Sucheta Dalal :IIM Review: Settling for second best?
Sucheta Dalal

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IIM Review: Settling for second best?  

November 10, 2008

Philip S. Thomas puts the IIM Review under the scanner and concludes that the committee has played safe and settled for second best

The IIM Review Committee (henceforth 'IRC') was established by the Government of India's Human Resource Development (HRD)Ministry in 2007. Headed by RC Bhargava, Chairman of Maruti-Suzuki, it included, among others, two prominent media and management figures viz  A. Balakrishnan of who is the chairman of IIM Calcutta (IIMC's) governing board and Ram S. Tarneja of the Times of India's parent company. IRC was appointed in October 2007 and submitted its report on September 25, 2008.
The IRC Report has implicitly made a pitch for what may be called the Thought Leader Model of IIM education (hereafter 'TLM').  The report's title loftily says: 'Negotiating the Big Leap...From Great Teaching Institutions to Thought Leadership Centres'. Flowing out of the first of its terms of reference viz 'To review the present status of IIMs in fulfillment of their objective as centers of excellence in management education and research', the nub of its thesis, as stated in the Executive Summary, is as follows:'The quality and quantity of research papers from IIMs have not been commensurate with the status of IIMs and have not enabled IIMs to become thought leaders.'

IRC has elaborated on this point as follows: 'The IIMs have achieved a worldwide reputation as institutions offering a very high quality business education. This is despite the inadequate research being done in the IIMs and the shortage of faculty. To an extent this reputation is the result of the very bright and motivated students who enter the IIM programme.' What is easily overlooked in this view is the implicit charge that the 'high quality business education' is alien to the Indian scenario. How far does IRC itself go to facilitate indigenisation or tropicalisation of the curriculum? That is a key question. What is IRC's strategy, really, we may ask?

Strategic Issues

Focusing sharply on India and the IIMs and the related IIM review committees of the past, IRC has not provided details of the historical global context (or environment) of management education. It has merely noted that the first two IIMs were set up as a result of the recommendations in 1959 of the Dean of UCLA's B-school, George Robbins. No mention in IRC that at that time prominent philanthropic foundations in the U.S. had called for the transformation of U.S. B-schools (which had been relying on 'principles of management' in their teaching), by boosting academic respectability through research. By a strange coincidence, IRC implicitly echoes both the themes of 'principles of management'  as well as conventional academic research as the way ahead for IIMs after a nearly 50 year gap! I will return to this issue below.

Another voice from the past which finds no mention in IRC is that of the Nobel Laureate Herbert A. Simon. He wrote some 40 years ago about how difficult it is to 'mix oil and water'  (academic disciplines and management practices) in professional management education without a conscious effort, triggered and sustained by appropriate governance systems. As we shall see, this has implications for choosing, as IRC implicitly did, between bureaucratic and epistemological means to given ends.
Let us pause for a moment and consider  IRC's concept of 'Thought Leadership'. Wikipedia (the online encyclopaedia) provides a convenient starting point wherein we find that the term 'thought leader' was coined as recently as 1994 to label top business people who had been chosen for interviews by a new practitioner journal. While the initial focus was on individuals, nowadays the term is applied to corporate research centres, companies and other entities and it is even emerging as a knowledge domain in its own right. On the few occasions when IRC uses the term 'thought leaders', it uses it interchangeably  for individuals and IIMs.  But it never mentions the name of even a single one of either stripe from anywhere else in the world for providing some useful bearings to its audience.
While IRC's TLM may be just a catch phrase, it does seem to act as a foil to 'Great Teaching Institutions', or, for present purposes, the Teaching Institute Model (TIM), which is ostensibly lower on IRC's value chain. Note that the TIM tag may have emerged in India as IIMs succeeded very early in conscious placement efforts and could consequently draw (and, in turn, choose) from an ever-increasing pool of candidates for admission, at least so far. However the required research failed to keep pace (just as it did in the the pre-1960s). Oddly enough, in IRC's actual scheme of things TLM may end up as just a fancy term for what is TIM at its core! Its a fine line to be negotiated between the two, as Simon has said, something like that between the frying pan and the fire.

