Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Bigger Battle

Every hour I get new updates of the gruesome gang-rape case in Delhi. Every new bit of information seems to add to the horror of the event. Protests are abound, options for elevating safety are discussed in the parliament, and ways to punish the perpetrators discussed widely on social media. At the other end of the world, a nation reels as 20 children younger than 10 are shot by a gunman on an incomprehensible killing spree. Two acts, difficult to pick which one is worse. But a common theme seems to emerge.

Just as the US parliament debates that taking guns away from people may not be the true solution to repeated occurrences of such crimes, increase of safety and justice to the victim are necessary but not sufficient to bring this national shame to an end.

As the dignitaries discuss in their boardrooms what steps to take, I feel that common people like you and me have a big role to play. Not by going on Facebook and Twitter and expressing disgust, outrage, although I do not mean to say that is unfounded. But by fundamentally changing our outlook towards women in society. If you want to change the world, start by organizing your closet. So here goes a short list of what I feel we must change. The 'we' is emphasized. It is the responsibility of not only men, but women, and children, and parents.

Stop treating sex as taboo

I think this is the most vital step. Throughout India (and a greater part of the world), society is rife with the ill-prudence of keeping sex a hush-hush affair. Parents won't discuss it, teachers discourage it. If I could slap a label on the faces of all these people, it would have hypocrite written over it.

Everybody wants sex. Everybody needs sex. The sooner you accept this, the better. Repressing this fundamental urge incubates a monster in us, men and women alike.

If you are a parent, please stop praying to make nuns and angels of your children. Please stop handholding your teenagers through vulnerable hormone surges. Instead, talk to your children about how to have sex responsibly, to use protection, to avoid diseases. Support live-ins. If your child is old enough, do not divert the TV channel when it flashes news of rape cases - talk to your kid about why this is unacceptable behavior. Uncomfortable as this may sound, this is the only way. Nothing else is going to work. And the outcome will only be worse. From abortions to rapes, you are unknowingly sowing the seeds by not confronting truth head-on.

If you are a young adult, please seek to learn from those who have experience, from a reliable source that cares about you. Not from a random website or a blog. Information that is too free is perhaps equally unreliable. And yes, "bindaas bol.. condom!" Stop being ashamed, be responsible. Your muteness will result in much more shame than you can imagine.

If you are the government, think again about legalizing porn and prostitution. In your attempts to create a "pure" society, have you actually led the path to a worse one? I understand it is a sensitive issue. I understand unwilling victims are trafficked into prostitution, and that requires a crackdown. We have to draw a line. But that line cannot be at zero.

And if you are the media, please stop peppering pointless item songs in movies. By repeatedly displaying a woman as marketable material, not only do you disrespect them, you show them in similar light to the men of the society: meat.

Women are not from Mars

"Kya be, ghar me maa behen nahi hai kya?"

The old adage. Have you ever thought erotically about the fat saree-clad woman? Or your mom, in extension (I know some do, but its pretty rare)? Truth is, rarely do we think ill of the women we see every day. Exchange that for a girl in a top and a tight pair of jeans. Add leather boots and long hair. Make her blonde and fair for good measure. Ooh-la-la, right?

No, my point is not to dictate how women should dress. Au contrare, this is how most real women in the world actually dress. But in our society, we have been relegated to think that respectable (read: non rape-worthy) women dress conservatively. And if its otherwise, it looks so foreign, so different to us, that inherently we feel this is outside our set of defined morals. This is a whole new bird altogether, therefore it is OK to think lecherous.

You and I can overcome this simply by getting used to it. By accepting that women are not from Mars. That beautiful and attractive women live, work and walk among us, alongside us. That we can be friends with them, talk to them just as freely as we would to a friend of the same sex. That there is nothing wrong in our mothers or teachers wearing 'modern' clothes. We need to set our definitions of normal straight.

And if you are a young girl or a parent of the same, please stop running and hiding from guys. Do you ever see kids around 5 years of age treat girls or boys any differently? By repeatedly advertising that you are some alien object, you encourage men to think of women as objects to be hunted down and conquered, not befriended.

Would you marry a raped girlfriend?

I could not have put it more clearly than the header question. Would you? If not, why? And if this was a guy who had a rape charge on him, would you sun him outright, or would you first ask the question "Was he proved guilty?"

More than half of rape victims do not end up injured fatally in a hospital. Most suffer minor physical injuries. The brunt of the blow is emotional, and it is exacerbated by our society's attitude towards a raped woman : "Iski to zindagi barbed ho gayi". In raw-but-honest words, she is 'second hand material' now.

