As I See It: The Improbable Conference
July 13, 2015 Victor Rozek
Where IT is concerned, the United States has functioned as a nurselog for India’s booming IT sector. Soon after American management discovered that India’s cheap, plentiful, educated labor could produce cheap, plentiful, sophisticated software, so began the greatest job migration since clothing manufacturers fled the country. The skies over India darkened with incoming hardware, software specs careened off satellites, and Tower-of-Babel help desks were born.
It was a rocky start, marked by resentment from threatened American workers, and cultural and language incompatibilities that plagued their Indian counterparts. But eventually everyone settled into the new normal. American IT moved on, specializing in autonomous, intelligent systems; while India put its own unique cultural stamp on its IT sector. In the U.S., IT continued to drive the knowledge economy, while India’s IT sector remained primarily a service industry. To a degree, the different strata occupied by the respective IT industries also reflects cultural influences: the former an expression of an entrepreneurial ethic; the latter reflective of a colonial past.
Culture is to humans what speciation is to flowers; it delimits the conditions essential for members to thrive. For people, at least, those conditions include specific beliefs, behaviors, customs, and values. When practiced, they are thought to provide members of a distinct culture with the greatest chance for assimilation, success, and happiness. And just like flowers that thrive best in preferred locations, cultural preferences are also location specific.
Globalization has done a great deal to bridge cultural differences, but there are still taboos that do not easily cross boundaries. One such prohibition, from an American cultural perspective, is the infusion of spirituality in the workplace. In a country that–at least by design–is tolerant of all and no belief systems, any mention of spiritual values will immediately spawn resistance from someone. In India, historically more spiritually homogenous, the line between work and spirituality is more easily blurred.
As Indian philosopher Kireet Joshi noted: “Indian culture has recognized spirituality not only as the supreme occupation of man but also as his all-integrating occupation.” So it’s not surprising that, with its long history of mystical exploration, India might seek to integrate ancient spiritual values with 21st century workplace demands.
In December of last year, a first of its kind IT conference was held in India. Its purpose was to explore “the intersection of Leadership, Technology, and Consciousness.” It was developed at the request of the IT Minister of Telangana (a state in Southern India), who was reportedly inspired by a series of Spirituality in IT (SIT) retreats held in his region. The conference was dubbed the SPIR-IT Summit and was led by “world-renowned experts in the fields of leadership, psychology, medicine and consciousness.”
To the average American IT professional, attending such a conference would be equivalent to purchasing a broadband connection to the Woo-Woo channel. You wouldn’t think a traditional organization like IBM would be represented at such an event, and certainly not the gluttonous crooks at the big banks. But this is India, where people are comfortable openly embracing some of the nobler expressions of spirituality. So there they were, Beemers and bankers, along with 58 other decision-makers from assorted IT organizations; a gathering dedicated to the proposition that people can thrive in the global economy and still think above their pockets.
The desire to reach higher than the bottom line, according to conference organizers, was fueled by the realization that “although the IT industry has been hugely rewarding financially, the intangible rewards of happiness and contentment have not kept up.”
It is telling that each culture follows a very different path to attain that contentment. And even though market capitalism has come to dominate India’s economic system, its second largest export after software, according to Summit organizers, is yoga/spirituality, whose influence they hope can mitigate some of the harsher aspects of a soulless market.
From an American perspective, a sure, if indirect, path to contentment requires having enough money to purchase or pursue those things that bring us joy. Thus, by providing salaries, a business has fulfilled its primary obligation to our wellbeing. Finding a measure of happiness within the office or the factory, or from performing actual work is a bonus–like discovering your lottery ticket is worth more than you paid for it.
From an Indian perspective, happiness is an inside-out job. Contentment is found in gaining control of the mind, elevating consciousness. Spirituality is not about God and ritual, it is about living a principled way of life; thinking beyond oneself, reaching out. It seeks transcendence, self-control, compassion. As one CEO at the summit suggested: when introducing yourself, “instead of telling people what you do in terms of your position, tell them what you’ve done that touched lives.”
But if cultures are regional, stress is universal. Reportedly, “80 percent of IT professionals (in India) suffer from eye problems, hypertension or diabetes.” Self-care and self-healing were two of the themes of the Summit, as participants were urged to flip Western priorities of Work-Family-Self, to Self-Family-Work.
The treatment of employees was another theme. Leaders were urged to imbue their organizations with ownership and purpose, recognition and reward. “Employees should be treated as customers,” and competitors with respect. “How you treat your rival,” said another CEO, “is a way to gauge your character.” Microsoft must have missed that session.
The world is changing perhaps more rapidly than we can comfortably adapt. AI, automation, robotics, nanotechnology, singularity; increased heat, decreased water, fires, floods, crop failures; medieval religious conflicts fought with modern weaponry; for a great many, tomorrow will already be stressful and brutish. If there was an underlying theme of the conference it was one of hope. Scientific evidence, say the organizers, “suggests that immunity from negative influences is directly proportional to hope.” If technology is to save us, leadership will be tasked with creating reasons to hope and sharing them.
Curiously, the West seems to be edging closer to the East in recognizing the value of elevating consciousness. For the last three years, consciousness-related events at the bottom-line fixated World Economic Forum have been over-subscribed. Leaders are no longer simply looking to maximize their choices, but to find clarity and guidance for what to choose.
The history of humankind has always been a race between consciousness and disaster. To the degree we can become more conscious in our homes, in our workplaces, or in the marketplace, the world becomes a little safer, a little saner. The urgency is undeniable, but overcoming cultural mores remains a challenge. As Gandhi said: “Speed doesn’t matter if everyone is walking in different directions.”