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2016, Almost!

It is cliche, but I can not still believe that here we are on the last day of the year already. It is a sunny day here in London, an unexpected gift. Cold but not too cold, which is also a good thing given how mild this December so far has been, and yet, the predicted bitter-cold winter of an El Nino year is also nowhere in sight. Having spent most of the year in warmer climates, this feels just right for me, a very welcome situation at the end of a year on the road.
The year that ends, for me, was a stop-gap year. I spent the year in, using a computing metaphor, recovery mode, without trying to do anything special, just surviving, keeping my head down. This was exactly like the year I spent immediately after coming to UK, a decade ago, my previous big adventure that led to some disappointments and several serendipity. My learning from that was not to give up on adventures, but to be ready to step back and recover, if needed. 
This may indeed make no sense to my friends and family, w…

The Challenge of Global Strategy

In the world of Unicorn companies, privately held start-ups with valuations of $1 billion or more,  global strategy is no longer what it used to be. In fact, the old, dated idea that one goes global only after securing its home market, and having cash flows to sustain far-flung operations, is as good as dead. Getting global fast, rather, is the thing to do, as the copy-and-catchup innovation, as popular in many fast-growing emerging markets, can alter the dynamic for a start-up quite dramatically by capturing large market share in foreign markets and becoming a threat almost instantly. Whatever we may think of them, copycats, imitators, etc., the copy-and-catchup ecosystem in India, China, Middle East and Africa, are made of very smart entrepreneurs, savvy technologists, and investors who are ready to back them either looking to exit in a global M&A or going global through acquisitions themselves. With this, right now, start-ups are usually born-global rather than not, and discus…

Does The Customer Know?

As a trained marketer, my default position is - we must start with the customer! I have taken this as an article of faith, a common sense position that underlie all businesses, that businesses exist to solve the problems of the customers. That lasted till I started putting it into practice. The customers I met either did not care to talk to me or wanted me to give a solution. The entrepreneurs I met told me that the customers do not know what they want (quoting Steve Jobs, I figured out). And, the marketers, I realised, were all telling me that it is about telling the customer they are getting what they want, while giving them what we want to give them.
I know this is cynical, but this is exactly what it feels like. True, we get to hear about companies which love their customers. But, once you have been inside the marketing box, it is hard to know what is for real. And, besides, even if some companies do and we get to hear about them, we get to hear about them simply as they are man-…

Approaching 2016 - Rethinking This Blog

I wrote about a fresh start in 2016, but unlike all the grand plans of new beginnings I usually make around the year-end, this fresh start was not really that fresh. Rather, I am seeking to be boring, conventional, going back to a professional life etc. Was this about a burn-out, am I giving up, I was asked, and my answer that I am trying to be realistic did not have much weight. After all the years of attempting not to conform, this idea of settling in can only be seen as giving up, rather than a bidding time strategy.
The point, of course, is that I am not giving up on my ambition, but seeking a different one. There are certain assumptions I made about my abilities and what I wanted to do, and to be sure, I tried them out. It did not work, or at least did not work the way I expected it. Like a good entrepreneur, I have learned and now, I am trying to pivot. Stepping back and getting back to professional life is not giving up entrepreneurship, but rather seeing my life as a continuo…

The Superhero Theory of Economic Development

We have our ideas about how a society becomes prosperous. There are some great examples for us at hand - from England of the Industrial Revolution, Psot-War United States, China in the new millennium, and host of other countries in between. Explanations are aplenty too - there are technological, demographic, social-cultural, political and now even spiritual and astrological justifications available why prosperity happens. But, even within the variety of explanations, there are some overarching assumptions, two in particular, that can be seen in every theory. They are Paradigms, in the sense Thomas Kuhn originally used the term, frames of reference that we fit every available evidence into. Whatever explanation we seem to pursue, we seem to accept one or the other paradigm about how a society functions. 
First of these two is the Planning paradigm, primarily positing that human societies can be planned from above. This may seem out of fashion now, with the terrible mess that Soviet Un…

My Reading List 2 - The Battle of Bretton Woods

I am keeping my reading pledge of completing a book a week. This week, I completed Benn Steils The Battle of Bretton Woods, a fascinating saga of the emergence of the Bretton Woods system, with all the key actors, politics, achievements and disappointments. Not an easy read, it was monetary economics side by side with personal drama and high politics of International relations, it was nevertheless worthwhile the effort. 
Aptly titled, the Battle captures the competition between Britain, embroiled in war, and the United States, for global dominance in the post-war world. The story, at the same time, is also of the competition between the old and the new world, that of waspish brilliance of Lord Keynes pitted against the bureaucratic single-mindedness of Harry Dexter White, the clash between imperial hangovers and commercial brutality. Lurking behind the scenes, adequately represented in the story, is the Soviet mechanisation, manipulating the world affairs through plain bribery and id…