Are kyun bhai? Aurat ki izzat koi chaadar nahi hoti hai ke yun uthaya aur phek diya.

Stand beside those who suffer or have suffered. Give them the feeling that what they went through was a crime whose justice will be meted out, and beyond that everything is, and can be restored to normal. The more you press on the fact that they were raped, the more you keep reminding them that somehow, they are not like us anymore. Its like they have been branded to be different. And this causes the biggest blow and trauma. From family to neighbors to media and women's rights commissions, we are all part of this same game.

And the implication goes beyond that. Is it because any involvement with a rape is so shamefully marketed in society that bystanders refuse to be involved? Is this why people do not rush to help, fearing for a similar label to be placed on their foreheads? Think about it.

Is it really, really equal?

Lastly, I put forward this statement to women in particular. If you want to be treated equally, stand up for it everywhere. Everywhere. Including cases where you are in advantage.

Why do you not hate seats reserved for women on public transport? Why does it not bother you to be paid equally in a job for less hours put in? Do you mind when you are promoted for being a "woman leader"? Do you refuse to be interviewed as the "woman topper" in board exams?

If you hue-and-cry when you are at the receiving end, please stand up for your rights of equality when you enjoy an advantage as well. No developed country treats women as any different from men. Chivalry and manners may have their place, but that cannot be a general rule of society. By accepting such favors, you indicate, fundamentally, that you are weak. Or that you support equality as long as you are on the winning side. That is not justice. Stand up and face hardship. Earn your respect, do not receive it through charity. Then, only then, will men acknowledge you as equals.

I believe in the power of society and community. I believe that together we can change something. I believe that there is hope. Lets join hands.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Wreck it Once More!

NB. Special thanks to Pulkit Anand. Both for inspiration and the prerogative.
NB2. If you have not seen this already, I insist that you rush to the nearest theatre.

Its been a while since I have watched a really satisfying animation movie. The year so far brought Brave, and then Hotel Transylvania. Both were good, don't get me wrong. But when you come out of the theatre, it has a small time constant of decaying out of memory. Something was missing. Something kept it from being special.

And now, Dreamworks has overcome that hurdle and given me the animation movie of the year (there are a couple more to come around Christmas though).

I have one major complaint about Wreck it Ralph. It is perhaps the most under advertised, and maybe even misadversitised animation movie in quite some time. The name itself lacks the 'ting' factor (unlike Monsters Inc or UP). Plus, if you have caught the posters along the sidewalk… well well, lets say that most of the posters I saw had characters who had nothing more than a cameo role in the movie. And the one which did have the key characters.. umm.. said kind of nothing.

Nothing about how awesome the movie really is. Which brings us to the good part.

First and foremost, five stars for imagination. To conceive of arcade game characters as behind-the-screen employees, and to show a world of their own - I might have expected that off Pixar, but Dreamworks just blew my mind away on this one. The way visuals (especially the track of the car race - ooh racing through an ice cream field!!) brought this alive was beyond any expectations.

The second, and perhaps most awesome part, is the story itself. I won't spoil it for you here. But suffice it to say, (other than the cameo guys) every person you see on the screen has a purpose, and everything is beautifully knit into one perfect story. 

When it comes to the emotional fuzzy part, Dreamworks has usually been way behind Pixar for years. You kind of feel it here too, but parts of it are amazing. As a complete side story, the romance between (if you were expecting Ralph and the kiddo, slap yourself perv) Fix-it Felix and Sergeant Calhoun is the most unlikely-yet-touching piece of the puzzle. Especially I loved the scene where Felix happily volunteers to be sucker punched and face wrecked by the Sergeant (thanks to his fixing hammer). And oh my is Calhoun hot!

I could go on and on, and give away the whole story, but I wont. This is one of those movies you deserve to treat yourself (and your family) to. So please, go and watch it. You will not regret it for even a second.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

If money did not matter

This is what I am writing about:

To summarize, my wife is very excited about the prospect of a world where money is not important. The video preaches graduating students to pick a career they really like, and stick with it, regardless of the money. It goes on to support this point by saying how useless it would be to live your life doing something you don't like just for the sake of money, and how we are teaching our kids all the wrong things. 

My wife is a little angel. She believes in and represents all that is good in the world, especially to me, day in and day out. She sees the best in things, hopes for the best, and goes out of her way to bring out the best in me. God bless her little soul.

While the video is very noble in spirit, I have my concerns regarding it. I would illustrate this under two cases.

