Thursday, March 10, 2011

Learning and Development in India - at a distance

In February 2011, I was at a national seminar organized for Administrators, Deans, Vice-Chancellors and Heads of Departments of institutions for Higher Education in India. I was asked to speak on frameworks and models for Human Resource Development in such institutions. The host institution’s faculty had an average tenure of about a decade. At least one Faculty member in this institution had just secured a grant of a million Rupees for a significant longitudinal research in the behavioral sciences from its own Board of Research Studies. What struck me in these apparent coincidences were the lack of pomp, gaiety or false confidence and the sheer commitment to the institution’s main purpose. No, this was not an Ivy League college. Yet, to have supported a climate in which such processes were being cherished without precedent is a sign of things to come. The so called ‘next’ processes could come from unexpected places, I thought to myself. Are we open to such possibilities?
What may drive such Next practices?
There was a time after the book “In Search of Excellence” when ‘excellence’ as a word became a catch-all hook for phenomena that could be ill explained, and yet aspired for. In Search of Excellence is an international bestselling book written by Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. [1]. The fall from fame for companies featured in that book did not help reverse usage of the term ‘excellence’ either. Leaders began languaging a control over processes without necessarily having to demonstrate such ‘excellence’ in their own conduct – especially when it came to learning and development. The fear of loss of control led to being choosy in narrow areas of comfort. What it means to be a learner in an organisation has received lesser attention than what the organisation represented for agencies like supply-chains, stock markets, recruitment houses and investment analysts outside it (Dierkes M, Berthoin Antal A, Child J & Nonaka I, 2001). There is a dearth of understanding in research terms of what learning and change has meant for human beings inside organisations.
Outside business organisations, the signs are not as enthusing either. The Union database of Theses on Inflibnet of the University Grants Commission[2] covers the bibliographic Metadata of Doctoral Theses submitted to 238 Universities/Institutes in India. It has over 2, 32, 599 unique records from all subject areas. Theses titles therein are more suggestive of summer projects and a sense of entitlement rather than accomplishment and furtherance of methodical enquiry and authoritative explanation. If so, what’s next for learning and development? 

Drivers in Learning and development phenomena in India
1.       Scientific Temperament amidst Challenging Demographic structures: A demographic understanding of India is important to the conception and facilitation of learning and development. India will witness a 36% increase in population growth in the decade 2010-20, releasing a workforce of 602 million people, next only to China (847 mn) [3]. We have a flood of youth in the decades ahead, who need to be gainfully employed, and stay employable into the decades ahead for interlocked institutions to yield any good.  Within such a demographic trend are worrying factors we need to address –
a.        quality of education and continuous education beyond formal entry qualifications,
b.       quality of research especially with regard to fidelity to the scientific method, and
c.        the depth of practice or application that will differentiate competence of content-value from aspirations of face-value.
The resources required for high-quality research processes and outcomes will continue to be constrained, given the gestation period it takes to build the intellectual capital and the academic leadership that should nourish talent of the future. We are not only up against a lack of precedence in such services to match world-class standards. Neglecting the appropriateness of context specific applications would also mean insufficient concern and innovation for the price-sensitivities of Indians. The prospect of commercial interests adulterating research activity is just as much threat to ethics. The opportunity for academy-industry collaboration is open, possibly holding up promise eventually for the rest of the world. The discipline of enquiry and reporting of findings eventually have to be tempered by the method of science – across the demographic complexity of India. Patience born of persistence will typify the commitment to science in this regard.
2.       Technological Factors Shaping Civil Life: The technologies of hunting and then ‘cooking’ of raw food to increase the calorific value via the digestive system are known to have gifted our brains with evolutionary prowess. Technology as we know it today affects our lifestyles. Banking, travel, taxation, retail and telecom are some of the sectors that we in urban India have experienced differently due to technology. In the demographic spread as we are witnesses to in India, technology cuts and slices livelihoods unequally in a society unequal in its economic dividend. The embededness of technology in warfare led to the sticky metaphors of ‘smart’ missiles and ‘intelligent’ bombs. Our understanding of the creeping effects of technology in food-processing, sickness-care and agricultural sectors is lessened by the system that forces us, at times, to consume without sufficient awareness of the ecological considerations in such choices. (Goleman, 2009).
Social lags in comprehending such dimensions of technology imply a sensitive appraisal of market-oriented business models, so that development is deemed equitable in the economic sense and justiciable in the social sense. Workforce practices such as leadership development and followership would have to withstand and surpass such appraisals with successes unparalleled in human history.
3.       Conception of viable boundaries for Learning and Development: The boundaries of the organisation are getting redrawn due to varying physical stations of the learner – home, project location, and base location for example. This blurring may imply that ‘developmental’ processes – whether for career, for training or organisational development, will mean newer kinds of recognition of learning needs and corresponding intervention. It requires greater and not lesser investment in understanding of what works in the context of the evolving learner – from the nouveau-urbanite, and the tele-commuting kind to the aspiring shopfloor apprentice or the assertive front-office sales agent. These dynamics of learning and development scenarios need observation, especially because information is impoverished if the learner has no means of justifying contexts for its particular use.
Patenting of proprietary Learning technologies and licensing of host platforms will see shrinking time horizons, given the sheer rate at which the shelf-life of useful information diminishes. The boundaries within which learning and development becomes strategic to a firm or a learner will be more determined by the perception of the firm’s market value. Within these boundaries of strategic impact, competitive advantage will assume inimitable form. Beyond these boundaries, related and yet distinct information could flow free and unrestricted, often emerging from proprietary content of a recent or distant past. The contours of L&D will thus take unprecedented form.

