05 April, 2020

Coronavirus outbreak: The hidden opportunity in social distancing

Business Today | By Vineet Nayar

I have always believed that the mind of an Indian is far more capable of handling unspecified, unwarranted, unexpected challenges as compared to the mind of a person born and brought up in a developed country.

The story of an Indian man, who sets out to go to the ATM on his scooter to withdraw some money will illustrate this point. As he gets up and readies for his shower, he is not sure if water will come out, so he has a bucket filled with water as backup. He starts his scooter but it doesn't. He tilts it at odd angles and tries again with one and a half kick.

Then drives through traffic, hits a nail and then drags his bike to a road side man who smiles as if he had planted the nail. When he finally reaches the ATM, he finds it is not working and drives on to the next one.

Despite all the odds and ambiguities, he manages to withdraw the money as do million others daily, not deterred by  all the  challenges, focused on finding a way around to meet their objective of withdrawing the money from the ATM.

So, an Indian mind is wired in a way that it is quick to find many alternatives. That's the reason I have found Indians outperforming their counterparts from developed countries when the environment is challenging, ambiguous and uncertain and when the solutions have no rules.

But for the past few years, as the country progressed, a lot many things have been streamlined in an average Indian's life, limiting his ability to deal with uncertain situations.

Helicopter Indian parents are ensuring that their children face no challenges by not just providing for all their (children) needs, but by anticipating and providing backups and they are very good at it. However, a few stop and wonder what impact it has on the child.

We can see this in the form of growing frustration amongst our young employees. No wonder there is a debate going on whether the millennials will be able to deal with the ambiguity or uncertainty because of lack of laid-out processes in our workplaces, or does the business world have to adopt new form of working for the millennials and at what costs?


Right now, the country is facing a crisis of great magnitude. The coronavirus pandemic has forced our children and young adults in schools and colleges to sit at home.

They have never faced any such situation before, and they are experimenting with new ways of learning, entertaining, socialising, and caring.

They are trying to use technology in innovative ways to deal with the pangs of social distancing. There is ambiguity, uncertainty and a challenging environment which their parents can't solve.

While on one level, I shudder at the thought of what the coronavirus has in store for us, however, at another level I wonder if it is teaching us something that will outlast the immediate challenge.

Would these times unlock our children's ingenuity, allowing new neurons to form new pathways in the brain. Scientists say that in humans, brain to body proportion is much bigger as compared to the rest of the mammals.

Our brain, our ability to think and act to survive the adverse times is what makes us unique. And it is the time of crisis that teaches us to evolve and grow.

Will this challenge trigger the "ATM moment" in our children where they too learn the Indian way of thinking that things may not work as you had assumed yet you need to get the job done.

While the current crisis is giving this opportunity to those who are in a safe and secure environment, but children in rural schools are being left behind.

These children are not getting access to an environment of learning, which is school. And at home, unlike their urban counterparts, they don't have access to technology.

Most of the online learning platforms are also in English, a big barrier for these 15 crore children's development.

The question in my mind is whether we can come up with a platform which can give the rural children an opportunity to continue their learning and develop new neurons to form new pathways in the brain by experiencing learning in a new way?

Social distancing is a norm, however, could we add social teaching to it today? Could we develop technologies in education, which allow coming together of teacher volunteers from across the country in a unique collaboration that can change the lives of those being left behind?

What we need is a unique social knowledge management system in local languages that enable the users to collaboratively create, modify and distribute student-centred content mapped to learning objectives and development of multiple intelligence in a child in rural India.

Through this column, I throw this challenge to all my friends in the technology field to find an answer for these rural children so that they too gain from these challenging times and help rebuild our nation when the time comes. All we need is a few innovative minds or should I say the ATM minds.

(The author is former CEO, HCL Technologies and Founder Chairman, Sampark Foundation, and author of Employees First, Customer Second)

The article was originally published on: Business Today