Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Soft Skill or Soft Kill?

Image from the internet for illustration purposes only

Reams of research findings are put out every day that emphasize and overemphasize the need for Soft Skills. Morphed into Life Skills these days, these set of intangible skills  apparently provides the passport to a better job and brighter future.

Professional Colleges are urged to integrate soft skills training to all their students. Recently, when I visited a professional (technical) college in Tamil Nadu to talk about the Life Skills training that we offer, I was stumped when the College Training and Placement officer reached inside his desk and pulled out hard bound tomes: Soft skills Vol. I, Soft skills Vol. II and Soft skills Vol III.

A quick glimpse into the manuals had these classic gems of questions that we have all grown up with right from our school days :

What is Soft Skills?
How many Soft skills are there?
What are the top ten soft skills?
When was Soft skills introduced in India?????

As I silently mourned the death of soft skills at the altar of rote learning, the beaming Placement
Officer said, All our students have cleared all the volumes and have scored 100%. We are now going to print Vol IV !?

If this is the kind of response by some Professional Colleges to “Teach” soft skills to their students,
when will they ever learn that soft skills is a “Skill” and need to be applied in real world settings. Soon these colleges will be proudly declaring: 100% placement and 100% pass in Soft skills. 

I walked away wondering, after all the massive efforts to bring out bulky Volumes and reducing Soft skills to just another subject, whatever I wanted to passionately convey to the students is “Out of Syllabus”

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Social Workers in the Corporate World - Clash of Cultures?

A recent article in Business Line stated that if the Companies Bill is to be passed in the winter session of Parliament, nearly 8500 Companies in India will come under the compulsory CSR spend category. This translates into roughly 60,000 jobs for CSR Professionals. It is also anticipated that this will be a bonanza for Social Work professionals and professionals from the NGO sector.

The article also speculated that Companies in their eagerness to comply with the many CSR related provisions, may poach jobs from leading NGOs. While rejoicing at the prospect of new opportunities for many of my Social Work colleagues, I also wonder what challenges that this opportunity may throw up. The first thing that comes to my mind is the perceived clash of cultures and the transition that the Professional Social Workers have to make to the so called Corporate Culture.

Till recently and even now in some Companies, CSR functions are handled by Corporate Communications team. Therefore these “CSR professionals” mostly have a Communications, Marketing, PR background - and not Social Work background. Recently, some MNCs started recruiting “Specialists” or “Subject Matter Experts” - in the field of education, environment and community development. Indian companies too followed suit and this created a trend and a wave of migration already started from many large NGOs to the Corporate Sector. Going by the Business Line report, this “migration” will increase or even be forced when Corporates and Head Hunting firms spread their nets to NGO /non-profit sector.

Interestingly, during the late '90s, few young professionals from corporate world made a dramatic shift to the NGO sector. It was indeed dramatic because: those days you either worked with a NGO or with a Corporate. Nobody will even think of crossing each other's domains. It was also logical as you could very well argue: Corporates Make Profits and Non-profits -do not make any..(silly)– so it's a no brainer actually – the twain shall never meet ..scenario. Many hailed this move from the Corproate to the Non-Profit sector, rightly so. However some went overboard and also said that with this shift, NGOs will function “more professional” and actually prescribed this as a panacea to all ailing NGOs!

So, when professionals from Corporate world made a successful transition into the NGO sector – why can't the Social Work Professionals do the same? Will eye brows be raised when a qualified Social Worker walks in with confidence in the hallow corridors of Corporate power? I think, the answer lies in the initial perception of Corporates being more professional and NGOs as not being professional and lacking in management systems etc.

I am sure the debates will continue on this perceived shift /transition and resultant clash of cultures.
Eventually, clarity will emerge. The nay sayers or those who decried NGOs for their lack of professionalism and systems, will have nowhere to hide when you point out to them that the Companies Act itself came about because of some rather shocking or shall we say “unprofessional behaviour” of some highly acclaimed Corporates.

The irony is now NGOs pilloried for not having any Governance are going to contribute in a large scale to the growth and development of Governance and Professionalism in Corporates!


Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Rediscover the Joys of Reading

In this fast paced, wired world, is there still space for good old reading? Reading for the sheer joy of it. Do children love to read as much as they love to chat and post on facebook? To answer these questions, we have to move out of our comfort zone and take a peep into rural India. In places where children are deprived of their basic right to read.

