Saturday, 28 November 2009

Letting CAT2009 out of the bag (and 40 Million USD in outsourcing)

I have some serious problems with the way IIM has been restructuring entrance tests. The fiasco on the first day of the computerized CAT 2009 (Common Admission Test) proves that there is some substance in these fears.
  • 40 Million Dollar outsourcing contract to Prometric
    40 million dollars is not small change for IIM or Prometric. It’s well above 160 Crore Rupees.  The contract includes creating the tests and every other step in the testing process. The value of the deal was a surprise to me. [Promteric is an American company who's presence in India has been limited to certification for professionals wanting to work in the US and in delivering the GMAT and similar examinations to Indian students wanting to study in America.]
  • The Model
    Based on my understanding, Prometric has testing centres which are operated by agents/franchisees.Example of list of centres (look for the word "franchisee").

    The model will call upon franchisees to run testing centres. Unless the checks and balances are very tight, cheating may become possible. Run a google search for GMAT and cheating and you will see that there are weak links in the chain.
  • Computerization creates an uneven playing field
    A vast majority of Indians did not have the privileged upbringing that I did. A computer is still a distant luxury. One class of students may have an unfair advantage in terms of familiarity and access to technology. This in-turn helps them in preparation. To use an analogy from sports, many Indian sportsmen are unable to compete at an international level because of a lack of basic training infrastructure. Are we handicapping a group of students in this rat race by moving to a computerized model. Is there a cultural bias here?

  • Right to Information
    The contract between Prometric and the IIMs is not in the Public Domain. Considering that IIMs are a Government supported institution this is odd. A recent RTI application to IIM-A by an RTI enthusiast was shot down. I can imagine that there could be a few confidential clauses like the location of “test engines” but these could be blacked out. Transparency is obviously not something that the IIM’s are keen on. The RTI application is now with the CIC.
  • An NDA with candidates
    There are noises on the web that candidates appearing for the test are signing an NDA. What this NDA says is that the students cannot discuss questions and question patterns with anyone. This throws water on the concept of collective learning and learning through other peoples experiences. Of greater concern is the fact that, despite having a contract valued at 40 Million USD, IIM is not able to get Pro-metric to develop a question bank large enough to avoid a need for a NDA. To put it crudely, what they are saying is, we have a limited number of questions..... so please do not tell anybody else what we asked you. Why pay them so much then?

  • Outsourcing a key competency?
    You don't have to be an IIM-grad to know that key competencies should not be outsourced. IIM has done well because it has been able to select bright candidates. It has paid a lot of attention to the quality of questions and patterns of questions in the paper. I can understand outsourcing the exercise of conducting the exam, but why outsource the task of building the test database? That should be done in-house even if it requires investment. (Note: I have never been a fan of the CAT model - I am an "essay" type and not "multiple choice").

  • Cultural Bias?
    GMAT has had a cultural bias. However, that is fair, since it is meant for Admission to American Schools and the majority of the test takers are American. No complaints there. However, I wonder if they will be able to ensure that they avoid this cultural bias when they are producing questions for Indian students. For example many Indian students who appear for CAT would have studied in a vernacular medium and the vocabulary used in the questions has to take this into account. I hope Prometric and IIM have factored this bias into their contract.

  • Incomplete Model?
    Since CAT results act as cut-off for the interviews, the Model is incomplete. Prometric's American clients, for example, call for exhaustive essays from candidates. These essays are used in conjunction with test scores to judge whether or not a candidate is suitable for admission. In the IIM scenario, there is too much emphasis on the CAT scores and too little emphasis on other aspects that are unlikely to come out in a group discussion or a quick fire personal interview. 
In a nutshell, a) I think IIM has to be far more transparent about it's relationship with vendors for CAT excercise b) I am not convinced that the tests and computerized model is unbiased to under-privileged applicants c) The admission process needs to include more qualitative checks.
    Disclosure -

    Sour Grapes? I admit I have never been a fan of IIMs. In 2003-4 I attended an interview for IIM-Indore and the questions were right out of a "dummies guide to intervieweing". I attended the interview and the exam at the insistence of family. In 2007 a colleague at an MNC that I worked for said that I was suffering from a "sour grapes" complex when it came to the IIMs. So I went ahead and registered with IIM-A for an MDP. At the end of the programme, my opinion had not changed one bit. They are good but nowhere near great.

    Thursday, 26 November 2009

    A Reminder of 26/11 – Sponsored by the media

    Update: Based on comments and messages recieved
    I am not wearing a badge, armband or ribbon to commemorate 26/11. I don't believe I need to. My way of commemorating the civilian victims is to condemn the people who want to commoditise the memory of 26/11. I condemn every other act of terrorism and war. This piece is based on the opinion that a) I don't need to wear anything on my sleeve to prove that I care b) I believe (contrary to Vir Sanghvi in this post) that media will not learn its lessons c) We cannot chose to calibrate our rage based on the social status of the victims (terrorism is terrorism irrespective who the victim is or isn't)

    The best way to forget the significance and meaning of 26/11 is to follow the directions of the media and their corporate sponsors. Here are some of the instructions.

