Beyond the Waves

Reinventing Work, Technology, Community and Governance*
A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What one can be, one must be. Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970).What India (world) can be it must be, if it has to be at peace with itself. We need to reinvent technology, management and governance in the Indian/global context. if we need to be what we must be. We have come to a fork on the road wherein an informed choice is imperative.
When the Tsunami struck the southern coast of India on 26, December 2004, many fishermen on the high seas did not notice what was happening till they returned to the shore. They were awestruck with the devastation, an unpleasant surprise. The recession which is officially recognized as recession now, a year later, is something similar. It was in the making much before. The IT revolution that was driving much of the shine in the country and elsewhere was a similar wave. Many of those who were riding the wave failed to notice the eventual breaking up of the wave. The Enrons, Fannie May, Freddie Mac, Lehman brothers, Morgan Stanley, Madoff and Satyams should prompt us to reflect and go ahead with renewed vigor anticipating the future much better than in the past. What happened after the Tsunami was even more tragic. The relief measures were even more disastrous than the disaster itself, another wave which washed away the developmental lessons painfully accumulated over the years by new dependencies created in the wake of misplaced relief. Much of what we do in the name of bail outs will most likely be creating a similar impact.
The developed countries have been riding a wave for centuries. The emerging markets follow the trend. Since 1991, India has come to be reckoned as one of them. During this phase, bulk of the talent in the country gravitated to the IT sector at the cost of other equally or more vital sectors. Since most of them were riding a wave it was difficult to notice the eventual downturn of the wave and be prepared for the next.. The going was good, and adrenalin packed. By the time floodwaters find the level many will find it difficult to climb down and join the new wave to come, since in the first place they were not trained to climb up. We need to learn from the pitfalls that were swept under the carpet during the earlier waves. Only those fishermen, who manage the ups and downs, reach the shore with the catch, which is also true of farmers, institutions and communities.
The new India was born in 1991. She is past 17 now. As a child which stepped out of the confines of an over protected joint family, she took a few steps which gave it a feel of the world outside. During this adolescence, there has been some groundbreaking learning essential to face the challenges on the new road. We have a National Adolescence Education Programme (NAEP) which recognises the criticality of transcending the learning plateau during adolescence when young people acquire new capacities against the new challenges. A successful resolution is very critical to transformation as an adult. The country now needs to grapple with the issues of adolescence. The learning plateaus are different at different stages of life, as a child, adolescent, adult, the expert and the seniors. Lifelong learning (LLL) is even more relevant to communities, since continual renewal is the key to sustained improvements and performance, which decides the lifespan. Work is love expressed, (Kahlil Gibran). Peter Drucker continued at the forefront of management thought into his late nineties. Many of the corporations ‘built to last’ did not survive even the first wave that came up. Most MBAs do not survive one recession. If we have been expressing our love, through our work, do we stop loving during a crisis’?
There is no better time than a recession to plan for adulthood beginning 2012. Historians will call the period, 2008-12, as The Great Transition, if we do it right. I would like to believe that the country will do it though many adults do not do it. If we manage to pull it off that will be because of a rare maturity in the current leadership in politics and governance who went into these vocations when both were noble causes to fight for. Good politicians are better than bad bureaucrats in dealing with recessions since they go through a recession every 4-5 years. Let us not forget that all of them are in their late fifties to seventies. The recession and the terror strikes should remind us about the role of talent in governance which need to become fashionable once again. Branding is essential for IT, IITs IIMs and governance. There is a greater relevance for it in primary production, at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ (Sic). The recession and the terror strikes keep us reminded of the role of good governance and developmental management. The shift needs to happen at the individual and the collective levels so that the paradigm of survival of the unfit changes to survival of the fittest