The Brave Global World Of The British Universities

British Universities are very global and not at the same time. 
If one walks into an university classroom, particularly a Postgraduate one, chances are to meet a  majority of students coming from outside the UK. In fact, almost 70% of the students in Research and Taught Higher Degrees at the UK universities came from outside the UK in 2013/14, as did 18% of the First Degree students. In England, 19% of all students are International, and one in five in Scottish universities would have been born elsewhere. 38% of all Business students, 32% of all Engineering students and 25% of all Law students are International. Add to this the 636,675 students pursuing an UK degree from abroad (of which 76,600 are in Malaysia and 50,070 in Singapore), mainly due to the franchising and other arrangements that have become a long-established tradition in the UK universities (UKCIS Data). UK universities also represent a global research superpower. BIS reports UK represents just 0.9% of th…

Three Dimensions of Employability

In the UK, the conversation about Graduate Employability remains, well, a conversation. Student loans are not yet biting, and graduate unemployment is still relatively low, when compared against its European peers. Underemployment and lack of job progression may be a bigger issue, but till the student loans become oppressive (they are income contingent at this time), they are unlikely to cause a crisis. But this is one thing to watch out for, as the student loan becomes more of an issue, the Government starts allowing differential fees for universities and starts selling student loan books at massive discounts. 
The government has published the Green Paper on Higher Ed, which has many ideas including the differential fees, but not many on Employability. Johnny Rich picked it up in his review in Times Higher Education and proposes that this should become an intrinsic part of Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). His view of Employability, very aptly, revolves around three things - Know…

Six Cheers For Project-Based Learning

If one contrasts the way Colleges usually deliver education - defined around a set of textbooks, driven by lectures and reading and assessed by essays - it should be clear that Project-based Learning, where learning is defined by a set of real life tasks, driven by collaboration and interaction and assessed by outcomes, works better. Here are six reasons why.
First, the best way to learn is by doing it. We all know this. Even the college model of lectures, textbooks and essays is itself built around this assumption - it is teaching one to become a scholar, by doing scholarly work. It is a proven model and has worked for centuries, well grounded in the experiences of what Hannah Arendt called Vita Contemplativa, contemplative life. The objective of college has changed, though, and now we expect the college to prepare for Vita Activa, life of labour, work and action. The best way to prepare for this life is through activities.
Second, while a contemplative life may be expected to be a …

Colonial Overhang and Emerging India

During April and May 2013, I travelled across India, covering about 10 cities over a few weeks, with two colleagues. My primary goal was to connect with educational institutions, who I wanted to partner with to deliver the courses we were developing then, mainly pathway qualifications that allowed an Indian student to study for the first couple of years of a Bachelors degree in India and enter an UK institution in the final year.  It was a trip full of stories, to be told over a lifetime, as we battled May heatwaves, managed erratic Indian transport and met a wide variety of people, businessmen, educators, students and parents. For my colleagues, exposed first time to India in all its intensity, it was exhausting and exasperating. For me, it was a rare opportunity to see India, and interior India and not just the posh parts of Mumbai or Delhi, with two vantage points all at once - from my own deeply Indian perspective, from the vantage point of my colleagues with whom I enjoyed a clo…

My Reading List 1: The Shifts and The Shocks

I pledged to myself to read a book a week and write a short review here. The first book that I read under this pledge is Martin Wolf's 'The Shift and The Shocks : What We Have Learned - And Have Still To Learn - From The Financial Crisis'. A summary judgement, in the tradition of Amazon, is that this is a 5-star, absolutely brilliant book to read on the Financial Crisis and its causes. Martin Wolf, who I saw as an apologist of Globalisation and principally writes in the Financial Times, would not usually be an author I would start my reading pledge with, and it needed some persuasion from a friend whose I advise I value greatly and who suggested, accurately as I understand now, that if one has to read just one book about the financial crisis, this should be it.

It is, as is clear from the title, about the financial crisis that started in 2007 and shaped our lives in many ways. The boom years before 2007 is now a distant memory for many of us, and though some countries hav…

Why Make-in-India May Not Make India?

