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What are India's top B-schools doing to prepare students for the digital age?

What are India's top B-schools doing to prepare students for the digital age?

Nimble and light-footed managers who come with a solution-creation mindset to navigate chaos and uncertainty are the need of the hour

Nimble and light-footed managers who come with a solution-creation mindset to navigate chaos and uncertainty are the need of the hour Nimble and light-footed managers who come with a solution-creation mindset to navigate chaos and uncertainty are the need of the hour

In 2012, when PepsiCo’s brands were losing market share, CEO Indra Nooyi brought in Mauro Porcini as Chief Design Officer. His brainchild, Pepsi Spire—launched in 2014—was an instant hit and helped boost share prices. A touchscreen soda fountain machine, Pepsi Spire let users mix soft drinks to create their own flavours without moving their cup from one lever to another. This example displays an innate ability of figuring out what consumers want, oftentimes what they do not know they want, which is something that is required of management graduates today.

“Companies are looking for two important ingredients in people—the ability to understand technology and how that is transforming lives; and the ability to go into the minds of the consumer. Then, how you integrate the two,” says Errol D’Souza, Director of IIM Ahmedabad (IIMA). Call it innovation, thinking out of the box, critical thinking, design thinking, problem solving or solution creation, all have become more relevant today. Says Archana Shukla, Director of IIM Lucknow (IIML): “More and more work is now done by advanced software, leaving only problem-solving for the management. But the nature of problems has now changed due to the integrated network of the physical environment and digital landscape.” An added dimension is that VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) has become the order of the day.

So, how do you prepare future managers for the VUCA world filled with unstructured problems? Agility, an umbrella term for skills required to overcome the VUCA world’s challenges, is a key ingredient for managers leading the businesses of tomorrow, the country’s top B-schools and businesses agree. “Post-Covid, while companies continue to think and implement long-term strategic plans, there is a need to be more agile about certain decisions. For example, clients we work with have to revisit decisions due to external shocks such as supply chain uncertainty, geopolitical developments, changes in commodity prices, etc. So, companies and consultants have to be adaptive and all these elements come to bear a lot more,” says Sankar Natarajan, Managing Director and Head of Recruiting at consulting firm BCG India. Adds Varun Nagaraj, Dean of S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research (SPJIMR): “The pandemic exposed to the whole world that somebody falls sick somewhere and, suddenly, the prices of auto rickshaw parts go up. Therefore, an appreciation for people who can operate in that kind of a world has gone up.”

Institutes are going about preparing students for unfamiliar and shifting situations in different ways. D’Souza says IIMA has introduced courses on innovation, including one on ‘Innovation, Live!’, a hands-on, practical course aimed at developing a student’s ability to come up with out-of-the-box solutions, understand innovation methodologies and learn corporate decision-making processes. “In the last few years, we have been thinking a lot about divergent thinking, where there are different solutions to a problem. This has become central to quite a few courses operating on the campus,” he says. For SPJIMR, one way is to focus on solutions in core courses. “For example, in human resources, how do we introduce a diversity, equity, inclusion solution in Afghanistan or in a company that’s like that?” says Nagaraj. IIM Bangalore (IIMB) is emphasising on digital, data and ESG-related skills to help students catch early trends in external changes that contribute to VUCA. “If you see a change in demand, or you see a new trend towards a new technology, or you see some other consumer or social trend, the focus on data will help students understand these kinds of changes,” says Rishikesha T. Krishnan, Director of IIMB.

Then, of course, B-schools are responding to the pandemic-led acceleration of digitisation of businesses. IIMB has introduced a new core course on digital businesses this year, while electives like gamification, Web 3.0 and Metaverse respond to some of the latest technology trends. IIMA has started courses on digital strategy and transformation, and digital marketing. “The traditional way of marketing or strategy or managing HR are all changing. Real-time data about what employees are doing is useful to understand how giving a day off in the middle of the week may improve productivity,” says D’Souza.