Re-Imagining an Indian/global Future
Nandan Nilekani’s Imagining India, is his portrait of the emerging India, from the vantage point of one of those who foresaw the future. To be an Indian is to be a global citizen. If there is one country which resembles the Noah’s Ark, that is India. Every species, every religion and every language is represented here in sufficient measure. It has the size and numbers in all dimensions that it is a veritable Noah’s Ark. It has withstood all the floods in the past and when one digs deep enough, one will find that what has been worth preserving over the course of history is very much alive here. This may not be true of other cultures and communities which have hardly any history to talk about at a large enough scale since nature does not go by our current human scale of time which seldom goes beyond five years. Solutions that emerge out of this context will have global relevance in addressing the single most important challenge of development and quality of life, as reflected in the Millennium Development Goals
More than economics, the demographic dividend is at work behind competitiveness. Whether this dividend turns into a liability or not will depend on how we respond to the challenge of learning and competency development.. While we are well aware of the state of our physical infrastructure and the recession might compel us to revisit the issue, we are yet to address the challenges of the people infrastructure which form the foundation to all other infrastructure. It is only recently that we have begun to see people as resources than a problem. The transformational issues involved in leveraging the advantage remain unaddressed. There is extreme urgency to resolve the challenge to make sure that the dividend does not turn out to be a liability.
I get weekly mail from the transition team of the US President elect. I fail to get a reply from the Head of Organisation Development in one of these ‘IT giants’ when I send them this mail, just to test the waters. The same is true of the NKC, the National Knowledge Commission. All four of these ‘IT giants’ from India put together would perhaps touch 20 % of IBM’s or HP’s global revenues and some of the domestic software outsourcing contracts that went to IBM India was roughly the same size as their individual revenues. My electricity bill is issued every month with a handwritten note on it by the service provider stating if there is any advance paid, pay the bill after deducting the advance and I am a resident of Bangalore city, the IT capital of the country. I am just giving a few examples of how people and institutions leverage technology. Obviously those who use technology as a lever will continue to move the world. For technology to be leveraged people behind the lever need to be in alignment with technology. To cite another example, much before the security agencies began deciphering the GPS, the ‘illiterate’ fishermen on the south coast of the country started using the GPS. Same was true of mobile phones too. Let us also remind us that IT did not save us from the recession, which is but a limitation of how we use technology which has by and large come to be understood as IT by our graduates in technology and the mainstream. Captains of Indian Industry with Ivy League MBAs who have the wherewithal to access the best of technology or management globally have more faith in their astrologers, an obsolete technology which did not do any good to the country for over tw0 thousand years, than in these disciplines. Most engineers too have more faith in the astrologer than in their own designs. In general we have more faith in default than in design. Even when there is a design and strategy, we would like to say “I have been lucky to be successful”. Design is still an infant discipline in the country and ambivalence rather than strategy appears to be a cultural handicap.

