‘Making our children thrive in the real world’

Sandy Hooda (SH): It’s really nice to meet you and thank you so much for being a part of this conversation. We at Vega Schools and at the Global Schools Alliance (GSA), we try to reach out to discerning and interesting people, to get their views and share it with our ecosystem and beyond. And the context really is, that ultimately, it is the market, it’s the employer, it’s the real world, that should drive what educational institutions do, largely at least. So that’s the context, that’s the reason we do this. We felt that over several centuries and decades a little chasm was starting to develop between the real- world and educational institutions, especially schools. Because there is a university in between and sometimes, there is a little bit of a gap and the interconnectedness gets distanced. That’s why we wanted to do this.

Thirukkumaran Nagarajan (TN): Thank you very much for engaging with me. It’s very much appreciated. Happy to share my perspectives for whatever it’s worth. And I am definitely passionate about children, I do spend some time, once in a year at least, helping youngsters. Mostly in my native town, helping them to understand how they can grow in life. So “I am very happy to share broader perspectives with (Vega Schools), as a leading school in the country. I am really impressed to read about how you have evolved as an institution. So congratulations there as well. It’s great”

SH: Thank you very much Thiru. As an HR executive with over 23 years of experience in Human Resources, Client Services, and Hospitality, today you inspire thousands (over 15000) of practitioners, as you rightly noted, and leaders in the global business services. I wanted to talk to you about a few things that we feel a lot of people can benefit from hearing about.  And of course, you yourself have made career shifts in your life, so you see the value perhaps in the fact that different businesses and different industries require unique skills and emerging businesses perhaps require a different set of skills. So I want to ask you and talk to you, specifically about, as an HR leader in the IT industry, especially now with the pandemic having hit us and of course massive changes in technology, ‘What do you see, as the greatest challenges and opportunities? 

TN: It’s a great question. Now, our industry, as you said, is Information and Technology. So we are really in the knowledge business, and our clients pay us for ideas and the skills of the workforce that we actually have in our organisations and then our services that come with it. So you know, when I answer in relation to the IT industry and the company I work in, we don’t necessarily sell products, it’s all ideas, information and knowledge that supports our clients with some kind of value. So the greatest challenge for us is skills and knowledge, and how can we keep every individual up to date, year on year, as they grow in their career.  So the hunger for continuous learning, be it either you upskill yourself from the technology or the domain that you already hold, or you completely reskill yourself into something else that you haven’t necessarily learnt in the past, is a huge challenge for us. You know it could be an industry expertise of a functional or a domain expertise  in technology. So the ability to always stay ahead and be essential for the client that you support, and that could be across any industry, to me is a huge challenge for us and all organisations in this industry. 

I am also going to say, the ability to solve complex problems of today and for the future, you know using  all the technologies that come, in terms of AI and and machine learning and a lot of it is on the hybrid multi cloud  which we are seeing a huge trend of, in a very safe and secure environment, so that everyone is very respectful of privacy laws and cyber security and data. So that’s really a huge challenge. 

We are also seeing that the shelf life of skills is about two years today, so the speed at which things are moving, the hard reality is that you are only as good as you were yesterday. So in that context, you have to constantly drive to keep yourself  ‘version 2021’, 2025 and 2030 and beyond and that’s what helps you succeed in your career marathon because you can grow horizontally and vertically through experiences. And that too, I am going to say is a huge challenge because that requires a different mindset. 

SH: That’s very interesting. It’s the first time I have heard this line, and I’ll remember it and I might paraphrase it and quote it, that the shelf like of skills today is two years. That’s really dramatic. That’s far more dramatic than a lot of discourse out there. 