    • We should switch to a specific cellular provider and talk non-stop for an hour on their network so that they can donate the proceeds. Pardon the predictable cliché but “What an Idea!”. @#$%?
    • Idea's Mascot is also advertising for a two-minutes of silence on the same channel that is airing the Idea commercial. (Mr Bachan Jr - Do you want me to talk or shut-up. Make up your mind please)
    • We must buy exclusive designer accessories that commemorate 26/11.
    • We must listen to what the Cuffe Parade brigade has to say about 26/11 because they represent all Indians.
    • We must recognize that 26/11 was different. And it was not different because of what the terrorists did but because of who the victims were.
    • We must put on our joggers and run in memory of the victims…lest we forget.
    • We must beat our chests and demand that we drop bombs on our neighbors so that we can start an endless war and put somebody else’s children at risk.
    • We should not talk about Commando Gajendra Singh who was compromised by live coverage. Let’s focus and aggravate the wounds of the weeping widows who can give nice sound bytes.
    • I must believe that constables armed with automatic weapons is a solution because a Shobha De or a Suhail Seth says so. We must follow the Isreali example!??! (#arnabforpm like statements)
    • I must not analyze how a bunch of people whom Regan called freedom-fighters were armed, trained and then allowed to hold the world to ransom. (From Robert Fisk)
    • If I see a bunch of Muslims condemning the attacks, I must say “See, THEY TOO are angry”. That way we can all claim that we are secular. If you do not use nationalist jingoism and meaningless rhetoric, you are, as Simi Grewal would say “one of them”. (Why does a community have to feel compelled to make a public display of condemnation ?#$%)

    Unfortunately the media can-not make me forget that-
    • The fourth estate in India was born out of a freedom movement and not out of an effort to generate profit by trading information. (Inspired by P Sainath)
    • I, like every other peace loving citizen in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and every other country in the world felt that 26/11 was a barbaric act. No matter what anyone says we will not forget such disasters. We do not need a sponsored reminder.
    • We do not need a "sponsored", "packaged", "commoditised" reminder of 26/11.  The collective memory of this nation is strong enough. Please do not profiteer from this tragedy.

    Saturday, 14 November 2009

    An Open Letter to Prannoy Roy (another rant on the Media)

    Dear Mr Roy

    At the outset I must place on record that you and Appan Menon have done more for the media than most others. Appan Menon was my favourite journalist and he had the potential of becoming one of the greatest journalists that South Asia has produced. Fate unfortunately had different designs. You were able to catalyse radical change in India. You changed the media because both you and Appan Menon were brutally honest. “Those were the days” as far as Indian broadcasting is concerned.

    I cannot understand how and where NDTV compromised on the honesty quotient. I understand that the “free-market” does impose restrictions. Your listing on the bourses has meant that investors are a more important stakeholder in the business than your viewers. Your expansion into areas such as advertising (NDTV Media) and lifestyle programming (NDTV Good Times) does pose a lot of restrictions on your ability to critique institutions that use these two vehicles. It must be difficult to prevent an incestuous relationship between some of these companies.

    I appreciate that there is no need to make a public admission around the dilution of values. You must have found a conveniently rationalized answer to the challenges that competition and free-market have brought to NDTV’s doorstep.

    As a viewer however I must confess that there is much to be desired. Allow me to place before you the most obvious of examples
    • NDTV regularly runs stories on Infosys. You do not disclose that Narayanamurthy is an independent director on your board.
    • You stooped to astro-turfing when you chose to use the world’s largest auto-manufacturer as a sponsor for NDTV Greenathon. 
    • Your crew crossed some moral and ethical line in journalism during their coverage of 26/11. 
    • The biased coverage of the Afzal Guru case raises a whole set of questions, especially around your willingness to send a man to the gallows without a fair trial. There are numerous other examples of your studio's obsession with kangaroo trials where anchors get to play judge, jury and prosecution.
    • NDTV has been willing to paint some of the most democratic movements in this country in the same paint as extremists (read naxal). What’s amusing is that you do this on shows that run advertisements for companies that these democratic movements oppose.
    One can rationalize a defence for every single one of the above examples. The fact of the matter will remain that there is some truth in each of the examples.

    May I suggest that you ask your team some tough questions. I think it is time that you brought the journalism that NDTV is known for back on track and left the entertainment to bollywood.


    Thursday, 5 November 2009

    Urban Activists and Their Double Standards

    A discussion group dedicated to one of the most elite neighborhoods in the country has been rife with discussion about a land grab. An order by the Supreme Court to preserve a piece of lung-space has been circumvented by the state government and the property has been transferred to the person who has the property titles to the land.

    I appreciate and laud the efforts of these citizen activists who are democratically and legally waging a battle against the transfer of this lung space back to private hands.

    These very same urban activists however call me a leftie or socialist when I say that the transfer of tribal land to the private sector is a similar issue. I find it amazing that some of the richest citizens in Bangalore could be so thick-skinned about how similar these issues are. When a land grab affects them directly it is an issue about environment. When a land grab does not impact them directly or indirectly it is encouraged as a necessary developmental sacrifice.

    This very same discussion group recently had a thread related to how villagers near the Agra Lake area in Bangalore were forcing their way into a traditional burial ground and about how it was making life uncomfortable for the residents of nearby apartment blocks. Here again I was surprised with the tone in which the person who started the thread felt that the residents had a legal right to block the grave yard, construct on the grave yard and literally dance on graves. The lack of sensitivity to the rights of the villagers who are being displaced by the rapid development of Bangalore is embarrassing to citizens like myself.

    Another discussion on the same list was related to how slums were coming up in the HSR layout area. The area is being developed rapidly and population levels are fairly high. On the one-hand, residents need the labor from these slums. They refuse to pay wages that would provide them with quality housing. On the other hand, they claim rights as tax payers to evict these slum dwellers. They fail to realize that the insanitary conditions in which they live is directly related to the level of wages that the people of HSR pay the residents of these very slums.

    This divide between urban upper middle class India and the rest of India is worrying. The dichotomy in their perspectives is pure hypocrisy.