Business Today

Sharpening the Indian MBA

Dipak C. Jain        Print Edition: Oct 28, 2012

For a quarter century, I enjoyed the opportunity to serve on faculty at the Kellogg School of Management - including as dean and in other leadership roles. In 2009, it was my privilege to bring insights from this tenure to contribute to the formal review of several top business institutions. Among these was the Harvard Business School (HBS), whose review committee I chaired.

As an Indian, who grew up modestly in Assam, this was a remarkable honour. Not only was I able to help one of the world's great global schools, but I also had the chance to gain additional perspective on what it takes to produce a world-class curriculum. Throughout my career, in fact, I've considered how these Western models could be adapted to enhance management education in India.

Dipak C. Jain, Dean, INSEAD
Dipak C. Jain, Dean, INSEAD
In creating a model for the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management, the late Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru's vision established a metric focussed on merit. His approach employed a very obvious and rigorous filter: the best students in the country would go to the IITs and IIMs . (I was not of that quality, so I never had the privilege to enrol there.) But this process gave rise to a problem. These students were so good that the United States spotted them and took many of them, giving them a new home.

In the US, management education began over 100 years ago - the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania was the nation's first, launched in 1881; others, including the Tuck School at Dartmouth (1900), and Kellogg and HBS (both 1908), were among the pioneers in this field. Until the 1960s, most US business schools taught their subject through case studies, with the focus on business relevance. From the 1960s to 2000, schools emphasised theoretical perspectives with a focus on analytical frameworks and rigour. To an extent, this change mirrored the increasing complexity of organisations as they became more global and highly driven by modern technology - a trend that had begun earlier but which now accelerated. From 2001, schools started focussing on business ethics and social responsibility.

In comparison, management education in India is about 50 years old, having begun roughly during the second phase in the evolution of its US counterparts. IITs fitted well into this second phase: frameworks with academic rigour. Yet, there was significant socio-economic volatility in India between 1970 and 1990, which curbed these schools' full research potential. Admittedly, when one regards the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, we find a more defined research focus. In hindsight, had India created several IIScs in the 1970s, this approach would have created an exceptionally vibrant research culture.

Today, IITs and IIMs are spreading. The quality of students is good but there are not enough teachers. There are practitioners, but not sufficient number of researchers. The focus at many schools is more on earning rather than learning. This trend has occurred in the US, too, but research there still continues. For Indian institutions to thrive, their faculty needs to receive adequate support for cultivating their research, as in the US.

Still, the demand for this education is so high. Earlier, people used to go to the Indian Administrative Service or State Bank of India probation exams, not management education. But this has changed. Everyone sees MBA graduates succeeding and their own aspirations are fuelled. A key question is how can this demand be converted into meaningful management education? I have some advice for B-school entrepreneurs who want to create an impact in the Indian workplace:

Create strategic alliances and partnerships: This strategy is based on "be global by staying local". In other words, focus on your local strengths even while keeping the vision global. It is not necessary to partner with a Harvard. Depending on the tier you are focusing on, there are several US business schools that would make enthusiastic and valuable partners, especially those who want to gain deeper knowledge of the Indian market. People in the US now understand that there are smart people in India outside IITs and IIMs. That's how the Indian School of Business (ISB) started. A potential sticking point is that many of these US schools would be reluctant to confer their institution's formal credential/degree as part of an academic relationship.

Focus on input, throughput and output: Students, faculty, recruiters and alumni are all critical stakeholders whom school leaders must engage constantly to improve the overall educational outcome. One way to strengthen throughput - that is, the actual academic experience - is to identify exceptional faculty and researchers overseas and then entice them to bring their talents to India.

Fund raising is key: One of the main reasons that private universities deliver excellence in the US is that their tuition fee is significant. Even more important, perhaps, is that there is a big intervention, including from alumni, who contribute to endowments and help make student financing available. In India, alumni engagement is largely absent and there is little outreach by faculty to alumni. The big transformation for ISB, for example, will come when its alumni start giving back to the school. This will allow ISB the luxury of not raising tuition fees, but still being able to enrich its research and teaching capabilities. A phenomenon unique in India is that parents have an enormous influence on their children's education. Thus, Indian schools must engage not only potential students and alumni, but also the parents of those people. This vast demographic offers a huge potential source of riches - financial, intellectual and spiritual - that can help differentiate and truly elevate Indian schools to a global level.

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