Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Some Views on What Regional B Schools in India Should Be Doing

At the very outset, I would like to issue a disclaimer that this article is based on my own observations and my own opinions only!

Now that enough has been said and done over the economic meltdown and the subsequent recovery, nations, international bodies, think tanks and institutions are looking at setting an agenda for the future. Though at a relatively small scale, I am a part of a project group that is supposed to explore selected fields of socio-economic activity to identify and recommend road maps in those fields that can take India to a double digit growth.
As always, I cannot help but wonder what could be the role of management education in the regional and small business schools in helping achieve a double digit growth rate. My choice of the specific field of “management education” is a subset of the grander question of the role of education in a nation achieving sustainable inclusive growth. But addressing the issue of “education” and that too in India would need us to examine an extensive array of variables. Such a piece of work would be an interesting doctoral dissertation but for the sake of brevity (and my own limitations!), I chose to stick to commenting on issues in management education. Even in the case of management education, issues worthy of consideration are far too many for a casual article to address. I have decided to stick to the regional and small business schools as it is them that form a major part of the 1700 odd business schools in India and produce the bulk of the management manpower of the country. Moreover the established national players have the luxury of captive markets and great human resources.
In this article, I shall try to espouse my opinions about the following:

• The role of regulatory bodies.
• What do we need to teach?
• How should students be rated?
• What should be the role of the placement cell?

Seek Approval & Accreditation
On Jan 26, 2010, Times of India ran a story that ISB is among the to rated business schools of the world right up there with some of the best ever. Then on April 29, 2010, the same newspaper carries another story that the Hon’ble HRD Minister tells the press that ISB is one of the 201 institutions that are running without “government” (read AICTE) approval! I know this cannot be a good argument in favour of seeking approval and I do not intend it be. On the other hand I have been a witness to AICTE inspections at four different AICTE approved colleges and have seen how the system works! Any further explanation of this point would bring me into “how the system works” will bring this article into very dangerous and potentially libelous territory!
The target segment of ISB and the the excellent positioning of ISB that ISB aspirants do not really bother about approval but in case of “me too” business schools serving the aspirations of the burgeoning middle class at regional levels need that certification for acceptability among students and parents. Such colleges usually serve the segment of the population that still looks for the security of “government approved” label on anything they invest their money time and trust in. My logic is simple; as an educational institution, you will seek to attract as many students as you can so that you can influence and enable as many of them as you can. And for this, approval from relevant authorities seems to help a lot. And by what I have seen, getting AICTE approval is not a hard nut to crack! Once the approval monkey is off your back, you can focus on establishing and executing systems that staying within the permissible constraints can maximise the value delivered to the student, her family and the society at large.

What Do We Need to Teach?
I frankly have failed to see any point in faculty rephrasing what is already there in the standard texts and then expecting students to regurgitate that in examinations. The teaching-learning system at most business schools I have had any association with have been employing either the same “spoon feeding” system a student is exposed to in India from childhood or a variation of that. I had many friends and juniors who went to the IIMs and the IITs and I used to keep “interrogating” them to try and see how they do it these places. To my surprise, it was no very different from some of the progressive but relatively lesser known business schools I have worked with. The main difference came out to be the “teachers” and the “students” but the “methodologies” being followed were not very different from what we are doing where I work now!
The difference in faculty was that most of the faculty over there either had a lifetime’s worth of experience in the industry and thus knew what they were talking about or were constantly interfacing with the industry for training, research and consultancy work. This association with the industry not only helped them stay in touch with the practicalities and the realities but also helped them better understand at what kind of human resource the industry needed. This knowledge enabled them to deliver sessions that maximised the chances of a student becoming such a human resource.
The students were also different from the ones we see in the regional and me to business schools. Many of the students I met at IIMs and IITs had valuable industry experience that gave them an edge as they already had a clear idea of why they were there and what they needed to do. Then there were the freshers who lacked the industry experience but were a fired up lot. Considering what a student has to face to be at such a place, one can assume that you must be a fairly intelligent and highly motivated individual. At such places one can argue that an MBA should mean dispensing knowledge in the subjects opted for by the students and that one need not (and may not have a mandate for) tinkering with their personalities and mindsets!
But the regional and “me too” business schools may not be able to attract such accomplished faculty and such students. In such a case, it becomes imperative for the policy makers of such institutions to get together and develop a clear action plan based on the kind of students a college gets. As an example I would like to present the case of a college I have associated with in the past. Since the college was one among the multitude of undifferentiated educational institutions spawned by Punjab Technical University, we did not have the luxury of being able to attract very good students. In fact they were students our academic system had labeled as “average” to “well below average”. Rarely would we come across a student who had more than 60% marks in 10+2 or had a passable command over English or any idea why they wanted to do an MBA! Luckily for this college, some freak accident of nature saw some very capable and accomplished academicians and professionals converge there as faculty! The faculty body got together and after a protracted series of discussions and debates decided that focusing on “motivation”, “soft skills” and “awareness”. We also decided to not treat the students as “weak” students and exposed them to a very demanding curriculum. I am vey happy to announce that most of our students in that college who had been written off by the system not only survived but prospered. When I use the word “prospered”, I actually mean it. I know many of them and most of them who chose to build a career are already at middle management levels and many have started their own entrepreneurial ventures.
We just need to open minds and then sit back see them bloom! Of course we do need to dispense the mandatory functional knowledge but that is not the end. In fact I consider that the insignificant part at the regional business schools. Here the focus should be on training and mentoring to carve out an emotionally balanced, moderate, progressive, innovative and happy individual!

