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Learn to Think – Part 2

To continue with my last post, let’s talk about ‘Connections’.

6. Think Connections – Thinking connections is a powerful technique. Make unusual combinations – what’s the link between music and healthcare aspects of your businesses? No link? Of course, there must be – the consumers for both are the same. Or between water filter and toaster and the TV?
Notice how the TV+internet connection delivers more than the sum of what a TV or internet can do in isolation. Of course, this is a known combination. Thinking music+healthcare is more challenging, that’s where your innovative thinking comes in. But the sick patient can be soothed with music, even as a diagnostic is being taken, and that’s just the beginning of thinking. Notice this is also an extension of the first rule, where you have to think of the whole customer.
Thinking of TV+internet can be a very productive thinking exercise. This is usually for the home, and we know collaboration tools are a current rage. Can we combine these with Facebook, for example? Viewing pictures and chatting will be so much more fun on the TV anyway. While Facebook is a rage, it can do with a lot of improvement. It’s funny when people across generations connect as “Friends” simply because the application is not imaginative enough to think beyond Friends. Why not have Parents, Uncles and Teachers as other relationships? It helps, as what we share depends on who they are. A set of students in IIT Madras invited their friendly professor as a friend and the professor obliged, but he was soon bored with their conversations. In real life, the students’ topics change when the professor enters the room, such adaptation must come in the virtual world, too, that’s when it becomes more powerful. Such innovation (of bringing in relationships beyond “Friend”) leaves room for creating other communities, an opportunity for Parents to connect, for example. Such mimicking of real life relationships can help in a business sense, too. While you target the teenager to sell your product, you go to the parent when it’s time to write the check. Can the combination of TV, internet, rich connections lead to new ways of doing business? Your imagination will provide the answers.
It was such unusual combinations, and thinking “what else” with their technologies, that probably led Apple to get into the music business. Now, iPod wouldn’t be a success without iTunes. What’s the magic here? Of course, a music player is no use without music content, and that’s the critical factor that iTunes addresses. Now you have multiple products. Think what will help sell the TV? Or your DVD player? What’s the iTunes for the TV or the DVD player?
This leads to another question:
7. What’s your iTunes? And how do you build it?
The Maruti service network is the iTunes for Maruti; similarly an online video store can be the iTunes for the TV and death knell for the DVD player, and Cloud Computing plus smart mobiles together must kill today’s desktops and laptops as we know them.
8. Think trends from unusual sources, and abstract them for your business
The youth of this generation cannot appreciate the fact that 20 years back, sometimes people will take half-day leave just to go and draw money from the bank! In a world of ATMs, all that is history. Think of ATM not just as a convenient tool for drawing money, but conceptually an “anytime, anywhere” service. Of course, you could apply “what else” to the ATM machine also, and probably get a lot of jobs done. Why not use the ATM as a virtual vending machine, for example. So your grocery store takes you through a menu, you select the items, pay the money with your ATM card, and the grocery reaches your home. It helps the store, too. Imagine the crowd you have in every store, specially on weekends. (The same service can be achieved on your home TV, too! )
But here we are talking not of using the ATM machine, but of abstracting the concept of “anytime, anywhere” service. Where do we need such service? Think of every service that is difficult to access, and you will probably find an answer. Healthcare for the aged, education for anyone not a full-time student are two examples.
That leads us to another topic: if you are looking for business, you should look at education, and probably healthcare, too. By all accounts, India will be a major market in the decade to come, and education will be critical to India’s growth. It’s a no-brainer that technology must play a key role in delivering the scale and quality of education. That leads us to the next rule:
9. Think India –If you wish to innovate, and wish you expand your market, you just cannot ignore India. When one wants to reach the heartland of India, it’s not just Hindi text, or low cost. Parts of India may not receive power for 18 hours a day, for example. So your solution must be energy friendly, certainly low-power, or even no battery! Now, you see the power – you design for India and you have green designs for the world. Villagers have innovated with recharging mobile batteries. They pedal on their cycles and the same dynamo principle that charges the cycle light now energizes the mobile battery. Such innovations could have come from Nokia, as it directly increases their sales, but amazingly it came from villagers with not much access to formal education. Thinking India also means leveraging on the immense innovation potential of unschooled India. The National Innovation Foundation (NIF) has recorded more than 100,000 innovations in their databases from people who have not gone beyond high school. That’s an excellent source of Open Innovation. Prof Anil Gupta from NIF now seeks to tap the power of 500,000 (half a million) B.Tech. projects produced every year. Can we think of all these projects as a long relay race of innovation and something useful gets produced almost for free? If you are sceptic, think about Linux and Open Source.
Let’s get back to the technology of education: we cannot scale if we just depended on experts as faculty. We will need a lot more of:

