Sunday, June 25, 2017

To Change The Conversation

My attempts to write a true Sunday Post failed in the past. 

I started this blog to maintain a scrapbook of ideas, as I live through my immigrant life (which, presumed I, would only be a temporary phase). But the overarching priorities of the migrant life - to 'prove' myself - soon took over. Over time, this blog became more like a 'billboard', an advertising space, an extended CV of sorts, where I, somewhat desperately, wanted to show off and make a point. Indeed, all that was counter-productive: Experts write papers, not blogs. But it is that the charm of expertise, even if limited to occasional recognition by complete strangers through my blog, which subverted my motivation. This is what I want to undo now.

It is important to undo this for several reasons, but primarily as I change myself. At this very moment, I am at the end of one journey and embarking on another. It has been three years that I stepped out of my boot-strap enterprise and got into working for another organisation. This brought financial stability, at least for a while, which I needed after the two years of living off my savings. This also gave me exposure to the world of American start-ups, with a different set of possibilities and challenges than I had known thus far. And, the experience was decidedly mixed - I learnt a few things but a lot more of what is not to be done - and I have finally, and irreversibly, reached a point when I must move to the next phase of life. This means all change, including what I do with my writing.

One of the troubles of writing the blog for projecting expertise is that this means rejecting honest thoughts. The obsession with who is going to read this, which comes with public sharing of the posts on platforms such as LinkedIn, leads to scrubbing the posts of any personal emotions or feelings, even about work matters or professional fields, and this was creeping into my writing. So, as I decided to draw a line on the work front and embark on a different set of activities and ambitions, I decided to make this blog very different: No more sharing on LinkedIn or Facebook (though the link on the signature panel of my personal email will stay) and to turn to posts of more personal nature, going back to what this blog was meant to be. 

I know it is time for me to be 'unprofessional'. I chose to write this blog as I wanted to write - let go of the conversations that I so often have with myself. The concerns about professional 'projection' were totally corrupting, therefore. In a way, it was laziness: I did not want to write different posts for different platforms. It was also the obsession with visitor numbers on this blog that made me share different things that I write all on this platform. Changing this blog today - as I intend to do - would mean letting go of all that. Quite a change, but I am feeling upto it.

I feel so because I feel stuck. I would not call this a midlife crisis - because I know what I want to do and where I get to next - but something like a professional deadlock: I am doing something that I no longer enjoy. Also, I feel ready to return to the project I abandoned three years ago - the network of creative schools - and I shall return to it without wasting any more time. Indeed, I have been exploring these ideas for a while, connecting up with people and experimenting with models, but what kept me from doing it is my intent to complete the current job at hand. Lately, though, I reached a point when I realise that I can't make much of a difference - in fact, I am currently being employed not to make a difference but so that I don't try to make one! The excuses I have given to myself for carrying on - that I am learning - are well beyond their validity date, and I have truly reached the time when I must commit fully.

Such a change - from being a passenger to taking charge - means that I must first attempt to be more honest with myself. This involves risks, but I have had a risk-averse three years and that did not, in the end, improve where I was. Making this blog more personal and honest is the first step, and hopefully, this will permeate into all the things I do and say in the coming days.

To start, I am committing myself to a 100 day project. This has worked for me in the past, when I needed to change course and transform my habits. This is about living differently for 100 days, and keep track of the attempts and outcomes as I go along. This is what I turn to now, and hopefully I can record my progress on this blog as I go along. My current 100 day project has a number of objectives, including reading and writing a lot more, living differently and better, and getting started with my creative education project (which would involve several steps, starting with exiting my current job, taking up a few freelance projects successfully and starting up the project by pulling together all the necessary factors and networks). I am conscious that this may not be of any interest to many people who read my blog, and I would hope my more occasional posts on Facebook or LinkedIn would still engage them in some way. I, however, hope to engage with others, whose friendships I enjoy on and offline and who have been a constant presence in everything I did over the last several years, without whom there will be less dream and less meaning in my life.

 


Friday, June 23, 2017

Reforming Indian Higher Education: All Change Please

Indian Higher Education needs reform, and urgently. The post-Independence system of education, built on the edifice of the colonial structure, largely made of State-owned and State-supported colleges and universities, largely failed to create the publicly minded citizenry it was set up to educate. Even its elite segment, set up at great public cost and access to which were tightly controlled through nationwide aptitude tests, and which has created a large number of Silicon Valley millionaires (and some billionaires of repute), fell short in terms of the local impact: As China powers itself into Higher Education, creating not just highly ranked universities but also stealing the march on technological innovation, the shortcomings of these institutions have become as apparent as ever.

But this is not all: The reform is needed because attempts at reform have failed. The wave of privatisation since 2006, encouraged by the state and the central governments in India, has created a system without a purpose, a huge mass of vocational institutions with a very tenuous connection and understanding of the Labour markets handing out degrees. These institutions, meant to build the 'knowledge economy', have in fact crowded out all serious attempts at Higher Education innovation. The expansion did more harm than good as it corrupted the regulating institutions, produced unemployable degree holders, froze out good quality Professional Training and most crucially, turned a strategically important sector into a mere instrument of money laundering.

Hence, the current predicament: As globalisation hits reverse gear, Dollar weakens and India's IT Services industry start shrinking, the country stares at a demographic doomsday. Indian youth can be kept busy with Cricket and cows for a while, but not forever: And, as it seems, we are at a point of return of history, when the failure of education - particularly Higher Education - has endangered the Republic. Indeed, powerful interests resistant to change still defines the Indian Higher Education policy, but one would hope that the employment crisis, a present and clear challenge, represents the penny-dropping moment, Higher Ed's equivalent of balance-of-payments crisis of the 90s, which opened up the Indian economy.