Consulting major BCG India, one of the largest recruiters at the leading B-schools, recently launched ‘BCG X’—a vertical to bring together more than 2,500 digital and AI experts, tech designers and builders globally to service client needs, as the nature of businesses they consult for is also evolving. “We do a lot of work with large start-ups now, which are digital-first companies,” says Natarajan, adding that the new vertical has a mix of people with specific functional and domain expertise, but also requires management and consulting skills. Similarly, the consultancy firm also started a ‘Climate & Sustainability’ hub at its Delhi office this September. “This is critical as it is on the agenda of most of our large clients. This hub brings together the capabilities we already had. It also gives an opportunity for specialists in those domains to be hired and create specific teams,” he says.

However, ESG and sustainability have mostly remained buzzwords in the industry as organisations are yet to fully understand how to compute their business value. Very few firms have created separate verticals or reporting structures for these roles. Agreeing, D’Souza says large and medium firms are questioned on this, despite India being a price-sensitive market. “We are responding to it,” he says, adding that IIMA’s courses on green financing and sustainability do find takers. “Companies are not looking for sustainability managers. They want a marketing or a corporate finance or a product manager who understands sustainability issues. All of them need to have adequate understanding to be able to integrate it into their business decision making,” he says, adding that they have ensured that ESG-related topics are made part of the core curriculum.

But in the midst of this fast-changing and rapidly digitising world, questions are growing louder about the relevance of a two-year management programme. In 2022, applications to premier US institutes, Harvard Business School and The Wharton School, declined 15.4 per cent and 13.9 per cent, respectively. “The changing world has a lot of new opportunities and there are those for whom the two-year programme is not ideal, either for students or for the recruiters. So, we need to diversify. We are changing the portfolio of our basket,” says IIM Calcutta (IIMC) Director Uttam Kumar Sarkar, referring to a combination of one- and two-year programmes as well as online, offline and hybrid programmes. “The capacity of the programmes will have to change accordingly,” he adds.

In India, an estimated 3,000-plus B-schools produce more than 300,000 management graduates every year. But not more than 10-20 per cent are employable, according to some estimates. BT-MDRA’s own ranking of the best B-schools in the country has 281 institutes participating. But even within them, the differential in the overall scores of the top-most and bottom-most schools is a wide 622.9 points. IIMC emerges on top with an overall score of 902.8, while IMS Business School, also from Kolkata, finishes off the list with an overall score of 279.9. The top 11 schools have retained their positions, while the next 50 show minor fluctuation in their ranks. These pages profile what the top five schools are doing right, and how they plan to prepare managers of tomorrow. As they say, chaos is another word for opportunity and it looks like students are in for both in equal measure.

Here's a look at the top 5 B-schools in India, and what makes them great:

1. Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta

When Uttam Kumar Sarkar joined IIMC in 1997, management education in the country was mostly confined to the core theories of marketing, finance and human resources. India’s nascent economy was thinly connected with the global economies and the influence of global management practices on local professionals was rudimentary. Years later, as he steers the institute as its Director, Sarkar and his team of management pundits face a vastly different world. The Indian economy is now deeply connected with global economies and, thus, more susceptible to the massive volatilities that the world of business currently finds itself in. And the management courses have undergone a sea change as newer avenues of business—new age start-ups in the fields of e-commerce, digital tech and Metaverse—have rapidly emerged over the past few years. In spite of that, IIMC continues to enjoy its position at the top and not without a reason.

According to Sarkar, the key to its continued success lies in its ability to gauge emerging trends and challenges early, and incorporate necessary changes in its curriculum. Sarkar, who has a PhD in computer sciences and engineering from IIT Kharagpur and has been teaching management information systems for years, says IIMC’s pioneering initiatives over the years have yielded rich dividends—both for the institute and its students. While it was the first B-school in India to introduce a tech-focussed management programme over 20 years ago, now IIMC is well equipped to arm the future management leaders with its course on business analytics in collaboration with Indian Statistical Institute and IIT Kharagpur. “The rate at which things have changed over the past five years is much higher than what one can absorb. This programme has been intro duced to counter that challenge,” he says.

