We don’t need no education

Posted: May 15, 2011 by Gurveen Bedi in Career, Education
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Winston Churchill once said – My education was interrupted only by my schooling. Perhaps Churchill should have sought advice from Mark Twain who had said only a few years before Churchill – I went to school, but it did not interfere with my education. Winston Churchill and Mark Twain were not alone in their views on schooling. Several successful personalities (Oscar Wilde, Albert Einstein etc.) belonging to different timeframes of the world, have expressed serious doubts about the efficacy of the “education” provided at conventional schools. Though the above statements were made almost a century ago, they are as valid today as they were before. The 21st century might have witnessed a gadget boom, transformed the services industry, ushered in a social media revolution, and changed the way the world looks! But it has failed to influence our schooling system, which has remained archaic, forgotten and ignored like our historical monuments – with old foundations, shaky walls and boarded windows.

Being a civil engineer, I might still pretend to have a hint of expertise in the restoration of historical buildings, but having just finished my student life, I can in no way claim an expertise in redesigning our school system, nor will I pretend to do so. It’s just that my father’s frequent transfers gave me an opportunity to study in five different schools across four states in two different boards. Along with that, being the daughter of a school-teacher gave me a perspective into the thought process of teachers and a chance to strike up numerous dinnertime conversations with teachers across classes. All these experiences concluded in a course on Education that I managed to chance upon in my MBA. Hence this blog post, though not an expert view itself, is an amalgamation of hours of random discussions, snippets from experts and records of experiments, all in an attempt to find the missing spark in our schooling system.

…so long as it’s black.”

When I first watched Ken Robinson’s video talk, I was more enamoured by the creatives rather than the content. Though some of the content did strike resonance with me, being an outcome of the very schooling system that Ken had criticised, I chose to ignore it. It was only later that the essence of what Ken had spoken jolted me. Ken had spoken about the fact that our schools are a derivative of industrialisation, hence are organised on factory lines. That is why the most important factor considered while slotting children in different classes is their ‘date of manufacturing’, not their aptitude or interests or ambitions. Babies are put into the factory of education and then come out as standard products – engineers, doctors, MBAs, CAs – each product category different from the other, but each product in a category eerily similar.

Every child has a varying interest in different subjects. For example, I have always been a lover of English and Mathematics, while my brother was a die-hard fan of Physics and Geography. We had the same upbringing, similar schooling, and same genes – but still our talent and aptitude lay in different things. But no school would ever consider putting me in Standard 7 and my brother in Standard 6 for Maths, and vice versa for Physics. Because we were expected to perform by our birth date, our aptitude being too subjective a term.

A system where children are slotted at different levels for different subjects does exist in some measure in schools in the US. For example, for every class there might be a Basic Mathematics class for students who perform at an average level in the subject, and an Advanced Mathematics for students exceptional in it. Such a system allows students to spend more time in subjects that they are interested in. Not every student can be a historian and not every student will be a mathematician. Hence, allowing students to study the basics in all subjects but be an expert in only a few, is a policy that makes sense. Especially in India, where most students decide their future paths abruptly after Class 10th, such a system would give them time to understand what they like studying, hence allowing them to make better career choices and perhaps solve the ‘engineer-doctor’ syndrome affecting the Indian middle class.

A derivative of the caste system, the ‘engineer-doctor’ syndrome is a vicious circle of hierarchical occupations. Daddy Engineer tells his son, “You have full freedom son, do anything as long as you become an engineer”. Doctor Mommy and Doctor Daddy tell their daughter, “We won’t force you to chose biology, but think of the clinic before you make your choice”. Almost as if Ford was telling his customers, “People can have the Model T in any colour so long as it’s black.”

It’s time to cure the syndrome, to transform our schools from the factories that they are, to centres of learning, to finally let go of Ford’s Black car hangover, and let our children paint their lives with colours of choice from their palette.

To Sir with Love

An important cog in the wheel of the schooling system is teachers. We have all had good teachers, insignificant teachers and bad teachers in our school lives. Of course the bad ones are remembered the most, followed by good teachers, and the insignificant ones don’t matter.

On an average, the pedagogy that our teachers adopt in schools is uninspiring, insipid and boring. Largely, the teaching styles inhibit participation in class. In fact, most teachers do not entertain questions in the middle of their teaching. They encourage students to speak only when spoken to, not when they want to speak, if they care to want to speak at all. Even if students speak in classes, they do so to express doubts, never opinions. It is assumed that the teacher is better at everything than the student, so the roles of talker-listener are clearly demarcated. Children, of course, are not born with this system in mind. In fact it is almost morbidly beautiful how these roles get reversed over time. When a baby is born, it’s the baby who governs the language of conversation (Ba Ba, Boo Boo, Te Ta etc.) and it’s the parents who oblige by uttering syllable-like words that they can’t make sense of. Gradually, as the kid grows, she starts asking so many questions, that it would make one feel that if unstopped, her barrage of questions could probably cause some serious brain damage. But once she starts going to school, a sudden role reversal happens – this ability to conjure up questions reduces, and slowly the curiosity is stymied by systemic problems. In fact, Albert Einstein has famously said It’s a miracle that curiosity survives formal education. Miracles do not continue indefinitely, hence we need to stop depending on them, and instead develop pedagogy that nurtures this curiosity, rather than suppresses it. Teachers should make special attempts to involve students in class discussions, to prepare examinations where opinions are asked rather than just hard facts, to encourage students to ask more and more questions without fearing that a question might be labelled foolish. A change of attitude is required so that teachers learn with students rather than make students learn.