Sensing that the new private expansion has gone wrong, the government's policy in the last few years was to actively implement the rules and shut things down. It has forced a number of institutions to close, discouraged international partnerships and effectively disbanded the large and profitable distance learning industry that sprung up in India. These changes are welcome, as the free-for-all market was effectively turning into a 'market for lemons', driving out honest operators. But in its zeal to stamp out malpractice, the government has eliminated whole sectors and discouraged activity in key areas, such as foreign partnerships and online learning. And, indeed, all this has only strengthened the vested interests, cartels which control the land and own many institutions, as they saw off challenge from the upstarts and business-as-usual was reaffirmed.

However, not doing something new is hardly the panacea the Indian Higher Education system needs. Neither is piecemeal reform of any value, when the whole system is in crisis and tinkering with agencies and their mandates are equivalent to arranging deck-chairs on a sinking ship. Like the balance-of-payments crisis swept aside decades old systems of economic management, this moment allows the perfect pretext for root-and-branch change. The reform that Indian Higher Education needs now should start with the basic questions, and encompass the whole structure.

These basic questions are the ones that relate to the key issues that India faces, like globalisation, technology, environment, citizenship and the like. However, there are deeper issues that must also be confronted first. The key problem of Indian policy-making is that its Government does not trust its citizens but it has to still somehow work inside a democratic framework. The lack of trust prevents consultation and simple policies; the democratic imperative means that each policy needs to satisfy everyone by other means. Hence, even simple policies are made complex, and the Government wants to micromanage everything, even implausible ones. One should only look at the General Sales Tax (GST), which will be rolled out in India in a few days time: Though it is meant to simplify life, the bureaucrats can't just let go - Restaurant food, for example, has three separate rates (5% for small restaurants, 12% for standard ones and 18% for those with AC) - even though they have no realistic hope of managing the classifications right or making them fair. I bring this up as I believe the issue of Trust is fundamental in reforming the Indian Higher Ed. Currently, the regulators and the institutions are locked in a hide-and-seek game, and the approach is punitive. No one is going to try anything worthwhile unless this environment changes. 

Then, indeed, there is this question of globalisation. India wants to be a beneficiary of globalisation - that India will supply a quarter of world's workforce in a few years' time is the Prime Ministers' stock quote (and perhaps his best hope of avoiding social unrest) - but it has been deeply protectionist in its approach to Foreign Universities. This can not go on, if India really has to attract investment and projects, and build an world-class education system. Indeed, the problem so far has been that the Indian government wanted to micromanage which institutions can operate in India etc., and failed miserably: Indian students are flocking into universities abroad, and bootleg degrees have thrived in India. The government came up with ridiculous proposals all the time - limiting access to Indian market to certain ranked universities is one of them - rather than arriving at some basic principles. And, as I mentioned above, one of these principles should be that any guideline should be transparent and practical, something simple such as that an institution needs to be fully accredited in its home country to be able to open a campus in India, rather than getting into the details such as the university has to be one of the world's top 400 (raising questions such as which ranking table, why that table and not something else and what happens if the university is within top 400 at the time of application but outside it when it starts operation). 

Apart from creating a trust-based, simple and practical policy environment for Higher Education, any reform also has to address the basic issues about the purpose of education in India. This is no way a quaint issue, given that India is perhaps one of the most unequal and one of the most divided societies in the world. A society can hardly function if its members lack even the basic civic-mindedness, and remain closeted in their little worlds of work and family solely. And, yet, this is the building principles of the Indian education system, which has borrowed this from the Colonial, utilitarian roots. It is likely that such a grand question will never be addressed in reform initiatives arising out of a pure economic context, as it is now, but this has a clear economic consequence: India's dependence on foreign trained leaders, for its institutions, enterprises and social activities are going to continue till Indian institutions are changed and their purposes are revisited.

In conclusion, I am suggesting that India needs urgent and deep reform of its Higher Education system. This reform needs to be radical and all-encompassing, and this is not just about this curriculum or that curriculum. In fact, if anything, this reform needs to start from a point that there is no single answer to the job at hand, and the objective of the reform must be to encourage innovation - in different fields and forms - by introducing clarity, practicability and fairness in the policy framework. Despite many disappointments in the past, I remain optimistic that such reforms will perhaps happen, if simply because the alternatives are so grim.






Monday, June 19, 2017

EdTech And Culture

Education will be transformed by technology, but not until the technologists have fully appreciated the Culture question.

This is EdTech's blind spot. Culture is 'soft' - it is hard to capture in a spreadsheet - and yet Education is a 'cultural activity', deeply embedded in the society that surrounds the learner and constantly informed by its history. Tech, on the other hand, at least in its modern, global, incarnation, wants to be culture agnostic: Its quest for scale is intricately linked to its ability to operate culture blind.

The EdTech businesses fail to account for culture for more reasons than just its inherent claim for scale. They also assume technology is used in an uniform way, despite all evidence on the contrary. The users almost always adapt technology to their own purpose, rather than changing their habits to suit what the technologists originally intended, but such ideas are not welcome in technology circles addicted to the idea of 'habit-forming' technologies. Besides, one believes technologies would 'disrupt', but often leaves what is to disrupted in the realm of conjecture: The technology disruption is often assumed to play out similarly across sectors, for example, similarly in FinTech and EdTech, regardless of the sectoral differences.

This is also partly because the term 'culture' is misunderstood. Peter Drucker may have thought Culture would eat Strategy for breakfast, but he meant Company Culture, and this is the sense the modern EdTech entrepreneurs are comfortable with. For them, after technology, company culture is the great leveller: An outstanding company culture is expected to be the cultural answer to everything. Here, of course, by culture, I mean the culture of the marketplace, the assumptions consumers operate with. In the world of supply-side cultural thinking, the demand-side culture is often deemed unimportant.

