Published in Corporate Dossier, 14 August 2009, Page 2

‘The Vikram & Vetal Method of Training’ is based on a collection of Sanskrit tales known as Vetal-pachisi, the twenty five tales of the ghost. It is gradually becoming the preferred method of training in the Future Group. The tales speak of a king, Vikramaditya, who is asked by a sorcerer to fetch him a ghost from a crematorium. The only way to fetch a ghost is to keep one’s mouth shut while transporting the ghost back. But the ghost is very clever and determined to escape; he tells the king a story and at the end of it asks a question. “Answer the question, Vikramaditya!” he challenges the king, “If you keep your mouth shut despite knowing the answer your head will burst into a thousand pieces. If you don’t know the answer, then you are not fit to be a king. You might as well take me to the sorcerer who will use me to destroy you.”

The structure of the tales clearly follows the case study method of teaching management. What is a case study if not a story of a problem faced by a company? Management students who try to solve the company’s problem are doing what the Vetal is asking Vikramaditya to do – solve the puzzle, answer the riddle, prove that he is worthy of being a king. For what is a king or a leader or a CEO, if not a problem solver, the one who can take a call when faced with a tricky situation?

We, as Indians, have just not realized the wisdom of our traditional stories – they were used by teachers to transform boys into men. Today, we typically refer to these tales, rather patronizingly, as children’s tales, and never look beyond its entertainment value. But Kishore Biyani who heads the Future Group has been a great believer of storytelling in general and Indian tales in particular. He has been pushing his team to think in this direction, which has finally fructified in this training method.

In the ‘Vikram & Vetal method of training’ followed at the Future Learning and Development centres, the trainer is not supposed to answer questions. He does not give gyaan. He is a Vetal, a ghost, who has nothing to do with the business. He hangs upside down, has a topsy-turvy view of all things. He questions everything, and provokes the students into insight. We believe knowledge works best when taken, rather than given. Thus the king has to come to the ghost; the ghost must never go to the king.

In fact, the training room is like a smashan bhumi, the crematorium, where the king has to come to fetch the ghost. Why a crematorium? Because it is not a productive space – those who attend the training session are not generating business on the shop floor. We are well aware that many in the Operations team (and this is universal) find training a ‘waste of time’ or ‘meaningless ritual ordered by strategists’. We acknowledge that the training room is not a revenue generating space. But if the Vetal in the crematorium is able to provoke the students into becoming Vikramadityas, then those who return to the kingdom from the crematorium will be great kings, people who can take brilliant revenue-generating and loss-preventing calls in the retail environment.

Fundamental to the ‘Vikram & Vetal method of training’ is the core Future group value of respect for people. The tendency in many training methods is that people, especially the floor staff, are empty vessels into which knowledge has to be poured. And once poured, will be retained. This approach does not respect the intelligence and imagination of the participants. A lot of learning, especially in the retail space, is common sense emerging from a sensitive eye. Training is supposed to invoke this common sense and harness the sensitive eye.

Often, we like to order people around: dimaag mat lagao, don’t think. This may be because we fear that if everyone thinks, there will be chaos. Unfortunately, recipients interpret this as: “we are fools who cannot think or these people don’t want us to think or they feel we cannot think.” Such thoughts are counterproductive in the long run.

We encourage our participants not to be like Arjun (those who keep shooting arrows of arguments, but never do anything) or like Bhim (those who find glory in absolute obedience and refuse to think) or like Duryodhan (those who pretend to understand but do not deliver). We encourage them to be like Sahadev (who knows all answers but speaks only when asked) and aspire to be like Vikramaditya (the wise king who could take calls).

Imagine a young man or woman undergoing this method of training. The trainer repeatedly gives a subliminal message – “I believe you have potential. I believe you can answer this question. Maybe with a little prompting, a few leading questions, a little help from friends. But you can.” What happens to his self-esteem? He feels good about himself and is gradually encouraged to have faith in himself and his ability – this is bound to do wonders to his career and to the organization’s and the nation’s balance sheet.

This method does require the trainer and the content writers to give up their position of power. The trainer ceases to become the fountainhead of knowledge – which, we have realized, can be quite an ego trip for many trainers. He/she becomes a true ‘guru’ igniting the fire of wisdom, gently. This demands a great deal of faith and empathy, something that is not easy to come by.

But we, at the Future Group, have faith. And so we greet everyone with Namaste, which to us means – “I salute your potential.” Namaste is not a salutation directed at the you of today but at the you of tomorrow. We salute everyone’s potential to be a Vetal who asks questions and creates Vikramadityas. We also salute everyone’s potential to answer questions and be Vikramadityas in their own spheres of influence.