03 Nov 2021 20:59 IST

‘My aspiration for SPJIMR is for it to be the best private B-school in India’

Globally, it should be known as a socially conscious B-school with positive impact, says Dean Varun Nagaraj

Dr Varun Nagaraj joined SPJIMR as Dean after a 30-year career in product innovation in Boston and Silicon Valley, during which he held CEO and other executive leadership roles at several venture-funded start-ups and public companies developing communications, computing, IoT, and AI products. He was also a partner at PRTM Management Consulting (now part of PwC), working with Fortune 1,000 companies on their organisational innovation initiatives.

Dr Nagaraj holds a Bachelor's in Electrical Engineering from IIT Bombay, a Masters in Computer Engineering from North Carolina State University, an MBA from Boston University, and a PhD from Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management.


Dr Nagaraj's research on how teams learn and innovate in unfamiliar contexts has been published in the Academy of Management (AOM) proceedings and in the Journal of Product Innovation Management (JPIM), and is featured in the upcoming 2021 Handbook of Digital Entrepreneurship. In this interview to BLonCampus, Dr Nagaraj talks about his vision for SPJIMR; what he brings to the table at the B-school, and what he plans on doing to take the B-school up the rankings. Excerpts from the interview:

Varun, you are returning to India after many years. What will you bring to the table at SPJIMR? 

Well, business schools are facing unique circumstances. Three types of changes are swirling in parallel right now at high velocity. There are technology changes that are accelerating with occasionally unintended consequences; environmental issues that are now more pressing than they have ever been; and societal disruptions of many kinds. These three developments are confronting business schools at the same time. Part of the reason I was picked by the trustees was to navigate the institute through these three tsunamis, if you will, and that requires some new thinking. My hope is that the lessons drawn from my industry background will help SPJIMR navigate this turbulence.

Also, it helps that my background in innovation is rooted in proactive and market-driven product invention rather than bespoke or reactive. My product innovation background is mostly in the digital space and with companies that are either undergoing or enabling deep digital transformation. I can naturally bring that digital or technology sensibility to the table. Also, I expect to bring a sensitivity to sustainability aspects to my role at SPJIMR; my last job was in the energy conservation space and my company helped utilities and end energy consumers to understand and appropriately modify their consumption behaviour to aid the environment. An innovative mindset is needed now that there are so many alternate providers of education and a range of alternate channels of delivery. So the definition of what is education, when and how it is delivered is all up in the air. So, thinking in an innovative way, which people in industry are forced to do all the time, is good training for the education sector.

In the context, given that the pandemic has seen so many changes, do you see that management education needs a re-think?

Periodically every crisis forces a rethink. For example, the dot com crisis probably forced a rethink on what exactly business is; people were too carried away by brand marketing and eye ball capturing and forgot about what is the value being created and what is fundamental to a business model. So I think the dot com crisis with its so-called irrational exuberance probably forced a necessary back-to-the-basics mindset. But that wasn’t enough. The financial crisis of 2008 forced a rethink on ethics and governance and risk and forced a rethink on the role of regulations. But it was mostly limited to the financial services sector. The Covid-19 crisis is different.

The Covid-19 crisis forced us to recognise that the world is a complex and interconnected space and it forced us to face the uncomfortable truth that we don’t fully understand or know how to respond to such complexity. People had to juggle with trade-off decisions of whether to shutdown an economy or function with restrictions, and if so, for how long. And the vaccine availability and roll-out starkly highlighted the differences between the poor and the rich.

This crisis has forced a rethink of management education. We have to ask if students are equipped to deal with this kind of crisis; can they frame a complex situation in terms of a potentially understandable problem? Do they have the modesty to realise that whatever solution they come up with will probably be wrong? Can they react quickly to the fact that their hypotheses is wrong, and course correct quickly? Can they come up with fact-based decisions rather than giving into their emotions? Do they have the confidence and integrity to make unpopular decisions? Those are major parts of the conversations today: evidence-based thinking, assertions that can be wrong; and decision-making with uncertain and ambiguous information. These are the thinking models or mindsets that management education should provide to students. I think these are pretty fundamental changes to the foundations of management education.

What is your plan to take SPJIMR even higher up the rankings?

Rankings matter, of course. They do influence selection by the students. We have to be an attractive destination to the students; these metrics matter to them and therefore to us. But the rankings are quite diverse from different organisations that rank B-schools. For example, the criteria of NIRF rankings are quite different from the criteria used by the Financial Times or Business Today. All that said, my aspiration is to consistently be regarded as the best private business school in India across all survey methodologies. Internationally, I would like SPJIMR to make a mark as well — I want SPJIMR to be known globally for our distinct approach to management education — an SPJIMR-way if you will.

Some schools are known for specific disciplines, even though they are not famous schools per se; there is Babson college near Boston and its UG programme is probably the best in the country for entrepreneurship. The Thunderbird school of management in Arizona was known for international business. So you don’t have to be a Harvard or a Stanford to be well known; you can be a smaller, more focused business school like SPJIMR and still have a unique identity.

