This is the next blog in the continuing series of interviews with top-echelon and renowned professionals. In this blog, I have an interview with Dr. Balaji Venkataraman: Top Global Educational and ICT Authority and Visionary, Director Technology & Knowledge Management Commonwealth of Learning, World Technology Award Recipient, Director Global Industry Council.
Dr. Balaji Venkataraman, a specialist in the area of Information and Communication Technology applied to rural development, joined COL on September 1, 2010. He has been active with his students and colleagues in the area of Learning Technology as well, for close to a decade. He received the World Technology Award in the Education category in 2001 (www.wtn.net). In 2011, Dr. Venkataraman was elected to the IFIP IP3 Global Industry Council amongst "internationally recognized luminary executives, thought leaders, and visionaries and for their strong history of providing substantive contributions to global business, industry, society, education, and governments."
Balaji received his Masters' degree from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur in 1984, and completed his PhD in Energy Studies from the University of Madras in India in 1991. He was on the staff of the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai in India in various capacities (1991-2000), notably as the director of the informatics. During his tenure there, he facilitated the development of the Information Villages research project that has created a globally recognized model for applying contemporary ICT in rural development. His work was featured in the international media extensively.
After a short stint in France at a CNRS laboratory in Montpellier, Balaji returned to India in 2001 to join the International Crops Research institute for the Semi Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), which has been a partner of the COL over the last decade. At ICRISAT, which has laboratories and offices in seven countries in sub Saharan Africa and South Asia, Balaji served as the Global Leader for Knowledge Management and Sharing. While here, he has worked with a number of Open Universities in South and Southeast Asia and in Eastern and Southern Africa organizing training programs and workshops to bring technology-mediated knowledge management and ODL closer. In his recent work with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research he was associated with development of digitized UG course materials equivalent to about 10,000 hours of teaching, and in building the Agropedia, a platform that uses advanced web technologies and links web space to mobile telephony. He is also associated with a project to create a generic re-usable learning objects repository.
Balaji has considerable international experience in project and IT management and in consulting. He has worked with the FAO, UNESCO, UNDP-GEF, IDRC (Canada) and with a host of international agricultural research organizations on over a dozen projects, and is associated with the University of Florida as the honorary manager for the joint education center with ICRISAT. He is a member of a number of professional societies such as the IEEE and the ACM, and serves as editor or reviewer for journals in knowledge management, ICT-for-development and Geomatics.
To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link
Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic
You expressed an interest in the IFIP World CIO Forum or WCF. In your opinion, why should CIOs, senior executives, government, industry and academic leaders participate in the World CIO Forum? [Editor’s note: For more information go to: www.worldcioforum.com; Call for papers; WCF news in the IFIP Newsletter ].
"....One of the objectives (of the forum) is to improve understanding between cultures throughout the world....There's also a need for continuing cooperation and collaboration between CIOs because today's world is shifting more and more in the direction of competition with cooperation. Therefore this kind of cooperation is absolutely essential and we are doing everything to increase that...."
How do you feel the WCF will take its participants, global education, and the industry in general to the next level?
"....IT is now going to be focused more on society itself and the public sector is one aspect of society where a need for more upright engagement is becoming necessary....What is also important is the rapid development of green consciousness the world over and IT should contribute to that. Both of these are going to cause a steady paradigm shift that we are going to see over the next decade or so....The WCF is not just a good opportunity but perhaps the only one to understand how such a shift is going to affect us...."
What does it mean to be a specialist in the area of Information and Communication Technology as applied to rural development?
"....At first it meant feeling isolated from the mainstream....It slowly and steadily became a much bigger movement. Now you find that professional societies such as IEEE and ACM jointly hold biennial global conferences devoted to this area....Although I would say that it is not yet mainstream it's a lot closer to industry practice than it used to be even eight years back...."
You joined the Commonwealth of Learning in 2010, what are your goals?
"....To help national institutions use IT to increase educational outreach...."
Can you give us a little more background about the Commonwealth of Learning? What does the Commonwealth of Learning represent?
"....The Commonwealth of Learning was formed as a body to advise national governments who embarked on building Open Universities and Open Schools and launching distance learning paradigms, etc...."
How is Learning Technology developing in the future?
"....The new stimulus for Learning Technology developments are expected to come much more from the post secondary education sector that is oriented towards mass learning. However as of this moment, it is not leading to new developments, it is still to come...."
Can you talk further about your World Technology Award?
"....In my case, my work in India with rural women and men, in helping them to use IT to improve their daily lives, was apparently an attraction for the jury...."
What do you hope to accomplish as a director of the Global Industry Council (GIC)?
"....The Global Industry Council is unique because it brings together leading industry practitioners with education and development workers like myself....To my knowledge the GIC is the only body (at the international level) that advocates ethics alongside professional competence. Therefore I feel very honored that I've been invited to a body that is able to combine this ethical strand with the competence strand...."
What did you achieve at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation as Director of Informatics?
"....One interesting innovation we did in the very early 90's was to transfer the internet power supply to a solar portable tech-based source...."
Describe what you achieved while at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT)?
"....One of the main objectives of my work was to build a system which would help local people understand their own vulnerability to drought...."
Please comment on your work with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and with Agropedia?
"....The agricultural institutions in developing countries have by and large stayed away from promoting IT-mediated rural development efforts. When it comes to information management, the agriculture and food sector as a whole lacks a vision of architecture....That is why Agropedia was conceived of by a number of us. It created opportunities for domain experts in agriculture to come together and to build knowledge models...."
Are there additional international experiences you can share in terms of project and IT management and in consulting?
"....I've been in this area for close to two decades now. My only message is that there are huge gaps in project management for development, and the IT industry should help...."
What one lesson can you share from your prior and current roles?
"....Industry here should become more of an architect rather than just a contractor...."
In your current role, what are your top challenges and opportunities?
"....Challenges: Combining affordability with the efficiency in outreach....A perception issue that IT is not for development....The productization approach, that the industry would be very familiar with, doesn't work in this sector of development; people want to be involved in processes....Opportunities: Great outreach requires great IT....Policies are slowly being made more and more favorable....Investments are becoming available...."
How has your educational background shaped and supported your work?
"....That you should be first a scholar rather than just a specialist, was the understanding given to us by the Indian Institute of Technology and it was fostered during my doctoral days....All this gave me the opportunity to think that you should be able to shift between disciplines as long as your fundamentals in science, technology, and mathematics are very strong and you also have the right aptitude to pick up scholarly stuff, especially from the sector of history as you go along...."
Please make predictions for the future, their implications, and how we can best prepare?
"....I look at the area of resource conservation as a major opportunity...."
What are your thoughts on computing as a recognized profession like medicine and law, with demonstrated professional development, adherence to a code of ethics, and recognized credentials? [See www.ipthree.org and the Global Industry Council, http://www.ipthree.org/about-ip3/global-advisory-council]
"....A lot of our daily lives are going to be dependent on IT systems....Ethics is becoming not just an issue of a subsidiary concern but is becoming a fundamental concern in today’s world, and IT professionals more than anyone else need to be certified ethically in the way doctors are certified....In my view the technical competence combined with ethics is what is going to make this world a great place to live, and what IFIP is doing with the GAC is going to make a significant difference...."
If you were conducting this interview, what questions would you ask, and then what would be your answers?
"....How do you keep IT attractive to the younger generation?....IT was built upon the strength of being open, how do you maintain that openness?....How do you ensure quality and ethics that go necessarily with competence?..."
Balaji, with your demanding schedule, we are indeed fortunate to have you come in to do this interview. Thank you for sharing your substantial wisdom with our audience.