Tuesday, July 29, 2014

New Generation Technological Education at the IITs: Optimal Track, Rather Than Fast-Track?

The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), India’s central government owned premier institutions of national importance for technological education have been the Indian icons of globally competitive technical education. The initiatives they take, and the reforms they usher in, have a ripple effect in the entire field of technical education in India. IITs’ latest proposal for fast track engineering (B Tech) degree based on accelerated credits (in three and half years instead of four years) has the potential to churn the technical education scenario in India if it is not appreciated and improved in a holistic perspective. This proposal has to be viewed in the perspective that not several years ago, engineering degree in India required five years of full time study. If this proposal of three and half years becomes real, India would probably the first major country, after the USA, to provide a bachelor’s degree in engineering in such a compressed time frame.   

IITs are known to be cradles of high pressure, high performance education. The entry into IITs is itself a resultant of highly competitive Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) system, for which school boys start preparing years ahead through high intensity coaching. Given this context, an emphasis on credits for a compressed time frame could be seen to be adding to the high pressure robotized study system in the IITs, making students vulnerable to the dangers of intense competitiveness. If other competitive institutions like National Institutes of Technology (NITs) and other key universities follow suit, it could be a larger phenomenon of ‘race to degree’. Another worry would be that other regional universities and colleges may try to follow suit, and given the reduced level of study and examination solidity in such universities and colleges there could be a dilution of study standards in such institutions. At the same time, there also seem to be certain higher order goals in the proposed change which are yet to catch the attention. This blog post discusses the latest proposal from the IITs in the totality, and options.
The IITs proposal, announced by Partha Pratim Chakrabarti, the Director of IIT Kharagpur at the 60th convocation of the Institute on July 26, 2014, has an important concept of flexibility. The fast-track option is essentially for those students who can accrue the requisite credits. The proposal also allows a more languid pace, extending up to 8 years for the ‘slow learners’. The fast track option envisages that the ‘saved’ six months can be utilized for job or entrepreneurship. It also allows inter-IIT portability of credits to utilize the centers of excellence that exist in various IITs. With these features in tow, the fast track proposal would appear more holistic. This, does not, however take the focus away from the weighty nature of a true technological curriculum and whether adequate justice is being done to it under even a four year program. The pitfall in any credit based system is the equation of credit to learning and subjects to knowledge, all of which require certain minimum periods of time for attention, absorption and assimilation.
The undergraduate level engineering programs are both foundational and specialist in nature. Despite the proliferation of various engineering streams, each engineer irrespective of the specialization must be well versed in certain core engineering studies. These relate to mathematics, sciences, humanities, design and drawing principles, and a foundation of each of the core or basic engineering specializations like civil, mechanical, electrical, electronics and computers. And, each of these has to have a corresponding laboratory practice, which should expose the students to a wide range of machining, forming, casting, welding and bonding practices related to various kinds of materials. Given the heavy knowledge and practice load on one hand, and the extremes of extracurricular pulls and social media distractions on the other hand, the case seems to be more for extension, rather than compression, of degree granting period.
Flights away
One question to ask is to whose benefit the acceleration would be if the fast-track graduate were to choose a job or another degree instead of the well intended entrepreneurship. As we are aware, many of the IIT graduates end up taking up management diplomas in the equally reputed Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) or go abroad for higher education or research. In the IIT Kharagpur convocation, Bharat Ratna Professor C N R Rao exhorted the IITians to stay in the country and contribute to India’s scientific and technological capital, citing his own example of success. If the fast-track graduates see the credit based graduation as an opportunity to explore other options elsewhere, the basis of advancing gets called into question. A total credit score of 182 in 7 semesters, covering theory, laboratory, workshop and fieldwork seems to be an intensely packed study and learning schedule (a typical course take 190 credits over 10 semesters).  A dual degree program is also offered under this route, though details are not yet available.   
By the same token, allowing a highly relaxed period of 8 years for course completion may also be misplaced. Given that all entrants to the IITs are competent and competitive, allowing that level of extended flexibility would be a loss in the formation of intellectual capital in India. Considering that certain students do find the pressure a trifle too much, flexibility for completing the course up to 6 years could be more in order.  Also, extending inter-IIT portability to cover at least one year of residence could expose the students to not only other centers of excellence but even to other residential cultures as well. Given that the new program will be rolled out from the academic year 2016-17, and in a phased manner, there is an opportunity to reinforce the good points of the fast-track program (in fact, it should be called optimal track program!), overcome the weaknesses and develop a techno-entrepreneurial ecosystem that maximizes the benefits of the proposal. 
