It is indeed a mystery to many why Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, commands the kind of respect it does in India. What makes it special, stand out amongst the rest, so much so that it is the prime target of snide remarks made by those who did not pass through its hallowed portals?
Did I just say ‘hallowed portals’? It’s nothing like that. It is a place where professors craft little pieces of hell that crush you every day, till one day you realise that nothing can really get you down any more. That, and the hard work that you put in, builds a self belief that comes from hard work with the best of the best.
IIM-A was crafted at a time when the nation desperately needed good managers and leaders; people who would be trained to see the big picture; people who were taught how to envision the future and create it in any arena; people who were skilled in bringing order to chaos; a generation of people who could make things happen.
Here, one worked on sheer grit and sharp analysis. In the early years, the institute had an intensity that brought a rare camaraderie that it has rarely seen in later decades. Everybody was here because they stood for excellence, and their purpose was to create excellence wherever they went. The sweepers, the typists, the cyclostyling team (before photocopiers came in), the students and the professors—all stepped up to show the world. And they did. For many years, nobody came close, and the name became an endorsement.
The institution is a marvel of good design. Sometimes it felt like a juggernaut that could not change direction; at other times it was this very design that helped it stay on course. It was designed as a professional institute, not a university. While research was part of its agenda, it was not necessary for it to be seminal research of the theoretical variety. Firstly, that makes little sense in a strategic social science subject such as management, and secondly, the nation needed consultants, not theoreticians. And, of course, it needed these subject experts to teach and create managers. This is what it set out to do, and this is what it achieved.
Research in management is not about prediction, but about supporting a vision. It is neither like theoretical science, nor is it really like pure social science. It must have a vector and purpose. Management research seeks to guide but only to set out possibilities, not solutions. This makes it rather challenging to prove its worth to those who seek answers where none are possible.
The research at the institute was to help and support industries and governments at a time when industries were, at best, an agglomeration of factories. National structures were designed in consultation with faculty. The credit for growing up business and bringing it to the boardrooms of the world does lie with this (and, of course, other) institution(s). If 62 percent of CEOs come from IIM-A, then they implemented the tools devised by these professors to grow businesses, production units, distribution chains, retail units, banks, insurance, debt markets and so much more. Was this done solely by this one institute and its products? Obviously not, but each team that achieved something big was likely to have somebody from this institute (student or professor) involved at some stage. Yes, even the bureaucracy, which is one of the strongest institutions in India.
Research is where things began to slip, and that is often attributed to motivation. It’s possible. I cannot speak for the professors and their levels of motivation. Most faculty members came here after leaving excellent options in the more established institutions of the West. Almost all had degrees from Ivy League institutes, and brought with them the pedigree and the attitudes, but, more importantly, the skills. They had competence and confidence, the ability to speak their mind and hold their own, and, most importantly, the confidence to deal in debate both inside the classroom and outside.
This institute was a place that had succeeded because it guarded its autonomous status and avoided local political wrangles. The late 1970s saw trade unions being formed for the first time, supported by outsiders, and a change in the power structure. The ethos changed, the mission becoming less important than the task. Things did begin to slip, but I often wondered whether it was a case of drought in good research questions.
In the decade before liberalisation, each year often was just like the previous one. Structurally nothing much changed for businesses, nor could it in the regulatory environment. So where was the scope to create new models? Post liberalisation came consulting firms that took on the mantle of transformation for the medium term. They were, of course, staffed by many of the graduates of these very institutes, and soon seemed to disintermediate the institute from its corporate advisory role.
This was when the institute should have changed rapidly. Maybe the changes should have started much earlier. Both the institute and its alumni had much growing up to do—and that takes time. A grand old dame who is used to being complimented for her looks may find it difficult to accept that surgery may be required to continue receiving those compliments.
The institute created some great brand managers, but forgot to watch out for its own brand value. This is where the alumni come in, and must have a say in the direction taken for the future. The brand value affects the alumni more than anybody else. It was the alumni that took on projects at lower rates than their contemporaries from other B-Schools and had to prove that they were worth equal pay. It was this alumni that brought the brand to global attention and global pay rates. It is the alumni who suffer if the institute does not step up to the plate and stand for excellence again.
The stakes are the highest, and the pool of competence fairly large. In blocking alumni efforts over the past two decades, the institute has done itself a disservice. It would be a shame if the discussion to find new purpose and a place on the global stage was now restricted to the old guard. This one is for those you trained to transform India and industry—we know how, we have done it before. Call on us again. (Meeta W Sengupta has been a child on campus, has done her PGDM from IIM-A, has taught a half credit course on risk management, was part of the team that created the London Alumni Chapter. She now works on the education sector as a strategic consultant and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
(This story appears in the 14 September, 2012 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)