered by this, have to be necessarily based on what the French commentator Olivier Roy calls 'Holy Ignorance', a form of purer religion disconnected from its social and cultural context. It is only by creating that 'religion-lite' form, Hindu religion, whose central tenets are based on sacrifice and giving up, can adapt itself to the spiritual needs of the bankers and financiers in London and New York, whose conspicuous consumption will run counter to the austere ethic of the religion but whose support is crucial to its sponsor state. Roy's point, made in context of Islam, that globalisation of religion demands belief and not knowledge: To embrace ignorance and to submit to the wills of various Godmen might have been part of Hindu society for a while, but at this pivot point, this is likely to become mainstream.

What we could expect then is the rise of the Global Hindu, indistinguishable from the various cults that exist today but with an additional claim of being mainstream, with a particular doctrine of religious commitment and intolerance and with a sponsor state. This is, as with the new forms of Islam and various evangelist creeds, a new religion altogether, new in its theistic commitment, new in its social composition and philosophical creed. In the coming days, it would make various claims of authenticity by laying claims on ancient Hindu philosophy and ways of thinking, and yet diverge from its cultural basis, just as Global Islam did in the last few decades. Such a moment of emergence may be politically potent - as we have seen in Indian elections - but socially dangerous: It could become one of those things that may change in the world in the coming decades.


Friday, December 26, 2014

2015: The Pivot Point

Finally, Christmas: Time to pause. I drove around rather aimlessly on empty roads, not least because my car needed a bit of run after being ignored for weeks of my absence. But driving around in Christmas is pleasant, often with no one else on the roads at all, except on the ones which are heading out of town. This was a perfect end of a year of wandering around without a purpose but with an objective, when being on the road was more important than going somewhere. And, like this ride, one gets to know which roads to avoid even on the Christmas Day - I now know what I don't want to do next year!

If I learned one lesson through the last couple of years, it is this: I have become weary of the educational-industrial enterprise. This is not just about profit motive in education: Having spent most of my time in For-Profit Education, I have none of the weariness about education businesses. I have, however, noted the apocalyptic view of sending the world to For-Profit schools: This, in my view, ignores the reality of For-Profit business models and that it is not very good in doing most of the things educational institutions are designed to do. This apocalyptic view really comes from the army of consultants, and a slew of trade bodies that belated caught up to this, who see education as one of those public-to-private conversion areas where money can be made.

This is now a either-you-are-with-us-or-against-us debate, and my view that businesses can play a role in education, both in defining the educational agenda and participating in education delivery, makes me a part of the For-Profit brigade. However, I hardly belong to this busy crowd, busy in undermining social commitments and value systems: But my view that For-Profit education is good for certain areas of education (and not others) is too nuanced to earn me any friends on the other camp of battle-hardened education workers who want to resist the attack on their privileges. Over time, through this blog and other activities that I do, I have tried to escape this debate about 'entitlements' and explore the more fundamental business model issues, and tried to find the difference between the claims made and deeds done.

This is the activity I plan to cease doing now. These observations, and commentary, were useful for development of my own thinking, but my agenda for 2015 is to stop critiquing these business models and to construct one myself. This indeed means lots of interconnected things: One part of it is to stop doing what I do now, a slew of things which are legacies of the past, and a range of consulting projects and skin-deep engagements, and start doing something I love with full commitment and engagement; the other part is to move geographically, because I see my work to be much more meaningful in Asia than in the UK. I have laboured on this decision for a while, but one agenda that I am signing off the year with is not to end next year in London but in Asia. My big decision was indeed about whether to move back to India: However, having engaged in India extensively over the last few years, I know definitively that I don't want to do that. I may indeed remain involved in Indian Education through my work activities, but my plans to relocate next year is not about India. Rather, my next experiment is focused on South-East Asia, and I am planning to relocate to Philippines (failing which, I shall go and live in Singapore) and to build connections and networks in the greater ASEAN area.

My big idea is indeed to create an Asian institution, which will combine the a good creative education, enterprise and social commitments together. The Asian idea of assimilation, rather than dialectical opposition of either-or thinking (which I also find in my other intellectual hero, John Dewey), is at the core of what I want to do. This may indeed take time - I am planning big and would have to wait for things to come together - but I want to make these commitments in 2015. I am hopeful that this engagement will give me what I want - hands on involvement where I can use my imagination and creative energy - rather than tinkering of the edges of the ideas and getting drawn into projects I neither love nor profit from.

Kolkata: Desirability of Decline

William Gibson had a point when he said - the future is already here, just that it is not evenly distributed.

The same thing can be said about the past, which refuses to go away. 

The city I come from - Kolkata, India - retains a large slice of the past. A visitor may see in Kolkata people who have lost hope. A people who is clinging to the past - they are justifiably proud of their great citizens - but the future has been erased out of all conversations. All the dilapidated buildings, all the great clocks situated all around the city which have stopped working, the noisy tram cars and the procession of Ambassador cars, modeled after a GM model from the 60s which is now out of production, make this a city of all-embracing nostalgia.

It is no surprise that the young people leave. They go away searching for better education, jobs, money and lives - to other Indian cities and abroad. They leave behind parents who talk incessantly about them - even their bright futures turned into annals of the past - and the city to people who move in from elsewhere; when they can, these visitors leave too, leaving the city for the next lot that needs to come in. 

We can add to Gibson's point that the future tends to lump together, and it migrates away from places which can't hold it.

But, then, creative cities don't become creative because they enjoy concentrated money and power, but rather because decline of money and power create space for new forms of thinking to emerge. Remember Jane Jacobs' point about old buildings and new thinking: "Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must come from old buildings". The rising, shiny real estate, the current measure of a city's prosperity and life, may be a triumph for the realtor - but that, going by the history of great cities, drive away the future of the future. This is why, as we must add to Gibson's observation, future is incessantly mobile.

