27 Feb 2015 20:37 IST

How IIM-A is readying the managers of tomorrow

Ashish Nanda, Director of India's top B-school, wants to develop leaders as change agents with vision

It’s been some homecoming for Ashish Nanda. In September it will be a year since he took over as Director at his alma mater and India’s top B-school, the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. In this wide-ranging interview, Nanda talks about the many disruptions that are buffeting management education in India: from the business environment, to the impact of online courses to the pull of foreign varsities. Nanda says B-schools have to adapt themselves as new firms, in services than in traditional manufacturing, sprout up and many more students strike out as entrepreneurs. The new managers IIM-A readies need to be leaders and change agents and not just be organisation men, he says.

An alumnus of the 1983 batch of IIM-A, Prof. Nanda was Robert Braucher Professor of Practice at Harvard Law School. With a brilliant academic record, Nanda is a gold medallist from both IIT Delhi and IIM-A, later going on to complete his M.A. in Economics and Ph.D. from Harvard University. Excerpts from the interview where Nanda talks about a three-pronged strategy to put IIM-A more prominently on the global map:

You have been Director for a little less than a year now. How has the experience been and what changes are you seeing in B-school education?

Coming back home was wonderful, especially to an institution that contributed much to what I am today. I experienced a very warm welcome. Perhaps, my colleagues appreciated that I didn’t come in with a preformed template, and that I was trying to learn from them. IIM A has tremendous strengths, including a 50-year heritage of excellence and a large diaspora of committed alumni. But we’ve been the principal incumbent in an industry, management education, that was autarchic and supply-constrained for decades. That has led to a sense of inertia, perhaps even an element of arrogance, and perhaps lack of innovation.

The environment has changed now. Winds of competition are blowing. Our domestic competitors have a little bit of an Avis mentality, “We are number two, so we try harder.” The gap between us and our significant domestic competitors has reduced. Attracted by India’s demography, foreign universities are also coming in. Our students, limited in choices at home and attracted by opportunities to learn at world-class universities, are going abroad in record numbers. Disruptive innovations such as Massively Open Online Courses are changing entirely the concept of what university education looks like. If we stick to the ways of the past, we are destined to be dinosaurs. Simply saying we should respond to competition adequately is understating our ambition. Given the demography, size and growth projections of our country, it would be a travesty if in another ten years or so we don’t have Indian institutions among the top management schools globally. IIM-A shouldn’t just aim to retain its top position in India. We should strive to be among the top 25 globally. Our vision at IIM-A is to educate leaders of enterprises. I want to emphasise leaders who not only have the administrative skills of managers but also the vision and the drive of change agents who make a difference. And I want to emphasise enterprises, which include large corporations but also entrepreneurial enterprises, government organisations, and social enterprises.

What strategy have you evolved to put IIM-A among the top 25 globally?

In conversation with our faculty, alumni and board, I have come up with a three-pronged strategy: nurture, connect and grow.

Let me explain what I mean by nurture. I am a student of professional organisations, of which academic institutions are a special category. For such an organisation to excel, it must have a culture with three elements: autonomy, stretch, and community. Professionals must feel a sense of autonomy, ownership over what they are doing. They must also feel they should do their best, explore their limits and stretch them, if possible. And a strong sense of community nourishes the sentiment of stretch, honours autonomy, and encourages teamwork. Nurture refers to supporting a work environment of autonomy, stretch, and community.

Where does connect come in?

We need to strengthen connections by reaching out proactively to four constituencies. One is global thought leaders; we ought to be participating in international conferences, having conversations with top academic institutions, build research initiatives, write papers for a global audience, and develop case studies that are seen externally, all of which place us in the flow of leading-edge conversations.

Second, we need to connect actively with practice and policy. We should engage energetically with people in businesses and government, carry out research in the field, bring the practitioners back to classes to share their experiences with us, and test our insights and thoughts with them; we have to re-energise that engagement.

Third, we need to connect better with our alumni. They are loyal to the institute, have had rich life experiences, and are in positions of responsibility in various walks of life all over the world. We should make it easy for them to share their experiences and insights with our students, engage with our goals and ambitions, and continue to feel they are lifelong members of the IIM-A community.