First, let us consider I want to be educated, be successful and become a big shot. Well, that does not seem to the the target audience of the video per se, so I might be going amiss here. It is queer that all noble videos seem to be directed at people who are unsure of what they want to do, and definitely not ambitious. If this applies to a fraction of people of the world, it cannot be a general principle at the outset. But leave that aside.

So I want to be educated. How much education is good enough? Well, a bachelor degree today gets you barely anywhere (yes, other than becoming a painter or a poet for sure, but thats not what I intend). So I need a masters. Or a doctorate. Maybe add a postdoc to that. Or maybe a medical degree. Add an MBA for good measure. Which of these courses come without a hefty fee? (Well you don't technically pay in a PhD, but then somebody is paying for you, so you can't say money is not important. Trying doing a PhD out of your pocket, including those who 'really like to do a PhD'). But then my parents were noble people who did whatever they liked with no regard for money. Guess what - I have nothing to pay for my education. End of story. I don't get to do what I really really like.

Ok now lets imagine I don't want to be a big shot. I am the ideal non-ambitious fellow. I am happy sitting in a meadow painting sunflowers. Question - will I earn enough? Well, I don't care for money, so thats that. Fair enough. What about my family? What about my aging parents, my wife, my kids? Who pays for their hospital, school and nuances? These statement are easy to make when you are born in America and raised in the land of individualism. Sadly it does not work that way for many of us. Or then you might conclude that you should neither care about money nor your family. Let them fend for themselves. In that case, I drop all allegations right away.

So neither being ambitious nor being mellow helps me get away without caring about money.

Whats the point then? Yes, money matters. If it did not, millions of people would not get up and run every morning. People would be happily singing in fields, riding horses, making merry. In short, people would not be productive.

Its a different question as to whether you enjoy your job. Many people are stuck doing a job that they don't wholly like to earn something. If not for themselves, then for the ones they care about. If this process is taking up ALL of your time and energy, then yes its probably a bad job to do, and you should look elsewhere. But its luxury and fantasy to think everybody has the means, access, resources and opportunity to anything they like. Such people are called irresponsible in my books. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

One Day in the Electronics Class

Something I wrote a long long time back.. in 2nd year .. :)

                           One Day in the Electronics Class

[A lecture hall… students are engaged in various activities… some are sleeping, some are chatting, some eating, etc…
A young, active-looking professor hurriedly walks in…]