4.       Social Media as extension of personal identities: Social Networking technologies known more by brand names today like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and the like are to be understood differently by L&D professionals. These media affect job crafting options. The commitment of professionals evidenced on such media is to be aligned with the interests of the organisation. Such media are fast with the young, or at least the young-at-heart. Youth are increasingly displaying their private selves in public domains. However, if that is where the digital natives begin, the journeys they take will be different in the information processing they accomplish, and in the affective dimensions they will demonstrate in their personal and professional roles. In India, lower ages can aid expression on social networks only if socio-economic coincidences – like privileges through parental income; access to formal education and internet infrastructure are present together. Firms that create appropriate infrastructure to enable employees to experience continuity to their identities via social media will represent an openness and willingness to accommodate the effects of evolving personal identities. Firms inept in responding to social media implications will learn from firms who will have struck the new balance without damage to their reputations. 

5.       Learning Motives in Knowledge Economies: While strategizing for differences made by human capital through learning and development, leadership needs to manage two dominant learner motivations.
a.        Consumptive knowledge motives – wherein learners learn or consume learning only if they anticipate application from effort made in learning (leading largely to single loop learning[4]) AND
b.       Declarative knowledge motives - wherein learners learn for the sake of or joy of learning new facts (likely to be leading to double-loop learning or openness to governing causes[5]).
There will be scarcer advantages going into the future by suppressing either of such motives. E.g. it is one matter to complain of lack of patenting and innovation amongst firms in India, if fundamental research is isolated only to be neglected. Deep specialists in particular subject areas cannot ignore the complementarities their expertise will have to bear with other specialists and generalists. Role based interfaces and behavioral interventions amongst such diverse talent will call for new learning design and implementation knowledge. Learning and development facilitators will also need dynamic connect with people involved with strategy making and implementation to be able to align services. Facilitating leadership to facilitate learning is core to the progress of knowledge economies.
6.       Coepitition and Cooperation amongst firms: Business deals are now marked more by the post competitive collaboration required to service the ultimate customer. Bidders for the same contract may find that one of them ‘X’ wins and asks others Y and Z to aid them implement the contract on less attractive, yet maintainable terms. Such contingencies or arrangements of business convenience are not well studied for its implications on learning and development of strategic relationships. While this may today be viewed as the province of strategy and large business deals, there may also be the case of rapid learning and maturing of consistent Ys and Zs who progress to take on more enduring and superior relationships with the ultimate client due to their systematic learning from the nature of relationship between X and the client.  Firms in innovative eco-systems will co-evolve together if they complement their learning and development processes, beyond identification of markets, positional assets such as goodwill and geographic scope, technological levers and legal safeguards to patents and proprietary knowledge. E.g. Health-care and information technology may combine to provide new services like tele-medicine from locations in and around Bangalore.
7.       Neuro-Sciences, the Human Brain and Learning: This point I make is to do with the model of the human being as we know it! What began as forays in the affective domain through Emotional Intelligence is now more about the social nature of our brains and alternate neural pathways that can lead to new habit formation and more successful behaviors. Recently, while at the Christian Medical College, Vellore, doctors shared with me the case of a patient who after suffering a stroke lost the ability to speak, but started singing a hymn when his wife at his bedside took to singing it herself in the hospital ward. How exactly the neural connections bypass speech areas and allow for singing are still being studied. From area-specific intelligences of the brain, we are now confronted with emerging knowledge of the plasticity of the brain and positive modeling of success behaviors. This adds to the ‘wholeness’ perspective or the meaningful relatedness to the whole. Unlike the distinct intelligences of spatial, speech, emotional, math and the like, we are now coming to recognize the holistic nature of man’s essential being. It is the model of the human being in all of this which will be the point of interest to learning and development professionals. 

