Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Please don't blame the seller for your mistakes - says Amazon!

Dear Amazon,
Many of us are glad that you've started your services in India. In fact, your presence has made our India e-tailers be far more competitive than they otherwise would have been and we, the customers have been eventual winners. We appreciate this. What we would appreciate more however, is for you and your marketplace vendors to treat your customers well and to offer the same first class service that your pride yourself on in the states.

We recently received one of the most rude customer service responses ever - one that we'd have never associated with Amazon. We'd like Amazon and the readers of this post to decide what's fair.

Now what does that screenshot from Amazon tell you? Exactly what it tells us - that the shipping is free! And that's all we expected. It also tells us that this order is Amazon Fulfilled. What you say this means is, the following:
  1. Orders are eligible for FREE Delivery and can be placed using Cash on Delivery
  2. Products are stored, packed and dispatched by Amazon
  3. Order delivery tracking to your doorstep
  4. Products can be returned easily by visiting our Returns Support Centre
  5. Amazon handles all customer service
  6. Orders containing items Fulfilled by Amazon worth Rs. 499 or more are eligible for FREE delivery.
  7. Note: For a limited time, there is no minimum order value and delivery is FREE for all items Fulfilled by Amazon.

As it turns out, Aum Entertainment, the marketplace vendor selling this item ended up adding an Expedited Shipping charge of ₹52/- to our order. The cost isn't as much of a big deal, as the fact that on principle this is against Amazon's promise for "Amazon Fulfilled" orders. When we contacted Amazon about this issue, hoping that "Amazon handles all customer service", we got redirected to Aum Entertainment. When we explained the issue to them, they replied saying,
"We have only Expidited service and use Amazon Easy Ship hence we charge shipping Charges we do not have standard Delivery option for your area."
This of course is really lame claim. We are in downtown Bangalore! Amazon does ship to our location! Additionally, when you say "Expedited Shipping", the package better arrive in time. The package took 5 days to arrive. Most importantly we were concerned about the opacity of the charge. When we protested however, the vendor, not Amazon, responded very rudely saying,
before you Place an order u have 3 times to see what u are ordering and what you are paying and before u click on buy now you again have the option to see what u are paying and what you are ordering in case you are not intd u can cancel the order . the fault is yours so Pls do not Blame the seller for your mistakes.
So, dear Amazon here are questions for you:
  1. What happened to our Free Shipping? Why this exception on our order? Do you let your vendors make exceptions on Amazon Fulfilled orders?
  2. If you store, pack and dispatch orders, why are you delegating the response to the vendor?
  3. Do you take ownership of this customer service? Is a rude response like this what characterises your company?
It may just be the question of ₹52/- but I hope you agree that you owe us an answer and at the very least a written apology! Otherwise, your reputation as "Earth's Most Customer-Centric Company" really takes a hit in my world.

Thanks in anticipation,
A rather upset customer

Friday, January 23, 2015

Using Gamification to create a Blogging Culture

(This is a rehash of a co-authored blogpost with my colleague Gayathri Sekar)

Our story begins in ThoughtWorks Pune, somewhere in October. We’d recently decided to hire a journalist to mine stories from the ground. She’d try to translate ThoughtWorkers’ voices into words and if necessary write their stories for them. Fortunately or unfortunately, we got to a point where we asked ourselves whether this would be an authentic way of communicating in the office. As it turned out, we agreed it wouldn’t be. Our problems still remained - we had a fantastic oral, storytelling culture, but when it came to writing about our work or experiences, we didn’t think much of what we do.

It was then that we had an epiphany. How about we used the same money that we’d use to hire a journalist, to instead engage ThoughtWorkers in writing about their work lives? Not only would the communication be far more authentic, we also stood a good chance of shaping a culture where people could write freely without the fear of being judged or considering their experiences to be “not much to write home about”.

Belief: Every ThoughtWorker has something to write home about. You never know how useful your experiences could be to your colleagues or to other people.

With that belief in mind, we set out planning a blogging campaign. I'd had done a course on Gamification with Prof Kevin Werbach of UPenn. We decided that we’ll run a contest in the office - inspired by a similar comtest that our marketing team had organised. We wanted to adhere to a few key principles though. WWe wanted to keep the entry barrier low, the feedback loops tight and the sense of achievement high. After all, those are the characteristics of any good game. In our contest, it didn’t matter where you posted your article, as long as ThoughtWorkers could see it. Every contribution got you points and every audience reaction to your contribution got you points as well. Of course, the more the effort behind your post, and the greater the value to ThoughtWorks or ThoughtWorkers, the more points you got. So, posts with videos and posts that went on to ThoughtWorks Insights would get a bagful of points. Just like that, we set things up and waited for the deluge to begin.

Learning: Keep things simple. Lower entry barriers, build in feedback and give everyone a sense of achievement.

Our idea, while popular with our general manager Chirag Doshi and a few others in the office, did find some skepticism. We almost ran into some rough weather with the name “Pune Blogging Competition”. After all, our inspiration was a set of well managed, centrally run contests and ours was the cheap, local imitation. The fear was that we may undermine the notion of a blogging competition. We got some suggestions telling us to change the name to anything but “Blogging Competition”. The skeptics also felt that we won’t be able to generate much good content. At the end of the day, how much can such a volunteer army do? We have to confess, we were a bit stung by those views. We did believe in the potential of our idea though, so we set aside the criticism and stuck to our plans.

Learning: Don’t underestimate the value of a ground up, organic initiative. ThoughtWorkers in particular will surprise and amaze you.

Our contest began sluggishly to be honest. There were rumours of people gaming our gamification and the entries, though regular, weren’t quite the deluge we were expecting. This is when Chirag reaffirmed what we were thinking - our contest needed to be one where everyone wins. With help from a few colleagues, we designed our first goodie - a limited edition, ThoughtWorks blogging t-shirt. We floated the rumour of a goodie for every participant. The idea was an immediate hit - the deluge hit us! Even as we got ourselves to cope with the massive number of entries, folks from the marketing team reached out to use our design for her own team. Game on, we said!

Learning: Winning isn’t everything, so the rewards shouldn’t be for winners alone.

As we read through the entries for the contest, we realised that points and rewards apart, our game needed a layer of communication and feedback. We instituted a leaderboard that we’d update daily and a weekly roundup that’d summarise the posts from the week. The idea was to keep the sense of progress in the game and build that tight feedback loop we wanted, while also ensuring that no entry falls by the wayside because of a lack of attention. It’s interesting how far a little discussion on our internal social network reaches. We’d receive responses to our weekly roundup from people who were not even in Pune. The leaderboard on the other hand, kept getting people excited about their own performance in the contest. The number of points they got was not just an indication of how popular their post was with their audience, but also how well they’d promoted it. It was a contest yes, but with a great sense of camaraderie to go with it.

Learning: People like feedback and a sense of progress. Finding a way to showcase contributions goes a long way.

When you institutionalise a platform, there'll be its haters, regardless of how good at is. And sometimes that meme of how bad a platform is, goes around. Our internal social network isn't unusual and receives its own share of criticism. As an organisation some of us have almost built a false narrative that we can’t drive engaging initiatives using the platform. That criticism has seen a number of parallel platforms emerge (since we're a company of techies after all), which incidentally have a very poor footfall for a company our size. Some platforms die a natural death while others live on as long as certain individuals have the drive to manage them. For our purpose, the corporate social network provided a great, low-entry-barrier platform for first time bloggers. The email integrations ensured that the bloggers had an opportunity to publicise their posts to a wide audience as well. Our leaderboards and roundups too, got the biggest possible audience. The platform didn’t suck as bad as people said it did.

