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'Yes', because we can!

Last updated: 03 September, 2011

Setting priorities

We are a nation of hard workers who bring excellence to the table. We put in the long hours, we are infinitely adaptable, we get the results and we dont say ''no''. But, along the way, there is a certain tendency to procrastinate, bend the rules and disregard protocol. Does this sum up our attitude to work? Tejaswi Uthappa explores.

He looked straight in the eye, took a moment and asked, “Do you ever say ‘no’ to anything?!” The exasperation was palpable and the response, “Only to your present question,” guillotined that conversation.

Work continued uninterrupted and a project that was in escalation for 45 days went live at 5 am the next morning. The team reached their wives and wi-fis for a late breakfast and those who were sure it would fail (as it had done continuously for the previous two years), were collected in a closed room, answering questions on how an external consultant could come in for 10 days and turn around an implementation that had cost the company several hundred million dollars over the past five years! They are still trying to figure out how none of them before that day had ‘stumbled’ upon such a simple solution that started saving the company many millions right from the first week of the project’s launch.

What would you attribute this phenomenal success story to? Sound knowledge and smart thinking with some help from a measured deviation from protocol, in order to achieve the end result? Or, irrespective of the end result, would you prefer the phrases, ‘irreverence to procedure’ and ‘ruthless disregard for legend’? Consider my question carefully, for, your answer will determine how Indian your attitude to work is.

There are a few things to regard here. For centuries, India has been the seat of knowledge and innovation. When the rest of the world was still using bones and twigs, we gave humanity numbers to count with. Even a class V student knows that the Indus Valley Civilisation prospered more than 5,000 years ago, when most of the west lived in caves. We presented surgery to mankind 2,600 years ago, anaesthesia and all. The first dam was built in India. The gurukuls prospered before documented history. Nalanda gave the world its first ‘university’ of education way back in 700 BC. And Forbes magazine reports that Sanskrit is the language best suited for computer software.

With 36% of NASA scientists being Indian, 34% of Microsoft employees responding to Indian names, 28% of us at IBM and 17% of Intel scientists doing this 64-year-old political democracy proud, our modern triumphs are here and now. It is Indians at the helm of affairs all over the globe. We are an emerging economic, military and knowledge superpower. Our home grown corporates rule the world. So, why is it that an article that explores the Indian attitude to work become relevant?

Because, in spite of India being extolled as a nation of hard workers who bring excellence to the table, the perception is slowly focussing on the quality that we finish with. We put in the long hours, we are infinitely adaptable, we get the results and we don’t say “no”. But, along the way, there is a certain tendency to procrastinate, bend the rules and disregard protocol. There is a place for that too, but people tend to forget.

The dynamics of any corporate environment today is that while the immediate result is the difference between raise and redundancy, consistency is the keeper. And that cannot be taught. As individuals, we shine, but how much can an individual generate individually to a larger group?

Explaining the two fundamental deficiencies that contribute to poor organisational capabilities of Indians, Piyush Doshi, a senior management consultant with significant industry experience in India and abroad, rests the onus on an intrinsic lack of trust. He is of the view that, “Good process requires an individual to focus exclusively on his or her responsibility and trust others will do the same. It requires people to be generous to their colleagues and pick up the slack. We are, genetically, more of a Darwinian society which produces brilliant individuals. Even our huge organisational successes are down to a few individuals who will make the impossible happen.”

But companies work in groups. And how adept is the Indian intellect to a group dynamic? We are excellent at following orders. We are extremely adaptable, but when put into a group, where does our initiative go?

“Hierarchy is ingrained in the Indian psyche,” says Mohan Pandit, senior vice president in a global services company. He refers to our family and education set-up where the senior member is respected and obeyed. Personal planning usually has no scope and affects the way our thinking develops over time. He goes on: “This behaviour seeps into the corporate culture too, where ‘employee thinking’ is not very structured and people feel inhibited even to volunteer. There is a lack of freedom and coupled with poor communication skills, personal initiative is stifled. The ability might be there, but deference is so ingrained that we don’t see much leadership. When this individual is then placed in a multinational environment, this cultural difference is perceived as lack of confidence and lack of independent thinking. That’s unfortunate.”

