Aditya Singh, Professor and Director at Athena School of Management, India, provides an insight into the digital transformation in India and its effect on people and business, the fight against poverty, and its increasing role in education.
By Tom Gamble from an interview with Professor Aditya Singh FRSA FRAS, Athena School of Management, an active member of the Global Business School Network (GBSN).
This is not the end; this is not even the beginning of the end – this is just the end of the beginning when it comes to India’s tryst with its digital destiny”, says Professor Aditya Singh, Dean of Athena School of Management, paraphrasing Churchill and Nehru.
With half a billion internet subscribers, McKinsey & Co state India as being one of the largest and fastest-growing markets for digital consumers in the world. ‘Throughout India, the digital transformation can be seen in everyday action, everywhere and across all socio-economic and geographical classifications,’ states Aditya Singh.
This is backed up by a healthy set of figures. Again according to McKinsey, 2018 key statistics include 12.3 Billion App Downloads, 354 million smartphone users, 300 million social media users. ‘Extrapolating the growth in the past couple of years and coupled with the boost in the past 12 months due to the Covid crisis – we get some idea of the transformation,’ says Singh. ‘And India, in my opinion is just getting started.’
Business…and also society
Digital is not new to India and indeed the country was quick off the mark with a first phase occurring in 2003 when penetration began. But it is in the post-2013 period that things have rocketed with data consumption rising incredibly ever since. According to Prof. Singh, this may be due to the fact that India has one of the largest Mobile Phone user bases in the world and the cheapest data cost for consumers with the cost of data having reduced by over 80% since 2013.
Certain sectors have taken the lead in the sub-continent, including Banking & Finance, E-Commerce, Food Tech, platforms for Hospitality & Mobility, Retail, Marriage Matchmaking – ‘much before Tinder came to the scene!’ adds Singh – Online learning and to some extent even in Agriculture. ‘But it’s not only business and the big sectors that have adopted digital tech,’ states Prof. Singh: ‘We witness its presence on every street and in every home with the common man and woman embracing digital technologies and integrating them into their daily lives. Be it financial transactions, ordering groceries, studying online, searching for potential marriage partners, entertainment & news, communicating through WhatsApp, text messaging or even trading on the stock markets.’
The human perspective
For the outsider having worked with Indian nationals, one of India’s strengths lies in its people’s capacity to make the most of human contact, skilfully communicate, and express warmth and enthusiasm in their business dealings where their opposites are not just brains but people with emotions too. Does India’s romance with digital transformation spell an end to this? ‘As technology has progressed, together with an evolution in users’ mindsets,’ asserts Aditya Singh, ‘the need for “high context” communication – i.e. depth of communication – has been systematically replaced by a growing need for “wide context” communication – i.e. breadth of communication. While there will always be a certain amount of need for physical communication, that need is no more a barrier to effective, as opposed to optimum, communication needed for trust and business.’ So will it spell and end to this great Indian attribute of warm debate? ‘On the contrary,’ says Singh. ‘I believe it will help us spread and familiarize many other cultures to our warmth and debate – as always being experienced by us at Athena. Change is the only constant and it is our responsibility as educators on the cutting to edge to enable it.’
Giants to the east, giants to the west
The US and China lead the world in mobile phones, computers and online business. Have they taken over India too? From a retail perspective, all the major brands such as Apple, Samsung, Xiaomi are present. Likewise, there is major telecom infra presence with Ericsson, Nokia, Huawei, and Siemens. Similar trends on laptops and other electronics are occurring too. ‘While the Indian government and Indian consumers have embraced American and European giants in the past few years,’ says Aditya Singh, ‘2020 has witnessed an effort to diversify product/service dependence and supply chains from China. One needs to wait and watch if there is a transitory trend or if this will be a longer term movement.’
However, several Indian providers are also on the global stage and, according to Singh, the world will see several more in the coming decade. Some of them include Reliance Jio, the digital behemoth in India), PayTM offering Fintech & Payment Solutions, Ola in Mobility – the Indian competitor to Uber, Oyo – with the 2nd largest number of hotel rooms in the world pre-Covid – in Hospitality, Zomato in Food Delivery, and Byjus – the most valued Edutech company in the world, to name but a few.