Next, IRC's diagnosis and conceptual framework can be compared and contrasted with that used by Warren Bennis & James O'Toole in their landmark Harvard Business Review (HBR) May 2005 article titled 'How business schools lost their way'. Bennis & O'Toole contrasted their professional management model of B-schools (based primarily on practice, suitably leavened by practicable theory) with the scientific research model (based on statistical research, publication in peer reviewed journals and classroom lectures).They argued that business schools were sacrificing relevance for the rigor of the 'scientific model' of graduate schools of  the sciences as opposed to the 'professional model' of medical and law schools. They called for striking a new 'balance' between the dual B-school imperatives. But in the process Bennis & O'Toole may have overlooked the real need for organic 'integration' -- of rigour with relevance in management education -- rather than just settling for a mechanical 'balance'.

To some extent this is echoed in IRC's (implicit) call for relevance. IRC seems to have arrived at a diagnosis similar to Bennis & O'Toole as far as the ends of IIMs are concerned though it is not formulated  as elegantly. The problem is indeed a fairly common one in management education. But what is IRC's remedy? It has avoided making an explicit choice, potentially inflicting a straddling penalty on Indian society as a result. Thus IRC's ends are hazy and the means fuzzy. Consequently, It may be driving IIMs deeper into the 'management' jungle rather than out of it.
In a recent article in ('Acute shortage of management cases', June 24, 2008, editorially plugged as 'India needs Harvard-style management education' ), I have focused on the Case Method and showed how it can be implemented to integrate (rather than merely balance) rigour and relevance in the professional management model of Bennis & O'Toole in B-schools like the IIMs. It may be useful to view the IRC approach through this particular lens or prism. 

The idea is that leaders-in-the-making  (students/participants)  should actively discuss a wide variety of carefully documented, managerial problem situations ('cases') under the able guidance of thought-shapers (faculty) who have contributed to such documentation, to gain some of the required proficiency. This would be in contrast to passively listening to the off-the-cuff hot tips and pep talks of awe-inducing thought leaders (colloquially known as 'guruspeak').  As noted earlier, the latter approach, apparently backed by IRC, would be an unfortunate  throwback to the discredited era of 'principles of management'. 

At the same time, IRC seems to espouse the scientific research model (criticised by Bennis & O'Toole) in IIMs, albeit implicitly.Further light can be shed on this conclusion by  taking a look at the IRC's model of management education. It observes: 'The IIM system of management education has three components: a strong foundation of the basic disciplines like statistics, accounting, sociology, economics, psychology, etc., a set of functional area courses like Finance, Organization Behavior, Marketing, etc and a third set of .... cross functional courses like Strategy.' [Actually there are only two strata: (1) disciplinary and (2) managerial (i.e. operational functions and organisational strategy which belong together)].    
IRC raps IIMs for lagging in the publication of papers in 'internationally peer-reviewed management journals', code words for the conventional research university model in the West. But buried in the middle of the IRC report is the key idea of research 'in the field of management'. In relation to this, IRC rightly says: 'At the end of the day, it will be in the cumulative impact of research in the field of management from which the stature of the institute will be judged'. So IRC is interested in dealing with the challenging problem of 'mixing oil and water'.
But in terminology echoing that of science and technology of the 1950s, IRC goes on to say, mystifyingly in the current management context: 'Efforts should be made to encourage both applied research and fundamental research. There is a shortage of applied research in the field of management in India and the IIMs should make significant contribution to changing this situation.'  Is applied research  IRC's obtuse and opaque way of saying 'case research'? If so, why is IRC practically choking on the reference to the Case Method? IRC's waffling over epistemology in this petty way is not helpful.

IRC's core analysis is valid: 'While faculty for the basic disciplines are freely available in both quantity and quality from the Indian university system at the current pay scales of the IIMs, it has proven difficult to recruit faculty in the [managerial] streams because of several factors: low output of doctoral programs in these disciplines, rising demand from other sectors of the economy at much higher remuneration and the worldwide explosion of demand for management teachers' The problem of faculty availability in the managerial areas, IRC emphasises, 'is acute.' Has the IRC inadvertently let the cat out of the bag by (perish the thought!) pointing to a lack of hard core 'management' competence in IIMs? The emperor (viz the collective IIM system) really has no clothes! It is losing its way just as Bennis & O'Toole predicted.