However, decline does not automatically guarantee the seeding of the future. There is a type of decline that is irreversible, dark and hopeless. Many who have left Kolkata would see its path leading to the pointlessness of a dead city; indeed, the Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, said as much in the eighties. Kolkata's declining public life, the flight of its young, its murderous administration and its politics of poverty, all point to a kind of futurelessness. This is not the kind of decline New York had - as it came back from the dead in the 1990s - but rather like one of those ancient cities, which are now dead, gone and forgotten. The relevant data point about Kolkata is no longer that this was one of the two Asian cities to reach a million population in 1900 (the other being Tokyo), but this is perhaps the only big city in the world to have lost population since the turn of the millennium.

What differentiates the desirable decline that is a precondition for regeneration from the the irreversible decline of the dark kind that it seems to be is whether the people can still hold those in power accountable. When the finest students of the finest institution in the City refuse to take their certificates from a propped up administration, they are demonstrating just that spirit: They are the proof that the city lives on. In turn, this proves Gibson's point: The future is indeed unevenly distributed and only some can see it. The powers-that-be, represented in this case by the State's Governor who wanted to impose his dictatorial wishes on how educational institutions are run, are clueless when people who see the future start imagining - start holding them accountable for their lack of imagination. In many ways, that act of standing up, as the students of the university did, respectfully but firmly, evidence the future that refuse to disappear.

When such spirits live on, the decline is desirable: It drives away the lusty gaze of the unimaginative financier, who invariably mistake a city for its shopping malls, and believe that infrastructure, not people, makes a city work. The allure of their world view, packaged and presented in the conferences, reports, and speeches, are irrefutable, but mistaken in their sense of one crucial dimension: Time. We have laboured to lose a sense of history - so we can afford to think that today's successful cities are really the result of financial engineering and architectural triumphs of recent years, and not the other way around. However, the history comes back, in its usual long arc, and we see the lessons again and again: The cultural genius of a Vienna create a ringstrasse, and not the other way around.

So, let us celebrate the hopelessness, that drives the greedy away. The buildings that need little effort to tear down preserve for the posterity an ability to tear down, the politics that seems near the breaking point afford the imagination of a new politics. The only thing that seems to matter is the spirit of the people to live on, an ability to love - a few words, a few people, some ideas and some fragmented dreams - and not buy wholesale into the consultant-speak. To the dismay of the socialite, the rich and the powerful, let us celebrate the decline that let a city die, bury its structures of power and then, just as it happened in history, start again with hope.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

What Gets You Hired In 2015: Top 10 Skills for Graduates

I came across an interesting survey by National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), a not-for-profit group, which aims to determine what the employers want in graduates they hire. The survey draws upon a relatively small group of employers, there are only 260 respondents as reported in the Forbes article, and this includes a number of large corporations.

The information coming out of the survey, as reported in Forbes, are somewhat obvious in itself. The most preferred degrees for the participating employers are in business, engineering and computer and information sciences. The skills that the employers prefer are the following (in order of preference):

1. Ability to work in a team structure
2. Ability to make decisions and solve problems (tie)
3. Ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization
4. Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work
5. Ability to obtain and process information
6. Ability to analyze quantitative data
7. Technical knowledge related to the job
8. Proficiency with computer software programs
9. Ability to create and/or edit written reports
10. Ability to sell and influence others

(Quoted from the Forbes article)

Before I make any observations on the listed items, it is important to state that one must take such survey outcomes with a bit of skepticism. It is a mistake to treat them as proof of some universal concept, as such results purport to be. By its very design, it is a very North American survey, limited to a very small sample of employers (260 businesses out of 9 million businesses in US alone, which employ more than 1 staff member, and of 100,000 medium and large corporations) and skewed very much for the large companies (which may employ a lot of people, but their share in new jobs being created is less than 10%). Those of us who deal with employers every day and wonder how the employers came to agree on such a specific list of skills should note that, following the survey methodology, the participating employers ranked items on a list of skills on a 5-Point scale. 

Allowing for these limitations - and accepting that this does not represent an universal truth - there are some interesting, if obvious, observations there. The most obvious, and yet counter-intuitive for many educators is the lowly seventh position accorded to 'Technical Knowledge' while they toil away on that one alone. Ability to work in a team structure is usually accumulated through extra-curricular activity, whereas all curriculum remain focused on individual abilities. The two areas where the current academic work puts a lot of focus on are 'Ability to plan, prioritize and organize work' and 'Ability to obtain and process information' and the institutions should feel vindicated for this. A good academic education should also prepare pupils for the other skills listed here - proficiency with computer software programmes, ability to write reports, and ability to influence others (most academic programmes are strong on rhetoric) and ability to analyse quantitative data - and therefore, this survey represents good news for those worrying about the education-to-employment gap.

Except that there is work to be done in the top three skills listed here. Most collaborative work still fall outside curricular boundaries, and the ability to make decisions and solve problems on their own remain the academic holy grail. Ability to communicate, particularly with people outside their own setting, is one of the skills which may actually reduce through good education, because of the social and cultural environment that most people live in when they are at the university. In fact, the greatest complaint about an academic education is that this may create some kind of academic insularity, a tendency to fall back on theorising, rather than practical problem-solving, and to develop an arrogance and limited worldview due to one's education. This is indeed not a black-and-white problem as the critics of the academia make it sound: But there is some truth in the observation, particularly as far as methods and approaches in some academic disciplines are concerned.

