December 25, 2012

Save Your Sister : Mobile app to prevent rape

While hanging the rapist or castrating him may cause smug justification to society at large, it is of little value to the victim and the immense anguish that she has to suffer. Here is an idea that uses the technology that almost every woman has in her hands to help prevent rapes in the first place. It is based on a mobile app that can be used with a phone equipped with GPS, a data connection and camera -- things that are not too difficult to find on modern smart phones.

The app -- Save Your Sister (SYS) -- has three major functions, namely (a) to identify the users current position, (b) to alert others  of where she if she is in danger and (c) to take and transmit photographs of the attacker should an assault actually happen -- and it could work like this.

In the "dormant" state when the woman is under no apparent threat, the SYSapp simply keeps a record of the current position of the phone ( and the woman carrying it) and makes sure that both GPS and data transfer is operational.

If the woman moves into an area where is she is alone and is otherwise feeling threatened and scared, she "arms" the app. Immediately SYSapp starts transmitting the GPS determined position of the woman to a central server. Now two things happen.
  • A message goes to the nearest police station or outpost that is registered with the central server so that police know that there is a woman who is feeling scared. 
  • Other peer-users of SYSapp, volunteer "good samaritans", who are in the physical vicinity of the woman get a message on their SYSapp/phone and are alerted to the fact that there is a woman nearby who needs help. The position of the woman also shows up as on a Google Map inside SYSapp.

These peer user, good samaritans, if they are in a position to help, can now activate their SYSapps and start converging on the woman. Observers at the central location can watch the movement of the active "good samaritans" on Google Maps. By observing the respective positions of the woman and the "good samaritans" central observers can co-ordinate their movements as well. The woman can be informed via SYSapp that help is on the way.

In the eventuality of an actual assault, the woman will simply "activate" the SYSapp. Now two things will  happen.
  • The good samaritans who are converging towards the woman will now get a red alert on their SYSapp and they should start running towards the woman in distress and 
  • SYSapp will now start taking pictures of the crime scene using the camera phone and start transmitting them automatically. If the woman can just point the camera towards the criminal, his face will be photographed and stored on the central system.

With luck, the "good samaritans" would arrive at the scene in time and prevent the crime but even otherwise the police will have enough pictures of the assailant to nail him down later.

Obviously SYSapp will not be useful in remote, rural areas where woman may not carry smartphones capable of running apps. But in urban and semi rural areas, even if there one or two "good-samaritans" around who are willing to help a woman in distress, quite a few rapes can be prevented. 

icon image taken from

December 19, 2012

Technology for Kaliyuga !

The current national outrage about the absolutely heinous and brutal rape in a Delhi bus is understandable but in our anger and frustration we are missing the wood for the trees. Well meaning ( and good looking ) participants in TV channels are asking for anything ranging from castration to capital punishment and criticising everyone from the police to the judiciary  ... but hardly anyone is interested in identifying that elusive "deeper" cause !

Because if one were to pause and think, it will become clear that this rape is a symptom and not the disease. When you get a high fever, the fever is not the disease -- it is merely a symptom of malaria or dengue or something worse. Trying to cure the fever by throwing ice water would not work -- you need to drugs to kill the bacteria. And for that you need to find the cause.

In fact, that cause is quite well known. From the personal rape to the nationwide CWG / 2G / Coalgate scam to localised aberrations like the Ponty Chaddha empire, what we see in India is a complete collapse of governance. Every institution, and I repeat each and every one, bar none, have been compromised and are unable to function. Law enforcement -- police, CBI, ED, Income Tax -- does not enforce the law and the judiciary has slowed itself down to the point of utter irrelevance.

Why ? Because no one in any position of authority has either the will or the authority or even the ability to do anything.

Why is this ? Because no one in any position of authority, either elected or appointed, has reached that position by dint of merit. He or she is there because of money power. This is obvious for elected positions but is equally true for appointed positions. Given the circumstances, it is impossible for anyone to reach these positions without significant investment.

Why would anyone make such an investment ? Because the returns are stupendous. Any position of power or authority, whether elected or appointed, is an ATM -- any time money !

So the collapse of governance is directly linked to the depth of financial corruption in a society. Is military rule the solution ? Sorry, look at Pakistan and you will recoil from that option. Can a nation or society extricate itself from this quagmire of corruption ? Or is it an inevitable consequence of the turning of KaalChakra, the Wheel of Time, that has brought us into KaliYuga ?

Well, we could leave it at that and wait for the KaalChakra to move on to the next SatyaYuga but in the meanwhile let us try out some KaliYuga technology !

Since the root of the entire problem is money, specifically, public money spen though Government hands, let us mandate that all transactions of public money, irrespective of the quantum and the location must be accounted for in a national level, computerised financial accounting system.

On the face of it, this looks like a stupendous task ! But is it ? If Aadhar can be envisioned to track down every individual person in this country this could be much easier because
  • Unlike Aadhar, there is no need for new technology. Computerised financial accounting systems have been around since the dawn of computers in India and all that we need to do is to standardise on any one commercially viable system.
  • The concept of cloud computing allows us to do away with installation and maintenance of hardware and software servers in any Government department. 
  • Cheap, handheld tablets like Akash2 are available for distribution throughout the entire spectrum of entities handling public funds -- from Panchayats to Parliament itself.
  • Existing cell phone coverage across the nation ensures that connectivity between the handhelds and the central servers necessary for the cloud computing model is no more a problem.
Once this nationwide accounting system is in place, its data at the highest levels of granularity should be placed in the public domain through the web as a default execution of the Right to Information. Sensitive data from the Armed Forces can be excluded for security purposes.

When all institutions of governance stand compromised, transparency is perhaps the only way that the people of India can take a stand to guide their destiny and an automatic, nationwide financial accounting system is perhaps the best way ensure this transparency. RTI as a principle exists but is too slow and unwieldy to address the huge problem that we face.

