Thursday, June 17, 2010

Reach Multipliers

Teachers are a scarce lot nowadays. Teaching is a noble profession no doubt and a highly honorable one too, but like a lot of other noble professions nowadays it is losing its shin in this modern age. There is no glamor in being a teacher anymore; hence not very many of the younger generation aspire to become teachers these days. Consequently their tribe is only decreasing. Paradoxically with the increasing population, school enrollments are on the rise. With the result that the demand for teachers today is more than it was ever before. I see a shortage of teachers in primary schools, secondary schools, junior colleges, engineering colleges, medical colleges and Universities. In short, I see a shortage of teachers in the whole teaching system. Yet I also see more and more schools and colleges coming up everyday. It requires an explanation. How are these schools and colleges managing to teach their increasing number of students with lesser numbers of teachers? I was prepared to see visiting teachers from other faculties, cramped classrooms reflecting a higher student to teacher ratio and self-study student groups in those schools where teachers were missing altogether. And I did see all of these. But I also saw something else. A handful of innovative institutions had attacked this problem by multiplying the reach of their teachers. They had installed video conferencing equipment in their classrooms using which multiple students at dispersed locations could attend the lecture of a single teacher at the same time using the power of video conferencing. In effect these institutions had managed to solve the problem of scarcity of human capital by strapping structural capital in the form of video conferencing equipment to their human capital, the combined effect of which enabled them to reach out to a larger number of students in geographically dispersed locations!

I was hardly surprised this time when I saw the same solution being applied effectively in another noble profession – medicine. Like good teachers, good doctors are also becoming a rarity of late. And patients who can afford it always seek a second opinion especially when they have to make a decision based on the opinion of their doctor. Some innovative hospitals have resorted to video conferencing technology to enable their patients to seek a second opinion from doctors in other hospitals, perhaps those in their own network of hospitals. Case history of the patient is available to the remote doctor electronically which he can browse and consult with the patient simultaneously over video. This much is becoming pretty common. Meanwhile medical solution providers are working on building technology solutions that will enable doctors to remotely examine patients and even conduct surgeries remotely using remote controlled robotic arms. This may sound like science fiction right now, but we are getting there slowly but surely. This is one more instance of specialists reaching out to a larger audience beyond the confines of their own physical boundaries through the leveraged use of structural capital.

While video conferencing has been enabled in leaps and bounds by gigantic advances in telephony, the Internet has also been a great enabler in this regard. One example of this is webcasting, a medium that is being increasingly adopted by businesses nowadays to peddle their products and services. The traditional approach would have been to invite a select audience into an attractive downtown location, make the sales pitch, feed them lunch or dinner and offer them networking opportunities with their peers. This high cost approach is a rarity nowadays. Webcasts are not only cost-effective for the business itself but also time-effective for the target audience, since they do not have to commute anywhere but can attend the conference right from their desktop. Moreover, webcasts enable the business to reach out to a worldwide audience at the same time which would be physically impossible using the traditional approach.

Structural capital that enables businesses to address much larger audiences than they can do at present is a very attractive proposition to every business. It is so attractive that I have coined the term “Reach Multipliers’ to denote such capital. Reach multipliers are critical for any business to increase the reach of its human capital manifold. Those businesses that have devised reach multipliers are well on their way to achieving the next level of growth in their business lifecycle. Others will be constrained by the limits of reach of their human capital.

As attractive as Reach multipliers are they still are dependent on the presence of human capital in the back-end. The scale that can be achieved using Reach multipliers is a limited therefore by the amount of human capital in the back-end. The question that arises then is – Is there a way of achieving unlimited scale? Turns out that there is and some have already done it. Wait to read about it in my next post.

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