Digital transformation and the fight against poverty
In a rapidly evolving world there is no doubt that digital transformation is an essential pillar in the platform to fight poverty. However, adds Aditya Singh, it cannot be the panacea for combatting poverty. ‘Digital Transformation has to work in sync with a range of other factors including education, gender empowerment, skill upgradation, financial inclusion, positive impact polices for the underprivileged sections of society. The bottom line is that Digital Transformation is a key enabler for a lot of these policies when it comes to execution.’
But what of the Indian government? Is it active, or is the transformation to combat poverty coming from the grass roots as do social enterprise and local initiatives in Brazil? The walk seems to add matter to the talk, with the Indian government stating very clearly that digital transformation is one of its core areas to transform the economy and improve the lives of hundreds of millions of Indians, states Prof. Singh. In 2015, it launched the “Digital India” Initiative with a focus on Digital Infrastructure, Digital Literacy, and Digital Delivery.
For Singh, this initiative in tandem with the private sector and social enterprises is tangibly transforming the lives of hundreds of millions of Indians. Some of the truly government-led digital initiatives include the issuing of Biometric Cards – Aadhar – to over 1.25 Billion Indians, an internet user base which has crossed 650 million and enabled Indians to digitally and remotely carry out previously tedious and mundane things such as Insurance payments, utilities, and paying taxes seamlessly. This has also helped the government in its affirmative action initiatives with government subsidies and payouts to members belonging to the weaker economic levels being credited directly to their accounts. Though still not completely eliminated, corruption and bureaucratic delays have been reduced as a result.
In the first weeks and months of the Covid pandemic in 2020, the digital divide in western countries hit the headlines. Even middle class students were caught short by lack of equipment and funds to follow classes online. ‘It’s been a bit of mixed bag in India’s case,’ says Prof. Singh. ‘Remember that unlike the West where a significant proportion of the Digital Transformation is based on laptops/desktop devices – in India the entire digital transformation is driven by mobile device access i.e. mobile telephony, data and devices. With nearly Half a billion mobile users, that means digital access and services are more on hand & accessible to ordinary Indians. On the other hand, a lack of digital infrastructure and issues relating to data (due to geographic) accessibility has led to a digital divide, although it is also a function of the economic health of the individual and the kind of work/employment the family members are engaged in.’
Will education continue to go digital?
Across the globe, many educational institutions are turning to online learning to increase their offer and revenues. It is a similar case in India too. ‘Several legacy institutions have started embracing the concept of digital & online learning,’ attests Prof. Singh. ‘However, as of now the effect of this has been on two different categories – higher end professional skills based learning in fields such as Analytics, Business Intelligence, and Machine Learning and to some extent business education and executive education.
The other category is where online education is used as a supplement – or in some cases a booster – for school-based education, principally driven by the ambitions of the middle and aspirational sections of society to give their children a better edge and chance to succeed. Indeed, with a country projected to have more than 50% of its population aged less than 25 before 2030 every little edge counts towards perceived long term career success.’
Will online teaching replace the classroom experience in India? For Aditya Singh, the shift will most probably be towards a blended online and classroom experience. ‘In a developing economy like India, while there are certain areas where online teaching can complement the classroom experience, in others it may supplement and even replace the classroom experience too. In cases of short skill based learning, we are seeing MOOCs, asynchronous learning and synchronous classes becoming very popular. While in the short term – and due to there being no choice – all education excepting pre- nursery has moved to the online/blended/hybrid model, the pace of widespread adoption of this mode once things open up post-Covid remains to be seen. ‘We will in all probability see an evolution towards a blended/hybrid module of learning in some categories such as higher education, technical education, part of secondary education,’ maintains Prof. Singh, ‘but that too would vary across regions. The fact is that online education is the proverbial genie which has been let out of the bottle – and it is here to stay!’
