Realizing the Economic Value of Human Brains is Timely
Posted on July 15th, 2020

Prof. Chandana Jayalath, University of Vocational Technology

Finishing the unfinished effort of Millennium Development Goals is of national significance. Effectively, the MDGs are global benchmarks. Concurrent with that effort, it is important to have a focus on what Sri Lanka’s development agenda should look like beyond 2020. While completing the ‘unfinished business’, I believe, this question begs rather more fundamental question of multilateralism when applied to development initiatives.  The experience with the MDGs suggests that global priority setting, backed by action, does generate results. For example, the global poverty reduction target set in the MDGs has been met, most of the world’s children now go to school, and the tide has been turned on HIV/AIDS and malaria. This suggests that the increased global attention and the extra funding that pumped eventually helped a lot. In the past two decades, many countries of the world including Sri Lanka have recorded a substantial positive move. When compared to the ’90s, people are healthier, live longer, more educated and have better access to goods and services.

According to the UNICEF, Sri Lanka is among the most compelling in achieving MDG indicators in terms of literacy, access to primary education and education completion rate. Also, it is achieving MDG target for gender equality in education. Food insecurity is no longer an issue for Sri Lanka, which is self-sufficient in staple food production with a surplus of rice and maize, except of course in exceptional circumstances such as protracted droughts. New technology, innovations and research in agriculture have enabled us to increase our food production, ensuring the nation’s food security in an eco-friendly manner. Special attention must however be paid to a radical shift in education to highlight the role of science and technology. Science and technology helps especially the new upwardly mobile poor segments to leapfrog into the future. Yet, Sri Lanka faces new challenges in delivering quality education. This is fundamental to the demands of a modern technology based economy. Education goals should move beyond primary enrolment to improved job skills. Target market should be the international waters. Any mismatch between the skills provided by the local education system and the demands of foreign professional markets must be addressed in the new paradigm. This too helps restore traditional local family set up because mothers are back home and only young educated are outside. An unfair trading system and trade barriers too have hindered the local growth, when advanced economics are moving towards protectionism. Such issues have been neither addressed adequately in the original MDGs nor the local policies, I strongly believe. Therefore, it is important to move from prescriptive to reflective, actually realizing the economic value of the human brains.

Current development models have brought us to the brink of planetary boundaries. Further, continuing business as usual risks not only irreversible damage to ecosystems, but also arresting human development. The poorest people on earth are bearing the brunt of climate change. It is not sensible to talk about poverty eradication and environmental sustainability as separate issues – they are closely linked, and a renewed global agenda needs to be premised on a strong vision for sustainable development.  However, the MDGs were silent on the devastation caused by violence and conflict; the importance of open, accountable, and responsive governance; the need for inclusive growth and decent work; and the exclusion of persons with disabilities. Sri Lanka is amongst the handful of countries that introduced national targets aimed at good governance. In the post-2015 consultations, however, there has been a groundswell of support among citizens for effective governance to be recognized as a critical driver of development. I emphasize that this is possible only when the concept of participatory development is brought into effective implementation at grass route level.

Flourished with the high level of literacy and commitment to higher education in all spheres, in no doubt is a noble idea if we shape our near future economy to a more of a knowledge base. Knowledge accumulates slowly, over time, shaped and channeled into certain directions through the nudging of hundreds of daily managerial decisions. Knowledge reservoirs in organizations are not static pools but wellsprings, constantly replenished with streams of new ideas and constituting an ever- flowing source of corporate renewal. The main focus must be on people in organizations whose core capabilities are technology-based, those organizations that compete on the basis of technological advantage. I consider that the management of knowledge is a skill; managers who understand and develop it will dominate competitively. Being excelled in one knowledge domain, an organization may become unreceptive to ideas from others, unless it is not truly a learning organization. Therefore, let us foster a culture of learning.

