Monday, August 16, 2010

Read More, Make More

I’m betting heavily on the value of information. From everything I know in theory and intuitively, without timely access to information, not much can get done, and certainly very little can get done well. This is true for societal progress in general and for organizations. Without information there would be a lot of resources wasted reinventing the wheel and we would lose the benefit of access to the collective ideas around us. Still, this value seems sort of intangible. How do you put a number on it? Some folks in Boston from MIT and BU have tried to do just that.

In a study titled Productivity Effects of Information Diffusion in Networks Sinan Aral, , Erik Brynjolfsson and Marshall W. Van Alstyne asked the question:

Does better access to information predict an individual's ability to complete projects or generate revenue?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Culture and Progress

In the five years I’ve now spent working in rural Tamil Nadu, I have been frequently surprised by the level of creativity that surfaces at various events that we hold. On the other hand real progress and innovation is hard to come by. Somehow village societies don’t make the leap. My father believed that this was a consequence of attitude – the attitude of waiting around for someone from somewhere to come and do it for them, ‘it’ being everything really. He blamed it on the government programs of handing out free stuff.

As a child my father spent all his holidays in the village, shuttling between Poolankurichi, Nerkuppai and Thekkur by bullock cart. He was also the first of his family to travel to the United States for graduate study. He was fascinated with the story of the pilgrims and how they built their lives from scratch into the America that he went to. In the last ten years of his life when he took on his work in microfinance, a big part of his goal was to change mindset. Several times I accompanied him to villages where he would tell the villagers about the pilgrims and how they got together and took responsibility for their own progress. In 2002 he started a project he called ‘Village Mission’, the idea being to galvanise villages to take responsibility for their own progress by providing seed capital for services (a small clinic, vocational training, school facilities for instance) that the village would get together to build and manage.

I inherited these projects shortly after his illness in 2003. I spent hours in the two villages where the pilot was in progress talking with the village head and various key people. Yet they always fell back on the refrain of ‘Why don’t you do it for us (build it, run it, provide it all for free). Our people will worship you as a God.’ Stupidly we even gave in to some of their requests and built them some buildings (for free) but never got them to take ownership. As hard as we tried, we couldn’t get them excited about taking any stake in it – in running it or taking any responsibility for it, even though they all agreed that all of these were very necessary and useful for the village and had come up with their wish list themselves. Finally we quit. I’ve thought a lot since why we failed so miserably. I'm not convinced it has to do entirely with the government. Are they really just waiting around?

Recently I was sitting with my kids as they watched TV and it struck me that the ethos reflected in the shows is probably at the root of the difference between the American pilgrims and these village folk. Embedded in so many American kids’ shows is a theme (or even meme) of ‘Get up, get to it. You can do it.’ Take Bob the Builder, for example. It’s classic Americana. ‘Can we build it? Yes we can! Can we fix it? Yes we can!.’ Its theme is so much a part of American culture that even Obama used it for his election campaign.

Contrast that to our Amar Chitra Katha comics, now all made into animated TV cartoons. They run the frequent theme ‘For your sacrifice and penance Lord XYZ will appear before you and grant you a boon.’ This is not just TV but deeply ingrained in the psyche.

At the extremes our village folk take vows of hardship and expend tremendous energy in the desperate hope that their wish will be granted, going so far as to roll in the hot sun for hours or put hooks in their backs and drag stuff around . In a more general context, I realize that the village folk are not lazy and just waiting around. Rather I’m betting that I might have had better luck getting the village to take on some immense physical hardship as a method for bringing progress to the village rather than trying to get them to get to it and build it themselves.

Our villages need Bob the Builder! (Happy to see its now on TV here in Hindi!)