Not only that, our curriculum also has to be designed in a way that children enjoy their experience in school. Considering that education now needs to compete with mind-boggling and brain-fizzing distractions in the form of internet, playstations and television, it needs to have other aces up its sleeve, as plain textbooks will no longer suffice. The best way to conjure up these aces is to be as mind-boggling and brain-fizzing like the distractions, and that is where audio-visual educational aids step in. In India, the development of digital content in the K-12 (Kindergarten to Standard 12) space is a growing business, but it still has not attained the large scale usage that it should. Currently this digital content is purchased by a few enthusiastic and tech-savvy parents, but for a prolonged solution, this initiative will have to be taken at the teacher-level, school-level or rather system-level.

It’s not simple to make all these changes in the existing system. Teachers will argue that these changes have no point because in the end the board examination gives no value to such learning. Board officials will say that teachers are not skilled enough to handle new systems of pedagogy. The education ministry might point out to the paucity of funds due to which hi-tech educational aids cannot be invested in. The baton might be shifted from the teachers to school authorities to board officials to the education ministry and back from the education ministry to board officials to school authorities to teachers. But someone needs to take the first step, give a nudge to the first domino. Perhaps the need of the hour is an incarnation of Ricardo Braithwaite – who will step into the corridors of our schools or the offices of our education boards or the hallways of our education ministry and start putting systems in place that ensure that the seeds of creativity in children are not lost in the drone of education.

Security Prison 21

In Phnom Penh, somewhere in the inner city lies the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. A number of schoolchildren visit it daily, and a lost tourist might even mistake it for a school by looking at its exteriors. It is actually the site of the notorious Security 21 prison by the Khmer Rouge communist regime. But before being converted into S-21, it was actually a high school. Makes one wonder that probably not a lot of work needs to be done to convert schools into prisons. The bells, grills and guards would just be the same, maybe some additional walls could be put in. In fact, not only do our schools look and feel like prison chambers, sometimes we treat them in the same way as well – any child who does the mistake of peering out of any classroom window is promptly admonished, as if a crime had been committed by being curious.

The underlying issue is that we simply consider our classrooms as four walls and a roof, needed to contain students and teachers rather than as learning aids themselves. There have been the occasional manicured gardens, bright posters on walls, colourful notice boards in classes in some schools, but school space and its constituent elements have never been actively used for learning. There are numerous ways in which this can be done. For example, having abacus as window grills, making scale of measurements on desks, drawing shapes and colors on the floor in corridors, graffiti boards on the walls, painting numbers on stairs so as to make learning a part of play for young children. Even for senior classes, the furniture in the classroom can be made movable, such that different methods of pedagogy can be employed – group study, projects, individual study etc.

In technical terms, this creative designing of school buildings is called “Buildings as Learning aids (BaLa)”. Vinyãs is an architectural firm that has invented BaLa and is involved in several consulting projects to publicise the use of BaLa. In fact, Kabir Vajpayee, a Prinicipal Architect at Vinyãs has also written a book on the subject, in case any of the readers wish to learn more on the subject.

According to BaLa, simple creative ideas when deployed in the classroom space can combine with the mundane textbook or blackboard to create a vibrant learning atmosphere. Proper utilization of the classroom and school building can create a space for children where they find comfort and freedom, where they get enthused to experiment and learn. We really need to redesign most of our schools to distinguish them from our prisons. Though Kiran Bedi might want to get education in our prisons, let’s not get the prisons into education.

The little girl at the window

The story of Tottochan was written by a Japanese author, Tetsuko Kuroyanagi. Tottochan was a young girl, who was thrown out of her first school because of her excessive curiosity, divergent thinking and overzealous nature – in other words for looking out of the window constantly, calling over street-musicians to the class and talking to swallows. She is subsequently admitted to a different school – Tomoe Gakuen, which turns out to be a Wonderland for our Tottochan. Tomoe Gakeun is a school where classrooms are held in stationary train wagons, self-study is the prominent mode of education with teachers stepping in only when one has doubts, there is no demarcation of periods for every subject – you can do any subject anytime as long as you finish all the work by the end of the school-day, physically challenged children study together with everyone else to make sure that they mingle in the world naturally, lessons in science are taught on nature walks and constellations are taught by holding night camps for star-watching. It is a school where learning was imparted in such a subtle manner that it left its pupils wanting for more, where each day held something new for Tottochan, where Tottochan could dream and conjure up a future of her choice.

Like Tottochan, I have a dream too, a utopian one perhaps. Of a school like Tomoe Gakuen. I have a dream of a school where a child is understood by her interests rather than age, where teachers are guides and not gods, where classrooms are a whirlpool of colors, where classes are a smorgasbord of subjects. I have a dream where the little girl staring out of at the window is not reprimanded but rather the whole class is taken outside to show the others what she is able to see.

I have a dream….

The Madness in the Method

Posted: April 13, 2011 by Anindya Dutta in IIM
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Disclaimer :  Despite the views expressed below, the author of the post believes that IIM Ahmedabad is still the best business school not only in India but also in Asia, and competition has a long way to go to match the pedigree which IIM Ahmedabad has and continues to produce year after year. Moreover, the cost-benefit tradeoff of business education in IIM Ahmedabad is the best in the world.

