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Industry’s furious hunt for quality managers with deep tech skills has nudged India’s top B-schools to mash data analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning into a staid management curriculum. Output: a new breed of MBA graduates.
By: Vidya S
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Consulting biggies like Deloitte have been hiring several MBA graduates from the top Indian B-schools the past few years. You’d expect the company to hire based on management skills and, at best, soft skills. But there’s a new must-have in B-town—deep tech understanding. “If you do not have an idea about AI (artificial intelligence), ML (machine learning) and analytics and how to use them, you could be missing the woods for the trees. It is the bare minimum expectation we have of management graduates who join us,” says S.V. Nathan, Deloitte India’s Partner and Chief Talent Officer. Adds Aashish Kshetry, VP (HR & Systems) of Asian Paints, another frequent recruiter at the top B-schools: “Good data orientation coupled with domain knowledge is the best fit for us. So, we hire for the first and build the second to make that combination work for us.”  

Did your ears prickle? Well, bury the sensation. If data is the new oil, the purple people are the new oilmen. These are new-breed executives with a blend of management (blue) and technical (red) skills. If you don’t have such people in your business, well, you better get them pronto. And if you don’t know where to look, go to the birthplace of business execs. Some of India’s best B-schools are already building data drilling rigs to train these purple oilmen—the management curricula of India’s top colleges are fast acquiring a technical flavour, showcasing courses and specialisations on hot STEM topics like data analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“There’s a fair degree of unanimity among senior executives in the industry that there are three important changes in the business environment—the advent of digital technology, the pervasive importance of data, and the growing importance of ESG (environmental, social and governance) parameters,” says Director Rishikesha T. Krishnan of IIM Bangalore (IIMB), which started a two-year full-time MBA in Business Analytics last year. The institute has retained its third position in the BT-MDRA B-school Ranking 2021. “Companies are pretty clear these need to be appropriately included in the MBA curriculum.”

Krishnan’s counterpart at IIM Ahmedabad (IIMA), Errol D’ Souza, agrees and points out that while students need to know the traditional management disciplines, “they also need to know how they are changing under the onslaught of ML and AI. We had underplayed the technology part earlier”. The institute, which ranked second in this year’s BT ranking, has launched a 16-month blended diploma programme in advanced business analytics for working professionals.

There are three important changes in the business environment—the advent of digital technology, the pervasive importance of data, and the growing importance of ESG parameters

Rishikesha T. Krishnan

Director, Indian Institute of Management Bangalore

In this annual carnival of BT’s take on business education, we spot quite a few other interesting trends, too. ESG may be firing on the corporate nerve centres, but companies are not sending the pulses to campuses yet. And the value of soft skills has only been accentuated by the pandemic. Then, B-schools’ inability to tweak their curriculum on the run to meet fast-changing business realities has made them strike partnerships with third-party learning platforms, including edtech companies, to plug the learning and skill gaps. This is a party that is beginning to swing hard. There’s also the aspect of top institutes offering blended MBAs, which are regular duration MBA courses offered online with some classes taken offline. And to top it all, we present the rankings of the 2021 edition of BT-MDRA Best B-schools Survey for you to relish.

They [students] also need to know how they [traditional management disciplines] are changing under the onslaught of ML and AI. We had underplayed the technology part earlier

Errol D’Souza

Director, Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad

It’s not that technology or mathematics had no place in management education before. As anybody in corporate management would tell you, Statistics and Microsoft Excel sheets are their lifelines. But today it’s about AI, ML and analytics, and it’s not about coding. “When you see B-schools embracing these technologies, they are not actually teaching students how to code or how to read the heuristics behind them,” says IIM Lucknow (IIML) Director Archana Shukla. “But B-schools are definitely enabling them to make sense of the data.” The institute, which has participated in the BT-MDRA B-school rankings for the first time, has ranked fourth. 

Not every college is introducing new specialisations, though. IIM Indore (IIMI) added analytics courses in 2020 to just about all areas of its regular MBA programmes, says Director Himanshu Rai. “We have made it mandatory for students to have at least one analytics course in each of the fields they wish to specialise in. If they choose HR, we necessarily have something in HR analytics. For marketing, we have something in marketing and analytics as well as digital marketing.” The school, which has finished seventh in the BT-MDRA ranking, launched a 10-month online Integrated Programme in Business Analytics in partnership with learning platform Jigsaw in 2019.