When India was faced with famine in the 1950s and 1960s the only way out was a huge technology push in the form of the Green Revolution. Despite criticism, that technology push helped us survive to fight another day. Today it is not famine but it is corruption that threatens to swallow us. Once again we need a massive technology booster to push us through.

There could be two challenges that could threaten this approach. First, lack of skills. Can our government processes and employees be re-oriented in a manner that makes this transition possible. The answer is yes. It is a matter of training and change management. It will take time but is certainly well within the domain of feasibility.

The second and more bigger challenge is the acceptability of this idea to people in power and authority. They are smart enough to know that this will totally upset the power structure on which they rest and will do everything possible to derail this new threat. But even if a couple of key individuals can take this idea through the benefits will enormous.

Can we do it ? Yes, we can. Will we do it ? I can only hope.

December 14, 2012

Distance Learning : From Correspondence Courses to MOOC

Distance learning is a very seductive idea.

If we go back to the era of the Mahabharata, we learn about Ekalavya, the tribal boy, who on being denied access to Dronacharya's classes on warfare on account of his caste, taught himself archery simply by observing the teacher from a distance ! The tragic consequences of his effort are well known and should perhaps serve as a warning to societies in general and teachers in particular.

In a more realistic timeframe, approximately a hundred  years ago, correspondence courses appeared and over a period of time these courses became an integral part of various Open Universities. Unfortunately degree granting programs based on correspondence courses never acquired the popularity or employer acceptability of their classroom counterparts for a variety of reasons.

With the advent of computing technology, computer based training (CBT) programs appeared and while these never quite made it to the level of university courses, a lot of vocational training programs were developed on this model. This was particularly so in the case of training for computer oriented skills where both students and the course creators were generally comfortable with the usage of computer software.

Then came the internet and the "killer application" that it helped spawn -- the browser based world wide web. With rapid expansion of both bandwidth and computing power the teacher -- or at least his video, his words, his presentations -- could really overcome the inconvenience of distance and slide into the student's room, or at least his computer.

So is distance learning finally ready for prime time ?

Though a lot of us believe so there are quite a few sceptics who point out that like correspondence courses that were never quite able to replace the university, distance learning is destined to follow a similar trajectory. At best it might end up as a supplement to existing university programs and remain as that stepson who is allowed to stay along in the family along with the new children !

This is wrong and let me explain why it will not be so. It is not enough to have a good idea  -- there must be a field for the idea to germinate and grow into a big tree.

In 1987, when "IBM" personal computers were just about beginning to enter the corporate landscape ( in the Western world, not India ) Apple released a product called Newton -- a handheld computer called the PDA or personal digital assistant that was actually quite smart. Not only was it portable and could do many of the things that a regular computer could, it had some truly futuristic features like handwriting recognition. Unfortunately the product never quite caught on with people and was finally abandoned in 1998.

But only 12 years later, when the same company released a similar device, the famous iPad it got a rousing welcome and it has gone on to become one of the most successful products in the history of computing devices.

What had changed ? First there was the internet, the web and email but perhaps what was most important was mobile telephony. Thanks to the "field" prepared by these technologies, the idea behind the Newton PDA blossomed either as smartphones or tablet computers and has now become the most ubiquitous device that the world has ever seen. Now it is very difficult to question the relevance of any application that is based on these products.

How is this analogy relevant to distance learning ?

Let us assume that correspondence courses and computer based training programs are like the Newton PDA, an idea whose time had not yet come. What has changed since then ?

Before we answer this question, let us step back and examine the "competition". What is it that a traditional university has that distance learning must meet, match and exceed to be taken seriously. To understand that let us ask ..

What is a University ? At its most fundamental level a university has three critical characteristics, namely
  1. People : Lots of people, both students and teachers
  2. Space : A shared space that all these people can access simultaenously
  3. Interaction : An environment that encourages vigorous and rich interaction amongst all these people
Now let us look around us and see if these three conditions are being met anywhere in the digital world and the first place that we look at is

Social Media : Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Youtube, Google+, Instagram ... what is common to all these platforms ?

  1. People : Again we have lots of people, though not necessarily teachers and students, though they are not excluded.
  2. Space : Obviously these platforms are accessible to, and are indeed accessed by, all the people who participate
  3. Interaction : There is no dearth of interaction and in fact interactions are the lifeblood of any social media platform.
 What is even nicer is that these interactions can be very, very "rich" interactions, not just in terms of media -- that is images, audio, video -- but in terms of questions, answers, clarifications, comments, appreciation, criticism and even evaluation in terms of likes, shares and votes on each and every interaction. In fact I believe that social media interaction is far more richer in terms of diversity and depth than what could ever be possible in the physical world.

So the success of a distance learning program in emulating and surpassing a traditional university lies in its ability to map the university model on the social media model that has become so wildly popular.

In an earlier post I had explored how we could deliver Distance Learning on a Social Network Platform but if we look around we would see that the movement towards Massive Online Open Courseware (MOOC) is a step in this direction.In fact big name universities on either side of the Atlantic have come together to create two major consortia -- Edx created by MIT, Harvard and UC Berkeley in the US and FutureLearn consisting of 12 British Universities namely  Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, East Anglia, Exeter, King’s College London, Lancaster, Leeds,  Southampton, St Andrews and Warwick, along with UK distance-learning organization The Open University (OU)  -- have been formed to develop the concept. And then of course there is Coursera a commercial entity  and Udacity created by Google employees who have all stepped into the game,

Distance learning is no more a technology of the future. It is here and now as the technology is widely and inexpensively available. In fact, the way I would put it is that the bus is here but whether you board it or not is something that you have to decide and decide fast !

What would you need to get going ? That will be my next post.

