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Multi-Disciplinary Education for Future Indian Business Leaders in an Increasingly Integrated World

Updated on September 19, 2013

My Personal Learning Experience

A Personal Experience: 1989 – I was detailed by the Indian Air Force (IAF) to undergo a staff course at Montgomery, Alabama. This course was for middle level officers of the defence forces of the US, and officers from 55 friendly countries (including India) from across the globe. The IAF had invested a lot in me until then, in terms of military training focused towards the goal of national security, as applicable to the IAF of the time. The training in the IAF was purely military oriented. The US course started with the famous Clausewitz’an saying that, “War is merely the continuation of policy by other means”, and thereafter we continued to delve on subjects that, I felt at that time (but later understood), had very little to do with military. These subjects were history, geography, politics, economics, culture, treaties, ethics, interoperability, etc. We were exposed to the salient points of each continent, and important countries in each of them. These were disciplines that were far removed from my core business of war fighting, and I was totally at a loss to understand as to why I was being subjected to these. I was a military officer of a nation state that had its interests limited to its own geographical boundaries, and the role of the military, broadly speaking, was thus limited to maintaining the territorial integrity of the country; and we were very well trained for this task. Although all of us (about 550 officers) wore military uniform during the course, the core business of the military (war fighting) was very rarely spoken off during the first few months of the course. We were directed to analyse every national security issue from a political, economic, technological and military perspective. The military alternative also ideally starting with show of force and going through the full spectrum of options before finally leading up to full-fledged war. War is considered to be the last resort of the nation state.

Personal Revelations: However, in the latter part of the course, we were exposed to the military aspects of national security. Through the duration of the course of about 8 months, the reality of the USA being a global super power hit home to me. I began to realise that when the interests of a nation expand beyond national boundaries, not only is one is required to be proficient in one’s core business; one is also required to have a global view of issues that would affect one’s core business. I must confess that it took me a while to understand the world of a super power, having global interests. During this course, I had learnt a lot more about national security issues than pure military tactics and strategy, not only due to the very well designed course curriculum, but also because of the fact that I had the opportunity of interacting with diplomats, professors, and politicians; over 500 US officers and 80 international officers from all across the globe belonging to 55 different nationalities. More importantly, all this happened in a relaxed, interactive, learning, academic environment.” What was this learning that I was talking about?

Personal Learning: I had learnt that all of us were military officers who were tasked with the same function by our respective countries, but each one of us viewed national security from a different perspective, based on our unique situation. Also, that we humans have a lot in common, and yet we are different in many ways. We have different belief systems and values. We have many misunderstandings about each other because of flawed interpretations of behaviours. Our behaviours are a product of our attitudes and beliefs. I had learnt that people’s attitudes and beliefs are a product of their ‘geography and history’, in that their behaviours were based on where they were born, where they had travelled to in their lives and also what they had read, heard, seen, felt, experienced in their lives from their surroundings and also from the people around them – their friends, teachers, relatives, and the society in which they grew up. I had learnt that each place on earth has its own unique history and geography that gets further accentuated by the political system in the country.

As an example, India and Pakistan had a common history and geography until 1947, but a change of the political boundaries in 1947 has had such a profound impact on the people of both countries – they still look, speak, eat the same stuff, but their behaviours are visibly different. I had also learnt that we had different concerns when we looked at issues that were primarily local, regional, national, and global. However, our concerns were similar when we looked at the big picture of living on the same planet because we understand that everything that affects it, is going to affect all of us. This learning brought home the fact that the only ways of focusing on the issues that actually affect the human race are through dialogue and getting to know one another better. The focus of this course was national security, and was also, I believe, my first experience with something that is now being termed as global learning. Does this example have any co-relation with business today?