Of course, the problem is that IRC uses the same brush to tar all the IIMs together without making any distinctions.  Some have made progress in the desired direction of TLC in its best sense, albeit in fits and starts due to lack of clear epistemological  conviction. Others, mostly newbies, are nominally getting the TLC tag right from Day One, though they may still be a long way away from it in reality. The challenge IRC tried to address was to redistribute faculty resources and student seats in a context of growing demand. Its answer was  top down, command & control, Theory X -- instead of acculturation, originality-nurturing, Theory Z.

Stray Issues 

This may not be the time and place to offer critiques of every single one of the IRC's wide ranging analyses and recommendations. But a few key ones may help in confirming the  drift of its thinking.

One IRC solution is 'sponsored research' as it encourages:

(i) research to be focused on felt needs;

(ii) better quality of research so that it can meet the sponsor’s approval and

(iii) availability of additional finance for research

However, this does not seem sufficiently academic but more consulting oriented in the sense that it appears geared to real life problem solving. In fact IRC's report itself may be a prime example of a product of this very kind. High on 3-dimensionality it is still lacking in key measures of intellectual completeness as we have suggested. The proposed strategy ends up being somewhat dicey. 

Another IRC solution is the use of technology to increase the productivity of teaching, 'without diluting quality'. If this is to extend the reach of faculty-centred classroom lectures (in a specious bid to attain the TLM) rather than to facilitate participant-centred classroom discussion, it may be dysfunctional in management education. What is probably needed is technology for the 'distribution' of class materials (cases, readings and assignments) so that all concerned (including co-operating institutions in other locations) can focus on the quality and quantity of class discussion and field studies. 

What really takes the cake are two IRC recommendations: '(1) putting in place post-doctoral programs where promising PhDs in the pure disciplines are put through a two year programme of management education and converted into management teachers' and  (2) 'IIMs should develop a closer relationship with Industry, and introduce a programme, so that managers at the age of around 45, who are interested in a change of careers and would like to teach, could do a PhD and become teachers.'

Both these look like unvarnished remedial programs. Should IIMs end up as Institutes of Rehabilitation -- for youngsters trying to escape the opportunity constraints of the Indian caste system, faculty who need re-training to benefit India and executives attempting mid-career transitions into academia? How the IIMs can maintain their focus on the flagship MBA program, be thought leaders in management development programs, pay due attention to the doctoral program for this purpose (all as desired by IRC) and then kick in the above 'bright ideas' (also of the IRC) is really hard to understand. IRC may be inadvertently aggravating the problem of a perceived IIM identity instead of alleviating it. Its recommendations could inadvertently catapult IIMs into a crisis of mediocrity.


We can conclude this review by saying that IRC has relied on a bureaucratic method of achieving integration (viz the idea of a 'Pan-IIM Board', as a sort of an IIM 'steering' mechanism of the ministry). In my view, IRC's formulation only serves to underline the validity of Harvard Business School's 100 year old innovation of the Case Method which has the potential of achieving the required indigenisation of Indian management curricula in a context of full academic (i.e. faculty) autonomy. IRC could have relied on this epistemological method of achieving integration within and among IIMs.

Integrating on the HBS-style Case Method across faculty, program and IIM levels, may be the most conceptually 'simple' way to achieve IRC's noble aims -- though this does not mean that it is 'easy' by any means. It is this that the IRC should have tried to persuade the IIMs (and the government) to pursue and it should have gone on to suggest the hard choices needed to shape the required educational policy context towards this end rather than re-inventing the management education wheel. 

What is actually likely to be very absorbing in future is a largely  invisible contest between HBS' Indian (and other) faculty who have actively begun to produce Indian cases for MBA curricula everywhere, and the Indian (and other) faculty of non-case U.S. and other B-schools, teaching in Indian institutions. It may be worth recalling the perceptive words of a former HBS Dean: 'All B-schools can and do teach by the case method. But they will rarely engage in case research for classroom purposes.'  This simply underscores the essential inimitability of the Case Method.  It is like Toyota's  55 year old paradigmatic production system. A call to emulate the core competence of the Case Method would have been consistent with a search for excellence and, therefore, most commendable.  Instead  IRC has played safe and settled for second best.

Email: [email protected].com
-- Sucheta Dalal


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