Skilling them softly

Shamni Pande        Print Edition: September 4, 2011

Every morning, students and faculty gather in a circle to offer interfaith prayers, share insights, and appreciate each other. This may not be the traditional way for a business school to start the day, but the School of Inspired Learning, or SOIL, is no chip off the old block.

"The idea is to keep track of what is happening within and without us," says Anil Sachdev, Founder and CEO of SOIL, which started in 2009. Co-created by a consortium of 32 large companies, SOIL also partners 25 non-government organisations for its Social Innovation Program. The initiative aims to foster social responsibility in management education.

Every week, students go to slums near the school and teach the children there. "Unless you actually deal with poverty and social issues first-hand, there is no way to build insight and empathy at a theoretical level," says Sachdev. SOIL weaves these activities together with routine MBA courses such as financial accountancy, and non-traditional subjects such as theatre, appreciative inquiry, sustainability and green capital.

Is this holism just hype by new programmes to attract students? The fact that even older B-schools have started to incorporate liberal arts subjects into their curriculum suggests it is not. As the global economy experiences uncertainty, disruptive technological change and a highly competitive environment, businesses are increasingly realising that they need new skill sets.

MDI students use theatre to study real-life cases
MDI students use theatre to study real-life cases
Courses that have traditionally had a functional orientation are loosening up to deal with the demands of the times. In 2009/10, IIM Lucknow introduced an elective course for second-year students, called 'Leadership through Literature', in which Himanshu Rai, Associate Professor and Chairman of the Human Resources Management Area, teaches classics such as William Shakespeare's Othello and I rawati Karve 's Yuganta. "We draw parallels between the characters and our world," he says.

Delhi's Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, or IIFT, offers a course called 'Psychology for Managers', besides the usual ones on business communication and organisational behaviour. The institute also set up a psychometric lab this year, where students can benefit from a counselling-based approach to hone their personality and emotional traits. Tests are followed up with a series of interactions between students and faculty members. "We try to help students improve their behaviour and response patterns," says M. Venkatesan, Associate Professor, IIFT. It was SOIL that pioneered such personality assessment of students in Indian B-schools, using a tool called Caliper, which identifies traits and helps students choose courses based on their aptitude.

IIFT also uses tools that can assess whether students have innate entrepreneurial abilities. "If they don't, we teach them leadership skills and the art of taking risks," says Venkatesan. IIFT also offers a module on understanding perception and intelligence.

Pramath Sinha, Founder-Director of the Young India Fellowship, or YIF, says functional skills are important, but so is getting young people to think and become aware. "One cannot make someone a leader in a year, but we certainly start the process," he adds.

While YIF, a one-year programme of the International Foundation for Research and Education, Delhi, may be an alternative to a B-school education, its curriculum includes Business Overview, Listening, Critical Thinking and Writing, Economics and Leadership. "I come from a middle-class background, and I thought this course was a good investment of my time for the kind of exposure it gives me," says N.S. Mrudula, a mechanical engineering graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, who has joined the course.

"An MBA soon after my engineering degree was not an option for me." Since 2006, Management Development Institute, or MDI, Gurgaon, has been using theatre to improve communication and negotiation skills. "Indian theatre has the concept of the nine rasas or emotions," says Ashok Kapoor, Professor, Business Communication, MDI. "A CEO, too, has to manage emotions and people. This medium enables people to overcome inhibitions and role-play real situations."

MDI students write their own skits, and build in a resolution and a message. "Thus they experience teamwork and conflict resolution, and work on soft skills by exploring interpersonal relationships as part of the play," says Kapoor. SOIL, too, teaches through theatre.

"We like to take up real situations, but we don't always reveal the name and the company to our students," says Sachdev, who has counselled leaders during consulting stints and as adjunct faculty at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, and four American universities.

He gave BT the example of a play whose hero was based on Rajeev Dubey, President, Group Human Resources and Aftermarket Sector, Mahindra & Mahindra, because of the difficult decision he took during the 2009 slowdown not to downsize his permanent staff. Masking the real names of people and companies lets students interpret the situation freely.

Besides learning skills, such activities are also aimed at de-stressing and achieving work-life balance. For example, some modules of Symbiosis Institute of Business Management's two-year course are taught off-campus, to help students reduce stress. Now, that is a refreshing idea.
 

Additional reporting by Dearton Thomas Hector, Manu Kaushik and Geetanjali Shukla

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