TN: I have to also add, the second part of the question which you alluded to is, ‘How has the pandemic changed it?” right, and that is the other opportunity. Now these challenges have been even more amplified post pandemic, in terms of our teams and practitioners who don’t see each other, literally. Whereas you would have, IT Parks with thousands of people coming in, meeting and speaking. That’s not happening, and everyone has gone back to their small towns and villages like Ranchi, Tiruchi and every part of the country. So how do you bring people together? So the ability to thrive in a virtual, digital environment is a very different play. And that requires different skills. You could be Roger Federer or Serena Williams in your technology but, in my view, if you don’t have the skills of extreme collaboration, and I am going to use that word, ability to team, not just locally but globally, because we serve international clients in this industry, to have this cultural intelligence, in my view, the ability to communicate with impact, caring for each other, wellness-wise both physically and mentaly, because you got to work together. All that is important for corporations so that there is that sense of pride and belongingness in a work culture where you never step into an office. Now that requires different kinds of skills in addition to the technological skills today. So those are hard challenges we are facing in the industry today, and the opportunity for us as well. 

SH: Absolutely, that’s very interesting. That you’ve kind of taken what is the discourse that we come across, to its extreme. And so, essentially what you are saying is that, the shelf life of skills is two years and not only do we need technical skills which also are evolving very quickly and changing very quickly, we need collaboration, but we don’t need collaboration we need EXTREME collaboration, especially since now we are not really working in physical groups we are working in scattered across geographic spaces, so we need the next level of collaboration. And again, you are not talking about communicating effectively, you are talking about communicating with impact, which is also taking communication to the next level and of course empathy and caring for each other, which is the all-important timeless skill. And thank you for noting that and underscoring that. So what you are essentially saying is that we have to now go to the next level of creativity, critical thinking, empathy, problem solving and all those things.

TN: Exactly right. 

SH: I also wanted to ask you, one of my favourite questions and that is ‘How easy is it or difficult is it, to find talent in today’s world?

TN: So, I’ll answer it in two parts. There is an amazing amount of talent in India. There is no dearth of intelligent people, at least in this country. But, it is extremely difficult, because everyone is vying for the same talent. We hire for talent and not necessarily for skill, so it’s a very different concept. Because at the end of the day, you may be highly skilled in something but, and as we discussed, that skill will expire. But the ability to hire for talent, those who can continuously evolve and build skills along the way, now that’s the difficult part. So we have hired ballet dancers, gymnasts, retired military professionals and we’ve hired very very different, diverse people into an IT role. Now one might think, ‘how would these people fit into your organisation?’, but they are highly talented and they have a certain drive. You can teach them anything and they will absolutely flourish. So, in my view, the ability to teach people how to hire is, itself, a big challenge. So now you have  technology that supports it. You have a lot of assessments- behavioural assessments, coding assessments- that will test foundationally their ability to take risk and basic cognitive ability. So it depends on the industry that you are in, and what you are looking for, what volume is available. But at the end of the day, you will have to be able to pick the most relevant ones that have the attitude, in the long run, to succeed. So that’s my view on hiring and talent. 

SH: That’s also a very interesting and perhaps a slightly divergent again, compared to commonplace discourse. So essentially what you are saying is, go beyond skills. There is a lot of talk, and perhaps for good reason, about going beyond knowledge and content and transcending knowledge and content and going to skills. And now you are saying that knowledge, content and skills aren’t good enough either. We need to go way beyond that and tap into a person’s ability to learn. So it’s interesting that you shared this Thiru, because in the last ten years there has been an enormous amount of research on metacognition, in the education world. And metacognition really being defined as the ability to learn, to learn…to know how to learn. And a lot of things we do at Vega Schools, with PBL, are actually based on the outcomes of the metacognitive research. So, it’s very interesting that you shared this. That the  ability to learn, knowing how to learn, adapting to new environments through that ability, is  something that you really value. So, thank you for sharing that.  