December 04, 2012

November 02, 2012

Mary Kom - Neighbours Envy, India's Pride

scanned from Anandabazar Patrika

Our house that is no more

Renu Villa, 51 Jatin Das Road, built by my grandfather Prabhat Nath Mukerjee in 1929 and lived in by the whole family till 2010.

October 31, 2012

Who Needs Holidays ?

I need holidays and so does everyone else but do organisations need holidays ? Do the railways shut down for the holidays ? Do electricity companies, hospitals or essential services shut down for the holidays ? Do steel plants shut down for holidays ? Do BPO companies shut down for holidays ? Of course not. Very basic planning and scheduling processes -- in use for ages across all these businesses -- ensure that employees get their full quota of leave and vacations and yet the businesses and organisations run 365 days a year. Nobody thinks that this is very strange !

Image Credit
So why can the same principle not be extended to other service organisations like courts and government offices ?

Agreed that government employees do not wish to view themselves as a part of a service organisation -- a government job is meant to be a passport to luxurious idleness -- but if anybody in any position of authority has even an iota of interest in improving, however slightly, the work ethic of the sarkari behemoth then exploring this option could be good place to start.

Keeping aside the formal celebrations of the Indian state, Independence and Republic Day, if we abolish the other 15 holidays in the Government calendar we are adding 15 working days to the Government. Employees however need not worry since they would be compensated with an additional 15 days of casual leave. If any employee wants to “celebrate”, say Gandhi Jayanti, Mahavir Jayanti or Guru Nanak’s birthday on the specific day they can always use their CL.

There would be problems on popular festivals, like Diwali, but some clever management and incentives, financial or otherwise, can be used to ensure that office operations do not come to a halt. Organisations that operate round the year manage to do this anyway, so it cannot be an impossible task and moreover, since all Government departments are heavily overstaffed it would be easier to ensure adequate coverage.

The fifteen scheduled holidays are the low hanging fruits but the real boost to government productivity can come if we can abolish the weekly holidays on Saturday and Sunday ! That will inject another 104 working days into the government -- almost a 40% increase ! Again, no individual employee suffers any loss. Everyone gets his two or one and half days of holiday but there is no need to bunch everyone’s holidays on the same two days !! This way, courts and government offices remain open and functional on every day of the year. In principle, this should result in a 40% increase in the quantum of services that gets delivered by the Government to the citizens every year.

Incredible ? But is it really feasible ?

Any new idea is of course the subject of intense criticism by those who swear by the status quo but if we are really interested in that 40% benefit, let us carefully consider the following.

Any organisation that operates round the year has a way of rotating weekly off-days for its employees and the same techniques can be applied to government offices. In fact the process will be even simpler because Government offices are generally overstaffed with people who cannot be laid off because of union pressure and these extra hands will make the scheduling process much easier.

Rotating weekly holidays work best for employees who are generally fungible -- who can be easily replaced by others of similar capabilities. Typically, managers who are responsible and accountable for specific decisions cannot be replaced by people of similar rank. This is where some rationalisation of existing business processes may be necessary. However the vast majority of government business is transactional and does not depend on discretionary decisions. As long as these transactional tasks are adequately documented ( as in ISO 9000 quality manuals ) they can be performed by any clerk or officer who is on duty on any specific day.

Extremely senior people in key decision making roles may have to be handled differently. Here we must use technology to its hilt. Mobile offices based on laptops and tablets connected to 4G networks, teleconferencing, digital signatures and other tools can be used to ensure that people need not be physically present in offices to get the job done. With some planning and adequate technology, meetings can be scheduled and no decision need to be held up just because someone in “off” on a particular day. Fortunately the number of such people will be small and so their difficulties need not be used to obstruct a system that would work well for 95% of government employees.

So abolishing Government holidays -- both scheduled and weekly holidays -- is certainly a feasible solution but what about personal difficulties and challenges ? Will family life be impacted ? There would be some initial issues especially in families where there are two working members but with some planning and mutual adjustment these can be addressed. Obviously no change can be completely painless but if we as a nation understand and appreciate the immense benefit of abolishing holidays then all such issues can be sorted out. After all we are increasing the delivery capacity of Government services by 40% with no additional investments in physical or human infrastructure and that by any yardstick is a very significant achievement.

The government has its eyes fixed on big ticket reforms. A new cabinet is now in place and there are many young people with fresh ideas who are in positions of authority. This simple reform in our administrative process that has no economic or political cost can be harbinger for many far reaching improvements in the governance of India.

September 30, 2012

Fortnight for Ancestors : Pitri Paksha

Subhrendu Mukerjee
"Never Born, Never Died. Stopped by the World between 1927 and 1992"
The dark fortnight before Durga Puja, ending on the new moon of Mahalaya is when people in India formally remember their ancestors and acknowledge their presence with offerings of food, water and black sesame seeds ("teel"). From now till the day of Mahalaya, we are expected to perform the tarpan ritual every morning. In this digital age, I thought of creating this simple scrolling mechanism that will spell out what I would be saying in memory of my ancestors.