Take our mission of influencing practice and promoting value-based growth – the fact that business should do good, in addition to doing well. That growth must be equitable and sustainable. These are more than words at SPJIMR; we sensitise our students to social realities by having them go through an immersion programme with an NGO in a rural area. They also work for a whole year with students who are severely underprivileged. We also give our students opportunities to experience personal and spiritual growth. These are some of the experiences that students undergo at SPJIMR which makes it different from other B-schools. Internationally, I would like to have a reputation as one of the most socially conscious business schools in the world, and a school more dedicated to sustainable development than other schools. At the end of my five-year term, I would like to be part of the international conversation around B-schools.  

SPJIMR is known both for its teaching excellence as well as innovative pedagogy. How do you intend to strike a balance between that? If you tilt either way too much, the learning outcome for students may become less; or it may become a more research-focused institution. So, you’ve got to draw a fine balance there.

You’re right. We look at teaching excellence and pedagogy as mutually reinforcing, with a nice mix of classroom experiences and non-classroom experiences. The student outcome we are seeking is to create accomplished practitioners with conscience who will positively navigate a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world. This means that our pedagogy and teaching need to adjust to the needs of the times and this is where I’ll come back to the three tsunamis I discussed earlier. How do we embed digital technology and the required entrepreneurial mindset into everything a student does? Next, how do we ensure that students are always aware of the environmental and societal impacts of their digital technology-based decisions? What do we do, both in the classroom and in terms of other experiences to make our students really good and conscientious problem-framers and solvers in a VUCA world. These are all the changes that I need to tackle to ensure our desired student-centric outcome.

Regarding research, one could argue that B-school generated research doesn’t directly impact that B-school’s teaching mission, though a good researcher can certainly bring more illustrations and depth to their interactions with students.

If we focus on a few things that are SPJIMR mission-aligned and are relevant to practice as opposed to the more abstract publishing-sake kind of research, then I think we can increase synergy between the research side and teaching side. To do so, we need to take a broader view of thought leadership that goes beyond just publishing in peer-reviewed journals that only other academics read. You know, a white paper that is downloaded and read by a lot of people is also thought leadership. I would contend even a well-argued newspaper article on a specific issue that changes minds is thought leadership.

Another pragmatic approach to research at SPJIMR is to actually take a look at our faculty as a portfolio of talent. There are going to be some faculty who are more naturally aligned towards being amazing teachers and there are some people who are going to be more aligned towards being amazing researchers. And we ought to be, at this point in time, able to accommodate both kinds of folks, and collectively as a faculty group, deliver both teaching and research excellence.

So how did SPJMR fare in terms of placements last year and as you head into placement season this year what is the outlook? Is it also a kind of barometer of how the economy is doing as well?

Placements are only one measure of student success and student outcome, but it is a very important measure. It is often a key reason why students opt for our B-school and it is important that we deliver on the promise of great placements. We are very pleased that in the last cycle, we achieved 100 percent placements, and completed it within two days. One could wonder if Covid even happened! Companies have been amazingly resilient in their hiring. Hopefully, it speaks well for the economy going forward.

There is a view that business managers of the future will need to be a bit of AI specialists and a bit of data specialists. Industry is also demanding those kinds of roles. So how will you gear up your students for the new industry demands?

It’s a good question. There are two ways in which these new technologies are currently being incorporated in the student experience. One is we have a set of courses in the curriculum that focuses on these core building blocks. We feel fairly confident that our students are leaving our four walls with a reasonable handle of what these technologies are, having worked with some of the tool sets, having learnt for example how to do visualisation, using Tableau, and how to tell a story around the data. Because a lot of data analytics is as much as about storytelling and interpretation as it is about data crunching.

In addition, we focus on the application of these technologies to the practice of management. We have financial and marketing analytics classes and a very cool course called customer usage analytics when you use a product today, every click that you make is an indication of what interests you. Companies need to take in all this click screen information coming in and from that tell what’s going on. Are people happy with the product? Are the features that you’ve introduced actually being exercised by users or not? So, these are the sort of applications of analytics within different functions.

We focus on both. That is, we build a basic foundation on core technology no matter what the student’s functional specialisation might be. Within a functional specialisation we try and show how these various new digital technologies are going to impact practices within that function. So, if you’re a supply chain professional, how will block chain, for example, potentially change the way you do vendor management. Now, if your specialisation happens to be information management, you would dig much deeper into those core technologies.

Are you looking to build stronger industry linkages so that you tailor your courses for what the industry requires and build stronger industry linkages?

Traditionally, our industry linkages have been a source of strength at SPJIMR. Our linkages are strong because we are very practice focused and because of our location in Mumbai. A lot of eminent industry folks at some point in their lives want to share what they’ve learnt and I think we have a very flexible and a nice pathway for folks to come in as visiting faculty and adjunct faculty depending on the stage of their life they are in. We always have a constant flow of fine talent from the industry coming in to teach and then, of course, that raises the game for our full-time faculty as well. In fact, I would go as far as to say that our reputation as India’s finest teaching B-school stems from our ability to blend industry experts seamlessly into our teaching and thought leadership activities.

Additionally, we use advisory councils at two levels. There’s an institute-level advisory council; we call it the thought leadership council. Then each of our functional areas and thought leadership centres of excellence have their advisory councils consisting of eminent industry leaders who provide the necessary inputs to keep us current and cutting-edge.