The key to success of a flexible credit based system is the availability of a number of specializations and micro-specializations on one hand and well coordinated academic planning. Providing total flexibility to the student in course choice could lead to diffused learning while too much control could lead to the defeat of the system itself. It is important that the academic deans of the IITs develop a course planner which explains why a cluster of related specializations would make a holistic sense compared to a random choice of courses. The course credits must be hierarchically defined based on complexity and relational synergy of the courses. It may be a good idea for the IITs to develop an App exclusively for course and credit planning under the fast-track system. The App must also link specializations offered by the various IITs to define a total universe of specializations. There could be certain thorny issues related to different IITs providing differential values to similar specializations based on the excellence they think they possess in the domain. This will be one challenge of flexibility.
The other challenge will be providing the specializations themselves. For a mechanical engineering stream, the range of main and specialization courses can range from thermodynamics to robotics. Whether a robotics specialization could be common for  mechanical and electronics mainstreams, or whether it would need to be customized to each mainstream would be one call. Given the fast paced developments, what would be the life of a course (say, 3 or 5 years) would be another call. Whether courses that belong to a graduate level (for example, prosthetics) would be a good fit for an undergraduate level mechanical engineering course could be another call. Whether specializations should be only subject matter or whether even laboratory or workshop practice could qualify as specializations is another call. Ideally, specializations should have a range that plays on one’s aptitude for further academic specialization or industrial practice. The challenges are likely to be more in domains where product life cycles are getting shorter. One way would be to link up academic expertise, research directions, consulting practice and industrial inputs in development of state-of-the-art specializations.
Entrepreneurship in IITs   
Given that an important aspect of the fast-track proposal is to release one semester for entrepreneurial activity, availability of an entrepreneurial ecosystem within the IIT system, or otherwise, would be a prerequisite.  A few IITs, notably IIT Madras, IIT Bombay, IIT Kharagpur, and IIT (BHU) Varnasi have experimented with creating entrepreneurial ecosystems as adjuncts to their educational systems. IIT Madras has set up IIT Madras Incubation Cell. IIT Bombay has set up Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. IIT (BHU) has established Malaviya Centre for Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship. Each of them has incorporated specific initiatives funded by the IITs, Central Ministries or IIT alumni themselves. Even a newer IIT like IIT Hyderabad has set up E-Cell for entrepreneurs. Although some of these have been in operation since 1999, there is no evidence of any major entrepreneurial startups that emerged from these incubation initiatives. Even though IITM has provided physical infrastructure through IIT Madras Research Park adjacent to IITM campus, startups have been few to leverage the facilities.     
Undoubtedly, the strong technological foundations at IITs, and the personality strengths of the IITians make them look at entrepreneurship as a career option more confidently, the only inhibiting factor being the hugely attractive job opportunities they automatically command. That said, convergence of futuristic research with foundational technology, and combination of financial support with commercial insights would be necessary to create an ecosystem that would make entrepreneurship widespread across IITs. Special emphasis should be laid on socially relevant low cost, high technology products. Entrepreneurship, however, requires more than a feasible product idea. A recent research suggests that an entrepreneur with a product idea needs a core organization of likeminded passionate friends to make a success of entrepreneurship. Even some of the biggest globalized startups of today such as Apple, Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Salesforce.com as well as regional startups like Project A Ventures, Eyeota, Flipkart, RedBus validate this thesis.
Indigenous ecosystem
The other aspect is that successful entrepreneurship needs certain other skills in addition to wholly technical skills. This has prompted the Hyderabad based management school, the Indian School of Business (ISB) to launch, as a two-year programme at ISB, Technology Entreprenurship Programme to equip select engineering students with skills to become entrepreneurs. It is stated that Microsoft Ventures and Google are supporting the programme. The larger question still would be whether even a broader educational curriculum for entrepreneurship or cross-collaboration between IITs (and/or NITs) and IIMs (and/or ISB) would be completely sufficient. The philosophical question is also whether entrepreneurship can only from arise from premier institutes, or could emerge as a broader national phenomenon. Prima facie, creative technological ideas ought to emerge from any institute which has higher technological and research competencies. Idea incubation (example, IIT Madras Incubation Cell) and licensing of patentable ideas (yet to happen in a big way) from institutes of higher technology is one facet of creation of a broader national entrepreneurship ecosystem.
The real answer could lie in restoring and rejuvenating the traditional economic employment system of India which was rooted in skill and craft based self-employment system but has faced dilution due to the attraction of readymade and assured career options that could arise from formal educational qualifications. It is, therefore, gratifying that some of the IIT entrepreneurship schools are focusing on socially relevant product or service ideas (example, Center for Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation at IIT Madras). Real developments that can be commercialized would need to focus on market applications rather than technology roots. For example, could a variable speed micro-motor be developed that could make a potter’s work more productive, more consistent and of higher quality? Can a portable ultrasound linked with tablet computer be designed to take ultrasound diagnostics into the rural areas? Can there be a sanitizing solution for dry leaf plates (used extensively in certain southern states) to obviate the need for paper plates? Can solar panels, inverters and electricity power be integrated to reduce generated power consumptions? Can there be water purifying technology which does not waste any water? The optimal track for IITs could be in not fast-tracking credits per se, but in integrating latent market needs with creative technologies.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on July 29, 2014          



