Business Standard

Experience vs Qualifications

In this month's strategy debate, industry leaders discuss which is more important

SUNDER SHARMA
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'Experience can be an excellent qualification'

Former COO, Godrej Lawkim Upstream (B.Com)

He is on the governing board of the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. He also serves on the US president's export council and council of advisors on science and technology. He is also an IT governor of the World Economic Forum, serves on the executive committee of the International Business Council and is a member of the US Business Council.
 
However, if he were to send his CV for a management position, any HR manager would consign that resume to the garbage can without a second look.
 
That is Michael Dell, founder of Dell Computers, and one of the richest men in the world. His academic credentials: undergraduate dropout from the University of Austin, Texas. The debate on what makes a successful manager "" academic qualifications or experience "" is historical and continuing.
 
Prior to the days of the dot-com, it was believed that higher education corelated directly with success in the real world and the corporate environment.
 
However, the e-commerce frenzy saw many abandoning their doctoral or undergraduate studies in pursuit of realising their dreams. Many of the greatest minds of today's business world left university without completing their degree, going on to become powerful leaders in some of the most successful enterprises in recent times.
 
This is not to decry academic credentials "" academics provide an understanding of theory, but it is industry experience that translates theoretical knowledge into practice.
 
The question, therefore, is: is it important that knowledge be acquired in a structured manner, or is it the acquisition of knowledge itself? Arguably, certain skills need the person to be formally put through a learning process that guides them through the myriad and intricate layers, to enable a thorough understanding of the underlying principles that drive them.
 
Management and leadership positions, however, call for skills that can be acquired only through direct work experience. Most of the leading professional B-schools do not admit students without relevant supervisory or managerial experience.
 
In India, it is even more challenging because of the millions who compete for a minuscule opportunity to enhance their academic qualifications. School and university syllabi are not modified or revised for years "" with the result that most of what is taught is either outdated or obsolete.
 
Why do organisations emphasise academic credentials when they advertise or hire for a position? Academic credentials are used as a primary measure of intelligence, and provide an easy filter. This works for entry-level positions, or for those requiring specialised skills. The challenge intensifies as the position moves higher in hierarchy.
 
Senior management positions require qualifications beyond academics "" the skills of leadership, entrepreneurship, vision and the ability to forge a team to work together to achieve common goals.
 
All these are abilities that come from experience. And then again, with the rapid development of technologies and systems, it becomes impossible to design a curriculum that will provide the appropriate knowledge base to be a successful manager.
 
The nascent BPO industry is a case in point "" a unique blend of people, process and technology. Management skills here will come mainly from expertise garnered through experience.
 
To illustrate: in a recent assignment in the US, where I was heading operations for a call centre business spread over four locations, the situation with one of our largest clients was a nightmare "" over 30 per cent of the callers abandoned without being able to speak to a customer service representative.
 
Everyone was frustrated "" the client, the operations team and the customers. Analysis showed that we had sufficient staff to manage the call volumes "" but service levels were still terrible. My team of general managers still believed we were understaffed, and their solution was to throw in more manpower "" which was a loss making proposition.
 
The client used a third-party provided Interactive Voice Response System (IVRs), which was used for skill-based call routing. With my experience in the design of IVRs, I was able to drill down to the system design, and we found over 16 errors in routing that was causing calls to be classified and routed wrongly.
 
A correction saw a dramatic improvement in service levels. The challenge here is that operational managers are not exposed to technology in depth "" traditionally, these are discrete functions.
 
It is also important to understand the difference between qualifications and academic credentials. They are assumed to be synonyms, but they have different meanings "" experience can be an excellent qualification!
 
<a class=KAMAL MANSHARAMANI" src="/general/images/100504_02.jpg"> 'Qualifications establish your firm's credibility'
KAMAL MANSHARAMANI

CEO, Birlasoft Limited (MBA from FMS, Delhi)

The software industry is a knowledge-based industry. Also, it is not a static industry. Here, you can't survive without knowledge "" you need to update yourself with what is happening in the industry "" it's a continuous learning curve. And it is the qualifications that give you a headstart and ultimately, take you forward. Growth with just experience isn't as fast.
 
Qualifications tell your employee what gradient you are on and take you through the first level of screening. I would choose someone with a higher qualification rather than have the company work on him and train him for the job.
 
