SMITHA RAJAN: You have been at Harvard and at IIMA, as well. What is the major difference between the institutes – not in terms of money but in the style of functioning, teaching and attitude at each of these institutes?
ASHISH NANDA: Let me share with you what I think is similar and then what’s different. At Harvard, I have taught at Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School (HBS). Students at both HBS and IIMA are very bright. Quality of students here is as good as at HBS, in terms of intellect.
The second similarity between the two schools, different from most management schools, is that both have reputation of being strongly committed to the case study methodology of teaching. It’s a challenging method of teaching for the instructor. If you are teaching lecture-style, you go through your notes – talking through your points and reading from notes — and you are done. In case-study method of teaching, the faculty member is like a conductor. Students are doing the bulk of talking; professors are asking questions.
As an instructor, you really go where the students go. Such teaching is much more fluid, and you have to give a lot more of the learning responsibility to the students. The benefit, of course, is that it engages students and the learning sticks. IIMA and HBS both value the case-study methodology.
Let me talk about the difference…In Harvard, students come from more diverse academic backgrounds than in IIMA. I went to a classroom at IIMA and wanted to know about the experience of different people.
I started by asking ‘how many of you have come from engineering’ and then, I was going to ask about other disciplines. But in every section, hands went up for engineering! I couldn’t ask how many of them were from commerce, economics or language. Out of 90 (students), 85 were from engineering. The percentage of students from engineering is remarkably high… Some of it has to be with the Indian approach to college education.
If you are bright and smart, you complete school and then pursue medicine or engineering – whether you want to be a doctor or an engineer, or not. We also need to do more to attract the brightest minds from other fields (like economics, commerce, or literature). I think diversity impacts learning in the classroom. If you want case-study learning to be rich, you want people coming from different backgrounds.
The other difference is: In the PGP class of IIMA (I’m not talking about PGPX), students generally
have less experience than their counterparts in HBS. There, students have 3-5 years of work experience, or more. In IIMA’s PGP class, many don’t have work experience… I think a few years of experience add value to the learning – not just in theoretical study of management, but on the practical front, too. Of course, our PGPX students have 7-10 years of experience, which would be more than the experience HBS students bring to their classroom.
I think faculty and staff are very committed here in IIMA. In fact, I would say loyalty to the institution is greater here. The staff here come up to me and says, ‘Prof Nanda, we are so glad to meet you. I was in this office 30 years ago, when you were a student here’. The staff at HBS, I think, has greater loyalty and commitment than the staff at HBS, but I would guess the skill level is higher among administrative staff at HBS. I would say that at HBS, faculty spend greater time and energy on research. Here in IIMA, while good research is done, more could be done.
HBS is very close to its alumni – they look at the relationship as life-long relationship. At IIMA, our attempts to reach out to our alumni have been sporadic, which is a travesty because the diaspora of our alumni, who have achieved a lot in various walks of life, have tremendous loyalty to the institution and want to give back.
Another difference is that while HBS is a business school, IIMA takes great pride in being a management institution. IIMA’s mandate is broader than that of a business school. At HBS, the focus is on business issues. There is a separate school, the Kennedy School of Government, that studies issues of administration in the government. At IIMA, we study management in the business context, but also in other contexts, including the government and the social sector. A lot of our faculty research and advice, and several of our courses are policy oriented. I believe this broad mandate gives our students a broader perspective.
KINJAL DESAI: Any event at IIMA is firstly a private affair for IIMA and then, if required, it turns into a public event. Would you, in the future, change this scenario?
ASHISH NANDA: If I’ve understood your question correctly, what you are saying is a lot of IIMA events tend to focus on the institute and not on the broader community…
I want to do something in this regard. I would love to have some events, showcasing what we at IIMA are really good at, not just cultural events. There are things like public lectures and talks – less exciting maybe – but I think these are things where we can contribute more. I’m hoping that very soon, we will have public talks by a few of our own professors or by those we are hosting, where we will invite people from Ahmedabad to participate.