But culture matters, and greatly. I learnt my lessons through my deep disagreements, but eventual enlightenment, regarding how we teach Chinese students. When I started U-Aspire, the idea was to create a 'blend', synchronous online lectures combined with hands-on project work at location, and I spent time and money figuring out how to implement this model in China, which emerged as our market. But when my Chinese partners, who eventually took over the project, implemented it, they reduced it to a sequence of recorded videos and readings, much to my dismay about the stripped down educational experience that this would mean. However, this was not just about technical feasibility (online conferences are a challenge given China's Great Firewall), but also what the students wanted. In fact, I can see now that the students like Recorded Lectures more than Synchronous interactions, because of the way they are used to learn. So, as a matter of admission, I have had my brush with demand-side culture, and it was a humbling experience.

There is also another thing that I am learning in my current work. What I do now is to offer 'Experiences' to students. The essential idea is that people learn best through application, and conventional Higher Education does not offer its learners any opportunity to apply their knowledge. The 'experiences' we offer - projects of different levels of exposure and complexity - allows the students to work hands-on, in groups, with clear deadlines and deliverable, just as the real life work will be, accumulating a 'score' as they go along. This option allows learners to start building a CV even before they have started working.

This is like 'Internships', as I often get told, but more accessible across locations and social classes (see my take on Internships here). And, indeed, it is easy to assume that this will work everywhere, regardless of the country and culture. However, after watching the model for a considerable period of time, I have come to appreciate an important issue of demand-side culture. The best way to describe it is to use a theoretical model that Erin Meyer of Insead uses, the distinction between Application First and Principles First culture. Professor Meyer's idea is indeed limited to the context of persuasion, but I shall claim that it applies to the broader context of knowledge and understanding, and therefore, to what I am involved in. 

Briefly, in some cultures, one learns by internalising the principles first; in some others, they learn through application, making mistakes, and learning general principles in the context. As an illustration, in some countries, language learning would start with grammar and vocabulary, getting into sentence construction only later; but in other places, one would start with attempting to speak and make sense - just as I am doing in my attempt to learn German on Duolingo - with the support mechanisms, which will be gradually withdrawn. From one vantage point, the other approach may look dated or accidental; but this is what demand-side cultures of learning are all about.

Applied to the context of my own work, people anticipate and approach 'experiences' differently in different cultures. Regardless of the 'common sense' appeal of the model, and the smart technology underpinning it, some students love being thrown at the deep end of the pool more than others. And, while this issue is clearly visible in terms of 'individual differences' and therefore, factored in constructing the 'score', there are clear macro-cultural patterns in this behaviour, which not only makes the experiences less enjoyable, but also the 'score' culturally biased and therefore, less reliable.

Issues such as these, I shall contend, need more attention in EdTech than it has done so far. This is relevant across industries, true, but even more so in EdTech; and particularly sensitive as we attempt to assess and grade people. It may be regarded as a 'soft' issue, but we are indeed allowing it, through ignorance, to seep into our hard data and scientific judgement. And, indeed, ignorance of this undermines our business models on a daily basis. 






Sunday, June 11, 2017

India and Its History

One big conversation in India is about its resurgence, of its getting back to Global top table. However, the very conversation also indicate an admission of a fall, that there is a period of Indian history that is not that glorious. There is no consensus about the history of the fall, though: For some, the ignominy commenced with the Islamic conquest a thousand year ago, for others this started with the Colonial period in the Eighteenth Century. But everyone interested in India and its supposed resurgence must at some point or the other face this question of History: Why did a supposedly great civilisation succumb so easily to invaders from outside?

There are some conventional answers. The most obvious one is the diversity of India, that India is not really one country. However, while this may be the conventional answer, there is little agreement on what this really means. The thesis, originating mainly from British Colonial historians, positioned India as merely a geographical entity, without a clear political or cultural identity of its people. This view basically disregards any previous history of a political union, under kings such as Vikramaditya, Ashoka or Kanishka, or even under the Great Mughal emperors of later years. The argument simply is that there was no India - 'India is as much a country as the Equator', said Churchill - and it is the British who really made India into a nation, a political entity. As one would expect, the Indian Nationalist Historians reject this view, point to the long civilizational history of India, and, by way of explanation of decline, point to temporal political disunity - various Hindu kings withholding support to Prithwiraj Chauhan or the Imperial Musical Chair after the death of Aurangzeb - as the reason why India succumbed to invasions. 

The problem with this latter thesis is that while this may explain particular defeats - Nadir Shah's conquests in India, for example - temporary lack of leadership is hardly explanation enough for the long dominion and fundamental recasting of the society under the British (or earlier Islamic invaders). Some Indian Historians have attempted to explain these by theorising that India is an 'accommodative civilisation', it has absorbed those invaders in its own culture and made them its own. This view, idealistic as it is, has its own problems: It may fit some earlier invaders, nomads who settled in India, but not the more recent ones: The English exploited India through its divisions - by making the religious differences an instrument of state policy and institutionalising caste - and, at least in context, India embracing diversity sounds very much like an act of submission.

However, the bigger problem with this 'diversity-as-the-weakness' argument is what it leads to: The idea of an 'one nation' India. This is more a political than a racial stance (as it was in Germany, for example), but it is still a romantic quest for Indianness, something that had to be constructed disregarding India's very obviously diverse History. As India's post-independence Republican experiment falters, the arguments against diversity - and by extension, against the Indian form of democracy - are back in conversation. 

This very turn points to the other plausible explanation why India, despite its great scientific and cultural achievements, strong and innovative rulers and a clear sense of political identity, might have succumbed to invasions ever so often: Due to its lack of history! Despite its kings and extensive administrative system, India's tradition of recording and writing history is somewhat weak, with some notable exceptions. Great Emperors such as Akbar might have commissioned some histories, but for much of India, myths had to fill the gap. The discovery of even the great kings and events, of Samudragupta, Kanishka, Pala Kings and various other Hindu kingdoms, had to wait the archaeological works of early Colonial officials in the Asiatic Society. For much of the time and most of the people, Indian history consisted of the stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Much of Indian historical consciousness was shaped by commentaries by visitors, first from the Arab world and then the Europeans starting with the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, and for many Indians, the epics and their symbology remained true history even to this day.