The report recommends that the students take extra care in highlighting their skills and abilities along the lines of this list, and particularly mention their extra-curricular involvements. This has always been an important discussion area in the interviews, with employers wanting to know more about the graduates' leadership skills and social engagements. However, there is also a problem here: Most people are prone to exaggeration while talking on achievements in extracurricular activities, and recruiters have somewhat developed a discounting method for such claims. Given this, it is actually quite difficult for the graduates to make meaningful claims, and one should be looking at collecting and presenting evidence - ranging from portfolio of work to Linkedin recommendations - to back up any claims made.

Finally, this list may be different for small and medium enterprises, where technical skills may be somewhat more important given the shorter learning cycles afforded to new hires in those settings. Ability to sell and communicate outside may also be far more important in such settings, and the requirement to plan, prioritize and organize work (and be able to work on one's own) may be of great demand in such settings. Motivation is barely mentioned - motivation in large companies is mostly a process-driven thing - but this may loom large if we talk about smaller firms. Overall, this survey is a good pointer - as the Forbes columnist mentions, 'the wisdom is sound' - and this should start a conversation among the educators and the employers.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Conversations 24: Why I am Kolkata

In Annie Hall (1977), Annie tells Alvy, "You don't know how to enjoy life. You are New York!" 

I came back home last Friday, but, as always, I remain really confused where home is. Pico Iyer doubts that home is really any place at all, but rather where you take your guards down. My home in London ticks that box, as I have not lived in Kolkata for more than a decade and feel besieged when I am there. 

But, then, I think all too often when I shall be doing practical stuff. I live an emotional, engaged, life, dreaming away most of the time. I carry this change-the-world optimism with me alongside the repulsion for narrowness of people I have to do business with. I feel almost good when people say I have unfulfilled potential. I start all too often - make new beginnings as if past never existed. I feel proud of my dilapidated being because it indicates a tradition, long forsaken, that I want to belong to. I eschew all the company that will have me for company, in a homage to Groucho Marx, and aspire to belong to some place nonexistent. Well, I am Kolkata then.

It is not home anymore but it lives in me. Migrants like me are known for as much the journey they made as the journey of return they never end up making. It is the promise of that journey, its unfulfilled, fragmented, dream, expressed in awkward and out of place celebrations of festivities, the assorted souvenirs that adorn our homes, stories of childhood that live with us and which we want to pass on to our children (only to be rebuffed), that makes a migrant's home. Even when I let my guard down only in Croydon, I do so in this little circle of nostalgia and make-believe place of little Kolkata, a place that doesn't really exist but is a matter of imagination.

Some say ambivalence isn't good, not knowing what to do: That is indeed so in a migrant's life when we can't take anything for granted and must continually try to establish a foothold. It is about striving all the time, working round the clock, imagining only for very practical considerations of imagination. But there is nothing practical to dream about Kolkata: It is a hot, humid, poor, dirty, sweaty, rude place, full of people who let the life drift and others too busy coning everyone else. For all the talk of unfulfilled potential, the practicality of never having realised it mustn't be considered a rude reminder. It is a place that is going down: One of the first cities in Asia to have reached a million population (the other one being Tokyo), it is the only metropolis in the world whose population decreased in the last ten years. For all our non-resident indulgence, people who live there obviously have chosen to vote with their feet.

And, yet, ambivalence is key to love; it is that feeling that overcome all the practical, as it must be, to touch one's soul. There is no practicality in the soul, no pharmaceutical company will ever endeavour to research it, and yet, our hopes of the future must come thence. Kolkata is that ambivalence, a practical rejection of practicality, a tough love of sorts, an acquired taste like the Jaljeera in Peter Cat, an imagination like a cold winter to make everyone run for jumpers when the temperature touches 20 degrees, Celcius! Even its drift, so tragic in its consequences, is so poignant in its rejection of the mouth-clasp of consumer civilisation. The coexistence of the kind and the rude, the splendid and the squalid, the snob and the revolutionary, the past and the future - with almost no hint of the present or the normal - that make Kolkata the place it is. 

So, I sign off with love, a love that can only belong to one place. I love, therefore, I am Kolkata. The day I lose the place, hopefully I never will, I shall lose the capacity to love, deeply, passionately, dreamingly, impractically. For all the grossness I overlook, for all the transgressions I brush aside, for all the rudeness I silently absorb and for all the dirt that I must cleanse with love - there is only one explanation: That one must belong to someplace, that cozy place called home, which must belong to one's heart, rather than the other way round.



Saturday, December 20, 2014

Global Workforce Crisis: Case For A Creative Education

Global Workforce Crisis is real, going by plain demographic numbers. The solutions available, immigration, offshoring and extending the retirement age, are politically difficult. The only available option is improving mass education, but there are entrenched interests, of power and privileges, that seeks to undermine the case for a good public education. If this does not make the problem look bad enough, there is more: It is not more of the same education that would solve the problem and we may need to think about the educational model as well.

This new educational model, I shall argue, needs to put creative and cultural education at the heart of the educational process, at all levels. Our current model of education assumes that culture is a rich man's thing, leaving out all the museum visits and piano lessons as expensive add-ons to schooling. Mass education, as we see it, is a rough-and-ready thing about literacy and numeracy, which will allow the pupils a shot at all the various process-based jobs. This thinking is particularly acute in the developing countries, who have benefitted greatly in the last two decades from the emergence of global workflows, which has created many such process-based jobs in these countries. 

But such offshoring was only a temporary solution to the Global Workforce Crisis, as we now see the convergence of globalisation and automation that is creating new kinds of opportunities. Automation is destroying the old jobs and creating new ones, but we are still educating people for the old jobs in the old ways. Educating more people like this isn't going to solve the problem, and these jobs are not going to come back just because there are more people available and wages would fall farther. The 'Crisis' is going to be worse not just because we just don't have enough numbers to fill the positions, but also because the numbers we have will be ready for work we don't any longer need.

