The slumdog millionaires in enterprise IT

We haven’t gotten out to see a lot of movies in the theatre since our son was born last summer, but my wife and I managed to catch Slumdog Millionaire, which was among the films to receive the most Oscar nominations on Wednesday.

Directed by Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire tells the story of 18-year-old Jamal Malik, who grew up poor and uneducated in India but managed, somehow to wind up winning regularly on the local version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Although many in the TV audience identify and cheer on one of their own as he gets a shot at 20 million rupees, others are increasingly skeptical that someone of Jamal’s caste would have so much knowledge at his fingertips. Only as we learn more about his rough journey from childhood to working as a tea-boy at a Mumbai call centre do we realize that there is more to this particular slumdog.

Although Slumdog Millionaire has all the other elements of a great story – a romance, gunfighting, a Bollywood-style musical showstopper – what appealed to me most about the film was its underlying message about superficial appearances. Jamal is routinely underestimated because of his background, and yet it’s precisely his background – rich in tragedy, but also in the learning that comes through hardship – that gives him an edge in a TV game show.

Even in the call centre, Jamal is presumed to be intellectual inferior to his coworkers, who actually work the phones. When he trips them up on trivia the company’s customers would be interested in, he is singled out as an example to the others. In places, Jamal’s development reminds me of that line from Desiderata to “pay attention to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.” It’s a question of whether we’re willing to listen.

Corporate enterprises have their own slumdogs, whether we acknowledge them or not. You see it in the way some IT staff treat departments that are expected to understand little about the Web or information management. You see it among senior management, who wouldn’t think to talk seriously to their IT manager or CIO about the business implications of reducing the technology budget. Most of all, I think you see it in the attitude taken towards the secretaries, the data entry clerk or other admin staff who don’t get a great day in decision-making but who become more knowledgeable about business processes, and the IT programs underpinning them, than almost anyone else on the payroll.

Slumdog Millionaire tells us that our experiences will make us (in some cases literally) rich, and that it’s foolhardy to count anyone out. I hope that anyone who works in business that sees the film will go back to work taking a second look at the people around them, and drawing out what’s best in them rather than waiting to be surprised. The results could be worth more than Oscar’s gold.

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