A throwback-look at NIIT’s journey is also a peek into India’s evolution in the genes of IT, talent and business models. This timeline is a book of IT and Talent, with every decade inking a new chapter. Let’s turn this photo album.
NIIT was not just a pioneer of a new industry. It was also a welcome disruption in many facets of talent building – marking new career paths and business levers. And it’s a story that started decades back. In an exhaustive video interview, Dataquest Editor Sunil Rajguru dwelt on the many talent layers with the legend himself—Rajendra S Pawar, Chairman, and Co-Founder, NIIT Group. He first shared how NIIT shook up the story of talent and skills in India right from the 1980s. Rajguru rightly asked about Liberalization, Y2K and the Internet—so many changes in the 1990s. So, what was that era like?
Turn of the century – Slow Motion arrival of IT
Those were fantastic decades, Pawar reminisced. “When we launched NIIT, it was like an idea whose time had come. It was born at a time—important in the history of computers and IT. We had seen companies being set up. It was clear to us that while computers were manufactured in India, the constraint was on the people side. Our mission was to bring people and computers together. The 1980s were full of action and innovation in all forms. Like multimedia education. We made it a point that we were in the business of learning and not teaching—and not just a commercially-dominant player. We created network models. We pioneered the idea of franchising in education and scaled it to 2000 centres in 40 countries.” The genesis of this revolution was the coming of IT renaissance—and NIIT played a role in learning, content and talent aspects of it. With the 1990s, Liberalization came. With Y2K, the dotcom bubble also began. “It was a time when we built the first virtual university—a little ahead of time. We were pushing innovation so early on.” He reflected upon some seismic shifts that happened in those years.
Then came the IT service industry’s boom period. “That’s when we launched the largest industry-academic linkage program. By the late 1990, the GNIIT program had around 8000 companies giving 1year paid internship to about 25,000 students—a global record. Towards the end of the 1990s, there was an acute shortage in engineering. NIIT was filling the gap. We were turning ordinary people into extraordinary professionals.”
Those two decades, he captured, were, in short, a roller-coaster ride. “Such fascinating times! We spawned a whole IT training industry as a sector in itself. And we had students from all streams of undergraduate studies.”
Rajguru then jumped in to make him recall – what happened with Y2K—and the pace it set up. What were the next 20 years like? The startup industry and mushrooming of training centers—for instance.
Pawar averred that these decades were different and exciting too: “We had started IT education in government schools. But we also ran experiments for students who were not even in school. How to take connected devices to slums and villages and let them learn on their own—We tried that – as the first ones.”
Liberalization is an important phenomenon in India— there was a spurt in engineering seats in the country. NIIT had its own role—even engineering students needed IT skills. “We created a programme to give an edge to engineers to train them in many IT disciplines,” Pawar reminisced.
The next decade, and the next
Fast Forward to IT everywhere.But the next revolution—in banking—was also around the corner. KV Kamath (former Managing Director and CEO) from ICICI asked NIIT to support it. “We created talent in tens of thousands there also—in retail banking space. From business development to all aspects of banking and insurance – we provided and pioneered for that big wave of talent in 2006-07.
AgriTech, commerce-tech, EdTech—in other words, the X-tech age came next. “The idea of Digital India became strong, and we had tech everywhere. This called for a transition in the talent-building process. IT is pervasive. We need tech everywhere.” Pawar distilled some key forces of that time.
Covid also became a time for ‘sector-by-sector’ transformation, he explained. “Prior to Covid, many people were online, but many were not. In the pandemic period, however, every human being came across digital forces. Especially in education. Covid forced us to push technology to a level where we had no option but to learn online.”
Pawar also stared boldly at the challenges that Covid has left us in its hangover. “Online is a good alternative but not the only one. We have lost so much in that period— collaboration, socialisation, communication—those parts could not be done well in online models. Transfer of content is only a small part of learning”.
“That said, we have come out much more knowledgeable about how to learn online and how to use blended learning. We have been doing it since 1982. But Covid helped us to push new limits and learn new realisations. We are working on ‘new way of learning’ now.” Pawar weighed in.
Rajguru was curious to expand on ‘whether we have cracked the hybrid model’.
“No, we haven’t but we have to, “Pawar conceded… Students are now bored and teachers are exhausted with the online learning model which got popular during the pandemic. The industry is preferring hybrid learning models and we have pushed our learnings of the last 4 decades to provide learners with hybrid skilling solutions. Even today, people are using technology in wrong places—specially where collaboration is required.”
Pawar also highlighted the importance of making education inclusive and accessible to all. In line with this objective, Pawar stated NIIT Foundation (NF) was established in 2004. This was started with the aim of empowering underprivileged individuals through education and skill development programs. With over 2,800 locations nationwide, NF has reached the unreached, ensuring inclusive development across India.
No time to hit the ‘Pause’ button
What next—specially with India’s Mission 2047—where India can be a technological superpower? And when lifelong skilling is the new imperative? asked Rajguru. Talent has become the key to our future. We have population as a huge asset – when other countries have their struggles in this area. It’s about minds. This huge strength of billions of people have to be given an environment to shape well.
Our mission is to help people realise their true potential. We want to be talent builders for the nation. Using the right models for all kinds of learners – that’s crucial. In this digital and connected era, where everyone has devices in their hands – things will be different. Especially when countries across the world are dealing with aging population, it becomes important to focus on the education and skill development of its workforce for the growth of the country.
We need to create opportunities to learn—as strong enablers. For everyone—at every-age – with access to opportunities to learn. Ensuring that the population receives education and develops skills that align with the country’s growth is crucial. Especially as people are hungry to learn. The world has begun to recognize India in a new light. We can’t close our eyes to these extremely optimistic opportunities. We have to seize these opportunities – all of us in academics, Industry, government and every other part of society.”
He also touched upon the advent of AI. “Like automotive, airplane, TV, AI has removed a lot of constraints. But AI has removed, the constraints of the brain. It’s a next big productivity multiplier. We should embrace it. Those who don’t learn it will become irrelevant. Those who did not give up the horse when the car came—got left behind.” He also nudged us to look at what we should learn from the pandemic.
The supply chain disrupted during Covid. Digital will be a foundation for logistics, for engineering, for manufacturing, R&D, for agriculture. Technology will be a foundation for everything. People learning will become a lifelong event, and people will continue to learn at every stage of their life that is for sure. And that’s a great thing, Pawar underlined!
Rajendra S Pawar
Chairman and Co-Founder, NIIT Group
By Pratima H