ভরদ্বাজ গোত্রস্য পিতা শ্রীশুভ্রেন্দু দেবশর্মা ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।
ভরদ্বাজ গোত্রস্য পিতা শ্রীশুভ্রেন্দু দেবশর্মা ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।
ভরদ্বাজ গোত্রস্য পিতা শ্রীশুভ্রেন্দু দেবশর্মা ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।
ভরদ্বাজ গোত্রস্য পিতামহ শ্রী প্রভাতনাথ দেবশর্মা ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।
ভরদ্বাজ গোত্রস্য পিতামহী শ্রীমতি শিবরাণী দেবী ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।
ভরদ্বাজ গোত্রস্য প্রপিতামহ শ্রী সত্যচরণ দেবশর্মা ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।
ভরদ্বাজ গোত্রস্য প্রপিতামহী শ্রীমতী কালিদাশী দেবী ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।
ভরদ্বাজ গোত্রস্য বৃদ্ধ পিতামহ শ্রী ক্ষেত্রচন্দ্র দেবশর্মা ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।
ভরদ্বাজ গোত্রস্য শ্রী দয়ারাম দেবশর্মা ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।
ভরদ্বাজ গোত্রস্য শ্রী ব্রজকিশোর দেবশর্মা ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।
শান্ডিল্য গোত্রস্য মাতামহ শ্রী শশীকুমার দেবশর্মা ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।
শান্ডিল্য গোত্রস্য মাতামহী শ্রীমতী প্রতিভা দেবী ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।
শান্ডিল্য গোত্রস্য প্রমাতামহ শ্রী রামতারণ দেবশর্মা ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।
শান্ডিল্য গোত্রস্য বৃদ্ধমাতামহ শ্রী শ্যামানন্দ দেবশর্মা ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।
শান্ডিল্য গোত্রস্য শ্রী রামলোচন দেবশর্মা ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।
ভরদ্বাজ গোত্রস্য শ্রী শরদিন্দু দেবশর্মা ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।
ভরদ্বাজ গোত্রস্য শ্রী শোভেন্দু দেবশর্মা ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।
ভরদ্বাজ গোত্রস্য সুশ্রী শংকরী দেবী ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।
ভরদ্বাজ গোত্রস্য সুশ্রী শিশিরকনা দেবী ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।
শান্ডিল্য গোত্রস্য শ্রী প্রতীপ দেবশর্মা ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।
ভরদ্বাজ গোত্রস্য শ্রী কৃষ্ণচন্দ্র দেবশর্মা ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।
ভরদ্বাজ গোত্রস্য শ্রী লালগোপাল দেবশর্মা ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।
শান্ডিল্য গোত্রস্য শ্রী দুর্গাপ্রসাদ দেবশর্মা ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।
শান্ডিল্য গোত্রস্য শ্রী দেবীচরণ দেবশর্মা ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।
কাশ্যপ গোত্রস্য শ্রী সুরেন্দ্রচন্দ্র দেবশর্মা ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।
কাশ্যপ গোত্রস্য শ্রী সুরথচন্দ্র দেবশর্মা ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।
কাশ্যপ গোত্রস্য শ্রী ঈশানচন্দ্র দেবশর্মা ত্রিপ্যতামেতত সতিলোদকং তস্মৈ স্বধা।

A full list of all my known ancestors is available at this blog post.

September 21, 2012

The 49 week MBA program

The B-School business is in a bit of a crisis ! Globally, MBA applications are falling [ WSJ ] and in India many B-Schools, especially those run by slightly shady operators, are shutting down [ ToI ]. An obvious reason for this state of affairs is that, at least in India, the AICTE has created an environment where only shady people with little interest in education but with bags of money are allowed to build and operate B-Schools. Given the current state of political leadership in the country it is futile to expect any kind of policy support and so it is up to the B-School community to figure a way out of this rut.

Should we revamp the curriculum ? To make it more relevant ? Datar in Rethinking the MBA  has identified that MBA programs should focus on leadership skills, creative and critical thinking. In an earlier post I have explored the possibility of replacing the functional approach in the MBA program [ Marketing / Finance / Operations / HR ] with a more holistic approach that balances the application of left and right brain skills.

Another approach could be to make the MBA program more compact, efficient and effective. Can we cut the flab from the AICTE mandated 2 year program and come out with something that is shorter and so less expensive ?

While we cannot deny that placements is the principal reason why students join B-Schools, pedagogy is important as well. A quick survey of well known B-School curriculum shows that the teaching credits that range from 72 at Kellogs, 60 at Stonybrook, 60 at Stern, NYU, 51 at Haas, Berkeley, 60 at Harvard and 63( equivalent) at Wharton, UPenn. So if we shorten the program, we need to make sure that it delivers a significant amount of course content.

Here is a sample MBA program that comfortably delivers 72 credits of actual teaching in just 49 weeks.

Course Structure of 49 week program

Term 1  -  10 weeks of teaching @ 30 hours/week  + 1 week for examination = 11 weeks
Subject Teaching CreditsContact Hours
Marketing - I2
Human Behaviour and Management - I2
Organisational Design, Change and Transformation2
Financial Accounting and Reporting2
Cost and Management Accounting2
Statistical Methods for Management2
Mathematical Models for Management Decisions3
Management Information Systems3
Business Ethics2
Organisational Leadership2
Oral and Business Communications2
Total24288 max

Term 2  -  10 weeks of teaching @ 30 hours/week  + 1 week for examination = 11 weeks
Subject Teaching CreditsContact Hours
Marketing - II2
Human Resource Management3
Economics for Management3
Corporate Finance3
Production and Operations Management3
Business, Government and International Economic Environment2
Business Law for Managers2
Strategic Management2
Written Business Communications2
IT for Business Applications 2
Total24288 max

Term 3 : Company Internship OR Management Research Project 
8 weeks of Project Work worth 8 credits

Term 4 :  10 weeks of teaching @ 30 hours/week  + 1 week for examination = 11 weeks

Subject Teaching CreditsContact Hours
Choice of 8 - 10 electives from the pool of possible electives
Total24288 max

Placement  : 4 weeks

So the total duration is 3 teaching terms of 11 weeks each ( 33 week ) + 8 weeks Internship+ 4 weeks for Placement + 4 weeks for inter-term holidays, public holidays, registration, viva etc. to arrive  at a figure of 49 weeks.

Here we have assumed that a 3-credit course requires 36 contact hours even though many B-Schools are happy to offer only 30 contact hours.

So what is the moral of the story ?