Saturday, July 26, 2014

Emulation as ‘Sadhana’: A Paradigm of Intellectual Development

Life is full of challenges and opportunities; hence, also full of fulfillments and disappointments. Life has several templates to grow or atrophy, materialistically and philosophically, as one moves through various stages of life, from birth to death. All wise parents try to set up a life that is full of opportunities and fulfillments for their wards. Unfortunately, due to factors beyond one’s control, idyllic scenarios do not mostly happen, except for those borne with a silver spoon. As one gains the ability to independently analyze the life’s challenges and opportunities, emulation-execution emerges as a conundrum which most individuals flirt with, and more often than not, fail to get it right. This blog post discusses a paradigm of emulation. Emulation is the thought or act of trying to do something like someone whom one likes or admires (usually a role model). Emulation is an attempt to try. Execution is the act of actually carrying out the act in a manner that conforms to, or exceeds, the expectations set by, or perceived of, the role model. Emulation and execution are governed by an invisible but intrinsic factor called emotion. 

The process of emulation is a life-journey process that is invisible and unrecognized for most time but is real and perpetual. Emulation, in formative years, occurs through family upbringing and pedagogy. Emulation in later years occurs through experiences and aspirations. In the earlier formative stage, one is told explicitly to emulate a model behavior, be it from family, religion, history or contemporary public life. In the later stage one gets inspired or motivated by oneself to emulate a certain model behavior. In the formative stage, execution is compelled by the system, be it the family or the institution, while in the later stage execution flows from one’s own volition that execution gets results. Obviously, there exist no cut and dried boundaries, as all through one’s life the processes of emulation and execution keep taking place, most times with guidance (and sometimes with misguidance!) providing fulfillments and opportunities in this journey. If there could be a way to align opportunities, emulation, execution and fulfillment in one’s life, it would indeed be a great pathway to ‘materialistic nirvana’!
Worthiness, practicality
Emulation is a part and pathway of life whose existence cannot be denied. Emulation can occur in multiple ways, from a feature to a person, from a trait to a personality, and from an objective to a mission. There are five common cautionary characteristics of emulation that an individual needs to be aware of. The first relates to the inability to judge for oneself whether one is emulating (or should be emulating) a person or what he or she stands for. For example, it would be one thing to believe that one should emulate Dr Abdul Kalam (the past reputed Scientist-President of India) and an entirely different thing to believe that one should emulate Dr Kalam’s erudition, simplicity and passion. The second pitfall is the belief that emulation is around one role model. Here again, one tends to emulate, rather unknowingly, several people or several features for several reasons, and the ability to align or integrate multiple emulative processes is vital for comprehensive development. The third is a lack of understanding that emulation is an iterative process. While emulation cannot be opportunistic it cannot also be ossifying; it is a continuous learning experience in its own right. The fourth is that emulation, oftentimes, has an emotive trigger; de-cluttering the emotional aspects is necessary for meaningful emulation. The fifth is a perception that one needs to be independent, and never emulative; this, of course, is the greatest fallacy and pitfall for, even pioneers emulate a pioneering behavior or mindset!
In totality, Inability to introspect into one’s own emulative behavior often lands one in difficulties; more positively, understanding these aspects helps one achieve fulfillment from emulation. To be successful in emulation, one must consider two primary aspects of emulation; worthiness and practicality. Whatever or whoever one emulates must fundamentally be worthy of emulation, that is it must be positive and capable of providing fulfillment or actualization. Secondly, it must be practical to emulate and execute. While heroic sagas have been written of amazing achievements even under most challenging circumstances, they have been made possible because of certain accentuating features of the emulators. In other words, knowing what to emulate and how to emulate holds the key to successful emulation and fulfillment. It always pays to emulate a feature, trait or an objective than a person, personality or mission. Given that unknowingly, a person has multiple emulative triggers, it would be necessary to stay narrowly focused rather than broadly generic in emulation.
Competency, completion
While worthiness and practicality are the essential parameters of emulation, emulation itself cannot be successful without execution. Execution has two facets; competence and completion. The desire to emulate must be backed by passion to execute. Individuals who embark on risky programs of sportsmanship or creative arts leaving conventional means of livelihood finally become successful as they get to understand and grow their competence well and remain relentless in their passion till they succeed in their task. The first step to successfully execute is, therefore, to understand the competency needed to execute. The second step to successfully execute is to understand the final step that defines the completion. Individuals, unlike organizations, cannot outsource their competencies. Those who execute based on others’ competencies eventually fail in non-native circumstances. Again, individuals, unlike organizations, cannot redefine completion. Unsuccessful organizations may get taken over and eventually prosper with accrued synergy but unsuccessful individuals lapse into oblivion, relative to potential. 
