The Future of Credentials?

Following the post on the future of work, was thinking about what implications this would have for education, and the most obvious connection between work and education is about credentials. These are the signposts that tell (current or future) employers that a person has a certain set of characteristics. The most obvious example of credentials is the degree which your college/university has given you, telling the world that you meet a certain set of criteria. Often, this criteria is somewhat obscure, and may mean all things to all people, as we can see from the fact that the same credential from different universities mean different things, as seen from the value that people assign to them.

Today, a college degree has immense value for an employer, because the college degree tells the employer that the student has gone through a certain set of courses, and therefore is the right person to meet the requirements of the employers. From the employer’s perspective, the degree tells them that the prospective employee has the skills to be able to build a career. What employers look for is the assurance that the prospective employee has what it takes to fit into the grand scheme of things, to become a part of the larger picture that their organisation represents.

However, as the nature of work changes, as I said before, would such a credential of an ability to learn all things be as important? I believe that in such a scenario, where an individual would be contributing their specific quantum of work in a larger value chain as a ‘freelancer’ the skills of the individual in that particular space would become much more important than their generic ability. This means that organisations would naturally be more interesting in evidence of achievement in that specific area.

Such a shift in focus from organisations would necessarily mean that the ability to demonstrate ability in a particular area would become more valuable than the ability to demonstrate overall/generic ability. Hence, I feel, artefacts generated by individuals in the course of their learning, whether in the form of project reports, or papers authored, or creative work, would probably have a far greater impact than the degree. So, for instance, a paper written by a student on a particular topic, related to the work sphere of the student would likely have far more interest for employers than the degree or the grade would.

In other words, the evidence of achievement, in the form of artefacts, or in the form of eminence would become a far more valuable resource by which to evaluate prospective employees than simply the degree.


The Future of Work?

The way we work has been undergoing massive changes over the last decade or more, but today, I believe, we are at the cusp of a fundamental shift in the relations of work, facilitated by the developments in technology. By relations of work, I mean the role each individual plays in a ‘value chain’ and how the part contributes to the whole.

Before the advent of the modern corporation, people worked not for a corporation (they weren’t around, remember?). Rather, artisans, for instance, manufactured their final product, say a bicycle (if they were around …) as a single entity, and sold their products in a marketplace.

With the advent of the corporation came the concept of people working in jobs where they did specific work, which contributed (often in indefinable ways) to the overall value chain. In this way, the individual would do their part of the work, and pass on their output to someone else, who would do their part of the work (value add) and so on …

This aspect is changing, and, I believe, set to change in bigger ways. As we are seeing there is a trend towards organizations outsourcing their work to freelance contractors. As this grows (and we are seeing this happening more so in the technology sector) we would likely come to a state where instead of many individuals being brought together under the ambit of the organizations, people would work more in their capacity as individuals, being brought together under the ambit of the value chain. This value chain, by definition, would span organizations, which means that we can expect to see, more and more, the value chain being formed as a loose federation of individual freelance contributors, their output orchestrated by a set of organizations partnering together to create a certain set of products or services.

So in terms of work structures this could likely be a move towards towards ways of working the modern corporation replaced, though in ways which are very much the new millennium. This has massive implications on the aspirations of youngsters (I don’t quite rely on the generation nomenclature, partly because I don’t understand it …), in that they can probably no longer aspire to long term jobs and designations may lose their meaning, the content of work, and the satisfaction that generates being the main defining factors there.

In a way, going back in time, but in a 21st century way.


Ramayana – Really Regressive?

As you would probably know, I don’t much write about about things being discussed or debated (of late I don’t write much on any topic, but specifically …), but a topic which came up some time back, with some people referring to the incident from the Ramayana where Lord Rama asks for Agni-Pariksha for Goddess Sita as being regressive. Given that this didn’t quite make sense to me, I delved a little deeper, and tried to reason things out.

Now, this post is meant for people who find this incident regressive. There are a number of ways we could relate to the Ramayana. Lets look at these ways, along with where they lead us.

