Friday, May 25, 2012

Re-envisioning the industry

Invigilations are spots of empty time when we are forced to occupy ourselves with thoughts and ideas that do not originate from any medium other than our own cerebral wetware. In these long stretches, we occasionally get epiphanies that look like bad ideas and are, in fact, likely to be Very Bad Ideas.

My VBI for today goes like this: the industry has got it all wrong. Everything along the production line has been misidentified and mis-prioritized. As a result, the economy is about to balk at the kind of crappy product we are churning out -- if it hasn't already rebelled on us.

First, we have to accept that the school is a manufacturing plant. We take in raw material which we process and deliver in a useful form to the customer. Where we totally screwed up is in misidentifying the customer. Our current philosophy is to view the student or even the student's parents as the customer and we tailor everything we do to make the customer happy. While that makes good business sense, we have completely forgotten who our real customer is.

Whomever this mysterious customer is, it isn't the student or his parents. So let's start by relabeling all the process elements properly. Parents are vendors who provide us our raw materials. The students are the raw materials that we turn into our product. We deliver this product to... the workforce, i.e., employers who demand competent workers who are trained and skilled in meeting the needs of a challenging work environment; and who can contribute to the growth and development of their companies.

Now the process chain makes sense. We were beating ourselves to death trying to get every kid who passed through our hands into the university because that was what we thought the customer wanted. Of course parents would want their kids to get tertiary education, but they are NOT the customer. Neither are the kids. Raw material is definitely NOT the customer.

As with all other industries, our processes grade and classify raw materials by their quality and put them to work where they are best suited, and priced for retail accordingly. It is our responsibility to minimize waste, but in the end, quality sorts itself out. Our other problem is our criteria for quality. Mistakenly, we assess quality by academic performance. The assumption that the lower the L1R5, the higher the quality is as faulty as it gets. Academic performance only tells a fraction of the tale.

Our real customer, the employer, knows this and clearly does not want workers who only know how to pass their final exams and pretty much nothing else. After all, there is no equivalent of a final exam in the workplace, so equipping the kids with nothing but exam skills is a complete mismatch with what our customer wants: smarts AND character.

Our job is to deliver the best possible product that the customer demands. They demand a product that is not tested at the end of the year, but every day of its sad and miserable life. The kind of test is not a pen-and-paper exercise that proves how well the product can memorize a limited number of facts but the kind that puts it through a daily hell to see how well it can stand up to incredible pressure; intractable deadlines; tedious, boring, routine and often pointless work; work that has to be done, revised and redone with no end in sight; irrational, occasionally garbled instructions from somewhere up the food chain; all the sorts of things one can reasonably expect from a office job -- and can still drag itself looking presentable and sufficiently enthusiastic back to work every day for more of the same. Now, THAT is character development in practice -- no need for extra lessons that are just going to be artificial, theoretical and more for show than anything else.

JC students already have an 'O' Level qualification so they are qualified to work and support families of their own, although they might have to live more frugally than others. So there should be no problem in letting those kids who are so bored with attending classes (and are causing disruptions for their fellow students) quit and look for a job instead. Since they have already been educated beyond their right as a human being to expect we shouldn't feel so bad about seeing them go.

To be educated at tertiary level, one has to deserve the place, not just by dint of one's previous academic success alone but by making a daily choice to conform to the rules of the institution and to do the work prescribed in the most diligent manner possible. The workplace in one's future demands no less. Sometimes, we forget this and take it personally when some kids are hard to discipline. All they want is to be free. Let's do everybody a favour and unshackle them from their misery. Of course, we do our best to minimize such a waste of raw materials, but that, like allowing some others to fail is part of a QC process that works.

Some of the problems we've been having in our industry lately will never be experienced in any other industry because the roles and places of things are much clearer for the latter. The vendor does not question the industry about how his raw material is put to use. Neither does the raw material question the processes it has to undergo. The clay does not tell the potter that it would rather be a plate; the iron ore does not complain about the temperature of the smelter nor the force of the hammering as it is being made into a farm tool. The reason why our industry is such an anomaly is because we put the power of demand in the wrong hands.

The real customer is behaving like any other retail customer would. If it can't get the product it wants locally, it will outsource or import suitable substitutes from other markets. It's time the industry remembers and acknowledges the legitimate customer once again. Although our intentions were good, our processes delivered a product that passed the QC (for academics) but largely failed to meet the customers' needs in the end. Please give us another chance. We'll do better this time!

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