The human resource function became synonymous with recruitment and in a recession redefined as retrenchment or pink slips, and development came to be understood as software development. Till now an Infosys or TCS could afford the luxury of learning and competency development, stretching over years that would transform raw graduates to billable resources. The gates are now likely to remain closed for over three lakhs of engineering graduates, most of whom spend 4 years and over 7 lakhs in loans to earn an engineering degree without any assurance that they are employable – the ability to obtain and retain employment when the same is challenged during a recession. In place of the housing sub-prime we are likely to have a sub-prime in educational loans, though this may not be significant enough to cause similar repercussions. We have a system where the brilliance of the IITs and IIMs are outwitted by successful coaching shops which sprouted and established themselves as more successful business models than the IITs and IIMs without the huge investments to create such institutions. Most often, learning and competency development, the core of HR, came to be addressed at a very cosmetic level with theories and models of building the pyramid without a theory about the brick, the basic building unit. The function went through an inversion as reflected in the coinage of terms like hard skills for soft skills and vice versa sweeping aside the Moore’s law and the imperatives that follow from it. People who rode to iconic status on the upswing who had never survived a downturn came to don the hats of venture capitalists, mentors and management consultants. Management consultants downgraded themselves to client interfacing for IT services and software service providers attempted reinventing themselves as management consultants. Consultants talked about people process maturity in their thirties even before facing their own mid – life crisis. The shelf life of most managers came to be established as around 15 years, quite unlike a good professional who is governed by a code of conduct and practices his discipline for life. People who designed product obsolescence and product and organisational positioning could not walk their own talk. Graduates from professional courses could not answer the question as to what is it to be a professional. The cosmetic was taken care of but the content was not.
Finance Capital > Human Capital > Community Capital
Settled agriculture, followed by industrialisation and the information technology revolution were the prominent waves in history which lasted for around 10,000, 500, and 50 years. The fishermen and tribal communities, the eco-system people, belong to an earlier phase who live on community or common property resources. They have been pushed to the boundaries of ‘modern society’ which failed to recognise their silent but essential role as guardians of the eco-system against conventional norms of ROI. Most ot the fish we consume flow from the eco-system people, milk from the farmers, bottled water from industry and the software that keeps me connected from a proto knowledge community which has emerged  out of  the last wave. The fish and milk are cheaper than bottled water sums up the accumulated distortions in the system. While the meltdown continues, Ivy League B- Schools discuss ” If you are smart, why aren’t you rich?” and “How to Build a Professional Image” as if money is the only measure of intelligence and a professional image is more important than being a true professional. We don’t need lot of proof as to the degree of professionalism of the ‘smart managers’ who bothered more about their bonuses than the safety of the ships they were in charge of. As the product is in the process, it is time to revisit the B- Schools and the process through which managers are churned out. I pay $ 50, the equivalent of a month’s income at the “bottom of the pyramid’ for a best seller by an author who has been thrice on the New York Times best seller list. on application of systems thinking in an area of my interest to relearn  that the author’s understanding of the discipline is equivalent to that of a physicist who has only two dimensions to deal with physical reality. He is smart and he will be rich, but next time, I will be wiser. For two weeks, most of my time has been spent on dealing with two MNCs – global giants – to get some support for two of my gadgets that have failed. I keep getting calls to find out  the quality of  my service experience from some agency to which the work has been outsourced ,while I continue to deal with the agony of not able to work without these gadgets. The right arm does not know what the left arm does.
A recession offers a spell of time when we might listen well than when we are riding the waves. The four worlds need to come together as one, as a single eco-system, if we are to transition to the next phase of conscious and continual improvement / renewal, an economy of love’ (?), maturity and the highest respect for each other)
We now know the limitations of the overemphasis placed on finance capital when the paradigm had already shifted to human capital and now to community capital. Yet most of us are still stuck with the maps of these bygone phases, with obsolete maps and tools for a new generation of problems.
The demographic dividend of India is unmatched. The accumulated learning from all three waves need to be leveraged and aligned  for tthe emergence of a knowledge community to recession and future proof  against all the waves to come and to transition into a phase of  sustained continuous improvement. The metrics need to be against emergence of global community and achieving the MDG, decline of cross-border conflicts and terrorism in addition to conventional metrics of growth and development
One success story which demonstrated a very high degree of such integration has been the White Revolution in India though the learning could not be leveraged any further in other contexts. This is also the time to revisit the white, green, blue and the other ‘revolutions’ to bring them together into a rainbow of sustainability for the emergence of better ‘community’. The value of a new generation business plunges to insignificance when the last employee in the graveyard shift walks out of the campus. Microsoft or Infosys were founded more on human and community capital, leveraged by technology than on finance capital, by people who saw the emergence of the new wave three decades ago. Those of them who uphold community, the real value differentiator over short term profitability, will ride the next wave in the making. Most of the talent, who joined the tail end of the wave, went in for no other reason than that it was the in thing to do. There is no need to be perturbed by the recession, if we are able to visualise the unmatched opportunity that it offers. This is the time to move up the value chain as well as to address the challenges of employee productivity. Tools that could address these issues of leapfrogging the downturn could secure the competitive edge that would enable us to ride the next wave. The pink slip holders is an opportunity, not a liability, if we realise that, if we have the tools, they can be turned into resources with the least investment of time and resources because they had the benefit of some real context specific learning. It  is  ironic to use the term real learning, as we use the term real economy and toxic assets. A toxic human asset forms the best recruitment ground for terrorists. With an appropriate strategy, tools and methodology, designing a more desirable future would become feasible. Alternatively, the ‘Troubled Assets Rehabilitation Programme’ could easily become a TRAP. The ground is getting levelled and it is time to visualise the foundation and the superstructure that would be built.
Reality can be sliced in infinite ways. We show miniscule slices of this reality on the post mortem table or on the X, Y axis to the learner on the assumption that she would put them together into a whole. Had the approach been effective the present reality would be altogether different. We cannot expect that more of the same would lead to resolution of the crisis. What brought us here will not take us to where we must be.
The imperative is to evolve an integral pedagogy and practice to address these issues against challenges at the bottom, middle and top of the ‘pyramid’, a technology for Accelerated Learning and Competency Development (ALCD) for SHP. To the man who only has a hammer in his tool kit, every problem looks like a nail. (Abraham Maslow). We certainly need better tools than hammers and screwdrivers in our tool kits.

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One thought on “Beyond the Waves

  1. Pingback: Meta: The post on posts | First Discipline

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