Prof:    (Looks around and is disappointed by the general state of the students…. Starts                       pacing around the room….)
(One group of students are chatting…)
Prof:    YOU! Reduce your noise levels…
(One boy is sleeping….)
Prof:    YOU! Please wake him up….
(One boy is eating… seeing the prof coming, he quickly disposes his plate below the seat)
Prof:    What was that??? This is a class, not a semiconductor sample that you are adding       impurities!! Go outside and throw it in the Common Drain.
(Some people are copying assignments)
Prof:    YOU! Stop this communication system immediately. And one of you act as the                Common Collector and submit everybody’s assignment.
(Most fall silent… faint noise of 2 girls giggling)
Prof:    YOU! Bypass your small signals to AC ground… we have serious work to do…
(Prof goes to the dais and adjusts his microphone…)
Prof:    Students, today we shall….
(Common Collector submits the assignments… Prof takes a look)
Prof:    ALL the answers are wrong… Surprisingly everybody got the same wrong answer…          who is the Common Source??
(Students grumble at a particular guy… Prof notices)
Prof:    Stand up… you… yes YOU…
(Common Source stands up)
Prof:    So… you are a member of the Assignments and Tutorials Core Team??
CS:       (Puzzled and scared…) No, sir …. I mean…
Prof:    You have made the commonest mistake… and furthermore like an Ideal Current                        Mirror you have inducted the same mistake in everybody’s solution…
CS:       (Ashamed…) I am sorry Sir … could we try the problem once again…?
Prof:    It’s no good… instead study well the whole lot of you… otherwise your grades will        come in PDF format…
CS:       (Halufied…) Umm… our grades shall be mailed to us Sir?
Prof:    NO IDIOT, you will get P or D or F!! Sit down!!!
(Resumes Lecture)
Prof:    Today we shall be discussing the MOSFET circuit analysis. This is a very important        topic…
(2 students enter)
Prof:    Hey! You don’t ask for permission?
(Puzzled, students stop midway and look at the prof)
Prof:    What is the technical explanation for this delay?
Student 1:      Sir my cycle tyre punctured…
Student 2:      Sir I come by his cycle…
Prof:    SO… you 2 work in series, eh? If one component fails then your whole system                 crashes? Think fault-tolerant guys… (to Student 2) get a new cycle… go sit down.
            As I was saying, in these circuit analysis problems we shall assume all MOS’s to be    in saturation. Of course this must be verified at a later….
(One student is desperately trying to borrow a pen)
Prof:    YOU! What are you doing??
Student:         Sir I forgot to bring a pen…
Prof:    And where do you intend to write… I don’t see a notebook…
Student:         Sir I shall borrow a few pages…
Prof:    And have you submitted the assignment?
Student:         Sir I borrowed it from the Common Source (eyeing the guy)
Prof:    Brilliant! Now borrow yourself from your seat and without any intermediate                   collisions transport yourself out of the lecture hall… NOW! OUT!
Prof:    (calling after the guy) And on your way out close the Common Gate.
Prof:    Yes… amplify your attention please… as I was saying… the first step shall be a DC analysis of Q-pt values…
(One boy and one girl peep into the class)
-       “Sir may we come in?”
Prof:    New electron-hole pair!! You are too late… go back and recombine.
            Students, due to these stupid delay blocks riddled into our class, today I shall take a 2 hour lecture…
(Students grumble…)
Prof:    Why?
Student:         Will there be a break?
Prof:    No it is the prof who needs the break…
Students:       PLEASE SIR!!!!!!!
Prof:    Ok… but the mean free time shall be negligibly small… I intend to finish this chapter today…. And oh yes, you have a class test tomorrow…
Students:       OH NO!!!!!!
Prof:    Now what? Even this is exceeding your Upper Cut-off??
Students:       We need some time to study Sir…
Prof:    Electronic systems are supposed to give instantaneous output… I am sorry it can’t be   helped.
Now enough… fine tune your receivers… I shall radiate information and you better receive it fast…
(Students grumble and chatter… a general commotion settles in, when one of the staff comes in, paper in hand)
Prof:    SHUT UP! There is an important announcement… the HOD demands everybody               whose cycle has been left in the NO-PARKING zone to be subjected to Chain Therapy.
Students:       (Puzzled…) Chain Therapy???
Prof:    Yes… their cycles will be detained by department-sponsored chains and locks…
(Few students look around in dire urgency…)
Prof:    This had to happen…. Your disobedience has exceeded the HOD’s signal handling                   capacity… he has run into saturation trying to tell you… but you chose to remain in   cut-off mode… now with punishment, maybe you will re-stabilise your operating                       points. I am off to implement the strategy…
Students:       So the class is off?? YO!!!!
Prof:    There is nothing to celebrate… we shall have the class test today instead…
(Prof snaps his fingers… 2 TA’s walk in… hand out question papers…
Prof walks out …. Students collapse back with a big OH NO!!!!!!)

                                                                                                                        THE END

Friday, June 15, 2012

So long, and thanks for all the fish

So the JEE is in mortal danger. At this point when each of students, faculty and management are busy voicing their opinions, I was wondering whether we are even asking the right questions.

The stakeholders in this game are (a) the students (b) IITs (c) society. It is queer to note that ministry and management are not first level stakeholders by any measure. They are supposed to 'represent' the society in this equation, but given that they seemed to have stopped listening and are coming up with brilliant ideas all on their own, lets cast them aside.

So what do each of the stakeholders really need? Lets start backwards.

Society needs 'qualified engineers, scientists and leaders' to serve the nation. How does the process of changing the JEE format answer that need? Once you think about this, you'll realize that the connection is not at all obvious. The ministry supposes that by changing the format of the exam they will be able to induct students 'with a genuine love for engineering' into the elite institutions, which will end up serving the aforesaid purpose since they wont be deviated towards alternative career distractions (read 'white collar') which has been the growing trend. 

Both these assumptions are highly dubious and debatable. Firstly, at a +2 level, rarely anybody knows that they are 'genuinely interested in engineering' - I never did, and neither did hordes of my friends. At best, students know that they love basic sciences. Society-defined status quo and peer pressure, coupled with the utter lack of world class institutions for undergraduate basic science education (with due respect to the few St Xavier's, Presidencies and Annas scattered in a discombobulated manner) dictates that such students take up engineering or medicine as a career. I would like to know what process can filter out students who were 'born to be engineers' with a high level of confidence, especially in India where high school education is deeply theoretical and only a small fraction of students engage in science fairs, modeling projects and the like (note - no ministry ever thought of looking into that as a background).

As for the point of lateral attrition, it is worthy of note that the students 'genuinely interested in engineering', especially from IITs, end up pursuing graduate studies in foreign shores (read USA) and more often than not settle there. Those who do stay back suffer from a lack of challenging and rewarding 'core engineering jobs' within the country. No wonder that large numbers of them switch tracks to finance or management in order to earn well and live respectably while staying within India. The ministry does nothing to promote jobs and RnD, and pushes off-the-shelf resolutions without even an attempt at getting the appropriate ground work started.