Learning: Platforms don’t matter as much as we think they do. Focus on communicating well and the platform will do its job in the background.

Just to spice up the contest a bit we went ahead and added our own easter eggs to the contest. Apart from promising a hoodie as a goodie for the month of December, we announced that the 31st blogger of the month stands to win the limited edition t-shirt from the previous month. We can’t remember the last time there were so many blogposts on New Year’s eve. Some posts came through just a few minutes before the clock ticked over - when even we, the organisers were in a holiday mood! Similarly this month we have three surprise gifts in addition to the sling bag we’ve promised. In 23 days, January’s given us 34 entries to the blogging contest, making it our most productive month thus far. All in all, to this day, the Pune Blogging Competition has generated 106 entries which is more than a blog a day!

The cool side effect has been the participation of first time bloggers, who were keen to pen down their learnings and were not feel shy about sharing them with their peers and co-workers. In fact, the reach went beyond ThoughtWorks itseld. People posted on their personal blog and showed the confidence to share their experiences with the outside world. We now also have a physical blogging wall in the Pune office, where people’s posts go up with their photographs and a scannable QR code.

Learning: People like surprises and sometimes just the regular set of incentives may not be enough. A small push goes a long way.

What we'd like to leave people with, is a blogging culture that is innate and not driven purely by incentives. The big visible wall in the office will provide the information radiator for this change. Our aim was to kickstart a culture where firstly ThoughtWorkers won't be fearful of writing, and once they’d write they won't be fearful to share. We still have some way to go on that journey, but we hope that by the end of 2015 we can build a blogging culture that Pune’s proud of. In the interim we’re hoping to graduate from individual achievements to team based and then office based achievements. That of course will be with a new group of curators in charge. In addition, we’ve set up a Pune Writers' Peer Group  - a bunch of bloggers in Pune who’re happy to review the writing of new authors just in case they need feedback or a set of friendly eyes to look over their content.

Learning: It’s not enough to start an experiment. We want to try making change that lasts.

As curators of the Pune Blogging contest, we’ve enjoyed the experience thoroughly. We’ve read a lot, written a lot, developed strong friendships and been part of an initiative we can look back at with great fondness. It’s been a great ride and with just about a week to go, we hope we’ll end on a high as well. Thanks to everyone who played along!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Why my daughter doesn't deserve school

It's a provocative title isn't that one? It'll probably set the alarm bells ringing among proponents of the right to education. I guess it may have incensed feminists as well. Some of you may call me a crazy parent. I'm quite happy to take all of the criticism as long as you have the patience to read to the end of this article. Before I put you through that misery though, let me share my basic premise. Education and school are two distinct and often non-overlapping concepts. I personally believe that the institution of school is counterproductive to the journey of education and to the irreplaceable experience that is childhood. I want my daughter to grow up as a beautiful human being. I want her to enjoy her childhood, to embrace the confusion of teenage and to follow her passion. I'd like her to learn deeply and question status quo as she grows up. School is unlikely to give me any of that. And by the way, when I say "school" I mean school as we've always known it. I'm happy to accept newer definitions for that institution. Yes, you may disagree with me. If you do, I'd love to learn from you. If you thought my article promotes illiteracy or misogyny though, my disclaimer may just prompt you to read further.

What is education?

An interesting question to ask ourselves as parents would be, "If governments across the world banned certificates, diplomas and degrees then what would we consider as education?" I find it interesting that Wikipedia describes education this way:
"Education in its general sense is a form of learning in which the knowledge, skills, and habits of a group of people are transferred from one generation to the next through teaching, training, or research. Education frequently takes place under the guidance of others, but may also be autodidactic (self-driven). Any experience that has a formative effect on the way one thinks, feels, or acts may be considered educational."- Wikipedia
Wow! Does it surprise us that no part of that definition has school or university in it? To me education has two very simplistic sets of goals:
  1. Utilitarian: the acquisition of skills so that children can grow up and make a living
  2. Societal: the addition of great human beings to society so they make the right decisions. This is even more important in our day and age as the impact of small actions at an individual level has far reaching consequences.
So how does school do on each of these goals? Let's see.

Imparting skills - how does school fare?

If you were remotely interested in this post, I take it that you've seen Ken Robinson's brilliant talk about how schools kill creativity. If not, do watch it. The talk from 2005 was path breaking in that it brought into public cognisance what we'd always said about education. Sir Robinson, in the space of 20 witty minutes tore the education system into shreds. He called out the absurd hierarchy of subjects, the process of academic inflation, and the need for multi-disciplinary thinking. He illustrated through examples how the system stigmatised bright people, simply because they didn't conform to the mould of school. Ken Robinson was neither the first nor the last to speak about this loss of creative potential but the talk did open up a proverbial Pandora's box.

Now, you'd imagine that if school is getting rid of "the creative types" and if you had the illusion that some children aren't creative, then well - school should do well with the remaining folks. Nothing is further from the truth. Let's look at millions of India's engineers and quiz them about the application of Boyle's law in real life. You'll find that several struggle to even recollect what Boyle's law is. Take the topic to organic chemistry or calculus which some of us spent four to six years of our lives studying. The lack of intuitive understanding for these topics is striking. As people how Gandhi's declaration of Swaraj relates to independent India and I doubt you'd receive much more than blank stares. The fact is that the factory of school is meant to do one thing - maximise pass percentages. The "good schools" pride themselves on creating "toppers" - children who can get great grades in exams. Frankly this is a worldwide plague. And yes, I know Finland has a great education system but it'd be foolish to compare a country of 5.4 million people with little or no diversity amongst them to a country of over a billion that speaks 800+ languages.

When one designs a school system to maximise grades then true learning falls by the wayside and the pressure for success in exams take over. Don't waste your time with lenses - the syllabus for the exam is just about mirrors. Stop reading that blogpost about environmental justice, it's time for you to focus on math. Why do you want to learn about germination now? It isn't part of the exam papers until next year! Why are you interested in learning about communist dictatorship when the teacher's asked us to study Tughlaq? Unfortunately we don't really learn in that fragmented fashion. We learn through a deep immersive passion for things. We learn through joy, amazement and wonder. Despite their best intentions, teachers with 30-50 pupils each in dark, prison like rooms, operated through a sequence of bells, are only able to focus on maximising exam scores. Guess what children learn from this factory like environment? They learn how to obediently follow narrowly focussed orders. Passing exams with good grades is only a head fake for this hidden curriculum.
“If you sit kids down, hour after hour doing low-grade clerical work, don't be surprised if they start to fidget." - Sir Ken Robinson
In addition, schools and teachers have gotten increasingly protective of the institution as the world has moved on. Back in the day, the notion of school may have made sense given knowledge was scarce and one had to "go to school" to learn from a teacher. Today, with the advent of IT, knowledge and means of skills acquisition are everywhere and yet, most teachers haven't woken up to the world and its possibilities. I don't think technology is a panacea for learning, but it surely does change the notion of what an educational institution is meant for.

And by the way, what are the eventual results like? Across India and the US, high school completion rates are often less than 50%. School has done nothing to bring generations out of poverty. In fact, industrialisation and modern schools have only created a bigger divide between the rich and the poor. A million engineers each year are unemployed in India. China has a rising number of unemployed graduates despite being one of the largest economies out there. And the US has half of its college graduates working in jobs that don't need a college degree- over 50% of graduates under 25 were without a job. One in three American graduates believes that the education system didn't prepare her well for real life! So much for the glorious promise of jobs that follow 16 years of formal education. One may point out the odd success story and the story of how their child became a fantastic professional because of school. I argue that the statistics reveal this to be the exception and not the rule. Most children that "succeed", do so despite school, not because of it. Things are just-not-working.