TN: Absolutely. And if you look at what kind of jobs will exist in the future, and you look at it in the next five to ten years or so, I believe, this whole cognitive computing that you see today, will redefine the experiences that we have in our everyday lives, exponentially. Computing today has the power to see (images), to recognise and now it can read and learn, speak multiple languages, it can understand natural language, it can even appreciate emotions and then eventually make recommendations and even advice personally. So when you look at how technology is evolving, a lot of the jobs that we see today that are repetitive, that are standard in nature will be replaced by, I am going to say, artificial intelligence. And even now, when you call a bank, the IVRs and the chat box have evolved quite significantly from what it use to be a decade ago, and most BPO kind of work- call centers, processing kind of work- will be done through cognitive, artificial intelligence, ‘digital workers’ per se and humans will move to higher valued jobs, at least in our industry, and we see a lot of that in business intelligence, cloud technologies taking shape in the space we work in. So science, technology, engineering and math become foundational to having a career in this side of the world. I am an example of someone who came in from the outside, but I am not a technologist, I handle people, I mean I have been dealing with people all my life. But in my view, for us to keep churning out talent that we’ve seen in India, that can succeed in the world stage, it’s because of our focus on science, technology, engineering and math in India. We have a lot of inventors come in equal on the global stage, from this country. And I believe that we will continue to do so. 

So there will be two kinds of jobs- the one where you can work from anywhere (work  from home) and then the other kind of job where you will have to be at the place of work because you need tools, you need to do  research etc. So at the end of the day, there will be those kinds of jobs which is an advantage as well as a disadvantage, in my view. The ability to work from anywhere is not always an advantage.

SH: Yes, I hear you. Absolutely. As we talk, millions and millions of  students/learners across India and the world are similarly scattered and learning from home and it is not that easy. Having said that, it is also giving an opportunity to some of them… hopefully many of them, to build resilience, to build these skills of working from anywhere, to have maybe a slightly stronger and more comfortable relationship with technology. So everything has the other side.  You’ve really created a lot of dissonance in my mind by accelerating some of the assumptions. I thought the time for extreme collaboration will come and I thought that the time for communicating with impact online is also going to come soon because that is the situation that we are in. But I didn’t realise that these are actually high priority skills for you today, not in one, two or three years from today. 

SH: So I was curious, if you were to ‘read the tea leaves’ going forward, ‘What do you think will be at premium, in eight, ten, twelve years  from today?’ and why I ask this question Thiru, is because that’s when a lot of parents who are admitting children in school or whose children are in school will be going into the real-world. So what are the top two, three things that they should look at, other than what you already shared, learning to learn (metacognition- the ability to learn).

TN: So in my view, there are different fields that one will take, in the nature of work. That’s fundamental. However, there are certain values that one will have to pick up in the early stages of their education, more around behavioural sciences, in my view.

Firstly, I am going to say, the ability to understand failure. It’s okay to fail fast, to fail early. But always  look up at the stars. Very few people actually understand that and they learn that the hard way. But if they learn it early, the better it is. The ability to understand hardship, because in today’s world a lot comes too easily and people take it for granted. So it is better to go through the grind early in life than later in life. So I am going to say, this whole ability to thrive in an uncomfortable environment is one thing that if it happens early on it’s good. Take all the knocks early, because growth and comfort do not coexist. It is not taught anywhere. I feel that it is a huge priority in the way of upbringing and where schools can help. 

Then we also talked about collaborating and co-creating. You always don’t learn from a textbook in today’s world. You learn from the people that you interact with locally (in the society that you live in), in the broader communities as well as globally.  So education cannot be limited to, in my view, the standard curriculum, which of course is core, but the development of the individual has to be through the ‘real-world education’- the ability to survive in the real world. Now, I don’t have the answers, but ‘how can people solve the problems, learn by doing and experiencing the real world, which will stick with them for the rest of their lives?’, ‘how can they gain the muscle to take risk, to step outside  of the small circle of local life? This is another trait…the experience of doing, which sticks. I have two boys, twins, they just became teenagers, they are in Grade 8. I have to admit that, as much as they undergo online education, in my view, 33% sticks, nothing more. They just forget and I don’t blame them for it. So the ability to keep them engaged with real-world stuff is  a huge priority, I believe. 

What I think, which doesn’t get taught today, will become very important in the future is sustainability. In schools, not in the universities, there are very few people who have taken an interest in it, research it, and study it. But this will become a huge priority in the world. It is often misunderstood and there are very few people who have taken the early steps of building a learning curriculum incorporating this. I have a classmate of mine, who is UK based and started a company called Earth51.com who has some great ideas. He has introduced ‘sustainability for dummies’ so people can appreciate what it is truly, because it is often misunderstood.  

