Today, I came across a New York Times article that was shared on Facebook. The summary read, “The changing landscape of movie and television production means graduates of top film schools aren’t finding traditional jobs, but it may also mean that opportunities will be available in fields like digital media.”.  The article, For Film Graduates, an Altered Job Picture, reminded me of another New York Times article written by Paul Krugman, Degrees and Dollars.  Here too, the view is that the jobs we have been counting on are fast disappearing.

I’m not sure if “traditional jobs” ever existed.  Haven’t we all had to weave our unique set of resources — education, interests, network, experience, etc. — into creating employment opportunities for ourselves?  None of the people I know have gone from school/college into a “traditional job” — simply because such a job does not exist.  I don’t believe it ever did and certainly it never will in a world of constantly changing technology.  This is the reality that all students need to recognise, expect and accept.

This is true of even that Holy Grail among professions in India — doctors and engineers.  For instance, I know of a cardiologist from Coimbatore who had worked in medical transcription so she could learn how American doctors diagnose and treat heart disease.

Unfortunately, the graduates I meet are completely unaware of this reality.  And that’s because their advisors — that’s us parents, teachers, employers, etc. – perpetuate (unintentionally perhaps) this myth about a “traditional job”.  In India, especially, we need to switch to a more realistic (and honest) message.

Maybe then we will stop having such ridiculous cut-off scores like 100% for college admissions.  Maybe then we would not have so many distressing instances of students taking their own lives because their marks aren’t good enough.  Maybe then we would see productivity improve and attrition drop in IT and ITeS since the employees are there out of choice and not due to unrealistic societal expectations.

A letter to the editor in today’s The Hindu puts it well – Having worked in the Silicon Valley for the last 15 years, I have come across many bright American students holding a non-science degree but who have excelled in software development or solved complex business problems. They have the aptitude and the right attitude — the mantra for success in a workplace. Perhaps Indian firms need to learn lessons from here.”.

That’s the response of the dean of students to the suicides of three students in past year at IIT-M.  I wonder how many student suicides would be required for the learned dean to consider the tragedy as statistically important and therefore more significant than the patents registered by the institute.  I don’t know if the dean is a parent.  If he is, would its statistical lack of importance comfort him if his child were to commit suicide?

Yes, I’m appalled by the dean’s “response”.  Is it surprising then that students are reluctant to seek help from the institute’s Guidance and Counselling Unit?  If this is how the dean responds to a tragedy, how can the students expect compassion or empathy when they seek help?

The alarm bells should have gone off last May, (since they didn’t in Oct. 2008 when another M.Tech student ended his life) when R Sandeep became the second student in two years to take his own life.  That should have been the trigger for intensive counselling sessions and training for all – students, faculty and administrators.  Instead, it looks like the institute decided to bury its head in the sand and hope the problem would go away.  Well, it didn’t.  It has continued to stalk the campus.  And will continue to do so until it becomes statistically important.

It’s a pity when civil society in America can comfortably talk about “killing” Osama bin Laden – as if killing a person is no different from swatting a pesky housefly.  Even more dismaying is when the killing is described as successful.  I can only hope that when the celebrations are done with, Americans will begin to reflect on what really has happened:

By “treating him as he treated his victims, we simply go down and join him in the pit of immorality. We become the monster we hunt . . .”

“This way of ordering the world into worthy and unworthy victims, people to be mourned and people to be erased, is what keeps the cycle of violence ever turning . . .”

“It’s a pity that this event will do nothing to end the sheer stupidity and shameful waste of ten years of war and violence.”

These are excerpts from an opinion piece that appeared in The Hindu today.

As I read and listen to the debate on education in India, there is much appreciation for the Right to Education Act. The concern is about the quality of that education. Following are voices that directly or indirectly address the issue.

  • An ESL scholar to a doctoral candidate on teaching English in India: Nobody has any idea of what the children know, what they don’t know and what they need to know.
  • A senior American software consultant on Indian software professionals: They don’t ask questions. Nor do they know what questions to ask. Is there something in your education system that discourages students from asking questions?
  • A senior manager on Indian industrial workers: We don’t want them to think! When they think, they ask all the wrong questions and make a mess.
  • An academic dean: The students lack curiosity.
  • A government schoolteacher: Even if a student hands in a blank answer sheet, we are expected to write answers and pass the student.
  • A young graduate at an interview to an MBA programme: Hitler is my role model among leaders. He was a greater leader than Gandhi.
  • Google search: 60% to 85% of Indian graduates are unemployable

While the student’s words are dismaying at the very least, the responsibility lies with educators. Clearly, we need a better understanding of curriculum development and quality in education at all levels.

Perhaps I’m saying this too often — know the purpose of your message and know your audience if your corporate communication is to be effective. But, I believe it’s a point worth repeating because it is so easy to overlook. For example, I was asked to design a dissemination strategy for a tool kit on volunteering that a quango had put together. When asked about audience, I was told, “The whole world is our audience!” I then asked the staff what their budget was for translating the toolkit into all the languages of the world. The response was silence.