Now what do the IITs (aka, hopefully, faculty) need? Having been through the system, the IITs actually need very little by way of undergraduates. The current process inducts students who have been through such a rigorous process of training that they end up being successful almost regardless of anything else. From personal experience, I know that the students who topped the JEE will continue to do the same regardless of the format. These students are not dumb you know. You change the format and they will adapt within days. Especially when the stakes are as high as being admitted into the only chain of undergraduate colleges in India known on a first-name basis throughout the world.

What IITs really need today is a drastic increase in the focus on research. While IITs have made a formidable reputation in undergraduate education, one has to squint to evince their presence in post-graduate studies. It is of immense import that the M.Tech and PhD students graduating out of IITs actually end up working in the IT industry and faculty positions across the nation. If the ministry were to do anything about increasing the output of quality engineers into the Indian workforce, this should be the stream they should attack first. Better resources, collaborations, industry liason, meaningful and productive research translating into stories of success and impact. To me, the fact that this crucial hinge has been all but overlooked is deeply disturbing. 

Finally the students. Students are much smarter than you think. They easily realize that the door to the IITs is synonymous to financial stability, social respect and professional success in India as well as the world. While the prudes may groan at students using the 'IIT stamp' to get places, I do not see how they are to blame given that the IITs are among the only universally recognized colleges from India across the world, and an almost lack of RnD in India. So while it might sound very sympathetic to 'reduce the stress of examinations', one cannot forget what is at stake is worth a whole lifetime. For that, students are NOT going to relax even if the entrance is made easy, but will only fight harder to shine above the rest of the populace. If the ministry thinks including school scores will make a difference, students will only reorient themselves to ace both (personally, board exams were a joke after the preparation we went through for JEE). Throw what you will, the best of the crop will adapt themselves to find their way. The ministry is making the crucial mistake again of expecting mediocrity out of a chain of institutions clearly set aside for elitism, and for all their efforts, students will only sing back 'so long, and thanks for all the fish'. 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

I now pronounce you husband and husband

So the latest news is in. Obama loves you in pairs. Irrespective of how you pair up. In a recent highly debated political issue, Obama came out stating his support for gay marriage. Purportedly in his 2008 campaign he had taken the opposite stand. Other evidence suggests that even before that he has voiced his support in a signed legislature, but later denied.

Question - why is this at all a political issue? I mean, as far as I am concerned, this is a no-brainer. I am not homosexual, but I have totally nothing against them. If there are people who feel affection and love for others of the same sex and would rather spend their lives with them - sure, let them. Why are we so bothered?

Well if you think again, it is not difficult to see why it IS an issue. For one, as a political personality, you, strictly speaking, do not have the right to voice your personal opinions. You are a representative of the people, and have to say what they want you to say. After all, that is only democratic. So over the years, campaigners, including Obama possibly in 2008, voiced his opinion against homosexual marriage. The people, the society wanted it, and so he sided with it. "Its nothing personal, its only business" - to quote Michael Corleone.

So what is the key issue? Is it the love of office which prevents leaders from taking a strong stand towards what rationally seems to be right? Are people sacrificing what they know is right (hopefully) just to win public support, and in that case does it count as hypocrisy? Well, yes and no. Sure, its not the best reflection on your personal conscience. But then again, as a representative, you have to say what the people want you to say, that is the hallmark of a statesman - at the cost of possibly silencing his own opinion. 

Then, it works out, the key to the problem works down to the people themselves. Who oppose homosexual marriage? Possibly the Catholic, the religious, the conservative. Ok. I wonder why though. What is a good reason for them to protest against it? Stop the "sin against God" nonsense please and give me a good scientific reason. At least tell me it is "naturally unnatural" since it is not targeted towards procreation, or tell me that its a social thing where you feel uncomfortable living in the vicinity of two girls who you know kiss more than each other's lips. 

Now is the big question. So what? Nobody comes and checks on what you do behind closed doors in your bedroom. Whether you are vanilla or indulge in the exotic kinks now so popularized on the internet that you would think its more the norm than the exception. If you have the right to have a private personal life, what problem do you have with others? Why do you want to dictate what they are allowed to or not allowed to do in their nuptial bonds?

