IIMA Committed to Retaining its Status as the Premier Management Institution

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IIMA Committed to Retaining its Status as the Premier Management Institution

Arindam Banerjee has been serving as a Professor in Marketing at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad for over 20 years. Before joining IIM Ahmedabad, he served as a Senior Consultant at the Chicago office of Mitchell Madison Group, a global management consultancy firm. Madan Lamsal of New Business Age talked with Banerjee during his recent visit to Kathmandu. Excerpts:

How has the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad stood out as a premier management institute domestically and globally? 

We have been exceptionally fortunate in our journey. As the second national-level management institute in India, IIM Ahmedabad was founded in 1961, 14 years after India gained independence. This timing was pivotal, as post-independence India had a pressing need for skilled engineers and managers. Enjoying government support and benefiting from academic collaboration with Harvard University, one of America's premier business schools, set us apart. We have drawn extensively from Harvard's practices, particularly in our adoption and continued utilisation of case studies. This has yielded significant benefits, profoundly influencing both academic learning and practical application. We have maintained our position without compromising the standing of newer institutions. While we do engage in friendly competition with institutions like IIM Bangalore, often considered India's Silicon Valley, our focus remains on upholding our reputation and contributing to the Indian industry and corporate landscape. Securing the top spot in management education in India fills us with gratitude and pride.

What strategies are you employing to maintain IIM Ahmedabad’s leading position in management education? 

Two key factors have been instrumental in maintaining our leading position in management education. First, there has been a conscious investment strategy coupled with its positive outcomes. Our extensive collection of case studies has distinguished us not only in India but also across the Middle East and beyond. Secondly, we have successfully attracted top-tier faculty and resources, often drawing talented individuals educated and trained in the US. As a result, IIM Ahmedabad has become the preferred destination for such individuals, leading to the establishment of a vast intellectual reservoir. With a focus on recruiting quality faculty, fostering robust intellectual resources, and promoting academic research, we remain committed to retaining our status as the premier management institution despite global competition.

What steps is IIM Ahmedabad taking to ensure that its pedagogy aligns with the evolving business scenario? 

I will address this topic across three dimensions. First, regarding content: the future of management pivots on the concept of techno-managers. Traditional managerial roles are increasingly limited in today's landscape. There is a growing demand for managers equipped with technological proficiency. While technology schools concentrate solely on technical aspects, management institutes traditionally emphasise management alone. To bridge this gap, we have revamped our curriculum to integrate both management principles and technological expertise. Our graduates now possess a dual skill set, blending management proficiency with technological acumen, marking a significant content redesign for the future. Additionally, our delivery method has evolved, particularly in response to the challenges posed by COVID-19. We have pioneered a hybrid approach to education, leveraging smart classrooms and enhancing our infrastructure to create an exceptional learning ecosystem. Academic publications and case studies play a crucial role in reflecting the dynamic shifts within the business landscape and corporate culture. The next factor is the on-campus experience. Our vibrant atmosphere fosters a sense of homeliness and personal connectivity, which has been instrumental in maintaining our premier position among students.

Post-COVID, many universities and colleges have switched to online learning. But learning does not become that effective when faculties are not present in the class. What is your take on this? 

Our Post-graduate programme (PGP) stands as our premier residential course. While the content naturally evolves over time, our focus is on using technology to broaden educational access to those who would otherwise lack such opportunities. The democratisation of education delivery through technology is evident. Since IIM was established and sustained with public funds, we have a responsibility to contribute to society. The advent of online learning has significantly expanded our reach to a wider segment of society. Given that the Government of India has provided us with land and infrastructure, we recognise our obligation to the public. It is essential to recognise that not every student needs to attend IIM. There are other reputable business schools available for those who may not secure admission here.

In view of India’s growing importance in the global economy, how is IIM Ahmedabad positioned to capitalise on this trend? What steps is it taking to leverage India’s growing position in the global south? 

First, with India's rising stature as a regional powerhouse and Ahmedabad emerging as a financial hub, we anticipate the influx of numerous global financial institutions to the city. Additionally, several educational institutes from the US and Australia are establishing a presence here, presenting a competitive landscape for us. As a purely Indian brand, we acknowledge the challenges in competing with Western counterparts due to legacy and other factors. To address this, we are focusing on providing contextual education tailored to the needs of India and the region.

The other aspect that we are actively pursuing is forging stronger connections and revitalising our relationship with industries. There are two primary motivations behind this initiative. First, we aim to assist in resolving industrial challenges that companies often lack the time and resources to address independently. Second, we strive to make education more relevant and contextual for our students by integrating industrial practices and experiences into the classroom. Twenty years ago, we faced little competition in our sector. However, the emergence of other business schools has led to a loss of our industry outreach which we are actively endeavouring to reclaim. Despite attracting global students, we acknowledge that we have yet to achieve the status of a global brand. Therefore, we are committed to expanding our global outreach. Our initial focus will be on establishing a presence in the UAE, given its significant Indian diaspora. Subsequently, we plan to extend our reach to Africa and South East Asia. This expansion strategy at strengthening our regional and global brand image while also ensuring that we remain a highly sought-after business school in the region.

