April 24, 2005

Market Survey : Primary and Secondary Schools

As India breaks free from the indignity of underdevelopment and shoots for the commanding heights of the global economy, the single most important engine that it needs is a competent workforce -- or to be more specific the quality of education that they have access to. Education is of course the responsibility of the government but like most other government responsibilities, it is never taken with the right degree of seriousness.

So private participation in this sector is becoming increasingly important and we see a large number of institutions -- from engineering and medical colleges down to secondary and primary English medium schools -- that have emerged. This is fine in principle but very often the management committees of these institutions, much like traders of scarce commodities, charge high prices, compromise on quality and behave with a degree of arrogance that is extremely distressing for the end consumer.

The obvious solution is to invite government regulation but that would be courting bureaucratic disaster. Instead, it would be better if there is a survey conducted by the media in association with market survey organisations and the results are placed in the public domain. Market forces will then ensure competition which will translate into quality and value for money.

The first focus should be primary and secondary schools to determine among other things (a) quality of teachers (b) infrastructure (c) results in board and competitive examinations. These scores, both on specific dimensions as well as the final composite, if available for each city, will be very useful. First parents, as the consumers would know where to put their money in and schools will have to be sensitive to their concerns. Secondly, these results can be used to channelise private charitable funds to upgrade infrastructure and reward deserving teachers. Given the amount of advertising interest that FMCG companies have on the school-going population it may not be too difficult to generate interest and garner funds for this purpose.

April 04, 2005

Pervasive Learning Environment

Convocation Address delivered on Sunday, April 3rd 2005 at the College of Engineering & Management at Kolaghat to graduates who have passed out in 2003 / 2004

Friends …

I am sure that you all realize that this is perhaps one of the most important days in your life. You and your parents have worked very hard and have made numerous sacrifices of in terms of time, money and the cost of lost opportunities – to reach this point where you will receive a diploma. By the Grace of the Divine Mother and through your own diligent efforts you are now an Engineer.. with a capital ‘E’.

Congratulations. It is a day of great joy and rejoicing and I join your parents, your teachers and other guests in congratulating you on passing the second important milestone in your career. You may be wondering what the first milestone was .. it was your admission to this institute and I am sure that you recollect how happy you and your parents felt when that happened. I am also sure thatthere will be many more happy milestones like this in the years ahead.

I am told that it is customary for the Chief Guest to deliver a convocation address. However when I look back on the two convocation events that I have attended as a student – one in nearby Kharagpur and the other in far away Dallas – and I try to recollect what the speaker had spoken about, I draw a blank. To be fair to them, the speakers must have spoken about weighty matters that I should have listened to and remembered but after years and years of listening to my teachers it was a time for extreme lecture-fatigue. I just could not focus on and listen to another knowledge-filled speech …. All I wanted to do was to get the diploma and run out into the wide wide.

So why do you think I am giving you a lecture today ? It is because of my arrogance .. and as you grow old and rise in life, through designations and organizations, this arrogance will grow on you as well. All of us have this unfortunate tendency to believe that we know a lot and it is our right and our duty to tell the worldabout it …

We seem to have a Point of View about virtually everything and we are not hesitant to talk about it with the full power of our vocal chords.

So here is my first, and perhaps ONLY piece of advice for you : Do not get a swollen head. You have achieved a lot but you have miles to go before you sleep. You have learnt a lot but you have many, many more things to learn. Learning is a process that does not end when you step out of college … a college is justa place where you learn how to learn, So let us explore the world of learning.

You must have done a lot of good deeds in your previous lives to be born in India in time to see it enter the 21st century. … For indeed this century belongs to India and her youth. After nearly a thousand years of alien rule India is rising today. Rising through the deep, dark depths of ignorance that had sought – but failed – to destroy its native genius. Rising towards the bright and shining lights that herald the beginning of new age – the InformationAge – and the emergence of a new society : The Knowledge Society.