So, the Indian Prime Minister discussing the achievements of mythical science (for example, a flying chariot that the King of the Gods rode on as a historical thing) and the politics centered around the birthplace of Lord Rama (a mythical character and hero of an Indian epic) are very real factors in Indian politics, even to this day. It is not the absurdity of it that I resent though: They point to a historical amnesia that has been the feature of Indian culture for a very long time. And, this, rather than India's diversity, should be seen as the key reason why India failed to defend itself so many times: People without histories often have nothing to fight for.


 





Saturday, June 10, 2017

UK General Elections: Reconfiguring The Politics of The Centre

As one of my correspondents accurately pointed out, responding my earlier post on UK General Elections, one big loser on the 8th June was Centrist politics. The Labour Party, under a now secured Mr Corbyn, is likely to move further to the Left, just as the now insecure Theresa May, living on the support of the reactionary DUP, is likely to move further to the right. The Blairite domination, which moved the Labour Party to the Centre is well and truly over, and the Compassionate Conservatism of Cameron is now a distant memory.  

As someone who celebrates the end of Careerist politics, I should perhaps welcome this. But I acknowledge Centrist Politics is more than just a Careerist ploy. At a time when Britain faces existential questions - and the Post-War World System is endangered - the ability of politicians work with each other is crucial; polarisation of politics does not help in these circumstances. And, besides, it is perhaps time to revisit the categories of Right and Left, as the issues facing Estates General in 1789 were very different from what we, facing a world of intelligent machines, financial integration and unprecedented climate challenges, have to deal with. Ideology, as it was conceived in the long Nineteenth century, may not have the answers when we don't even really know what is at stake.

On a more practical context, and despite the reconfiguration of UK Politics, however, there are many people for whom Centrist policies have more to offer. The current political conversation, working along the dividing lines of Right and Left, presents the issues in a discreet fashion: Do I care for NHS or not? Do I want Lower Taxes? What's my view on immigration? Am I a Remainer or a Leaver? etc. There is nothing wrong in discussing these issues, but focusing individually on one or the other undermines the connection between the big questions at hand. If I want a functional NHS at an affordable cost to the exchequer, do I not need more immigration? If I look for more social cohesion and ethnic minorities better integrated, should I not prefer state schools to work better? If I think the Government finances to be more robust, should we not be talking about a reasonable tax structure? Despite being very aware of the interconnectivity of the world, and interdependence of the issues, we commit ourselves to hard, purist and absurd stances. In short, we keep replaying the old politics hoping that it would come up with new answers.

Given this context, Liberal Democrats could offer that balancing platform that we need. The party is recovering from the friendly assassination by David Cameron. In fact, the Lib Dem experience in the Coalition government is both a model of centrism and its potential pitfall. However, with careerism receding, the Party now may find that there is a political space of public conversation, and one can create a viable political alternative without necessarily being in the Government or leading the opposition. The outcome of the election may lead to a hollowing of the political centre, but the mandate in itself - the desertion of the UKIP and SNP by the voters, for example - was a mandate for centrist politics. 

The Lib Dems, who recovered some seats (and lost a key one), ran on a poorly conceived idea of reversing Brexit. The one problem Liberals always had is their patronising approach to the people: Sure enough, they were offering 'the people' a chance to reverse their mistake. Indeed, no one cared sufficiently about having another referendum, tired as the electorate is with this annual election calendar. And, besides, by focusing themselves on Brexit, a specific issue, the Lib Dems missed the great opportunity of pointing out the big mistakes of other political parties - that we need a joined up approach instead of piecemeal solutions. 

I am hoping that in the coming days, with Tory politics splitting itself up (the Scottish Tories and DUP being perpetually in battle with one another), this new politics of public conversation will open up. Hopefully, the Lib Dems would develop a better appreciation of their opportunity to create a politics of public conversations. I look forward to those interesting times.

 

Friday, June 09, 2017

UK General Elections: Counting the Losers

 UK General Elections are over. 

It is hard to say who has won. The Party with most seats in Parliament is looking very much the loser, and the Party which came second, now three elections in a row, is arranging Victory Parties. The Prime Minister, who is likely to continue, seems to have lost; the Opposition Leader, who would not perhaps get to try to form the Government, seems to have won.

It is equally intriguing to figure out who really have lost last night. Indeed, the mood, in a particular section of the population, is all doom and gloom: They are going on TV and proclaiming that the country has lost in a whole. They are looking at the hung parliament and claiming that it is a bad thing, because markets don't like uncertainty. That is obviously nonsense: Markets exist because they are the most efficient mechanism to price uncertainties, and if everything was certain, we wouldn't need markets at all. And, indeed, if they are trying to tell us that we should have electoral outcomes to please financial markets - which is exactly what they are trying to tell us - then that is putting the cart before the horse and only a short step away from getting rid of democracy altogether.

But there were indeed losers in the General Election and I shall highlight three in particular.

First, the media and its pundits, who were visibly astounded even looking at the Exit Poll. Their big surprise is that they do not understand the type of politics that Corbyn represents. All through the night, Pundit after Pundit, Chart after chart, were presented in feeble attempts to understand the 'Labour Surge'. Democratic politics, for many, have become a simple game of segmentation and personalisation, patterns and trends. The other politics, of actual people and their concerns (Brenda from Barnet has become a meme), were ruled out, till it surfaced back with a vengeance. The commentators desperately retrofitted explanations - disciplined campaign, May's gaffes, young voters - except the one that made sense: Corbyn is authentic, and people have responded to authenticity. And, let's be clear: The media and Pundits lost not only because they did not see it coming, but because they can never bring themselves to accept it. It is an existential problem for them: People have found their own voices, rather than being driven by what they, the experts, told them to do. They were not just wrong last night; they proved themselves to be irrelevant.