School and the History of Injustice

"Once he is educated, he will leave this mountain and learn this lifestyle. He will sell our land to the company. At these schools, they don't teach how to live with nature, they teach how to live by exploitation." - Tribal Sikuka Sani on why he doesn't want his son in school
To understand the social impact of school, we need to understand its origins. Now I don't want to deny that we had some form of schooling even in ancient and medieval times in the form of gurukulas and universities like Nalanda. There is a stark difference however, between the very principles of modern schools and these institutions. We can probably touch upon that in a separate post. The modern, western school is by design an instrument of injustice. The reason for that particularly in the Global South countries, is the inextricable link between school and colonialism. The European colonialists followed a very repeatable pattern. They invaded native lands and killed people indiscriminately. They took over the land and resources to exploit for their own benefit. Following this, the missionaries arrived to tell natives that they were heathens or pagans and that they needed to embrace a new god. Alongside, the colonialists set up schools to train entire generations of natives in lessons of obedience and to destroy their native way of life. The idea was to create a people that would be so conforming to the white way of life that they wouldn't see the white man as foreign. No wonder the inaugural address of the Carlisle Indian School said, "Let all that's Indian within you die".
    The story has repeated itself across the world. In India Lord Macaulay sought to create Macaulay's children, "a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect". In the Philippines, after a civilian massacre by the American forces, school teachers moved in swiftly to civilise the survivors. In Africa, the Europeans applied more brutal means through slavery and eventual Bantu schooling to serve the needs of the elite. Across the countries of the global south, the agenda of education has been quite similar. I'd like to believe that some people were acting in good faith. They believed it was necessary to civilise these brown and black people. The white man's burden was to educate indigenous people in their self proclaimed superior ways.

“You do it my way, by my standards, at the speed I mandate, and in so doing achieve a level of output I ordain, and I’ll pay you handsomely for it, beyond anything you might have imagined. All you have to do is take orders and give up your way of doing the job for mine.” - Fredrick Winslow Taylor
At the very same time 250 years ago, the Industrial Revolution was changing the world in a way that 500,000 years of human existence had never imagined. Machines had made means of production incredibly sophisticated and yet, the pace of production growth was limited by a major bottleneck. The effectiveness of the machines was almost undermined by skilled craftsmen who wanted to do a job well over doing it quickly. Their skills and deep thinking for their craft were no longer applicable. Post the industrial revolution, we needed people who followed orders. Obedience, not skill was the primary characteristic for employment. And so the workers sacrificed their creativity and skill for obedience, thereby making a deal with the devil. This has led to the system of schools that is modelled after factories. Back in the day workers sat on benches, in neat rows. That's what schools look like today. They operated in schedules dictated by a ringing bell. That's how schools operate today. They obeyed narrow orders without context. That led to the way we learn in fragments and follow teachers' orders today.

You could choose not to believe me but there's significant literature out there to articulate how school was an institution established to benefit few at the cost of many. In that, the system of school that we follow promotes the same injustice that it sought to create in the times of its inception.

So what does school teach after all?

With all this said, it's important to ask ourselves what children actually learn at school and I've come to the realisation that school is not just ineffective for young citizens of the global south - it's highly dangerous. Let me enumerate to you what children actually learn at school. And while this list isn't comprehensive, let me share with you ten deadly aspects of the hidden curriculum of school.
  1. West is Best: School teaches our children that the western model of life, is the paragon of humankind's potential. So our children grow up idolising Western cities - they've been sold on the idea of the west being so awesome, that they want to live there and work there. The accept everything that is western as superior, despite the fact that the west has serious problems with inequality, ecological balance, employment, women's rights, racism and other social issues. We look at our ways and our lives through the evaluative lens of the west. Whatever the west denounces, we denounce. Whatever the west approves we approve. No wonder every great city in India is losing its character in its quest to look like a Western equivalent.
  2. English rules the world: In Indian schools, children receive punishment if they speak in their regional languages - even on the playground. They're taught that English is a ticket to the high life. That no one will respect them if they speak their local language. As a consequence, parents too speak to their child in English if they can. This leads to a huge loss of culture through the loss of languages. India has lost 220 languages in the last 50 years - partly due to this mindless promotion of English over its true value as a link language. Language isn't just words and grammar - it holds the key to culture. Tribals in New Guinea and the Western Ghats can identify dozens species of birds by their songs; traditional healers can identify thousands of medicinal plants and how they affect the human body; the Andamanese tribes have the knowledge of how to sense natural disasters like the tsunamis. Every language we lose, eventually leads to the loss of rich culture associated with it.
  3. Your family's ways are backward and primitive: As children learn about the western world and its ways, they start to look at their indigenous ways as backward and primitive. Already, people look down on Ayurveda and glorify allopathy. They consider western dairy farming to be superior to our far diverse approaches. They think of mechanised industrial farming as a way to create better yields though traditional organic farming is far more sustainable. Children don't want to use local materials for their home any more because they're messy and awkward. Bio fuel from dung is despised because despite it's sustainability, it feels primitive. At the level of elders, this creates great inferiority as they start to believe that they know nothing and that school is a panacea for their children to experience happiness in life.
  4. Academic failure = failure in life: As Manish Jain of Shikshantar says, "One of the things that is most disturbing to me, at a level of justice and morality, is that you have an institution in place globally that is branding millions and millions of innocent people as failures." Is failure to succeed in school really the only indicator of a human being's potential? Haven't we learned from the likes of Beethoven, Tagore, Lincoln, Akbar, Edison, Einstein, Eminem, Jackie Chan, Sachin Tendulkar and several others that non-conformance to the institution of school is no measure of a human being's potential? And yet, every year we have millions of children who will not jump through the hoops of school and hence identify themselves as an "8th class fail" or something like that. How can any of us who think of social justice accept such an institution that is binary enough to say that those who conform to it are successes and those that don't are failures?
  5. Conform and get rewards: A corollary to the above learning what children learn about conformance. Those that obey the teacher's orders are those that get rewarded. Those that jump through the hoops of exams are the ones that come out on top. The learning of conformance comes from the act of wearing similar uniforms, mingling only with people who are in your age group. If you have an interest that isn't part of the syllabus, you'll most probably get no encouragement. On the other hand if you finish your borderline clerical homework the way your teacher wants, you'll receive a pat on the back. Conform to rules, conform to the bell, conform to the time table. If you play for longer than the time table allows (so what if you're a child), be ready to stand on the bench or kneel down or sit outside class and be the subject of ridicule. Worse, get caned. 
  6. Initiative is over-rated; wait for orders: Amongst the most dangerous things that school does to children is take away the boisterous enthusiasm of childhood. Someone lays out your day in a time-table. Someone decides what you study and when you study it. Someone decides who you can play with. Someone decides when you can play. If you try to do anything different, god save you. Guess what we get at the end of 16 years of such indoctrination? We get a society that takes no initiative and is ok with everything that happens around them. Let's not blame India's middle class for being apathetic to every social issue. School taught them to be that way.
  7. Be fiercely competitive: Don't get me wrong - I have no problem with competition. Certain spheres need competition - sports is an immediate one that comes to mind. Competitiveness becomes a problem when it becomes a way of life. Teachers and parents are obsessed with getting children to score the highest grades possible. Take a look at this commercial to visualise the pressures children face today. It's no surprise that children respond to these pressures by being fiercely competitive. Winning is everything - irrespective of the cost. So what if cheating is necessary to maximise your grades? Should you cram instead of learning? Why not? Especially if that boosts your scores. A central focus on competition makes for very bad decisions. Add to that the fact that schools usually are more obsessed to fill classrooms than to create great learning environments. Play spaces are small and pitiful. Hundreds of children compete for one basketball court. Guess who gets the court? The big, strong bullies? What learning does that reinforce in children? 
  8. The Triple Bind: I admittedly stole this from Stephen Hinshaw but this is primarily for the girls. I obviously care for my little girl and the advent of western education has created a new set of pressures for our girls as they hit teenage. We still want girls to be caring and nurturing. If we don't raise them this way, society looks at them awkwardly regardless of which part of the world they grow in. However the western focus of school and it's glorification of western media brings with it the pressures of looking a certain way. Girls also face this new pressure to "beat the boys" and be number one. So by the time our girls reach teenage, they have to help their moms at home, be involved deeply with the family, look drop dead gorgeous, be athletic, get super grades all while also being a size two. No wonder Hinshaw says, "One girl in four by the age of 19 will have developed serious depression, suicidal behavior, binge eating, cutting - etcetera." I believe Indian society isn't there yet, but we'll quite likely be there in another decade by the time my daughter is about to hit her teens.
  9. Massive consumption represents success: We've embraced the western economic model as our own and at the heart of the western model is the story of stuff - consumption. School by design glorifies everything including the western economy, globalisation, free markets, et all. Children, over years of education learn to value material objects deeply. Who has the latest iPad? Whose dad has the biggest car? Who has the coolest bungalow? They look down on others who may not have as much. Being mindless consumers means that you don't relate how many lives go in vain for that diamond ring or how much blood stains the coaltan in your phone or how many people were displaced for the aluminium on your motorbike. This creates a set of people that have a very different relationship to the planet than what we need in the next few decades. Nature is not an externality to the way we live our lives. All our wealth eventually comes from scarce natural resources. The forces of this world have enough firepower to destroy the planet a few times over. Our only hope is our next generation - one that questions mindless consumption.
  10. Working with your hands is stupid: The biggest bit of social injustice is what I save for the end. I work in a fancy IT company. I sit at a computer for most of the day and hardly move around. I actually have to run long distances each day to burn off the calories I eat. Society gives me a very high place - much higher than the farmer that feeds the nation. Wait - isn't that absurd? A person who slogs away to create food for the nation is lower in social hierarchy to a person that creates virtual 'stuff' in an air-conditioned office? The way we've architected our society reflects itself in how we teach at school. Children learn that working with your hands is for the lowest strata of society. They see no dignity in manual labour. The repurcussions of this are far reaching. The lack of interest in agriculture, the loss of indigenous professions, health, respect for people in society - the list could go on.
And hey, I haven't even bothered to brainstorm any further than this list. I'm sure if we thought this through, there'd be several other problems we'd be able to articulate with school's performance on social goals. In effect it's easy to see why the world isn't getting any better despite about 300 years of modern schooling.