Sociologists and psychologists call this the malady of colonialisation where, at the grassroots level, though we are free from political bondage, we are still stifled in thought and expression. And we pass this on. Our numerous years of slavery and subjugation have subdued our natural winning instinct. When competition is so steep and options are still scarce, survival is the instinct that pays.

Think about this. We have tremendous success stories and yet, as a race, we need to prove ourselves. Why is it that the country that was pillaged for its wealth and was romanticised for its promise, now finds its own performance, attitudes and thinking, under the scanner?

The truth lies in our demographics. When our economy opened and our top educational institutions produced world class professionals, the world saw India in a new light. This set the expectation of excellence from an Indian work force and India rapidly became the world’s No.1 outsourcing hub. The demand for skills permeated levels and now it is the lower tier skills that are in great demand. The service sector has placed a demand for a three-million-strong work force this year. With 3.1 million graduates produced in the country every year, McKinsey and NASSCOM report that only 30%-40% of Indian graduates find employment!

Subhabrata Ghosh (SG), head, Celsius100 Consulting, explains: “There is no dearth at the lower level. The problem comes up when companies want to move up the value chain, say from vendor status to advisory status. For quality delivery, they need to upgrade the quality of manpower. Post-2000, with IT and BPO services booming and our economy generating more employment opportunities, more and more people are sending their children to college, particularly from small towns and semi-urban areas. The demand on college education rose sharply. Suddenly higher education was big business. They began to cater to the rising needs of the industry — manpower at the bottom of the value chain. Couple this with the biggest issues in education: lack of quality teachers and a dynamic modern curriculum. Mediocrity and below par became the order of the day.

Unfortunately, this quickly became the majority. Even our IITs are now being questioned on the quality of students. Consider the other issues that are faced by the industry — socio-cultural quotients of the students. In a global environment, social skills are as important as job skills. With more participation from underprivileged sections of society, education needs to address the gap. Our colleges are completely oblivious of that need.

Soft-skills training needs to be included to develop a greater world view in students.”
And the student fraternity agrees. As per Naina Ghai, a CA aspirant, “Campus placements are 80% dependent on the student. Colleges bring companies and students under the same roof but do not engage in training students to sustain a job. Practical orientation is missing and that needs to be incorporated.” “It is the approach that is important,” feels Anmol Jain, a new graduate from Jain College. “We need to get our basics right but should not be confined to conventional formulae because there is an urgent need to be unconventional at work.” He believes in “working smart”, rather than plain hard work.

Shayne Holloway of Indo Asian Innovative Block, takes a national outlook. “Ensuring access to quality education for all, particularly for the poor and rural population, is central to the economic and social development of India,” he says.

Aged between 21 and 23 years, this is the quality of intelligence and awareness that we are recruiting into our corporates today. And though there is a fair share of youngsters that seeks instant gratification without doing much for it, the larger community still values ethics and endurance. Supporting the view that we have plenty going for us, Sonali P S, account director at Mutual PR, asserts, “It’s the educational and family system that builds the foundation for any individual. Today’s generation is quite gutsy, ready to take risks. And it has the support. The only thing to develop, now, is the drive to self-educate and be well-versed with other cultures and ethics, within India and outside it.”

Variability: our differentiator. It is as much an advantage as it is a challenge. And attitudes are greatly shaped by diversity. Ratna Chengappa, founding director and CFO, msc-mobile, is vastly experienced in managing groups of Indian resources, overseas.

Having had his moments of frustration there, he reflects on his own experience of India: “The great thing about living in India is that it teaches you to deal with the unexpected. Often, that’s why, when things don’t go according to plan, we can find alternative solutions to overcome what many dismiss as impossible. A little chaos can go a long way when channelled constructively.”

This is our natural behaviour. We work things out. But until someone points it out, we tend not to acknowledge it. Having said that, while a culture, disparate across comparatives, nurtures adaptability, it can also breed infighting. Substandard university programmes result in poor skill sets that show up soon enough and our culture of subservience that remains intrinsic to our behaviour, does not help performance.