Often over the last twelve months, we have been criticized for romancing IIMA a tad too much in our blog articles. However, as our lives’ train pulls out of the station at Ahmedabad, and we catch a fleeting glance of the red bricks in the distance, it is just about the right time to present an ode to this towering institution of management education sans the romance. (Apologies for the allegories and the metaphors, but sipping onto hot tea in a nice condo in Singapore, listening to the Beatles, my literary juices have just about started flowing!)

A few days back, an IIM aspirant, driven by the belief that WIMWIans drink magic potions of invincibility like the Gauls of Armorica, asked me for my perspective on the much hyped Indian growth story. Caught slightly off guard, I did my best to gather all that I had read and heard, added a dash of jargon learnt over the last two years and topped it up with a dash of myself – and out came a concise, three-word reply – “Confused and confusing”!

No, I was not referring to my state of my mind but to my views on the Indian macro-environment, and as I write this piece today, I realize that as a genuine reflection of the Indian political, economic and social fabric, I find IIMA as an institution eerily “confused and confusing!!!” Borrowing subtly from Catherine Taylor’s imagery on Mumbai, IIMA can aptly be called a strange beast. She will wake up every morning, hug you tightly, let you go abruptly, smile at you, hug you once again and just as when you come around to believing that everything’s fine, she will slap you right across your face. This is IIMA. Full of contradictions, surprises and dead-ends. Confused and confusing!

An MBA is honestly not meant to be an academic program – it is meant to be a logbook of experiences – experiences driven by industry-persons, by instructors, by assignments and most importantly by peers – experiences to learn from 24*7. For an MBA to be meaningful hence, batch diversity is an important cog in the wheel. Although international business programs’ emphasis on diversity borders on being a touch too exaggerated (some of the selections which these schools make for the sake of diversity are outrageous!), the equally calamitous lack of emphasis on batch diversity at IIMA is profoundly disturbing. At a time when India is staking claim to the global high table, it is expected that India’s premier MBA program should acquire an international flavor. After all, it would be just about logical to expect that India’s best B-School should be home to a classroom environment where experiences from all over the world work towards solving local cases and problems, rather than local experiences brainstorming cases from the Western world, as is the current norm. But alas, despite the lucidness of the argument, IIMA fails, year after year, to make breakthrough changes to a selection process which can be described as archaic and rickety at best.

IIMA, as a revered institution of higher learning, is often expected to be a beacon of India’s aspirations for the future, and not a lame reflection of the problems historically associated with our education system. It is hence, disheartening, to see that the most challenging experience for WIMWIans on a daily basis is that of grade micromanagement. The intensity of case analyses, classroom participation and assignment completions are often reduced to the sheer economics of marks. Such a skewed incentive system often results in hijacked classroom sessions with incomplete case discussions and half-baked learning. Obviously, the complete breakdown of the learning experience is a systemic failure since right from the day we step into the “hallowed precincts” of IIMA, we are told about the singular importance of a job out of campus, and hence the relevance of a “stud CV” and an “I-Schol” ranking (For the uninitiated; I-Schol, derived from Industrial Scholar, refers to the top 5% students of the batch). This kind of an academic system which makes students, several of them in their mid-twenties and with few years spent in the industry, bicker and lose sleep over sub-grades or a day zero summer internship makes for an abysmal and sorry picture. What’s more disheartening, is that after a few months, you realize that such a culture has been created more by design rather than by accident. Rarely, does anyone in the administration or otherwise talk about preparing for the long haul and building a strong focus on learning, which in the right incentive environment would also be the relevant precursor for good grades.

One of the high points in my IIMA stint was attending a class by a senior professor where he discussed a one page case-let related to a situation which he had personally experienced while consulting an Indian blue-chip company. Seventy-five minutes of gripping discussion left the class spellbound, such was the quality of insights and the control of the instructor. As I walked out of the class yearning for more, it struck me that the quality of learning in an MBA program can be strongly enhanced if case discussions were driven by people who have actually lived the case!!! Sadly despite this being commonplace in the Western B-School system where a case discussion is usually signed off by the protagonist of the plot, rarely does one get to experience such quality of discussion in IIMA.

To extend the logic further, the dearth of student-industry interaction makes learning very often too dogmatic, theoretical, unrealistic and a tad boring at WIMWI. The truth of the matter is that there can be no better business learning than from opportunities to hear from industry leaders and alumni who have been there and done that! But IIMA’s inability to encourage platforms where industry leaders participate and take interest in our learning on a continuous and regular basis in the form of mentorship programs, corporate tours and networking fairs is disconcerting and reflects a lack of will and desire on the establishment to think beyond the traditional style of education.

Speaking of networking, many people at IIMA believe that networking is an overrated concept not realizing that networking is not always about fake smiles, planned interjections, robotic nods of the head and business card exchanges. Rather, networking can be a potent knowledge multiplier and an opportunity to share experiences and learning. Networking literally means building a network of relationships, some of which, if not all, can develop into strong personal and professional support systems over time. As future business leaders, it is the quality of relationships which an individual maintains which make the difference between good and great leaders. Such relationships will be driven by a painstakingly brewed mix of strong business expertise and compelling people skills. Although, IIMA does a fairly good job of trying to provide the first of the two qualities, its efforts to educate students about the importance of the latter are almost non-existent.