What's the alternative then?

My daughter is just five and half months old so I have a lot of time to think this through. I realise though, that I'd be very unhappy if my daughter ended up having to suffer a factory school. Do I have a clear alternative in mind? Frankly, no! I know that my family may have preferred factory school because of the 'formula' it provided. They did the best they could for me. Today, I realise that the formula isn't working and really, education is a dynamic activity which we can't boil down to the simplistic progression structure of school. I'm exploring several different options, including alternative schools like those from the Krishnamurti Foundation or the Steiner Schools. I do have a few things in mind that I want my daughter to get out of her education - and I'm particular about these to the extent that I'm more than happy to homeschool her if necessary.
  1. Enjoy her childhood and grow organically
  2. Develop a respect for nature
  3. Experience the dignity of labour
  4. Build respect for tradition and indigenous livelihoods; learn extensively from them
  5. Gain mastery over all our family languages - Hindi, Bengali and Marathi
  6. Pursue knowledge for its own sake - not for curriculum
  7. Discover the ability to follow her passion without fear
  8. Question the status quo of the current world
  9. Learn to work with others, not against them
  10. Apply her learning in real life through inter-disciplinary challenges
And this journey isn't going to be straightforward. I expect to face new challenges every day. That's why I'd like to go along and learn on this journey with my daughter. This is not a well charted route - I don't know how to begin or how this will end up, but isn't that what parenting is all about? Isn't it far better to look at every day as an adventure than to give up your lives to the predictability of an institution? I surely would prefer the former.

Over the last few years I've grown more passionate about education than corporate learning and development and about social and economic justice more than just the business of IT. So pardon me if the bent of my posts seems very different from what I've posted earlier - maybe even contrary. I don't expect to keep the pace of posts I once had on this site but I do intend to post more about the issues that interest me right now. I hope you stay with me on this part of the journey as well and please feel free to tell me what you thought of this post.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

A tale of 3 TED talks and their collective irony

Some seven years back, Sir Ken Robinson delivered a landmark speech at TED, citing how schools kill creativity. It's one of those talks that sparked my own interest in public education. In his inimitable, humorous style, Robinson launched a scathing attack on schools. Some of his quotes remain stuff of legend.
I believe this passionately, that we don't grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out if it.
If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they're not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn't valued, or was actually stigmatised. 
When I was a student, if you had a degree, you had a job. If you didn't have a job it's because you didn't want one. But now ... you need an MA where the previous job required a BA, and now you need a PhD for the other. It's a process of academic inflation. And it indicates the whole structure of education is shifting beneath our feet. We need to radically rethink our view of intelligence.
Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won't serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we're educating our children.
More recently, Sugata Mitra made his inspirational TED prize talk, following up his landmark speech about his hole in the wall experiment. Mitra made a case for a school in the cloud - self organised learning environments (SOLEs) where children can explore and learn from one another. And while he helped us look ahead to a time of joy and amazement in learning, his subtle attack on the system of schooling was fairly evident.
We don't even know what the jobs of the future are going to look like. We know that people will work from wherever they want, whenever they want, in whatever way they want. How is present-day schooling going to prepare them for that world? 
The reptilian part of our brain, which sits in the center of our brain, when it's threatened, it shuts down everything else, it shuts down the prefrontal cortex, the parts which learn, it shuts all of that down. Punishment and examinations are seen as threats. We take our children, we make them shut their brains down, and then we say, "Perform.
I think what we need to look at is we need to look at learning as the product of educational self-organization. If you allow the educational process to self-organize, then learning emerges. It's not about making learning happen. It's about letting it happen. 
There was a time when Stone Age men and women used to sit and look up at the sky and say, "What are those twinkling lights?" They built the first curriculum, but we've lost sight of those wondrous questions. We've brought it down to the tangent of an angle.
So after watching these amazing gentlemen speak about how school and the public education system is the perfect killer for the joy, amazement and self directed learning journey we call childhood, the third talk is ironic to say the least. A young Maasai boy, Richard Turere from Kitengala in Kenya had found a solution to lion-human conflict at Nairobi National Park. A child from a cattle herding family, Turere often lost his cattle to lions from the park. As is Maasai custom, an act like this has no forgiveness - the marauding lions have to die.

Through his own journey of self discovery, Richard learned that lions were afraid of moving flashlights. A few experiments and failures with his electricity supply and a few games with LED lights gave fuel to his invention - Lion Lights. Richard's now fitted a series of LED bulbs facing outwards from his cattle enclosure. He's wired them to a box of switches and a solar powered battery panel. Every night, these lights flicker intermittently just as a flashlight would if a human were patrolling with it! Ever since, his family hasn't lost a single animal to lions and Turere has now become a mini celebrity amongst the Maasai at Nairobi National Park.

What this boy did, was a consequence of the natural joy and amazement of childhood. No one taught him electronics. He learned it himself. He just had a big challenge, his own little quest, "I had to look after my dad's cows and make sure that they were safe." This seems to resonate with what Ken Robinson and Sugata Mitra seemed to say about creativity and learning in their respective talks.