Society as a whole is in the need of growing up. This applies not only to "third world" and "developing" countries, but equally so in the USAs and Australias of the world. People, despite their apparent education and advanced philosophy, are yet to embrace the fundamental concepts of emotional, social and sexual liberation. For now, the issue hangs in the balance of what you think is right, and what IS right. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Plague of Management

For the first time, this is not an original post. I reprinted this from The Hindu, March 7 2012 edition in an article titled What they don't teach you at Indian B-schools by Baba Prasad, CEO, Viv├ękin Group & Visiting Professor of Management, IIIT-Hyderabad. 

Its a wonderful article that deserves attention.

This last Sunday, I watched a show on CNBC called Lessons in Marketing Excellence . Essentially, it featured the final round of a competition for B-School students across India conducted by CNBC and Hindustan Unilever Limited. The four finalist teams were asked to address the problem of how to help the Indian Railways innovate. As the bright students in their dark suits made their presentations, they unwittingly offered several lessons for why we lack innovation and leadership in India. The show especially provided an ironic commentary on how the education we provide in Indian business schools and the general eco-system of Indian business are boxing us in and curtailing even a tendency to innovate.

Lack of original Indian thinking

Almost 15 years ago, I had just graduated from Wharton and was cutting my teeth as a young B-School professor at Purdue University. Pankaj Chandra (a fellow-alum of Wharton although many years my senior) who was at IIM-A (and is now Director of IIM-Bangalore), invited me to a conference on operations management that he was organising in India. I accepted but had to cancel out at the last minute. However, a senior colleague at Purdue went and, when he came back to the U.S., I asked him how it had gone. He told me that he was struck by the fact that both in methodologies and in applications, the conference was completely West-oriented. The only presentation that had Indian “roots,” he said, was a paper that discussed how to optimise scheduling idli -cooker operations in a Bangalore Darshini restaurant. It is sad that more than a decade later, the same disease plagues our B-Schools and, consequently, our management thinking in the business world — a lack of original Indian thinking. I am hardly advocating a B-school version of Indian nationalist sentiment, but one must surely pause to ask if we are teaching our students to reject a language they know well and to instead put on a voice and idiom that they only half-know.

People and Colour

When one imagines India, the highlights are universal: People and Colour. Does it signify anything for our business world that the B-School students, including women, were without exception dressed in dark “business” suits? Where were the bright colours that India exudes? Dark business suits perhaps proclaim one's arrival into an elite club. But throttling ties and stifling suits are also metaphors for the dark state of management education and thought in India in particular, but generally all over the world. As we seek to close the door on such closeted-thinking, Shashi Tharoor's Hindi-practising colonialists ironically present a solution: To say “ Darwaza band karo ,” they practised “There was a banned crow!”
Why do I call these presentations symptoms of the stifled innovation and struggling strategy that is dogging Indian business? One of the central questions of the Indian Railways case that the students analysed was: “How does IR innovate to generate revenues, build capacity and increase market share?” Or as the show host put it, “Suggest innovative strategies to increase revenues for the Railways.” Look at the presentations and the solutions that the students put forth after one whole month of research. Why wasn't there even one bit of colour in what was supposed to be a marketing presentation? Of course, when I say colour, I use it symbolically to imply freshness in thought. Again let me make it clear — I do not hold only the students responsible for the wan thinking. In fact, we — management educators and stuffy sultans of strategy in the corporate world — are the ones who have brought this about. Did we see one video of a train compartment; hear one audio interview of a passenger, or an employee? No. These presentations evicted colour, but they also evicted the sense of people that is India. Instead of exploiting the aesthetic resonance of train travel, we heard long-winded statements in boring voices from behind tall podiums. Why? Because we have taught them that that's the way to be leaders. In this country, of all places, we seem to have forgotten the power of storytelling and the rich repertoires we possess. And we call these shows “Lessons in Marketing Excellence.”
The solutions proposed also primarily fed off the data in the case and worked at marginally increasing revenues from the operations. One team suggested that the addition of a new class between Second Class and 3-Tier AC would generate additional revenue because Second Class passengers would choose the newly introduced class that was higher-priced. The Railway officials on the panel of judges dismissed it saying that when they introduced 3-tier AC between 2-tier AC and Second Class, rather than Second Class passengers opting to go up to 3-tier AC, 2-tier AC passengers opted to go down. Another team proposed looking at three Indias — India-1, India-2, and India-3 — in terms of paying power, and suggested a focus on India-1. Promptly the Railway executives said that ignoring the largest and least wealthy India-3 category would not fit into the mission of the railways. In short, solutions like these kept bumping against the fact that the Indian Railways has both a social mission and a business vision. Such solutions focused only on milking existing operations, and consequently were only incremental. The point is that there was no demonstration of any out of the box thinking. While the team from FMS did propose a few refreshing, although small alternate streams of revenues, it is telling that they did not win the competition.