Second, the Career Politicians. It is not just the Blairites of the Labour Party, whose ideology-free professional politics were founded on career considerations, but also those on the other sides, who were battling a surge of engaged voters. In my own constituency, the Conservative MP held on for about seven years, hinging his career on keeping his bosses happy rather than representing his constituents: He lost his seat handsomely last night for a surge he can not explain. The idea that democracy is about managing an apolitical electorate through suave messaging looked inadequate last night.

Third, the politics of identity, that of endlessly dividing the electorate on the basis of their group identity, took a beating. The nationalist party in England, UKIP, virtually disappeared overnight; the Scottish Nationalists (SNP) struggled to hold on. The SNP remained the biggest party in Scotland, but they will return to Westminster much chastised, many of their leading lights lost in the election and their hope of a Second Independence Referendum in ruins. In Wales, too, the Welsh parties made no headway. The smaller groups, like British Hindus or Muslims, failed to make an impact, even in marginal constituencies (like Croydon Central), as those were no longer marginal with the surge of politically engaged voters voting on the basis of issues. 

One last point, though. the 'shock' results of Britain may sound like a Trump victory, but it is exactly the opposite. First, no one has really won. Second, this is not about electoral college and some such mechanic: This is about a surge in popular engagement and vote. Third, unlike Trump's election, this is not about big data and sophisticated campaigning. Fourth, this was not about identity, as Trump's campaign was. And, finally, we vote in Britain in the old-fashioned way: So there was no Russian fiddling here. The only similarity was perhaps that the media got it wrong, which is more about the media than about the actual politics. 

Thursday, June 08, 2017

The Strange Case of British Hindu Vote

The British Hindus, particularly the first generation ones, vote Conservative. 

This is strange, because most of them, yours truly included, are in this country because of the Immigration Policy of Labour Governments under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. In fact, the successive Conservative Governments, with Theresa May as the Home Secretary and then the Prime Minister, made things difficult for Indians to come to Britain. And, even if the later changes may not have affected people who are already in the UK, it did affect their ability to bring their parents and relatives. And, yet, the community remains decidedly Conservative, and Anti-Labour.

Indeed, there are strong reasons with which the preference for Conservatives could be explained. The First Generation immigrants are relatively young - so they use public services such as the NHS less - and they have little engagement in the wider community to have any first hand experience of deprievation. They are also likely to fall in the middle bracket of earnings. Many of them also work in the City, and despite their own positions being limited to IT departments, they are in thrall of the Investment Bankers who they treat as models of aspiration: They love to vote Conservative as that makes them belong to the same community, at least for a few days. Other members of the community is also into professions, Lawyers, Doctors, Accountants and IT Workers, and this makes them more likely to be averse to Labour's Tax-and-Spend politics, and closer to Low Tax Conservatives.

And, yet, Conservative Party was cracking down on this very segment lately, closing the tax loopholes on contracting - which many of them use - and making it harder for small landlords, many of whom are British Indians. Besides, at least this time, the Conservative Manifesto indicates that the taxes will rise, as the earlier manifesto promises of tax freeze has been conspicuously dropped. The proposed rise of National Insurance is also going to affect this same community, as many British Hindus are self-employed (though a larger number of British Pakistanis are).

These policies have made the Indian community slightly less committed to Conservatives, and yet, there is one strong reason that the community can't vote Labour. This is primarily because the Labour is perceived to be close to Muslims, an impression that was strengthened with Sadiq Khan's elevation as London Mayor. It did not matter that one of the most prominent deputies of Mr Khan is Rajesh Agarwal, a first generation Indore-born immigrant from India who is a Fintech entrepreneur. It is Mr Khan's Pakistani heritage which bothers the British Hindus more than any other issue.

British Indians traditionally voted Labour because of the traditional affinity of the minority community with the internationalist left politics. The influx of the professional migrants since the late 90s has changed that equation. But the limitation of labour strategy with the community was to see it through the prism of class, rather than identity. The Labour strategists somehow overlooked the fact that first generation Indians often import their politics for India: They are more sensitive to religious and caste politics, something which Conservative Party exploits.

Consider, for example, the legislation against Caste discrimination at workplace. The Hindu Caste system, which generations of British commentators considered scandalous (though the British Colonial Administration used it as an instrument of state policy in India), is very much alive and well in Twenty-first century British workplaces. Gordon Brown's Labour Government alienated the British Indian (Hindu) community first time when it tried to bring legislation to outlaw caste discrimination (just like discrimination on the basis of Age, Gender, Disability, Race, Religion and Sexual Preferences are). Many British Indian MPs of the Labour Party opposed the legislation, as did the Conservative Party, purportedly on the basis of opposing 'more legislation' but primarily to pander the British Hindu community whose votes they wanted.

And, this continues. Much of the Conservative campaign technique was to pander identity issues of the British Hindu community, going to the extent of circulating, on social media, images of alleged leaflets being distributed in Muslim communities supporting Labour. Indeed, no such leaflet was finally found, and the organisation distributing them turned out to be unrelated, but the Conservative strategy for British Indians remained strongly identity-based. Part of this conversation how friendly David Cameron was with Mr Modi, somehow whitewashing the long history of hostility of Conservative Party to India.

Indeed, British Hindus matter less in UK elections than they think they do. They make the second biggest immigrant community after the Polish and one that has a right to vote because of the Commonwealth heritage, but they are too concentrated in certain areas to have an overall impact. Their numbers, about 800,000 including those of Indian ancestry, are also smaller than British Muslims, which is around 3 million. Both parties indeed treat them as a constituency specific vote bank, with little leverage in overall policy but somewhat pandered before and during the election periods. That the community is susceptible to identity politics makes it even weaker, as it is unable to construct bridges with other communities to create a common politics of the immigrants. 