The current 2 year MBA program is on its way to becoming a part of history. We need to revamp it with a new curriculum, a new technology enabled delivery platform,  a more efficient placement process or as is explained here a shorter, more cost-effective program itself.

Or why not combine all these elements into something new and radically different ?

I am sure that many people will find a million things wrong with this approach, but let the debate begin !

September 02, 2012

Distance Learning : An Inverted Model for Indian B-Schools

"No army can stop an idea whose time has come." This quotation from Victor Hugo  has often been used in defence of many new but unpopular ideas and I will invoke it here to justify the usage of distance learning techniques, particularly in business schools that lead up to an MBA degree.
Image "borrowed" from

Whether we like it or not, many global trends are first set in the United States and then the rest of the world joins in and distance learning is one of them. Respected and well known schools like Stanford, Harvard and others are offering a large number of undergraduate and postgraduate programs that are based on a calibrated mixture of on-line and on-campus pedagogy.

Despite criticisms of being less effective than face-to-face teaching, distance learning is here to stay and grow because of compelling economic reasons -- many students are simply not able to pay the kind of fees that big US schools charge and unless schools are able to offer education at the price point that students can afford, the invisible hand of the free market will make the business of B-Schools unviable ! So just as US companies have accepted the hard economic reality of software services being outsourced to India, so will B-Schools accept the reality of distance learning.

But as many all cases, the Indian market is different from the US and that is why it may make sense to invert the model that is being followed in the US. In the US, the dominant pattern is that the faculty is sitting in Harvard or Stanford whereas the students are scattered anywhere in the world -- as long as they have a broadband Internet connection and a credit card. You register, pay, log-in and access course material either synchronously ( as in live lectures ) or asynchronously by downloading videos, slide decks and books. The only real challenge is the evaluation or examination process where it is difficult to ensure a no-cheating rule but it is a matter of time before even this will be resolved.

How is this different from the Indian B-School market ?

In India there is no dearth of "customer"s and students are flocking to even some very shady B-Schools that have been created by crooked entrepreneurs with the active connivance of the regulatory bodies for higher education. But the real trouble is that there is no one to teach ! There is no  good faculty, not just in these shady schools but also in the well funded, well known and well regarded Government schools like the IIMs and the IITs !

While the situation is understandable in the small schools, the situation in the big schools may be puzzling but easily explained in economic terms. Let us look at this issue from the perspective of who should be teaching in B-Schools and who are actually doing so.

B-schools act as feeders into corporate management and should typically impart skills that are necessary to run a business profitably and ethically. Ideally, a B-School faculty should be someone who has the practical experience of being in the corporate sector and has been in a senior position. In such positions,  he should have faced and resolved real issues in the area of finance, marketing, operations, HR and business strategy. But instead, what we find in B-Schools ( particularly the IITs/IIMs) are academics with PhD degrees who (a) are paper tigers with scores of theoretical papers published in academic journals that are only read by other academics, not by corporates and what is worse (b) are people who have never had the ability or the confidence of actually working in the industry. What rubbish do they teach ?

Why is this ? Economic reasons. Under the 6th Pay Commission, a senior faculty at a premier Government institute is paid around Rs 12 - 15 lakhs for annum which is just on par with the average salary that an MBA student gets when he or she passes out from the same school !! A well respected manager, with about 15 - 20 years of experience -- the kind that we would like to have as teachers in MBA schools, would be drawing anything from Rs 40 - Rs 80 lakhs per annum. Now no sane person in his senses will leave his corporate job -- however stressful it may be -- and take a 80% salary cut to join a B-School. And even in a moment of madness (for example when he has been passed over in the annual promotions ;-) he were to contemplate this, his financial commitments ( children's education, EMI for flat) will prevent him from doing so. And if this involves moving to a different, non-metro area, then the spouse will have violent objection because she would be cut off from her normal earning and entertainment opportunities. ( This assumes that the person concerned is a man but is even more true if it is a lady who is contemplating this move)

So in the US, they have lots of good faculty in good schools but losing students but in India we have lots of students but no faculty. Hence time to invert our model of distance learning.

In an earlier post on Zoho Show and Google Hangout I have shown how easy it is for a faculty, sitting a distant location, to teach a class full of students using simple and inexpensive technology.

So my model works like this. We set up a B-school and create the infrastructure for students to live and work. In fact this could be at remote and picturesque locations so that academics is not disturbed by the discordant notes of urban life and, perhaps this is more important, land is cheap and so capital costs are low.

There is no need to recruit any full time faculty at all and in any case, if the location is remote,  good faculty will in not join anyway. Only utterly jobless people who cannot go anywhere else or old and retired professors trying to pass of their ancient and out-dated knowledge in their second and third innings of their career will be interested. This is precisely the kind of people whom we do not want in our B-Schools.

So instead of recruiting full time faculty, what we have is a network of high end managers located wherever they are currently employed -- anywhere in India. In each city we can either set up a small "transmission" kiosk, through a telephone operator or if the faculty is comfortable enough install the simple hardware ( basically one or two computers with audio/video and a high speed internet connection ) at his home or place of work.

On campus we create an excellent telecommunication infrastructure so that every student has more than adequate bandwidth (enough even for his not-so-surreptitious Torrent downloads ;-) both in class as well as in the hostel.

To make things a bit smooth, the faculty may be required to make one visit to the campus at the beginning of the semester, get acquainted with the students and if necessary get familiarised with the technology. As the class progresses, he can keep in touch with his students through private social media platforms like the Kollaborative Klassroom or through more mainstream media like LinkedIN or Facebook.  In fact the Coursera model has similar ideas but we need to remember that it is US model and so needs to be tweaked for our inversion.

This model also removes the one big irritation in traditional distance learning -- how to conduct valid examinations ? In this case, this is not a problem at all since all the students are located on the campus and local staff ( not distant faculty) can monitor the examination and ensure fairness. Moreover with the students living together on the campus, there is no difficulty for them to work together and collaborate on assignments -- which is one of the important aspects of B-School pedagogy.