At an individual level, therefore, every thought or act of emulation must be accompanied by an understanding of competency and completion. In this process, there is no better way than emulate what the role model stands (stood) for, and how he stands (stood) for.  Biographies of great leaders, or their own teachings constitute a great way to understand the ‘what and how’ of emulation. Working with legends and role models in real time is an even greater opportunity. Being part of a great philosophical organization may in itself lead to opening of one’s mind on what one should look for. The irony of the situation is that many times individuals begin building competencies (like becoming a certified professional) and assuming completion (like landing a good job) without understanding the larger purpose of emulation.  Whether one’s domain happens to be a matter of choice or circumstance, it is important for one to appreciate those aspects that are worthy of emulation and grasp what it takes to successfully emulate.
Transient versus committed
As mentioned earlier, emotion plays a major role in the process of emulation; more often than not, emotion is the first trigger for emulative thought. As one watches an exciting sport, one may feel that the sportsmanship displayed is worthy of emulation (“I wish I could play like Sachin!”). As one listens to a music program, one may feel that the musical talent evokes emulation (“I wish I could sing like SPB!”). As one gets swayed by a corporate leader, one may feel that the role model is all there to emulate (“I wish I could present like Steve Jobs”). The point to note that these tend to be transient thoughts of emulation, spurred on by emotional feel-good experiences and aspirations. Committed emulation, on the other hand, is a rational process; even when spurred by emotion, it delayers emotion from logic to develop a sustainable basis for emulation. It connects an individual to what the leaders stand for as much as for the leaders themselves. Mahatma Gandhi’s success was in connecting Indians to the values of  Swaraj and Ahimsa, and making them emulate those values for the larger national good.
Committed emulation has both material and philosophical aspects to it. It recognizes the importance of being (or becoming) someone well recognized in the professional or social system on the strengths of one’s capabilities. It has to be, therefore, a matter of considered choice, even if it is triggered by emotion. One may, after a successful career stint, be emotionally attracted to be a social servant. It is important to logically analyze whether that worthy goal of emulation fits into oneself (or what one is capable of becoming) by passing the idea through the four filters of worthiness, practicality, competency and completion. Of the several emotive options that one encounters in each phase of life, these four filters would help one crystallize one’s emulative thoughts effectively.  An emulative process has to mandatorily satisfy all the four criteria; drawing a blank on any of the four would lead to imperfect, if not negative, results.  
Emulation as ‘sadhana’
Sadhana is a Sanskrit word that means a quest to accomplish. Emulation is like sadhana. The goal has to be carefully chosen, and the ‘sadhaka’ (the one who is set on the path of sadhana) cannot, and will not, rest until the process of emulation is complete. Fortunately, in the classical systems of education, the concept of emulation as sadhana is ingrained. Most accomplished musicians gain their musical strengths through individualized apprenticeship under reputed musical legends. The concept of house surgeon in medical education is aimed at letting young doctors learn the skill of medical practice from the experienced physician or surgeon. Even in a corporate setting, the practice of youngsters working as executive assistants with leaders is a way of apprenticing the youngsters in the art and science of management and leadership. As the base of talent seekers keeps expanding at the base, and as career development keeps becoming a more fast-paced race, unfortunately, the apprentices as well as the leaders seem to be missing on the fulfillment of emulation.
And, for those who still appreciate the need for emulation, it is important to realize that sadhana or emulation is a great anti-gravity effort. Non-emulative talent, like water, flows as per gravity to opportunities available. Emulative talent, on the other hand, scales new peaks with each phase of sadhana, based on committed and diligent efforts. Literally and figuratively, enlightened emulation is akin to intrepid mountaineering. And the aim of emulation is not to create intellectual clones but to enhance the intellectual strength of the talent base in the country and the society.  Typically, every society or every organization produces only a few natural leaders or maestros. The more the larger population, whether of a society or an organization, seeks to emulate the leaders and maestros for what they have accomplished and the virtuous paths thereto, the greater would be the combined intellectual strength of that society or organization.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on July 26, 2014   

