Saturday, August 16, 2014

Conversations 11: The 'Skills' Conversation

I am in India and experiencing a new country from the one I knew last time I lived here, in 2002, as well as very different from the one I experienced when I engaged in 2007. The hope is somewhat muted, the denial is somewhat more obvious and the new India has somehow arrived. It is both sophisticated and coarse: I watched its new Prime Minister deliver the Independence Day speech with great sophistry and touch, but the message he gave out is somewhat nonchalant and pedestrian. His vision for India rested on India grabbing some businesses away from the increasingly expensive China, as the latter finally catch up on Health and Safety and Environmental protection. With rousing language and intense passion, he laid out a case for India which will beat the Chinese in providing cheap labour, and invited the companies of the world to 'make in India'.

I have long given up taking political speeches seriously. However, this particular speech was significant not because of the occasion or for anything that was said, but rather because it represented so succinctly what I was seeing in the new India: A new sleekness backed by little content. Like the new mall in Kolkata devoted to International Brands which fail to accept international credit cards, the telecom companies that boast universal connectivity but advised me to make mobile calls without moving around too much, the big budget movies with sophisticated animation which are mostly shown in slow motion. 

The new consensus, learnt perhaps in the best business schools in the world, is that presentation matters. Perhaps a good thing for the country where utilitarian products and functional bare-minimums were the norm when we grew up, the presentation society seemed to have happened in a space of a mere half-decade. And, it has happened so fast that it has moved out of sync with the ground realities, perhaps by intention: It is perhaps driven by the belief that if you keep saying you are good, you will turn out to be good. This may be staple stuff for management gurus, but not useful when you are out in the field competing with others with less pretensions.

This make-believe world indeed pervade my own area of concern, that of skills. I am told that India is a world leader in skill development, and the Prime Minister did the usual boast saying 'India has the skills'. This is nothing unusual, despite the persistent complaints by the employers that they don't find the right people, for politicians to say that India has the skills. My usual question, whether India is equipping its people with the right skills, usually gets challenged: I shall never forget the business school professor who accused me of being unpatriotic for even bringing up the subject. His point was that if the world is outsourcing all the jobs to India (?), India must have the skills: A somewhat circular construction perhaps popular among the politicians, including the Prime Minister's advisors. 

This 'world leadership' in skills is truly amazing, because the absence of it is perhaps most obvious even to the most casual observer. And, this is not just about Communication and Presentation, as many employers would make me believe. More accurately, India has an hour-glass problem in terms of skills, a sophisticated Senior Management cadre and lots of unskilled staff, but nothing in between: The middle management staff, people to interact and service customers, technical staff who can go beyond procedural work and find creative solutions, are all extremely hard to come by. The lack of customer-facing staff is the most obvious and gets talked about, and the lack of the others don't get noticed because India does not get to the creative end of the work (at least not much). Besides, the rhetoric about being world leader in skills, and shouting down any inquiry into viability of this claim, only allows the problem to get bigger.

As a part of my work, I want to inquire into this claim about Indian skills. I know the leadership in skills is only political rhetoric, used to claim great achievement on the back of a huge spending commitment to train 500 million people over a decade. I have only anecdotal evidence, primarily gathered through comparative observations of the back-office workers in Poland and Philippines, smaller but better skilled countries, and just enough narrative information about India's own skill building initiatives, which, like many other initiatives, appear to be a tale of high rhetoric, wasted money and little impact. However, my current work allows me to gain insights on what's really needed and what's being done. Indeed, I take pride in the work I have done, alongwith my colleagues, in Aptech and in NIIT in the 1990s, to train millions of Indian students in IT skills; I want to know how we collectively lost our way. I am conscious of the risks of such work, because it is at odds with the 'Presentation Layer' of the Indian policy making (which is the only layer which seems to matter), but the risk of no one doing it also too great, as India tries to get 10 million people jobs every year and runs a real risk of wasting the biggest demographic opportunity in many generations into one of the greatest socio-economic disasters. I am also acutely aware that the Indian thinking about the 'skills' is based on steady-state assumptions about the world economy - it is oblivious about technology change and the dynamic of globalisation - and this makes this an even more urgent conversation. If I was looking for a theme to commit to, I have got one now.

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