In India, even in the remotest corner you can find a school, but that's the end of the story. There may be students, but no teachers. There may be classrooms, but no benches. Children in these schools have never come across good books that they can read and cherish. Even text books are not available to these kids.

In my earlier days when I worked in a non-formal education project, I have seen the thirst for knowledge among the kids of very poor families. They may not know how to read, but still they adore the pictures, they could relate to them and when the teacher narrates the stories from the book, she is a heaven sent blessing to the children. Whenever I used to visit the NFE centres in the fishing hamlets, I used to take Tamil books, comics, translated stories of Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens and leave it with the learners. The books became very popular that the adult learners in our centres started to fight with their kids to get hold of them!

I often marvelled at this thirst for knowlege, and wondered how we could ever quench this thirst.Recently, I came across an initiative with a very challenging title: "A Book in Every Child's Hand" now that is a gigantic vision, given the staggering size of India. However, when I heard Rohini Nilekani speak at the TEDx Gateway Mumbai 2012  partnered by Franklin Templeton Investments, I was inspired to note that in this day and age there are still few souls who want Every Child to enjoy the joys and experience the thrill of the winged words.

 "A Book in Every Child's Hand" has succeeded to a great extent in putting several million books in the hands of children who otherwise would never have the opportunity. The books are translated into most of the Indian languages. By putting the books on the open platform of Creative Commons, the organizers have literally opened up the flood gates of "Creative Collaboration" so much so that many of the Indian language books were translated into French, Spanish, German and other foreign languages! This highlights the universal appeal of this project.

You can listen to the inspiring story of putting books in the tender hands of every child and opening up a new world of hope and joy at this link: Rohini Nilekani. I am going to start digging out my books, fill up my backpack and visit the schools that I work with. I am sure you'd like to join as well. Believe me, the joy and satisfaction you get when a child comes in contact with her first book is unparalleled.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Essential Skills for CSR Manager

As in any Managerial position, interpersonal skills or people skills are very important in the professional life of CSR Managers. However there are certain skill-sets unique to the CSR Profession itself. As a CSR Manager, you are expected to work with two categories of people:

Managing People who have Passion and Managing People who have Power.

Managing People who have Passion:

As a CSR manager you will often interact with people who have passion, people who are not just doing a job, but doing something that they are passionate about. Volunteers, NGOs and other groups of people who are dedicated to a cause will come under this category. Their motivation is not money or power, but satisfaction and self-actualization and a deep sense of contributing to sustainable development.

I have come across, volunteers who with their sheer passion and dedication have really made my work all the more satisfying and fulfilling. These volunteers have night shifts (mostly in IT sector) sometimes stretching into the wee hours of next morning 3 or 4am. Still at 8 am sharp they will promptly turn up at a village 50 kms from the city! Their energy and passion is so powerful that to manage such energy levels you as a CSR Manager should share the same enthusiasm and motivation. In my experience, volunteers are mostly young people and unless you share the same vibes and passion as they do, you will not be able to 'connect'. Therefore, do equip yourself with the same vibes that moves generation Y in order to be their effective manager.

Secondly, you need to manage their enormous surge of enthusiasm, energy and motivation. Some of them could get emotionally charged up or some of them could just be frustrated because they are not getting the results as fast as they expected. The key here is to provide some sense of organization and streamline their enthusiasm so that their energies are channeled meaningully. I usually encourage them to take up small projects or break down major themes into “week sized” projects that they can tackle and contribute as per their skills.

Another important “Passion” sub-category are the NGO Partners. In your work as CSR Manager you have to explore, identify, nurture and develop Partnerships. NGOs with their work in the communities become a natural choice. Many of the NGOs have great passion for their work and take pride in what they do. You should respect that and tactfully work on that premise. For me working with NGOs gives me as much or even more satisfaction as working with volunteers. While volunteers with their raw passion just blow me away with their energy, I find the NGOs temper their passion with a deeper understanding of the communities they work with. It helps me to constantly update on the trends in community development and make me put the work I do in the proper perspective.

