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Friday, October 22, 2021

From the discomfort Zone: Challenge paralysed by society

Innovation is a big word and we use it all the time in India.

Written by Shombit Sengupta |
Updated: January 4, 2015 12:00:52 am

Our Prime Minister’s call to focus on zero defect manufacturing quality is certainly the correct direction for India’s future.

Referring to the IT sector as showing innovation and research prowess 25 years ago, he bemoaned that India is yet to create something pathbreaking like Google, while talent has left the country. Undoubtedly IT/ITES grew to $86 billion annual exports, but how much adaptable innovation has happened in this business size is debatable. Research investment has been minuscule.

Innovation is a big word and we use it all the time in India, but without capability to produce digital technology basics like hard discs. Thailand is dominating this market. The Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese are incredible adaptable innovators in multiple domains, not fundamental inventors.

I’m sure our government is facilitating technical paperwork to ease business nowadays. The real problem is elsewhere though. It’s capability building that requires extreme behavioural change to match global standards and an entrepreneurial bent of mind.

For manufacturing to acquire an edge, we need engineers dedicated to hardcore engineering and a well-trained workforce. But look at the cream of our engineers jumping to MBA, finance, marketing or HR without even trying R&D or manufacturing in India. I asked some brilliant 24-year-old IIT-plus-MBA working people, why don’t we hear of 18-year-old Indians having an innovative or entrepreneurial bent of mind?

Several angles emerged in answering this question. Parents in India, they said, want the son to score high marks, get a high-salaried job; the vision for the daughter is a wealthy husband and reputable family. Making it to IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) is really tough, they explained. During their last two years in school, they enrolled for special and expensive coaching classes to learn engineering fundamentals to prepare for IIT entrance exams.

Children continuously feel pressure from parents when choosing the education stream in high school. You need high marks to take science. So by default, arts or commerce students are considered less intelligent. Even when good in science, these young professionals said avoiding coaching class was unthinkable because the basics are not emphasised on in school.

Why go for competitive IIT, when so many engineering colleges exist? “The job market recognises IIT as top of the pile”. Having become an IIT engineer, why go for MBA? They answered, enterprises value MBA graduates over engineers.

Engineers wanting to pursue an engineering profession find Indian research institutes, R&D labs or corporate engineering positions do not offer the right scope of scientific or engineering work, the pay scale is dismal, nor do such jobs enjoy mainstream status. For higher education, IIT graduates try going abroad as MTech or doctoral studies, even in IITs, do not match the high standard of Western universities. But an IIT-plus-MBA, especially IIT-plus-IIM (Indian Institute of Management) is every parent’s dream come true.

This upwardly-mobile education gets the best job offers, highest societal recognition, uppermost starting salary — all without having any work experience. “There’s further hierarchy: IIT-IIM with finance specialisation tops all! Such a student was even offered Rs 1 crore annually”. What’s the real difference between IIM and IIT-IIM? “The IIT-IIM definitely has better analytical ability and structured discipline at the start, but after sometime, there’s no difference”.

It’s disgraceful how we misuse pure engineering professionals. Empowering engineers is certainly a prerogative to fructify India’s ambition to become a global manufacturing hub.

Crunching marks to family pressure somewhat explains how societal systems paralyse self expression, denying our young generation the scope of an inventive bent or entrepreneurial mindset. Here’s where the Prime Minister should start his real brainwashing. When children are dependent and protected like treasures by rich parents, their inventive or entrepreneurial inclination goes out the window.

When parents don’t have money, children become street urchins. On the other hand, I’ve professionally experienced that less educated people in the practical field like plumbers, electricians, auto or electronic mechanics, now the mobile phone repairers, have a huge bent for entrepreneurship. Such working class individuals are vast in number, but are not valued in society. Here again the Prime Minister needs to strongly support their intellectual development. They can translate their working knowledge into adaptable innovation, but they need the right skill guidance, not through pedagogy but with practical training.

I’m very encouraged by one of my friends’ start-up. The last 12 years I’ve known Vibhu Hajela, he’d often ask about entrepreneurship as I’ve written about it several times. This 52-year-old mechanical engineer with an MBA with 27 years of rich work experience, earning half a crore of rupees annually suddenly called last year to say he’s left his job to start a plastic injection moulding factory. He knows he has to generate working capital to continue, and will miss the luxury of a good salary at month’s end. I must add that Vibhu’s wife was extremely supportive of his entrepreneurial drive.

There are several young school/college dropouts like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates among others, who invented in a garage or cellar, then successfully marketed their inventions. Thomas Alva Edison left school when seven years old because his teacher said he was confused. His mother educated him at home, encouraging him to follow his scientific bent of mind. Edison spent all his pocket money buying chemicals for experiments.

He invented the microphone, telephone receiver, stock-ticker, phonograph, movies, office copiers, and owns 1093 patents. When Edison died in 1931, his assistant, Russian-born, Paris-trained chemist Martin Rosanoff said, “Had Edison been formally schooled, he might not have had the audacity to create such impossible things.”

Shombit Sengupta is a global consultant on unique customer centricity strategy to execution excellence for top management.

Reach him at

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