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A Mars Shot for India's B-schools

A Mars Shot for India's B-schools

Scoring higher on research will be critical to be among the worlds Top 10 B-Schools

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A longside India's successful fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and the Indian cricket team's amazing Test wins recently against Australia and England, India's B-Schools have underlined their global mettle in the most challenging of circumstances in 2020. For the first time, as many as five Indian B-Schools' fulltime MBA programs - those of the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad (ISB), Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore (IIM-B), Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta (IIM-C), Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A), and Indian Institute of Management, Indore (IIM-I) - were ranked among the world's 100 best programmes by The Financial Times' Global MBA Ranking 2021.

The highest placed of them, ISB, came in at #23, just behind HKUST Business School, which was established in 1991, and a notch above USC's Marshall School, which was founded in 1920. That's a remarkable achievement, especially since ISB was set up just two decades ago, in 2001. There's no doubt that India's rapid economic growth over the last two decades would have been impossible without the pipeline of world-class talent created by India's B-Schools, so their global recognition is undoubtedly cause for jubilation.

The Next Summit

Every milestone, we believe, is also an opportunity to reset aspirations for the future. The Financial Times bases its ranking on 20 criteria, 11 of which - with a combined weight of 29 per cent - are calculated from data on B-Schools while eight parameters - with a weight of 61 per cent - are based on responses from alumni over the last three years. In addition, each B-School's research rank - calculated from the number of articles published in 50 internationally-recognised academic and practitioner journals by a B-School's full-time faculty weighted by the number of its faculty - contributes as much as 10 per cent to the ranking.

In terms of research, the Indian B-Schools came in at #77 (ISB), #93 (IIM-B), #94 (IIM-A), #97 (IIM-I), and #98 (IIM-C), respectively, suggesting that research may be the lever that could move the needle in the future. Indeed, scoring higher on research will be essential if at least one of the Indian B-Schools is to rank among the Global Top 10 and at least 10 are to be rated among the Top 100 by 2030 - an eminently feasible goal that is worth striving for.

Research is as central to a B-School as teaching. Generating the big ideas and next practices in management provides a B-School with much prestige. It is fundamental to the development of new frameworks and toolkits, which enhance the utility and the efficacy of teaching as well as management practice. Teach-and-transform goes hand in hand with publish-and-prosper. Besides, research that makes an impact kicks off a virtuous cycle of excellence by attracting all manner of talent - students, recruiters, academics - as well as research subjects (aka companies and CEOs).

Like all manner of innovation, B-Schools in India enjoy a cost advantage in research. In the US and Europe, B-Schools recruit a large number of faculty with competitive salaries, and support their research for years, offering them low teaching loads, lots of infrastructure support, and large research grants. Research is a high-cost operation, with the total cost-to-institution of a research-oriented academic in the US amounting to anything between $250,000 and $500,000 a year. The cost, in theory, of publishing one article in an A-level academic journal, assuming an average level of productivity, therefore works out to anywhere between $125,000 and $400,000. While the financial cost of conducting research in India is much lower, in terms of salaries, human assistance, and infrastructure support, the key resource constraint is time. Indian academics have to invest much more in teaching and talent development than their global counterparts, which often slows research efforts or makes them strictly optional.

A Path To The Top

Can India's B-Schools dare to dream bigger? There may be ways to do so; after all, there are two approaches to a challenge. One is to assess the resources available and to focus only on the opportunities that they can fulfill. However, focusing on resources is unlikely to help India's B-Schools score over their global counterparts anytime soon.

The other option is to disregard the quantum of resources, start out by articulating an ambition, and find ways to stretch the available resources to achieve that ambition. How exactly would that play out in the case of the Indian B-Schools' aspiration to conduct globally impactful research and publish it in the top academic journals worldwide?

It has never been easy to publish research in the academic journals, such as Administrative Science Quarterly and Marketing Science, or in the prestigious practitioner-oriented journals such as Harvard Business Review and MIT Sloan Management Review, where the acceptance rates are in the low single digits. With these journals reducing the number of articles they publish, the bar is getting higher over time.

To break into the most influential journals worldwide, B-Schools in India could follow two paths: One, focus on problems in India, the tackling of which will yield takeaways that have global application. And two, work closely with academics, especially those of Indian origin, in B-Schools overseas on research projects.

Think India, Think Big

Everyone likes to talk about India's problems as big, hairy challenges, but from the academic's perspective, there's a silver lining. The process of tackling complex problems - as Indian companies, entrepreneurs, and not-for-profits are increasingly demonstrating - will not only yield innovative solutions for India's challenges, but also for many of the world's problems. Don't forget, more countries in Asia, Africa, and South America resemble India than they do the US or Switzerland. Academics that focus on studying India's challenges, and how business is trying to tackle them, will be able to come up with the disruptive ideas that the world needs today.