I feel we get a lot, as an institution, from the Ahmedabad community. People are happy and proud to have us here. Soon after we arrived here, my wife and I went to some fair where they were selling sarees from all over the country… And people were stopping us (!), at every third or fourth shop, saying: ‘we are so happy that you have come to IIMA. We are so proud of IIMA. Please tell us what we can do from our end’…The affection and respect that people here have for the institute – you can touch it and feel it. I really want us to reciprocate this goodwill by being responsible and contributory citizens of the city. The way we can do so is through interactions that might be mutually beneficial.
We might have some public talks open to all. We, recently had garba on campus and prior to that, we had a marketing fair – INSIGHT. In both events, we were fortunate to have active and contributory participation from the local community. We are trying to be an open institution for people from all over the country, and indeed the world.
Just before I came here, I crossed some architecture students from Delhi who were walking around the campus with sketchpads. But we want to maintain a good balance. We want to be an academically serious institute but do not want to be in a cocoon, either.
On one hand, we can be welcoming to people from outside IIMA, but whatever activities we do shouldn’t detract from the academic atmosphere.
SHYAM PAREKH: I think what she (Kinjal) is trying to say is with reference to Aamir Khan and other celebrities visiting the campus. While we are told media is not allowed on campus, a few manage to sneak in and report (about the celebrity). I think this is where she has a problem.
ASHISH NANDA: We will try for that not to happen. For some events, we will tell all media not to come. There are some events or sometimes even guests who don’t want it to be reported.
Sometimes we could just invite and instruct to not report on the content, as we want people to be more in conversation or candid chat between the guest and audience. Media, in my experience, acts very responsibly, if given clear guidelines.
NIKHILESH PATHAK: Despite having produced management gurus, IIMA hasn’t been able to be among the Top-10 management schools of the world. Also, you mentioned you have come across several alumni of MS University, Baroda. Why isn’t that institute among the top universities of India?
ASHISH NANDA: I am not qualified to answer about MS University but I have great respect and affection for their alumni.
IIMA has always been what I call a hidden gem. You meet two types of people abroad – one, to whom if you say ‘I’m from IIMA’, they say ‘what is that?’ They have never heard about it. The second type is a much smaller group of people, to whom if you say ‘I’m from IIMA’, they would say: ‘Oh yeah. People don’t know how amazing it is. It’s a fantastic institute’.
My regret is that the second type of people are fewer than I would like. I’m very proud of this institute and what it has achieved. I think it’s the insight of IIMA’s founders – Kasturbhai Lalbhai, Vikram Sarabhai and Ravi Mathai, and others – that has built this institution of excellence. They said we don’t care whether we have a degree-granting authority; we don’t care about having large classes; we care about providing extraordinary transformational educational experience to our students. Their focus, which is the focus of our institute to this day, was to provide excellent education.
India has an excellent tradition of starting marvelous institutions, many of which decay over time.
IIMA is among the very few institutes that have sustained excellence for more than 50 years.
There are small hiccups here and there, but in overall commitment and standing in India, and abroad, we take great pride in sustaining a high level of excellence over this time. And that is because of our unwavering commitment to our vision: to provide transformational educational experience that helps our students become leaders in today’s and tomorrow’s world.
I see no reason why IIMA shouldn’t be among the top management schools of the world. We have the history, we have the commitment of people, we have location in a diverse society and rich culture, and we have a growing economy. Add to that the desire among our faculty, alumni, board, and government that the institution achieve international recognition. If we put our hearts and energy together, I see no reason why we can’t move to the next level.
SUMIT KHANNA: What are the best practices from Harvard and other institutions that we can see you implementing in IIMA over the coming years? What are your immediate goals at IIMA?