But the new Dean at Bhavan’s S. P. Jain Institute of Management and Research (SPJIMR), Varun Nagaraj, cautions that sometimes it is the same old spreadsheets that are given a spin as analytics. “It is extremely important to be conversant in data. But it doesn’t mean you have five courses in data sciences with no functional context.” If you were building a mobile app, explains Nagaraj, data can tell you if customer engagement is increasing. “But if you knew what you were trying to do, you can figure out if there is a customer need that they are not talking about, and what features you could offer that you’re not offering currently that they would use. Data won’t tell you that directly.”

The applications of such an approach go way beyond e-commerce and technology. From ensuring a hospital’s procurement is integrated with all the needs of a patient, to pricing peak-time ticket fares for a travel firm, to understanding consumption patterns for a traditional products company, every company’s management today has to rely on data analytics to make decisions.

It is extremely important to be conversant in data. But it doesn’t mean you have five courses in data sciences with no functional context

 Varun Nagaraj

Dean, S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research (SPJIMR)

Beer maker AB InBev has a dedicated Growth Analytics Centre in India to churn out insights from small and big data. People Director (India & South East Asia) Tanushree Mishra says data literacy, if not expertise, is crucial because “our intuition and experience are built on a world that does not exist today and will change even more rapidly tomorrow. In fact, even choosing which business school we should go and hire talent from is all driven by multiple data sets now”.

Apart from the industry push, there are also three external reasons for the surging popularity of data subjects, according to Manish Gangwar of ISB. “First, our ability to collect data from different sources, and understand and analyse them, has improved in the past decade,” says Gangwar, who is Associate Professor and Executive Director, ISB Institute of Data Science. “Second, the internet has made it easier and faster to move data across different places. Third, data storage has become cheap and there is a lot more computational power at hand to analyse huge amounts of data.”

Everybody agrees that companies need MBA graduates to use their business-technology expertise to ask the right questions and derive suitable and actionable solutions. Deloitte’s Nathan puts it like this: “Synthesising data into information, information into insights and insights into actions that will help the organisation—that’s the continuum people are looking for.” For instance, the analytics course at IIMA, says D’ Souza, teaches you to look at why a certain hashtag is trending on Twitter, what it says about your organisation, and what changes you need to do to influence that. “These are management issues, but they are tech-driven.” He says students from the business analytics course’s first cohort were placed in 11-12 industries and IIMA has received good feedback.

The other facet, as ISB’s Gangwar points out, is that the definition of a product has also changed from physical objects only to include virtual features as well. “Facebook would call the ability or a feature to identify the people you should be connected to as a product.” Traditionally, products are managed by marketing teams. “Now, not only do you need marketing skills, but you also require technological skills to understand and analyse consumer preferences to create winning products,” he adds.

 Facebook would call the ability or a feature to identify the people you should be connected to as a product

 Manish Gangwar

Associate Professor and Executive Director, ISB Institute of Data Science

As issues of global warming, diversity and inclusion, and ethical practices increasingly become part of everyday conversation, there are discussions in India around the ESG parameters of companies at various forums. There is palpable investor interest, too, as mutual fund houses classify and rank companies based on ESG disclosures. But from a B-school perspective, the story is a little different. 

The subjects, though not as popular as AI and ML, are gaining slow traction at some B-schools. IIMA’s D’ Souza says the institute has introduced subjects on carbon trading, environmental impact assessment, thinking through good governance, probity in governance and administration, and accountability over the past three-four years. “We are about to open a research centre on ESG sometime this year to [take] forward this area of work. Most organisations are interested in ESG, but frankly the past one year has made them introspect—can I ask that profit be put before purpose, or is purpose before profit?”