In Prof. Singh’s own institution, Athena School of Management, the digitization of learning is not so much seen as a threat as an opportunity. ‘Athena was one of the first movers to embrace the concept of digitization of learning – indeed long before the Covid crisis,’ he states. ‘For us, the trend for digitization and online learning has been a wonderful opportunity which has enabled us – both students and faculty – to expand our horizons from a conceptual and a geographical perspective, challenge old paradigms and experiment with new formats. At Athena, COIL (Collaborative Online International Learning) is now an integral part of the learning process. In the past year we have collaborated with multiple institutions across 5 continents in a wide range of activities including joint virtual projects, virtual exchanges, joint faculty exchanges, case study research, and business plan competitions, to name but a few.’ The benefits have been great for students. ‘Similarly,’ continues Prof. Singh, ‘they have interned with companies from across the world including France, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Israel, South Africa, UAE, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and the United States and in areas such as venture capital, sustainability & the circular economy, online networking & community building, vision technology and much more!’
Digital transformation and online learning can indeed offer a truly international and multi-perspective experience. ‘Today,’ asserts Aditya Singh, ‘an Athena student’s week could include a lecture on communications from a Faculty member in the US, a joint project on sustainability with students from Poland, a research project with a micro-finance company in Nepal, a joint session on international geo-strategy with a business school in Brazil, a startup session with students from Finland, a workshop on design thinking by a professor from Spain , a part time internship with a VC/PE firm in Luxembourg and a Virtual Cultural Exchange from a leading Swiss University. Welcome to the new world of Business education!’ For Prof. Singh, digital learning has opened up a horizon for both establishment, faculty and students alike. ‘We are incredibly lucky to be around to see such profound changes in the way knowledge, skills and ideas are being transmitted and exchanged,’ he maintains.
Three ways forward for India’s digital transformation
The question of giving insight into how digital transformation will develop in India is a difficult one given the variety and size of the nation. However, Prof. Singh does have a wish list that may also strike a chord with many others in today’s India. Digital Governance heads that list – ensuring last-mile delivery of government services without the sometimes heavy procedural interference of bureaucrats and government servants. For Aditya Singh, this would ensure a seamlessness and uniform quality of delivery coupled with a great reduction in corruption and delay. Likewise, a version of this digital governance being might be adopted to some degree for what Prof. Singh views as an overburdened judicial system in India.
Second, Digital Infrastructure. If India has to continue on its path to be a global economic powerhouse, there is no substitute to having world class digital infrastructure which should available across the length and breadth of India to every Indian. ‘Digital Infrastructure can lead to digital equality which in turn can lead to digital self-sufficiency,’ asserts Prof. Singh.
Third, the Digital Innovation Ecosystem. ‘While we have been able to create several world class and innovative organisation in India, many of which have become unicorns,’ states Prof. Singh, ‘the fact is that we tend to lag behind in an innovation driven ecosystem as compared to the USA or even Israel. While the Indian Government has made commendable strides to enable such an ecosystem, it will only be possible if other key players including banking and credit systems, educators and institutions and – most importantly – families and society embrace and subscribe to the idea of innovation and risk taking. The day that a young Indian can proudly share that he or she has failed in a venture and is now starting a new one with the entire ecosystem supporting him or her – that is the day that India’s time in the Digital World would have truly arrived!’
Athena School of Management is an exclusive Business School based out of Mumbai – India. Athena aims to create future leaders for business & society with a focus on Impact Leadership, Stakeholder Management, Sustainability & Circular Economy and Internationalisation. Athena is a member school of AACSB, BGA (part of AMBA), GBSN, UNGC, PRME & RRBM. Athena has been ranked as India’s Best Emerging Business School consecutively for the past Three years. Athena won the Silver Award at the AMBA Excellence Awards 2021 – the world’s most prestigious awards for Business Schools by Association of MBAs & Business Graduates Association for Impact on Business Education through “Internationalisation & Virtualisation” under the Business School Impact category.
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