Dell - A Global Business

Inside a Dell Computer
Inside a Dell Computer | Source

Business and Society

Business, Customer, Society, and Development: To find out, let’s start with the purpose of a business. As per Peter Drucker, the sole purpose of a business is “to create a customer” - a person who will pay for the “goods and services” created/ provided by the business. The business and the customer are both part of a larger ecosystem, the society. Wealth producing resources are available with the society and it is the society that entrusts these wealth-producing resources to the business enterprise so that the business will create and supply the goods and services to the customer, as per the customer’s demand. Thus a business is not an independent identity, but part of a larger ecosystem. As countries develop, businesses want access to more & cheaper resources; want access to markets; and wish to remain competitive. To achieve this, businesses try to expand this ecosystem beyond national boundaries. While doing this, they would need to integrate with, and adapt to the new realities of geography, political systems, history, culture, issues, ideology, wealth, religion, etc. of this larger ecosystem, so as to survive and prosper. To get some clarity on what integration looks like, let’s look at an integrated, globally successful business where sourcing/ selling is done from/ to various countries around the world – Dell computers.

Dell Computers: Integration of Dell is best described by Thomas Friedman in his book ‘The world is flat’ (p 416). The book describes the supply of parts for a Dell notebook computer as follows – “Dell uses multiple suppliers for most of the thirty key components that go into its notebooks. That way if one supplier breaks down or cannot meet a surge in demand, Dell is not left in the lurch. The Intel microprocessor came from an Intel factory either in the Philippines, Costa Rica, Malaysia, or China. The memory came from a Korean-owned factory in Korea (Samsung), a Taiwanese-owned factory in Taiwan (Nanya), a German-owned factory in Germany (Infineon), or a Japanese-owned factory in Japan (Elpida). My graphics card was shipped from either a Taiwanese-owned factory in China (MSI) or a Chinese-run factory in China (Foxconn). The cooling fan came from a Taiwanese-owned factory in Taiwan (CCI or Auras)”, and so on….. for other key components like motherboard, keyboard, LCD display, wireless card, modem, battery, hard disk drive, CD/ DVD, carrying bag, power adapter, power cord, and memory stick. Thomas Friedman goes on to say that, “This supply chain symphony – from my order over the phone to production to delivery to my house – is one of the wonders of the flat world”. The book talks about ‘collaboration’, ‘personally knowing the CEOs of these companies’, ‘constantly working with the component suppliers on process improvements’, ‘real time demand/ supply balancing’ and “demand shaping” by the customer care executives of Dell computers who are taking fresh orders from customers. This implies that global businesses have to internalise the fact of global interdependence, collaboration, communications, trust, demand/ supply, understanding, flexibility, cohesiveness and diversity.

Success of a Global Business: Dell is a truly global business and its success is dependent on just-in-time supplies from across the globe. Any disruption in supplies from any of these suppliers would be detrimental for the business. Any sort of economic/ social/ political/ cultural unrest in any of these countries could disrupt the supplies. It is imperative that sourcing, and that too multiple sourcing, is done from countries with stable political/ economic/ social/ cultural/ ecological systems, and even these would need to be monitored closely in today’s rapidly changing world. In addition, businesses have to ensure that they act responsibly; ensure social justice and focus on sustainable development, as exploitation of the individual, or the natural resources (of the society that is providing the resources to the business for productive purposes) could lead to backlash, which is not in the best interests of a global business. (Bhopal gas tragedy is an example of a business that acted irresponsibly. The ‘red corridor’ in India is an example of backlash against societal resources of the people being taken away from them, without adequate and effective involvement of the affected people).

McDonald's in India

McDonald's Menu in India
McDonald's Menu in India | Source

India - Present Reality and Challenges

McDonald’s: Dell is a business that sources/ sells a similar product across countries. Let’s look at another successful global business, McDonald’s, which sources most of its supplies locally, and is successful because it has adapted its core business to meet the local realities. McDonald’s caters to local tastes, culinary traditions, and religious beliefs and offers regionalised versions of its original menu, in different countries. As a result, products found in one country or region may not be found in McDonald's restaurants in other countries. McDonald's restaurants do not serve beef and pork products in India, in deference to the beliefs of the local population. The only animal products available are chicken and fish. They also serve vegetarian, and to cater to the Indian sensitivities, meat and vegetarian meals are prepared in separate areas of the restaurant; cooks preparing vegetarian dishes wear a distinctive green apron. Would McDonald’s be successful in India if it did not cater to the sensibilities of the Indian customer? Did McDonald’s learning involve just how to run a core business of a fast food restaurant, in the burger and sandwich segment? The answer is a definite ‘No’.