Naturally, a CSR manager who needs to earn their support must have the same knowledge (if not the experience) as the NGOs. This will make your interactions meaningful. In most cases, NGOs with their years of experience in the 'Field' try to look down on Corporates that undertake CSR activities. They sometimes feel that Corporates are trying to enter their domain without much understanding. Therefore, you as a CSR manager should equip yourself with the domain knowledge as the NGOs are working in. NGOs will then listen to you and lend their support. Otherwise, they tend to “hijack' the programs and run away with their agenda with the corporates not having any say in their choice of interventions.

Managing People who have Power

The other category of people are People who weild tremendous Power and Influence. They could be Government Officials, CEOs, Senior Executives in your own officee, Commissioners, Department Heads, Bureaucrats and even senior NGO Leaders.

While working with these “Influencers” a CSR Manager has to be constantly on their feet. First thing to understand is: these people in power are Resource rich and Time poor. While you may get a whole day to spend with your volunteers and NGO partners, you may hardly get 10 minutes or maximum 30 minutes with them. Even in this extremely short time, they will have other phone calls, VIP visitors and other interupptions. The key here is short precise communication. You won't have time for elaborate presentations or case studies. Another trait is the Power category people are more concerned about results, outcomes and deliverables. While your NGO partners may be interested in the process, your bosses and bureaucrats would like you to jump directly to what results your CSR project has achieved or what it is expected to achieve.

You have to also learn to be calm, patient at the same time firm otherwise you risk intimidation by their powerful presence, body language and sheer speed in their thought process. I want to recall here an incident to emphasize my point. In one of my early assignments when I represented a German Small Business Association , I was to meet the Board Members – President, Vice President and Chairmen of various committies of a prominent Business Association in Tamil Nadu. After duly fixing up an appointment I waited my turn in the imposing Board Room, mentally rehearsing my presentation and what I need to say etc. I had done a bit of homework as preparation and knew that the President and other Board members are mostly Engineers and are leaders in their respective fields and also politically well connected. However, still as it was my first meeting with them, I was very anxious.

Exactly on time, the Secretary walked in and announced that the President and his team will be joing soon. After few minutes they walked in and the President took his position at the head of the table. I introduced myself and requested that I make a presentation of the German Organization that I represent and how we could work together. Even before I could start the presentation, I was faced with a barrage of questions. Sample this: “Do you speak German? ( apparently many of them could) Have you visited Germany? (at that time I had not visited Germany) Are you an Engineer (I am not)
These questions at once put me on the back foot, as I had to answer in the negative to all of them. But I was honest, If I had tried to bluff my way through, I would have been sorted out by the experienced men there and none of my presentation that followed would have mattered.

After this initial hiccup, I composed myself and gave a short,crisp presentation. I could immediately feel that I had made a good impression. They were very appreciative of the work I (my organization) was doing and wanted to know how we could work together. Thus started one of my first induction into the world of Small Business Associations. Over the years the same President and other Office bearers became my friends for life.

The lesson learnt here is, be truthful, be straight forward. It took only few minutes for me to prove that I don't need to speak German or be an Engineer to work with Germans or Engineers. You must learn to organize your thoughts calmly and present them firmly. You have to radiate confidence – not over confidence though - and your actions and communication should express it. You really get only one opportunity to make an impression with these influencers and you have to make it count. Once they are convinced and agree upon your line of thought and action, the rest of your work is a walk in the park.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Amber Forever – A Precious Lesson on Business Ethics

In the summer of 2003, I led a business delegation from Chambers of Commerce to Copenhagen Denmark. The entrepreneurs and small business owners enjoyed the interactions with their counterparts in Copenhagen. We also had regular orientation workshops, industry visits and other opportunities to understand doing business in Denmark.

During the weekends, the delegation also had an opportunity to explore Copenhagen and soak in the local culture, do a bit of sight seeing and shopping. During one of these explorations, our business people came across stores selling “Amber” stones. Amber is actually fossilized resin from ancient forests. During this process, it traps debris like seeds, leaves and insects. Amber stones with insects are considered very valuable. Amber sold in Denmark is considered highest quality and is approximately 30 – 90 million years old (source: internet)

All of them were naturally fascinated by its honey and bright orange (amber) colour and also curious about the insects trapped inside (see inset picture: Source: Wikipedia) Some of them wanted to buy and even enquired the price. Strangely, even after visiting several stores selling Amber, nobody actually purchased any thing. I thought to myself, maybe the price put them off.