While this model will allow a Institute to draw upon the best B-School faculty from anywhere in the country, it also has the potential to push up faculty earnings in a dramatic manner. Typically a faculty at a premier Government Institute teaches two 3-credit subjects in a semester and so faces a class for six hours every week. [ I am ignoring "research" because B-School research is generally pointless-data-collection-followed-by-regression-analysis, nothing else. It is done only for the purpose for faculty promotions because of the philosophy of publish or perish adopted in many Institutes ] For this six hours of work per week he is paid Rs 12 lakhs. A corporate manager works 40+ hours a week and gets say Rs 60+ lakhs. So it makes sense for a corporate manager to move to academics if and only if he can teach in at least five or six institutes simultaneously -- and this is very much possible if we adopt the distance learning model that was explained in my earlier post ! In fact with this model, well known Institutes can create the distance learning environment that will allow their faculty to enhance their income five or six times and so draw the best people from the corporate world into the academic domain.

Of course faculty is not the only thing that matters in a B-School. Placement plays a very important role in the success of school. We also need to look at the existing curriculum and see what changes can or should be made. But these are big topics and need to explored separately.

Let us first get cracking with the faculty issue and address it with our inverted model of distance learning. It is a win-win strategy that benefits both Institutes as well as faculty since the former gets good teachers and the latter gets to earn much more without stressing the economic and business model of MBA education in India.

August 22, 2012

Distance Learning with Zoho SHOW and Google Hangout

image :
Distance learning is a concept whose importance is growing by leaps and bounds everyday. We all know that there is nothing that can beat the physical presence of a teacher in the class but the exigencies of delivering educational services at an affordable price point is forcing everyone -- both students and teachers -- to accept the reality of this technology.

In fact it boils down to the ROI, the return on investment : we all know that it would have been far better to have been at London and watch opening ceremony of the Olympics but the cost of the travel and tickets forced all of us to watch it on TV and I am sure that the Organising Committee earned more from TV rights than what they could have got through ticket sales. So it was a win-win for all to have the show broadcast in a virtual medium even though the experience was sort of degraded by the small screen. So is the case with distance learning.

Most distance learning platforms use a combination of streaming video -- to carry voice and video -- and a way to show slides ( of the Powerpoint variety ) by sharing the screen. I have in the past experimented with Anymeeting and other webinar software to teach my MBA class but the results are very uneven. The Java based software is rather unstable especially if bandwidths are low but what really hurts is the way the screen share is often blocked by campus or corporate firewalls. Moreover when in screen share mode, the presenter -- or teacher -- cannot see the video of the classroom and this makes it very difficult to speak "blindly" into a slide. Believe me, having done this a number of times, I am yet to get used to this and it really cramps your style and having to toggle between the video mode and the screenshare mode is very irritating for the audience.

Which made me look for alternatives and I have discovered that the combination of Google Hangouts + Zoho Show is a wonderful combination.

Let me explain how it works.

We have a class of 60 students and in the front of the class is a computer that is connected to the internet and also to an overhead projector. The teacher creates a Hangout and invites a student to join the same from the computer that is connected to the overhead projector. So the video of the teacher comes on the screen and his voice is heard through speakers. If this computer has a camera then the teacher gets to see the students in the class. [ If you want a better view, a second computer with a camera can also join the Hangout -- you can go upto 10 machines ]

Now it is possible to share a screen from the teachers laptop through the Hangout but this is messy -- the text on the screen becomes small so does the video. So we do not do this.

Instead, the teacher has a second laptop and he uses Zoho Show to run a presentation in broadcast mode. Now each student in the class has a laptop ( all students carry laptops these days, particularly MBA students ) and they fire up a browser and go to a URL of the presentation that the teacher is running. This means that they see the same presentation and -- this is the clincher -- they are always on the same page, or slide where the teacher is ! In fact, when the teacher changes slides, all the students get their slides changed automatically.

So the students watch the teacher talking on video on the common classroom screen on the wall AND they see the slides that the teacher is talking about, on their personal laptops -- closely simulating the situation in a physical class ! And the icing on the cake is that when viewing the Zoho Show broadcast, the students have ready chat screen with them in which to type in questions.

When the teacher sees a student raising his or her hand he looks at the chat screen, reads out the question and then answers it verbally for the benefit of all the students in the class.

The single biggest advantage of this hybrid approach is that because the video is delinked from the presentation the chance of a breakdown / freeze up is far lower. The standard webinar software like Anymeeting, by clubbing the two functions together, introduce a lot of instability that causes frequent breakdowns that degrades the pedagogical experience.

It is not that Hangout does not freeze, but when it does, the teacher can exit the Hangout and rejoin again and the class continues without much difficulty. In fact having two parallel and independent channels across the two locations gives a lot of flexibility to all concerned.

Zoho Show is an excellent cloud based presentation tool where you can either create smart slides or it will happily import existing Powerpoint or OpenOffice/Libre Office presentations. So creating a deck of slides in Zoho is quite easy. But what  makes Zoho Show really useful is the broadcast mode that allows a whole class of students to view the the slide deck synchronously with the teacher and the other students. Google Docs, the other cloud based presentation tool, does NOT have this feature at the moment.

Net-net, after using the Google Hangout + Zoho Show combination for nearly 75 minutes today, both the students and me ( the teacher ) were very happy with the outcome. Let us see how far we can push this technology.