As a starting point, B-Schools in India could focus research on the context-specific problems faced by local and multinational companies in India, and use them to develop ideas that benefit both India and the world. That isn't impossible as some academics have already demonstrated. In 2002, for instance, the late management guru, C. K. Prahalad, who taught at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business for decades, developed one of his most powerful ideas - that there is a fortune at the bottom of the pyramid - after studying several industries and companies in India. Earlier, in 1997, Harvard Business School's Krishna Palepu and Tarun Khanna challenged orthodoxy by showing that focused strategies may not work in emerging markets such as India, where business groups such as the Tatas and the Birlas have dominated local markets for decades.

In the same way, academics in India's B-Schools would do well to strive to come up with the next Big Idea for the world based on their research in India. In fact, it's more than likely that India-based academics will do so because they enjoy the advantage of being closest to the Indian context.

To make such a strategy appear tangible, there are three research streams that, to us, seem likely to be interesting, important, and impactful for academia and business worldwide.

The Next Transnational Theory: The theory of multinational enterprise is based almost entirely on the experience of Western companies. One of its key tenets is that the trade-off between risks and returns will induce multinational companies to initially enter markets that are similar to their home bases and only later will they enter dissimilar markets; Canada before China, so to say, in the case of US companies. However, whenever Indian companies go global, they seem to prefer to enter developed markets in Europe and North America rather than other emerging markets in Asia and South America. A systematic study into why emerging giants behave in ways that are different from Western multinationals will be a novel contribution to both theory as well as practice.

The Next Healthcare Model: Several Indian companies - Aravind Eye Care, Narayana Health, LV Prasad, and HCG Oncology, among others - deliver world-class healthcare at scale at extremely low costs. The question is: How? It should be possible for Indian academics to create a rich longitudinal database on the key variables in those companies' operations such as patients, cases, volumes, costs, and quality. Doing so will allow the academics to develop and deploy appropriate econometric techniques to uncover, among other things, the healthcare providers' strategic cost drivers. Identifying those will be an academic and practical contribution to India as well as the developed world, where reducing healthcare costs has become a priority.

The Next Digital Strategy: India's consumer markets are rather different from those in the West, characterised by many small suppliers, inconsistent quality, lack of trust in Net-based transactions, mom-and-pop retail outlets, low customer ability to pay, poor physical infrastructure, a cash economy, multiplicity of languages, last-mile delivery challenges, and so on. Despite the many constraints, some Indian unicorns - such as Ola in transportation, Swiggy in food delivery, OYO in hospitality, and UrbanClap in recruitment, among others - have learnt to win by using digital technologies. Contrasting the Indian companies' business models with those of their foreign counterparts will lead to the conceptualisation of a rigorous theory of digital leapfrogging.

Collaborate & Conquer

India's B-Schools should encourage their faculty to team up on research projects with the fairly large number of academics of Indian origin who teach in B-Schools in the US and Europe, so they jointly apply rigorous research methods to India-specific problems. By working with international scholars, Indian B-School academics will be able to more easily produce research of the highest quality that can be published in academic journals.

For one thing, Indian academics overseas, especially the older generation, will be only too happy to work with the abundant academic talent in India, so their papers will be accepted by the top academic journals. The former will also be able to nudge open the doors to multinational companies, which are keen to understand what works in India. Academics of Indian origin will be able to initiate meaningful conversations with the editors of academic journals, where relationships matter. Collaboration could help overcome the disadvantages related to context, with Indian academics learning to leverage faculty in the US and Europe to their mutual academic benefit.

There's no dearth of academics today who have done their doctoral degrees in the US or Europe, and have returned home to teach in India's B-Schools. It's important for them to take their academic networks back with them. While they probably do so in a random fashion, it may be more productive to create institution-level processes so that global collaboration, mentoring, and ideation can take place in a systematic fashion.

B-Schools in India, like their global rivals, are in the business of teaching and developing top notch talent as well as generating ideas that will make a global impact. It's time they paid as much attention to the latter as they do to the former, and find disruptive ways of breaking the research ceiling in management. That will ensure India's B-Schools continue to be amongst the best in the world.

Vijay Govindarajan is the Coxe Distinguished Professor at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business, and a former faculty member of IIM-Ahmedabad.

Anand P. Raman is a Contributing Editor and former Editor At Large, Harvard Business Review Group, Boston, and the former Editor of Business Today and India Today Group Online, New Delhi.