The official strategy for economic development in India is 'Make In India'. This is based on an economic strategy for the dummies - that as China becomes more expensive, India should take its place as the World's workshop - that underwrote the massive electoral victory of India's charismatic new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. The strategy, so simple that even a simpleton should understand, combined with Mr Modi's 'Track Record' of drawing investment to Gujrat, was dream stuff that makes winning politics, particularly in a country where 69,000 people turn 25 every single day.
What makes good politics isn't good economics. China had uneven manufacturing output in the last few years not because it was becoming expensive, but global demand was faltering. Manufacturing, the key to its strategy to lift millions of people out of poverty in the 1980s and 1990s, was not creating as many jobs as we would like to believe it did in the recent years, as automation ca…

EdTech for The Poor?

One promise of EdTech that gets talked about is about its ability to reduce the cost of education delivery, and thereby, expanding access.
This is a powerful notion that drives many business plans and policy decisions. Information Technology has changed a lot of things, but changing the lives of the poor is where it becomes truly transformational. The quest for efficiency and better management have impacted healthcare significantly, and enhanced its impact and extended its reach. We have seen similar transformational change in Banking and Retail. This is the model we now expect EdTech to follow.
Already, we know something about its impact. When I was with NIIT, I saw first-hand the impact of The Hole-in-the-Wall experiment that Professor Sugata Mitra, now a TED fellow, carried out. One big outcome of this was to put an end to the patronising notions about the intellectual capacities of the poor that we all secretly held. This idea of making a computer available, unsupervised, for chi…

Approaching 2016

In a lot of ways, 2015 was a year of waiting for me. Two years of bootstrapping to get the business off the ground took a heavy toll on my finances and me, and towards the end of 2014, I resolved to step back and go back to employment, which I did. The last several months was just that, of keeping my head down, and of reflecting on the experiences. It was time to come to terms with failure and re-imagining. This was what 2015 was about, and I feel I have been successful at doing this. However, with 2016 around the corner, it is time to put a plan in place.
Indeed, one of the key lessons that I have learned through the start-up and bust is the limits of romanticism about start-up life. One of the key mistakes I committed in U-Aspire was to ask and raise too little money, and spending inordinately long time in raising that money. I should say I should have known this all along, but the truth is, I did know and I still took the risk, rather foolishly, as it turns out at the hindsight.  …

Mr Corbyn's Victory & Defeat

I predicted Jeremy Corbyn to be a different type of politician, and he indeed turned out to be one. He stood steadfast, somewhat in defiance of public opinion, for what he believed in. His was a lonely stance though, as the career politicians that surround him squirmed and fretted to do what they do best - power play without regard to what their constituents want. So, in a little over two months after his landslide victory in Leadership elections, we see headlines of MPs revolting against his leadership. He may survive another week, may be another month - but it seems that the knives are already out for him.
I voted Labour in the last election, but did not sign up for its membership. I must admit I was tempted and spent time filling out a membership form, just after Mr Corbyn was elected (and a few times before that, as I wanted to vote for him) but decided against it - as, I wrote on this blog, I could not trust Labour to follow through. It is a party of Blairite career politicians,…

The Idea of E-School Reconsidered

This was an old idea that I keep coming back to - that of a Global Enterprise School. Indeed, the shortening to E-School is deliberate to contrast it with B-School. A Forbes article in 2011 first used the term (see my earlier post) and I have been exploring it ever since. This was the idea I pursued in the transformation, which remained incomplete, of London School of Accountancy and Management that I was running at the time, and afterwards, as I set up U-Aspire to offer pathway education globally. While I may have been doing something else for several months now, and U-Aspire, in its China-only format, became more focused on qualifications that lead to English degrees, I have never abandoned the idea. However, the intervening months of experience was valuable and helped me develop the concept further, and perhaps to a point when I am ready to give it a shape.
The idea may have started as a contra-B-School, particularly attractive as the limitations of B-School teaching is all but ap…

Vocational Training in India - Should The Penny Drop?

A few years ago, the then Indian Prime Minister of India proudly announced the biggest skill building initiative in the world, aiming to train more than 500 million people over 10 years. 
The reason for such a high profile initiative was obvious. In India, where 69,000 people reach the age of 25 every single day, making sure that they are able to find work was more than important - it was essential for the survival of the republic. The attention that the initiative got, with investments lined up from public and private sources, with high profile committees and the usual lining up with consultants, was unprecedented. Everything and everybody was there, except just one thing. No one knew what this was all about.
It may sound nonsensical and it is, but the Government set out this multi-million dollar initiative without knowing what skills need to be trained on. There was little involvement of the industry, and none of the trade unions or communities. The consultancies wrote some reports…

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