April 23, 2010

CBSE XII as Common Entrance Examination

In an earlier post on de-stressing higher education, I had argued about the irrelevance of the JEE / AIEEE as instruments of selection for entrance to higher education and the Damodar Acharya committee has recommended that the JEE should be scrapped. This is good. But the proposal to replace the same with a SAT style aptitude test is not a good solution either.

These aptitude tests -- earlier referred to as IQ tests -- have been found to be rather flawed because they seem to measure one aspect of what is known as "intelligence" or "aptitude" and would again be another strain on the students. Instead, let us focus on one examination and let that be the CBSE XII.

Why do I say this ? Because the cost and effort involved in managing the logistics of two nationwide examinations is better utilised in making sure that one examination is managed better. Second,  by making the process more broad based, we will be able to iron out the vagaries and uncertainties of performance delivered by a student on just one day.

Of course it may be argued that students who appear in non-CBSE boards would be at a disadvantage but strictly speaking they are already inconvenienced by having to take their own board examination plus the SAT-style aptitude test. However the CBSE XII would be closer in syllabus to any other board examination than any new SAT style aptitude test. So yes, CBSE students may be at an advantage but no, the advantage would not be any worse than the present situation where students are forced to take JEE / AIEEE / VITEE / State JEE / BITSAT and a whole slew of other examinations.

Ideally speaking all students should take just one examination at the end of class XII but given the diversity of opinion in India and the argumentative nature of the population this may take some time but the CBSE XII could be a good first step in this direction.

Looking ahead, a possible and feasible road map could be as follows

1. The percentile marks in the CBSE XII should be selection criteria for all Central universities like IIT, NIT etc.  All students will have to take at best one and at worst two examinations for all central colleges

2. At some point in time, State government and private engineering colleges will see the benefit of using CBSE XII as an entrance examination.

3. After some more time -- and subject to some honest political soul searching -- state level boards may agree to merge their XII exam with the CBSE XII. This may be facilitated if states can be given a position of authority within the CBSE hierarchy.

4. This road map will be greatly facilitated if the CBSE XII can be conducted multiple times in the same year so that students can take the examination at leisure and in comfort. Calculation of percentile in the CBSE XII can be done on the basis of multi year population -- this has been done successfully in GRE / GMAT for years -- and this will ensure greater reliability and stability of scores.

The only resistance to this approach would be from those who administer this plethora of tests. There is significant money that is spent in conducing these national level examinations and a good part of the money that is spent ends up -- legitimately or otherwise -- in people's pockets. A slowdown in this money flow may be unfortunate reason why a single CBSE XII may opposed by the nation's education system.

April 14, 2010

Extreme Konsulting

Some people look at the world around them and wonder why - Creative folks look around and wonder why NOT ? We have had corrossion resistant steel and pest resistant Bt-cotton, so why can we not have institutional systems that are corruption resistant by design ?

In my youth and childhood, when I was a consultant in an earlier professional avatar, I have had the opportunity to work with Indian and foreign companies and with some agencies of the government to design processes and systems that meet certain organisational goals. Some of our ideas were successful and some where not and when I look back on these assignments, the one common thread that spans across all successful assignments was the fact the organisation concerned, or at least some significant individuals, were committed to a successful implementation and worked with us to introduce the changes required for our ideas to be successful. Unfortunately this is not so in most government assignments.

Government agencies in India, both at the states as well as at the centre, are a consultants delight and, paradoxically and simultaenously, a consultants nightmare. Why delight ? because the processes are so obviously faulty that even a mediocre consultant can instantly locate areas of improvement and can, without much thought, suggest changes to improve matters. For example the simple action of using email for seeking and granting approvals can speed up 90% of all government processes. But then why the nightmare ? because this simple idea of using email -- that is widely used in most corporate organisations -- will not be accepted by the gerontocracy that has the final say in all matters. Government thought processes are so archaic and arthritic that change will be resisted to the last drop of red ink -- or the last thread of red tape -- even if it is obvious that the change will be beneficial to society at large.