How Should the Students Be Rated?
A recent encounter with my super boss saw us at the receiving end of the following question, “What do the students want from the teacher?” Cautious answers ranged from “answers” to “knowledge” to “guidance” to “mentoring”. But we all knew when such a question is asked the answer is never this complicated! He patiently heard us all out and in the end, his answer was “Marks”!! That’s it!! Again I marveled at the simplicity! Come to think of it, what did we ever need from teachers? In most cases, it was marks! Even in cases of teachers like Dr. M. A. Zahir at Punjab Agricultural University whom we used to hold in extremely high regard and we would blanch if some one suggested that we went to him only for marks. Even in his case, marks were a measure of how well we “measured up” in his view!
What students believe is worthwhile to do or not to do is indicated to them by the kind of evaluation system an educational institution has. Take the case of another experiment in my current workplace. I saw that despite repeated requests to stay “aware” not many were investing the quantum of effort in that direction which I could deem significant. My current workplace offers great freedom in evaluation systems and I made it a point to make general awareness an integral component of all my class evaluations. The result was that even for the final university examination, when the knew that general awareness would not feature in the examination, they prepared for it and an year later a very large percentage of students were hooked on to “knowing” stuff!!
Otherwise too, I have seen that student performance in a business school does not necessarily translate into professional success. Ideally the regional and small business schools should identify the regular recruiters from the college and the recruiters they wish would recruit from their college, get them together and ask them to partner the institution for development of the evaluation systems. This will help increase the validity and reliability of the scales used to measure student performance at business schools. One of the main problems in my opinion is that the student rating and ranking is primarily based on “academic performance” and the tools used primarily measure ability to cram up and reproduce. The term “student performance” should be a multi dimensional construct that is able to evaluate the individual on various parameters that are critical for the success of managers and entrepreneurs.

What Should Be the Role of the Placement Cell?
The prevalent paradigm defines the role of the placement cell as a group of individuals tasked to invite companies for campus placement. This definition essentially degrades the role of the cell into a hard core sales function which should consider “Sell whatever the product is like” as its guiding mission!
I believe that if you should have a placement cell use it to interface between the faculty and students with the industry. The cell should partner in the development of a students right from the beginning rather than getting involved in the end or at the time of summer internship. The cell should act as the polishing agent that will design sessions and modules of its own for the students. These session should focus on career planning, interview skills, awareness etc. The placement cell and the faculty should meet regularly to evaluate the student development, propose changes, and appraise each other of needs and changes.
If the cell does it’s job well, honestly, the college will not need a placement cell! My limited experience as the placement coordinator for a couple of batches of MBA at a local college taught me that the role of the cell needs to be very proactive and consistent. It is not possible for a placement cell to swing recruitments in the favour of their institutions by making just a few calls and presentations as hiring at most national and multinational organizations are policy matters decided at the headquarter level where the placement coordinator of regional colleges may never even reach!
On the other hand, if the placement cell of a college can somehow enhance the long term employability and value of a student, the industry will start flocking in eventually!

How is All This Related to Growth?
Not only growth, sustainable, inclusive growth! The quality of business education in a country is a barometer of it’s development and when we talk of quality of management education, we should look not only at the IIMs and IITs but towards the small entrepreneur run business school with 60 seats affiliated to a state university. It is many such universities that churn out the next generation of MBAs in India. Most such MBAs are still afflicted with the “need a job” and “afraid to loose a job” mentality. If we keep on producing job seekers who are too scared of looking one, the chances that we will be able to achieve our goals seems remote.
We need to set minds free. Asking mundane questions and making students solve “ready to serve” cases will not help. Give them raw cases, let them “decide” something at every step for decision making is going to be critical. Make them do stuff!! “Decisive Action” as a colleague of mine says is the most valuable ingredient of success.

The emerging business reality is fast and furious! Competition is intense, life cycles have shrunk but opportunities are there for those companies and individuals who are able to break the pattern and innovate! And innovation comes from free, happy, confident individuals. And that is whom we need to create!

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