The case for a mass provision of creative and cultural education is, therefore, urgent. In The Virtuous Circle: Why Creativity and Cultural Education Count (2014), John Sorrell et al define 'creative and cultural education' as education covering a range of disciplines, archeology, architecture and the built environment, archives, craft, dance, design, digital arts, drama and theatre, film and cinemas, galleries, heritage, libraries, literature, live performance, museums, music, poetry and the visual arts. Now, in a lot of places, that entire gamut of activities will be considered leisure rather than work, to be attended to when one is rich and successful: Till then, all children will be expected to study engineering and get some kind of programming job. The point missed is indeed that now the computers can generate a large part of the code (all the visual programming environments point to this) and we may not need as many programmers in the future, but a lot more people doing higher level of work, thinking about software architecture, design, user interfaces, business problem solving and communication. One needs these abilities over and above programming skills, and even an engineer/ programmer will be well served if they are exposed to the world of culture and communication.
I follow the work of Sorrell Foundation's Saturday Club in the UK with interest, which exposes young people to creative and cultural work using the available infrastructure in local institutions. This is a great model - low cost, inclusive access - which can be used to initiate more and more people to cultural education and open up their possibilities. While the public money support may be limited in developing nations, as their governments remain transfixed to the illusive possibility of outsourcing economy, such initiatives can indeed be funded as an outreach programme for an educational institution or a For-profit start-up initiative, structured around a freemium model. Indeed, this could be one big idea for all those seeking to create Employability programmes, as abilities to judge, create and communicate are central to twenty-first century employability, and an appropriate response to the Global Workforce Crisis.

Friday, December 19, 2014

How To Think About Your Career

If you are coming out of college, how do you start thinking about your career? Or, if you came out of college a few years ago, and have dawdled through various things you don't like, how do you re-think about your career all over again? Indeed there could be numerous variations of this scenario, each person having an individual one, and the key question to ask is whether there are any general rules to think about careers at all. And, if you want to get really deep, you may start musing what's a career anyway.

Let's start with the philosophical one. My favourite story about this is the story of the young man who was fishing in a pond middle of the day when he got accosted by a busy type, may be some distant uncle. Horrified with this young man's laziness, the older man advised him to abandon leisurely pursuits and get some productive engagement - education, employment or training whatever. The younger man asked him what would happen if he did that: The older man told him about all the good things that could happen - the pursuit of happiness thing. The younger man asked him what would happen if he got rich: He would be able to do whatever he liked, like fishing in the afternoon, the older man answered. But, then, asked the annoyed younger man, was he not doing that already?

This is an old story and indeed we can start picking the argument quite easily. But the broader point is that there is little point talking about a career without thinking through why one should take the trouble. For many people in the developing countries, this point is really so simple that it does not need any elaboration: They have to strive hard to get a better life in terms of money, and all the other elements of happiness. From that vantage point, deliberating what a career is for may indeed not make sense. However, from another, empirical, standpoint, when we see millions of people feeling wasted mid-career, with lives no better than they started with, this whole pursuit of happiness thing may look quite phoney. The more obvious likeness is with the fateful ride of the six hundred, this one unsung.

Becoming the canon-fodder isn't a smart career strategy, and this is why starting with the philosophical question, even if that leads to practical answers, such as job and money, may make abundant sense. In fact, what a career is for isn't a philosophical question at all, but a guard against buying too much of the self-serving emerging middle class rhetoric, particularly when middle classes, for all practical purposes, are submerging. Raising a question such as this should lead one to the core issues of careers today, that it is ever changing, and that stereotypical dream of a job after school is actually well past its sale-by date as far dreams are concerned.

One is much better served, whichever country one is in, to think about their objectives in the face of the two dominant forces shaping our lives: Globalisation and Automation. An understanding of what globalisation is doing to their lives, professions they want to be in and the dreams they have shaped for themselves, is enormously helpful to get started on career thinking. Ditto for automation as it reaches some kind of tipping point, changing the terms of engagement for most jobs and work. 

This may sound like a tough ask - to ask twenty year olds to think about such mighty topics - but it is really basic. Globalisation and automation is really everywhere, and an appreciation of them should lead to one key understanding: That the future isn't going to look like the past. The first problem with our career thinking, that assumption that life will continue to be exactly as it is, should go away if one develops an understanding of the forces shaping the change. They may reach different conclusions, but they may also get closer to general principles, such as one may have different careers through his/her life, and that one needs to keep moving everyday. They may also discover their strengths, they may be forced to think what they are good at, something that really gets obscured in the business of buzzwords that career gurus unleashed on us.

So, here are my five questions to make you think about your career:

1. What are you really good at?

2. What do you love that you can be really good at?

3. How do you make someone pay for what you are really good at?

4. Can you be the World's Best in what you are good at?

5. How can you harness technology to become even better at what you are good at?

My argument is that these questions will focus one's mind on 'core competencies' - at an individual level - and allow him/her to think about various strategies to build a career around these, once s/he is clear about the objectives. These questions will take into account the twin forces of globalisation and automation, and hopefully allow people to think of 'development' seriously. These would also take the discussion beyond the buzzwords and allow some serious thinking around 'benchmarks' - what is being good at means or how to define world's best - which makes career discussion more real than ever.

Such thinking is a design exercise, and if done well, it can have unexpected results. One may discover some of the things one had strengths on but nearly forgotten: How many people have suddenly remembered that they were good at drama/ music/ writing when forced to think what they are really good at? They may also discover the inevitability of certain things - that you can't really hide from the internet, for example, or that learning another language may be one of the best career investments one can do. They may also discover opportunities to build their strengths, traveling being one example. In short, if one could be jolted out of thinking their fathers' careers to be their own, lots of unexpected things may happen.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Does Online Learning Work?