IIML started a sustainable management specialisation several years ago under which subjects like environment and social risk management, environment finance and human dimensions of sustainability are taught. “There is a demand [for these topics] and there is concern [among organisations] but not every school is paying attention to sustainability as a programme because it has not got as much visibility in the minds of people as analytics has,” says Shukla. She says students graduating from the course are employed in different industries such as consulting, NGOs and energy. “Still, many organisations don’t have a separate vertical for ESG or appropriate reporting structures. Companies with independent departments hire them for those departments. Otherwise, they give them the responsibility of driving sustainability in the organisation.”

“Some business institutions have tried to build programmes around these subjects, but there were no takers in terms of the job opportunities for students,” says IIMI’s Rai. That’s why B-schools need to advocate good practices instead of being merely reactive to the needs of the industry, he adds. The Indore institute has an organic garden on the campus, which students tend to. The students are also expected to live in a village for a week as part of a rural engagement programme.

While the institutes are waiting for a clear indication from companies, the companies in turn are looking for government policies and laws. “The industry is predicated by government policies. If the government moves into ESG in a significant way, the industry will have no choice but to follow. Then we’ll be able to tell the campuses what we require,” says Nathan of Deloitte. Adds ISB’s Gangwar: “Firms are not going to do it on their own. Some pressure from the investors is good, but that pressure will not be enough. The biggest push can only come from the government like it did with CSR.”

Heartening as it may be that many B-schools are trying to respond to the needs of the industry, the 20-25 crème-de-la-crème schools are just a sliver among the several thousand that are functional in the country. The differences between them are stark in terms of the curriculum, facilities and placement records. 

Even among the top 100 in the BT-MDRA Best B-schools Survey 2021, there is a yawning gap between the average annual salary of students in the top 25 schools at Rs 19.63 lakh and the next 25 best schools’ average of Rs 9.93 lakh. The subsequent two groups of 25 schools each average Rs 7.31 lakh and Rs 6.19 lakh in annual salary packages, respectively. The trend and the salary levels have stayed almost the same for the past three years, showing that the top 25 schools are really the exception.

Even these islands of excellence, as they are so often referred to, are fraught with challenges. For one, they are nowhere close to what a Harvard Business School or a Stanford Graduate School of Business does when it comes to data applications because India copies AI and ML models from the US, according to Gurugram-based MBA consultant Jatin Bhandari. His firm PythaGURUS Education coaches around 100 students every year to get into top B-schools in India and abroad. “We are far away from Silicon Valley, which is the epicentre of these developments. Right now, Indian B-schools waking up to data are in a position similar to the Indian IT industry 20 years ago as the back-end centre for developed countries.”

Choosing which business school we should go and hire talent from is driven by multiple data sets now

Tanushree Mishra

People Director (India & South East Asia), AB InBev

AB InBev’s Mishra agrees that the journey has just begun in India. “We need to move at the same speed as the world is… We need to be at the cutting edge of it rather than wait for Silicon Valley or Tel Aviv to first try it out and then copy that curriculum.”

Stuck with curriculum reviews that happen once in five years and two-year MBA programmes where course outlines, case materials and assessment methods are planned a year in advance, colleges agree they cannot respond fast enough to the changing industry demands. “There’s always going to be a lag,” says IIMI’s Rai. Testing out changes in executive education could be a solution, he says, as they are of shorter duration and the feedback would come from students who continue to hold jobs in the industry. Yearly reviews and adding on courses from newer learning platforms to the regular course could be another way out, he adds.

The trend is already taking shape as leading schools and third-party learning platforms, including edtech companies, have been co-creating online MBA programmes like in the case of Jigsaw and IIMI. Many B-schools are also using the services of these platforms to plug gaps in their own curriculum. Jigsaw’s Co-founder and CEO Gaurav Vohra says around 15 B-schools have used its programmes to train their students. “Many universities have recognised that their MBA students need to be well-versed in data skills before they get into the job market. There is a lot of interest from the institutes themselves, too.” The firm, a part of the Manipal Education and Medical Group, offers programmes on emerging technologies for IT, retail and also for various companies and working professionals. But 3,000-4,000 MBA students have also signed up for its programmes in one form or the other, mostly to learn data-related skills, Vohra adds.

