Sunday, January 13, 2008

On the Disconnect between Education and Practice

I have been reading Seth Godin’s “Small is the new big and 183 other riffs, rants and remarkable ideas”. (Seth Godin is a prolific blogger and his blog can be found here) The book itself is a collection of his blogs over an eight year period and they provide great food for thought. As the author states upfront, the book aims to provide that “... small prod or a friendly whack”.

A detour. I actually didn’t intend to read this book. I wanted to find his other book “Permission Marketing” in the library. The library database showed the book to be available but I couldn’t find it. This is SUCH a pain. It happened in IITM and it happens here and you cannot really blame anyone for it. I really think an advanced real time book tracking system could serve the purpose. A kind of a system where every book's physical location can be detected using the RFID maybe? Anyway, I took the book by the same author that I could find.

Each of these articles, small nuggets, so to speak, is quite provocative. Some of the articles brilliantly articulated passing thoughts I have had, but did not follow up. I know this sounds a bit... vague. Let me elaborate. One of the recurring problems I face when writing on the big bad world is the trap on making sweeping generalizations. I really have too little experience. Therefore, I am hesitant to make many assertions without data. But lots of things in this world cannot be captured by data. At best, we can derive measures of these, but if you go too much into the mathematics, you would spend all your time on the technique, missing out on the essence. Therefore, it is often reassuring to blog about these things under the borrowed umbrella of a guru or authority.

The "friendly whack" that I liked has to do with this article on Competence. (Would encourage you to go through it) The author defines what we call competence as the ability to solve problems in a predictable and reliable manner. By hiring/working with competent people you know what you will get and that provides security. However, the same desire to be competent, reliable and right can render the very same people ineffective in the highly fluid environment that business today is currently slipping into. (Remember all those “What are your strength and weaknesses?” questions and you write “Perfectionism is my strength blah blah ... But the same perfectionism is my enemy blah blah... This is exactly like that!)

It is fascinating to speculate on the psychological process at play here. By definition, disruptive thinking is that which upsets existing thinking by (i) Identifying changing market assumptions (ii) Tweaking existing ones (iii) Proving them wrong. However, when the idea first floats around, the typical response of the competent is to be plagued by doubts of “Was I wrong all along?” or "I could not have been wrong all along!" Now, clearly a person who has been deemed competent by society could not have been wrong all along. Therefore, in their minds this disruptive thinking is some fancy piece of jugglery and they oppose it. Before you cluck your tongue and condemn people for their short-sighted behaviour we must realize that this phenomenon is as old as the hills. Our grandfathers thought they were cooler than their fathers and our fathers would have thought the same and I am sure we think the same. We just have a phrase for it viz. ‘disruptive thinking’ but it has been there for generations. To me, this is a complex problem in organizational behaviour simply because it is so subtle and most of the times you cannot even prove that market assumptions are changing/wrong.

When there is a development that is changing the industry, it will rarely announce itself. (The Nano is a ready exception that comes to the mind) Also, organizations will always prefer hiring competent people as their output is more reliable. And we saw earlier, there is simply too much cost of being wrong for competent people.

If competent people are a problem in the face of disruptive thinking, then what is the way out? Hire incompetent people? This is where one must understand the term incompetent as defined by the author. Seth Godin defines incompetence here to mean people “... who have the option to be competent but choose to be different.” Incompetence does NOT mean incapable. He further argues that Bob Dylan would be an incompetent musician by his definition simply because his output is unreliable. “From year to year, from concert to concert, there’s just no way to be sure that he’ll deliver exactly what you’re expecting”.

This is a very crucial assertion that one has to bear in mind. The problem is that educational systems reward competence, while rarely recognizing incompetence, and sometimes being harsh on it. I am sure all of us have taken the easy way out in many things simply because there is no reward for being different in normal coursework. The system rewards you to read the professor’s notes and look at old papers and try to work out the psychology of the examiner. Then you pass out with a seal that says you are more competent than the guy in the next seat. This system also creates a value system that perpetuates itself. Let us look into that in detail.

In the title I have used the phrase “Increasing” because the more you think and read about real life problems and real life successes, you are struck by the irrelevance of much of what you learn. Most of that which is taught is highly idealized, involves learning some content and getting it right after practice. However, we seem to be moving to a fast environment in which you may not have time to get stuff right by practice. By the time a technology has been perfected, it could become obsolete. This kind of training emphasizes the importance of hard work. However, I believe that we will soon move to another era when hard work will no longer be a differentiating factor. Nowadays people are willing to work hard if you dangle the right carrots. You can work for 12 hours, big deal; I can find thousand others in India who will work longer and so on and so forth. In the face of disruptive thinking, all the hard work and all the competence are of little use. I believe that working hard for its sake because you get a kick out of boasting about it, can hamper your creativity. To quote Seth, “Give me five serially incompetent nine-to-five executives with a focus on velocity, and I can change the world – over and over again.”

You can accuse me of crying wolf. Do I think the current situation in India is that disruptive? No way. Do I have a personal interest in saying this? Absolutely. I don’t like this mindless completion and in fact, hope that Seth Godin’s quote on the 9-5 company is true. To be fair, this blog borrows from a blog that is entirely derived on American experience. However, my personal bet/belief is that within a couple of decades the Indian context will get there. So what is the way out? You don’t have to do anything actually. Since educational systems do not explicitly appear to reward such thinking, the only option is for the individuals to realize that such a thing exists. A warning: One must also not take this as an excuse for failure. It reflects my own belief that in the real world, the best attitude is: Once you have achieved a certain standard, the best thing is to do something that you enjoy/have fun and in the process you may win some and lose some, but that is okay. I think one can call it the “Richard Branson Approach to Management”. :)

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