High school

T.V. Mahalingam        Print Edition: Sept 23, 2007

It's Sebastian Scholtz's last day at the Indian Institute of Management campus in Ahmedabad (IIM-A). During his two-and-a-half-month stay, the 26-year-old German exchange student from the University of Cologne slogged 18-20 hours every day, played tennis, and even tried his hand at cricket, which left him "embarrassed".

Other than an exposure to India and Indian management education, Scholtz also gained something unique-a nickname. To the students who shared his dormitory, Scholtz is "Tambu." That's tent pole in Hindi.

"It's customary at the IIM-A campus," explains second-year student Nitin "Gubbara" Sundar "that everybody has a dorm name given by others living in the same dormitory." The meanings of these names are closely-guarded secrets. But knowing the risqué nature of campus humour, it isn't too hard to guess.

Method and madness

Like most college campuses, IIM-A has the usual ingredients -campus mores, ribald jokes, bearded faculty, the occasional absent-minded professor, task masters, the bright sparks and the laggards; and some students who look like they've spent time in a concentration camp. But the campus has its own unique sense of life-nicknames, frisbee games in the wee hours of the morning, canteens that serve food and tea till 2 a.m., and, of course, the raucous birthday celebrations.

What is it that inspires students, most of whom are likely to go on to wear sober ties and work in boardrooms, to test the realms of the bizarre? "Anything to relieve stress," says Rahul Chaudhary, a first-year student at IIM-A, who has run through nearly 18-20 tests in the last two months. It's no secret that the institute is the toughest in the world to get into-one in about 700 applicants makes the final cut. Of that nearly 73 per cent are engineering graduates for whom wrestling with books is a way of life.

Despite that, the academic schedule can also be punishing. Most first-year students say that they have got used to four hours of sleep. After all, the flagship course at IIM-A-the PGP programme- is more rigorous than most other programmes across the world. "In a typical two-year MBA programme in the US, you have about 680 contact hours that students spend in classrooms. Our two-year programme involves 1,063 contact hours.

WHAT PUTS IIM-A IN A CLASS OF ITS OWN

Founded: 1961
Number of faculty: 83 full time
Percentage of PHDs in full time faculty: 98.9
Number of courses: Five of long duration
Number of students in campus: 850
Number of applications received for admission in 2007 PGP: 1,70,894 (for 250 seats)
PGP-ABM: 20,681 (for 30 seats)
That's almost 60 per cent more," says Professor Arvind Sahay, who teaches pricing and marketing of hitech products at the institute.

The best of the best

So, what is it that makes IIM-A the best management school in the country and among the best in Asia? Is it the long, punishing hours of work? Is it the fact that students compete with the best? Or is it because as a student you are free to play frisbee at odd hours without the fear of being chucked out the next morning? The answer: All of the above, and a lot more. Like Nasscom President Kiran Karnik (1968 batch) says: "I learnt a great deal from my classmates as well as the teachers. The faculty enjoyed a great deal of freedom at the institute to do research."

Broadly speaking, there are two dimensions to IIMA's success as a premier B-school. One, the quality of the institute's faculty and students. Two, the academic freedom the institute has enjoyed over the decades that has led to incredible innovation.

Like IIM-A Director Bakul Dholakia says: "We have the largest number of interdisciplinary faculty in the country. A PhD is almost an entry-level requirement for faculty positions." Close to 99 per cent of the faculty at IIM-A are PhDs. But the institute has teachers who look much beyond that.

"What makes us unique is that we are a school of management and not a business school. We believe that any field where principles of management can be meaningfully applied is our domain. So, you will see our faculty doing research in areas like agriculture, healthcare, hospital management, e-governance etc.," adds Dholakia.

INFRASTRUCTURE IS BEYOND COMPARE

Total land area: 102.6 acres
Built-up area: 1,497 thousand sq. ft
Academic infrastructure details: 18 classrooms, 13 conference halls, a five-storey library, a 400-seater auditorium
Library details: 1,59,000 books, 36,000 periodicals
Residential infrastructure details: 800 single-occupancy rooms for students in 27 buildings; 72 twin-occupancy rooms and 152 air-conditioned rooms for 300 executives; 136 suites for married students; 88 houses for faculty; 194 houses for staff

Another aspect that works well for IIM-A is its case-based approach to management study. IIM-A boasts of the largest number of registered case studies in the country-over 3,000 of them. In all, IIM-A produces two -thirds of the country's management research. "There is a strong conceptual foundation, a strong theoretical framework to all our programmes.

At the same time, the case study method that we use also puts in a very strong decision-making framework. In every case that we study, there is the question-what must this person do? This combination is extremely powerful," says Dean Jayanth Varma.

Foreign students like Sebastian Scholtz vouch for the institute's hands-on approach. "Unlike Germany, where there is emphasis on theory, there is a lot of emphasis on practical decision-making. If you are looking to become a better CEO, this is a better institute to be in," says Scholtz. In addition, the case study approach prevents faculty from being cloistered in the campus environs.

"This is one of the few schools in India where faculty are encouraged to write and teach cases. When you write cases, you stay contemporary," says Sahay, who has authored 12 cases in the last three years.

With faculty researching on topics varying from pricing to dew harvesting in arid areas, it's hardly surprising that the institute's study material is not just up-to-date but forwardlooking. Dholakia says that almost 35-40 per cent of the electives being offered have been developed in the last three years. IIM-A has also led the way when it comes to innovation. An apt example would be the 'placement holiday' that the institute introduced this year. "It's an effort to support students who want to start their own entrepreneurial venture. Basically, students can try out their hand in their own ventures and come back for placements (if they need them) within a year or two," says P.K. Sinha, Chairman of the Placement Committee.

The way ahead

When Dholakia took over as Director in 2002, IIM-A was much smaller. The student population was just about 425; about 900 executives were trained at the institute in that year and the B-school had only two residential full-time programmes. Moreover, the institute had educational tie-ups with barely a dozen foreign institutes. All of that has changed. Today, the student population is close to 800 as the institute offers five full-time residential programmes, including a one-year PGPX course for those with work experience. It trains close to 3,500 executives annually through 100 executive development programmes.

In addition, the institute is far more international in character with more than 25 foreign students on the campus at any given point of time. Dholakia says that the focus has been to give students a cross-cultural experience.

"Of the 250-odd students who graduate every year, about 100 go for summer internships abroad. Another 80-90 go for exchange programmes and we try to make it non-overlapping. So in all out of 250, more than 170-odd have international exposure of some kind," says Dholakia.

Despite this rapid expansion, the institute has several challenges ahead for it to be counted among the best B-schools in the world. Faculty salaries are "a joke" as a result of which hiring faculty is getting tougher. With the government keen on implementing OBC reservations, the student population is likely to increase to 1,100 in three years. That translates into 40 more teachers. With the current salary levels, that task seems Herculean.

All of this leads to the prickly issue of financial autonomy. "In the last four years, we have not taken a single rupee of grant from the Indian government," says Dholakia, "If we are funding our expenditure, including expansion plans (like building a new campus), then why should we not have the freedom to decide what should be paid to our faculty?" But that, like they say, is another story.

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