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Future of Computing and Communication: Theorems of Proportionality, Duality and Wearability

The desktop personal computer has seen its greatest challenge with the emergence of laptop personal computer. Laptop has seen its greatest threat with the emergence of tablets. Smart phones and phablets are yet another favored range of mobile devices for communication, becoming more powerful even in certain business applications progressively. The question people and experts alike have is whether the last word has been said, or is about to be said, on personal computers and laptops. Would they be soon extinct or irrelevant is the question. As of now, tablets have become ubiquitous because of their portability and simplicity; yet they seem more suited to media and milder documentation. Its inability to take a standard USB port for seamless data transfer across all devices is an impediment to tablets completely overshadowing personal computers and laptops.  Microsoft has made the first move towards making tablets more powerful, and hence more universal, with the launch of Surface Pro 3 which overcomes some of the shortcomings of typical tablets.

Doubtless, computer engineers would continue on their quest to make tablet computer the only personal computer of the future. In so far as business applications are concerned, tablets have, as of now, become supplemental devices rather than substitute devices. The future direction would depend on six principal factors: the weight factor, form factor, power factor, system factor, memory factor and portability factor. Other factors such as aesthetics, display intensity, water and dust resistance, color combinations are likely to be relevant but only of secondary importance compared to the primary factors. If the technological power that is getting packed in a smart phone is an indication, it would be theoretically possible for a tablet to pack all the power of a current desktop or laptop in a not too distant future. This does not mean that that desktops and laptops would be extinct. As with every other product, from camera to movie, whereby the older products have staged decisive comebacks on the back of new technological developments so could be the desktops and laptops. This blog post discusses the potential direction and options, and choices of the communication and computing industry, and the possible impact of human race.
If technological development is secular, as usually it is, the principle of proportionality works to keep most products relevant, provided they are duly updated technologically from time to time. It was thought once that with the advent of televisions, home theater systems, and more recently, home cinema systems, the movie halls would become orphaned. On the other hand, leveraging the wide format, 70 mm and IMAX screens, hi-fidelity surround music systems and digital streaming of movies, movie halls continue to hold sway with films of more epic proportions getting made. Similarly, even though camera features have got ported into smart phones, the main line cameras remain the choice for everlasting perfect photos with the lens, aperture and zoom options and high pixel densities. By the same token, if the tablets of tomorrow would pack all the capabilities of a desktop or laptop, there is no reason why the desktop pr laptop would not pack all the capabilities of a mini-mainframe or the mainframe itself.
Today, a CPU clock speed of 2.8 GHz, a RAM of 3 GB and an extendable memory of 128 GB is standard for a top-of-the-line phablet; these specifications being the mainstay of a laptop until recently. The future laptops would surely have processing clock speeds in excess of 4GHz, SDDR 4 RAMS of 16 GB and memory capability of 2 terabytes. While portability of mobile computers together with laptop like features could make them anywhere-business choices, the proportionate increase in the power of the laptops and desktops would create a new pool of fixed computer-centric intellectual entrepreneurs. In not so distant future, the mainframe capability would sit in the home computers making it easy for individuals to carry out complex tasks such as mathematical modeling, business simulation and high speed algorithmic stock trading. This wave would be akin to Apple’s Mac bringing desktop publishing and animation within the reach of aspiring self-employed entrepreneurs. If the principle of proportionality with universal technological development is applied there would be paradigm shifts in how computing and communication could create intellectual and employment opportunities.
The personal computing product design is at crossroads. The trend of packing more features and power and hoping to make devices completely universal has limitations. Some such limitations are hardware related aspects such as capacity and bandwidth which are in turn limited by energy generation and heat dissipation issues. Some others are operating system related issues such as one system being inadequate to meet the extremes of business (or professional)  and social (or personal) demands. Keeping business and personal needs in one device but distinct is more complex than either offering dual-SIM technologies or pan-device operating systems. A completely different way of looking at product design is probably called for.  Cloud offers an intermediate solution making weak devices strong by on-demand use of cloud power and storage. This would certainly help to the fullest extent when the entire globe is seamlessly wifi connected. That could be an elusive dream for a long time, making cloud a selective option.  Fortunately, the relentless progress of technology, in terms of materials, chips and machining or forming, offers new vistas of product development.
There was a time when a computer, even a laptop, was one inch in thickness and a tablet half an inch in thickness, with corresponding high weights. Today, both have halved in thicknesses with corresponding reductions in weight. It is not difficult to imagine a future when the mobile computers would be virtually  paper-thin, in a manner of speaking (probably, another halving of thicknesses is technically feasible!). this would open up the opportunity to have a common chassis, with business device on one side and social device on the other side, together the combination phone not exceeding a 6 mm thickness and a 200 gm weight! If this is coupled with other exciting options like extendable screens for laptop-like readability there would be a universal device that caters to diverse business and social needs through different devices but as one innovative chassis-integrated device. In a corresponding manner, laptops could also be conjoined dual devices with the top being a business device and the base being a social device. This also needs to be combined with customized operating systems for business and social applications while ensuring certain commonality in both systems for shared applications.
Hitherto, the technological approach to merge electronics and human endeavor has been to create robots. The early approach has been to create robots that could mimic the human in mechanical movements and perform operations that are difficult, and even impossible, and unsafe for humans. The more recent approach has been to embed artificial intelligence in robots so that they can even think and act. This has, however, been an enormously challenging task with high cost and time lines. Even if it becomes progressively feasible, such robots or humanoids would be niche, customized products rather than mass, universal products. The concept of wearable computers offers a dramatically different approach to making humans more intelligent, nimble, flexible, efficient and effective. This dramatic development of wearable computers is being led for the moment by Google Glass and, in a more basic sense, by Smart Watches. The potential is far greater than that indicated by such smart glasses and watches.
At a very simple conceptual plane, let us imagine what dramatic transformation would occur if artificial intelligence is embedded in a human being instead of in a mechatronic device like robot. Granting that embedding may not be possible biologically, artificial intelligence can surely be used to supplement native intelligence of a human being. Textiles which adjust to different levels of warmth and chillness, chips that can monitor the functioning of vital organs on a real time, smart phones which analyze speech and agility patterns to warn of impending strokes, emotion moderating bands, gloves that enhance grip, memory banks to fight Alzheimer’s disease, headbands to migraine, brain defibrillators and emotional rejuvenators, ….. the list could be endless!  In fact, every organ of the human body, both external and internal, could be rendered more effective and less disease prone by wearable computers. And, as an ultimate transformation, Google itself may be bionically implanted and web search may be thought search of a bionic Google!
The human race, as we know, is governed by genetics. Each human being has a unique genetic code, the DNA. With the computer assuming a ubiquitous and all-encompassing role in life, and if the future of communication and computing industry develops as discussed in this blog post, each human being would have a supplemental DNA, which would be the computer DNA (or the cDNA). The future of communication and computing industry, if it evolves as per the theorems of proportionality, duality and wearability as discussed herein, would certainly promote a genetic reinforcement which overcomes the weaknesses of, and adds to the strengths of, biological genetics. Each person, by the choice of his computers for his professional and social lives, would have the ability to choose his or her cDNA even if he or she is not destined to choose his or her biological DNA. Correspondingly, the biological human abilities in future may move from intrinsic innovation to extrinsic adaptation, and from native survival and competitive instincts to chosen life design strategies. For those who can foresee the future of communication and computing industry as discussed in this blog post, the future would be full of endless and exciting possibilities!
Posted by Dr CB Rao on July 20, 2014

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Craft, Craftsmanship, Creativity and Co-creativity: The Perfect Four for Virtuous Competitiveness

Over time, either by education or experience, or a combination of both, everyone becomes good at something or the other. In a very broad generic sense, one becomes good at a craft. He or she becomes known by the craft he or she is good at. Again, at a very broad generic level, people get referred to as academicians, businessmen, scientists, engineers, accountants or moviemakers, for example. Needless to say, each generic craft is a combination of several specific crafts. Corporate leadership requires the craft of weaving together a tapestry of multiple crafts to create a business canvas one desires. There is an element of individuality as much as an element of collectivism in the craft. In some cases, it is sequential, like several baton passing individuals participating in a marathon. In most other cases, it is like a musical ensemble with a whole set of musicians working together, each excelling on his or her instrument. From a social activity, craft has moved to industrial enterprise, over time.     