Ok, let's take a step back and ask ourselves another question: In what other way could the students have approached the Indian Railways case given to them? Let's start at the basics. What strikes me most about Indian Railways is the consistency with which they have maintained the design of the train and the architecture of the railway station. If Mahatma Gandhi came back and looked at the Indian train today, he would not find it very different from the ones in which he travelled across the country about a hundred years ago. And they certainly haven't changed much from the trains I used to take several decades ago as a young school kid going for the summer holidays from Mumbai to my grandparents' house in Tumkur, near Bangalore. How would it have been if the students had started with thinking about how to change the basic structure of the compartment? Not incremental recommendations about providing “pillows and blanket sets”, but something more whole, more substantial. Could they have examined restructuring the bathrooms on the trains? For decades, with the help of the Railways, we Indians have been defecating across the face of the nation. Can we change that, and perhaps monetise the solution? How about using the waste to generate fertilizers or energy? What are the pluses and minuses of that? Alternately, would a redesign of the compartments with lighter material lead to fuel savings? What could be the cost savings? What safety risks would the lighter compartment bring? Another thought: How about building better railway stations and creating a whole new, beautiful retail space in the station? Can we convert that precious space of the “railway station” which is mostly located in the central areas of the city into a “third place” to hangout — between office and home? What revenues could be derived from the retail stores that will populate the “new, cool railway station,” the “third place”?

Straitjacketing approaches

The straitjacketing approaches we teach in B-School and promote in the Indian corporate world are not going to help pose or answer such questions. Innovation requires breaking bounds not just in application, but also — and more importantly — in thought. Paradigm shifts should not be just the effect, but in fact, should be — again more importantly — the cause for innovation. Would it be heresy to teach B-School students that Porter's framework and the concept of positioning is not all that there is in strategy, that the core-competence approach despite its brilliance has limited application, that Blue Ocean for all its attractiveness does not tell you what to do when your blue water is bloodied by lean and mean sharks? Would it be heresy to teach them that all these approaches to strategy are necessary but not sufficient conditions for strategic success? Would it kill us to teach them that we need to stop thinking of organisations and businesses as mere machines to which we apply formulas and frameworks, and instead think of the next frontier in strategy where we will have to work with organisations as if they are living, breathing, humans who have stories to create, live, and tell?
Till we find our self-confidence, our own voices, and brand Indian ways of innovation that go beyond the stereotypical jugaad that seems to be our only answer to innovation, we will have to remain content with aping others and making the same mistakes that the others made — others, who incidentally are not brighter than us. Till that time, no original innovation will come out of India.
It's now time to ban the crow-ness of B-Schools and executive cadres. It's now time to also proudly bring in the colourful finches, the macaws, the mynahs, the bulbuls, and the whatever. Are we ready?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

No Exams!

I owe my apologies. I have not been keeping myself updated, or maybe I just forgot the import of this news.

So it turns out that the government of Bengal has decided that there are not going to be any exams till Class 8 in government run schools. No, let me correct myself. Exams are going to be there, but it does not matter whether you pass or fail. The marks are only for your own assesment, and will be used to work on your improvement. You'll pass all the way till Class 9. Then who knows...

Whats this grand idea about?

As per education minister Bratya Basu:

"Children are gradually becoming afraid of exams. In order to free them from this trauma, we are thinking of making exams till Class 8 as optional," Basu said, talking to reporters here.

"I am not against the examination system, I just propose to make it optional. This way we can lessen the burden on children who feel the pressure. How can you effectively assess a student if he or she is traumatised," said Basu.

Emphasising on the need for students to speak English, the minister said: "I have discussed with educationists, teachers and others. They all feel that for students to do well both at the state and the national level they must know how to speak in English. So, we are thinking of introducing a 50-mark test of spoken English from Class 1."

Uh-huh. Gotcha.

This all sounds very nice and noble. Little children. Playing in the sun. Lovely carefree childhood. School is where you go to learn. No pressure. Have fun. Learn new things. Work all the way up. Then, when you are mentally ready to face it, you'll have exams. Super. Utopia descends on earth.

This would have been very nice especially for people from relatively poor areas or rural backgrounds. Many children from not well-to-do backgrounds drop out of school when they fail, and rather take up some handicraft or work to earn money. This sounds like a great option. If you are not going to fail, then might as well sit through all of it. At least as far as possible.

But wait. Didn't you make one little assumption?

You are essentially saying that children are going to study even when there are no exams and learn in full earnest. Ok. Why?

