Friday, June 22, 2012

The Challenges Before Indian Engineering Education

Engineering education in India has been under the spotlight in the last few weeks due to the controversy surrounding the new admission test structure for admission to the IITs. But a few other developments of the last week reflect both the challenges and bright spots of Indian engineering education.

In an article in The Hindu provocatively titled "The Enigma of Indian Engineering," James Trevelyan of the University of Western Australia argues that effective engineering needs a good understanding of organizations and people. Without these, engineering is ineffective, resulting in high costs and poor services. When Trevelyan refers to “hierarchical organizations, language differences, and deep social chasms” disrupting the performance of Indian engineering, I was reminded of the social and cultural barriers to innovation I wrote about in From Jugaad to Systematic Innovation. Like any other professional discipline, engineering needs to be rooted in the social milieu in which it is expected to demonstrate results. Our failure to include insightful humanities and social science courses in Indian engineering education is proving expensive indeed.

But what about our core engineering skills themselves? Worried by the frequent reports of unemployable engineers and poor engineering skills among the hundreds of thousands of Indian engineering graduates, former Indian Institute of Science professor and entrepreneur Swami Manohar started the Joy of Engineering, Design and Innovation (JEDI) competition a couple of years ago. The contest is based on final year projects done by engineering students as part of the engineering curriculum. Manohar believes that final year engineering projects represent a unique opportunity for students to demonstrate their real engineering skills. This year’s winner was Harshal Choudhari of IIT Madras for a “standing wheelchair” that allows a user to sit, stand or sleep. Sounds like a great invention, I only hope that at least some of the JEDI inventions get out of the lab and into the market. Swami reports that the JEDI entries are getting better, that’s good news for those of us who have despaired about the practicality of Indian engineering skills. I look forward to the day when Indian engineering students will be able to take up projects like the Darpa Grand Challenges!

An intriguing report in the press this week was about 85 of the top 100 rankers in IIT JEE 2012 joining IIT Bombay. While IIT Bombay has been on a distinctly upward trajectory in recent years, is this enough to explain it being such a doninant choice of IIT JEE toppers? An article in The Hindu investigated why even Chennai-based students preferred IIT Bombay. The report attributed this to “better industry exposure, advanced facilities and a liberal campus life.” While its certainly good to see quality factors rather than geography or language influencing student choices, its difficult to avoid thinking that in, an era of social networks and new and subtle ways of peer pressure, is this just the latest manifestation of a lack of individuality and independent thinking? If so, this doesn’t augur too well for the country.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Crisis in Indian Higher Education: India ranks at bottom of U21 Higher Ed Study

A recent study by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research on behalf of Universitas 21 (a network of 23 research-based universities across the world) has for the first time done a rigorous evaluation of national higher education systems (rather than rankings of individual universities). This study looks at to what extent different countries have vibrant and dynamic higher education systems that meet the needs of a modern economy. Their study measures 48 different countries on four parameters – resources, environment, connectivity, and output. India is ranked right at the bottom – 48 out of 48 countries. We rank #47 on resources, and #45 on the other three parameters.

The higher education system plays a key role in supporting the innovativeness of a country. In From Jugaad to Systematic Innovation, I emphasized the contribution of the education system to two important inputs of industrial innovation – qualified people with the skills to innovate, and knowledge created through basic research. I argued that higher education is one of the weak links in India’s national innovation system, and this point is corroborated with data by the Universitas 21 study. In the last two decades, higher education in India has grown in scale but without adequate emphasis on quality, and the high quality institutions themselves are far away from the best institutions in the world. In fact, India's best universities are declining rather than improving in performance.

Recently, when I gave a talk at the Shiv Nadar University (a young private university with ambitious global aspirations), I was quizzed closely about what are the critical elements of higher education that need to change. I emphasized the importance of an appropriate system of regulation, governance and incentives. More specifically, I (1) underlined the importance of a system that recognizes the existence of different categories of institutions with different objectives (e.g. research-led universities need to be looked at differently from a university that is providing affiliation to local colleges); (2) suggested that government’s role should be focused on creating a strong and transparent accreditation system that would help students and parents assess the quality of higher education provided by different institutions; (3) called for greater alignment between the incentives to people across the higher education system and appropriate quality metrics – e.g. in a research-led university, the choice of a vice chancellor and his compensation should be linked to his contributions towards creating a climate for research in the university.

When I read about the time and energy that is currently being spent on arguing about the admission process to the IITs, I really wonder whether we have our priorities right. The Indian higher education system is dysfunctional and unsuited to building the nation of our dreams. The HRD ministry should focus on addressing the broad policy issues that undermine our higher education system rather than trying to micro-manage the IITs. The Universitas 21 report provides a useful framework in which to address this task.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Aadhaar: A National Innovation Platform?