Present Indian Reality: Any business to be successful globally, like Dell and McDonald’s, would thus need to understand and address issues that are local, regional, international as well as intercultural. With the opening up of the Indian economy, Indian corporations are fast becoming the new Multinational Companies operating in India and abroad. This has been highlighted in an article by Adi Godrej, President, CII and Chairman, Godrej Group in the Chandigarh edition of The Indian Express dated 12 Feb 13. It states that, “from less than a billion dollars of Outward Foreign Direct Investment (OFDI) in 2000-01, Indian corporations invested as much as $18.5 billion at the peak in 2008 – 09. The cumulative overseas footprint of Indian companies from 2000-01 to 2011-12 was well over $100 billion.” Godrej goes on to list the advantages of Indian businesses investing abroad when he states that, “OFDI provides us with proximity to global markets, access to resources, technology and managerial expertise, and opportunities for research and development.” The same newspaper talks of “A Global Career in Retail, Fashion and Management” in a large front page advertisement. These are signs of an India that is developing, and integrating its business interests with the rest of the world after slowly but surely shedding its isolationist and protectionist policies of the past.

Challenges Ahead: This welcome trend, and opportunity, is likely to be accelerated as the Indian business world gets more integrated in to the global economy. However, this opportunity also brings with it challenges that need to be met. One of these challenges is preparing the business leaders for responding to the processes of globalisation, in terms of global perspectives, knowledge, skills, awareness, and values. The globe is today inhabited by humans who have formed themselves politically as citizens of nation states, which are governed in many different ways – from dictatorships to democracies, and variations in between. Each of these states is at a different level of development – from the developing to the developed; some countries have constitutions that profess single faith, to others that are secular. Every region of the world is culturally different. There are significant differences as we go around the globe. However, there are also certain realities that do not respect these manmade political boundaries. These realities are a reminder that we inhabit a common planet and anything that happens in one part of the earth has its impact on the other parts as well. The most spoken of reality these days is global warming and the environment. Another is health and disease issues that transcend national boundaries due to the large movement of people and goods across nations – remember SARs, Swine Flu, etc. Other human issues like freedom, poverty, employment, immigration, terrorism, human rights, security, coping with natural disasters and peace can, and do, affect nation states.

Preparing for the Future

All the above issues affect humans, whether customers or employees, and would thus affect any business. Thus for a business to be successful globally, business leaders would need to deal with these issues, which are multi disciplinary in nature. The present system of education was designed for the ‘industrial’ economy, before the advent of effective globalisation due to what Alvin and Heidi Toffler call the “third wave”, or the information wave. The ready availability of information to every individual, and business, irrespective of the country in which one resides has given a great push towards global business interests, by flattening the world. To become successful global businesses, we need to understand local, regional, national and international issues, beyond the core business specialisation that our education system presently caters to. There is thus a need to have a relook at our education system. The present education system focuses on specialisation in a single stream; the sciences, humanities or the arts streams, whereas the need of a global business is education that must also have elements of multiple disciplines. Global businesses have to understand customers (humans), who are living all across the globe in a world that is diverse in many ways; is extremely complex; and yet inter connected. This is a challenge indeed and only those businesses would succeed globally that understand these facts, and develop a flexible, tolerant and cohesive worldview.

For this to happen the people manning these global businesses have to develop a global perspective through a multi disciplinary education, which should include the study of world cultures. This education must also make the students aware of global issues, systems and trends and help them to become knowledgeable and competent to engage with issues that are local, regional, global or intercultural. Exchange programmes between educational institutions of different countries should be the norm and interactive and experiential learning should be encouraged. In addition to this, educational trips to different countries can give one an insight in to different ways of doing things along with the ‘why’ and ‘how’. Educational trips that have been well planned are a great help in bringing about awareness of different cultures.

My Final Thoughts

Finally, whether it is national security or business, it is all about humans; and the vital need to understand them if we wish to be successful. It needs to be re-emphasised here that as ‘interests’ grow, there is a greater need to learn and understand more than one’s core business to be successful, and this is even more so when the ‘interests’ expand in to the global realm.


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