We need people who fit the profile, can start work instantly and hit the ground running. That means you don't have to waste manhours on the person and he is productive from day one. Of course, after that you keep training him and let him climb up the knowledge chain.
 
Of course, at the same time, there are job functions that can only be filled in by someone who not only has the necessary qualifications but also some experience.
 
For instance, a project leader should not only have technical knowledge, but also leadership skills, inter-personal skills, administration qualities, which can only come with experience.
 
Before clients hire our services, they want to know about our knowledge base. Our employees' qualifications give them the ability to trust us. Also, the name of the institute sticks with you for life. Qualifications establish your credibility.
 
<a class=ARUN KUMAR" src="/general/images/100504_03.jpg"> 'Qualifications can't help you develop entrepreneurial skills'
ARUN KUMAR

President and MD, Hughes Software Systems (B.Tech from IIT, Kanpur)

Knowledge-based industries go through cycles and sometimes get caught by fads. Ten to 15 years ago, MBAs were in great demand. But the bottomline is that neither an MBA nor sheer experience can guarantee you success. Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between.
 
I consider an MBA degree valuable only if it's from a top school, and that is primarily because the students who graduate from these schools are part of an automatic selection process. For instance, a student who has graduated from top engineering and management institutions like the IITs and IIMs will naturally be superior to others with lesser qualifications. So more than the training, it is the individual who is important.
 
How is business done in a knowledge-based industry? It's primarily about people interacting with people. It's about the art of connecting with people. Your success in business will largely depend on the way you connect with your employees, vendors, customers, distributors, partners, and so on. No B-school or training can teach you that. Nor is it about the number of years you've worked at an organisation.
 
Experience implies something that is relevant and of value "" it's about being in tough situations, solving the problems, seeing what works and what doesn't. It's not about simply being around. Experience provides you sufficient learning "" it helps you see a problem beforehand and provides you an approach on how to solve it.
 
For good business sense you need to be street-smart, which implies re-applying your experience in one situation to another. People who are street smart just know what they have to do. This involves recognising the right values and negotiating for those right values "" no school can teach you all that. Formal training may introduce you to some theoretical models, but theoretical models don't always translate into practical solutions. At best, they can act as guidelines.
 
Companies nowadays are involved in global businesses. You now have to deal with people from different countries and multiple cultures. No training can make you expert in dealing with these people. But experience can. For instance, I have spent some time in the US and if an American customer comes here, I can easily sense what he wants, his background and what to talk to him "" and within a few minutes there is a shift in his attitude; we develop a connection.
 
How can leaders grow their businesses? It's not a science; it's an art "" the art of entrepreneurship. Your qualifications cannot not help you acquire this skill. Some people who  have this ability "" which involves a certain level of risk-taking "" may not have the resources. In an "intrapreneurial" environment, these people can significantly contribute to business growth.
 
As far as knowledge-based industries are concerned, domain knowledge is crucial. For an MBA it's difficult to drive a small knowledge company to grow if he doesn't have the domain expertise. So, for me, experience certainly weighs more than qualifications.
 
<a class=HARISH BIJOOR" src="/general/images/100504_04.jpg"> 'A qualification must transfer itself into action'
HARISH BIJOOR

CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc (MBA from XLRI)

I have always been a critic of the word "qualification". I have been a passionate critic of the caste-system that is so prevalent in India as well. In short, I have been a critic of social class altogether!

It started very young. As a 25-year-old just out of campus, three hours into my first job, the urge got to me. When you gotta go, you gotta go!
 
I went. In search of the office loo! There it was. Not one, but three of them staring back at me. On one mighty door was the notation: Women. This was certainly not for me. On another was the legend: Men. I nearly went in "" till I saw the third door. On this was the command: Executives! I was confused. Was I a "man" or an "executive"?
 
Corporate organisations are good at practicing social class pretty well. Qualification is a part of this social class structure at play. The more qualified you are, the better the chances of success.
 
This,again, is a paradigm. I believe there are fine nuances to this statement that we need to explore when we debate whether qualification is important to make it big in the corporate world. First of all, is a qualification important at all?
 
I believe it is. But not just any qualification. I believe qualification is a thought. It is a thought that comes to mind when you think of an MBA versus a non-MBA! Any Tom, Dick or Harish with an MBA tag enjoys a superior pole position in the race for a career!
 