Aadhaar is a distinctive project, aiming to give a unique ID to each of the 1.2 billion people of India. This is perhaps the first time that IT and biometrics are being used on such a large scale anywhere in the world. And, don’t forget that government-sponsored projects can have huge positive impacts in terms of spillovers – the Internet had its origins in a US Defence Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) project to network defence computer systems; Israeli companies are world leaders in IT security partly due to the innovative work Israeli engineers do on military service projects; and, even in India, Sam Pitroda’s C-DOT created structured programming and related software expertise for telecom switches for the first time in the country. We may not have a Facebook or a Google in India so far, but the Aadhaar project uses the kind of technologies that lie at the back of these iconic names.

Aadhaar has five design goals that have driven the project: (1) Scale; (2) Speed (has to be done in a well-defined time scale); (3) Cost-effectiveness; (4) Quality; and (5) creating a platform for other innovations.

Strategy & Organization Design

One distinctive dimension of innovation in Aadhaar is in organizational design. While the UID authority handles strategy and architecture, other activities are largely outsourced. But all  procurements, financials, etc. follow the government system.

Government often tends to work in the silos of the existing ministries and departments. But an endeavour of this scope and size has to be a collaborative effort if the design goals are to be met. One of the major innovations of Aadhaar has been to build different ecosystems that allow such collaborative working.

The term “Public Private Partnership”(PPP) is invoked often in India with the hope of taking advantage of the best of the government and the private sector. Aadhaar seeks to put PPP into practice on a large scale but with relevant checks.

Aadhaar has more than 50 registrars, agencies that have something to do with people and already interact with large numbers (such as state governments and large public corporations). For each of these registrars, Aadhaar will provide an opportunity to clean up their own databases.

75 enrolment agencies have been empanelled. These enrolment agencies do the actual mechanics of enrolling members of the public into Aadhaar. Quality control of the enrolment agencies is done through software. Each operator has to use the latest approved version of the Aadhaar enrolment software on the computers it uses. Version upgrades are done periodically as in the case of a typical desktop software product like windows. UID avoids the hassle of procuring hardware and also the risks of obsolescence by requiring enrolment agencies to buy their own hardware (computer, scanner, fingerprint reader, etc.) out of an approved list of vendors. They can use either Windows or Linux as OS. For the operator, the process works as “plug and play”. Operators themselves have to be certified before they start doing registrations.
Aadhaar pays through an incentive-compatible, variable cost business model. Each registrar gets Rs. 50 for each enrolment. Hence it’s in the interest of the registrar to do more enrolments. Enrolment agency gets paid from this Rs. 50.

The Aadhaar programme uses a “Big Data” philosophy. For example, all operational data regarding the process is captured – how long an operator took for each registration, the number of repeat attempts, delays, efficiency, etc. This “data virtualization” allows for advanced analytics and monitoring of the whole process. Thus Aadhaar seeks to manage through data and analytics rather than through the customary government approach of resource ownership. Based on the data, Aadhaar can ask for some operators to be removed if necessary.


For a project of this scale and complexity, one of the big challenges is finding the right people. The talent available in the government particularly in high technology areas is often not adequate, and hiring new people is also difficult. To overcome these constraints, UID has hired people on sabbatical from established companies, volunteers (often people with considerable experience in the industry who now want to give back), and interns, who have joined for the learning opportunity. These are complemented by people from the government system – but care has been taken to have a diversity of people cutting across services, ministries and backgrounds. Aadhaar is being managed with a core team of less than 200 people.


Aadhaar has many technologically unique features. The authentication system is online with open programming interfaces so that it can be programmed into a variety of devices. Apps can be created on top of the Aadhaar system. Aadhaar has a set of Authentication User Agencies (AUAs) that build apps using the Aadhaar Authentication API (Bank, IOC etc.) and a network of authentication service agencies (ASAs) which provides a pipe to the Aadhaar backend (NPCI, Telcos, etc.). AUA's access the Aadhaar backend through ASA's.

Aadhaar represents a first principles approach on how to solve a problem of this magnitude. During enrollment, Aadhaar biometrically compares every incoming enrollment with all existing enrollments in the database. This is a 1:N biometric search. Currently Aadhaar is doing 200 trillion biometric person matches/day for de-duplication. Aadhaar has 3 engines at the back that divide all the load. A job can be allocated to any of the three engines. These three engines are provided by different companies. Comparisons can be made between the engines to see which one is doing the job most efficiently or accurately

Aadhaar uses a number of open source technologies like hadoop, hbase etc. that are used by Facebook/Twitter to allow "limitless" horizontal scalability of the systems using commodity hardware.

