Summits of indifference

Friday, 15 July 2011 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Jack Welch has stated among his many bytes of business wisdom that speed is an essential ingredient for an organisation to be competitive. By speed he was all about simplifying the organisation and instilling confidence, for creating the foundation for an organisation that enables speed into the organisational fabric.

Larry Bossidy who went to Honeywell from GE extolled the virtues of execution. Execution with understanding is quite important and he obviously meant that than the bull in a china shop type approach.

Both were most certainly advocating the need to act fast over waiting from one approval process to another or building layers and layers within systems where finally nobody is responsible or accountable.

Don’t we have examples for such situations aplenty? While we on one side speak on the need for change, it is equally well known that we move from one discussion to another without much of the ideas taken on board. That is why carefully planned and executed events such as economic summits should not be ‘summits of indifference’ where the same set of ideas are repeated a year apart.

Sri Lanka Economic Summit 2011

Colombo witnessed two days of such an event – the Sri Lanka Economic Summit 2011 – and it was about driving growth through fast track implementation! Not being able to hobnob with the decision makers in attendance, the general public were able to glean from media the contents of discussion and presentations.

Sometimes contents put together in print media that when read at a leisurely pace gives an interesting picture as one is spared of the need to be more civic minded with the right mannerisms if you are there in person.

We are now quite aware that for some events there are official men’s wear partners. Having to pay attention to such details tends to distract one from the important points that come from speakers.

Higher education and skills development

Among many newsworthy situations from arsenic to petrol, universities are also an issue, though not ranked among the most important. In the Economic Summit on Day 2 when the higher education and skills development was the subject, many ideas have come out worthy of repetition and dissection.

Prof. Malik Ranasinghe has stated that what the industry expects from a graduate – academically sound and technically competent, have necessary soft skills, be marketable and be able to perform from day one – with minimum of interaction with the process and the institution that produces them is not quite acceptable.

He stressed the need for the industry to work with universities and policymakers to build up a viable education system. Simply invest nothing, expect the best yet interact very little is not a winning way. His blunt statement is that unless the industry works with universities to create a student that is useful to them – may be for over 30 years – their four years in university will be wasted.

We have stated that with our free education at university level we have developed many a graduate of use to other countries. One of our graduates recently wrote back saying that for the first time for his college MBA programme, he has been successful in winning a Climate Count internship in an industry and the local newspaper has covered his achievement.

Importance of engagement

Consider seriously the plea of Moratuwa Vice Chancellor – engage and be part of the university programme. You will have much less to complain. Place yourself in front of the mirror as Shell Corporation once stated in one of its famous annual reports – and admitted that it did not like what it saw!

Look at your image and question about your organisation’s engagement to universities. With experience I am sure the frank and honest answer will be a disappointing assessment. We may not even know the whereabouts of the university in question! We have to admit knowing more about external organisations than local public universities.

Opening up with internships, active dialogue with relevant study programmes, challenging systems to provide you with solutions to existing problems, interacting to ensure student loyalty to your organisation, supporting programmes with funds and endowments, specially sponsored labs, are simply missing.

Your role in building up institutions where your next group of employees comes from is important. The Government to pick the tab and expecting you to grab the best is not a sound principle.

Our career guidance fairs are not fully subscribed to. We really appreciate some of the organisations who really participate with intent and take pride in being there. This should be the norm rather than an exception. Wider participation can resolve some of the capacity issues, enabling growth to take place as capital infusions are then possible.

Emerging technologies

In the fifth plenary session, the Minister of Higher Education has mentioned the value of emerging technologies and their potential to the economy in terms of value addition.

The Minister said that the global economic landscape has been changed over time and Sri Lanka’s main exports such as tea and rubber hold a very small percentage of the global trade. The value of the world tea trade is only $ 8 billion, while figures for coconut and rubber are $ 20 and 25 billion. These are areas one has to play with land mainly.

On the other hand, the value of the world electronics industry is $ 1,800 billion, while trade in products such as IT, telecommunication, nanotechnology and biotechnology products generate $ 2,000, 2,500, 200 and 100 billion respectively.

It is interesting that the Minister of Higher Education has identified and focused on this difference. This is in line with knowledge economy concepts. This is the central theme of the current science, technology and innovation strategy. This probably the only session at which this aspect received some attention as no other session discussed innovation and growth.

Knowledge hub and innovation

Knowledge hub has more value when you are in knowledge generation rather than engaged in outsourcing operations or just manning call centres. Turning the page back to view the contents of some other keynote speeches, one sees that many are still in economic planning involving tourism, apparel, tea, rubber, spices and fruits and vegetables!

Little less discussed is how much we receive from continuous labour supply abroad and whether we should continue to depend on such an income. Even in these classical sectors many innovative steps are possible and that should be the point of discussion if we continue to look at these market segments.

We are branding cinnamon to identify uniqueness, but will go on selling the same sticks and oil, which should not be the way. The importance is not to stop at branding cinnamon but learning from Intel i.e. Intel Inside, we should make sure to target all with an array of products that carries ‘Cinnamon Inside’! That is real value addition.

These summits should lead to value addition through their collective outcome. Hopefully the subject of innovation will enter into our economic discourse soon as otherwise we simply will be going on a beaten track with much less hope for a radical change. We are in a particular moment in time that we can ill afford casual engagements with staid concepts.

The time is ripe for enterprise and the focus should not be on immediate returns and pampering of minds that can only understand easy money. We held the summit at a time when the Sri Lanka had been ranked by the WB to be the 82nd among 140 countries in the Knowledge Economy Index (KEI) and 82nd from 125 economies in the Global Innovation Index (GII) by the Insead Business School. This is where we need to carry out fast track implementations.

Driving growth through fast track implementation

Giving justice to the topic – driving growth through fast track implementation – it is important to know that what, where and why and topics covered perhaps are an indication of the current thinking.

However as we see there is an element missed from at least one aspect of our national intentions – that is becoming a knowledge hub. This needs rectification. Prof. Uditha Liyanage as the session moderator has mentioned at the start of the session on higher education – right perceptions first, right action thereafter.

Excellent point made yet at times some of the discussion statements remind one other comment – the problem is never how to get new innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get the old ones out!

(Professor Ajith de Alwis is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is a Science Team Leader at the Sri Lanka Nanotechnology Institute. He can be reached via email on

Recent columns