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.