Later, once the Aadhaar system is in use, the focus will shift to authentication. Authentication will involve a 1:1 biometric match between the "biometric" presented by the resident and biometrics linked to the provided Aadhaar number. Online authentication will allow Indian residents to provide their "identity" online anywhere in the country.

Accuracy and Potential

So far, Aadhaar’s approach seems to have been successful. Not only have millions of Indians been registered, the system has achieved a de-duplication accuracy of 99.965%. This is critical because earlier identification schemes in India (PAN card, Election ID etc. ) have been plagued by duplication and individuals holding “multiple identities.”

Other platforms will ride on top of Aadhaar. One of the first platforms will be for financial inclusion, payments, etc. Aadhaar will act as a KYC and a financial address, and provide authentication at a micro-ATM. In the financial sector, Aadhaar will provide a platform for banks to move from the obligation of providing low-cost rural banking to the opportunity of creating a robust rural banking business model. Several banks have already signed up to work with Aadhaar on this.

One of the advantages of the system is that is can be deployed asynchronously. A few states can come on board first, or a few banks, it is not essential for everyone to come together on board at the same time.

Though the Aadhaar project is again under attack from the Home Ministry’s National Population Register project, this turf battle hopefully will not obscure the several innovations that have gone into this UID project

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Innovation Strategies of Indian Market Leaders

In a paper just published in the Journal of Indian Business Research, I have synthesized recent research to identify the innovation strategies, and to understand the role of innovation, in the growth of Indian market leaders.

The main findings of the paper are: Market-leading Indian companies focus their attention on business model innovation for affordability. They use technology as a means to deliver such innovation rather than innovating in technology per se. They display a high level of ambidexterity in their innovation strategies on the four dimensions of innovation identified. So far, they used top-down innovation models for breakthrough innovation, and bottom-up innovation models for “managed innovation.” With multinational corporations getting more aggressive and willing to develop products and services shaped by local market needs, and with signs of increasing consumer aspiration, going forward, they will need to adopt more research and development-intensive innovation strategies. They will also have to develop new organizational process models for breakthrough innovation.

For more details, write to me.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Making Technology Innovation work for the Disabled: Redesign Processes as well

Technological innovation can help people overcome their disabilities. An electric wheelchair can provide mobility, and screen-reading software can read out text from a computer screen. But for such innovations to work effectively, other things need to change as well. In public transport systems in the US, buses are fitted with extendable ramps that allow a person on an electric wheelchair to board the bus unassisted (see picture below). Books need to be available in “text” (rather than “image”) format for most screen-reading programs to work effectively.

India is home to an estimated 70 million people with disabilities. Their access to appropriate technological innovation is limited. But even if they were to have access, they would still be disadvantaged because public infrastructure and workplaces have not kept pace with technological changes.

A recent joint initiative by India’s largest bank, the State Bank of India (SBI), and a pioneering non-profit working for livelihoods for the disabled, Enable India, shows how a fresh look at jobs and tasks can make a difference.

While the Persons with Disabilities Act requires the government and government undertakings to reserve 3% of job openings for persons with disabilities, it also allows government employers to identify which jobs are suitable for such reservation. At times, this provides an opportunity for the government to wriggle out of conforming to the spirit of the Act. For example, the government has so far been unwilling to give positions to the disabled in most Central Civil Services, even after they qualify on a highly competitive national test.

The Banking sector is a large employer. But it deals with people’s hard-earned money and it is therefore critical that people using banks have a high degree of confidence in their working. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Banks have been reluctant to use persons with disabilities widely in their operations.

However, banking has undergone major changes in the last decade. Large banks like the SBI have modified their business processes to take maximum advantage of information technology. Bank branches today primarily provide an interface with customers while all processing and record-keeping happens in the background in large regional or centralized processing centres. In the light of these changes, SBI asked Enable India to study employment opportunities for persons with disabilities in the bank.

Enable India presented the results of their study at a recent seminar hosted by the Axis Bank Foundation at IIM Bangalore. The key finding was that there are 40+ roles / tasks that can be undertaken by persons with disabilities with the help of assistive technologies and, in some cases, minor changes in the business process. For example, SBI continues to maintain passbooks for its customers (driven by a need of customers for frequent and tangible evidence of their bank balances!). Some large branches have a separate counter where passbooks are brought up to date. This service can be performed by a person with visual disability if the bank account details are bar-coded on top of the passbook, and a bar-code reader is integrated with the workstation where the printing is being done.

What this project shows is that if there is some openness to re-defining tasks and business processes, a whole new world of opportunity can unfold for persons with disabilities. Technological innovation can take great strides, but social impact depends on integration with people and processes!

[The picture below shows Enable India founder Shanti Raghavan receiving the National Award for Empowering Persons with Disabilities.]