How about Nepal? Are you thinking of expanding your programme in Nepal? 

Regarding the expansion of our programme in South Asia, there are a few key points to consider. In the past, Ahmedabad had programmes in Kathmandu and Bhutan although I was not directly involved at the time. Unfortunately, these initiatives were eventually discontinued. Now, we're contemplating establishing a centralised facility that can cater to all SAARC countries, rather than focusing on specific nations. To successfully establish a presence in any region, it is crucial to thoroughly understand the local business landscape and the challenges faced by local corporations.

While considering expansion into Nepal or Bangladesh, it's essential to adopt a realistic approach by thoroughly assessing the market size and investment requirements. Collaboration between Nepali corporate entities, IIM Ahmedabad, and the government of Nepal is crucial for ensuring the success of such an endeavour.

What could be the essential number for IIM Ahmedabad to think of establishing its presence in a new market? 

I cannot stress this enough because the performance of our graduates in the market is paramount. Therefore, conducting market tests is of utmost importance. Personally, I've been to Kathmandu 17 times over the last 21 years. During one visit, we held a programme at Hotel Himalaya with a focus on marketing where I and one of my colleagues served as keynote speakers. Unfortunately, the programme did not continue thereafter. Apart from the programme at Kathmandu College of Management, I was also invited to participate in a programme designed for corporate leaders and professionals. During this event, we were tasked with addressing challenges related to Nepali corporations. However, I candidly admitted, "I don’t know", emphasising the necessity of a clear understanding of the local market to effectively solve its problems. Hence, it is necessary to prioritise building relationships and connectivity. To achieve this, we must be willing to make initial gestational investments that are not solely transaction-based.

Do you mean to say that the Nepali corporate sector is not ready to make an initial gestation period investment for the exchange of ideas, training and connectivity? 

Our focus on market expansion is driven by pragmatism. While countries like Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are friendly neighbours, their markets may not be as lucrative for us. Instead, Dubai stands out as a promising market for our expansion efforts. It is essential to receive bilateral and government-level support to establish a meaningful presence in these neighbouring countries. Moreover, fostering connections between corporate entities in Nepal and Indian business schools could further facilitate our expansion efforts.

Nepali industries say that graduates from Nepali business schools have failed to meet the industry demand. How does IIM Ahmedabad ensure that its graduates align with the demands of the professional world in India? 

We have cultivated a strong faculty with expertise in two key areas: robust industry connectivity and academic research and publication. The ability to challenge participants' perspectives directly is crucial in executive education. Not every professor possesses this capability. But we strive to excel in it. While we acknowledge that we are not flawless, we are committed to continuous improvement. Maintaining proximity to the industry is paramount for us to make a significant impact. We require educators who do not just teach from books but also possess the ability to translate academic concepts into real-life industrial scenarios.

So, you are talking about the emphasis on case studies? 

Business schools must extend their focus beyond case studies to include research projects about industries while also guiding students with their projects. As a professor, my role extends beyond mere teaching; it involves professing. This entails assisting learners in forging connections with the practical challenges encountered by industries. I aim to help others develop fresh perspectives to approach the problems prevalent in the corporate world and various industries. True confidence in learning emerges when teachers transcend textbooks and become facilitators in addressing real-world challenges. It is crucial not to fixate solely on utopian concepts but to adapt and innovate them to tackle practical problems effectively. Otherwise, industries may perceive utopian concepts as irrelevant.

Could you elaborate on the initiatives of IIM Ahmedabad offering free online management courses to widen its access to a large section of the population and its impact? 

We offer a free online course at IIM Ahmedabad which serves several purposes. First, it serves as a commendable Corporate Social Responsibility initiative, demonstrating our commitment to societal welfare. Additionally, it offers prospective students a glimpse into the world of management education, potentially sparking their interest in pursuing a full management course at our campus. Furthermore, the free course serves as a teaser or appetiser enticing individuals to consider further educational opportunities with us, both online and on-campus. Moreover, it functions as a marketing tool for our other online courses. Open to anyone and everyone, this free online course reflects our dedication to providing accessible learning opportunities and serves as our contribution to society.

Do you think individuals should enter the professional world after undergraduate studies or first pursue higher education?

There are both advantages and disadvantages to consider. When undergraduates transition directly into Master’s programmes, they often bring with them a high level of focus and concentration along with sharp analytical skills honed through their recent academic experiences. On the other hand, individuals who pursue a Master’s degree after gaining years of work experience may face challenges in maintaining the same level of concentration. Their analytical abilities may have become somewhat dulled by the routine practices of the professional world. Fresh undergraduates often lack the real-world experience necessary to fully relate to the complexities of Master’s level programmes. Optimal preparation for such programmes typically involves gaining two to three years of work experience. In our region, there is often parental pressure for students to complete college and secure a job immediately which may not align with the most effective approach to learning.

