Madan Pillutla joined as sixth Dean and Professor of organisational behaviour at the Indian School of Business in July 2021, just as the country was coming out of the second wave of the pandemic. A post graduate from XLRI, with a PhD from the University of British Columbia, Pillutla worked several years at the London Business School. In this interview, Pillutla talks about the coming disruption in management education and how B-schools need to adapt quickly to the changing regime.
How did you manage the past two years, in terms of content delivery and pedagogy?
I came here only in July 2021. I have to give my predecessors a lot of credit for what they did and how they managed, leading a lot of the changes that needed to be done. And very commendable, because when it happened, the schools in the West had a few months to calibrate themselves. So once we saw the beginning of the wave here in about late March/early April of 2020, and we were getting our new batch of students, we had just days to completely re-jig.
So what they did do is that they postponed it by a month and internally they sat down to figure out what they needed to do. They bought themselves a little bit of time by saying that the first term is going to be split into two terms and we will only do half of what we normally do in one term in five weeks and then again in the next half. So instead of five weeks, they took ten weeks. And, in the meanwhile, they were learning how to deliver a bunch of courses.
The learning was pretty rapid and they very quickly moved a lot of content online but then, they were also very transparent with the students coming in by saying that we think we can give you a good experience, but then what you need to know is you can defer and come the next year. There was a lot of learning that needed to take place on both sides as it was completely unknown.
But the education that was offered was very reasonable, given the circumstances that were there. So there was no stalling of operations per se. And, of course, the proof is ultimately going to be our students. And I am confident – because they got very good jobs. The proof is going to be ten years from now. Are they progressing at the same rate as people progressing who were not online before or later?
So, we have to take a look at that kind of data. But the second year, it wasn’t just online that we did, we also did a hybrid model. We tried to be as seamless as possible, so that the people outside feel that they’re still part of the class.
And also, I think at the end of the second year of the pandemic students really got fantastic placements … as one can see the general salary levels were also better.
Almost as three times as much as what they come in with …so it’s about 170 per cent plus. They come in at around ₹12 lakh (salary level). So the placements have been very, very good. Obviously, I would say that the quality of students that we get in is tremendous. So, a lot of credit for that. But it is also a sign that there is a market is for talent. Right now, a lot of companies are re-jigging the way they are doing things. They are re-thinking strategy to marketing.
Do you think that it’s some kind of a barometer that growth is coming back; the economy is going to do better or you see that the companies are looking to the future?
I think it’s a barometer of the confidence that companies have about the future. And, to a certain extent, sentiment. But, it’s also a recognition that while this has been a really two bad years, there are also opportunities for businesses to learn and think differently from what they’ve been doing.
I have a suspicion that things will not go back. That is what I think that companies are betting on. They want young people. These ISB students whom they are hiring are young men and women who don’t come in with blinkers, don’t have dogmas, but at the same time they come in with four or five years of experience; so they’re not going to be completely cut off from any kind of reality.
These people will be very valuable to companies as they are trying to navigate to the next round. So that’s the bet I think that they are making on these people.
In what way do you see management education getting disrupted hugely in the coming years?
I don’t think it’s only management. I think all bits and pieces of education are going to get affected. Realistically, if you think about it, do you really need four years of education to do the kind of jobs that you are doing? But that’s not what it is. What it does is opens up your mind in various ways.
But it’s also a signal to the person that you have the capacity to think, to learn, and all of that. It’s not about the specific content that you are getting … by virtue of spending those four years in a university, where you can also build your networks.
What I think will happen is that, thanks to our ability now to deliver things in byte-sized kind of content because of technology, there will be a little bit of a better match between what people feel that they need at this point of time and what is the availability that is there. So, I want to learn ‘X’ — I don’t need to spend a year — about 20 per cent will be relevant to me and about 80 per cent not.
Now I can just go and learn that X. One is that I am able to do that and two is thanks to block chain and so on, I will also be able to demonstrate my experience and learning is legitimate. Degrees, I think, will be starting to lose a little bit of value. So, what we will need is this kind of stackable content.
And at this point in time, the edtech firms have deep pockets because there’s money sloshing around in the system; they can pick and choose what courses they can put on their platform. What they are currently unable to do is get the range of faculty that a school like ours can get. If you want to take a pessimistic view, with their deep pockets, they can pick and choose who they want. That’s a very distinct possibility for a lot of schools. So that I think is the future. It is not inconceivable. So that is one kind of disruption.
We have to sit down and think what is the value proposition that we as a school are giving? It’s not just outstanding content, because they can get that in different places. So, can we then curate experiences for them when they are going to be here which are not replicable by these edtech players?
You have to start thinking and say, content is easy, it is commoditised — you can get it anywhere — and we will put our content also out there and let people access it. But what they can get otherwise get here is not imitable and that’s what we need to chase.
So, while we are using that content, we are also building experiences by way of projects, faculty involvement with them, the feedback they will give them, and so on. It used to be called the flipped classroom and that has become a reality now. If you think about business schools from about 60 years ago their innovation was about — read the cases, read the material and come back for a discussion. The discussion can also be facilitated online.
How far away do you think this is?
It is happening very rapidly. I used to joke to my PhD students when I was a faculty member: Listen I just have to write this for another 10 years... people who really have to figure this out is you. That is before I took this job but now, I have to figure it out.
There is a view that business managers of the future need to know a lot more about tech, AI and data mining. Has that been brought up to speed at ISB?
Absolutely! We have an institute of data science, for example. So, a lot of the academics themselves, whatever the discipline — whether they are marketing, finance, accounting, management — there is a lot of belief that we need to know either AI as a tool or in a form of substantive understanding of the way AI is disrupting businesses. So those are two research streams that are happening in the school.
The learning of AI itself the only way we can do it is through partnerships with engineering schools, we can’t do everything under one roof.