Indeed, if the Conservative Party wins a big majority in today's election, the impact of Hindu vote will be marginal: Of far more consequence will be the millions of UKIP voters who would switch to Conservatives in the hope of keeping Britain white and isolated. Immigrants of Indian origin voting for Conservatives are likely to find themselves isolated, and in the receiving end of more legislation aimed at curbing immigration, rights of contractors, small landlords and the self-employed. Their wishful thinking about India getting a special treatment from Brexit Britain is likely to be misplaced too, as the Conservative Party will be harder on immigration (because of UKIP votes), which is India's central demand for a free trade agreement.

But, then, who would tell Turkeys that Christmas is a really bad idea? 


The Battle Against Human Rights

President Trump wants to withdraw from the UN Convention of Human Rights. Theresa May in Britain is promising to sweep aside Human Rights legislation. The governments in France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe are coming under pressure every day to suspend Human Rights obligations and deal with terrorism with a firmer hand. Saudi Arabia, which regularly chops off hands and heads, and cane and imprison women for the crime of being raped, made it to the UN Council for Human Rights. Israel, which has a habit of bombing at random to teach Palestinians a lesson, is seen as a model state by many, despite the very logic of Israel being founded as a protection against state terrorism. And, all this is happening with middle classes, including those from Minority and Immigrant communities, cheering on.

This is a great paradox, but reasons are not difficult to understand. The idea of Human Rights became a central element of Post-War order because of the horrific experience of the Second World War. Now that history has supposedly ended, the memory is being fast discarded (not surprisingly, Europe is clinging on it as it suffered the most). At a time when voters are looking for a more muscular state, the idea of Human Rights, something sacred and above and outside the powers of Governments of the Day increasingly looks like an aberration.

And, while it is strange that the immigrants and minorities, people who are most likely to suffer when the idea of inalienable Human Rights is undermined, are enthusiastic about its demise. There are several reasons for this. For the migrants from ex-colonies and theocratic and various authoritarian states, there may not have been an experience of inalienable human rights in the European enlightenment sense. And, they have even less of the historical memory of the European wars which made the idea of Human Rights so central to business of a civilised state.

Besides, the politics of identity has become the staple of electioneering. The messaging, approach and engagement are now carefully designed to prevent engagement in a common public sphere, and instead, has become a game of personalised messages and interests. In this, the idea of a common humanity is rather antithetical. Couched in the motto of tolerance, everyone has become a member of one community or another; patronising celebration of diversity has drowned the idea of a common human essence. A strong state as an overlord, constantly engaged in surveillance of its self-obsessed desire-driven endlessly-indebted populace, who stay away from politics and define themselves by their consumer preference, has emerged as a new ideal. The days of Bill of Rights seem irreversibly over.

But Human Rights is central to democracy. Without human rights, the politics offers an open season for demagogue. Human Rights is not an add-on to Constitutionalism, it is its essential guarantee. Without it, the fearsome powers of the modern state, of surveillance and coercion, can fall in the hands of a Putin or Trump all too easily. Promise the earth, divide the electorate, win the vote and then carry out your agenda: Hitler exploited the contradiction of Weimar Constitution all too easily and his playbook would be eagerly followed. 

We say we need to suspend Human Rights to deal with the terrorists. We miss the point: In fact, all these mindless terror attacks - by people with kitchen knives and lives to spare - are all designed to encourage us to destroy human rights. The terrorists do not win when a few people ram a van into a crowd; they win when we turn ourselves into a military state and pave the way for a Dictator. They want us to self-destruct. And, it seems we are becoming ever keener to oblige.

     

Democracy and Its Enemies

Democracy is endangered, from itself. Or, more specifically, myths about democracy is now threatening the continuation of the democratic system.

Myth, such as that modern democracy is a top-down product, something that enlightened aristocrats gave to the masses. This narrative is sustained by all sorts of symbols, like Magna Carta, that make democracy a gift of the few to the many.That there would have been no democracy without the King's severed head in Place De La Concorde. The point is that it is not something that was handed out; it was fought for, and earned by the many from the few.

This understanding is relevant today as democracy faces an encroachment from special interests, particularly in the aftermath of the 2007 Financial Crisis. The Great Recession has not, as one would like to believe, loosened the grasps of special interests on policy; quite the contrary, it has strengthened it. The policy of loose regulation has continued, just that Banks and Financial Institutions have now earned guarantees of the tax payers so that next crisis would affect the treasuries rather than Banks. To bring about such a radical change in Finance, democracy had to be undermined; and it has been.

So, when we look for Islamic Radicals as enemies of democracy, we are looking at the wrong place. Democracy's threats are from inside, very much from the Anglo-Saxon politics. There are indeed the strongmen in Russia, India or Philippines, corrupt overlords in African countries or the perverse theocracies in Iran and Saudi Arabia, all of whom want to get rid of democratic institutions and go back in time. But their hands are strengthened by the corrosion of democracy from the inside. And, for this, I shall point to three things in particular.

First, the politics of identity, which the Conservative parties of various countries embraced, either with opportunism or with conviction. The smart political analysts 'segmented' the electorate, playing out messages that they may want to hear. At a time when the promise of middle class life evaporates, and many people are living precariously (giving rise to the word, Precariat, to mean a life on the precipice of becoming proletarians), this neat political strategy of talking about identity at the expense of inequality had paid dividend. But it bankrupted democracy, as there is no one debate on big issues anymore, and therefore no change; democracy has become a big bazaar of special interests.

