Training in India: What's Next?

The once world class Indian Training industry is in quite a sad state right now. Battered by the rise of private Higher Education since 2004, when degrees became a commodity and everyone flocked out to buy one, it eventually destroyed itself by selling its soul to skilling. Once the government, driven by the political agenda to be seen to be doing something, announced millions of dollars of bonanza, they all fell for it. That this was not a bonanza, except for those few large companies which would eventually make this money disappear, and a system of consultants and officials who would create an institutionalised 'speed money' system to earn 10% to 40% on every transaction, that did not matter much. The skilling initiatives in India had nothing to do with the poor, nothing to do with skills and nothing to do with training, except that it provided some sort of superannuation for those who were left in the industry and did not bail out early enough for the other sunshine industries like Banking, Telecom and Retail.

But, in any case, the skills mission was a death-blow to the training industry in India. When it reached its peak in the 1990s, NIIT and Aptech, its market leaders, were truly world class, except for the fact that they lacked world class ambitions. They settled down to 'capture' the market, rather than develop it, depended more on the immediately available bounty of Indian semi-urban markets than competing for the rapidly emerging aspirations of the urban youth. Their business models depended more on money power, and they were quick to get into India's stock markets, and less on innovation, which was constrained by their being listed in stock markets. Though an early ecosystem of innovation was spawned in the 1990s with the advent of Internet and lots of people leaving the mother-ship companies and staking it out to create new formats of training, this was quickly extinguished as Indian mafia got into the act, and unrestrained by the government, perpetrated massive scams defrauding both students and employees who fell for it. The scam was national, high profile and bitter: It destroyed smaller training companies in India as the students became too afraid to trust anyone they didn't know. This might have worked for incumbents in the short run, but this also deprived them of the kind of innovation ecosystem that world-class companies thrive on.

So, the world class Indian companies never really became world class. They couldn't innovate, they lost their best people to all the new industries, and ran out of steam in the international markets, where, after a good start, they just couldn't compete. This story is remarkable only because of its contrast with some of the other Indian industries, which came from nowhere and built world-beating companies and successfully competed in the global markets. Training, by contrast, enjoyed a huge domestic market - which one could have turned into a base to leapfrog into global prominence - but the market leaders failed to make it. And, in a way, this is not for the want of anything else but ambition, which is also the key reason behind the abject decline of the once mighty companies into the current lamentable state, where they are more concerned about pleasing various district officials and forgot all about their students.

But, even then, we should be optimistic about the future of this industry as a whole. This is a time of breaking, and the innovation ecosystem is rising again. The new innovators are not coming out of the leading training companies, because these companies have an anti-innovation culture and have not had a single good idea for last ten years: The new training entrepreneurs are coming from other industries which prospered since the 90s. These people were at the edge of innovation and global competition doing various new and interesting things, and know first hand the challenges of finding competent people in India. Their global exposure gives them capital, technology and ideas of doing new and innovative things, and they are uncorrupted by the state of degeneration the training industry is in. 

Within this innovation ecosystem, the buzz word is 'employability' at this time. India has lots of young people coming out of education and looking for jobs, and these new entrepreneurs all want to solve the problem. Their solutions are new and various, and some of them are trying to draw on their global connections for ideas. They are throwing all the things they know of - technological sophistry, licensed content, good infrastructure - towards the problem, creating entrepreneurial businesses all over the country. And, they are experiencing failure, massive failures, to make anyone employable who was not. They are discovering the fundamental truth that all shrewd educators knew all the while, the key to secure student employability lies in selecting employable students, and all else, technology, content, infrastructure, have very little impact on the outcome. The new entrepreneurs are going through a familiar cycle: They respond to the opportunity, they blame the existing providers for not doing a good job, they create enterprises bringing together all the best things they saw in the world and then they fail, and blame the consumer. Indeed, the incumbents laugh at them at this stage, they claim that they alone know the formula that works in India (which, going by their practices, is about oiling the palms of officials) and they feel more secure in their ability to keep the markets cornered. Yet, I shall claim that these innovative training offerings are changing the industry.

I heard a prominent businessman once say that the Facebook or Google of Education should come from India. That hope rested upon India's huge market size and the entrepreneurial energy of its people. It is commonsense to think that this can happen: Just see how Infosys or Wipro took on the world, first as a good-enough provider and then at the top league, and changed the game. That was a formula that combined the vast reservoir of manpower and entrepreneurial energy: The training companies have the advantage even of a huge domestic market (which also played a role in the emergence of Indian IT; IBM's departure from India in 1977 certainly helped). The global ambition that these new entrepreneurs are bringing to the mix is the enabling ingredient that was needed - and among many failures, some winning enterprises will emerge. And, if someone is studying the failure of these well-meaning training businesses, one could perhaps discover the elements of the business model that can eventually win.

For example, one could learn, from studying these businesses, that 'employability' is not a thing that can be injected in someone through a couple of months training. This is a bigger project of complete transformation of the person and it needs time. Now, indeed, no one will sign up for a long employability programme, because one only looks for these programmes when looking for employment and India is a land of quick fix: So this whole mantra of personal transformation have to be enmeshed early into their education. In short, it is time to go back to the 1990s, and reinvent the professional training model, part time, sophisticated and world class, built around solid brands and great staff. These need to be professional skills which are needed now and in the future, and these need to be clearly mapped to the markets. 

Now, this business is one of capacity creation, both in terms of infrastructure and a high visibility brand, but also in terms of culture. NIIT's success, as I know first hand, was based on its culture, the strong bond that tied people together, the sense of belonging, the pride one felt about her job. Culture is useful not just because it unifies the message, but it also acts a tool of self-selection. Training industry's early success depended on attracting great employees, and it could do so because it was operating in a vacuum: In the 1990s, there were not many alternatives of private employment a smart person would have had. The recruitment game is totally different now, and it is the culture, which needs to be carefully constructed, that may help attract great employees. 

There is indeed business in personal transformation, but it is a deep thing. It needs work, it needs capacity, it needs engagement. It is not just about talking the right language, which many of the employability programmes are focused on, but being the right person, adaptable, always learning, perceptive about changes in the environment etc. In a way, like fashion, this is training industry's moment of reset, of going back to the 90s, and start again.


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