ASHISH NANDA: I haven’t come with a laundry list of best practices to IIMA. I have come to first learn how IIMA is doing the wonderful job it is doing. This is not a burning ship that you immediately have to set right – this is a ship that is moving well and powerfully on its course.
Each institution is like an ecosystem, like an organism. You can’t just transplant ideas and practices just like that. If you transplant without understanding the organism, the organ that is transplanted fails. You have to first understand the institution well before prescribing.
So, I’m spending time trying to understand IIMA. Of course, I will try to use my life experiences, of which Harvard is one, to try and see how I can improve and contribute. That’s the perspective I am arriving with…learn, understand and then contribute.
Having said that, it seems to me, now that I have been in this position for six weeks, that there are two areas where I can contribute. One is in linking of IIMA better with the international world of academics and practice in management. Motivating people here to link up more with international audiences and international academics and vice versa.
Two, as a student of professional service organisations, of which academic institutions are a subset, I have discovered that if you want a sustained high-performing professional service organisation, you have to create an atmosphere where professionals simultaneously feel a sense of empowerment and a sense of stretch. Empowerment makes them feel this is their institution. They feel excited about the work they are doing, the institution’s achievements. It unleashes entrepreneurial energy. But they also feel an element of stretch. They feel they have to extend themselves, do the best they can.
If I can help sustain an atmosphere where people feel empowered and stretched – here I include all constituencies, faculty, staff, and students – then we will be able to achieve even more of our potential that we have in the past.
HINA NAINANI: Will there be an impetus of research in IIMA as it is said to be missing?
ASHISH NANDA: IIMA has been engaged in knowledge-creation activities in three ways – one, traditional research, which is often in form of papers that goes into peer reviewed journals; two, is research specific to institutes like IIMA, which is case development; and three, is policy documents and discourse to public at large.
We have been doing work in all three of these. Definitely, we would like to do more. We are trying to make sure that, in all three spaces, we are doing more than we have done in the past.
HINA NAINANI: There has been an observation from students that research is not practised in your institute in the way you just spoke about. It might be true on paper, but not practically followed.
ASHISH NANDA: At IIMA, we want to do high-quality research which has relevance to practice or policy. Some of this research immediately makes its way to MBA classrooms but, in fact, a lot of this research percolates over time. It goes into journals, then comes back to classrooms; some of it goes into policy documents and comes back. Thus while MBA students are clearly an audience, they may not be its best evaluators.
I would suggest that the audience that would more appropriately make sense of quality of research is the community of management academics. When you try to find who is a good heart surgeon, you don’t just go to the patients. They can comment on bedside manners, perhaps. But they cannot be good judges of their professional abilities. You go to other doctors and ask referrals on whether particular doctors are good. It’s because the quality of work they are doing is so complex that it’s difficult for the lay person to evaluate.
Similar is the case with lawyers and chartered accountants… Thus, the test of whether we are doing good research or not, if you are interested to pursue it deeply, is to talk with the academic community.
JUMANA SHAH: How do management and leadership styles differ in India from western countries?
ASHISH NANDA: There was a time several decades ago when people used to talk about management styles being extremely different across geographies and cultures. There was this big debate about the specific Asian style of management.
I think today there is much greater agreement on a common way – a shared perspective on managing or leading organisations across different geographies and economies, rather than differences. Some of that has to do with the fact that for almost all major economies, over the last 10-15 years, the economic systems have become more or less been similar. With varying degrees of state control, the economies are run on market principles.
For example, Tata Group, for whom I worked for five years, has a respected Tata Group style of management -- and this style transcends geographies, whether you look at software consulting operations in India, hotels in the US, or cars in the UK. Thus, one of the interesting development of recent years is that geographic distinction between management styles has somewhat declined. And that’s terrific for India.
We can learn from others’ experiences, and if we are really good we can be successful not only in India but also on a global landscape. We are already seeing it – in software outsourcing firms, knowledge intensive operations, pharmaceutical sector, healthcare, professional services…