In my first job, back in 1993, I used to carry around a printed list (this was before PowerPoint) with me: Customers often asked why email may be better than fax, and I thought carrying around such a comparison with me would save a lot of time. 

While that issue was satisfactorily resolved, I am still having to answer a similarly challenging question: Does online learning work? The comparison, this time, is with the classroom learning. I would accept that this is not exactly a rerun of fax-vs-email thing, nothing ever is: However, there are common elements in the conversation, particularly two. First, those who tell me that online learning doesn't work with most certainty have never done any, just as the skeptics eschewed emails in my previous experience. Second, my answer that it is better for certain kinds of activities while Fax may be needed for certain other kinds of things perhaps could be repeated - I usually say classroom training is very good for certain things that online learning can't do. 

So, it depends. We don't live in an either-or world, and one does not have to wipe out classroom training (or online learning) to do the other thing. In fact, online learning can do things that classroom training can't do, and when online learning is built around such things, it is at its most effective. How else could people connect a dispersed group of learners from across the world, if a certain kind of learning demanded it? Or allow people to learn at their own time, if that's what learners needed? When we talk about whether one mode of learning works, or whether this is better than the other, we are essentially asking the wrong question. We should rather be asking what form of learning may be better to achieve the objectives of learning in that given context. 

Given that this is common sense, and everyone seems to concede this point when I make the argument, I wonder when people say online learning does not work, they are not really complaining about the medium of learning: They are essentially questioning whether people can learn by themselves. This is where this debate gets really sticky, because people learning by themselves have all kinds of implications. Though one may obviously see that knowledge does not reside in the head of the Guru anymore, it just can't, lots of people fear the consequences of not being able to tell people what to learn. That online learning doesn't work is, in fact, an emotional statement, an expression of deep fears and concerns, rather than an empirical observation, because if it does work, for situations and possibilities not contemplated before, it would disrupt a lot of things. 

However, if we learned anything about technology-led disruptions in the last two centuries is that they happen, and the enlightened and profitable approach has been to embrace it and to use it to one's advantage rather than living in a denial. This is what I used to say then, evangelizing email, and this is what I say now: Going in circles may be as much a part of our nature as technological progress.



Sunday, December 14, 2014

Should You Start An 'Employability' Training Business? Five Questions

As Education-to-Employment gap becomes worse, the popularity of 'Employability' training grows. This is a worldwide phenomenon: The government usually pays, and many micro businesses are set up every year in the hope that the students will also pay for it themselves. The format is usually cheap and cheerful: Bring in the learner for a few days, tell them how to write CVs, present themselves in the interviews, how to dress, how to shake hands and how to look confident. 

Since those people I know in this trade are not stupid, I would think that they are driven either by incredible optimism or sheer opportunism. How else can one believe that if someone was not employable before their kind intervention, they become one just by learning to do better handshakes? There is no denying that learning to write CVs, or doing better at interviews, are important skills; but these things can only work if the students know in the first place what they want to do, and have the right skills to do the jobs they want to do. 

Realistically, this is not the job that a 10 day training can do: This should indeed be the function of all the 16/17 years of education one receives before even walking into the 'employability' classes. However, the employability training makes the things worse by attempting to give the answers and pretending to bridge a gap what it can't. Instead of exposing the students to a process of self-awareness and preparation, employability training attempts to give them a magic pill, in a world where there are no magic pills. 

However, I come across well-meaning people all too often who wants to be in this 'space'. Having explored this a bit myself, I usually discourage them from getting in. The primary reason is that my belief that this 'space' is full of pretenders and charlatans, who have no skills other than that of cornering some government money, and their practices turn the field into a 'market for lemons', and one can't survive there with any scruples. But, more than that, I don't see, at least within the current practise, how any scalable and sustainable business can be built, which my correspondents are usually trying to do. They talk about the 'huge' opportunity, but usually don't have a model which can take things beyond that one or two schools they know themselves.

This doesn't, however, mean that I think no business models can be built: I just think that those wanting to get in have to think differently. One aspect of this is to seek to change the education system itself, which is what I am engaged in as a part of my day job. However, I also believe that there are other opportunities to create 'employability solutions' and have now developed five questions for the aspiring entrepreneurs wanting to get into this business.

Here are those five questions:

1. Can you build a sustained engagement? I have come to believe that it is not possible to make a student employable by a few days training, and this needs engagement over a longer period of time. In fact, this engagement should be sought as early in the students' lifecycles as possible, possibly in High School or earlier. If this is extra-curricular (which it is likely to be), the activities should be designed to 'nudge' the students into self-awareness and self-paced preparation, rather than posing employability as a quick-and-easy solution.

2. Can you build a 'Freemium' model?   The government supported employability programmes is where the scams are. However, the students don't like paying for the Employability programme, because the value of these programmes are uncertain. Any entrepreneurial model have to stand in the middle: Its engagement model should be based on a 'free' component which everyone can do, and then followed by 'Premium' service components which the students would want to buy.

3. Can you scale? This is indeed rather obvious but it is really difficult to scale these programmes. In a way, those who are successful in their careers are not available to train others, which leaves those with employability crisis in their hands to do the training beyond, indeed, the entrepreneur himself. This brings in the technology aspect, though I am often told that the students don't like technology. My point is indeed that using technology is better than using unqualified by trainers, but even before I get to that point, I am surprised that many people believe that the students can be made employable while remaining technology averse.

4. Can you make the students learn themselves? The prescriptive model of learning is mostly out of sync with a changing world, but more so in the Employability programmes. The students must be self-aware and find a path for themselves, picking up knowledge and skills along the way towards their desired objectives: If they can't do that. they are unlikely to be employable. This is a pedagogical issue, but this is also a business model opportunity. Indeed, in the world of MOOCs and YouTube, the content is hardly the problem - and indeed, this is precisely where the opportunity of premium services lie. However, prescribing courses is self-defeating, so one has to ask this as a separate question and not as a subset of Q2 or Q3.

