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Arvind Singhal: The crisis of communication

Good command of written and spoken English will become one of the most sought after qualities in the Indian manager of the future

Arvind Singhal  |  New Delhi 

A recent news article reported that India was losing the voice-based BPO opportunity to other countries, including the Philippines, on account of the poor English language skills of Indians from tier-II and tier-III institutions. India may well lose more opportunity and then respect, too, on account of the poor “business communication” skills of our young and not-so-young managers. This communication crisis is manifest not only in graduates from lesser-known institutes but also in those from the premier institutes such as the IITs and the IIMs. It is more an exception than the norm now to come across well-crafted, well- articulated and well-polished business email and business letters. And the malaise is getting worse. Knowledge of simple things, such as the correct usage of punctuation marks, the right way of addressing people and signing off properly, is missing. Even though spell-check solutions are available in just about every medium of electronic communication, there is complete disdain for such tools!

Does this really matter in any other context apart from voice-based BPOs? Indeed, it does. As business becomes more complex, it is even more important to have good command over the language of business communication. As far as India is concerned, English is the generally accepted language of business communication. Proficiency in Hindi and other national/regional languages is, of course, desirable but in business dealings it is English that matters — nationally and internationally. With communication becoming more “real time” because of constant emailing, it is even more important for managers in different stages of their careers to be able to compose and “converse” in English unlike the previous generation of managers, who, assisted by stenographers and secretaries ago, had enough time to produce reasonably good quality “official” communication through “dictations, drafts and corrections”.

As business issues become more complicated, it is more important for managers to have vastly enhanced vocabulary and a much more precise understanding of it so that the message is delivered clearly. In cross-border dealings, there is no excuse for Indian managers to get away with poor English and poorer composition of letters. Managers in the English-speaking world are likely to be more accommodating with poorly crafted communication from people in Japan, China, and Korea than from Indians because of the widespread perception that “most Indians” understand and communicate in English. That, of course, is a fallacy since just about 20 per cent of the population has some understanding of this language.

What has led to this situation? It would be simplistic to blame this on the recent trend of texting and twittering. People in earlier generations had their own lingo for “popular” communication but that rarely found its way into written, work-related communication. Nor can TV or even cinema be blamed for this. Yes, in popular TV and cinema, there is an increasing fusion of English with Hindi and other languages but there is no reason to believe that the clarity or the impact of the dialogue or the storyline has become fuzzier because of this.

Some more plausible reasons could include the dramatic decline in the reading habit among the young. Reading is now largely restricted to popular magazines (which are more pictorial in content) and to material on social networking sites. While there is some increase in readership of business newspapers among managers, it is probably limited to skimming through the headlines and then focusing on the content rather than the written word per se. Most other forms of contemporary leisure and recreation no longer involve the printed word, directly or indirectly.

Indeed, as MBA and other degrees become ubiquitous and, therefore, more commoditised, the day may not be very far when having good command of written and spoken English will become one of the most sought after qualities in the Indian manager of the future!

First Published: Thu, April 08 2010. 00:56 IST