Second, the primacy of rhetoric, the rise of the suave, the smooth-talking and the good-looking, helped by the power of the video, relegated action to the background. In Ancient Greece, if someone spoke too well, he might have been banished from the city, so that he did not influence others by his oratory to take the wrong course of action; in contrast, the rhetorical celebration of Rome soon perverted the Republic into an Empire. However much we swoon over a Trudeau or a Macron, the style-over-substance democracy is more like a movie, make-believe and disconnected.

Third, the popular exclusion, which the Conservative factions try to achieve endlessly, by tinkering voter registration requirements, redistricting and all that. Many parties want a democratic façade without people really voting, or at least, without the underclasses and the young voting. There is an 'anti-politics' machine at work, with a deeply political agenda: It seeks to keep people busy with day-to-day life, mortgages, taxes, new possessions and celebrity cultures, and out of political engagement. However, this means the young people protest on the streets rather than engaging in politics, and the collective disengagement keeps rising, putting democracy in danger.

Democracy's biggest enemy, therefore, does not come from outside it; it is its own contradictions. The Bankers' State that we live in keeps using its democratic chimera to achieve its anti-people agenda, and encouraged in our sectarian cocoons, we keep voting against any plausible collective interests. But the last word perhaps belong to Abraham Lincoln: "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you can not fool all the people all the time."
You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/abrahamlin110340.html
You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/abrahamlin110340.html
You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/abrahamlin110340.html



Saturday, June 03, 2017

If You Are Going Global, Which Country?

Wrong question, perhaps! Some of the times I asked the question, I got awkward pauses in return. This is a dinosaur question, so dated, reactions indicated: Going global means being on the Cloud, countries are totally irrelevant in this conversation.

As I wrote in an earlier post, Global or Multinational, I think this is one of the big mistakes companies make. Their assumption of flat world is totally off the mark. One has to touch the ground as long as they involve people from different nations as customers. This idea of 'global market', borrowed mostly from the playbook of hedge funds who seem to move money from one place to another seamlessly, does not apply to most businesses dealing with customers. One has to be 'national', multi-national if you like, because markets are national. And, that claim of being on the cloud is based on complete innocence of how marketing and product development work in real life.

Once I get past the mistaken assumption of 'unbearable lightness of business', I usually ask the question again: Which countries?

However, even if the idea that nations are real and they have real bearings on consumer preferences and operating realities, many entrepreneurs have no clue how to choose the countries to focus on. The two criteria most used are where the founder may know someone and, somewhat less frequently, the size of the market. For all the professed love of data and objectivity, for small and medium businesses, chance acquaintances, often unqualified, remain the basis of choice of country to do business in. Size of the market often come a distant second, given the opportunistic, rather than strategic, nature of decision making in this particular decision area.

My point is not that the size of the market is not important. It is very important, but it is the starting point. In fact, it is often used as the empirical justification for accidental decisions, but for a real strategic approach, size of the market should be the conversation starter, before that size is qualified. It also should be mentioned that the size of the market is very difficult to establish, primarily when one is speaking about new products (where one could only guess how many people would buy the product or service) or new price points (size of the market is irrelevant if no one can afford the product).

One approach I would recommend at this point is to qualify the size of the market with the 'complexity' of market entry. To do this, I find Pankaj Ghemawat's framework - CAGE or Cultural, Administrative, Geographical and Administrative Difference - quite handy. Professor Ghemawat, who firmly believes in the persistence of national markets, suggests that the business of country choice is done on the careful considerations about 'distance', of which these are four dimensions. 

The Cultural Distance is well known, and there is a lot of literature on it already. Value systems, ideas of time and space, and ways of doing business vary from country to country. Indeed, there is some stereotyping involved in this, but let's say that it is possible to establish a model of 'normal behaviour' for each country. The problem is many executives are completely unaware of these differences, or worse, they believe cultural differences are peculiarities that are going to go away. This is part of the 'globalization apocalypse' thesis - that all markets would become like metropolitan markets (read US) over time - but the opposite seems to be happening everywhere: Cultures are diverging rather than converging. Understanding the Cultural 'distance', from home to target market of a business, is the starting point of a good 'Going Global' plan.

The Administrative Distance, which is about difference of Legal and Regulatory systems, is somewhat better appreciated, but many CEOs think that this is a matter of choosing good lawyers rather than devising strategies around it. However, it can quickly become problematic: For example, who would really know that transferring Dollars to a Country Representative's personal account may be okay in many countries but not in India, which has extensive Exchange Control mechanisms! One may be aware of Common Law and Civil Law traditions, but rarely we factor these in assessing which markets are most attractive for business, considering this is something which 'lawyers will sort out'. But this creates a 'distance', in ways of doing business, writing contracts, doing partnerships etc, which are day-to-day considerations of an enterprise.

The Geographical Distance is neglected for an altogether different reason: Because it is too obvious. But we know geographical distance matters, because countries are not just neatly drawn blobs of colour on a two-dimensional map, but they are about a million overlaps and interactions, exchanges, Diasporas and commonalities. Usually, countries trade more with their neighbours more than others (this is the problem with the argument that UK would offset any lost trade with EU by trading more with its global partners). The countries with poor relations with its neighbours - think of African nations or India - are working within a self-imposed field of constraint.

The final aspect, the Economic Distance, gets some consideration in strategy making. This is about looking at differences in Ability to Pay, Per Capita Income and factors such as these, but most companies would have a very superficial idea about these. The culprit in this case are indeed those over-excited reports that the consultancies bring out, often paid for by a national or regional development agency, which highlight the best case scenarios (and keep the rest for fine print). The whole world got excited about India's 300 million strong Middle Class, therefore, and completely overlooked the fact that someone with $5 a day may be considered Middle Class in India (compared to $20 a day benchmark in developed nations). 