5. Can you expose the students to the world of work? For all the engagement and training, there is nothing like the real thing. It is difficult to make anyone employable without necessarily exposing them to the world of work, either through internships, projects or more sustained employment. Again, this is an opportunity to build services, but this is absolutely integral to the proposition itself. And, indeed, a good programme will manage the exposure - it is not just about going to an office for a few days - and will have definitive outcomes.

Indeed, these are broad top level questions, but instead of going into the discouraging mode that I usually do when told about employability businesses, I have now decided to stick to these questions. I see lot of successful business models are being built, mostly in the developed world, ranging from boot camps to structured internship programmes, and indeed one could construct a business model drawing on these. But, to start, one needs to escape the temptation of following what is usually done - and be ready to innovate.

Global Workforce Crisis: Framing The Education Question

I have posted about Global Workforce Crisis and Education as its only plausible solution. However, the question remains: If the problem is so obvious, and everyone more or less agrees that good education is the solution, and, more importantly, as everyone seems to talk about it too, why do we have so little done? Indeed, one could say that there has been a surge in private investment in education - in fact, education, and particularly technology-led solutions to education, has been one of hottest sector for venture investment since 2011 - but the impact of it, particularly in improving access and quality of education for poorer people, has been very limited. In fact, apart from the eye-watering amounts that some of the MOOC companies raised (and one could argue that MOOCs are not for everyone, but just the well-educated), most of the education investment has gone into creating top-end schools and colleges, improving the quality and opportunity for the top 5% - 10% of the population [In the developing countries, for an even narrower range of beneficiaries]. 

The logic of the investment is quite clear: The money goes to the segments which can pay for the services. However, the Global Workforce Crisis, if we accept it, poses a bigger question: Should we not be looking at ways to provide good education to everyone? And, indeed, under our current funding models, is it at all possible to do so? And, if it needs to change, what needs to change?

There has already been some debate about it: Parag Khanna and Karan Khemka's solution was to enroll the world in For-Profit universities (see here). They blamed the regulators for making innovation in education difficult, driving away private investment even when the need is so urgent. One could argue whether the track record of For-Profit education sector warrants such optimism. There were also other arguments about changing how we educate. Michele Wiese of Christensen Institute argues for Online Competency-based Education to replace the tradition-bound models of Higher Education (see her paper here). Again, she points to the academic inertia, and portrays a picture of a lethargic professional class who has lost touch with reality and abrogated their social contract. Her point was to call for an urgent 'reformation' (I use the word deliberately) of education, changing what is taught and how it is taught.

There is some validity in all these points of views. However, one should also take into account wider social issues than just trying to answer who is teaching and what is being taught. This is important because it is rather silly to complain that straightforward plausible solution exists for the education problem. The rich in the United States, and in almost all countries in the world, enjoy an enormous political leverage (so much so that Lawrence Lessig calls United States 'Lesterland') and since the Global Workforce Crisis may indeed upset the economic balance and cause deep problems, it is incomprehensible why more was not done more urgently.

The problem with democratizing access to good education, I shall argue, is that this in itself is deeply disruptive to our current economic structures and institutions. The enormous inequality that we see in our society is legitimised on the basis of merits and smarts. We, however, know that such merits and smarts are tied to educational outcomes, and the educational outcomes are tied to family income more than anything else. However, perpetuating the myth that certain sections of the population are stupid (and, as Baroness Jenkin recently said, they can't cook) is easier than opening up education access. In fact, both Messers Khemka & Khanna's solution, and Ms Wiese's prescription uses popular rhetoric to frame a solution that limits, rather than expands, access to good quality education, as it seeks to limit public involvement in education both short term (by driving education for profit, which essentially creates a system of differentiated education, on the basis of ability to pay) and long term (by undermining the need for involved citizenship, which guarantees the continuation of such public involvement). David Rotman in his recent MIT Technology Review article on technology and inequality makes the point that we may be overpaying for our educated workers by limiting access to good education. But then such an arrangement may actually make sense to all those who matter.

I am not one to point to any conspiracy theories, but just that good education upsets the power structures that we have, because it undermines the core assumptions behind those power structures. Indeed, the Global Workforce Crisis does the same - upsets the institutional structures we have built - but it does so over a longer period of time. Our democratic governments, stock-market driven corporations and individualistic morality make us prioritise on stability today over stability in the long run. It makes sense not to be serious about education, just as much as it did when Louis the XVth said "Après moi, le déluge" (Revolution will come, but my time will pass).


Friday, December 12, 2014

Conversations 23: Imagining 2015

Stricken by Jet Lag, I am up and wondering in a hotel room looking into the sea in Kota Kinabalu: Somewhat the perfect setting to be thinking about 2015! One may think these moments are more suited to think about past than the future. But, despite all the ups and downs in my professional life in 2014, I have not spent too many sleepless nights last year. And, the ones I did, I owe them less to anxiety and more to Jet Lag, something, when I was younger, I would have considered to be some kind of badge of honour! And, in this saga of sleeping and not sleeping, I guess lies the big story for me for 2014, and the things to carry forward next year.

The fact that I am even looking forward to 2015, despite the fact that I have effectively failed to do what I set out to do (and in the process, incurred debts), is a good starting point. Through 2014, or even through 2013, I somewhat acquired one crucial twenty-first century skill, the ability to live on the edge! I emerge with a sense of optimism - more optimism than even what I started this experiment with - because I believe to have lived the way people would live in the future. I lived as a micro-entrepreneur, doing various things, setting earning targets and meeting them through various bits of work (and a bit of luck, sometimes)! Tim O'Reilly makes the point that we may now have to recognise that 'job' is an obsolete concept: Many people may not welcome the loss of 'agency' that a job may come with. 

