How do you develop the skills in your workforce necessary to compete in dynamic, fast-moving sectors of the global economy? I just returned from India, where I joined colleagues from Africa in a series of site visits, learning events and presentations in the Indian IT hubs of Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore in seeking answers to this (and related) questions. More specifically, the trip provided a rich opportunity to learn more about the 'India success story' of the last 20 years in the areas of IT, IT-enabled services and business process outsourcing (BPO), gathering policy and practice lessons of potential relevance and application to Africa. In many countries, including many African countries, proposals for the widespread introduction of computers in schools is explicitly tied to goals to develop so-called 'knowledge workers' to work in nascent IT industries. How explicit is this link in reality?
During the two-week visit to India, we participated in the NASSCOM India Leadership Forum, which brought together senior IT executives from India and around the world for presentations and agenda setting; visited what is possibly the world's largest call centre; learned about the development of the Indian School of Business, recently ranked as one of the top 25 business school's in the world by the Financial Times despite being on a decade old; toured Hi-Tec City, which launched the transformation of Hyderabad in 'Cyberabad'; explored the sprawling campus of Infosys in Bangalore (where the phrase 'the world is flat' was coined); was briefed on cutting-edge applications of ICTs in rural India by teams at Microsoft Research in Bangalore; and visited world-class institutions of higher education like the Indian Institute of Science (IISc, in Bangalore) and the new International Institute of Information Technology (IIIT-Hyderbad).
One key point made repeatedly throughout the trip, by private companies, government officials and education institutions alike, was that ICT skills and employability are key drivers of this industry’s growth, but it is the simultaneous development and cultivation of the 'soft skills' that are the key differentiators for success. India has no shortage of technical people competent in ICT-related disciplines. What is more difficult to teach -- and identify -- are the 'soft' communication, management, cultural adaptation and sensitivity skills that don't necessarily have anything to do with ICTs. If this is indeed the case -- and it is not only Indian IT firms that are making this point -- a narrow focus on the large scale introduction of computers in many developers countries to teach basic (mechanical) ICT skills will only get you so far. What we are talking about here, of course, are the so-called '21st century skills' that education policymakers love to expound on. Watching workers stream into work at one of the the world's biggest call centres outside Mumbai, counting 42 buildings under construction from the roof of my hotel in Hyderabad to house IT professionals serving the outsourced needs of companies around the world ... these are much more persuasive testaments to the importance of the development of such skills than any policy document can be.
Note: The image used at the top of this blog post comes from Azgar Khan via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license.