The answer is a most emphatic NO! Right now it is my internet service provider that is guilty of poor customer service. Before that it was a pizza outlet. To be fair, there was some kind of service resolution – the wrong order was replaced (though it meant more calls and waiting until the next afternoon for the correct order to be delivered).

My complaint is that these companies spend huge sums on advertising but the bare minimum on training their staff in essential customer service skills.

  1. What annoys me the most is that none of the staff know how to listen. It’s only at the level of area manager and above do I find staff who actually listen. At the lower levels, the staff seem to be trained to follow a fixed script and to not deviate from it at any cost. Hence, when I called to complain that I had been sent the wrong pizza order, the young woman’s response was, “What is your telephone number?”!! It’s only when I furiously (I was hungry and angry) asked what my telephone number had to do with a wrong order, did she change her response to something more intelligent and unscripted.
  2. Why do call centre staff mumble when talking on the phone? I’ve noticed that when overseas customers make the same complaint, companies here are quick to dismiss it as racial prejudice. However, I am an Indian and if I cannot understand what call centre staff say over the telephone, the problem has to be with the service agent and not the customer.
  3. Be it inbound or outbound calls, the staff do not clearly introduce themselves – name or company. In one government owned, telephone company, the call centre staff were all named after the late Michael Jackson’s children! And no, I don’t have a sense of humour.
  4. Going back to my internet service provider, the area manager had recorded my complaint. After that I got call after call asking me to repeat my complaint. When asked why, I was told the complaint had not been clearly recorded.
  5. The staff have no problem-solving skills. Because they do not listen/know how to listen, customer service staff (front office or call centre) are unable to take decisions and provide solutions. Therefore, the complaint has to be ‘escalated’ up the organizational pyramid until the customer reaches a senior enough manager who can do both.

What annoys me is that these are companies that spend lavishly on marketing. Which is fine. Only, the marketing has to be backed up by good customer service. I wonder if India, Inc is aware that their businesses lose nearly $2.5 billion annually because of poor customer service. For more statistics read the article, India loses Rs 11,640-cr a year on poor customer service: study published by the Business-Standard in August 2009.

Good customer service requires well trained staff. Here training providers are as much responsible as companies for the inadequate training being offered. All too often I come across training material that promises much in its objectives, but the content fails to cover the basics of customer service. There is much theory and little practical training. (I suppose, this approach to learning spills over from our education system which values theoretical knowledge over practical application.) As I advised the staff at the internet service outlet, “What you expect as a customer, do that for your customers.”

Companies meanwhile, are unwilling to invest in the time, effort, and expense required to develop quality training material. But then if the cost of poor customer service is Rs. 11,640 crore per annum, it is time for companies rethink their training budgets and their approach to training.

Since I had been commenting on communication and HR discussions on LinkedIn in the last two weeks, I decided to initiate a discussion on Ineffective communication. I wrote:

Business executives know what they want to communicate. But, they don’t know how to effectively communicate their messages. Why does this disconnect exist? How can it be removed?

Those who responded agreed that communication is a much neglected skill in the workplace. Everybody knows it is a ‘must have’, but there’s little enthusiasm for developing the skill.

Part of the problem seems to be the difficulty in quantifying the cost of poor communication. One reader suggested a process that identifies preferred communication styles and measures the effectiveness of a message. To learn more about the recommended model, I searched for information on the Internet.

A search that illustrates my original question. While the communication model itself is designed to improve communication, the marketing communication for the product is itself ineffective.

For instance —

  • The model and its author feature as the URL for so many of its licensed trainers and distributors, that the corporate website does not feature on the front page in a Google search.
  • Eventually, I found out that there was one URL on the first page that lead to the corporate website. However, the page itself would not open.
  • The uniqueness of communication model has not been communicated on either the corporate website or those of the licensed distributors. I could replace the product with any other performance measurement model and the assurances given would comfortably fit the new label.
  • One of the “official” websites has links to a questionnaire and the communication styles. However, when I tried to access the questionnaire, the page would not open for some reason. The communication profiles took too long to load. Nor was it possible to open the pages simultaneously using new tabs.

To its credit, the company has responded positively to the feedback. The COO of the company acknowledges that its marketing communications is under review and is being updated.

Looking at this website, and most organisational websites, I sense that sufficient thought is not given to the purpose of a website and to its audience. Whether it is a website for a business, an NGO, a charity or even a home-stay, the assumption seems to be that —

  • a picture will speak a thousand words – captions are unnecessary,
  • abstract words (unique, customised, innovative, creative) and adjectives (market leader, leading, world class) sell services and products.

And yet, these websites are designed by professionals who would /should know that the purpose of the message and understanding the needs of the audience is the foundation for effective communication. Unfortunately, this is where most organisations and their executives stumble.