"I am not against the examination system, I just propose to make it optional."

-- oh cool, show me a kid who'll appear for an optinal exam.

"How can you effectively assess a student if he or she is traumatised?"

-- how can you asses a student without exams? Or, if you have 'optional' exams or exams 'just for the sake of assesment' why do you think that would be a true assesment when there is no specific motivation to study?

"This way we can lessen the burden on children who feel the pressure."

-- sorry for a reality update. There is pressure. Pressure to excel and perform and make a living out in the world where almost nobody is willing to give you a second chance. All the more so in a country like India with a huge population and not-so-many job opportunities. And you have just destroyed the competitive ability of children. Face it, its tough. Thats how its meant to be. Education is meant to harden your mind against the realities of the world and equip you with the skills you need to survive. Not just in terms of words and numbers, but also in terms of mental attitude.

"They all feel that for students to do well both at the state and the national level they must know how to speak in English. So, we are thinking of introducing a 50-mark test of spoken English from Class 1."

-- and this brillinat congregation of people parallely decided that it is not really important to know arithmetic in order to succeed?

The point is, the only reason (at least I feel) exams were kept from an early age was to make children study. Nothing else. You cannot explain to a kid why education is important for them. They are way too young to understand that. The only motivation they have to study is so that they can pass the exams and stick around with their friends and not feel bad about being left behind. In the process, they actually read and learn.

If there is no risk of failing a class, then why bother? Why listen to what is being taught? Why make an effort to remember anything? Why go to school at all? Wont it be much better just to sit and goof around and play?

We are therefore running the heavy risk of undermining the very need of education at an early age. By putting this false mask of re-assurance, we are crippling children all the way upto grade 8 when its too late already. Then come grade 9, no wonder scores of them will fail or drop out, because nobody remembers anything, or read anything seriously.

Yes, I am not in favor of seeing little children fail. I know how terrible it feels to your self-confidence, respect and ego when you watch all your friends go ahead of you and you are left behind so heartlessly. Its not good in any way. But surely THIS is not the solution.

What could we do then? We could invest in better education. We could get better teachers, and not let the school service commission be a farce. We could reprint books and try to present the content in a more interesting manner. We could make effort to make learning fun, enjoyable. So that at the end of the year, exams seem like a natural process rather than something to be feared and nighmared about.

But no! Who wants to do all that? It takes so much time, effort and money! Just go for a shortcut instead!

Talking of the shortcut, here's another interesting observation. Who goes to government schools anyway? Not the upper middle class or the rich. Only the poor and a part of the lower middle class for whom probably private schools are way too expensive would do that. And people in villages probably, where there are no provate schools anyway.

So what this measure just did is that it placed the lower rung of the population in a permanent disadvantage. You just made sure that the poor remain poor, essentially uneducated and in servitude. At the same time, you tickled their ego a bit, making them feel good about having gone "through school", and won some public acclaim and a good number of votes. Bravo. Maybe these people actually have more brains than sometimes I suspect.

But if we did see through it, its time to react. Enough.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Awesome Jumping Power

Sometimes I wonder how wonderful it would be to have the eye-view jump superpower. What is that? Its really cool. Say you are standing somewhere, and you cast your eyes as far as you can reasonably see. Then you say the magic words, and voila! You are there!

Simply awesome. Not to mention that you can keep repeating this, hopping across the countryside like no car possibly could. Heck, if you could land yourself on hills, you might go quite as fast as an aeroplane!

Of course one needs to worry about where you are going to land. For example, there are no guarantees to your safety if you landed right in front of a speeding car. It would wham you, and blow the living superpowers out of you. So for all practical pursposes, its probably a good idea to land somewhere you can clearly see to be safe.

Then there is the public issue. You would not like to attract attention, perhaps, to your little unusual-ness. So do it when its a bit empty, or maybe in a really thick crowd too, but where everybody is just way too busy to notice you. But then again, you have to remember the issue of landing somewhere clear and safe. You would not suddenly want to end up on somebody's shoulders, worse still somebody of the opposite sex. The consequences could be really disturbing.

Given these restrictions, its still a really cool thing to have. You would never have to worry about commuting across states for your job - it would be a matter of an hour, at best. You would not need to worry about being stranded at sea, even better, where you can see for miles and miles and in all probability is a pretty safe and clear place to land on, provided you can swim between hops. Thieves and robbers would be practically shit scared of you, when they would point a gun at you and you would simply vanish.

And best of all, when you are happy, you could do a hopping dance of a lifetime!!

Then again, sometimes I also wonder whether I am going mad...