What is this Information Age ? What is this Knowledge Society ? Since these two ideas are very closely linked let me try to explain them together. From primitive times, human society has moved through certain eras. First there was this era of hunter-gatherers … people who roamed the forests in search of food. With the passage of time, mankind learnt farming and that era is known as the Agricultural Age. Wealth, and to an extent happiness, accumulated with those
who had access to agricultural land and the means to cultivate them. However the total wealth (and happiness) that could be generated through this route was limited and so man had to find other means. This gave rise to a new era …. the age of machines This was the Industrial Age.

The Industrial Age was good in terms of improving the physical quality of life … houses, cars, televisions, GSM phones … have all become far more affordable. But yet the Industrial Age brought along with whole set of social and ethical problems that we are still grappling with. The industrial age created a set of entrepreneurs – some ethical, some not so ethical – and a set of industrial laborers. The former grew in wealth and influence and this in turn created a set of have-s and have-nots. I do not wish to go into the details of the class struggle that followed but net-net the situation became such that making money especially through the industrial route, came to associated with certain unsavory practices : nepotism – through political or family connections, unscrupulousness – forgery, cheating and exploitation, or sheer money and muscle power. It seemed as if the relative position of the have-s and have-nots had become fossilized into a corresponding matrix of ‘us’ and ‘them’. To many of ‘us’ it seemed as ‘we’ would be condemned to be a part of the have-not society whereas the society of have-s would be the private domain of ‘them’ … that is those who are born into the privileged world of inherited money and good ‘connections’.

And then, very fortuitously, came the Information Age and changed the rules of the game altogether.

The revolution began with Information Technology and then it spread quickly through the other parts of the economy.

Relatively speaking, the importance of ‘know-who’ seemed to decline and was replaced with the importance ‘know-how’ or ‘know-what’. Thanks to the rise of digital communication links and the Internet it has now become possible to sellour knowledge to world that lies beyond the borders of the traditional economy.

For the first time, knowledge could be transformed into money. Our knowledge of the COBOL language coupled with our knowledge of ENGLISH language was a heady cocktail that took the world – frightened by the Y2K problem – by storm. Thousands of people who would have rotted in either low paying jobs or in employment-exchange waiting lists suddenly found that they could exchange their knowledge for moneyand so was born the peripatetic Indian programmer.

And it was not a small amount of money !! We have the shining example of Mr. Narayanmurthy and others like him … essentially middle class people like you and me, educated, ethical and enterprising who have not only become extremely wealthy and have managed to break through into the high society of the erstwhile“have-s” – the so called “Tata-Birlas” of the old Indian economy.

This wealth is not confined to the Narayanmurthy-s of India. Many of the so-called ‘average’ Indians are buying a car and a house early in life. So money earned through selling knowledge is now percolating down quite rapidly to fill the purses of those run motor garages and the coolie-mazdoors who are building houses in the new townships that are sprouting up beside the highways that arebeing constructed along the Golden Quadrilateral.

Obviously knowledge of COBOL and English was good to start with but with more and more knowledge more and more money earning opportunities have opened up. Since I am from the field of IT, I know how knowledge of Java, of SAP, of Project Management, of Quality Management has made more and more of our people valuable“resources” whose knowledge can be sold for profit in the global market.

Of course, this selling of knowledge does not stop with knowledge of computer technologies. If you look around you will see that many other skills are now selling freely. The skill to answer a phone call is the backbone of the vast BPO industry that is employing a vast number of people. Climbing up the value chain we have additional pools of knowledge that we can tap. Knowledge of insurance claim processing and financial accounting, ability to draw picture and animate cartoons, engineering design, research on financial markets … the list can go and on and on.

Net-net the point I wish to make here is that for the first time knowledge can be converted into wealth. The relationship between Lakshmi and Saraswati need not be antagonistic and Saraswati can, does and will lead Lakshmi intoyour home. That is what we should be celebrating today.