August 18, 2012

The Evanescence of Subhas Bose

On 18th August 1945, three days after Japan's offer to surrender in the Pacific sector of WWII, a light bomber took off from the Matsuyama airport in Taihoku, Formosa, carrying Subhas Bose -- the Head of the Provisional Government of Free India, his young ADC, Habib-Ur-Rahman and a number of senior Japanese military officers. The aircraft was on its way to Tokyo but unfortunately a mechanical failure caused it to crash within minutes of takeoff. Most of the passengers, including Habib-ur-Rahman survived but Subhas Bose and another senior Japanese officer died of burns. Thus ended the illustrious life of one of the most charismatic figures of the Indian independence movement. The accident and the death was announced by the Japanese government on 23rd August 1945.

This is the story that a post Independence generation of Indians have grown up with and it has been corroborated by Government of India on the basis of two different commissions of enquiry led by (a) Shah Nawaz Khan, an associate of Subhas Bose and (b) GD Khosla, a retired judge.

It is now established beyond a shadow of doubt that this story is completely false because (a) no plane ever crashed in Formosa on that date and (b) Subhas Bose was on his way, not to Tokyo, but to Manchuria to carry on with the fight for India's independence with the help of Russia. He had faked the news of his death to throw British intelligence off his trail.

This was a hunch that I have had for years and had blogged about it earlier but the book "Back from Dead : Inside the Subhas Bose Mystery" by Anuj Dhar has removed all shadow of doubt in this regard. Written almost in the style of a racy thriller, but substantiating each claim and statement with precise references to specific documents and personalities, the author puts forth clear, cogent and convincing arguments to prove his point.

Other than clearly establishing the fact Subhas Bose did not die in an aircrash on 18 Aug 1945, the author has also established the steadfastness (if not cussed viciousness ) with which the Government of India, particularly the Congress Party led by Jawaharlal Nehru and later Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, tried to establish the crash-death theory and deliberately blocked every attempt to unravel the real truth.

Why was this so ? Why would the Government of India turn its back on one of its most charismatic sons ? The answer becomes clear if we replace the Government of India with personality of Jawaharlal Nehru and note that Subhas Bose was his direct political rival. Apologists of the (MK)Gandhi-Nehru-Gandhi camp may  argue otherwise but it is a common perception that while Nehru was a wimp-womaniser-litterateur who became the Congress leader by prostrating himself to the whims-and-wishes of MK Gandhi, Subhas Bose was the dynamic, charismatic, intellectual politician who was miles ahead in popularity. Had he not been edged out by MK Gandhi's sordid political machinations, it was he who would have been leading the Congress and should have become the eventual Prime Minister of independent India. While Nehru was writing books and letters to his daughter from the comforts of a British jail during WWII, Bose was out in the field campaigning through Russia, Germany, Japan and finally across South East Asia trying to raise a military force -- the Indian National Army -- with which to secure India's Independence.

It is a different matter that his plans failed when his principal and final backer, Japan was defeated in the Pacific Theater and that is when he put in motion his next ( last ? or final ? ) plan for India's Independence.
Just as he had "disappeared" once before, from his house arrest in Calcutta, fooled the British police, escaped from India and reached Germany through Afghanistan and Russia, he "disappeared" again, this time by faking his death.

Nehru was actually relieved to hear of this death of Subhas since this removed the only rival that he had -- and the only one that he could never match either in ability or in popularity, but the thought that he might have lived and worse might be planning a comeback must have given him sleepless nights. Hence the desperate effort to stymie any honest probe and substitute these with probes done by sycophants and turncoats bribed by the loaves and fishes of office.

While the escapade of Subhas Bose from Saigon / Taihoku is very clearly established, the subsequent story is a little less clear. The author has collected lots of information  -- again meticulously documented and referenced -- about Subhas Bose travelling to Russia, being held in captivity in a Russian Gulag and then coming back to India to live incognito in Faizabad there is one question that lingers and it is one that the author admits to not having a good answer for.

Why would such a person -- who had sacrificed his entire life for the nation -- hide away from public life and life of a hermit ? Some have suggested that he might have been arrested and charged as an International War Criminal but then Subhas Bose was not the person to be frightened of the legal process !

If it was indeed Subhas Bose who was in Faizabad till "his" death on 16 Sep 1985 -- and the author has put together an impressive list of people, facts and correspondence to establish that it could have been him -- then the question will continue to haunt us for ever. Why ? Why ? Why ? did he not reveal himself when he could have had nation at his feat. There is an answer but it is rather weak and I do not wish to reveal it here.

What really rankles is the fact that Subhas Bose did not die in the aircrash on 18 Aug 1945 and yet the Government of India actively colluded to hide this fact about one of India's greatest sons.

That is the tragedy that has been conclusively established by Anuj Dhar in "Back from Dead".

Do buy and read the book. You will be impressed, informed and intellectually stimulated. Jai Hind.

the two images have been taken from

Post Script : 
The BJP led coalition government when it was in power between 1998 - 2004, constituted the Mukherjee Commission of Inquiry into the matter of the disappearance of Subhas Bose in 1999. This Commission of Inquiry concluded that Subhas Bose did not die in the aircrash at Taiwan but is silent on what happened to him subsequently in Russia or India. The Congress party returned in power in 2004 and rejected the findings of the commission when it was presented in 2006 -- in keeping with its tradition of continuing to uphold the theory of the aircrash.

August 16, 2012

The Summing Up

An article written in 1984 on the eve of leaving Azad Hall of Residence, IIT Kharagpur

August 09, 2012

Horoscope of Lord Krishna

On the occasion of Janmashtami, when India celebrates the birth of the Divine Soldier-Statesman who stands at the confluence of history and myth and still moves the hearts and minds of many of us, I present what I believe to be is the horoscope of Lord Krishna.

for my earlier blog on the historicity of the Mahabharata War, please read this post.

August 01, 2012

A day in Tamluk

Tamluk is one of the oldest known habitats in the history of North India.  Situated on the right bank of what is now known as the Rupnarayan River, Tamluk, or Tamralipta, is mentioned in many historical records as a port of great economic significance in the Eastern sea coast of India. Today, the river has shifted away from the town and the port has moved downstream, beyond the confluence of the Rupnarayan and the Hooghly, to Haldia, but the town retains its quaint charms.