The continuous optimization of value chain is the core of serving the customers continuously better. While an industrial value chain has several components, design (in the laboratory), manufacture (in the factory) and delivery (to the customer) of a product constitute the three essential components. These, as well as other components and sub-components of the value chain are typically carried out by people who are educated and trained to do so. The skill or the competency with which these activities are performed determines the overall capability of the value chain and, as a consequence, the competitive advantage of a firm. Two aspects are important from a generic point of view: the perfection with which the activity is performed and the creativity with which it is performed. This blog post proposes that the industrial value chain concept as above is just a part or reflection of how people can conduct their activities, individually or collectively, in day to day life.
Craft and creativity
Craft, by definition, is an activity involving a special skill at making things with one’s hands. Working with hands implies, without doubt, working with one’s mind also focused on the activity along with hands. Craft is never a singular skill; it covers all the skills needed for a particular activity. A potter, for example, is engaged in the craft of making pottery. His or her craft is not merely shaping the clay into the desired shape with his or her hands. His craft also includes conceptualizing the artifact he needs to shape, the type of clay that would be optimum, the selection of the right potter’s wheel, an understanding of the right oven and baking methodology and finally a capability to inspect and pass the final product (through sensory inspection!). This analogy is true of every domain or activity. An aircraft pilot needs to be adept not only at piloting and aircraft instrumentation but also appreciative of the overall integrity of an aircraft and its accessories and inputs; he needs to understand not only his route map but also several alternate routes. To summarize, every craft is verily a set of multiple skills, related and unrelated.
Craft is closely allied with creativity. A craft may seem to be ordinary and repetitive but each craft requires creativity perpetually. A potter may use the same clay, the same wheel and his own hands always. Whether the pottery is the same or different, the shaping of the artifact from the raw clay with his hands, mixed with requisite liquid content and rotated with appropriate speed and shaped with customized handling, requires perpetual creativity. The functional leader may face the same set of internal and external factors each day but the fact that there would always be surprise additions or deletions besides changes in amplitude of each factor requires him to create a customized solution each day. On a higher plane, however, most crafts are non-repetitive contextually, and require a different solution. Sports and arts, for example, represent the quentessial crafts that abound in creativity every moment. Industrial leaders and organizational professionals need to view their respective crafts as creative outcomes from trained hands and minds responding to unpredictable events.
Craftsmanship and co-creativity
A craftsman is a person who is not merely versed in his craft but is so well versed in his craft that he consistently creates a product that is invariably perfect and beautiful. An accomplished singer such as SP Balu or KJ Jesudas, a dexterous sand sculptor such as Sudarsan Pattnaik come to mind immediately when one thinks of craftsmanship. The craftsmanship of a craftsman is reflected by the quality of design and work of a product or service. The difference between a Japanese automobile and an indigenous automobile is, for example, one of the former displaying the highest levels of craftsmanship. Craftsmanship requires dedication and passion of the highest order to the craft, and perfect synchronization and synergy between the body and the mind. True craftsmanship, however, goes one step further, it fuses the body, mind, heart and soul in the work one does. Organizations must look at craftsmanship as opposed to craft as the essence of talent building.
We have considered earlier that every craft typically comprises several skills. More often than not, a broader craft like corporate management or moviemaking requires working together of many crafts and craftsmen. We have also considered that a craftsman needs to be creative. In an organizational setting, it would not be sufficient for individuals to be creative by themselves; they would need to be co-creative as a team. Let us take the example of a communications executive interviewing the chief executive for an interview for the company’s house magazine. The communications expert may come up with a creative questionnaire and the chief executive may come up with equally creative answers. If, however, both of them design and execute the entire activity with each other’s creative inputs working synergistically the impact would be profound. At a product level, automobile design and manufacture emerge as perfect examples of co-creativity. Also, called concurrent engineering, co-creativity helps the engineers develop vehicles that are lighter yet stronger, minimalist externally and maximal internally, more powered but higher in fuel efficiency, and so on.
The Perfect Four
Ideal organization design should be based on a clear delineation of all the requisite crafts. Just as a bill of material drills down the product through a hierarchy to the smallest individual components, organizational design requires a comprehensive and detailed bill of crafts. The next objective must be to develop each person to reach the highest levels of creativity and craftsmanship in the craft. Organizations which reflect craftsmanship stand differentiated from those which are mere assemblages of crafts. To be able to do that, organizations must abdicate the convenient paradigm of forced ranking and instead put in place the challenging paradigm of universal excellence. Allied with this is the need to facilitate and encourage creativity at individual level and co-creativity in team and at collective levels.
Co-creativity does not mean working together only within an organization or between organizations. Co-creativity also involves organizations working with markets, leaders working with governments, engineers working with customers, and so on. Co-creativity is boosted when each member of the team is able to perceive craftsmanship on the part of team members; it results in healthy respect for each other and a drive for collaborative competition. The beneficial results of the Perfect Four for the industry and society are self-evident. Quality in products or services would be synergistic with customer fulfillment and demand generation. Organizations would simultaneously be able to achieve mastery over time and cost as well. India has some examples of the Perfect Four of craft, craftsmanship, creativity and co-creativity producing some amazing results; such examples need to motivate a larger commitment to Perfect Four across the nation.
The cost of setting up an automobile facility in India, for example, is estimated to be one-third that of a comparable overseas automobile plant (even with certain imported equipment) and the time for setting it up (even on a ‘learn and execute’ basis) is estimated to be half that of an overseas plant build in advanced countries. This has been attributed to the Perfect Four working together in such cases.  India’s space program is an outstanding example of the Perfect Four. The latest launch of India’s Polar Launch Satellite Vehicle incorporating five satellites from different countries, including India, is an example of craftsmanship combining with co-creativity. The successful launch inspired Shri Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister tweet that the cost of India’s PLSV launch has been less than the cost of production of the Hollywood film Gravity! He has also held it to be a perfect example of his mantra of skill, scale and speed (source: PMO India on twitter). There is so much more to be achieved in India by Indian firms and Indian talent. It is time that organizations and individuals recall their historical capabilities in crafts, craftsmanship, creativity and co-creativity and lead on a new trajectory of global resurgence based on deployment of the Perfect Four.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on July 13, 2014                   



Ten Commandments of Indian Entrepreneurship: Five Inspirational and Five Precautionary!

