I had my first experiences with teaching while at Wipro. Before Landmark could go to the customer, our team created a 5-day workshop for our Support engineers across different locations in the country. The course was designed by the senior members of the Landmark team, and I was among the faculty. It was a Landmark in my life because I realised I enjoyed the experience – right through the five days. I realised the participants enjoyed it too – it was an enriching high engagement exercise, resulting in abundance of 5/5 ratings and lavish adulatory comments in the feedback form. Mr Anal Jain gave the concluding address and praised us for what we did.
There were two glitches, though. Right through the five days, there were two young ladies sitting in one corner, disinterested in the proceedings. Our attempt to connect with them failed. And at the end, they spoilt the ratings with 1/5 scores. We were upset with 1/5 even on relevance to their work. How can it be irrelevant, we thought.
Later we discovered they had just joined Wipro on the day the workshop began – their manager did not know what to do with them and sent them to our program, he’d probably get a week to figure out what work to assign to them. No wonder, they did not connect, and did not understand what was going on!
Lesson #1 for Teachers: We must teach the right stuff to the right audience. And those we teach must understand the relevance of what they learn, how it will help them in their lives.
This was in the late 1980s before Landmark was launched. Many years later, we launched Wipro University, in 1994. It was R&D’s milestone academic program, run for seven editions, contributing around 400 engineers to our small pool of R&D in the mid to late 1990s. When the program started, we were very happy with the interactions and we thought we were doing fine. It was only after the first serious “examination” that we understood where we stood – and it led to radical changes in the design of the program. From this we can gather several lessons:
Lesson #2: Examinations have a lot of attendant problems, but they are necessary – necessary for the teachers to evaluate how well they have taught.
Lesson #3: We need to create appropriate examinations based on our objective.
There was another interesting experiment I recall from the Wipro University days. After teaching a variety of operating systems and file systems, we wanted the young engineers to explore and debate the merits of those. We formed five groups of around ten students each who would discuss – and then present. The engineers who had maximum initiative in class (as measured by the number of questions they asked) were clubbed into one group, the next interactive ones in another group, and so on. The most silent were in the fifth group. Contrary to expectations among some facilitators, the most communicative ones did not perform well, they argued too much as a team; it was their first experience too. The most silent team did pretty well, much to our satisfaction.
Lesson #4: Teamwork and Communication are critical pillars in the learning journey. Teachers and parents must recognise this.
Once the first Wipro University program was over, it was difficult to place them in different groups. A large number of managers were suspicious of the quality. And many who were willing would like to choose based on their rank at the end of the program. Jani (the chief of Wipro R&D) intervened and announced he will decide randomly which student is placed where. We had grouped the participants in three groups: A, B, and C, based on performance, and Jani made a fair distribution. At the year-end appraisal, we did not find any obvious trend of C rated participants doing worse than A rated ones.
Lesson #5: While formal evaluation is necessary, we need to be humble about it. Our evaluation system (whether academic or job performance appraisals) are not perfect, and people change. Most of us are not always at our best, and have done poorly sometime or the other. We also perform well in some environment, with some tools, some challenges, while doing poorly with others. Better not to box anyone based on grade sheets or performance appraisals.
Lesson #6: It is not necessary that students from less branded colleges will perform poorer at work than those from better known brands.
Lesson #7: Performance at work is a result of many factors – the environment at work, peers, supervisor engagement, and not the least – the desire to perform and the willingness to learn.
I will end my experiences with my last strategy session in Wipro, in 1998. I was in HR at our Global R&D business then, and I had a large list of ideas I proposed to implement. The Friday evening before the conference week, Jani and panel wanted all presenters to demonstrate their content, and my presentation was a disaster. I was unambiguously told it was unacceptable, and I needed to re-do the whole thing.
I had reason to be worried. The conference begins in the middle of next week, and I had lots of other work to do before that. Still I was convinced my ideas were feasible, but my presentation was disorganized, so they seemed too complicated. I spent the weekend delving into my store of books at home – looked at charts and tables, onion rings and four quadrants. By Monday, I was confident I could prepare an acceptable content and for the first time in my life, I could prepare a ppt that had something beyond text. My final presentation at the conference was a hit, everyone loved it.
Don’t conclude that the 4-quadrant or other diagrams is mere packaging; expressing my concepts in diagrams helped me structure my thoughts, brought in clarity, and helped differentiate between the essential and the peripheral. What did not fit into the big picture was automatically avoided.
Lesson #8: Putting one’s ideas in diagrams and presenting to others so they can understand, is a good way to learn. It helps structure one’s thoughts and prioritise around purpose. We understand what is core and what is peripheral.
Before I conclude, I must jump to the present. I left the industry and went full time into education almost ten years back when I joined a University. It was a whole new experience. My first 18 months were a story of what did not work. I kept trying all that I had learnt in my life till then. I thought E Learning is the panacea, I could not progress with it. The system of rewards and penalties did not yield results. Tried competitions, then teams, peer learning, with incentives. No results.
I realised the principles of teaching and learning that I was accustomed to, are contextual. I had to reflect, explore, learn new tricks. When I left the industry I thought I have learnt enough, now I can teach. I realised learning never ends, till the last day.
All that is a different story. For another day.