So where is the irony? Richard's reward for his natural genius is that good people with great intentions have now placed him in one of Kenya's top schools. So Richard wears a fancy uniform everyday and will join the rat race of academic achievement alongside several other children who are learning to be cogs in an industrial economy. I hope for Richard's sake that he retains his genius despite school. Chances are though, that as Robinson laments, he will get educated out of his creativity. And when the lions figure out the lights, the Maasai won't have Richard there to figure out what to do next. I hope I'm wrong. I want to be wrong. I can't help but lament the irony of this case. If I get the time, I do want to meet Richard on my trip to Kenya in June. I keep my fingers crossed that we hear more about his astounding achievements in years to come.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Intraversion at Work

For the 30 odd years of my life I've been an introvert, a facet of my character that I have tried very consciously to run away from. Recently I was in Africa for work and that work involved meeting a number of unknown people and attempting to build relationships with them. I felt very tired in the evenings. Not physically, but emotionally. The entire hypersocial experience of adjusting to new coworkers in a new office, meeting new people and building relationships was tough for me as an introvert. And of course, I couldn't hide behind intraversion so I built up a bit of a facade of extraversion to keep at my work. And it's amazing that over the years, despite my strengths being reflection, introspection and contemplation, that I was intimidated by the fact that I was in a role that was individual than as part of a team. I should have been happy in a way, but somehow years of feigning extraversion seem to have done me in.

So yesterday when our Managing Director shared this video with me, I was excited. It was Susan Cain speaking about the power of introverts. I'm quite certain I'll pick up her book and read, but in the mean time, I can't deny that there are several points she made that were epiphanies for me and learnings that our most important institutions - schools and workplaces can learn from. At the very least for introverts, I hope it'll help you feel a lot more at ease with yourself.

A few thoughts that I think employers, teachers and individuals can ponder over, from this rather excellent talk:
  • Is your school or workplace architected for extroverts? Do introverts get safe opportunities to be by themselves, intute, impute, introspect, reflect and contemplate their work? Is there an unspoken taboo against introverted behaviour?
  • Do introverts face a natural disadvantage in the way your institution runs? Do they get routinely overlooked when it comes to leadership and career advancement? Across the leadership of your organisation, do you have enough introverts who are allowed to be that way?
  • Are the role models in your institution mostly extroverts? If there are introverts who have the freedom to be introverted, do people know their stories? What's the story of the introverts who do grow in your organisation? 
  • Do you bring in people in the image of the organisation itself - focussed on gregariousness and extraversion? Do you value quiet contemplation and individual work too? 
  • How individualised is your system? Individualisation isn't the same as being individualistic. Nor is it about devaluing the collective.
  • Does your institution have enough low-key environments that are inviting for introverts? Or do they have to 'fit in'?
  • As a leader do you allow ideas to run a life of their own, or do you stamp your personality on them? As a leader do you display empathy and step back from offering your opinions - preferring to reflect on occasion? This is an important question for corporate and educational leadership. Do conversations always have a logical end? Or are you willing to go back and reflect on things you may have learned or not totally understood?
  • Have you ever rejected a person who is quiet or introverted as not being a team player, or as someone who won't 'fit in'? How does your institution look at intraversion vis-a-vis your said or unsaid entry criteria?
  • Is there an unspoken assumption that all brainstorming, creative thinking and ideation needs to happen in groups? What examples do you have of people having a free rein to explore and express their ideas without being subject to groupthink?
  • Are magnetism and charisma the most valued leadership traits in your institution? As a leader do you expect your people to be able to sell their ideas vocally, or do you routinely investigate what they're upto and create an environment for them to succeed?
  • Do people need to win arguments or convince others to move forward with their ideas? If you're the person they're having to convince as a extroverted leader, how willing are you to set aside your own thinking and biases and let your people do their thing?
  • Would you consider anyone asking the questions I've just asked, to be anti what your organisation stands for? 
I'm sure there are other thoughts this talk provokes and I'll be sure to watch it a few more times for it all to sink in. This talk was amongst the most inspiring and liberating ones that I've heard this year. Susan Cain's been through her own journey of being an introverted public speaker - one that I've been on myself. She's developing an online course on 'Public speaking for introverts' and I've signed up for the updates on that - do so if you're interested. And if anything, I hope you're that much more empathetic to that introvert near you.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Photoshop Tutorials to help you post process like a boss!

A few weeks back I published a set of tutorials to help you get started on Lightroom. I hope that those of you who do use Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw found those tutorials useful. I've now created a set of Photoshop tutorials for you to learn how to use the most popular post-processing tool for photographers. Along with the Lightroom tutorials, these videos form two hours of instruction with real photographs from the field and should be a comprehensive starter pack for you to post process like a champ! Hopefully I can save you some money that you may have ended up spending on a post-processing course. You can use that cash to buy yourself some equipment or maybe fund a short trip!

The Tutorials

Like the previous tutorials, these videos are also part of a YouTube playlist and I've licensed them under a Creative Commons Attribution license. You'll find these videos most useful if you play them in high definition. That way you'll see the detail a lot better. Have fun!
  1. Introduction to the Photoshop interface
  2. Integrate Photoshop with RAW processing software
  3. Basic Adjustments in Photoshop
  4. Non Destructive Editing in Photoshop
  5. Use Soft Light to Enhance your Landscapes in Photoshop
  6. Straighten your horizon and Darken your Sky in Photoshop
  7. Reduce Noise on your Images using Photoshop Plugins
  8. Black and White Conversion in Photoshop
  9. Non Destructive Dodging and Burning in Photoshop
  10. Non Destructive Healing and Cloning in Photoshop
  11. Masking in Photoshop
  12. Sharpening Tools in Photoshop
  13. Create Frames and Copyright Marks in Photoshop
  14. Create Custom Actions to Automate your work in Photoshop

If you find these tutorials useful, then do share them with your friends and popularise the tutorials. While I don't intend for these videos to be a comprehensive dive into Photoshop, I hope they serve as a good introduction for people to feel familiar with the application and to get started. If no one ever had to attend a basic post-processing course, it'd make these tutorials immensely successful.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Adobe Lightroom made simple - post processing tutorials for beginners

When you're making pictures instead of taking pictures, the one thing that helps your execute great images is confidence in post processing. There's no substitute for getting the shot right in camera, but unfortunately the device isn't always the best at representing reality. Cameras lack the eye's dynamic range and also the ability to translate colours accurately. And every now and then we all make mistakes that we'd like the opportunity to correct after the fact. So, first things first, shoot in RAW - the amount of flexibility this gives you is quite awesome. Enough said about that.

Now you have the choice of using Lightroom/Aperture or Photoshop. The difference is a good $400 - at $123 retail, Lightroom 4 is a real steal given the amazing non-destructive editing it allows you to do. Can it do all that Photoshop does? Of course not. That said, there's a lot Lightroom can do which Photoshop can't. Managing your photos, tagging, organisation, printing workflows, tagging, branding are just some of those advantages of Lightroom. I guess it's a toss up between Lightroom and Aperture for the Mac. Given it's availability on multiple platforms and my current familiarity with it, I prefer the former. In today's blogpost, I'll introduce you to the basics of post processing in Lightroom 4 and save you a boatload of cash. This is not an exhaustive set of tutorials, but just enough to get you started. If there are more tutorials you want me to add, please let me know. One word of caution. I assume that you know how to use your camera and to read your histogram. I also hope you know the basics of picture controls such as saturation vs vibrance. If you have some of that covered, these tutorials will help you take your images to the next level.

