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Photo: Vivek Nair/Mint
Photo: Vivek Nair/Mint

Doctoral dissertations from a tea stall

Cheap labour and algorithms make everything you want done possible. But it won't take you any place significant

In Kerala, chaya kadas (tea stalls) are all over the place. They dot university campuses abundantly. These are hopelessly ingenious places as well—all thanks to a hugely literate population that cannot find suitable jobs to match their skill sets. What is this population to do but loiter around chaya kadas and hunt for younger folks who can do with their “wisdom"?

As a modus operandi, theirs is an interesting one. Assume you want a doctoral degree. But you don’t have the bandwidth or the energies to invest. So you visit one of these chaya kadas where you strike a deal with some highly literate, unemployed bloke. Deal struck, usually for chump change, they start working on a doctoral dissertation for you.

Their service includes everything from getting the primary research material in place to framing a thesis, writing it in the appropriate language, and even sitting in as part of the audience to ask questions when you defend your thesis. It is apparently a thriving business that works very well both for the seller and the buyer. The poor seller, in any case, stands no chance of finding a decent job in a hugely literate state. The buyer wants the prestige that comes with a PhD. But the business is under threat from altogether unexpected quarters and prices are being driven down.

To understand this first-hand, you ought to hang around with kids in their late teens and early 20s. Before I put that into perspective, may I suggest you start by reading the italicized text below—ad verbatim?

CapGemini will take over iGATE a New Jersey based Consultancy firm and also turned the spotlight on the future of mid-sized software services companies squeezed between cash-rich larger rivals and nimble start-ups.

With this Merger CapGemini became the largest Consultancy, the combined Group strengthens CapGemini’s position as a leading company in IT services, outsourcing and consulting, with an estimated combined revenue of €12.5 billion, combined operating margin above 10% and around 190,000 people serving clients worldwide.

With a 30% share in the North American Market, CapGemini can easily look to compete with all the big fishes in the pond. This merger gives the French IT Company a major foothold in the North American Market. This will help CapGemini to cross a 50,000 employee mark and earn an estimated $4 Billion.

This by far has been the biggest market for the French Company, and iGATE will help CapGemini fill the holes in its portfolio, most notably a more powerful presence in India, a stronger portfolio of US enterprise clients, and a deeper foothold in financial services.

Industry experts are also saying that merger of these companies will be crucial for the success. Integration will be challenging with two very different cultures. It has recent experience gained from the successful acquisition of Kanbay and a growing Indian presence. Over all this is a nice move but will require Capgemini to move quickly to successfully integrate iGATE and stem any talent losses.

Now that you’ve read it, pause and ask yourself: How different is this from anything you read in business newspapers every morning? For that matter, how different is this from the so-called research reports that come out of broking firms?

Now, allow me to put that in context.

Two weeks ago, I was in Delhi to conduct a writing workshop at a consulting firm. As part of the pre-workshop exercise, I’d asked all of the participants, mostly freshers, to write a piece of not more than 500 words on what they thought of CapGemini’s acquisition of iGate Technologies. The extract reproduced above is from one of the assignments that came in.

After having read it carefully, I passed my feedback to the young bloke who wrote it. I told him this is exactly the kind of writing that has commoditized wire services and business newspapers across the world. It’s driving into a funk editors across the world who want value-added material.

My argument was simple. As this kind of news breaks out, tickers and anchors on television along with those clued into social media belt news out by the minute. By the time it hits print, folks who follow news know all about it. So what they have on hand is a rag attempting to regurgitate what has already been said. But somehow, most journalists don’t seem to get it.

For a moment I thought he looked crestfallen. The cheeky fellow, fresh out of college and in his first job, looked me in the eye and told me I ought not to take a call on his capabilities on the back of this assignment. And why not, I asked him.

Because, he smiled vicariously, he didn’t write it. Not just that, he told me he doesn’t understand crap about business, doesn’t know what CapGemini or iGate does, and can’t tell an acquisition from his elbow. But because the workshop was thrust on him, and he had to complete the assignment, he copied and pasted a few keywords from my brief into Spinbot (spinbot.com)and had his assignment ready in a few seconds.

I looked incredulously at him. It’s pretty much routine practice in most colleges, he said as a matter of fact. Why work on mundane assignments when it can be outsourced to artificial intelligence? The chaya kada economy is under threat.

For the uninitiated, Spinbot is an online tool that generates original content on the back of keywords. The algorithms that power it draw from the tonnes of content available online to create material that looks authentic and passes all plagiarism tests. Some looking up later, I discovered that if you’re willing to dish out a few dollars, hundreds of pieces of software exist to create compelling content around pretty much anything you can think up.

For instance, I stumbled on a tool called SCIgen (see here).

Developed by three graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), it is a program that churns out academic papers on the computer sciences. The damn thing is so bloody good at what it does that some enterprising folks have actually used it to generate gobbledygook that got published in prestigious titles.

That such crock exists was made public last year when Nature, the international weekly that writes on all things scientific, reported that prestigious publishers of scientific literature like the Heidelberg-based Springer and the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) based out of New York were compelled to withdraw 120 papers generated by algorithms. This was after the pranksters who thought up the software thought it worth their while to admit what they were up to.

If you think that ridiculous, may I point you to the screenshot below with a paper generated in my name, citations and all? (Click or tap on the image to enlarge it.)

My limited point is: We’ve come to a point where content of all kind is now a commodity. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a journalist, a scientist, or a mid-career professional in any business trying to work up the corporate ladder.

But there are people who place a premium on substance. They are the ones who make it to the top. Old timers at ICICI Bank speak of how K.V. Kamath, who built the bank into the powerhouse it is now, would blow his lid if somebody passed him a note with no original intent or content. His bullshit detector, they say, is on high alert pretty much all of the time. That is why mediocrity never gets past him.

More recently, I had the privilege of previewing a book by Arun Maira, former member of the Planning Commission. It is sharp, insightful and contains a voice and wisdom that is uniquely his. No algorithm or chaya kada professional could possibly have created it.

In sharp contrast to this, what I see at workshops I conduct and are attended by people half their age is writing that appals and thinking that is incoherent. Most of it is of the kind that, as the cheeky young man demonstrated, can be generated like sausages in a factory—or outsourced to chaya kadas. And that is precisely why most of theses mid-career professionals will not make it past the likes of Kamath or Maira.

Kamath is headed to a larger role as president of the $100 billion BRICS bank in Shanghai. (BRICS is short for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.) Maira has just put the finishing touches to a compelling new book that tells the story of an India in transition. Given where they are right now, both of them could well have chosen to play golf on a course of their choice at any place in the world.

But they don’t. They seek challenges. In doing that, they put into perspective how most of us are on the verge of extinction; why we ought to constantly reinvent ourselves; and why we must work our backsides off to stay relevant. Else, we might as well migrate to Kerala and hope to find sustenance at a chaya kada—which too, like I pointed out earlier, is under threat from algorithms of all kinds.

Charles Assisi is co-founder at Founding Fuel (www.foundingfuel.com), a digitally led media and learning platform for entrepreneurs. He tweets on @c_assisi

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