The most important landmark of Tamluk today is the Bargabhima Temple that is considered to be one of the 51 Shakti Peethas of the Divine Mother. Here are some pictures of this famous temple.

The current temple is not very old. It has evidently been rebuilt after the iconoclastic Islamic occupation of Bengal in the middle ages but myths and legends about the antiquity of this temple -- one of the most famous temples of South Bengal -- place it in the hearts and minds of those who revere and adore Kali and the Divine Mother.

Not far from the Bargabhima temple is the old RajBari -- the residence of the local ruler -- in a state of utter dilapidation.

Tamluk is easily accessible from National Highway 6 that connects Calcutta to Mumbai. One needs to turn south at Kolaghat and take the highway that goes to Haldia. A couple of kilometers from the turn, one will come across a tiny, "state highway" that branches off to the left and leads to Tamluk. The Bhimbarga temple is located in a very congested area BUT there is a neat, nice parking lot that has been created by some local people where you can safely park your car by paying some money. The Rajbari is more accessible as you can see in the picture of our car parked in front of the ruins.

July 08, 2012

Victoria Memorial Calcutta

The roof of the central hall.

A policeman tried to stop me from taking this picture until I pointed out that a foreign tourist was merrily taking pictures right in front of him!

Saheb cchobi toolley kono apatti nei aar Bangalir belaye joto aparaadh?

Fellow kept quiet after that.

June 27, 2012

Crowdsource RTI data in XBRL to curb corruption

By clamouring for a Lok Pal, the anti-corruption campaign is barking up the wrong tree. We have laws against corruption for citizens. We have police and the other government agencies to enforce these laws but they are corrupt as well. So we have higher agencies like the CBI and CVC but they are corrupt as well. Now we want another layer, the Lok Pal, but by recursive extension there is nothing to stop the Lok Pal from being corrupt. We can go higher and higher, Parliamentary Sub Committee, President of India …  but even if we involve the Divine Lord Krishna himself, the nation will surely find a way to make him corrupt as well!

So let us look at another model -- that of the notorious American gangster, Al Capone. and read the story of how he was caught and brought to justice, not by some muscular policeman but by some very nerdy, if not wimpish, men from the IRS -- the US equivalent of our Income Tax Department. Mr Capone was too smart to be caught out on his main crimes, namely illicit liquor trade, murder and extortion, but was caught and sent behind bars for tax evasion. Can we apply this model to tackle corruption in India ?

In this case, our goals are obviously slightly different. We are not not interested in tracking tax evasion. Instead we want to know if, how and when public money is being diverted away from the public purpose -- in other words, being stolen. The tool that we should will be a modification of the Right to Information but restricted to economic information.

the image and idea of the 0 rupee note is taken from

In its current form, RTI assumes that some citizen suspects that there is something wrong and demands documents to substantiate his suspicion. But why leave the onus and the responsibility on the suspicious citizen. Instead why not make it mandatory for each and every government department to place all financial information in the public domain in a digital format ?

The immensity of the task may seem daunting but if one looks closely, this is not so. Each and every department must already have a mechanism to track all financial transactions. If it does not have it, that itself is a first broad hint of a problem, but given the rigorousness of our bureaucratic processes this is highly unlikely. Now if this information is available then there can be no reason why it should not be formally and automatically placed in the public domain.

Once this information is available in digital form in the public domain, say in form similar to that offered by the British government at -- then it can be scrutinised and checked for inconsistencies by the public and by colaboratively tracing the flow of money across the country it would be possible to detect, investigate and plug points where “leakage” or theft happens.

Given the extremely large number of financial transactions that the government enters into, both with itself and with its citizens, it may appear that this is easier said than done but a little application of mind will show that the problem is not intractable. Chartered Accountants already have a set of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles and all corporate entities are mandated by law to publish accounts. We simply need to extend this to all government agencies -- for example municipalities, departments, schools, colleges or anything else that is funded by public money -- and ensure that the resultant data is available in a standard format, say XBRL -- the universal financial reporting language that can be used in any computer system.

In fact RTI activists, instead of asking for a wide variety of data in an ad-hoc manner, can co-ordinate their activism and structure their campaign so that data from each corner of the country and the government is asked for and obtained in this standard XBRL format and then pooled into a public domain digital infrastructure that can be used by all. So it is either that every government department or agency publishes its financial data in the public domain or the RTI is invoked to make it do so. In a way, this is roughly analogous to data being sourced by the crowd, or crowdsourcing. This way, say, NREGA funds being despatched from Delhi can be traced as they move across the country through states, districts, panchayats and villages by tallying the XBRL documents obtained by RTI activists at each level.

What is being suggested here is nothing new. Each and every department that handles public money must already have a way for accounting for every receipt and payment. The RTI Act already  empowers a citizen to ask for these details -- the rules may need to be amended to mandate the delivery of digital data. The GAAP clearly specifies how this data is to be reported and there exists global standards, like XBRL, that allow this data to be digitally stored. Finally there are enough data mining tools around to make sense of this mountain of digitally data and spot deviations and discrepancies. In this context, forensic accounting techniques can be used to locate suspicious discrepancies in financial data.

What may be missing is a financial accounting software that needs to be implemented in every government department and people must be trained to use it. This will be a very small investment compared to the returns that will accrue and will be a good business practice to introduce in any case. After all any small and medium enterprise today uses such a financial accounting software and it is high time every government agency has one. ( Full Disclosure : the author is neither in the accounting profession, nor is he associated with any accounting software! )

We have all the pieces in place. Do we have the will to join the dots ? If not, can our RTI activists and anti-corruption campaigners do something to make it happen ?