Hence, in the absence of the requisite push from the institute to help students work on their personality development, student initiatives have often sought their own creative license. Sadly, however, such efforts are often given step-sonly treatment by the institute. Student enterprise and ingenuity does not, in most cases, receive the requisite encouragement, guidance and faith from the administration. Recently, one of my juniors came up to me with a suggestion for an event which the finance club could consider organizing. The concept was loosely based on a similar event in the US B-Schools called “A Day in Wall-Street”. The idea was to take all finance enthusiasts of IIMA down to Mumbai for a 1-2 day workshop wherein they could spend time at a variety of the financial institutions to experience first-hand what it is like to have a career in finance. The plan was well-structured and researched and I, being the outgoing coordinator and an evangelist of the finance club, would have loved to encourage the plan to be taken up with vigor. Unfortunately, having worked closely with the system, I am just as aware that such an idea will never see the light of day purely because the administration would never be able to reconcile with an event plan which involved the loss of 1-2 seemingly precious academic workdays. Such is the thickheaded approach of the institute with regards to the superlative status of academics, that creatively designed events and ideas which can prove tremendously value-additive for the students are not only not encouraged but are actively discouraged.

Last but not the least, IIMA despite all the hype and hoopla about being one of the best business schools internationally, is for all practical purposes a placement agency – an exceptional placement agency. A student’s learning curve at WIMWI is all about resume preparation, remedial sessions for last minute interview preparation, a Day Zero summer internship, a pre-placement offer and if that does not come by, then about the same rigmarole for final placements. A vast majority of the students’ reputations are made and marred by the day/cluster in which they were placed. When it comes to selecting electives for the second year, everybody wants to know which course is a high-scoring one to give that final push to their GPAs as people look ahead towards final placements. Rarely would you ever sit in the canteen and overhear conversations on RBI’s approach to interest rate management or HUL’s latest marketing campaign or for that matter, Uninor’s differential pricing strategy. If you however chose to complete that exceptionally poorly made coffee/tea at the canteen at your leisurely pace, you would surely hear words and phrases like PPO, Day 0, sub-grades, quizzes and REMs. To sum it up, IIMA teaches you how to package yourself well for that 40 minute interview, though I am not so sure how several of us would fare once the wrappings came off.

In hindsight, all the discipline and rigor makes IIMA students very conformist – very “managerish” if I may take a few liberties with my English. We learn to be on time for appointments, to prepare well for team meetings, to base our analyses on rigorous number-work and to respect the sanctity of deadlines. And quite rightly so! However, there seems no place at WIMWI for the maverick, for the visionary, for the leader, for the rebel, for the out-of-the-box solution. As one of my friends, an alumnus from IIMA, rightly pointed out – “IIMA makes great managers, but does not make great leaders or thinkers!” No doubt, IIMA will get its own share of CXOs who have risen through the rungs of an organization for over two decades, executing projects with élan and poise before finally they get their view from the top. But IIMA does not prepare people to be the next Lee Iacocca, Jack Welch, Richard Branson or for that matter our very own Sunil Bharti Mittal – IIMA does not prepare people to be ahead of the curve…

Have no doubts, my dear friends, IIMA still is undoubtedly a very fine business school with a strong pedigree of faculty, students and alumni – the finest in the region. But as we prepare for a globalized world, when IIMA is going to compete against the Harvards and Whartons as they set their sights on the lucrative Indian education market, it is time for the institute to not rest on the strength of its brand identity. It is time for IIMA to rediscover itself, to create new paradigms of business management and to deliver on its pledge to create leaders for the future.

I wrote a few months back about how there was a Method in the Madness here at IIMA. As I sign off and as the red bricks are reduced to a mere blur, I wonder whether after all, there is a Madness in the Method as well…

Dear Class of 2011

Posted: March 27, 2011 by Gurveen Bedi in Career, IIM, life
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The words of wisdom below have been penned down by our dear friend, mentor and teacher – Prof. Nagesh Rao, who teaches Managerial Communication at IIM Ahmedabad.

Dear Class of 2011

A person, a nation’s character is best defined in difficult times.  An earthquake and a tsunami have wiped out thousands in Japan.  Yet, her grace and her generosity are inimitable.  In Miyagi where the tsunami would hit, a man who owned a fish processing plant was hosting 20 interns from China. When he heard the tsunami alarm he sensed that the interns couldn’t know what might happen or what to do. He got them all together and took them to a safe higher ground, and then rushed back to his home to rescue his family. He and his family are among the thousands lost.

Or we could talk about Mr. Raja, Mr. Kalmadi, Miss. Radia, or the IAS Joshi couple.  The choice is ours. Yours.

At 16, when my classmates were rushing to take science classes to pursue engineering and medicine, I chose commerce.  I thought I was a trailblazer, a deviant and one of a kind.  Four years later, after several gut-wrenching and listless accounting and economics classes, I knew it was not me.  I had chosen a major only slightly off the path and still within the norms of societal approval.  Did I take a radical step and follow my dream – my love for acting, my passion for dance, and my keen visual eye?  No.  I was afraid to leave the comfort of a stable boat.  Afraid to fail.  Worried what the Iyers and Guptas would think of me.  Afraid of myself.

The solution was simple and brilliant.  Procrastinate.  Now, I will work hard, make money, and dabble in my passion later.  Happiness, you see, is a choice.  Unhappiness is a choice.  The choice is ours.  Yours.