Philosophically speaking, we are coming close to recognizing the responsibility of business in the holistic development of human resources. We should therefore look forward to unconventional themes like IIM (B)’s forthcoming January 2012 seminar “The Spiritual Challenge in Management: What is to be done?” with as much awe as humility
[6], for such may mean revisiting or reprogramming paradigms about human potential.  Perhaps we need to be acknowledging the potential of our subconscious minds more than we did in formal organisations. Less said about certainty and uncertainty in this piece the better, I assume.
8.       Social Commitment and Development: Social learning is achieved through the interactions among people, behavior, and the environment. The individual learns behaviors by observing and imitating others. The rates at which individuals learn and respond will require mature understanding from professionals who engage in learning and development services. Firms that demonstrate commitment to social causes will do so through consistency in their espoused causes and the depth to which their commitment is fulfilled. If such causes do not involve the people being affected, development does not leave the experiential touchstone on which a firm’s identity is imprinted. Communities keep richer memories of institutional impact than what even the organized sector has managed to via its knowledge management systems in India. Symbolic processes, self-control, and self-efficacy are all important in social learning. Hence, reputation that involves brand – traditionally a responsibility of Marketing and Quality, identity – traditionally a responsibility of Leadership; and social responsibility – traditionally associated with Founder Membership – all will need newer coalescence merely to appear coherent with an organization’s stakeholders. Such newer loops in learning have to be mapped for organisational effectiveness.
9.       Measurement Issues: Learning and development efficacy will be highlighted when deficits and benefits to organisational performance are identified in the design of organisations. Professionals in L&D will be required to distinguish deficit cycles from benefit cycles in their organization’s history.  Deficits arising from patterned losses in organisational routine (of downturns in organisational performance that are systematically bypassed due to reasons such as fear of embarrassment or critique), are different from benefit cycles marked by successful improvements to signal performance upturns that are enabled by appropriate learning mechanisms which reduce defensiveness and detachment from issues of vital significance to the organization’s effectiveness.  Hence I foresee outcome oriented evaluation frameworks give way to comprehensive feedback into design of learning and development systems per se. That is as exciting a place to be as it is challenging. L&D leaders have a professional development opportunity in surpassing such challenge.
10.    Development as Value, Information is for Free: Value dynamics in learning and development commence, when a market emerges for developmental processes. Free services mark the abundantly available information byte. Simply put, we are likely to witness more and more entitlement to free information. The threshold departures in willingness to pay for valuable developmental processes will accompany the fulfillment of the learner’s Identity. Those services will be paid for increasingly where human interfaces will provide for experiential value. Innovation in reaching out to the learner ‘out there’ will make for business friendly developmental processes. Offerings from self-awareness processes to interpersonal contribution will stage a comeback, first with individuals through coaching, counseling and mentoring. Group and organisational awareness will follow. Such were abruptly disrupted by the delusional expectations caused by the march of the effortless keyboards and pretentious touch-screens. These offerings will be recalled with mixed feelings at varying degrees of acceptance by different generations. Boundaries of acceptance, offering and contribution to development will see unprecedented stretch.
