Training in India: How Not To Have Partnerships

This reflection relates to my own experiences, and various conversations I have had with Indian executives, particularly from the training industry, regarding the Joint Ventures or licensing arrangements, which seem to be popular and growing, between Indian and Western training outfits in the training space. The questions - the value of partnership, who should one partner with, what to expect - come up again and again, and indeed, my advice was sought, as recently as last week, for a similar project. 

There is a consensus among the Indian executives that such partnerships/ licensing add value. Of particular interest to Indian companies are packaged concepts and ideas, models and certifications that such partnerships bring. Consider the recent outpouring of emotions on Facebook and other similar platforms on the demise of Steven Covey, though the mainstream media largely ignored it, which came primarily from the training business community in India. I am sure similar friendly feelings are reserved for Ken Blanchard, Robin Sharma, Anthony Robbins and other Business Gurus, and surely this means a decent licensing revenue stream for all their companies (and royalties for books) from the Indian training market. The question, however, isn't whether these partnerships and diffusion of ideas are needed - they indeed are - but what value does it bring to the Indian training companies and how much do they benefit Indian learners.

I must admit that I have personally been benefited from some of these western paradigms, particularly Seven Habits and various quality management initiatives, and I am surely not attempting to question the inherent value of these books, models and ways of doing things. At one time in my career, I made an (abortive) attempt to help a friend, who developed a rather 'cool' model of measuring training effectiveness license his model to Indian companies: In the end, he didn't want to do it as he thought the business cultures were quite different [though that did not stop the gathering momentum on Jack Phillips' model of training ROI and other similar tools]. I also worked to license various leadership and English learning products in the Indian market, completely convinced of their value at the time.

However, over time, I have become conscious how culturally grounded these 'western' models are. Consider Steven Covey's 7 habits, which has Protestant ethic written all over it. Indeed, there is nothing wrong in cultural cross-pollination, and Indian gurus also have a good business healing Western executives. However, an institutional acceptance of a culturally grounded model to be the pinnacle of business wisdom is problematic: To be successful, an Indian business need not become an American business, it needs to transform itself within the framework of Indian values.

I think this is becoming even more apparent now than ever. The Indian white collar worker pool has expanded significantly over the last two decades, and many inner cities and villages have started contributing to it. What used to be a narrow pool of urbanised Anglicized workers have now become more embedded in Indian value system. In this context, the Western models should resonate less and less with this audience, which is precisely what I found out in my previous experiences with English Language learning systems. The problems there related particularly to the culturally grounded references, and the assumption of a particular kind and level of learner involvement, which were simply not practical in India. Unfortunately for me, I never picked up these problems myself - because I was already immersed, by then, in similar pedagogical methods. It was only when we tried to cross the chasm, to go beyond the early adopter urban market to the mass market which we all hoped would materialize in India, the limitations of the Western model became apparent.

Admittedly, that was English language training: The other areas, like Leadership training, operate at a different layer, drawing an audience which is more exposed to Western thought paradigms. However, these training programmes try to achieve more: While English training is merely equipping an individual with a technical skill, leadership training, potentially, is challenging the entire value system of the person. This is a much greater challenge, and though the audience may have greater exposure, often having lived, traveled and studied abroad, their value systems might be deeply grounded and it may be a far greater challenge, given their relative superiority among their peers ('I know what Western nations do - I have been to France for a holiday!') and consequent unwillingness to reflect and challenge themselves. 

I also see a problem in the way Indian training companies perceive these Western training systems and use them. Often, such partnership/ licensing decisions are done at a higher level (I am guilty as charged - I have made mistakes by trusting my own judgements over those on the ground) and style may trump substance in that kind of decision-making. The Western training companies are often far superior in packaging and presenting their materials, and often the Anglo-Saxon masculinity (in the sense Hofstede used the term - people are not shy of talking about their achievements) magnify the value of the content and the system. Besides, this is a self-reinforcing cycle: Because one can buy well-presented content and licensing limit the upfront costs and risks, the Indian outfits will often not do any design and development activities themselves. In the end, most partnerships between Indian and Western training organizations build in a 'style' premium by stealth, for a design which is not suitable for the market in many cases.

Which brings the discussion to the last, and the most important, point about pricing: The built-in style premium will often skew the value equation and result in under-performance of the arrangement, not just in terms of outcome but also financially. A typical license fee for India will range from thousands to millions of pounds, and often the concepts such as purchasing power parity, which means in Indian context every dollar can buy five times of what it can buy in the United States, are ignored. So, if you consider a typical deal wherein an Indian company signs up with an UK firm paying an upfront fee of £200,000 or so, which is approximately $300,000 and the equivalent of $1,5000,000 in PPP terms, the Indian firm is saddled with this cost, not to mention ongoing training fees, material costs and various royalties, apart from upfront purchase commitments for materials which may never sell, for a product which may be wholly unsuitable to the market, and may not help their customers at all.

So, my suggestion to Indian executives in most cases to put substance over style, learn from the Western firms through limited and focused partnerships, rather than buying the materials and know-how wholesale. I also advise about doing the partnership in baby steps and doing as much market research as possible, including drawing feedback from people on the ground, like the trainers, though I recognize the difficulties in getting disinterested opinion. I do think that an Indian company can benefit through partnership with a more matured western outfit, but only if the partnership is dictated by the requirements of the market, and not by the slickness of the presentation.


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