Fourth, we need to increase our connections with the local community. We can test our theories locally, contribute to our neighbours, and in the process learn from them and be treated as valued members of the community.

The business environment has changed dramatically. How has IIM-A adapted to this?

We have to change with the times so that our students are able to address the needs of today’s business world. As the external environment changes, some of these are secular and it is also becoming more uncertain with high-amplitude shifts, a change in the nature of work, and a changing enterprise mix. Our graduating students have to be effective in this world of tomorrow, in terms of training and perspective. And yet, even as circumstances change, fundamentals remain the same. We have to equip our students to be successful today but in the long term, we should not be so saddled by cyclical business issues as to lose sight of fundamentals. We shouldn’t be saying, ‘Here is management education for difficult times, and here’s another entirely different version for frothy times!’ We have to give them training and development which will stand them in good stead in good times and difficult times. We have to balance between what works in today’s world and what is true and tested.

Our pedagogy is practice-driven and field-driven and our faculty brings outside world experiences to the classroom. That helps students develop skills and concepts that are useful in today’s world and reflects on their perspective as enterprise leaders. They have to develop a way of approaching issues that stands them in good stead over the long term. We have to equip them for today’s times as well as for the long term.

At one time IIM-A was among the top ten in the FT global rankings of B-schools. Why have you slipped and what can you do about it?

I would respond to this question at three levels. We could debate if we have truly slipped by picking and choosing among the plethora of rankings that exist, saying, ‘We may have slipped in the FT list, but we are number four on The Economist list.’ Where we have slipped, there are some technical reasons: some of the metrics measured are outside the control of institutions and more related to the macro-economy. One of those is the starting salary after graduation. The Indian economy was relatively anaemic last year, affecting starting salaries. A second contributory cause has been that there was a difference in the way schools answered some questions; for example, the average fee you charge students. We gave the maximum fee, not accounting for scholarships, whereas some schools gave an average. The third issue is that at IIM-A, we have struggled with diversity statistics. Despite our protesting that India is a subcontinent comparable to Europe rather than any one of its countries, we do rank low on international diversity. That is something we have to improve and it also has an impact on our rankings. Putting the technical reasons aside, overall it’s not good for our rankings to decline. That is something we take cognisance of and it’s a good exercise to see how we benchmark with the best schools around the world. We get the message that we have to push to be counted among the world’s top schools.

Finally, ranking is a consequence of pursuing excellence. You see the difference: Ranking should not be our sole objective because, if it becomes so, then our goal becomes meeting this target, rather than providing the best education for our students. We must remember that our goal is providing quality education to our students. A consequence of striving for that goal would be improved rankings.

IIM-A has been following the case study-based teaching method for the past 50 years. Will that model change?

I am passionate about the contribution of practice-based pedagogy. I went to IIT, which had good students and good teachers, but the method of teaching was traditional. Students absorbed what was taught, but there was a lack of connectedness in the class. In case-based learning, you are looking at specific situations. You are being asked to place yourself in the shoes of the protagonist. You debate and discuss your perspective and recommendations with your fellow-students in class.

The learning gets to you not just in the head, but also in the heart. It may not be as efficient in transmitting knowledge as deductive learning is. But inductive learning leaves deep imprints. The risk with inductive learning is that one might generalise too quickly from one or two stories. But, overall, it is a powerful way to learn, particularly if one wants to go from “learn what” to “learn how”.

There has been a proliferation of IIMs. It is a democratisation of management education, but does it not dilute the MBA degree IIMs are giving?

If you look at the population of the country and its economic enterprises and how they are getting professionalised, and if you project ahead, it is good that we have a number of high quality institutions and are building more. Having several quality institutions is a good idea. But we have to make sure that the numbers do not come at the expense of quality. If a number of management schools are set up without attention to quality, then there’s a risk of a race to the bottom. Poor operations hurt gullible students and end up commoditising the overall image of management schools. So, having lots of schools is fine, so long as we have a mechanism of ensuring quality.