So, in a Mary Schmich/ Kurt Vonnegut MIT urban legend speech style:

chuck your blackberry.

listen to the silence.

have a pillow fight.

sing in a public bathroom.

drink some wine.

take a pilgrimage.

give your kids time, not the latest igadget.

mow your neighbor’s lawn.

be gentle with yourself.

surprise your grandma.

belch in a boardroom meeting.

keep a pygmy shrew for a pet.

plunge.  binge.

mail a hand-written letter

save strangers.  leave an imprint.

– Prof. Nagesh Rao

Can be reached at nagesh@iimahd.ernet.in

The Risk-free Indian

Posted: February 6, 2011 by Gurveen Bedi in Career, Indian, life
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I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference

The Road not Taken by Robert Frost

Multiple horror movies have shown “The Road Not Taken” as a scary path to walk on – full of shocks that will spring upon you out of nowhere, a dangerous route where every step needs to be taken with utmost care. And we, the current Indian student generation, consider the vision shown by these movies as the truth. Thus, we live all our lives, trying to follow the footsteps of previously successful people who have gone down “The Road Most Taken”. A large majority of us aspire to be engineers, that too IITians, and then MBAs, that too IIMites, and then consultants, I-bankers, traders. Those who go to commerce or other engineering colleges regret not having an IIT degree, those who go to the MDIs and the XLRIs of the world, wish that they had cracked CAT and many who go into marketing wish that they had got a Day 0 job. The people on the other side of the line gloat on and on about the perfect life that they have managed to create for themselves. But this is a glossed-over version of the truth. In reality, several of those IITians are misfits who could have done much better in an Arts degrees, several of those IIMites would have been better off doing entrepreneurship or doing an MS in their field of engineering, and several of those Day 0 candidates would have been much happier in an advertising career. The only reason for these skewed career paths in our generation is our basic risk-aversion, which pushes us towards certain well-known and successful career paths and keeps us averted from other so-called “different” career paths.

Risk aversion is inherent in the Indian culture. Even our ancient scriptures preach against risk-taking – they speak of Yudhishtira who took huge risks in the game of Chaupar and lost everything and show how that one incident caused the biggest war of those times. This risk aversion is an accepted fact, but the interesting thing is that we have a habit of continually praising its merits, without looking at its downside. The recent recession and India’s stable situation in it, especially relative to US, has given us even more reasons to praise it. We shy away from loans, we save for the future, we build stable personal careers, and we love MNCs: we seem pretty smart don’t we? The downside is that we grow at a much slower rate, we prefer to jump onto the bandwagon rather than walk alone, we rarely start-up new businesses unless we have an extremely strong financial background, and we almost always take “The Road Most Taken”. Hence, the same risk aversion that we boast of, is the reason why India has had limited returns in the past. And contrastingly, it is the risk-philic nature of US populace, which has led them to be a superpower, that has helped cultivate a culture of innovation and fostered the creation of companies like Google, 3M, Ford and Pfizer. But we tend to concentrate on the Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, and choose to exemplify them to show the iconic failure of the “American dream” rather than appreciate the school dropouts who created Apple, Microsoft and Facebook. What we fail to realize is that by our risk averseness, though we have ensured that there will be no Lehman Brothers in India, we have also killed the possibility of creation of hotbeds of innovation like Apple.

Let me clarify that I am no different in this regard. I am an engineering misfit who has chosen the conventional path in the lure of assured returns, one who has not had the courage to try things closer to the heart. In fact, that is why I sat down today to think of the reasons behind this phenomenon. One of the prime reasons is that we are an emerging economy, not a developed one yet. As a consequence, a lot of us have seen our parents in constrained financial situations in our childhood. We do not want to go through similar difficulties; hence continual supply of money is an important factor for us, which drives us away from the perceived risks in entrepreneurship. Another reason is that in the professional job-space in India, a Curriculum Vitae (CV) holds more value than people themselves. And that is because the interviewers are themselves risk-averse, hence they trust a CV more than a personal interview. This drives people to try and acquire maximum number of good brands on their CV, thus driving them towards the conventional path again. One reason is also that our society and peer group places certain professions on a pedestal as compared to others, thus societal pressure pushes everyone to go for those professions where there is more perceived respect. In fact if a graduate goes into entrepreneurship, we all tend to believe that it was because he/she was unable to land herself a good job. An overarching cause is also that the above reasons combine to create a vicious circle – since some career paths have been more treaded-on they have become more developed and hence more profit-making. For example, the probability of a CA earning a high salary is higher than that of an artist, just because the art scene in India is still in its initial stages.

In this situation, I cannot expect a utopian transformation to occur in this generation – that we suddenly start valuing the “different” career path and all of us start doing what our heart truly desires. In fact I am not even sure whether the next generation will be very different in this regard, whether we will give them enough space to try alternate careers. But I can only hope that with more stability in their backgrounds and more confidence in their personal selves, at least some of them will hopefully venture out to explore those untreaded-on paths with more courage than we did.

As for me,

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and a generation after:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one more travelled by,
And that was recipe for disaster.

