Ashish Sharma








Jan 2020 – Sept 2022

By Ashish Sharma

Learning to Excel in the time of coronavirus

What do you do when you arm yourself with meticulous mental notes from a newly read JK Rowling but run into a far more macabre plot, albeit one with a hidden-in-plain-sight deception worthy of an Agatha Christie?

Ashish at Balliol College

At Balliol College

Rowling was a well-considered choice. Once the admission offer to the Oxford Executive MBA came through, around six months ahead of the start of the programme at Saïd Business School, years of journalistic practice mandated reading up as much as possible on the venerable university as well as what poet Matthew Arnold famously described as “that sweet city with her dreaming spires”.

Arnold, along with economist Adam Smith and writers Aldous Huxley and Graham Greene, among a long list of illustrious alumni spanning more than 750 years, informed the choice of Balliol College, in keeping with the Oxford University system where every student is a member of a college in addition to the course department. For getting to feel at home in Oxford, though, there was no getting past Rowling. Her protagonist, Harry Potter, had worked his magic on the city where parts of the films based on the fantasy novels were shot. He was part of conversations among people of all ages and he had spawned a tourism industry all his own, complete with merchandise and guided tours to the filming locations, as the short visit for the EMBA interview revealed. So much so that he seemed to have supplanted older acquaintances like Alice who had a real connection with the city.

It was time to give up resistance of previous years and make short work of the series of novels while saying a heartfelt thank you to popular culture for once for not lionising someone more demanding or, for that matter, less engaging. After all, this was just one element of the preparation.

Then, closer to the start of the programme, came some reading material from the School. The pre-arrival pack included a beginner’s guide to Excel, an apt reminder, metaphorical and otherwise, that whatever may have helped secure the ticket would not suffice for negotiating the journey that was about to begin. To Excel, or not to Excel: that was not the question. How to get started on it effectively alongside the full-time job was, as it would be for other less elementary requirements along the way in the ensuing months.

Feeling rather like Corporal Miller, aka David Niven, who tells Captain Keith Mallory, aka Gregory Peck, in The Guns of Navarone, after inspecting the fishing vessel that is supposed to take them across the Aegean Sea, “I think you ought to know that I can’t swim,” one felt obliged to confess to the good professor the state of the personal relationship with Excel at the first opportunity. As for quoting Corporal Miller verbatim, a more appropriate time would come at the start of the rowing exercise a few months down the line. But that would be to get ahead of the story so far.

Ashish at the Divinity School

At the Divinity School

Come January 2020 and the programme started in a kaleidoscopic swirl of set pieces arranged against breathtaking backdrops, beginning with a warm welcome at the Ashmolean Museum and climaxing with the matriculation ceremony at the Divinity School. A daily routine of about eleven hours, with time off one evening for visiting one’s college, made for an intensive as much as exhilarating return to formal education.

The School’s selection of subjects to start the programme – analytics and leadership fundamentals – would prove much more opportune than one realised at the time. Right in the middle of the first module came a statement from the World Health Organization mission to China to the effect that there was evidence of human-to-human transmission of Covid-19 in Wuhan, although more evidence was required to assess the extent of transmission. Tragically, its significance would require the benefit of hindsight to be duly appreciated.

By the last week of February, when it was time to reassemble for the second module, the novel coronavirus had infected conversations within the cohort as concerns mounted over the feasibility of the next module in India, scheduled for about three weeks later. Otherwise, life appeared to carry on as usual in Oxford. A bit of snow fell for the first time in the season, just when some residents had started to give up on the wintry spectacle. Another traditional retailer threw in the towel, this time the city’s oldest and largest independent department store, dating back to 1738, its notices of mouth-watering discounts in the final clearance sale evoking a sense of lasting loss more than immediate gains.

The subsequent deferment of the India module, following a rapid spread of the killer disease in several countries and increasing curtailment of international flights, dented sentiment in the cohort further, marking a sharp shift from the highs of less than two months earlier that would have tested the emotive range of even a Hania Aamir.

Data became the new gospel as experts across the world worked on complex models to project the trajectory of Covid-19. Data also formed the basis for correlations that some people sought to draw between the spread of the disease and sundry other factors such as the roll-out of 5G wireless technology and even countries segregated on the basis of most favoured alcoholic beverage. Absorbing analytics classes, supplemented by discussions with incredibly helpful classmates, made it possible to make sense of the data analyses and debates sparked by different models that led to strikingly divergent conclusions and therefore policy prescriptions.

Discussions within the cohort intensified in tandem with growing uncertainty over the continuance and nature of the programme in a radically disrupted environment. With apologies to Huxley, a strange new world had come to pass, one where socialising gave way to social distancing, work shifted from offices to homes wherever possible, thousands of prisoners were set free but millions of ordinary people were practically imprisoned, and the chirping of birds replaced the din of traffic in usually crowded cities, even as lockdown acquired a more considerate connotation. In other ways, it was agonisingly familiar. Those with least access to resources were largely left to fend for themselves. Communalism, xenophobia and other such demons reared their ugly heads where they were not already in play.

Education, the great equaliser, unwittingly served as a tool to reinforce inequalities, as many members of the cohort were forced to confront afresh their personal circumstances that they had hoped to surmount by attending the programme. Salary cuts and potential job losses, along with sharp currency depreciations and a looming global recession of monstrous proportions made a mockery of even the most prudent of financial plans.

Online communication tools helped cement bonds forged during the first two modules. Virtual meetings, among those who managed to attend, were an unqualified success. That wasn’t something that could be said about the prospect, nay inevitability, of doing at least a few modules online. Recourse to such technology, for all its wondrous possibilities, was not why 74 people from 33 countries, representing 23 different industry sectors, had committed themselves to converging in Oxford every other month or so for nearly two years. The ship had hit the iceberg.

Except that, from a larger perspective, it wasn’t really an iceberg, was it? Wasn’t it more a case of an insular politics mistakenly believing it was insulated, failing to grasp that it had not quite managed to refashion the world in its own image despite the populist appeal of its rhetoric over the past few years? Wuhan, or wherever Covid-19 originated, wasn’t conveniently someplace else, was it? Would that sobering realisation, however, trigger a realignment of politics with more pragmatic economic imperatives in a post-coronavirus world or give a fresh impetus to darker impulses of politics? Questions burst forth on the hoax that turned out to be anything but.

The School soon started organising live online sessions with experts to address questions related to the nature and likely impact of Covid-19, and ways to address new global challenges, tapping into cutting edge resources from across the university that would be the envy of any other institution. Besides, it offered considerable flexibility to those who felt they would be better off suspending their studies, at any stage, and resuming a year later. The unprecedented crisis reaffirmed early on that, in person or otherwise, Oxford was the place to be.

Saïd Business School

Saïd Business School

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