The Tutorials

I've gone ahead and added all the videos to a playlist on YouTube - you can either play them on the site or off this post. I don't have much more to say - I hope the videos are useful!

  1. Introduction to Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw
  2. Import Pictures into Lightroom
  3. Basic Editing in Lightroom
  4. Removing Blemishes in Lightroom
  5. Work with brushes in Lightroom (and reduce wrinkles)
  6. Noise Reduction in Lightroom
  7. Hue, Saturation and Luminance Adjustments in Lightroom
  8. Black and White Processing in Lightroom
  9. Process Landscapes in Lightroom
  10. Sharpen Images in Lightroom
  11. Add a vignette to your image through Lightroom
  12. Split Toning in Lightroom
  13. Export your images from Lightroom

I look forward to hearing from you about the utility of these tutorials. My next aim is to create a series of tutorials on Photoshop and focus it on editing photographs. If there are specific topics you'd like me to cover there, just let me know. Thanks for being patient with my erratic posting.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Why your community needs a license to share

Last weekend, I participated on a thread that caused me much angst. As someone who's participated in online communities for about 12 years now, I feel strongly about a sense of sharing. And yet I found my sensibilities challenged in this debate about sharing bird photographs under the creative commons license. Let me give you context. Indian Birds is a Facebook group with about 10,000 members. As the name indicates, most of the members are birders, quite a few being bird photographers. A few days back, the owner of the group made a suggestion - to make all postings to the group subject to the Creative Commons license. His intent was that all material and pictures posted on the group will be free:
  • to Share — to copy, distribute and transmit the work
  • and to Remix — to adapt the work
The range of objections I heard to this seemingly well intentioned proposal made me think quite hard about the spirit of sharing on online communities. In effect, as a community manager it made me think about one more thing I'd like to consider - ownership and licensing. Before I get into the details of what this may mean for your new community, let me explain my stance first.

Full Disclosure

I have to be honest. I'm biased towards the Creative Commons licenses. If this changes your views about the value of this article, you may want to stop reading. I also must say that I'm not a supporter of Creative Commons because of some deep desire to be awesome. While I think it's about being nice, I think it's also very practical. It's very difficult for creative people to write proper licenses for their content. Now the moment you publish a piece of work, you automatically own the copyright to it. And yes in cases of photography and similar art work, you can also put up a notice that says:
"Copyrighted by ... and may not be used, downloaded in any form, or Print Media website without written permission of the Photographer."
This however is an untruth. Under the terms of fair use or fair dealing anyone can use your work in part for the purpose of education, criticism, commentary, reference and review. So, in that a statement like the one you see above isn't very useful and it leaves a lot of room for ambiguity. You don't quite indicate the rights you're willing to give to your viewers and the rights you'd like to reserve for yourself. Now you can hire a lawyer to write all of this up for you, but that'll cost a heap of money. Instead, you can choose the Creative Commons licenses and select the rights you wish to reserve for your benefit. There are some great lawyers behind the Creative Commons system and your reserved rights are pretty air tight. But the bigger benefit is that you make your reservations quite explicit by making the rights you give away very clear. Of course there'll always be jerks who violate copyright, and the way to deal with them is no different from the "all rights reserved" world. So, that's my personal stance about Creative Commons - hopefully that sets the record straight.

Licensing community content

One of the things you want in a community that you set up for sharing, is people shouldn't sue each other for the simple act of using content from the community. Now communities are all about sharing. If you don't intend to share and to give other members the ability to benefit from your work, you shouldn't post to the community. If you participate on Indian Birds, you'll see that the majority content is photographs. It's perhaps 95% of the activity. The big question is - if you're unwilling to share, then why would you post a picture? For free publicity and marketing? I guess there are other opportunities for that. This is where some amount of legal protection is necessary. 

Now again you have two options. You can write your own license. This is what we've done for our internal community at ThoughtWorks. All content created by ThoughtWorkers on the community is the property of ThoughtWorks and for the benefit of ThoughtWorkers. So the question of suing each other doesn't arise. In our situation as a consulting firm, this approach makes sense. It may not make sense however for an externally facing community, especially one that's like Indian Birds. This is where an approach like Creative Commons comes in handy and saves you the trouble of writing a license for yourself.

FAQs and misgivings about the Creative Commons licenses

A few days back I watched a great episode of Chase Jarvis live. It was amazing how a well known commerical photographer like Chase promised to put his non-contractual work under the commons to make his commitment to sharing and his rights clear. The episode is very educational for photographers in particular to understand what it means to share their work online and the licensing that makes sense. That said, I realise that Creative Commons still isn't common vocabulary for a lot of people. In view of some of the objections that people raised to these licenses, I thought it might be worthwhile to dispel some of those myths and answer some questions.

I cannot sell any of my work if I apply Creative Commons licensing. If a community uses these licenses, I cannot participate for this reason.
This is incorrect. You can use any of the Creative Commons non commercial license to reserve rights to your work. If your community is also using one of these non commercial licenses, you can quite easily sell the work you share there and also other versions of the same work.

Once I use Creative Commons, I cannot revoke the license at a later stage
This is true, but do remember that this applies only to the version of the work you share under the license. So let's say, you share a low resolution image online and apply a Creative Commons license to it, it's only that picture that is permanently in the commons. The high resolution version and it's other derivatives stay unaffected.

Commercially viable and high quality artwork is never in the commons
Far from the truth. You've got to see the portfolios of Jonathan Worth, Kalyan Varma, Trey Ratcliff, John Harvey and others to know that. In addition, just do a search for Creative Commons photography on Flickr. The number of great photographs you'll see out there is just tremendous! 

If a community adopts Creative Commons licensing then violations become the responsibility of the community too
This depends on who owns the content. If the community is set up so the community itself owns the content, then yes it becomes the responsibility of the organisation running the community to take action against violations of copyright. However, if the community only requires members to post under a Creative Commons license while retaining their copyright, then the community has no liability to get into legal battles. As in any other situation, enforcing copyright is still the responsibility of the artist.

Why should anyone decide the licensing for my work?
You're right. No one should decide the licensing for your work. However if you post to a community you should be willing to share your work. In return for publicity, appreciation and social currency, you give some benefits to the members of the community. If the community adopts a Creative Commons license, this is to balance the rights of community members and copyright holders. In case you're unwilling to share your work, you can still decide to reserve all rights by not posting to the community!

If people want to use my work, why can't they just ask me?
This is usually unnecessary friction. Empirical evidence shows that most people don't ask, they just use your work, either under the terms of fair use or not. Instead, a clear statement that allows people to use your work with attribution under the terms you specify is far lower friction and gets you publicity that you may have not even imagined!

If I use a Creative Commons license, people can modify my work without permission.
You can very easily reserve this right by applying a no derivatives license. This stops people from remixing your work in case you're uncomfortable with it. If your community uses a Creative Commons license, you can speak to your community manager about this.

Why pre-empt the beautiful prospect of a friendship between user and an author/artist that could stem from a request to use a particular piece of work? Why make Creative Commons a middleman?
Sure, you could always argue against the commons this way. Let me tell you of a different perspective though. By virtue of the fact that all my work and this blog fall under the Creative Commons, I've received innumerable words of thanks from people who have just used my work in a presentation or as part of their day to day life. I was quite glad some months back, when a reader of my blog found some articles so useful that he fashioned them into a little ebook. He shared it with me under the Creative Commons license too! It was quite beautiful. Kalyan has a similar story which actually took his photography career to prime-time. So while you may lose one way of striking a relationship, you create several more ways to create this bond.