  • Ramayana as Literal History: One could take Ramayana as a literal telling of history, where a king asks his queen to walk through fire. Indeed, this would be regressive, but if one takes Ramayana as literal history, then one must also take a number of things, including Mareechh turning into a golden deer, Ravana abducting Goddess Sita in his Pushpak Viman, of Jatayu fighting Ravana, of the construction Ram Setu, of Lord Hanuman carrying the Dronagiri mountain, and many more, as being a literal telling of history. If one isn’t treating the Ramayana as history, then what exactly is regressive?
  • Ramayana as Social Commentary: One could on the other hand, take the Ramayana as a commentary on social norms and values of a given time. Again, if one does so, one must try to include very diverse societies, including humans, asuras, gods/demi-gods, astral beings and so on into a coherent social fabric. If one is to reject the existence of all of these, then one needs to be able to describe what each of these ‘social units’ stands for. If one isn’t even doing that, what does one find regressive here?
  • Ramayana as Fiction: One could treat the Ramayana as purely fiction, but if one were to do that, then there is only a story being told, and whats regressive about stories?
  • Ramayana as Philosophy: Many commentators have written that epics/scripture are written at multiple levels. There is a literal level, and one which is the deeper level, which actually deals with the philosophy of the scripture. The literal level is the first aspect addressed above. At the deeper level, there is immense symbolism to be found. For instance, one interpretation defines Lord Rama as the Self, the soul, the individual seeker (if you may), and Goddess Sita as the Mind. The self and the mind are in a state of perfect harmony until the mind is “abducted” by the tendencies and activities of the world (Ravana, who is defined as representing Rajo-guna, that which defines the tendency of unabashed participation in the goings-on in the world), and the mind and the self can be united only through the mind passing through a process of “cleansing” in the fires of spiritual contemplation, or meditation. Now, if one were to accept this interpretation, where does the notion of regressive come from?

So, as we can see, whichever way one looks at the epic, there doesn’t seem to be a way to define something as regressive. Unless, of course, one chooses to believe in bits and pieces from each such interpretation, and making a cocktail of beliefs. If thats what one believes, then one needs to articulate that.

Please do shed some light if you believe I missed out something.


The Future Work Economy

A topic I have been thinking about for a while now is what is the future of work, and of employment. There are a number of questions which come up, to which I must say I don’t have any answers.

One question I think about is the expected mismatch between the demand and availability of work in the future. Another is about the possible mismatch between skills requirement and availability.

Coming to the question of expected mismatch between work demand and availability, one dimension we need to consider, when building future scenarios is overall population. We are told repeatedly that technology is meant to make our lives easier, so we can spend more time with our loved ones. While thats a nice idea, what that means is that in the future, we are likely going to see much more work being automated at a global level, with people having to work less and less. This means lower demand for human resources, which could lead to a future this op-ed from Washington Post describes.

That said, however, there is another aspect which we need to consider. This is the fact that while a number of traditional occupations might not be around a few decades from now, there are likely going to be a number of new occupations, or even industries which could be generated over a period of time, as this piece from University of Kent tells us. While video games have been around for a while, no one could have anticipated the level of growth the gaming industry would see, for instance. New occupations and industries, of course, would require different skills, something we need to prepare our children for.

The other dimension is the mismatch between skills demand and availability. With Europe growing older, for instance, Europe will likely need to import workers, and with Africa growing younger, its quite simple to see where the additional workers required would come from.

This is an illustration of possible imbalances we could see in the future. The larger point here is this … the regions of the world which are well-off are likely to have fewer people in working age-groups in the future, while the regions which would have larger working-age populations would likely be unable to give access to the kind of education required to meet the needs of the job market.

Does this mean that it might be important for certain regions of the world to subsidise education and skill-building in other parts of the world? Should Japan, for instance, invest in education/skill-building in India? In other words, are we headed toward a far more integrated world as the viable solution to the problems of tomorrow?


