V. Srinivas, CEO, Illumine Knowledge Resources

V. Srinivas, co- founder, CEO and Lead Researcher of the Mumbai-based Illumine Knowledge Resources, unfolds the cause and conviction of his Design and Consulting Lab in this freewheeling conversation with Sudhir Raikar.

March 10, 2014 11:27 IST | India Infoline News Service
In the context of transformative learning, noted psychologist and Harvard educator Robert Kegan aptly observes “In fact, transforming our epistemologies, liberating ourselves from that in which we were embedded, making what was subject into object so that we can "have it" rather than "be had" by it -- this is the most powerful way I know to conceptualize the growth of the mind”.

Delving deep on the question of information and knowledge, V. Srinivas, Founder, CEO and Lead Researcher of the Mumbai-based Illumine Knowledge Resources, has conceptualised the growth of several minds by defining knowledge-construction as an "emergent response" to life's challenges. Focused on making knowledge useful and not merely usable, he’s architected phenomenal transformations across institutional and community settings. Apart from a one-of-its-kind massive “human transformation exercise” for the State bank of India across its 200,000 employees, Illumine has helped several clients move up the value chain including Bharat Petroleum (strategic revamp), Maharashtra Police (Improved quality of work Life), IL& FS Job Plus (scalable learning platform), Compaq (scalable consultative selling), Mastek (Solution design Capacity Building), ICICI Bank (Scalable credit assessment),  Birla Sun Life (enhanced distributor engagement and customer relationship), W. H. O. Nutrition (Scalable community learning) and Bhavishya Alliance (solution envisioning). Upcoming international projects include the creation of a contributor orientation model for the world-wide staff of a Global Aid Agency. Pilots will begin shortly in Europe to be scaled up across the world in due course. Illumine is also collaborating with a global investment advisory to build new intervention models to bring about high-impact transformations in education.

Excerpts of the interview:


Post your B.Tech for IIT Bombay and PGDM from IIM, Ahmedabad, what motivated you to pursue a path of defying conventions than chasing cushy jobs of promising vale propositions?

Well, the journey was not all that profound as it may appear. To begin with, I was very much rooted in a conventional career path with the exception that it was enterprenurial in nature.  While I was still at IIM, one of my seniors came up with the idea of co-founding a Direct Marketing venture of selling industry reports to companies across verticals. This excited me enough to take the plunge and before we knew it, the first client of INFAC was on, which obviously put me off the campus placement track.  Honestly, we were at the right place at the right time as organized information was a prominent market need at that time. I relished the art and science of the production process - from collation and analysis to writing and typography. But the singular reason for our success was the market trust in our knowledge products. We were an independent entity devoid of vested interests and stock market stakes and we took utmost care and precision in verifying facts, validating view points and acknowledging sources.

The INFAC experience, from 1989 to 1996, reinforced the prevalent tendency to place too much emphasis on intellect and far too little on integrity. While information and analytics may lend meaning to knowledge, only trust makes it credible. And what’s meaning without credence? Trust is the centre piece of all knowledge practices and products. Only when our intellect and articulation become trustworthy, we move up the value chain - from technicians to craftsmen to true artists.

What happened post 1996?

The more I was interacting with the market; I genuinely felt that mere knowledge is not enough. There was a gradual realization in my mind that true knowledge is not about its access alone.  I found that a lot more of it was not residing in the production process but in the vague expectations of people receiving it. That made me restless and I instinctively turned to the very purpose of work. I saw two paths running parallel: one, the path of expansion and the other, the path of evolution.  Both opened up a vast universe of opportunities. I chose the evolutionary path which was always within me since my formative years but was not defined till this point, confused that I was by the notion of expansion and its trajectories governed by volumes. Now, I saw the clutter vanishing. The outcome was the birth of a design lab called Illumine.

During the formative years, were you labelled “esoteric” by the “market”? Have you seen a marked difference in the way clients now perceive a transformation lab vis-à-vis a conventional solution provider?

If there was anything that could have seemed esoteric, it was the focal point of our endeavour. We were designing Knowledge practices and products seeking to transform the user rather than try and enhance the subject matter to help them study better. This was the seemingly elusive shift. Otherwise, there’s nothing obscure about us. This is not a Lab indulging in laboured introspection in splendid isolation. It very much does the things that Labs do - research, testing, pilots, prototypes and the like. The moment you talk of awakening the inherent force in individual, especially within the framework of a profit-driven enterprise, it appears esoteric.  Our conventional approach to work is heavily influenced by the manufacturing legacy which is focused on managing and marketing of products and services. The individual has been for long only a systemic resource to be lured with rewards and admonished with penalties. Illumine’s fundamental premise is that individual motivation is not merely a function of greed or fear. There’s also an axis of meaning and purpose that plays a far greater role than what’s commonly imagined.  No wonder, most of the profound excellence thrives in the green house of this axis.  There’s a grave need to turn people from being victims of situations to becoming creators of their destiny. And contrary to popular perception, we don’t have to exclude profits and growth from the corporate vision. Just that they need to be seen as a consequence of the team’s intrinsic strength, commitment, and involvement with work. Even if their vision is limited to their business goals, this approach is very much in their interest.

Talking of client engagements, we work best with people who have woken up to the other side of the reality. It’s not that people are heedless of the need for transformative knowledge; very many people are saying the right things across platforms. A vast majority can even sense the larger paradigm staring at them from the periphery but they have not yet got the logic right. The only issue here is that one has to arrive at the truth. So, it takes time but when the truth appears, it can no longer be denied. That’s the difference. Information is ephemeral, true knowledge is not. Precisely why we stress on transformation, and not information.

Our engagements work best with the truly visionary CEOs who are keen to envision the future, who look beyond quarter-bound targets, who seek sustainable results. Now, we see this whole business literature being spun around sustainability. This means our fundamental premise was not just way ahead of its time, it was accurate. Envisioning the future is a matter of extrapolating current data to foresee the future.  To forecast the impending chaos of traffic jams despite the umpteen upcoming flyovers in Mumbai, you don’t need deep contemplation in dense forests. All you need is to extrapolate the current situation to envision how gushing water in the foreseeable future will cover whatever space is on offer. 

I am clear about one thing; we are open to engage with those companies who wake up in due course, even those who are pretending to be asleep but definitely not the ones who are pretending to be awake. Unless you understand the logic of sustainable evolution, even irrefutable facts can seem like occult magic. And that is not a conducive ground for architecting design collectives for transformation.

How do you evaluate the “Illumine effect” in the working environments of your client organizations?

We believe reaching out is the best way to help people arrive. Already, by virtue of our engagements, we have impacted the lives of about half a million people. The spiralling effect is helping us reach many more. In this context, I would specifically like to mention our Citizen SBI initiative for the State Bank of India. Thanks to the visionary leadership of the then CEO Mr. O P. Bhatt, the ideal of a ‘Citizen state of mind’ aimed at enlightened self-interest for deeper fulfilment could be successfully aligned with the specific roles and responsibilities of as many as 2,00,000 people across 14,000 branches. XLRI’s independent study at SBI’s behest found that 70 per cent of the staff demonstrated positive transformation – whether through inspired ownership of respective roles, proactive customer service or deeper community relationships.

Can you elaborate a little on your thoughts on career design?

Most graduates intrinsically tend to force-fit the transient awareness of their potential in the defined framework of employment opportunities. Competencies need to be placed in perspective through the conscious self-discovery of one's knowledge and skills which are but a function of time and exposure.

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