To me, empathy, kindness, respect for each other…all are becoming very very shallow in today’s world because everyone is busy doing their own thing. So fundamentals, yet fundamentals which are not taught necessarily in schools, if you can build in exercises where people can appreciate the beauty of one another, I think those will differentiate one from the other. Everything else can be taught.

SH: Thank you for sharing this Thiru. This is very, very powerful. I mean, as we go back to the Eastern philosophies, the ancient philosophies- the ancient Greek philosophers, Vedic philosophy, the Islamic philosophy, Buddhist philosophy- there is a great emphasis on improving one’s relationship with change and the concept of impermanence- the fact that everything changes. I guess we are confronting that today with the pandemic, it’s now pushing us to dramatically improve our relationship with change. 

And now of course, with global warming coming up in the future, the big point you made about sustainability also holds true. I saw this very interesting cartoon in the Economist, where there are two boxers, Earth is one boxer and the COVID pandemic is the second boxer and they are exchanging blows and then there is another boxer standing, who is a giant and his name is global warming, so Earth hasn’t even got to fight him yet. 

So you are absolutely right about the fact that we have to bring back philosophy into our lives, into the education system  through the ancient philosophical systems. And really these are timeless skills so it doesn’t matter that it was said so many thousands of years ago, it still holds as true today. So in fact, the Co-founder of Vega Dr. Steven Edwards talks about this concept of comfort zone, growth zone and panic zone. That through our PBL system, we need to make sure that our learners are not in the circle of the comfort zone, and of course that they are not pushed beyond a point that they go into the realm of the panic zone…somewhere a lot of people are in today, because of the pandemic for example. The idea is to keep the learners in the growth zone. And the way to do that is to constantly push through real-world projects, and by guiding them to solve real-world problems to keep them as much as possible in the growth zone. We also have an interesting programme called ‘Shram’ that we started which really is ‘empathy in action’. Because we can talk about empathy or kindness as a concept, traditionally we learnt a bit of that from our classrooms, but really learnt them from our parents, uncles and aunts, grandparents and friends who had the right values. But at Vega, we try to emphasise on empathy and kindness in action through the Shram programme and we actually dovetailed that with the curriculum and the projects themselves. So when learners are doing real-world projects and solving real-world problems, ideally we try to involve a local village or community…a place we can make an impact and help those who need it more than us. So thank you for sharing this very important piece, and I am going to go back and share it with our learning leaders and our leadership team, because it kind of validates some of the things that they have worked very hard at.  

TN: Sure, appreciate it. You know, I was actually reminded of Bruce Lee, in terms of one of the things you talked about, one skill for the future, it’s a 30 second clip, you will find it on the internet. He says ‘you have to be like water. You pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. You pour it in a teapot, it becomes a teapot. You freeze water, it becomes ice-hard, powerful. So he says, ‘you be like water. Mould yourself to the environment because that’s how you survive and adapt to the realities and draw your strength. So that is what we expect from our people as well. Because you just can’t control, you have to adapt. 

SH: That’s very well put. And Bruce Lee is a very interesting character. I am going to go look for this clip, it is worth sharing with my team. He also wrote a letter when he was struggling. I don’t remember who he wrote the letter to, but he wrote a very interesting letter where he outlined what he would be in ten years, and that was the time that he was struggling, he was actually able to outline in this letter that he would go to the United States, that he would build a world class Kung Fu institution and become a really famous person, etc. I was just reflecting on what you shared about resilience,  and I think somewhere, very closely linked with resilience is self-confidence and self-belief and what really emerged in this letter was the incredible sense of self-belief and self-confidence that he had. So that’s the other piece, a very important intangible, to hopefully teach to the next generation.

TN: I believe so, yes.

SH: So I want to thank you so much for your time and insights. I strongly believe that these insights will be extremely valuable for our parent community, as they bring up their children for the world of the future, or the children themselves…the children of the new world, for our learning leaders (teachers) as they craft their learning or education piece, especially for the intangibles, and for our partner schools. I really value the insights you shared and deeply thank you for your time.