22 May 2017 19:23 IST

‘IMI’s vision is to solve industry problems, widen global footprint’

IMI Delhi Director Debashis Chatterjee speaks to Parimala Rao about the B-school’s vision for the next three years

It’s a big change from the verdant and peaceful campus of IIM Kozhikode to the crowded and bustling Qutab Institutional Area in New Delhi, where Debashis Chatterjee moved some months back to assume charge as Director General of the International Management Institute, Delhi with two other campuses in Kolkata and Bhubaneswar. Asked how he’s coping with the change, Dr Chatterjee, a former Director at IIM-K, laughingly answers that he’s too busy to think about it much. His days are packed with daily operations and long-term planning, and in the evenings he is immersed in music. Author of 17 books, the 18th in the works, Chatterjee spends the rest of his free time writing. It’s an exciting time to be in the business of management education, says he, outlining how he plans to actualise 35 years of shared vision of all the stakeholders of IMI Delhi, India’s first corporate-sponsored B-school.

Four key growth areas

“My focus will be on four critical areas,” says Chatterjee. To start with, he explains, there will be efforts to consolidate growth across all of IMI’s campuses, through an integration of activities that will highlight IMI’s strength as a single brand. There are plans to contemporise research and academic activity to keep such work relevant to today’s needs.

“Alongside, we will work towards deepening the engagement with industry. This could be through collaborations, such as the recent tie-up with Power Grid Corporation of India, as well as by offering various management development programmes and post-graduate programmes for working executives,” says Chatterjee.

The third growth area involves widening IMI’s international footprint in the emerging markets. Chatterjee and his team at IMI Delhi are planning a 15-month international programme, as part of which participants will spend two weeks each in five continents, living and learning for a week at a time in different cities that are key business hubs. Asked if such extensive learning through travel is necessary in this era of total connectivity, Chatterjee is quick to point out that being physically present in these regions is essential to ensure that nothing is lost in transmission.

“Such personal networking provides valuable insights into the way business is conducted in different parts of the world,” he says.

Enlarging this international profile are the institute’s tie-ups with universities abroad, most recently with two Canadian institutes — the University of New Brunswick and Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Rotman is planning an informal immersion programme in India for its students as part of this collaboration.

“It’s important to be part of the informal context where formal business decisions are crystallised,” says Chatterjee, adding that understanding the finer nuances is possible only through field research, where one gets a touch and feel of things.

Disruptions in the learning space

“The fourth pillar of growth would be gaining social access and technology to connect with the new generation of learners. Across business schools, there is now an increasing disenchantment with the classroom mode of teaching. Terms 5 and 6 are becoming a dreaded time in most schools!” Chatterjee says, adding that the IMI faculty is exploring ways to bring about serious disruptions in the learning space, to make management education more relevant to the country. To take forward this work, IMI Delhi will soon launch a Centre for Disruptive Innovation and Enterprise that will develop short-term online and offline courses and MOOCs, often in collaboration with non-business schools, to create courses such as design thinking. Most of the experimentation, going forward, will likely happen in the area of hybrid courses, he says.

Industry interaction

“It’s important for us to deliver on all aspects of executive education,” says Chatterjee, describing one initiative that takes this forward. “We are conducting a series of leadership clinics across the country. The first one was held in Delhi on May 5. These forums help us get an idea of the problems people in industry are facing, so that we can create a framework for solving these real problems, instead of just delivering content.” This focus is particularly important for an institution which was set up by sponsoring companies such as RPG Enterprises, Nestle, ITC, SAIL, Tata Chemicals, BOC and Williamson Magor.

All this is part of a three-year vision, during which IMI plans to have a mandatory social immersion programme for students and some faculty, and is considering a teacher training programme for K-12 schools as well. It will invest in its own faculty development programmes, which “will be more ‘action-oriented’ and focus on intensifying the faculty-industry interaction, so that we can come up with real-world case studies and learning material.”

This kind of orientation, of making teachers far more accountable and proactive, has to begin at the primary school level, Chatterjee says. Referring to the ₹79,686-crore allocation for education in the 2017 Budget, he says that while the quantum is significant, it’s the execution, implementation and audit angles that will be a challenge, going forward. It’s about how the Budget is utilised. Funds may be poured into buildings, infrastructure and smart-boards. But the core activity of teacher training is usually ignored, and this needs focused attention.

“There is still this eternal paradox of higher education institutions of government faring very well but the school system doing badly,” points out Chatterjee, adding that perhaps more budget funds should have gone to create a systemic orientation that includes quality teacher training infrastructure, aimed at making teaching an attractive profession.

Ranking vs rating

Asked if rating, rather than ranking, institutions would be a smarter and fairer way to assess the worth of institutions, Chatterjee says this is an issue that particularly resonates with a person (such as himself) who heads a school run by corporates! Recognising the challenges and mindset of industry and also the way they assess education, by the yardstick of efficiency ratios, he is quick to distinguish between reputation and ranking. He terms the former an intangible element that has a lot to do with the way the education process happens over a long period.

“Reputation capital then becomes far more critical than a sporadic ranking exercise. Harvard, for instance, is still Harvard, no matter if it is ranked three or six in any given year! People who get in there will still opt for it over any other school,” says the IMI Delhi Director. The core aspects of teaching and learning cannot really be measured through numbers or points, and the rankers must realise this.

The bigger question is if government should be in the business of ranking at all, argues Chatterjee. Government could, instead, take ownership of the regulation — of governance structures, detecting malpractices, and so on. In the future, it may move beyond the kind of ranking that happens today, and focus on understanding which schools have built reputation, with due diligence-based rankings done within a larger space-time framework, and in a way that does not mis-measure the fundamental core of education. Such an evaluation will, he hopes, distinguish between quantitative parameters and the qualitative transformation that happens when students go through the institutional space.

So, less hard data and more descriptive evaluation — explaining in detail why a school is good, what its strengths and weaknesses are — will convey a clearer picture about where the scope lies for improvement and course correction.

Raising the bar

What does he think will be the impact of the new, stricter visa regime in the US, as a result of which many students may opt to pursue MBAs in India? Qualitatively, says Chatterjee, there will be a change and a raising of the bar, with top schools receiving some of the students who would otherwise have gone abroad. But he is quick to say this will likely be rationalised going forward. With a businesslike eye on the ‘return on investment’ factor, the US may have to soften its stance sooner than later. For most top American universities, their very USP is global talent, and they may find it difficult to run with an all-American student profile.

It does, however, signal, both to the IT and the education spaces, that there is sharper volatility ahead. This will mean increased pressure on our educational system that requires a realignment of priorities among top schools in India, and recognising that we need more global talent here.

“Many bright students don’t want to work abroad because the job market there is in a state of flux. So, a more India-centric approach, with an outward gaze and global worldview, may be what is called for. The brighter the talent we can retain here, the better it will be for the country; it will make our systems more competitive,” says Chatterjee.