Sunday, March 16, 2008

Practical education: The importance of field experience

I have seen FAR too many appropriate technologies and social enterprise methodologies fail. Why?? Generally, its because the inventor/implementor was not adequately prepared and did not take the time to adequately prepare (I say this of not just individual inventors, but of NGOs and government organizations). They were essentially not well-educated for the task.

I'd like to talk about the importance of practical education. If you are embarking on a career in Technology/Social Enterprise in the context of poorer economies, rural markets, etc, YOU ABSOLUTELY NEED field experience.

Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, in my opinion, can train an inventor or implementor as effectively as field work. This is true of whether you work in a social enterprise or the more capitalistic world - any successful entrepreneur in any part of the world or any sector will tell you is that you need to know your customer, your product, and the process of connecting the two, i.e. getting your product to your customer, extremely well. While this happens regularly among people who work in the regular markets, it doesn't happen quite so frequently among people who work in the poorer markets (let's call these BOP or Bottom of the Pyramid markets), even though its probably far more important. Why?? Let's examine the following:

Now in the regular markets, this methodology of "apprenticeship" is already integrated into the system. Firstly college/school includes mostly knowledge you need for application in the regular markets. After all, this is the most profitable and educated market. Consequently its better profiled, studied and documented. Once well theoretically trained, you get your practical training (you can also do this simultaneously). You intern or even get an entry level job at a company that provides financial incentives for you to get trained in the field. Let's say you want to sell computers to kids in the regular markets, you work "in the field," i.e. with a company (say "Dell") that sells the computers to your target market, and you learn the skills and the geography of your customer, product, and process. You get some training, get some skills and get paid at the same time.

Contrast that to anyone who wants to work in a BOP market. Firstly, there is little knowledge about these markets. So you come out of college or school already ill-prepared. Few people have any idea about the extreme variability in BOP markets - the difference in consumer spending, buying or saving; or the impact that caste, culture, ethnic identity, religion, lack of literacy, etc have on the BOP markets. They have no concept of supply chain dynamics in an area where there are no roads, or the lack of literacy on technology development. NOBODY teaches you that. Unfortunately you have to learn these from scratch while you are in the field struggling. Add on top of that the lack of financial incentive. People who go out to study BOP environments and train in the field do so at great risk to themselves financially, health-wise, in terms of safety and security, and others. No wonder few people venture out. If they do its for short periods of time, making the knowledge less complete. Consequently, their technologies fail and their implementation methodologies more so.

So let me save you some thinking here and just tell you that if you know you want to go into the BOP market area or do social enterprise or whatever, be aware that YOU NEED THE FIELD EXPERIENCE, that it will cost you financially, but that its the ONLY thing that will diminish the chance of failure of your technology or implementation model or your general impact. And more universities, NGOs, governments, etc NEED to step forward to encourage this, and help mitigate the financial risk for these people.

For those of you thinking...well, I know I need the field experience but am too poor to get out... there are MANY programs already out there that will help you mitigate the risks. You just have to reach out. Try to take advantage of programs like the Watson Fellowship, Peace Corps, Americorps (exclusive to the US), Teach for America (exclusive to the US but expanding internationally), Indicorps or Service Corps (for work exclusive to India), Rotary Scholarships, work for organizations like the Jameel Poverty Action Lab, that force you to spend considerable amount of time in the field learning quantitative/qualitative skills to understand your market. If you are in a university, look for classes or campus clubs who can put you in touch with resources like this. MIT and Stanford University have loads of appropriate technology/social enterprise classes, clubs, and scholarships that incorporate fieldwork.

Essentially the key to successful technology development and implementation in BOP markets is practical education and field experience. So, GET OUT THERE!

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