God and Science

Topics on which people hold very strong beliefs … sometimes these beliefs are no more than just those. While on the one hand some of those who believe in God take Scripture literally, and will tell you that indeed the world was made in 6 days, or that there was indeed a time when snakes talked or horses flew. Little does it occur to them that maybe these stories are more allegorical, and one must look into their subliminal meaning which seems to be a consistent characteristic of Scripture to get a true understanding. Scientists on the other hand use these same stories, read at their superficial level to try to prove that religion flies in the face of logic.

There is another aspect of the scientific discourse which tells us that there is no ‘need’ for God since all phenomena can be explained by science, those which can’t be explained today would well be explained at some point. Let’s take an example to see the folly of this logic. Let’s say you have to go from place A to place B. Now, you could do this commute on foot or by bus. Now, since your commute can be explained by walking, there is therefore no ‘need’ for the bus and therefore the bus doesn’t exist.

Another logic which is most prevalent is that there is no proof of God. Now, one could also on the other hand say that there is no proof for the non-existence of God, but then that takes us into a different byway, so for the moment let’s shelve that one. Let’s say, for instance, if you are asked to cook a meal with a pen, crayons, toothpicks, and a screwdriver and wrench. Doesn’t sound logical, does it? Fact is, different tools are meant to be used for different purposes and extending this it’s easy to see why science has not, maybe will not, been able to prove the existence of God … that as a tool science isn’t the right one.  Let’s try to analyze that. Science is essentially a study of this creation, maybe (if we keep the idea of the multiverse aside for a moment) of the universe. This means that science, meant to study nature, isn’t meant to study whence nature came from.

Is that why so many scientists are so antagonistic to the idea of God?


Conversation Context

If you are on WhatsApp, you are probably on a host of groups, which you have, in all probability muted. Ever seen a pattern in the conversations in these groups? If someone started a group, and you connect with old friends after say 20 years, the first few days are about exchanging notes, and reminiscing about old days. After that the lull comes in the conversation, and this is when most groups become about forwarded messages or jokes.

Friends from college have a group, which is the place for college-style conversations. After a while, the conversations turn towards politics, and discussions about the world, pretty much the way it used to be back in college (boys don’t grow up, remember?!). However, due to a number of reasons, we decided to start a separate group about political/intellectual debates. Yes, intellectual indeed, even if I myself say so. Over time, the original group, which all of us are still members of has become a group for forwarded messages.

The reason is simple … context. No conversation can happen between two people without some modicum of a shared context. Take the context away, and the conversation can’t last. As college friends, we have gone different ways in our lives. However, there is a strong shared context of our time together at college, but beyond that, the shared context is that of the world around us. And hence, these are the two topics on which conversations can sustain.

In other words, context is key.


What Do Marks Measure?

We are told that marks (or grades) and qualifications are signals which serve to tell prospective employers about the worthiness of candidates for jobs … this as per classical economic theory. However, reading this article makes one think … what are marks measuring in the contemporary examination system in India?

There are a few possible things one could deduce from here:

  1. Children graduating schools are made up of different stuff, and are extremely bright.
  2. The University folks have lost it.
  3. The exam system is not exactly measuring earning.

Back when we were in school (this is another millenium, remember!) getting 80% in English meant you were really, really good at the subject. Mere mortals managed anything in the low to mid-70s, with some folks managing the 60s. Today, we are seeing a cut-off of 100% for Computer Science courses. If this is based on PCM (Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics), then one can assume that the kids are graduating school with exceptional understanding of the subjects. However, by the time these kids graduate, we find that corporates struggle to meet their hiring numbers. On the other hand, scoring 90s in English today should mean the kids should have an exceptional grasp of the language, but that isnt borne by observation.

Personally, I believe that the exam system is barking up the wrong tree (for biologists), or climbing up the wrong pole (for the rest of us). Marks dont seem to be measuring learning, though I dont know what they are measuring. To get a real understanding, exams need to test the kids, not on straight application of formulae, but to ask questions two or three steps removed from the data. And this isnt quite difficult to do.