IIM-A Needs to Step Out Into the Real World
Image: Alok Brahmbhatt for Forbes India
he weather in Ahmedabad was playing the perfect host on December 10, 2011. It was the last day of the golden jubilee celebrations of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, the best business school in the country. The Louis Kahn Plaza was full with professors and alumni who had come from all over the world, who after a two-day tango with nostalgia and foxtrot with the future, were looking for relief. That’s when the headline act of the evening appeared in a metallic blue salwar kameez, the first strains of Raga Bhoopali (Mohanam) accompanying her to the stage. “I never thought I would return one day here in this way—to sing for you,” she said.
Chandrika Krishnamurthy Tandon is the first woman of Indian origin to become a partner at McKinsey. She is Pepsico chief Indra Nooyi’s elder sister, and graduated from the institute in 1975. Tandon was at the campus after three decades to perform her 2010 Grammy nominated song Om Namo Narayanaya. As her clear mezzo-soprano voice soared first with Vakratunda Mahakaya and later with Om Namo Naraynanaya, for once the congregation seemed at peace. The uneasy relationship of the past years between the alumni and the professors seemed distant.
But she did something even more long lasting. The next day Atanu Ghosh, who was then the go-to man at the institute for alumni relations, announced that she had committed to contribute $1 million to her alma mater to a chair for entrepreneurship. That started off the giving. Naukri’s Sanjeev Bikhchandani, Eklavya Education Foundation’s Sunil Handa, and Orchid Pharmaceuticals’ Raghavendra Rao gave almost Rs 10 crore each, with other alumni chipping in with another Rs 8-10 crore. All this amount would come to the institute over four years. This was perhaps the largest pool of contribution given to the institute since its formative years in the early sixties.
Why does an institute with such an array of alumni have to wait so long for this? “It was a heart searing moment for me to come back and have KV Kamath, Harsha Bhogle and so many eminent alumni from so many fields in the audience that day. When I looked there I just saw immense possibilities for the institute. I had wanted to contribute for such a long time—guru dakshina—but did not know who to approach. And nobody ever asked,” says Tandon.
The isolation of the austere campus at Vastrapur, Ahmedabad, may foster a great intellectual atmosphere, but IIM Ahmedabad (IIM-A) and its professors know that winds of change are blowing all round it. Global Business Schools want to eat its lunch. Newly opened IIMs and other B-Schools want to snag its prized faculty. Five of the new IIMs have IIM-A professors as their directors.
The world of business itself is changing rapidly. Capitalism and its crises call out for a new improved economic system. Corporations around the world are required to focus much more on sustainability. Businesses are seen as being subject to societal obligations. India Inc needs new answers to survive and grow in a globalised world. And India needs IIM-A to showcase its thought leadership in public debate, in doing ground-breaking work on its inchoate but very promising economy. IIM-A needs to do more than what it does so well—teach students or be on policy making bodies. It needs to change.
Change is hard but it is hardest for those who are the best in their business and IIM-A is one for sure.
THE MAN WITH A PLAN?
AM Naik is an unlikely man, one would imagine, to understand what IIM needs. He is, after all, not an MBA. He does not have a long association with the academic world, though, to be fair, he does come from a family of teachers. But ever since he was appointed as the chairman of the board of governors of IIM-A in late April, he has been trying to shake things up a bit. The current director Samir Barua’s term comes to an end in September 2012. In his last meeting as chairman, Vijaypat Singhania had formed a search committee for the new director of IIM-A. After he took charge, the first thing that Naik did was to reconstitute the search committee. Prafull Anubhai, who was associated with IIM-A for more than 40 years, was left out of the committee—and Naik himself decided to chair it.
Given his experiences over the last decade at L&T, he probably knows an organisation ripe for reinvention when he sees such an entity.
When Naik took over L&T way back in 1999, it was a behemoth where seniority mattered more than performance. This meant that bright young people left the group to try their luck elsewhere. Its stock price was languishing and it was twice a takeover target. Naik has since then been able to create a group that has much more synergy, is far more performance oriented and has been able to open up international markets to hedge its business against slowdown in any one market.
He could perhaps take a leaf out of the approach Mukesh Ambani has used at IIM Bangalore to get things moving in spite of government control. As chairman, Ambani is said to have teamed up well with Director Prakash Apte and more recently, Pankaj Chandra, to help the research agenda. For one, IIM-B has been particularly successful in attracting relatively younger faculty with doctoral degrees from top universities such as MIT, Wharton, Cornell, INSEAD and John Hopkins. Besides, faculty has been clearly incentivised to do more research. None of this has been without its share of controversy. But thanks to the strong, decisive leadership shown by both the director and the board of governors, the fresh blood has succeeded, to some extent, in creating their own space, despite a lot of heartburn inside faculty rooms.