The Life of “I”

Posted: December 28, 2010 by Anindya Dutta in individuality, life, marriage
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A few days back a close friend of mine went through a nightmarish turmoil when she came to know that her family had unearthed (and quite ingeniously, I must say!!!) that she was dating someone from a different caste/religion. In order to ensure that this post does not brew any fresh trouble for her, let’s call this friend of mine Ayesha for the sake of anonymity. As I saw Ayesha struggle to deal with constant family pressures as she patiently tried to cajole her parents into acceptance, I wondered as to why there seemed to be swathes of unfathomable differences between Ayesha and her elders. I mean, let’s face it. Ayesha’s case is no exception to the rule, though she does tend to deviate from the mean quite often (For starters, she did NOT like Dabangg!!!). The fact is that there are several such Ayeshas in this world who are rebelling against parents for a variety of reasons – marriage, career, dressing styles, friends, alcohol and so on. Also there seems to be enough evidence to suggest that this concern does not affect any one gender more than the other, highlighting the universality of the problem.

This “generation gap”, as many of us more commonly know this phenomenon as, has often raised several socio-cultural questions and many a reason has been advocated for the generation divide from time to time. My approach to addressing the issue is, however, slightly contrarian in nature. Rather than trying to address why people belonging to our parents’ generation do not understand us, I ask – Why is it that people of our generation don’t want to comply more often with their parents’ wishes? Why is it that we swear to love our boyfriends/girlfriends till death do us apart, even when we know that our parents will never agree? Why is it that a little black dress will always be a part of a girl’s wardrobe, despite her knowing that her parents will never approve? And even when we do comply, why is it that we never go down without a fight?

The answer, in my opinion, is a result of a rapid change in the way individuals perceive themselves in today’s world. Every second of our existence, we have come to believe that we are the center of the universe with the sun, the moon and the stars all strutting their stuff at various points of the day vying for our undivided attention. Eugenicists will tell you that part of the smugness comes from the belief that we are genetically a superior human race than our parents. But, a more believable hypothesis in my opinion is that this sense of individual superiority has been driven by business practices over the last two-three decades.

It all began when operations researchers went to work on the entire philosophy of “mass customization” a couple of decades back. For the uninitiated, mass customization was the ever unachievable Holy Grail of operations management where you produce goods and services for the masses but ensure a high degree of customization which meets every individual’s idiosyncratic needs. After all, what use is a vintage Black Ford when I want a bright yellow truck with a dash of bright red and with “PussyWagon” written all over it? (Remember Kill Bill, eh?) Well in the world of mass customization – you asked for it and you almost always got it!

Advertisers world over then took this one step further. Ever wondered what is common to “Because you are worth it” (L’Oreal), “Have it your way”(Burger King), “Where do you want to go today?” (Microsoft) and “Express Yourself” (Airtel)? Ya, right. The word – “YOU”. And these are only a few examples of advertisement taglines which have made no pretences in making the individual the sole focal point of their attention over the last two decades. Pepsi’s concept of Youngistaan, MTV and Channel V’s continuous infatuation with creating a separate youth culture, and Bollywood’s spanky new obsession with glorifying rebellion in our generation (3 Idiots, Rang de Basanti, Saathiya etc.) have created a heady cocktail fuelling our aspirations and ambitions today where words like “I”, “Me” and “Myself” have exalted status. Such is the nature and pull of this newfound obsession glorifying the individual that even bellwether Apple introduced the “i” in its product names (the iMacs, iPads, iPods, iTunes etc.) to emphasize the importance of individuality  – a reflection of the times we live in these days.

Although it is tough to say whether this trend bodes well for us or not, a large part of the friction between our parents’ generation and our generation is due to this emphasis on “I” which manifests itself in our refusal to compromise on most issues. The truth cannot be denied that we live in a world where every second of the day we are made to believe that our wants and needs are of prime importance and that the right to choose our own lifestyles is not negotiable. It is this sense of liberation and the romanticism which accompanies this sense which makes us want more for ourselves.

But, isn’t this good news? Isn’t that exactly what we are here for? For ourselves, honestly aren’t we worth it?

Well only time will tell. As of now, I do feel amused when I wonder how it will be like standing on the other side of the discussion responding to our children’s views on life several years from now, as they tear their hair apart wondering why their parents are not more rational and understanding!

The author sighs and signs off!

A toast to free-riding!

Posted: November 14, 2010 by Gurveen Bedi in Free-riders, IIM
Tags: , ,

I had written this post a few days back and then shelved it since I had thought that it is pointless as it wouldn’t change anything. But a recent experience of a friend who I found crying since her group members had left her alone to deal with a tough assignment, made me want to dedicate this special post to free-riders. Hence, I  got back to working on this post, in the hope that it may change some people who are in the first year and have just got a taste of the ‘freedom’ of free-riding.

In economics, free riders are defined as those who take more than their fair share of the benefits or do not shoulder their fair share of the costs of their use of a resource. Free-riders exist everywhere. The businessmen who evade taxes, the carpool partner who never gets her own car, the people who steal electricity by illegal connections and most relevant to IIMA, the student in the study group who absolutely refuses to contribute.

The free-rider phenomenon stems from the structure of working in groups. Whenever work or responsibility is assigned to a group of people, rather than individuals, the belief of every individual is that the work will get done easily. Hence, some individuals evade the work since they know that the same benefits will accrue to them whether they contribute or not. A solution would be to avoid the group structure, but in several cases, that is impossible. A number of tasks are such that a group structure is a necessity – for example, a nation’s defence, spend on public infrastructure etc.

Specifically, academics at IIM Ahmedabad are all about groups and group assignments, hence it is a system inherently infested with free-riders. This post is thus addressed to the free-riders of IIM Ahmedabad in an attempt to enlighten them and if nothing else, at least to make them squirm about in their places.