There were times when graduates of premium engineering and management institutes thought of anything other than professional career as the only employment option. Things have changed significantly in current times with young professionals forsaking attractive employment offers and going in for entrepreneurial ventures. There was of course, the more established trend, of moving into entrepreneurship after a few years of work experience and savings accrual. Both segments reflected first generation entrepreneurship. India Bulls, Bharti, Apollo, Orchid, Sun, RedBus, Wellspun, Dusters, JustDial, Flipkart and a host of entrepreneurial companies are examples of such entrepreneurial initiatives. Within the first generation entrepreneurship, the class that jumps into the entrepreneurial journey straight after education needs special kudos. They may be called India’s new age entrepreneurs. While business management and leadership are common across all enterprises, established or entrepreneurial, there are certain guidelines which Indian entrepreneurs must be cognizant of to a greater extent. 

Young entrepreneurs are typically full of academic accomplishment and growth aspiration, and typically imbue their immediate environment with high energy and anticipatory excitement. They also tend to dream with the guts that are required to turn their dreams into realities. While it is difficult to hypothesize when and how the young graduates are influenced in favor of entrepreneurship, the placement season, more often than not, tends to be the period when they get to know not only their worth but also whether their aspirations and corporate offerings match. The placement season is not only a time of futuristic direction and career shaping but also a period of self-awareness. That is the period when all students feel equipped to enter industry or business, but some feel inspired to give back to the society in terms of wealth creation through organizations and businesses they aspire to establish.  This blog post postulates ten principles which are particularly relevant for Indian entrepreneurship. 

The context   

Most young entrepreneurs get their entrepreneurial call as they pursue management programs. The reasons are not far to seek. Management programs, in particular, provide students with a unique value addition that puts the basic academic capabilities, be it engineering, science or commerce to even more efficient and effective use. Management program provide one with unique conceptual and analytical skills which helps one view complex business problems in terms of their simple core issues on one hand and at the same time splice them in terms of diverse perspectives with insightful analytics on the other.  In addition, the programs equip people with multiple soft skills, the main skill being people skills.  The institutes and programs prepare the students not merely to be managers of day-to-day operations but also be equipped to be potential leaders who can shape the strategic future of  organizations.  

That said, there is a valid concern that scientists and technologists would be straying away from their core if they pursue management programs. The only way this concern can be mitigated is through letting the managerial thinking create the spark of entrepreneurship. India holds great potential; all economists agree that India would be the third largest economy of the world by 2030 or so.  Statistics, however, tell only one part of the story.  In qualitative terms, our growth has been more in terms of islands of manufacturing excellence, retail luxury or social affluence.  We need to do much more in terms of social infrastructure, be it schools, colleges, universities, hospitals or industrial infrastructure, be it power, roadways, railways, seaports and airports.  The opportunity for contribution by young professional aspirants to Indian economy therefore stand out, the opportunity is not merely one of a regular job rather it is more of making a difference through an entrepreneurial spirit, of creating wealth and jobs for the society.

The challenge 

The journey as an entrepreneur is not only the most challenging but also the most satisfying one.  The journey is challenging because, more often than not, one as an entrepreneur, would have nothing but one’s dream to pursue and convert into reality.  The entrepreneur is most likely to lack the organization, the financial resources and in some cases even the support of his or her near and dear as he or she pursues the entrepreneurial journey.  That said, it is this challenge of creating something valuable from almost nothing, against all odds, in pursuance of one’s dream makes for the entrepreneurial excitement. No entrepreneurial journey, however, cannot commence without seed capital to support the dream idea. The more fortunate ones step up from the initial security of their regular self-employed businesses, for example pharmaceutical distribution or medical practice, to venture into product development and manufacture or healthcare service; Sun Pharma’s Dilip Sanghvi and Apollo’s Dr Pratap Reddy, respectively, are two examples. Many others leverage their professional employment opportunities, in India or abroad, to generate savings. 

Either way, one would have to go through the tribulations and excitement of an entrepreneurial journey. Even the most successful entrepreneurial behemoth cannot be immune to vicissitudes. Dr Reddy’s which seemed to make no wrong move hit a bad patch subsequent to the acquisition of Betapharm in Germany. To be a successful entrepreneur, one may hypothesize a three step process. The first is self-discovery; a recognition of the yearning within to be an entrepreneur. The second is the ability to spot the niche. The third is the ability to raise the seed capital. The ecosystem for entrepreneurs in India pales in comparison to the one that exists in the USA. It is to the credit of the new age entrepreneurs that they are undaunted. For example, Ola, a taxi service startup founded by two IIT-Bombay graduates has succeeded in starting its services and raising funds ahead of someone like Uber making an entry into India. So do the likes of CafĂ© Coffee Day in being ahead of Starbucks, for example. Whether it is lateral entrepreneurship or new age entrepreneurship, there exist certain commandments; recognizing them entrepreneurs can institutionalize growth and sustainability in their entrepreneurial ventures.

High Fives 

First and foremost, is the discovery of the intrinsic inspiration and passion within a person to become an entrepreneur. All successful entrepreneurs (and even unsuccessful ones) would agree that there could be no avocation more challenging and exciting than that of being an entrepreneur.  The satisfaction of creating a business of value to the society, of building an organization creating employment, and developing a brand that brings recognition to the nation are well worth all the problems one would face in assembling a like minded team, finding progressive investors and creating an R&D, manufacturing and marketing infrastructure.  Dedication and commitment of an authentic entrepreneur  would be such that even If one were given an option to restart the my life after a degree, he or she would unhesitatingly choose to be an entrepreneur again. 