In summary, a strategic approach to Market Opportunity should start with an appreciation of size of the market qualified by the 'Distance' followed by question 'Do I know someone there', rather than the other way around. Such an approach would also allow better planning of resources - a big and complex market like India may justify its own strategy and investment unlike some more familiar markets - and can save a lot of headache later. However, the starting point of all this is to abandon the 'globalisation illusion' that many companies remain enthralled with.

 

  


Friday, June 02, 2017

Global or Multinational?

There was a way of developing a business: A company captured its local market first and then went abroad. Indeed, we are excluding Trading Companies such as the East India Company, which was set up as an overseas trade monopoly, and restricting ourselves here to more everyday sort of business. While not comparable to the spectacular rise and ignominious fall of the East India Company, many other businesses trading globally were spectacularly successful. The pinnacle of the 20th Century corporation was the Multinational Corporation, which attained unparallelled power, prestige and profits. 

But in the Twenty-first century, even this shining example of business success is considered dated. 'Global' took place of 'multinational'. The usual model of building advantages in the home market before venturing abroad fell out of favour and we had born-global start-ups instead. And, a decade into the new millennium, this idea has spread from the domains of purel on line services - such as-Google or Facebook - to everywhere, from Finance to Education, to Dating and Taxi-Hiring. The underlying idea is nations do not exist, regulations are a necessary bureaucratic evil living on borrowed time and there is a thing such as 'global consumer'.

My contention is that this view - withering of national boundaries in business - is not empirically sustainable. Even if one looks at Google, a very global service, one would see the Indians, the Chinese, the Brits and the Americans, all in their splendidly specific preference of searches, but no 'global consumer'. However, we look to create boundariless global flow of capital, and see the illusions of destiny in the formless model of Bitcoin, even Finance and money remained resolutely national. The architecture of Trust remains closely wedded to the tangible and known, education remains culturally driven and defined, work and labour markets vary along the national lines and most of the people, Middle classes more than others, remain staunchly loyal to their national and ethnic roots. Just as a French Royalist once said, that he saw the French, the Italian, the Spanish and even the Persian, but 'no Man', the global market for middle class exists only in the dreams of rootless world of colour-free money.

Pankaj Ghemawat of IESE calls the flat-world illusion many of the Start-ups engage into a 'globalization apocalypse', an ideological position with little semblance of reality, and yet, this is how businesses are thought of today. Everyone, even the multinationals of the previous era, would call themselves 'global', claiming an erasure of national identities just when, as the Daily News will tell us, nationally assertive politics is taking over the world. Worse still are those start-ups, which want to be 'global' in the first place so that they pay no taxes, aim at breaking regulatory structures, which are democratically agreed rules in most countries. They are always disrupting and transforming, with little accountability to anyone except their shareholders, and are blissfully oblivious of the complexities of the cultures and markets, wishing them away as mere inconveniences.

Most of those businesses fail. They may look for reasons elsewhere, but such naiveté is usually the main reason. They insufficiently assess the 'distance' between markets, and have no idea of what Mr Ghemawat would call the CAGE framework (Cultural, Administrative, Geographical and Economic Distance) that should define their choice of and approach to a market. They fill the Board with very similar backgrounds and ideas, and seek to create an open world with a very closed mind. For them, a different culture than their own is merely the lack of enlightenment, and the Indian and the Chinese can only exist until the 'global consumer' in them wakes up. Their investors, often sharing this world view, see the whole world as a spreadsheet, where the profits may magically appear following ratios and multiples, rather than any understanding of preferences or idiosyncrasies.

This apparent self-inflicted mindlessness arise, I shall claim, from two sources. 

First, there is a common bias in favour of expertise over local knowledge, which is seen as a subordinate thing. The cultures of companies and its languages promote expert decision making in companies. To be considered an expert, one needs to speak a certain language, usually in meaningless jargon and replete with numbers, and have to do a lot of spreadsheets. On the other hand, the talk of nuances, rather than generalised models, are seen as, variably, pedantic, academic or sentimental. This divide also emphasise Theory over Practise, big ideas over practical details, birds-eye views over hands-on action. This causes disasters: My favourite example is the kind David Halberstam talked about in his 'The Best and The Brightest', the chronicle of Vietnam era decision making. But companies big and small suffer from this blindness on a day to day basis, and it is often fatal when companies venture out of their home market (which has the least CAGE distance) without having a solid operating base.

Second, it is the culture of money, and particularly, of the post-Gold Exchange Standard of money creation. Money possibly had no colours ever, but in the WTO age, it has become simpler to move capital between markets and the politics have been subservient to global money. It is an illusion to think peoples' lives and preferences would be just as amenable to diktats of money as the pliant politicians in different countries are (even that is changing with the over-reach of global capital), but that is indeed the culture privately funded start-ups inherit very quickly. This is paradoxical, as most VCs would invest only in local business and back entrepreneurs who are culturally familiar, and yet they believe that the business can impact people thousands of miles away without any real engagement, commitment or understanding.

My job, the way I see it, is to make sense of the 'global' phenomenon, working at the fault lines and trying to build strategies with a commitment to the practical, rather than just spreadsheet models. It has been a hard job: Often my pleadings for greater local knowledge were taken for a lack of expertise of more esoteric sort, like writing Excel formula. My deeper commitment to understanding markets have boxed me as a 'country expert', giving me lesser leverage on decision making. My orientation to build deep and long-lasting relationships classified me as 'soft', supposedly unfit for the unemotional world of business decision making. Over the last several months, I intentionally grounded myself to think through these issues - indeed reflect where I would have gone wrong - but came up with the understanding as I stated above: There is something fundamentally wrong about the ideas and rhetoric of the global. As I seek to re-engage in the global markets, I am trying to reinvent my work (some part of it is speaking in acronyms, such as the CAGE) and re-advertise my Excel skills (after endless Excel work during my time at NIIT, I got somewhat tired of it). But I hope to bring some sense into the conversation about the 'Global' even when I am playing the game as it is usually played.







 

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