Monday, August 25, 2014

Conversations 12: Re-engaging With India

I decided to write a personal note almost for the record, my own record, so if I ever look back on these blog posts several years later, this will serve as a bookmark: This is where and how my thinking changed, it would record. Not that I have done anything truly significant, but more than a week in India and I have started feeling comfortable with it. I am engaging with India with more substantial intent this time than before, and the nature of my engagement is also slightly different: Hence, it matters.

Despite being Indian, and a frequent visitor, every time I come to India, it takes time to adjust. This is nothing to do with the country, which indeed remains the same, but it is me - every time I go back, nostalgia and memories overlap with reality, justifications mellow down experiences, afterthoughts make emotions benign. So, every time I walk out of the airport, I bring an image of a country with me, which must go through a series of interactions to get real. This happened to me this time too, along with a persisting jet lag (perhaps on account of trying to hit the road all too soon), followed by an disabling food poisoning resulting from some adventures with South Indian cuisine. However, after a week, I feel fully up and running, and engrossed with the opportunity that I see before me (and have a realistic perception about the challenges).

My immediate agenda in India is to develop the opportunities for an global learning company, which sets up project-based learning in partnership with employers and universities. The idea is that employers will closely participate in the learning process, by allowing live projects and allowing their staff to mentor students, and the students will earn academic credits for the project work they do. Over the last few days, I have interacted with many employers and have a sense of how critical the talent crunch is. In fact, the system that we are trying to set up addresses many of the issues that the employers were telling me about. The only challenge I perceive going forward is whether many employers have a long term strategic approach to talent - we are building talent pipelines to be recruited over the years rather than recruiting people for here-and-now need. Indeed, my aggregate view of the Indian companies have been that their business models are often predicated on the quantity rather than the quality of people they are recruiting, and strategic perspectives about skills and talents are quite difficult to achieve when recruitment is often a frenetic people-churning machine. I, therefore, feel that this job will perhaps involve a bit of proselytising about the education-to-employment process, something I consider as an area of interest and strength. And, indeed, this will mean a wealth of learning about the process and space.

I am hoping that this learning will further feed into the broader work on Indian Education that I hope to do. I spent some time talking to various vocational education providers, trying to understand their business models. I remain keen to help create a meaningful model of education for people without access to sophisticated schools and career advice - this is what led me to do the various projects that I did over the last few years - and these conversations stimulate me to think about an appropriate model for this work. At this point of time in India, the vocational education is a cheap way of expanding traditional education. I, however, think this is completely misdirected, because the students they train have a different start-point. What these companies are mostly doing is to provide a poor man's version of the education city-based students receive to a disadvantaged group of students: This is likely to amplify and proliferate the disadvantages these students have, rather than enhancing their strengths. Through these interactions, I am learning not just about the process inefficiencies which are rather obvious and far too many, but also about the absurdity of the whole enterprise itself.

Which is possibly the pivot in my thinking, as these discussions stimulate me to search further for an appropriate model for providing such an education. At one level, this means revisiting a lot of things that I studied during my Masters and possibly rediscovering the appetite for Doctoral studies. At another, this means getting involved into various conversations about this subject that is happening in India. While the space is generally devoid of new ideas, there are some inspiring examples as well. I was impressed with the kind of work Azim Premji Foundation is doing in primary education, and some other private companies which are innovating with education technology targetted at the vocational space. While I remain interested in comparative education and would look to learn from global experiences, India is one of the most exciting countries to experience these trends and even to set off innovation. I am hoping that my deeper engagements with India will allow me perspectives that I wouldn't have otherwise got if I was studying this from a distance.

My big challenge now is to organise myself to take advantage of all these opportunities. I wanted to come away from England to have some space to do the thinking about what I should do next. Last few days of touring alone provided me some opportunities of reflection, though touring was rather hectic and the meeting timings erratic. However, this engagements with India clarified my mind quite a bit and allowed me to think through: I could see perhaps how to make a new beginning, both personally and professionally. If it needed persuasion, I am now totally convinced that my original percepts about the Indian opportunity was not misguided. It needed more on the ground engagement, and for that, adequate resources. This is why I am convinced that I have made the right decision.

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