Dear free-rider,

First, let me start by wishing you a “Happy First Year” at IIMA. There is probably no other breed of students that enjoyed the first year of IIM Ahmedabad more than you did. While most of the students were burning the midnight oil to finish that irritating Marketing decision sheet or that nauseous BRM project, you were laughing at their predicament and enjoying late night movies and cards in the company of other beings of the same breed. You would come to the class every morning, that’s if you would, and scoff at the others who were worrying about whether they had got the last assignment right, or whether their group would be called to present that day. You never realised that this smirking would come back to hit you someday – you probably still don’t. And have no doubts about it, it will hit you, all in due course of time.

While several students who entered this MBA program fresh out of undergrad, found the discipline here a sudden jolt that shook them and in the process, made “ladies out of the girls” and “men out of the boys”; you found this a seamless transition. For you, post graduation became just another extension of undergrad life. You never understood the essence of an MBA at IIMA, that it is not just a degree, it is a way of living. The struggle for daily case analysis, the long-winded group discussions interspersed with juices and section mails, the goof-ups in class presentations, the last minute run to the printer before assignment submissions, the infighting for work distribution and even the gruelling work itself – all constitute what an MBA at IIMA is about. You have missed out on all of it; you have lost out on a life that thousands crave to experience.

Apart from the experience, you have missed out on learning an essential skill that IIMA teaches you – time-management. I remember our Program Head announcing in class in the first month, “You all are brilliant and we know that if we gave you enough time to spend on academics, you would all excel. That is why we don’t. We give you a time crunch so that you learn to prioritize and multi-task”. And learn we did. Whether it was tons of assignments, several presentations, multiple clubs’ work, eating out, having a life, we did it. We managed it all and we came out proud. You failed there, and failed miserably.  In a struggle to manage work and fun, you chose the easy way out. I am just waiting to see you deploy these finely developed time-management skills at your respective organizations next year. I wonder what choice you will make then.

Also, you forgot an important part of what constitutes an MBA – the network that is built here. In a few years, students of our batch would be employed across different industries in a variety of sectors. From a marketer at HUL to a consultant at Bain, from an investment banker at Goldman Sachs to an activist at some NGO, we will have it all – an expansive spread of people, an amazingly well-connected network. But the only way one can tap this network is by having had a good reputation in campus in terms of work ethics and ability. The work that one does here and the identity one forms here, doesn’t end with graduation. It defines the manner in which people remember you once you graduate and determines the amount of respect that you are able to generate. But, in the quest of low hanging fruits of poker nights and parties, you perhaps overlooked that aspect of an MBA. Honestly, I don’t blame you. If you couldn’t understand the essence of the academic program in the first place, forgetting the importance of creating a network at a B-school is but natural.

But the biggest irony of it all is that in spite of the self-destruction that you have subjected yourself to, you still have the guts to believe that you are smart. You still feel that you have gamed the academic system and come out unscathed and victorious. You feel you’ve won, you feel you’ve escaped.

Well, let me break the bad news to you buddy!!! The truth is that you are a loser…

You have lost the opportunity so bad, you have harmed your reputation so much, that nothing you will do can recover it. Forget about being the “smart one”, you’ve been the worst kind of fool since you never realised that you were being a fool.

And I, pity your foolishness.


A free-rider hating person

The Race to the Bottom

Posted: October 6, 2010 by Anindya Dutta in Media
Tags: , ,

21st May, 2006 – CNN IBN aired an interview of the then Human Resources and Development Minister, Arjun Singh conducted by Karan Thapar on “The Devil’s Advocate”. This interview was being broadcast in the backdrop of the central government’s decision to implement caste-based quotas for OBCs in seats of higher education. Having been incensed by what I thought was a regressive anti-meritocratic decision; I watched the program with wide-eyed curiosity. Much to my pleasure, Karan Thapar ripped the minister’s defense apart and though the 30 minute program had little consequence in terms of influencing any policy review, the interview was rich in terms of bringing forth to the audiences the hollowness of governmental policy-making which was purely playing to the tune of the vote banks.

That was journalism at its best – aggressive yet subtle, neutral yet opinionated, getting a message across both to the audiences as well as policymakers.

Ever since then, the persistent waves of competitive business motives driven by the quest for higher TRPs and bulging bottom-lines have slowly yet steadily eroded away at the fortress of high quality Indian journalistic competence, which for long had been hailed as one of the best in the world. Just in case you got this wrong, I am not referring to the IndiaTVs and the Aajtaks of the journalistic world today. Contrarily, I am taking aim at the NDTVs, the CNNIBNs, and the TOIs – the so-called liberal “English” media of today.

Before I take my arguments further, let me reiterate my commitment to the free press and to the fact that journalistic freedom is, without doubt, an important cornerstone of any civilized society. However, as one of my professors in class once said – “A free market never works. A well-regulated free market does.” That is the essence of what I write here today. Events in the last two years which I will elucidate further have necessitated in my opinion the need for a regulated, yet not oppressed media. The logic is as follows…

I was at home in the first week of September, and one night I happened to watch “We The People” – one of Barkha Dutt’s flagship shows on NDTV. The bone of contention for the episode was the legitimacy of the use of the linguistic phrase “Saffron Terrorism”. For 60 minutes, representatives of the Hindu and the Muslim community, academia, policymakers, politicians, historians and journalists scrutinized and dissected the phrase and its legal and moral validity. However, at the end of the discussion, I knew no more or less about “Saffron Terrorism” than I did before the discussion (I don’t think even Barkha knew any more), nor did the discussion provoke any thoughts or crystallize any opinions. Yes, but Barkha’s congenial and friendly nature did get people from the different communities to trade allegations and squabble on national television which I am pretty sure did rake in some TRPs in the process.