On monday morning, when our host for the day wanted to know the experience of shopping in Copenhagen, few of the 'shoppers' were excited about the Amber shops. Our host acknowledged their excitement and wanted to know if any of the curious shoppers brought any Amber. The response came as a chorus from our delegation: “We did not buy, as we are not sure if the Amber sold in these shops are genuine” The host seemed to be taken aback by this 'genuine' question. He took his time to gain his composure then asked them another question: Where did you see the amber stones? The response was in “Amber Stores” Then the host shot back: “If the shop says it is selling Amber, it is selling Amber” From his Danish perspective, he could not even understand the reason behind such a question from our Indian guests. For us fakeness, corruption and mediocrity being the order of the day, it seemed a reasonable question. Whereas in the Nordic Countries that enjoy high level of integrity and transparency in all aspects of life, the question itself struck a jarring note.

Let's pause here a bit while I want to take you back to an incident that occured in “namma' Chennai during the famous Mango Season. Few of my German colleagues were visiting Chennai on a business trip and on their way to airport, asked me if I could get them some mangoes to take with them. I jumped at the opportunity to showcase our King of fruits and went to a fruit seller who had neatly packed “Export Only” cartons of Alphonso Mangoes. After usual haggling on the price, I chose a carton which had “Genuine Alphonso Mangoes” Export quality etc colourfully marked on the sides. I could not resist the temptation to take one more box of this export quality for my own consumption – after all why should only foreigners eat export quality mangoes?

After dropping them at the airport with the neatly packed mangoes duly delivered, I smiled all the way back impressed with my alacrity. My happiness was short lived. When I went home and unpacked the “Genuine Alphonso” cartons, there were only few rotten mangoes and the rest of the package was only paper stuffed in the shape of mangoes. Even the rotten mangoes looked like the local variety and not the colourful Alphonso mangoes advertised on the sides of the carton.

I felt terrible not just for the fact that I had been cheated by “genuine” mangoes but felt sorry for our German guests and what impression they would have when they discover the truth. Later I wrote an email apologizing for the incident.

To get back to the Amber story. It taught all of us a lesson that day of what it means to be truthful and genuine in business and in other walks of life. Of course, the delegates went back to the Amber stores and purchased them – a precious acquisiton - not just because it was 90 million years old, but because it taught them the importance of being genuine in transacting business.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Testing Time for Teachers

Teachers in Tamil Nadu and across India are waking up to a new reality. In a role-reversal of sorts, it is the turn of the teachers now to face "exam tensions". I am talking about Teacher Eligibility Test which has landed many a teacher ironically in a situation that they used to face with their wards. Major Newspapers had a field day in presenting the same news with different twists: "Less than one Per cent teachers pass the TET" one. Another headline dramatised it by announcing "99% teachers failed in TET"

What is clear is however, the Indian exam system that is the bane of analytical thinking and creative expression has come to haunt the teachers themselves. The poor results in the TET also points out to the malady in our Teacher Training System itself. As a recent article in the Hindu noted, "there are 600 teacher training institutes in Tamil Nadu alone" These institutions apparently produce 'Teachers' who could not clear a Teacher Eligibility Test.

I was involved in training teachers in Govt. schools for more than 5 years and to me the poor results are not surprising. First of all, what is the "Eligibility' that they are being evaluated for? is it subject knowledge, ability to produce charts and PPTs? the whole system of teacher education itself is a mirror of our education system. Driven by blind focus on numbers and percentages, these tests do not really evaluate a teacher's eligibility to teach but their ability to memorize and reproduce. Same medicine, which the teachers have been prescribing to their students all along.

Most disturbing aspect of these low scores is the excuses that the teachers are ready to give. There seems to be a negative attitue towards learning and to teaching itself. Many teachers that I had interacted with have a low self esteem and expressed very little motivation to excel in their profession. They would rather give excuses than use the opportunity for personal and professional development. TET is an opportunity that should enable teachers take a hard look at what they have been practising and re-assess it.

A complete overhaul of the Teacher Training system is called for. Inservice training that focusses on teaching skills, leadership and facilitation skills must be conducted. Peer learning, opportunity to collaborate with other teachers, should be provided for them to expand their horizons. Continuous professional development and assessment instead of one time evaluation is the need of the hour to make teachers realize their potential. Only attitude change will lead to behavioural change and the Teacher Eligibility Test has exposed only the proverbial tip of the ice berg. It is time for Teachers and educationists to ponder.