Secondly, and this is as important to established businesses as to entrepreneurial start-ups, the right business choice is one which helps an entrepreneur secure a toehold; and within the business the   product choice is what makes or breaks a business; and a right product choice backed by the deployment of efficient process technology, provides the sustainability to business. The success of new age entrepreneurs lies in reinventing the ordinary services into new customer-centric services deploying new technologies of development, manufacture and delivery. Even ordinary businesses like recruitment, coffee serving and ticket booking can be viable entrepreneurial activities with a dash of technology and a feel of customer-fulfillment, achieving differentiation and sustainability in the process.  

Thirdly, nimble execution is as critical as differentiated strategy, especially to entrepreneurial firms. Execution cannot be at the cost of quality though.  Ability to establish a quick but perfect beachhead not only optimizes the investment-revenue equation but also raises entry barriers to the others. Many successful real estate firms began their journey by delivering their first projects fast and perfect. Great Lakes Institute of Management in Chennai, set up by Professor Bala Balachandran has to its credit the fastest execution time frame for a high quality academic infrastructure of its kind.  Establishing or accessing world-class R&D and manufacturing infrastructure in record time frames, developing products and securing regulatory approvals in the shortest time frame is a sure prescription for success in the scale-up phase of an entrepreneurial startup. 

Fourthly, sustainable competitive advantage is derived by operating at opposite ends of spectrum without compromise to any one factor; for example, being the highest quality producer with the lowest cost position, being lean in organization but powerful in delivery, balancing efficiency requirements of high throughput with market needs of low batch sizes and high product variety and driving high revenue and market share without compromise to profitability and sustainability. It is important for the entrepreneurs to focus on the critical parameter that differentiates one’s competitiveness and then reinforce it. An icecream maker, for example, has to focus on two essential parameters: access to high quality milk and integration of a cold chain. Everything else, comes next.

Fifthly, technology ought to play a major role in whatever we conceive of, and execute. If Flipkart, despite being a first generation enterprise, could secure a leading position in the highly competitive e-retailing format, it is in no small measure to its unswerving emphasis on high technology, including certain quality and compliance differentiators specific to Indian e-purchase environment. Entrepreneurs often are forced to make choices between technological competitiveness and resource optimization. Those who persevered with technology eventually end up successful. The case of MTR Foods in terms of newer technologies driving value despite the limitations of a family enterprise is an example. 

Check fives 

While the above are significant positive lessons for a successful entrepreneurial journey, there also exist some pitfalls one must be aware of.  Firstly, as a first generation enterprise, it is an eternal struggle to overcome financial resource limitations.  Given the classic preference in the Indian stock markets that promoter should stay invested in the company with high promoter share-holding, it is a challenge to raise risk capital without dilution.  Perforce, one is required to depend on debt.  The race to become what one is capable of in terms of product, manufacturing and marketing canvas has to be tempered by prudential norms of debt-equity structure from time to time.  Dilution of equity and monetization of non-core assets would become inevitable, to restore balance sheet stability and sustain future growth, however emotionally painful such options would seem to be.  

Secondly, as a company evolves from being an entrepreneurial start-up to become a more organized enterprise it is important to keep developing organization structures and talent profiles as well as systems and processes that move in step with changing business requirements.  The art of management and leadership vary significantly between a start-up and an established enterprise; the leadership teams must display a high degree of self-awareness and sensitivity in this important aspect. Even a highly successful company such as Infosys struggled with reinventing itself to changing levels of competition and the increasing levels of internal aspirations of people for positions of influence and power.

Thirdly, all organized activity, including its competitive advantage, will stem from people, and only people. The success of a first generation enterprise such as Orchid Pharma in becoming a globally recognized pharmaceutical major has been directly linked to the founder’s ability to attract and leverage some of the stalwarts in science, engineering and business in achieving aggressive technological development and business growth.  The real source of competitive advantage of an entrepreneurial firm would lie in its ability to attract the best talent with inspirational goals and empowering ecosystem.  The day a front ranking organization loses the ability to attract such talent, one may say that the organization has lost its soul!  

Fourthly, as entrepreneurs scale up their organizations and businesses, they must learn to evolve from the science of making right product choices to the art of making right business choices.  As a successful entrepreneur, once he or she brings up a business to a critical mass, he or she must learn how to forego control, entrust it to other professionals and redirect his or her entrepreneurial entry and passion into newer vistas of growth.  Inability to make this transition in a timely and graceful manner could cost you the business dearly and also sub-optimizing future potential immensely. The recent split announced by Indiabulls’ three promoters indicates their realization that their business has outgrown the desire to stay together. 

Fifthly, entrepreneurs at least the successful ones, would need to look beyond their own firms and businesses, and consider how they can contribute to creation of virtuous ecosystems in the country that institutionalize entrepreneurial spirit.  This requires establishment of a positive climate of angel investing, start-up investment and equity investment besides an institutional framework for incubation of ideas.  This requires that entrepreneurs should not be lost in the success of their enterprises but must interact with the broader stakeholder community so that our nation can be truly a nation of entrepreneurs. While N R Narayana Murthy’s Catamaran is an example but the hugely successful entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial groups can do much more, if they put their heart to creating an Indian entrepreneurial ecosystem. 

Ten commandments

The growth of India’s private sector has been that of India’s entrepreneurship, right from the historical days of Tatas and Birlas. Indian entrepreneurship has been less flamboyant than it ought to have been, given its successes. The potential to maximize new age entrepreneurship is also less recognized than it ought to be. India’s future still has several challenges of scarcity and inequity, but with dedicated and diversified entrepreneurship each challenge is an opportunity of development for both established businesses and entrepreneurial startups. As one embarks upon an entrepreneurial journey, the ten themes of entrepreneurship of this blog post should be of some inspiration and guidance.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on July 13, 2014