Societal norms, however, are evolving and there is a growing trend of individuals opting to work for a period before pursuing their Master’s education. Particularly in India, job opportunities are increasingly available and it is becoming common for students to gain two to three years of work experience before enrolling in MBA programmes. However, this trend poses a challenge for us, as, during this time, individuals often earn substantial incomes, enabling them to fund their MBA studies anywhere in the world. Consequently, they may opt for prestigious universities in the USA or elsewhere.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has altered the way the world operates. How has IIM Ahmedabad changed or adjusted its course curriculum and delivery system in the post-pandemic situation? 

During and after the pandemic, we dedicated significant efforts to improving our infrastructure and expanding remote learning opportunities. In collaboration with Coursera, we have introduced various paid programmes catering to different segments of the population seeking personal and academic development while staying at home. Recognising that COVID-19 might not be the last pandemic, we are committed to retaining and further developing the skills and capabilities we've acquired. However, we acknowledge that certain disciplines, such as social sciences and management science, necessitate in-person interaction for effective learning which is challenging to replicate online. While we value the flexibility and accessibility of online education, we also understand the importance of maintaining quality programmes that involve on-campus, in-class experiences. Our primary concern is to develop a strategic and robust infrastructure to support the continued growth and effectiveness of online education in the future.

We have been developing and refining a blend of both on-campus and online options for our programmes. One approach we are exploring is conducting online classes throughout the week followed by on-campus sessions where students can engage with course material and receive feedback. This hybrid model has gained popularity, particularly in post-COVID times, with many management executive programmes adopting a similar approach. 

Were the free online courses offered by IIMA a response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

While the free online courses were indeed established during the COVID-19 pandemic, their purpose extends beyond this period. They serve as platforms to enhance the reputation and global connectivity of IIM Ahmedabad. Additionally, they fulfil a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) objective as they provide accessible learning opportunities to individuals worldwide. It is important to note that while other courses at IIM Ahmedabad may be expensive, the provision of free online courses represents a way for the institution to give back to society.

Earlier, you mentioned the expansion to Dubai and other locations. What specific policies or strategies are being considered for this expansion?

IIM Ahmedabad currently faces challenges in two key areas: international student enrollment and academic research output. While our ranking in academic research output has improved recently, there is a pressing need to enhance our global reach among students. Our online MBA programmes have garnered significant interest from applicants worldwide, including the USA. These programmes require students to visit the campus once every four months for a week-long session. To address the issue of diversity, we are trying to attract international talent to our institute. Our efforts in this regard have not yet yielded the desired results.

Our current infrastructure may not meet the expectations of international standards. For example, while our kitchen primarily offers traditional meals, international students typically prefer a wider range of culinary options. It is important to recognise that international students may not be willing to adapt to our way of life as easily as we adapt to theirs. Therefore, until we reach a point where they are more willing to adjust, our focus should remain on providing online courses for international students.

Furthermore, we have been making efforts to attract international faculty members. Presently, we have two American, one South Korean and one Iranian faculty member on board. Additionally, we offer compensation that is comparable to mid-level business schools in the USA to remain competitive in the global talent market.

Our online MBA programmes have garnered significant interest from applicants worldwide, including the USA. These programmes require students to visit the campus once every four months for a week-long session.

Based on your frequent visits to Kathmandu College of Management, what insights have you gained about Nepal's management education system from your interactions with students and faculty?

While I am not an expert on the Nepali education system, my interactions with students, faculty and some corporate entities in Nepal have shed light on certain aspects. Primarily, there seems to be a gap between business schools and industries which indicates a need for greater collaboration and alignment. While visiting faculties is beneficial, there is a strong necessity to involve industries and their leaders directly in academia. Currently, there appears to be a lack of bilateral relationships between business schools and industries which has hindered the optimisation of management education. I advocate for a focus on Nepali cases in business schools, rather than relying solely on cases from India or Harvard Business School, to better cater to local contexts. Furthermore, investment in faculty development is crucial. This includes engagement in research, case studies and collaboration with industries. It is essential to have a clear understanding of the local market demands and tailor courses and case studies. Additionally, maintaining connections with alumni is vital for the sustained growth and improvement of institutions. Collaboration between institutions like KUSOM, KCM, and TU's management school can leverage alumni networks for mutual benefit and further growth.

What are the prerequisites for IIM Ahmedabad to establish a management school in Nepal?

If I were to invest in Nepal as an entrepreneur, there are several factors I would consider essential. First, both intellectual and material resources are crucial. Intellectual resources entail having knowledgeable individuals to engage with and learn from, while material resources are necessary for long-term sustainability. Additionally, active collaboration from government and industry stakeholders is vital for success. Branding Nepal as a study destination can attract a diverse range of individuals to the country. Lastly, forging ties with reputable schools from the UK and USA, alongside IIM Ahmedabad, would significantly enhance the venture's credibility and success.

Since Nepal and India share many things in common, do you think Indian education is more relevant to Nepal than education from other countries? 

While it is undeniable that Nepal and India share many similarities, it is crucial to acknowledge the influence of globalisation and our efforts to adapt to it. In this context, establishing a tripartite agreement involving UK and US business schools alongside Indian institutions could greatly benefit Nepali management colleges and universities. While the IIM Ahmedabad can offer top-notch content to facilitate job placements, aligning with reputable Western brands can bring global opportunities for students. 

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