An MBA goes through a rigorous process of business understanding. She goes through those hundred and odd case-studies that show you the craziest routes to decision making.
 
You go through all that reading material that you would never ever have read if you did not go to B-school! You expose yourself to the best minds on campus. The best teachers, the most maverick thoughts and possibly the most obtuse sets of discussions that can ever result on the most mundane of topics.
 
Qualifications are important. But again, not just any qualification. I believe in qualification that is holistic. You need a business management tag to do well in corporate life. It helps. But this tag needs to be more than a dog collar.
 
It needs to be the right qualification. Earned through the dint of sheer hard work of 16-hour work weekdays on campus. Earned through the process of ardent debate and involvement. Earned through a process of reading literally everything there is to read on the subject.
 
Qualification is important provided one is able to transfer the learnings of such a qualification into work life. If your management education makes you sharp and savvy enough to build a team that is totally devoted to the organisation, your qualification is a good one.
 
If your qualification helps you to douse that burning fire within the production department team that is on a go-slow, it is cutting-edge stuff! If your education and the dog tag helps you think like a maverick and bring in all those consumer innovations that create a "hungama" of sorts, it is important!
 
And yes, a qualification is a clutter-breaker when there is a close tie between two competitors in the corporate environment. When confronted by two senior managers of largely equal merit, I plead guilty: I have promoted the person with an MBA tag over the other one who did not have the M word in his BA.
 
The important issue: a qualification must transfer itself into action.
 
This debate takes me back to the time when I was interviewing candidates for the systems department. All of them had systems degrees of high merit. At the end of each interview, I asked the men for their wallets and the women for their purses. I opened each one of these pieces of private geography. Each one was in a mess! And these were "systems" people.
 
What you learn must result in what you are. If not, a qualification is only a dog collar of a corporate caste system at play.
 
<a class=GOPAL MADNANI" src="/general/images/100504_05.jpg"> 'Essentially, qualifications are a proxy for time'
GOPAL MADNANI

Country Manager, SSA Global, India (B.Tech from IIT, Mumbai)

Most industries today are highly IT-oriented, and require a high knowledge content. One way of getting ahead in such a scenario would be to start low in an organisation, and move up by working and gaining experience. But that's a very long-winded route. It doesn't allow you to jumpstart your career, nor provide productive resources quickly in a "velocity"-oriented world.
 
Industry today is fast changing and it helps if people come from a starting point that is the same as is expected by industry. An opening balance of knowledge acquired in a university setting can help an organisation achieve tremendous productivity increases. Essentially, qualifications are a proxy for time.
 
This is true not just of the IT industry, but even of conventional industries that use IT. Consider automobile design, for instance. I find it difficult to believe that a motorcar could be designed by anyone who doesn't have a mechanical engineering background and does not have significant IT knowledge.
 
Of course, exceptions will "" and do "" exist. Once in a way you will come across a Bill Gates who has neither the qualifications nor the experience "" and yet succeeds remarkably in his chosen profession.
 
Today IT support in ingrained in all business operations "" whether it's banking, finance, or even customer service. The best practices for these functions are best learned in university. Most organisations where the bulk of employees are involved with hardcore skill functions are likely to plumb for qualifications over experience.
 
If employees don't have the right qualifications, the organisation will have to spend time and effort on training its staff in the correct way of working. As an organisation head, I would rather expend my efforts on "delta training" "" training employees in only those areas that are unique to my business and business model. I don't want to waste time and money on providing generic training. So, qualifications will determine more than 70 per cent of my recruiting decisions.
 
Here, I will add a reservation. In case of skills that are easily applicable and easily transportable across industries, perhaps experience is more valuable than qualifications. Sales and marketing, for instance, are functions that are more amenable to experience.
 
That's also because, although these too are skills that are taught at university, here the body of knowledge is relatively easier to learn on the job.
 
Besides, the ability to communicate and interact with seniors "" vital skills in the so-called "soft" functions "" are less teach-able. You either are born with them or acquire them on the job. In such cases, experience does matter.
 
But considering the direction in which the economy is moving "" given that we're headed toward a knowledge economy, not just in India but in most countries across the world "" it is difficult to believe that the bulk of recruiting decisions can be made without an emphasis on qualifications, over experience.
 

Additional Reporting with &

 

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