I'm not trying to make a watertight case for Creative Commons here. I'm sure there'll be more questions. The point I'm trying to make however, is more about the purpose of most online communities than about licensing itself. Licenses only serve to protect the rights of both community members and community authors. We need to ensure that authors still retain the opportunity to benefit from their intellectual property, while community members still benefit by using knowledge shared in that context. With this tension, Creative Commons feels like the simplest solution available to us community managers at this point. If things change anytime soon, I'll have something else to say!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Tiger and other wildlife conservation in an anthropocentric world

A few months back, I'd written about a similar topic. The case I mentioned in that post is dragging its feet in the apex court. In the meanwhile, the court has placed a ban on tiger tourism in the core zones of all 41 of India's tiger reserves. Since the ban first came about in the month of July, the conservation community in India has stood divided between those pro-tourism and those against. While listening to the views and counter views, I've participated in a few debates and then pulled out. I needed time to gather my own thoughts on the subject. As a wildlife photographer or a naturalist or a conservationist, I'm an absolute novice compared to some of the big guns out there. So I guess, I'm entitled to take my time to think through an issue as grave as this. The question before the supreme court is one of whether they should allow tourism in its current form or not. The answer to that is pretty clear - not. With all due respect to the honourable court, the eventual answer isn't 'no tourism' either. I'll try to explain my thoughts later in the post. The question before the conservation community is a slightly bigger one. It's a question of identity and realism. I'd like to touch upon some of these issues in today's blogpost.

Divisiveness never helped a purpose

"...all roads can lead to conservation if the intentions and actions are right, and that people from all walks of life can contribute equally." - Shekhar Dattari
This month, Shekhar Dattari wrote a pretty interesting article about conservation. He argued quite rightly that no role in conservation is bigger or smaller than another. I'm not sure if it's me but I notice a huge amount of animosity in some sections of the conservation community towards others who maybe wholly or peripherally a part. For example, conservationists and naturalists seem to look down on photographers. Photographers look down on the general public. The general public looks down upon the forest department and forest dwellers. I like to believe that conservation is an orchestra - everyone plays their part. Sustainable conservation needs people from all walks of life - conservationists, activists, politicians, policy makers, the department, photographers and the common man. Why you may ask? In a country like India, the tiger is the smallest problem for politicians and policy makers to look at - let's be frank about this. Human beings are too short sighted to reconcile how the extinction of the tiger will lead to the crash of our ecosystem and eventually hit our water security. It's a fine scientific argument to pose to people and perhaps an item for long term education, but with 900 million Indians living at less than $2 a day, saving the tiger will never be a politician's priority. And the last I checked, tigers don't get to cast their own votes and even if they did, there's just 1700 of them! So for conservation to succeed, the tiger needs people to rally behind it. So the self-righteous attitude of 'certain people are bad for the tiger', needs to disappear in a hurry, or we'll see our tigers disappear before we can spell c-o-n-s-e-r-v-a-t-i-o-n.
"The tiger is a large hearted gentleman with boundless courage and that when he is exterminated; as exterminated he will be, unless public opinion rallies to his support - India will be the poorer by having lost the finest of her fauna." - Jim Corbett

Lets get off the moral high horse

I participate on a forum of naturalists - quite obvious given my love for natural history. Recently we discussed the discovery of a flock of vultures in a remote village bordering Karnataka's Raichur and Bellary districts. It was happy news except when one of us jumped on a line from the report and said "...kudos for keeping the location a secret (I think you have already given too much information for picture hunters to swoop in)". To this, Santosh Martin(the naturalist who originally discovered the vultures) responded, "Picture hunters for personal glorification will never be entertained as before. Moreover, picture hunters these days are more focussed on tiger areas... Bellary is too far for them."  To say the least I was hurt by the commentary. I'm an amateur wildlife photographer - and for the record, I detest trophy hunting. Somewhere the term 'picture hunter' made me feel that the two naturalists who used the term equated photographers with trophy hunters. Somewhere it felt that they looked down on photography as a way to appreciate and observe wildlife.

In his defence, Santosh responded to me and said, "Picture hunters are certainly different from responsible wildlife photographers.Wildlife photographers are those who employ their skill to interpret nature for the benefit of those millions who never get the chance to visit see the animals and birds in their natural habitat. They also try and document new species which have never been documented before." While I have immense respect for Santosh Martin as a naturalist, I believe this is the kind of thinking that's detrimental to conservation. A photographer need not document new species. A photographer need not reach millions. If a photographer can, through the observation of wildlife become an advocate for its conservation, that in itself is a big win! If a photographer can show his/ her friends fabulous photographs of a much photographed tigress and get those friends excited about nature, that's fabulous too. As nature lovers we seem to live in our own little bubble - believing that there's already tremendous support for the wilderness, given we already see so much media related to it! The truth is far from it. Bump into someone on the street and ask them if they know about vultures going extinct or what the Great Indian Bustard is. Look for the gaze of bewilderment and you'll know what I mean. We need to convert that guy - and unfortunately we can't do this from atop a moral high horse. I don't have a photography website or even a Facebook page for my photos. I make photographs for my own pleasure and to share with my friends and family. Over the last couple of years, I've got several of my friends thoughtful about nature - I can say this about everyone in my immediate team at work. I haven't reached millions and I have no desire to do so and yet I believe I've achieved a conservation victory of my own.

Running an inclusive conservation and tourism orchestra 

The fact that the Supreme Court now has this case pending before it, gives the conservation community an opportunity to appreciate the roles we all play to protect our wildlife. We can't be looking for ecocentric solutions to the problems of an anthropocentric world. For conservation to succeed, we need people to support it fully. So the solution that emerges needs to be win-win and this means a few trade-offs. I'm no expert, but if I had any authority, here's what I'd recommend:
  1. Let's ditch the pseudo-science: There's no correlation between tourism and tiger numbers. Simlipal has no tourism and yet has a healthy tiger population and while Sariska and Panna had great tourism, they lost all their tigers in 2005 due to lack of protection and improper monitoring and administration. On the other hand tigers have grown in numbers in Ranthambhore, Tadoba, Corbett, Kanha, Pench, Bandhavgarh and other parks despite the heavy pressures of tourism. If anything, the only thing we can say with confidence is that tourism has no adverse or favourable impact on tiger numbers.
  2. Locals play a key role: Local people pay the heaviest cost for conservation. They usually lose ancestral land (albeit with decent compensation) and often get second class treatment to tigers and tourists. And when tigers kill their livestock, they have to go through a painful compensation process. If wild cattle ravages their crops, they hardly ever get compensated. In such circumstances, wildlife is like vermin to them - better dead than alive. To make conservation successful, locals need to have a stake. What incentives can they get for a healthy tiger population? What part of tourism profits can they share? Is there room for a community centric ecotourism model like Il Ngwesi in Kenya?
  3. Let's not impose human emotions on tigers: If we really care about tigers we need to stop humanising them. We should be concerned more about maintaining the sanctity of the forest than about how a tiger feels when there are people on an elephant beside it. We have no reason to believe that the tiger near the tourist elephant is a 'poor animal'. Let's remember that these are animals that could become invisible whenever they desire and the fact that we do see them indicates their possible tolerance towards us.
  4. Let's appreciate every stakeholder's context: Yes, we all need to operate with compassion and respect for the wilderness, but to be begrudging of others smacks of a holier-than-thou attitude. First time casual tourists need education. Yes, their noisy behaviour is often irritating and admittedly disturbs the sanctity of the forest - yet, the potential that one among them could possibly bat for the tiger in months to come, is a fair trade-off to live with. Wildlife photographers will want the best shot and go lengths for it. Yes, this may be irritating for naturalists and conservationists - but please understand the value of visual storytelling. That photo could be their way to get their family and friends inspired. There's nothing wrong in judging people, as long as you're willing to be judged yourself. The attitude amongst some naturalists and photographers seems to be that everyone; everyone but them, is a disturbance to wildlife. Nothing's further from the truth.
  5. Let's be ready to live with restrictions: This may seem odd coming from someone who is admittedly pro-tourism. I embrace the educational value of tourism but at the same time tourism can't be anti conservation. We need to have proper emission norms for safari vehicles that enter our parks. We need to decide by some form of established science the optimal number of safari vehicles that can ply at any given time without adversely affecting the ecosystem. We need guidelines for resorts that operate in and around national parks. We can't have another Kosi fiasco. We need tourism to be zero impact to the ecosystem - in that it gives back more than it takes from it. The ministry of environment and forests needs to create a scheme of equitable tourism that allows local communities to benefit and participate in tourism. This is the only way they're likely to help increase the forest cover is if the wilderness is worth more alive than dead.
  6. Let's not have double standards: Given our colonial history, we seem to have a sense of disdain for all things brown. So it irks us to see several brown people line up in jeeps to see a tiger cross the road. And yet, the same naturalists and photographers happily go to the Mara and see 60 vehicles line up for a cheetah and 40 vehicles surround a mating pair of lions and have nothing but great stuff to say about the place. The tiger is the proudest piece of our natural heritage and there's a certain beauty in the fact that 80% of the visitors to our national parks are Indians - as against what you may see in Africa. The fact that everyone from the prime minister to an ordinary country bumpkin can see the tiger for a nominal fee is something we should be proud of and strive to preserve. If we believe we appreciate and love nature, then let's play a role in helping others develop the same passion - instead of trying to judge those who may be less informed.