A normal consulting assignment assumes as a pre-requisite that someone, somewhere wants the situation to improve and a normal consultant is tasked to not only find a solution to the problem or issue but also suggest an appropriate change management mechanism to make the change palatable. An "extreme konsulting" assignment begins with the hypothesis that NO ONE wants the situation to improve and then goes around to devise a solution that not only causes an improvement but is also irresistible to all stakeholders -- especially those who have the power to block the change. Traditionally, this is what is referred to as a WIN-WIN solution but unfortunately it is easier to talk about such solutions but fiendishly difficult to actually craft one that meets this requirement.

But just because it is difficult to find does not mean that one should not look for one. When the Wright brothers flew their improbable contraption on a desolate beach near Kitty Hawk for a few metres, could anybody envisage that Armstrong and Aldrin would be standing on the moon in 70 years ? When starving Indians were queueing up for grain 'donated' under the US Public Law 480 in the 1960s, could anyone envisage that the Green Revolution would result in grains rotting in Indian godowns ? When the average waiting time for a telephone in India was more than 10 years, could anyone envisage that within a decade, the average telephone consumer will be beseiged by scores of telephone companies trying to sell him a mobile connection. The search for that illusive WIN-WIN solution that will be embraced by someone who does not have the slightest intention of finding a solution, or who may indeed be hostile to the desired change, is the ultimate professional challenge for the "extreme konsultant".

How does one go about executing such an assignment ? The trick is to find a solution that is not only useful but one that is enjoyed by all. In Bengali this is referred to as an ahaar-o-oshood, something that serves both as meal as well as medicine. Does such a solution exist ? Or more importantly can we craft one ?

Obviously it would be pretentious on my part to even contemplate offering a solution that fits this bill but let me draw upon on my limited sphere of knowledge and expertise -- information technology -- to outline the contours of a potential approach. Such an approach would provide hints at what the final solution, that obviously must go beyond IT, could look like.

Let us look at eGovernance that has been a subject of debate for over a decade. Consultants have made lots of money -- sourced from a variety of international funding agencies as well as generously provided by the Government of India -- in the planning, design, deployment and integration of IT solutions that would benefit the government and the citizen. Some of these assignments have been successful, most have been not and government institutions in India have continued to remain mired in the perennial cesspool of incompetence and corruption. Some transaction processing has perhaps been automated -- typically money receipt transactions -- but a visit to any government office would show lots of dusty computers lying idle or if operational, being used mainly for playing games. Email of course remains a sham. Nobody in government ever checks mail and getting a response is out of question.

But what if we could get everyone in the office hooked on Orkut ? Or something equivalent ? We in India have a great fascination for Orkut and thousands of people have voluntarily signed up for this, or similar, social networking sites. Of course this fascination is generally restricted to the younger parts of the urban population but even ageing gerontocrats are under seige from their children and grandchildren to get into Orkut. Net-net Orkut is something that people adopt on their own, not under the diktat of an employer. So a social network is ahaar ( or meal ) but can we convert it into oshoodh ( or medicine ) ? This would mean using Orkut as a platform for eGovernance and I have explained how this could be done in my earlier post.  If we adopt this approach, resistance to the usage of information technology will be significantly reduced and the possibility of a real eGovernance solution will be brightened considerably.

Orkut is obviously not a solution to India's problems,  but it is symbolic of (a) a class of solutions and (b) an approach -- that tries to leverage something that people naturally like to do and bend it into a solution to a larger problem. Identifying similar ideas and sliding them unobtrusively into public usage is TEKKA : The Extremely Kreative Konsulting Assignment.

Unfortunately those who can envisage a new reality are vastly outnumbered by those who cannot. Is there anyone in the Konsulting Kommunity who can try a TEKKA ?