  • Faculty leveraged across the country, remotely – probably speaking to lots of students spread across villages and small towns
  • Asynchronous communication
  • Community based learning where students teach one another
  • Remote coaching
  • Custom learning and custom coaching
  • Self learning – there is so much good content already on the net
  • Hands-on learning, with effective feedback
  • Evaluation for the masses

We do see, there’s a lot of technology involved. There’s plenty of opportunity here for Classroom India or University India, how can one grab it? Do we have the technology platforms already? Of course, they exist. Can education learn from TV, radio, or music delivery? There are successful, very Indian examples to look at:

  • iCalibrator provides remote coaching, customized for each students, over the internet, thus reaching quality education to anywhere that is reached by internet. They integrate the concepts of Remote professor and Anytime, anywhere Learning.
  • Tutor-vista’s model has brought tutoring business in the US and elsewhere.
  • U21global, now owned by Manipal University has brought in the concepts of Remote professor and Anytime, anywhere Learning, just like iCalibrator. And they even charge a premium for it.

Are these models perfect? Of course not. That’s where your innovative thinking can make a difference. These examples take us to the next rule:

10. Think knowledge, think content – We saw we cannot ignore India if we think of emerging opportunities. Similarly, we cannot ignore anything to do with knowledge or content. And thus we discussed opportunities in Education. There are leaders here: We already talked of Apple and iTunes, trying to bring all the world’s music licensed under one umbrella. Google tries to digitise the accumulated knowledge of all human history, from the world’s libraries. Amazon brings in Kindle, as the medium of delivery for such content. Thus both content and instrument of delivery are covered. Where can one come in here? All of these. What Google has done is capture static content. But education is about dynamic content and collaboration. How can today’s music device become a learning device, accessed by every village in India? Or the TV as the preferred blackboard? When you think of these as your iPod, must also plan for the iTunes of education, and how it will be delivered. Maybe post offices and banks’ presence in every nook and corner will help? And will the new version of Facebook with your innovations help in collaboration?
Before I conclude, I must mention one more trend. When I think of some of the biggest successes of this decade, I can’t avoid thinking about SMS and Twenty 20 cricket. Twitter could soon qualify as another such rage. When I marvel at the impact these have made, it leads me to the next rule:
11. Think small – Thinking big helps, so does thinking small. Apple seems to have figured this out, so they have the iPOD shuffle. How does thinking small fit into the discussion here? Well, what’s the SMS of music? Can we have micro-music pellets (of one song, or less) exchanged among people? Can we create micro-learning bits that, together, make up an entire course? The problem with Search is that they throw you an entire document that somewhere includes your specific information, and you can’t figure out where is the content you need. Talking of Search, do we always need six million entries? We seldom look beyond the first page anyway. Why not a search that returns just one item, giving me exactly what I need – think about it!
While Apple seems to have figured out the magic of smallness, the field is open in operating systems, for example – the trend is towards larger and more difficult to comprehend operating systems. Why not re-invent the world’s smallest o.s.? Surely that will be a rage in mobile phones and consumer devices? They will have less bugs, and also consume less power. Mindtree has the world’s smallest Bluetooth stack, for example.
Summarising, we discussed a number of ways to think, and how to focus. We discussed a number of players, both Indian and global, who have done it. The challenges are many but effective thinking tools can help us uncover the challenges early and work on those. Choose systematic innovation tools – look at TRIZ, use those concepts as thinking tools, or borrow from Christensen’s theories of disruptive innovation. These are useful references. So just learn to think, and deliver on your unrealized potential.


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