My intent here is not to take a dig at anyone. All I care about is that every person in this country has an opportunity to experience its rich natural heritage. I believe there's a nature lover in every one of us - our culture is one that inherently respects wildlife. You just need to take a good look at our mythology to believe me. I don't want to pre-judge anyone's intent, our wildlife could use every bit of support it gets in a country with huge population pressures and international poaching threats. I cannot bring myself to support a system where in a foreseeable future others will not have the opportunity to enjoy the privileges I've enjoyed in my life. Most importantly, I'd hope for the conservation community to stay together in its purpose.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Here's why consistency is terribly overrated in corporate education

One of the things that we talk quite a bit in corporate education is consistency. I've spoken about it quite a bit earlier as well. It seems this is something that every training manager out there is thinking about. After all, if you want to train hundreds of people, then you need a consistent process and a consistent output. There's a small problem though, people aren't consistent. And the last I checked, if you place an inconsistent set of inputs into an extremely consistent process, you still get very inconsistent results. One size fits all, fits no one. In today's blogpost, I want to outline the problems with consistency and the alternatives that corporate education and education at large needs.

Is the obsession with scale and consitency a monoculture of the mind?

A few days back, my colleagues Rohit and Sriram spoke about monocultures of the mind. In particular they attacked the monocultured notion that "If it can't scale it's no good." For my benefit and for my argument I want to repeat what I understood of Rohit's argument. First - what is scale?
Scale is any undertaking where more than a few people come together and organise themselves for a purpose determined by a small set of people at the top.
The benefits of scale are things we've talked about several times, but there's one big problem with scale. While a majority complies and bears the brunt of scaling, only a minority reaps its benefit. And of course, as you increase scale and there are more people involved, you create so many levels of abstraction in your process, that you also increase the level of dysfunction.

The problems with scale

Rohit and Sriram talked about the further problems with scale. Let me list them out:

  1. When you separate planning and execution to scale, you effectively lose local solutions that individuals earlier had, albeit over a period of time. Take the example of the green revolution in India. It introduced fertilisers and pesticides to increase agricultural yield, but 40 years hence, we've lost the local solutions that farmers then had, so they could deal with the problem.
  2. The separation of planning and execution create way too many levels of abstraction. This leads to hidden incompetence and learned helplessness because people working at the service end of the process have lost connection with the reason why they do things in a certain way. You lose autonomy and ownership at the individual level, because at the end, everyone is just 'doing a job'.
  3. Scale leads to standardisation. For example, everyone in corporate India speaks English. In fact that's what I've spoken as a first language for all my life. This means though, that we're losing our diversity - I can't speak Bengali or Hindi or Marathi fluently though these are family languages!
  4. The most disturbing effect however is the apathy that the division of responsibilities causes. When I went to Bharatpur, I shared a lunch with my guide Mr Bhim Singh Rana. Rana farms for a living, but he doesn't eat the grains he farms. Instead he has a smaller plot of land where he grows his own food, devoid of pesticides and fertilisers. He's aware that this reduces his yield, but he'd rather have the non-toxic food. Isn't this a problem? The buyers of his grain are separated by so many layers of anonymity that he doesn't really care about poisoning them. His concern for me and the quality of food I had with him was a stark contrast to this apathy.
Try to relate these same problems to top down, large scale, consistent educational programs and you'll know why I have little faith in our education system.

People are different, so why does learning have to be consistent?

"It's I believe we have a system of education which is modelled on the interest of industrialism...Schools are still pretty much organised on factory lines...We still educate (children) by batches...If you are interested in the model of learning you don't start from this production line mentality...It's about standardisation...I believe we've got go in the exact opposite direction...That's what I mean about changing the paradigm." - Ken Robinson
If Sir Ken Robinson says something like this you've got to sit up and take notice. Learning is a very personal exercise. People learn differently. They prefer a different combination of modalities given the context, they have different talents, motivations. You cannot make curriculum the confinement of human experience.

So what does education need instead?

"We deal right now in the educational landscape with an infatuation with the culture of one right answer that can be properly bubbled on the average multiple choice test. I am here to share with you, it is not learning." - Diana Laufenberg
In my view what educators (corporate or not) need is a way to empower themselves. The old model of education where we needed scale, was based on an assumption. An assumption that knowledge is scarce. And since that assumption was true, you could make sense of the 'sage-on-a-stage', 'butts-in-seats', 'everyone-does-the-same-thing' model. As it turns out, knowledge is not scarce today, so educators need to let go of that part of their roles give way to democratised means of gathering knowledge. Share the context, and set them free. We have examples of great knowledge sources all around us. Starting from Wikipedia, all the way to Khan Academy, going right upto iTunesU. Corporates have a unique opportunity to use modern web media to create similar, yet contextualised knowledge sources for their organisations. I believe that we need to drive these knowledge sources using social, collaborative technology with new media at the center. Democracy is at the centre of content creation on the consumer web. Why can't it be in the enterprise?

So what is the educator's role then, if it isn't to disseminate theory? I believe the educator's role in today's world focusses on skills instead of knowledge. Face to face interaction is a wonderful thing - this is an opportunity to solve complex challenges in a collaborative setting. Educators have a wonderful chance today, to participate as coaches, as facilitators of this collaborative experience. In that, you have a repeatable process, but one that is daringly inconsistent and individualised. Those learning have the choice to pick their own learning path to the challenge. Once in the challenge, they have the opportunity to decide how much they wish to stretch themselves. As they stretch their own selves, they challenge educators to support them through this journey. We now have the opportunity to create educational contexts where mistakes are the norm, we view failure as a stepping stone to learning and eventual success and there's no one-right-answer.

The obsession with consistency and scale isn't new. It's something I've seen since the last decade and perhaps even earlier. In a way, the recession was a good thing for the industry. Several companies took some time to focus on learning without having to bother about massive scale given their reduced hiring targets. I'd be concerned though, if the attitude changes when the market does. I'd hope that Ken Robinson, Salman Khan, Diana Laufenberg, Sugata Roy and others have taught us enough about autonomy and individualisation for us to bury the notion of consistency once and for all.
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