Around a week later, news of the impending Ayodhya verdict had gripped the entire country in a vice-like grip of uncertainty. A rarity at IIMA, I happened to switch on the television during this buildup one day and quickly navigated my way through to the news channels. As I browsed back and forth from CNN-IBN to TIMES NOW to NDTV, I was shocked and amazed at the audaciously indifferent and irresponsible behavior of the three “so-called” faces of responsible and intellectual journalism – Barkha Dutt, Rajdeep Sardesai and Arnab Goswami. All three of them had dedicated one hour of prime time television to covering the Ayodhya episode, and all that they did in those 60 minutes was to conduct emotionally charged, provocative discussions on inconsequential but sensational issues such as tracing back the origins of the dispute and the history of communal tensions in India. To make matters worse, they occasionally peppered the discussion with controversial images from the 6th of December, 1992. While all the three media stars spoke for long about the potential of the verdict to polarize the country, little did they realize that they in their own subtle way were stoking embers which could have created communal tensions. However, I must credit all three of them for ending their high-octane discussions pleading with everyone to exercise restraint over the next few days. As if it mattered after 59 minutes of provoking ill-will, whether they signed off on a conciliatory note or not.

To make matters worse on the 1st of October, 2010, after the verdict had been delivered, the TOI carried a front page article on the verdict titled “2 Parts to Hindus, 1 Part To Muslims”. Factually correct, but trivialized to make it appear like the final score-line of a closely contested India-Pakistan hockey match, with one side as the eventual winner! Was this the best way of representing facts available to a newspaper which has 150 years of journalistic experience behind it? Is this what one can rightly call journalistic maturity? One of my friends smartly commented – “It’s all about the money, honey!!!” So it seems to be the case.

The build-up to the Commonwealth Games is another case to the point of what I call irresponsible media coverage. Now I am no friend of the Organizing Committee, nor is Suresh Kalmadi my long-lost uncle! But with 10-15 days to go for the start of the Commonwealth Games, does it do any good to anyone when the media channels dedicate 120 minutes of prime-time coverage to tell us how Suresh Kalmadi and Co. fucked up? Yes, it is the media’s responsibility to uncover all cases of corruption in the OC. Yes, it is their responsibility to uncover cases of gross mismanagement. But once the point has been made, is there any logic in sensationalizing the whole episode apart from the greed of additional TRPs? Guess what – These scraped TRPs come at the expense of poor ticket sales, participant withdrawals and diplomatic wrangles which further hurt the Games in specific and the country in general.

What’s worse, I remember watching an entire 15 minute section on one of these English news channels about Michael Fennel, the Commonwealth Games Federation chief, which portrayed him as a hedonist, a womanizer and a miscreant. Now tell me how would Michael Fennel’s hormonal urges have any bearing on the success of the Commonwealth Games? The Butterfly Effect, maybe!!!

My last example supporting my point goes back a couple of years when Mumbai was taken hostage on the 26th of November, 2008 by a group of nine terrorists. At that point of time, all sections of the liberal, sophisticated “English” media parked themselves outside the Taj covering live the entire terrorist drama. I remember watching the entire drama unfold live on television and one incident stands out. Barkha Dutt was interviewing an authority figure from the armed forces who (cleverly) suggested that all hostages had been evacuated from the Oberoi and Taj, without directly saying so. But, true to her unbridled quest for the truth and nothing but the truth, Barkha Dutt went a step further and reached out to a member of the Oberoi management who unaware of the implications of his statements confirmed to our media crusader that there were several people trapped in the hotel. Guess what our own modern-day Superwoman with a heart of gold actually did? She announced it to the world live on television – “My gun-toting friends, there are few more in there…Go get them!!!”.

My criticism of this specific section of the journalistic world is intentional, because they have come to represent a growing malaise afflicting the media of today – that of hypocrisy and two-facedness. The Aajtaks and IndiaTVs are no saints in this aspect, but they are unassuming and unapologetic about their positioning. They intend to sensationalize and they have no qualms about accepting it right in your face. There is no moral or ethical duplicity in the way they project themselves. But when Barkha Dutta, Rajdeep Sardesai, Arnab Goswami and their ilk project themselves as representatives of responsible sections of the media with focus on nation-building and progressive healthy discussion, it would not be wrong to say that we as consumers of news and views are being quite smartly conned…

As Anurag Kashyap succinctly put it – “When I see Barkha Dutt on We The People, trying to talk with a common man who lost six members of his family, almost cajoling something out him, that makes me angry. It seemed so false, so overdramatic.”

Going back to the issue of regulation, I fail to understand why regulation is seen as such a taboo in the land which is a supreme example of regulatory success. Be it the shepherding of the telecom industry by TRAI through the last decade or the robust resilience of the banking system courtesy the RBI, time and again India has borne the benefits of regulatory oversight. The glaring indiscipline shown by the Indian media over the last couple of years, hence, makes a strong case for a healthily-regulated media.

Maybe the time has come to finally act, or else journalistic standards in India will continue its race for TRPs and surging bottomlines – a race which leads it right to the bottom…