Courtesy: William Jacobson

The mystery of visible results from invisible networks

Somjit Amrit

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Have you ever felt euphoric, the overwhelming feeling of joy? We work in the area of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), and the highest end of this discipline covers the esoteric world of Brain-Computer Interaction (BCI). No, I will not pin you down with technicalities.

Euphoria is one of the blessings of being a human. As a recreational badminton player on the wrong side of the fifties, I get euphoric when I win against a much younger and more talented player as an opponent.

We felt “euphoric” when we won a significant engagement from the Central Government’s prestigious Skill Development scheme to train nearly 2,000 youth from underprivileged and under-served backgrounds. Our fledgling Skill Development activity got a much-needed fillip. We felt proud of our achievement because our tireless efforts helped us get this result. Results are not always a measure of our efforts, so this win brought with it the rare euphoric halo.

The Euphoria was followed by Emptiness.

Then the details started emerging, and the complexities of the engagement surfaced. The initial rush of excitement was wearing off. Each member of the team was looking at the other to grab than unseen cue on what to do next, and how to move to the next steps of this engagement. Who will marshal the prospective students, who will deal with the government guidelines, and who would be the trainers and how do we accomplish the government’s stated objectives with the limited budget provided?

Being uncertain, and unsure, a sense of emptiness engulfed me. Anxiety set in. Thankfully, the weekend came. It gave me some time to step back and reflect on what to do next with the resources we were given.

Destiny strikes- didn’t someone say,“The harder you work (or think), the luckier you get.”

As I was brooding after a hearty breakfast on Saturday, a LinkedIn message popped in. In there was the magic phrase “Skill Development” and the mention of an IIT. This message was from a long-lost ex-colleague of mine. I swooped in with my fingers feverishly tapping the keyboard sharing my contact number and asking for his. We got connected. It turned out that he was an advisor in Skill Development with experience in handling similar Government programs I was now grappling with. He has “been there and done that” in leading and managing these types of sometimes unwieldy Government programs. This is something I have never had an experience with, notwithstanding my oft-shared professional experience of more than 3 decades.

Calls were made, teams were identified, roles and responsibilities were assigned, and the modus operandi to work with the government officials was established. We constructed the guide rails for executing the program surprisingly quickly thanks to the effective collaboration with the government officials and the timely guidance from the newly discovered guardian angel, our Advisor!

We set up the target to launch the program by the month’s end — encouraged by the brisk coordination all across.

The significance of the seemingly insignificant

Let me lead you on a different track. Do the names of the villages — Nadel, Nalan, Kataula, Sindoa, Shura, Baggi, Shaikli, Tehri ring a bell? I am sure this is a chestnut that cannot be broken open, as yet. Too insignificant to bother about, maybe!

My ex-colleague, our designated advisor was requested to come over to the IIT campus to help direct the launch of the program on a date that was too aggressive.

The journey from Mumbai to Mandi includes a monotonous seven-hour road trip from Chandigarh up to the foothills of the Himalayas, where the IIT campus is nestled.

Recruitment of students (for a program of this kind) from the hinterland of the country is a tough undertaking. Once the recruitment hurdle is crossed, the next challenge is the retention of the students over the period of the program, which is of a 3- 4 months duration. Care has to be taken to recruit the students who are in the vicinity of the campus at the same time not ignoring the youth from far-flung places. The latter would require residential facilities in the campus and the former would be day-scholars. A mix of such candidates gives us a diverse student pool and also optimizes the cost of running the program.

Our advisor was picked up by the cab driver from one of the surrounding villages circling Mandi. In a long seven-hour drive, you naturally become friends with your driver. The need to recruit the underprivileged and under-served youth came up for discussion. The driver promptly used the power of connecting through WhatsApp. Groups were formed, and the message was created in conversational Hindi. The meeting date with the prospective students was set for in the next two days. As seen here, because the work got primed as soon as the advisor sat in the car, it resulted in its rapid-fire progress.

Much to our delight, the message that IIT’s Tech Hub would be imparting training for employability caught like wildfire. During the lunch at the Guest House, we posed queries if the said program’s guidelines would allow training of the youth in the emerging technology areas of Artificial Intelligence, Product Design and Robotics. These are the hot skills that enhance employability. The answer was in the affirmative.

By D-Day, we had registered more than one hundred students. No wonder we were exhilarated by the flood of response. This was all possible because of the viral power of Word-of-Mouth (WoM). There was no expensive campaign management, no unreliable flyers in the newspapers, or any real planning to enroll the prospective students.

The youth came from the villages in and around the IIT, located in the village of Kamand surrounded by the sister villages of Nadel, Nalan, Kataula, Sindoa, Shura, Baggi, Shaikli, Tehri!

Why did the WoM marketing work here?

Well, there are three major points that I believe worked:

The power and the phenomenon of the IIT Brand. Everyone wants to get associated with this brand. The brand promises employability among other things.

Himachal Pradesh is a small state where agriculture and tourism are employment providers. A sizeable portion of this albeit small state is sparsely populated and inaccessible. This gives it few distractions and anything associated with modern technologies is absorbed by its populace with a sense of curiosity and keenness.

The villages are well-connected, and people are engaging and helpful.

The stupendous response we received just with that oxymoronic “Humble Marketing” tool — the buzz created through WoM sparked the excitement.

Closing remarks

This is the beginning of our journey to register, recruit, retain, train, and certify nearly two thousand students. We have to reach out not to individual students but rather to networks of students, remembering all along that the buzz can only start through superior end user (enrolled student) experience.

The effort needs to be expended in training and transforming the students to be employable through the delivery of a memorable experience — under promising and overdelivering all along.

Information and influence do not require huge marketing budgets. The power of WoM in this case says it all. Through aggregated buzz tools like WhatsApp and Telegram which have democratized the flow of information, we can create a positive impact.

This is a classic example of delivering visible results with invisible networks. It all started with, the “thinking on his feet” by our Advisor, aided by the use of tools like WhatsApp, the unmistakable bond created through conversational Hindi as the language, and the phenomenal power of the brand called IIT to draw the prospects. The recipe for success was put together through the power of Word of Mouth!

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Somjit Amrit

Business Consulting pays the bills and taking care of Bees in wild calms the nerves