Sucheta Dalal :Competence should come before core competency
Sucheta Dalal

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Competence should come before core competency  

October 3, 2000

Last week, an editorial in a leading national newspaper carried the usual post-Olympics lament about India's abysmal performance. Like the leap year and the games themselves, such editorials make their appearance every four years. It is quite usual for them to demand that India should stay away from international competition, but this one had an amusing twist. It said something to the effect that we should stay away from sports and concentrate instead on our core competencies like Information Technology -- a business where Indians are equal to any in the world.

The last part may be true. Qualified Indians are on par with the best in the world in Information Technology (IT), but we have a long way to go before claiming core competence within the country. There are pockets of excellence; and there is a small set of companies which are bringing in top dollars by competing for international software contracts. But they still do not make for a claim of core competence.

Claiming core competence in Information Technology is almost like our belief that playing superlative hockey is in our genes. Nearly two decades of medal drought did not stop us from pinning disproportionate hopes on the performance of our hockey team. We took a sensible look at our infrastructure and astro-turn grounds only after we had lost.

It is the same with IT. There cannot be an IT industry without electricity, and except for Mumbai, large parts of the country including the capital city of Delhi is reeling under severe power shortages. Even Bangalore and Hyderabad, which stake claim for the title of India's IT capital, make do with captive generation units. Computer literacy continues to be poor and the formal educational system cannot even afford the hardware. More importantly, the business of government, the judiciary and the enforcement agencies -- all of which have maximum impact on our lives, remain almost untouched by IT.

Let us not get carried away about our IT geniuses either. It is true that Indian IITs are considered among the best suppliers of IT-manpower to the world, but that is because Indian engineers had the freedom to prove themselves in the open economy of the US, which values ability, efficiency, drive and entrepreneurship. Our success stories are all US citizens. These billionaires may have strong emotional attachments to their home country, but they love their adopted country, owe their success to it, and definitely plan to stay put there.

Vinod Gupta of American Business Information is an example. Long before Rajat Gupta (chief of McKinsey & Co.) and others planned to set up an international business school in India along with the Kellog and Wharton, Vinod had donated $ one million to set up the Vinod Gupta School of Management at his alma mater, IIT Kharagpur. He invested the money because he wanted Indian IITs to catch up with international trends.

More recently, he donated $ two million to set up a polytechnic for women at his hometown at Saharanpur in the backwaters of UP. A couple of years ago, I had asked Vinod Gupta how he reconciled his obvious attachment to his home country with his US citizenship and his success abroad. At that time he had then been offered the position of US ambassador to Bermuda and after much deliberation rejected the offer, because it meant severing executive responsibility of his company. "I love America," said Gupta emphatically. "It is an amazing country which recognises only merit and ability. It has made me what I am today. But India is the land of my birth and my forefathers and I love it too."

Gupta's reaction will probably be echoed by every successful Indian in the USA, whether they are Silicon Valley billionaires, hugely successful doctors, investment bankers or the Patels who dominate the Motel and corner-store businesses. Vinod Dham, Vinod Khosla, Shabeer Bhatia, Arun Netravalli and Gururaj Deshpande -- all owe their successes in different segments of the IT business to the work environment of their adopted country.

Here are some more statistics: 38 per cent of doctors in America are Indians, so are 12 per cent of its scientists, 36 per cent of NASA employees, 34 per cent of those at Microsoft, 28 per cent in IBM and 13 per cent in Xerox. So much so that Indian food too is making an entry into US office cafeterias and Hindi movies are bringing in the crowds at some US cities. They prove the point that Indians abroad are doing well, not only in IT but in an entire range of disciplines. They are also winning spelling competitions and math quizzes.

On the other hand, Indian newspapers carry statistics about the number of scientists who have committed suicide at our key research organisations -- one recently tried to kill himself in court. India's own IT boom is fuelled largely by the money that Indian-Americans are willing to bet on our entrepreneurs through venture funding. It also owes a lot to the fact that rapid technological changes have so far prevented our bureaucrats of smothering the business with unnecessary redtape. Otherwise we would have continued to remain a sourcing point for the world to pick up highly-skilled engineers for their IT business.

Claiming core competency in IT is just as silly as blaming Indian sports persons alone for their poor showing at the Olympics. Indians would do as well in other disciplines as they have IT, so long as there is an accountable government which provides a conducive business environment. Whenever success is independent of government, Indians have done exceedingly well -- unfortunately this is usually abroad. Here, our government has such a stranglehold on us that we find it difficult to develop even basic competence, forget about core competence.

-- Sucheta Dalal