October 26, 2009

From V-Schools to B-Schools : A Research Agenda

With an obsession with placements, Business schools in India -- IIMs not excluded -- have degenerated into thinly disguised placement agencies or at best glorified vocational schools. The compartmentalisation of B-school curriculum into the four principal management functions, namely Finance, Marketing, Human Resources and Systems and Operations reflects this mindset. These are the four principal kinds of tasks that a manager is expected to perform and B-schools pat themselves on the back if they can teach these four skills to the satisfaction of the recruiting companies. [ Though in reality, companies that hire from B-Schools do not seem to care for even this skill ...] Unfortunately, this puts B-schools in the category of vocational schools or V-schools

If we draw an analogy with engineering schools, this approach would mean that students are taught workshop practice -- chipping, fitting, foundry, welding -- assembling circuit boards or laying out wires for electrical circuits ! But an engineering school teaches much more ! From mechanics, through thermodynamics, control systems, logic gates all the way up to engineering mathematics and algorithms. This is the kind of knowledge that separates an engineer from a technician and by extension the kind of approach that separates an IIT from an ITI !!

So if we wish to move from an ITI to an IIT, a V-School to a B-School, what is it that that should be on the curriculum ? One approach would be replace the current four areas with four other more fundamental ones : Leadership, Mathematics, Psychology and Technology.

But before we adopt this approach we need to understand how these four things map into and support the more traditional areas. To do so, let us dig deeper into what is meant by these four areas.

Leadership in the context of B-schools consists of Entrepreneurship -- which could be traditional entrepreneurship as in setting up new businesses but should also extend to entrepreneurship within a firm, or intrapreneurship, where each business unit operates on its own risk-reward model. However this entrepreneurship should be tempered with Ethical behaviour and a strong focus on Equity -- that ensures that the rights of all stakeholders are adequately protected. So Leadership can be defined in terms of Ethics, Equity and Entrepreneurship.

Managing a business calls for both analytical -- or left brain, and emotional -- or right brain, skills. That is why managers are expected to have both IQ as well as EQ. Mathematics in general, represents the core analytical ability and in a B-school context can be translated into modelling techniques that apply to financial models, optimisation models that lead to operational efficiency and models that apply to marketing and sales. On the right brain side, where one has to deal with human beings, the core skill is Psychology that can be used to understand Consumer Behaviour, Organisational ( and employee ) Behaviour and of helps us to understand the laws that lead to the resolution of disputes.

But in today's business environment, the biggest driver is the development and deployment of new technology. What are the key technologies that a B-school should focus on ? Ever since the discovery of fire, Energy is recognised as the key to growth. Food security and health issues force us to focus on the Life Sciences in general and Bio science and bio engineering in particular and Habitat requirements lead us to seek breakthroughs in Materials and Manufacturing. The last, but not the least, that ties all this together is Communication and Collaboration technology that has traditionally been referred to as Information Systems.

This sixteen areas (a) Leadership, Ethics, Equity, Entrepreneurship (b) Mathematical Modelling, Financial Models, Operational and Optimisation Models, Marketing Models (c) Psychology, Consumer Behaviour, Organisational Behaviour, Dispute Resolution and (d) Communication and Collaboration, Life Sciences, Materials & Manufacturing and Energy could represent the core set of knowledge that any Manager ( as opposed to a supervisor ) should possess or build upon. With this model, it is not at all difficult to accommodate all the four traditional disciplines, namely Finance, Marketing, HR and Operations, quite easily within one or more of these sixteen areas.

Interestingly enough, these 16 areas can be grouped into a traditional Magic Quadrant where the left half represents left brain activities and right half represents right brain activities and as we move from bottom to top we move from specific topics to more general ones.

A typical B-School curriculum consists of 32 courses spread across 4 semesters. 16 of these courses could come from these areas while the other 16 could be distributed across specific electives that delve deeper into one or more of these areas.

In an era when a B-school is judged on the basis of its Industry interface and in its ability to turn our "industry ready" managers, this model may be questioned and criticised on being too theoretical and divorced from what the industry needs. However let us understand that just as industry needs both engineers and technicians for engineering functions, it also need supervisors and managers for business functions. IITs provide engineers, ITIs provide technicians. Similarly high end B-schools should build Managers who can provide leadership in thought and action -- not supervisors who know how to calculate loan EMIs.

October 17, 2009

B-Schools and the Placement Syndrome

Why do students queue up to get into B-Schools, especially the more well known ones ? And why are some B-Schools more well known than the others ? Both questions are in fact two sides of a more fundamental question - what value does a B-School bring to the table ? and the answer to both questions can be found in the placement history of B-Schools in general and specific schools in particular.

Students join B-Schools because they believe -- and in many cases, quite rightly, that it is a ticket to a high paying job and some B-Schools are more well known than others because their students end up with more, better or higher-paying jobs.

But why blame B-Schools for this trend. In the 70s, 80s and even as late as the 90s when unemployment was the dominant feature of the economic landscape of India, students would throng the gates of the Engineering schools because because that was seen as the most sure shot ticket to a good job. Students who had neither the inclination nor the aptitude for engineering scrambled to become engineers because of the job prospects. Today, when other opportunities exist in the field of finance, retail, media, life sciences, entertainment, the collective memory of the Indian psyche still drives students to engineering -- but the craze could be ebbing somewhat.

But the craze for a badge from a B-School continues unabated and to keep up with this demand we have an increase in the supply of B-School seats, both at private schools as well as at public sector schools like the IIMs and IIT, plus of course the corresponding expansion in the ancillary industry of CAT-coaching classes.

Which brings us back to the question ... what role does a B-School play ? or rather let us ask a related question : what role should a B-School play ?

Does a B-School add value to a student ? Is he or she taught anything that is of use to the company that hires the student. Any B-School would like to believe that it is adding a lot of value to the student in terms of knowledge and capability but a quiet and anonymous questionnaire among students might reveal some startling facts. Quite a few students tend to have a very poor view of most of their teachers and view the fact that they have to sit through their classes as the price they must pay for getting that ticket to that great job !

So is the view in many of the companies that recruit these B-School students. But if they do not really care for what is taught in B-Schools why do they pay higher salaries to these students ? One widely accepted answer is that these B-Schools provide a good screening tool ! Students who have managed to crack the CAT, JMAT, XAT or similar tests -- whether by aptitude or by hard work -- are just the kind of people who are likely to thrive and prosper in the corporate world. Thus the B-School is not a place that adds value to a student but an effective screening tool that makes the job of selecting employees easier !

Thus from both perspectives -- that of the student and of the recruiter -- the B-School is nothing but a placement agency, but is that what it should be ? Placements are important no doubt but should B-Schools not raise themselves above this mundane role of screening-and-placing students and consider something more substantial for themselves ? For example should B-Schools not play a role in creating new knowledge ? in terms of business models, best practices and in terms of new technology. Should they not establish themselves as centres of thought leadership and guide the national debate on economic and social matters ?

Unfortunately, each and every B-School in India today, including the best known ones, have reduced themselves themselves to the level of placement agencies. At best some of them have managed to elevate themselves to the level of teaching shops -- that teach some tools of the trade, like linear programming and balance sheets.

What is really missing is the big leap of imagination, of innovation, of ideas. Is it not the time for some of the B-Schools to step forward and plug this gap ? And strangely enough once this happens, once we take our eyes off placement and salaries and focus on genuine thought leadership, placements and salaries will fall in place, on their own -- and not be the tail that wagged the dog !