According to Peter Senge, learning organizations are those places where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together. Our policies can well be oriented towards this strategic direction upon the basic rationale of rapid change, only those that are flexible, adaptive and productive will excel. For this to happen, it can be argued, that Sri Lanka needs to ‘discover how to tap people’s talents to learn at all levels’.  This is how an idea of a national think tank and national talent pool become a valid proposition. While all people have the capacity to learn, the structures in which they have to function are often not conducive to reflection and engagement, however. Furthermore, people may lack the tools and guiding ideas to make sense of the situations they face. Organizations that altogether form part of the economy is continually expanding their capacity to create their future require a fundamental shift of mind among their members. This is what is aptly said, in other words, dynamic capabilities as “the firm’s processes that use resources – specifically the processes to integrate, reconfigure, gain and release resources – to match and even create market change. Dynamic capabilities are the strategic routines by which firms achieve new resource configurations as markets emerge, collide, split, evolve, and die. They are antecedent organizational and strategic routines by which managers alter their resource base – acquire and shed resources, integrate them together, and recombine them – to generate new value-creating strategies. Effective routines are adaptive to changing circumstances, but this comes with the price of unstable processes with uncertain outcomes.

The potential for long-term competitive advantage lies in using dynamic capabilities sooner, more astutely (crafty), or more fortuitously than the competition to create resource configurations that have that advantage. On the other hand, to succeed in a technology business, where the market is volatile in nature, the firms have to constantly engage in the pursuit of innovation. A firm must come with improvements to its products and services resulting in a ‘supply push innovation’. Innovation refers to how an invention is brought into a commercial usage. As an example, Henry Ford did not invent the automobile; companies in Europe such as Daimler were producing cars well before Ford founded his company. Henry Ford instead focused on the innovation of automobiles, creating a method (mass production) by which cars could be manufactured cheaply to a large number of customers. Innovation is therefore a core process of turning opportunities into new ideas and of putting these into widely used practice. With an innovation led society, realization of ideas and converting them into a commercial and practical use becomes a day today phenomenon. Although there is strong evidence to connect innovation with performance, success depends on other factors as well. This inspires the importance of some kind of a strategically focused innovation in any business firm. The real test of innovation success is not a one-off in short term but sustained growth through continuous innovation and adaptation.

For innovations to be truly exploited, they need to be shared. Great developments by lone inventors, such as Thomas Edison, are largely of the past- most truly great inventions of today are the result of collaborations. Ideas are usually just starting points. They need to be refined, augmented, and merged with other ideas. This is why Sri Lanka must always look for public hearings, intellectual debates and professional forums, so as to exploit new ideas ahead of the competition. This results in an organization being able to bring new value added products and services to world markets. The innovation that results from sustained investment in R&D, combined with other related investment at the right levels, is essential in providing innovative environment that is crucial to improve competitive edge. The first step in creating a culture of innovation is unleashing the creative potential of the employees.

Our focus beyond 2020 should therefore take a ‘bottom up’ approach. The challenge is getting them to see the world with fresh eyes in order to develop fresh solutions. This is relatively inexpensive research for nurturing expertise in fields that could lead to future opportunities and threats. The key question is what are the potential costs and risks of not mastering or entertaining these aspects? For instance, no successful firm in pharmaceuticals could avoid exploring recent developments in biotechnology. Besides market analysis, sound technical judgments are the ones that should matter deciding innovative activities. Imperative is more and more effort, energy and resources on training, research and development components fostering real-time innovation – innovation without any external stimuli. This requires rethinking of all aspects of the business; strategy, processes, measures, competencies, leadership. The result is a culture that thrives on change, flexibility and adaptability.

Finally, people yearn for clever, dispassionate and principled governance. When the usual run of rulers proves cowardly, indecisive or discredited, corrupted and ruined, turning to technocrats is particularly tempting. Italy and Greece and even China are recent examples. In China; most of the political leaders are engineers, scientists, or mathematicians. A common outcome is a technocratic-military hybrid where civilian experts have the economic and social portfolios, but military men the defense and interior ministries. Egypt’s current regime resembles it. Singapore is perhaps the classic example where the political and expert components seem to have merged completely in the governance. A fully fledged technocratic movement flourished in America in the inter-war period. In a way, technocracy is a way of applying science to politics. When political power is not publicly contested at all, electability is irrelevant and expertise can give the ambitious an edge.

We can lose weight by eating less and doing more and more physical exercise. We can become wealthy if we spend less than we earn, save and invest. If this was easy we all are wealthy and not overweight. But the reality is we are fat and poor. For much in life, we all know what to do, but very few have the discipline to do it. We not only need wise leaders and wise policy, we also need the discipline to endure the pain.

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