Learn by heart: Lessons in creation

I am your neighbourhood jack-of-all-arts, currently to be found occupying a human resources (HR) position (and a cabin with natural light; more on this in a bit) in a large multi-national company. But in fact, two post-graduate degrees and four careers – including production, social enterprises, art – over the past 20+ years mean HR has occupied just about half the time.

And such meandering came in handy in being part of the core team that created the learning centre of the future in Bangalore for the said large multinational. Who would have thought!

Here is a story of that journey and that team

PROLOGUE

Art galleries need money. So, when a part-time opportunity came up for giving shape to the idea of a learning centre, the business case for which had not been approved for the previous five years, I exclaimed – “I’m in!”

THE BEGINNING

The Promised Land: The first and significant decision point. Should we build it close to a delivery centre in a crowded part of the city or in splendid isolation in the lap of nature? Re-purpose a few floors in an existing facility or fit out a new one? Is facility management adequate or do we need a hospitality partner? Do learners need a golf course or is learning a state of mind?

The Tax head for India, unsurprisingly, presented us with our first condition: with learners from different countries expected to come in, we could not run this in the same building we delivered to clients.

Several others followed. For example, the Workplace team’s intelligence told us we need to have a hotel as a hospitality partner with co-location being a must, given the traffic horrors.

Overall, wouldn’t it so much more relevant if employees from all over the world could meet their colleagues in their work settings, seeing where the company delivered a massive amount of contracts? That’s what the business wanted.

And I wanted sunshine.

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Months passed. Many reviews were held. Space after space was dismissed on various grounds of unsuitability. For example, we had to reject a building because our Asset Protection team thought it would be unsafe in case of fire, and on many occasions I found myself standing in the middle of shell buildings, muttering out loud, “I don’t think there is enough natural light…yes, yes, I can see walls are strong…but don’t you feel happier when you don’t need a bulb?”

And then one day, we had it. The piece of real estate that checked all the boxes. We had come a full circle – the chosen one turned out to be the place where we had run a very successful ‘proof of concept’ pilot!

THE MIDDLE

Enlightenment: The identified venue was built initially as serviced apartments and was going to turn into an office building like many in the city. Not exactly conducive to learning. With small floor plates, medium-ish ceiling heights and slimmer budgets than what blue-chips enjoyed two decades ago, we needed to step away from the world of plenty. Minimalism made sense as a word, and we thought we understood it because we read about it in visually appealing formats. We didn’t really.

So, we sat on a jet plane and reached Tokyo, to learn minimalism from a cultural context that breathes and lives it; to contrast it with the fantastical worlds of Silicon Valley behemoths.

We returned wiser. We had the first-hand experience of what it means to believe in minimalism as a survival principle. We also learned to appreciate why design decisions should be derived from a single question, ”Will this help the learner?”. User experience was the core.

We knew it was not enough to have a great design on paper. Equal partnership with contractors who were being pushed to innovate, with our hospitality partners to establish service levels (in a new legal and commercial framework) and with our real estate partners to call out accountability and responsibility of the management of the centre – were critical. All streams were underway when we presented the final business case to the leadership team – and it was a go!

THE END

Chaos to Cosmos: A lot changed along the way. Each day we understood things a little bit better as the cross-functional team brought in their diverse and rich experience and ideas to the table.

The smallest thing mattered and was debated by all and sundry who had context and opinion, almost like the loveable Army of Gup in Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

 – A 100 sq ft of space earlier seen as critical in the 100,000 + built-up area was suddenly out-of-bounds and almost drove us to a mutiny (of course, each one wanted to lead the rebellion until the realization that it was a team of equals)

 – False ceilings were removed from common spaces to add the sense of space; there was doubt on plain concrete being exposed, and we talked at length to people why they felt a smooth even painted surface was less ugly.

 – The dominant stone was finally the humble, locally available Cera. The colours of fabric came from a palette derived from the city’s blooms.

 – The size of the tables needed to be exact to an inch to accommodate the standard pod of learners.

 – Use of lettuce in place of spinach, to cater to an international audience had cost implications

 – The coffee (fuelling imagination for thousands of years) machine was decided before the pantry space was designed, which ended up saving six inches of valuable space in a narrow area.

 – The technology team eventually understood that the false ceiling tiles were not poor quality, their delicateness improved the acoustics.

And this is but a sample.

Like in the essence of all creation, here too, an order was wrenched out from chaos, and it all came together in the end. A profoundly emotional team, from not just within but drawn from the vendors who were partners, that was a sum greater than its parts, took a bow at the inauguration that involved the traditional lighting of the lamp and, fittingly, a learning session.

 

Credits: This article has been contributed by ex-colleague, HR leader and friend Sonali or Ms. Li as we call her affectionately.

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