This was perhaps the best lesson from 2014, one that I can only perhaps see it with a bit of hindsight. Admittedly, I have moved back to working, which gives me the Jet Lag to which I owe this sleepless night: But even moving back to a job was a tactical move: I indeed moved back to a job of the kind I wanted to do, with people I really enjoy being with, and one that gives me learning and exposure in the area I eventually want to specialise in. 

But the job I got into, despite all its positives, is something I do for learning and preparation, not for security or the privileges. Notwithstanding the charm of the sea outside my window, and the amenities of a Le Meridien, this is still yesterday's perks for me. I would have been happy to do this - and collect the Facebook photo (which I did) - perhaps fifteen years ago. This would certainly have been an upgrade from my trips to nondescript towns of middle India that I did then. However, once I lived the 'other' life, I see the costs of living this one (which I wouldn't have seen otherwise).

For me, therefore, 2015 may have just one theme: Recovering the agency in my life! I see twenty to twenty-five years of work life ahead of me, and living without agency is a bad way to keep myself going about it. Indeed, this is not about going back to 2014: One must acknowledge if mistakes were made and learn the lessons. But I am not throwing the baby out with the bathwater: I want to make the year one of reimagining, and indeed, of leveraging the successes.

Every 'problem' comes with its rewards. It is already 3:20am, and if I stay up long enough, I get to the see the Sun rise in a few hours. I am taking a similar view of my travails of the last year. The more I learn about it, the technology-led change in the way we live, do business and think, fascinates me: I can see the changes first hand, within the domain of education that I am involved into. I have, however, only tinkered at the edges, meeting people, writing posts, talking, but I presume the more serious work lays ahead of me. My challenge for 2015 is to turn all this into a profession and being part of this change. This means getting more hands on with technology, something I loved when I did back in my early career, and perhaps doing more 'substantial' work. My current job indeed offers me a wonderful view of the arena, but indeed I have to earn the credentials to be a player in 2015.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Global Workforce Crisis: Education As A Solution

I recently wrote about the 'Global Workforce Crisis' (see here). This issue, from my perspective, is both self-evident, because there is no denying of the age curve, and limited, because there are so many other issues, political, social, environmental and even emotional, that need to be dealt with before we can even start talking about 'workforce crisis'. The world is more than one giant factory, and pursuing problems such as these make us overlook that.

However, it is also equally important, before we indulge into any of those 'soft' aspects of the Workforce crisis, to appreciate how important 'economic growth' really is in the system we live in. Small is beautiful may be a great motto, but in the wider economy, with constant growth, there will be no 'credit'; and without credit, there will be no economy. The economic debate is not about how we can keep things the way they are, but how we can keep moving forward - because the modern economy we have built, depend crucially on our view of the future.

From this limited, economic, perspective, some solutions to the Global Workforce crisis look attractive: Migration is one of them. In a simple supply-and-demand world, where the age curve is turning real nasty in some countries with high level of economic activity, one can't fail to spot other countries, with relatively limited economic opportunities but really promising demographic profiles. However, as we all know, migration has its limits: Just as the industrial economies have started automating and limiting employment, one can't start importing software engineers from other countries without upsetting a lot of people. And, migration of this kind has a domino effect: The narrow right wing politics of the kind we see in Britain is somewhat a direct reaction to migration. 

If migration is so difficult, and ultimately self-defeating, how about non-geographical migration, such as offshoring? We already live in the age of global workflows and supply chains, so we may have embraced this solution already. However, we have also tested its limits, as we have seen a wave of near-shoring in the recent past, triggered by a myriad of factors ranging from cultural differences to the knock-on effect of the racial politics triggered by greater geographical migration. However, the biggest reason behind the relative decline of offshoring is automation - we have started replacing the very jobs with robots which we used to offshore - and our workforce crisis is indeed being most acute in the jobs which require human presence. 

Similarly, the other solutions to the question of workforce crisis, getting more women in the workforce, or extending the retirement age, have been tested to its limits. The richer an economy becomes, people want to retire early: Indeed, that's a part of the middle class dream. Bringing more women to the workforce, at the time when the working cultures become meaner and the Welfare State all but disappears, may mean lower birth rates and a worsening of the problem. 

All of which leads to point to education, both as a means to create a more productive workforce, and an enabler of a value system fit for the 'future', as the key to the solution to the workforce crisis. Despite its common sense appeal, however, we have done little, and in fact done harm, to our education systems and limited its ability to help solve the Global Workforce Crisis.

For example, with globalisation, we have assumed that the world economic system will be modelled along the lines of the old colonial past, some countries will be the source of raw materials - people in this case - whereas the others will do the value-added activities. Accordingly, we have built education systems, rapidly as it happened in the last couple of decades, to train people for process-based, lower in the value chain jobs, in the countries with large population, precisely the jobs that we may not need once the automation sets in. 

We have also systematically destroyed or underfunded the public education system in most countries. Particularly in Higher Education, the effect would have been disastrous. The For-Profit alternatives that we are so much in love with, by nature, focuses on the immediate needs of the market rather than taking a long view, as they must prove the 'pay-out' for the rip-off they are; this, in turn, means training people narrowly, and indeed, not preparing them for the changing workplaces. 

Some governments, like India's, have responded to the 'workforce crisis' precisely the wrong way, by taking a rear-window view and framing policy, and directing public investment, to train people for jobs that do not exist anymore. India's 'skills initiative', which is all about preparing people for low-end work, is based on a tired, static view of the world, and was outdated at the very moment of its conception. At the same time, the country allowed its higher education system to degenerate, and its public school system to disappear. 