Thus, what we have is a challenge of drivers on multiple fronts. Oversimplifications could deny us the reality we need to engage with. In closing, I come to that point of historical interest. It is about excellence. I came across the quote “Excellence is not a skill. It is an attitude." An accomplished academic from a US business school summarized in December 2010 what his wise students feel when they visit India on study-visits year after year “Indian business success is premised on short-term deal-making. They’re not thinking beyond 2-3 years. If you notice, everyone wants to exploit you as if tomorrow would never come. The porter, the shop-keeper, the cab-driver, the agent..." Do we really wish to excel in short-term deal-making? There's a lot about what management consulting and management 'practices' have done to diminish learning in organizations (Argyris, 1999). As Argyris puts it - it's down to our 'face-saving' tendencies - we do not wish as professionals to show ourselves up as feeling embarrassed, guilty or defensive. Alongside comes newer understanding of the domains of paradox, polarities, covert processes and shadow-cultures of firms that host individual and organisational learning patterns. We wish to avoid the 'blow-ups' that guilt so skillfully ‘covers up’ when our initiatives don’t seem to be producing the intended results.
It is tempting to assume that what got us here will take us into the future as well. We also need to be watchful for descriptions of ‘flexibility’ in the immediate-term that actually mask compromises in the goals and methods of learning and development. I bet most of us who think short-term, rarely reflect on such issues. Conscious leadership is probably the reset awaiting us into the future. Institutions that engage in second and third-order learning will have the edge. In recent times, the language of 'authenticity, 'vulnerability' and 'compassion' are doing the rounds on virtual networks. Surely, they've 'real' origins. What can we do to learn about this and make those insights actionable? Will not the future judge our current actions by those considerations? If we have the courage to examine near-death possibilities of inaction in contemporary India, will we not look at options more responsibly as did the seminar organizers on the need for HRD in institutions of higher education?
1.        Argyris A (1999) On Organizational Learning, Blackwell Publishing, MA
2.        Goleman D (2009) Ecological Intelligence, Penguin, London.
3.        Dierkes M, Berthoin Antal A, Child J & Nonaka I ( 2001) Handbook of Organizational Learning and Knowledge, Oxford.
4.        Peters, Thomas J., and Jr. Waterman, Robert H. (1984) In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers
5.        EIU (2010) Global firms in 2020: The next decade of change for organisations and workers - A report from the Economist Intelligence Unit (sponsored by SHRM).

[1]First published in 1982 it is one of the biggest selling and most widely read business books ever, selling 3 million copies in its first four years, and being the most widely held library book in the United States from 1989 to 2006.
[2]IndCat: Online Union Catalogue of Indian Universities is unified Online Library Catalogues of books, theses and journals available in major university libraries in India. The union database contains bibliographic description, location and holdings information for books, journals and theses in all subject areas available in more than 123 university libraries across the country
[3] Global firms in 2020: The next decade of change for organisations and workers is an Economist Intelligence Unit report, sponsored by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). The Economist Intelligence Unit conducted the survey and analysis and wrote the report
[4] The single loop action strategy for learning is self-centric. The strategy is to design and manage the environment so that the actor is in control over factors relevant to self.
[5] The governing variables in double-loop learning are valid information, free choice and internal commitment.
[6] The conference will address and question a key issue of our times: the adequacy of the current paradigms of management for the future of mankind and our planet.