I started off by saying that no one listens to convocation speeches and yet we old timers love to talk more and listen less but as you would have realized by now I have digressed significantly from that point and you may be feeling that I am living by the rule of “do what I say but don’t what I do”. I really wish I could do things differently and use this opportunity to learn something
from you all today but unfortunately the format of this event is such that there is a practical difficulty. Nevertheless before I leave this college and this institute I would have learnt something more about it and the people associated with it. That is what I will gain today ( in addition to the wonderful lunch that I am sure would be served soon ). And in its own small way that additional knowledge would be a good antidote to my egotist arrogance of believing that I, because of my age and position of life, I know all that there is to know.

That brings me to the next point that I want to share with you. You would have heard in Hirak Rajar Deshey that “janar kono sesh nei, janar chestha britha tai”. Satyajit Ray was of course being utterly sarcastic when he coined this dialogue and there is not an iota of truth in that particular vile phrase. However old you grow and however powerful a position you acquire in life, there is no end to the process of learning. Knowledge is power, knowledge is the key to wealth and happiness. But … and this a very big BUT … the world is a dynamic place and knowledge that is valuable today can become commonplace and utterlyuseless tomorrow.

The knowledge and ability to read and write is a source of power and money to a scribe or a letter writer in society where literacy is rare. But if everyone knows how to read and write the value of that particular piece of knowledge disappears. You have to move on. If you are COBOL programmer you would have made a lot of money before the year 2000 but today you would be even more valuable if you have knowledge of Java or even more esoteric things like Enterprise Application Architecture. Let me give you a very specific example from my personal life. Till about 1996 I was an ace Database Administrator and was doing pretty well in life but suddenly I realized that that there was something more significant that was looming on the horizon : the Internet. I was a master of Database technology but knew nothing about Internet but still I chucked away a career in Databaseand jumped into something new … … I have never regretted that decision.

Let me recapitulate what I have said so far ….

  • One should not have the arrogance of being a know-all but instead have the humility to learn from all situations at all points of time.
  • What you need to learn about and know will keep changing. Youwill have to keep learning new things to maintain your position or relevancein the social and economic ecosystem.

This leads me to my next and last point …. which for the lack of better phrase I shall refer to as MetaKnowlege or the Pervasive Learning Environment andI will use two examples to illustrate this point. First is the English language and second the Internet.

The English language is of course a good thing to study for its own sake but in our environment it has an added value because it is door to a whole new world of knowledge and opportunity. Suppose you wished to be a COBOL programmer you would need to read up books on COBOL and the best of them would be written in English. Tomorrow when you wish to move on to Java or SAP .. you would need, not so much COBOL, but English again. English is the framework that you will use to perpetuate your learning experience. COBOL is knowledge, English is MetaKnowledge. COBOL is something that you learn, but English provides you with a Pervasive Learning Environment. So if someone tells you that English is not important tell him, politely and firmly that he is wrong

An even more Pervasive Learning Environment is the Internet or the World-Wide-Web. If English opens the doors and lets you out of your home, the Web is your passport to the world that lies beyond the borders of your country. The reach of the web, both in breadth and in depth is tremendous and you – and even your teachers and your parents – must use it as much as you can to learn more and more – first about what to learn, and then about that particular subject that you believe will be useful to you. Go to Google. Search and you will find a world of knowledgethat will reveal itself in front of your eyes.

I have been speaking for a while now and if I continue to do so any longer … you will suffer from speech-fatigue. So let me circle back to what I had said earlier … Learning is a process that does not end when you step out of college … a college is just a place where you learn how to learn …. Your college is one of the very important components of the Pervasive Learning Environment and be thankful that you have used it well. But there are other components like the WorldWideWeb …. And still others that I may not be aware of. Look for them, locate them, use them and make them a central componentof your life.

Thank you for listening to me for so long, now go forth into the world and once again, may the Grace of the Divine Mother be with you. JAI HIND.