Similarly, edtech firm Imarticus Learning says 20-30 per cent of its learners are recent MBA graduates or early-career management professionals. Apart from offering online MBA programmes in partnership with NMIMS, Birla Institute of Management Technology and others, Imarticus says it also works with a bunch of B-schools such as Mumbai’s Thakur Institute of Management Studies & Research, and N.L. Dalmia Institute of Management Studies and Research to deliver a small portion of their MBA curriculum to make it more relevant. “We add to their curriculum anything from a 30-hour intervention to year-long interventions,” says Co-founder and COO Sonya Hooja, adding that a majority of the MBA colleges in India run on outdated curricula. “The progressive ones have realised the need to upgrade it themselves or work with external players to make it more relevant.”

“All these things are evolving as things are changing rapidly. I am sure different institutes are doing different experiments. Institutes that don’t have the expertise probably collaborate with external providers,” says IIMB’s Krishnan.

A handful of IIM students, former and current, says these skills can be picked up anywhere. But the more than Rs 16-lakh two-year education at one of the top 25 campuses offers many intangibles including peer-to-peer learning, a good network and even time-management skills. The top institutes also add to that list technical expertise placed within a context. IIMA and IIMB say they are able to leverage their data labs to infuse technical expertise into their MBA programmes. “We integrate it into all disciplines to try to make them see the big picture. It is not about focussing just on the technical parts of a problem. It is about trying to see how people can use that to benefit the organisation,” says D’ Souza.

And yet, some companies flag the very same thing as a mismatch between what they expect from new hirings and what colleges offer. Although it may not be the case with talent from the bigger and fabled schools, there is a glaring gap between learning and application in the real world, say some companies. While we can’t paint everyone with the same brush, there are some gaps, says Deloitte’s Nathan. “Learning for a degree, simple and single specialisation, and fixed curriculum are all passé. There is a gap in a multi-disciplinary approach to learning.” He says a marketing or HR professional can be so focussed on her specialisation that she may not understand how the larger business works. “The connectedness of it all is important. Not everybody is able to get this down. We look for plug-and-play candidates because we don’t have a lot of time these days to train management graduates.”

Learning for a degree, simple and single specialisation, and fixed curriculum are all passé. There is a gap in a multi-disciplinary approach to learning

S.V. Nathan

Partner and Chief Talent Officer, Deloitte India

However, global executive search firm EMA Partners’ K. Sudarshan disagrees. “Organisations should be patient and expect to train and invest in people, especially given that they go as much to engineering colleges as to management schools to hire fresh talent to work on areas like digital and data sciences,” says Sudarshan, who is Regional Managing Partner–Asia, and Managing Director, EMA Partners India. “When we hire for senior positions, I look for the ability to unlearn and learn across levels. That’s the most important thing. Of course, you have to be digitally savvy, and be able to understand how technology and digital tools can be deployed to build and grow the business.”

Organisations don’t have a separate vertical for ESG or appropriate reporting structures like a VP Sustainability. Very few do

 Archana Shukla

Director, IIM Lucknow

Finally, heads of institutes are almost unanimous that mastery of technical skills alone does not guarantee a job or a great career. Soft skills or life skills are equally crucial. Especially after the pandemic experience, more and more companies are particular about skills like crisis communication, virtual coordination, empathy, resilience, strategic storytelling, leadership, and the ability to work in a team as well as autonomously. Asian Paints’ Kshetry says some skills that B-schools can equip students with more strongly are management and development, collaboration across multiple functions, people skills, working styles, and thinking on one’s feet. “With our focus on innovation-led leadership, resilience and lifelong learning also start becoming extremely crucial.” In fact, IIMI’s Rai recommends that negotiation, an elective he has been teaching for several years, along with leadership, crisis communication, data sciences and AI, be moved to the core curriculum.

A lot more is expected of a management professional today and it is tough, says D’ Souza. “Earlier, one could say, ‘I am more a marketing type’ or ‘a finance type’. Now I have to be that plus skilled in AI plus trained in soft skills plus everything. Good B-schools are really re-orienting for that.”

The purple people are coming. Go get them. 


Story: Vidya S
Producer: Vivek Dubey, Arnav Das Sharma
Creative Producer: Raj Verma, Anirban Ghosh
Videos: Mohsin Shaikh