A good thing about having multiple IIMs is that proliferation encourages them to compete with one another, which keeps us all on our feet. We can learn from one another — some become specialists in some sectors. The one worry I have is having many IIMs in different areas can lead to sub-scale institutions. There are economies of scale to be had in management education — not just in pecuniary terms, but even academically. If you have a large faculty engaged in research, it enriches the overall learning environment. If you have a large body of students, it enriches the learning as well. My worry is that proliferation in IIMs may lead to multiple mediocre institutions, each with a small population, none large enough to take advantage of economies of scale. Instead, it might be better to have a few large IIMs, each with diverse skills and scale economies, and build more institutions incrementally.

Does management education have to reinvent itself? Does it recognise the realities of today’s workplace? Organisations have transformed, CEOs are younger; the workforce is younger. How are B-schools coping?

Management education is going through dramatic changes. It has traditionally been focussed on turning out professional managers for existing large enterprises primarily in manufacturing. It has changed in at least two dimensions, our graduates are not just going into large enterprises, many are starting entrepreneurial ventures. The second dimension is the mix of industries has moved from manufacturing to services. So, management education has to delve not only into managing manufacturing businesses, but also understanding customer needs, leading knowledge workers, delivering high-quality services, and establishing enterprises. The entire gamut of post secondary education is going through a disruptive change. Technology has made possible new ways of reaching out to students, interacting with them through mechanisms such as distance education. Some of the most hallowed concepts of education — such as the idea that everybody has to be in the same physical space to go through learning — are being challenged.

Very soon, cutting edge education in management will be a blended mix, some classroom learning, some delivered online. What management education will look like ten years from now will be very different from what it is today.

What will be the impact of massive open online courses on B-school education?

They are very powerful for some kinds of subjects. MOOCs facilitate transmission of knowledge over great distances, and give students the flexibility to learn at a time and location of their choosing. University of Georgia, which has a well-regarded engineering programme, recently offered an entirely online version at one-third the cost. One of the fastest growing universities in the US is the online University of Phoenix. Students are registering with online universities for degrees. Overall quality may not be great, and there is lots of attrition. But the trend of students registering for these programmes is picking up.

Universities like Harvard, MIT, and Stanford are experimenting in this space. I was in China some months back, when a professor at Harvard, Michael Sandel, who teaches philosophy, ran a class which was simulcast in something like 25 cities all over the world. As he delivered the lecture, participants could ask questions from any of those cities. The ability to reach out to large numbers of people is extraordinary. However, most of the interactions in MOOCs are unidirectional.

For IIM-A, where most of the learning is discussion-based, I see online learning as a complement, not a substitute. We will be moving towards blended learning. If some topics are fact-based, we will use technology, freeing up precious classroom time for discussion.

Where does IIM-A stand in research? No breakthrough academic thought seems to be emerging, which is also integral to the IIMs?

A vibrant academic institution offering professional education needs to be able to stand on a tripod, one leg of which is practice. A school of management has to be close to practice so that the questions it is asking are relevant to practice. The second leg of the tripod is that it should be effective for students to become good professionals. Professional education trains students to be effective professionals, it doesn’t just impart academic knowledge. Third, it has to be at the cutting edge of management thought, so that the best thinking informs the teaching and development at the institution.

These three legs support one another. And in the top institutions anywhere in the world we have to make sure we motivate and support all three, because if all three are strong, they will be mutually self-sustaining.

IIM-A is good at two of these legs: being close to practice and serious about pedagogy. We could do better on the third leg: being in the flow of cutting-edge thinking.

How was Harvard in terms of gender and academic diversity since you’ve had a long stint there?

Harvard Business School has greater diversity in academic backgrounds. There are engineering graduates but also students from the liberal arts, economics and pure science streams. A higher percentage of students are women, as compared to IIM-A, although HBS has also been facing the challenge of maintaining gender diversity. Harvard has more people with work experience. IIM-A has more fresh graduates. Harvard also is different in the geographical spread of students. For HBS, the world is its catchment; students come from all over the world. For IIM-A, we have to extend our catchment area beyond India. We do have a vibrant exchange programme. At least 70 foreign students from top international schools come here and an equal number of our students go abroad on exchange programmes. That brings international perspective and experience. However, we do need to strive to make our student mix more international.