Personal gain, then, becomes the natural focus and other natural human instincts come into play.

So, how does our culture and ethos that dictate that we need to achieve at all costs; our rewards system that, in parts, still acknowledges the first student that puts his hand up whether he knows the answer or not; our habit of awarding ‘exceeding expectations’, where just doing the job right is inconsequential; and our inherent one-upmanship; impact our work ethics today? And then, how does it impact business?

It is the Indian malaise that while our entrepreneurial approach to a task and an intrinsic ownership that ensures that we complete the job, is commendable, the competition that breeds insecurity has negative repercussions on collaborative conduct. Praveen is the co-founder of EduNest, and provides web-based platforms for school-student interaction. His view is: “While this attitude (to excel at all costs), in isolation, is good, in an organisation it can be easily termed as over-enthusiasm, non-focused and unrealistic. A good balance of being a big achiever and sticking to the objectives should do the trick.”

‘Balance’ is key. The problem is not so much in the way we are, but the factors that stop us from using our abilities and talents to retain our competitive edge. The lack of strong skills, coupled with the ‘chalegaa’ and ‘adjust maadi’ attitude against a backdrop that allows little room for error, is quite a contradictory situation. Add to that our hierarchical upbringing that disallows questioning. As Apurva Malewar, procurement buyer at ICG Commerce, rightly puts, “Our culture does not allow us to open up or explore further. Our conservatism holds us back and contributes to the lack of quality. The only reason we have our heads above water is because of our hard work and dedication towards it. This brings in opportunities for us.” So, something is still right.

Examining the above, “Capital follows culture”, observes SG. “Our governance needs to acknowledge that in any country, economic might is dependent on the cultural quotient and educational quotient. Our sudden economic growth is unmatched by our social growth. Investment in education has not kept pace with this growth rate,” he points out.

The ones that suffer are colleges that are money making ventures and severely under-resourced, particularly in quality teaching staff. Calling them “graduate factories”, SG reiterates that the thousands of colleges springing up across the country are falling short on the basic purpose of their existence — imparting “employable skill-sets and grooming progressive mindsets”.

It is a natural phenomenon then, isn’t it, that when expectations are not fulfilled, and ‘average’ replaces ‘excellence’, there is bound to be comparison. I suspect it is also true, more so from a global perspective, that when an entity that has for many decades been seen as the under-dog suddenly raises its head in authority, others will seek to quell its ascent. Insecurity is predictable. That’s when the past becomes relevant again — gaps in memory need to be filled and pride restored.

“India is a country where knowledge and wisdom are indigenous,” reinforces Dr W Selvamurthy, chief controller — R&D, DRDO. He explains, “India never invaded any country. Our intellect is our own, our dynamism and creativity are our own. We had Aryabhatta, we have our military prowess. We are at the brink of a second green revolution. We have been unstoppable. The Vedas have an answer to every situation that crops up today. It is in our genetics to think big. That’s our nature. But in the context of nurture, we need to recreate an ambience that will encourage expression of our immense capability.”

We have been rebuilding this ambience since independence. About 30% of our population is still below the poverty line and yet we have a growth rate of 8.5%. The trajectory of India’s positive growth is attracting significant foreign investment. A progressive attitude to work is slowly becoming the norm and is bound to rub off on the local defiant. “Whether you like it or not, our growth will reach 10% soon and every class of people will move one up. Who’s going to complain?” he laughs.

Commenting on the impact of our much criticised lackadaisical attitude and corruption scale on the future of India’s acceptability in the world, Dr Selvamurthy is not worried. “Negativity will be nullified by our positive growth,” he persists. “The people of this country know success. They will affect change. The scene is simply, ‘perform or perish’.

With tremendous growth in foreign investment and increasing pressure of success that the private sector is exerting on the public sector, the positive vibrance to succeed will gear attitudes towards achievement and leadership. It is inevitable,” he reassures.

Without a doubt, our corporate culture, and even civic culture, is gearing towards being process-driven, collaborative and politically appropriate without being submissive and defeatist. That is a warm thought. All is, indeed, well.

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