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, when cam pus hiring had taken a hit, IIMC continued to place 100 per cent of its students within the first few days of its placement week. To avoid inconvenience to the recruiters and to its placement cell, the committee now allows only a select few companies that it finds fit as per demand among its students. “It is the students who now choose the recruiters as the demand (for IIMC graduates among recruiters) is much higher than the supply,” is how Sarkar puts it. While earlier students were more inclined to choose investment banks and consulting firms, of late they are increasingly opting for start-ups. -- Arnab Dutta

2. Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad

AT IIMA, the batch that graduated in 2022 saw 190 firms visiting the campus for recruitment. For students with prior work experience, there were 36 firms from diverse sectors such as technology, banking, consulting and analytics, who hired students through the lateral process. Overall, BCG made the maximum 47 offers, followed by Accenture at 32. Among investment banks, Goldman Sachs led the pack with six offers, followed by Bank of America at four. Speaking of consumer goods and general management, the highest number of offers were made by Tata Administrative Services (TAS) at six, with HUL, Mondelēz and Emaar at three each. IT consulting was prominently led by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) with four offers.

According to Errol D’Souza, IIMA’s Director, the placements have improved over the past few years. “The job roles are better and the compensation is on par with global standards. This is a function of the recruiters’ understanding that they are getting candidates who are trained well and have holistic management experience,” he says. IIMA has a long list of illustrious alumni across industries—K.V. Kamath, Madhabi Puri Buch, Harsha Bhogle, Vineeta Singh, Deep Kalra and Raghuram Rajan to name just a few. The institute has moved in line with the times to make it more relevant in a changing world. Anuj Kapoor, a professor of marketing, speaks of the inclusion of areas such as aug mented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), Web 3.0, Metaverse and other futuristic technolo gies in management education. Pointing out that the need is at two levels, he says the first and immediate priority is making these a part of the curriculum. “The second is the need to prioritise delivering education in an immersive environment like Metaverse to stakeholders outside our MBA classrooms, that is, executive education participants.”

Apart from this, new cases and articles have been added to existing technology-elective courses like AI and marketing. “We also have a few offerings dedicated to Web 4.0 and Metaverse to be floated in the coming months. Our institute is taking steps in equipping MBAs and executive education participants in Metaverse and futuristic technologies,” says Kapoor. -- Krishna Gopalan

3. Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore

AS IIMB moves to capture industry’s changing needs, digital, sustainability and entrepreneur ship are its focus areas. Accordingly, it has launched a course for digital; ESG is now integrated into an existing core course; and programmes on entrepreneurship are being further strengthened. Rishikesha T. Krishnan, Director of IIMB, believes the notion of product management is fast changing in the digital world. As digital companies collect data constantly, managers will be expected to use data to tweak product offerings and features based on demand, lead product innovations, and also experiment with pricing. The institute has introduced a new core course on digital businesses this year, while electives like gamification, Web 3.0 and Metaverse respond to some of the latest technology trends.

In the case of sustainability, IIMB believes all of its MBA students need to have a basic understanding of ESG issues, so that they are able to integrate them into their decision-making. “That’s why we made sure that ESG-related topics go into the core of the curriculum. I don’t think people are looking for sustainability managers. What they are looking for are managers who are also wired to take care of sustainability issues in their decision-making,” he says. IIMB also made entrepreneurship a compulsory part of its MBA course about five years ago, and uses simulations and games to develop entrepreneurial skills in students. “Students should be able to identify opportunities, imbibe a growth mindset, which is looking at different ways at growing not only the business, but the people they work with, and imbibe typical entrepreneur traits such as quick execution, design thinking, and being able to fail fast and learn quickly,” he adds. The institution will launch a digital entrepreneurship programme in 2023, its golden jubilee year. - Binu Paul

4. Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow

Boasting over 600 entrepreneurs from its alumni community and several venture capitalists (VCs) and consultants, Archana Shukla, Director of IIML, is puffed with pride. North India’s top B-school also maintained its fourth position in the BT-MDRA India’s Best B-schools ranking in 2022. The B-school has a proud tradition of entrepreneurship from its very first batch. “One of our graduating classes had nearly 20 per cent of our graduates setting up their own firms. The culture is set right at the campus, with our entrepreneur alumni conducting sessions for students who are joining the campus, right during their induction. Students also run many ventures on the campus such as clubs, committees, mess halls, restaurants, merchandise shops, among others,” says Shukla. In the VUCA world, which is full of challenges, greater risks, increased volatility and uncertainties, Shukla says the same scenarios do not get repeated every day. Thus, she says, there are ever-new challenges that business leaders and managers encounter at all levels of business functions. “With the changing circumstances, we need to develop and nurture dynamic capabilities,” says Shukla, pointing out that design thinking has evolved to strengthen companies’ ability to address complex problems. “Building a design thinking perspective in management education is critical to developing capabilities of complexity reduction, reflection, and proactive problem-solving among students,” she maintains.

With industry increasingly adopting technologies such as an AR, VR, Web 3.0, Metaverse and other futuristic technologies, IIML too is experimenting with these. “Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we saw educational institutes adapt to the online mode of education by adopting various technology solutions to host classes, deliver live/recorded lectures and also con duct exams,” says Shukla. “Thus, it made institutions open to trying several future technological solutions. No wonder inclusion of AR/VR and other such technologies will come in handy in many aspects of management education such as doing a factory tour and understanding different business processes, operations and production scheduling more clearly,” she says. India is seeing a wave of start-ups that have several founders from B-schools. With IIML fostering entrepreneurship among students, an example is Taniya Biswas, a 2013 alumna of IIML who runs a start-up named Suta. The sustainable clothing brand focusses on sarees, blouses, lehengas and other ethnic wear. Says Shukla: “Aspiring entrepreneurs have actively shown interest in the training programmes, which could enable them to develop and hone skills essential to evolve an innovative approach to address real-world problems and gaps. -- Neetu Chandra Sharma

5. S.P. Jain Institute of Management & Research, Mumbai

From NASSCOM’S President Debjani Ghosh to Bacardi’s CEO Mahesh Madhavan, Mumbai-based B-school SPJIMR’s network of notable alumni is endless. Founded in 1981, the institute’s student-centric approach has worked well for it. And Varun Nagaraj, who took charge as Dean in September 2021, attests to the fact that the relationship between the faculty and the students of this institute is “incredibly surprising”. “We’re the smallest in terms of our student intake. Here we have our students staying connected with the faculty and continuing that handholding from an instructional point of view. It’s something I have never seen in any other university,” says Nagaraj. He adds that another thing that works for them is the selection criteria. “As compared to many other business schools, we have a more balanced selection scheme. You will actually see a wider spread amongst our students in terms of their cut-off scores. We will have people with lower scores because we found something interesting about them or they might be the ones that can adapt to change,” he adds.

Adapting to change in a VUCA world is the biggest differentiator of how well an institute and its students perform. One of the strengths of SPJIMR lies in its approach of balancing traditional management principles with con temporary skills. “VUCA is all about something you’re confronting for the first time, and new situations call for new solutions. Sometimes, B-schools get hung up in what you would call ‘the jargon of the day’: whether it’s AI, analytics or design thinking,” he says. For Nagaraj, basic principles like critical thinking, scientific reasoning, philosophy of science, systems thinking, etc., which are required for innovation, are eternal: “They are not a tool or a technique; they are core principles of how people should think if they want to be innovators. I think that’s what business schools should focus on.”

The key, he says, is to keep a fine balance between the fundamentals and the skills that one will require on Day One on the job. “You have to expose your students to today’s tech, because that is what they’re going to do on Day One, but the employer is also hiring them for Day 10 and Day 1,000 on the job, and that will be a lot better if their principles are strong because the current technologies would have changed by then,” he says. Over the years, there have been courses like cloud computing that have stood the test of time and topics like Web 3.0 that have not. “Business schools introduced a Web 3.0 class in 2018 and pulled it out in 2020. I’m sure some schools are introducing courses on Metaverse right now. But the key is to stick to the basics. I’m a strong advocate for the focus on fundamentals in management education,” he says. -- Prerna Lidhoo