For me, the talk of Global Workforce Crisis highlights an urgent review of these educational approaches. The key question perhaps is how does one prepare a large number of people with the creative and imaginative abilities, traditionally assumed to be reserved for the privileged, at a low cost. This flies in the face of all the educational assumptions we have made in the past, and even upsets the world view that we have entertained over past few centuries. Yet, this must be done, because otherwise we would wreck our future under the weight of our mindsets of the past.  

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Be Creative to Save The World

The creative space is the ultimate retreat of a humanity under siege.

Technology is already turning upon us. Those who celebrate technological progress, have already made it antonymous to human progress, by dislocating the concern for greater good from the pursuit of technological sophistry. To make billions, one needs to think up an Uber: To think about what happens to poor taxi drivers who want to play by the rules isn't one for the entrepreneurial playbook. With the return on capital as the overriding concern, and when more and more capital is pooled into the pursuit of ever better technologies that may replace all but those brilliant, favoured and lucky few, technology is more like that celebrity lover that we may all desire, but whose celebrity does indeed render our own plainness irredeemable, our lives meaningless.

Creativity, counterintuitively, is our opportunity to reclaim our lives. This is counterintuitive because we have gotten used to a certain concept of creativity, something that's associated with genius, a few special people. This seems to belong to those same special people who hold the harness of technological progress: Indeed, it is companies like Google or Apple, the information elite, that win the creative awards. But, creativity, with a small c, that everyday practise to be able to think counter intuitively, to defy what's mandated and to unleash the desires, is a play on that most personal of the assets we all have: The time of our lives! This is like that derelict unused spaces that have been bought over by the developers of the global empires, but abandoned by them in their cruel neglect of human concerns and grand designs for a robotic future. Our playtime, till we parcel it out in the quest of those new toys that boost our ego a little, is all we have left to remain human: An accidental tune, a purposeless post, even a walk without deadline or destination, are acts of resistance, of reposession of ourselves and our lives.

And when we commit to creativity, we suddenly restore our equation with technology: we become the masters we use to be, rather than irrelevant bodies soon to be replaced. We use the technologies that sustain us and extend our capabilities, those connect us with our world and our loved ones, those of possibilities; the mere act of defying our self-imposed immaturity, once more in history, is needed to help us escape the mortal danger of inhumanisation that we all face.

This moment, of a possible re-enlightenment, our humanity hangs in the balance. The stake in the success of the creative enterprise has never been greater. We debate and discuss the Power Law economy, but by no means it is a given. The humanity has proven to be masters of its own faith at many critical junctures in history, and one hope it would prove so again. The road to this redeeming possibility lies through creativity: An invitation to creativity should be seen as a plea to save the world.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Global Workforce Crisis: Time To Start Thinking

In an interesting TED talk (see below), Rainer Strack underscores the urgency of thinking about global workforce crisis. The numbers, as projected in the work of BCG (to which he was a contributor), are indeed telling: The workforce crisis may cost $10 trillion worth of GDP between 2020 and 2030 (see the BCG work here).

This is not any doomsday talk urging people into action, because the facts are in plain sight anyway: The population in developed nations are aging and there are not enough new births to take the place of retirees. The solutions are common sense but politically impossible: Import workers from countries which may have surplus labour or worse working conditions. Indeed, Messers Strack and others see the limitations in this formula and suggest a mix of measures, not just geographical migration but also non-geographical ones (such as offshoring) and bringing more women and retirees into workforce (Child labour is indeed a taboo subject).

This conversation is important in itself, but assume a complex and rather menacing dimension altogether in the context of the global conversation on automation. The point made in Mr Strack's talk, that the number of jobs may not be going down as new technologies create new kinds of jobs, is true only to certain extent. Seen in the context of global workforce crisis from big company point of view, this may be true and present a great challenge on its own. However, automation may be destroying jobs elsewhere too, not just in manufacturing but in services too (this may still lie largely in the future, but near future), create a social and political context which we can't altogether escape in the conversation about global workforce crisis. While the workers from countries like India may want to go and work in the US or UK, it may not be politically possible for those countries to take them in: The Pakistani Banker, though he may possess a different skillset, may set off worst kind of emotions in a jobless English factory worker.

The assumption behind the already gloomy picture of the workforce crisis presented here is that the structure of the global economy will somewhat remain the same, with advanced manufacturing, services and research and development remaining clustered in Western Europe and North America. However, this may change and as Singapore (and some other countries) have shown, with political will, it is possible to create skill economies within a generation or so. This may accentuate the Global Workforce crisis, by expanding the demand in new areas and worsening the crisis in the West. 

The other interesting observation is that the global labour movements may, in the end, end up making or breaking the fortunes of the economies. It should be bad news for India that most of its young workers may want to migrate if there is an opportunity, because only the most able will be able to. Similarly, when this crisis is around the corner, national insularity may be a great baggage than it was previously: Japan may need the young workers more than most other economies but may not be the most preferred place for an young engineer to migrate to.

The Global Workforce Crisis, as it plays out, would also represent a pivot point for educators. Its challenge, and its opportunities, may force educators to be cognizant about the twin forces of globalisation and automation more deeply. The governments like India's, which has wasted two decades tinkering with Higher Education policy and mostly wasting its demographic opportunity in a scandalous free-for-all chaos, may finally be forced to think about it by economic considerations when all other appeals to senses have failed. All this may allow some innovation in education, at all levels as necessary, which the vested interests have resisted for so long. 

In summary, it is time to start thinking. During my time in recruitment trade, I did talk and write about the need of National Talent Management ministries (see here): It is time to renew that discussion now, with some added urgency. Collectively, nations are doing a bad job at attracting, fostering and retaining talent: The need to change course couldn't be more urgent.

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