Helping the IIMs to Surge Ahead

Business Standard - June 2004

Thank God for cosmic chaos. For delivering institutions of higher education from a regressive regime with anachronistic ideas. Thank God for the new HRD minister and his team who believe in logic, dialogue, and the sanctity of governing boards. The IIMs now have a window of huge opportunity to sell a plan to get them well on the path to world class, and get the resources and the changes needed to make it happen.

There is now a really urgent need for the IIMs, especially the big three, to redeem the faith and the enormous support that they have received from the new ministry, from their governing boards, from their alumni and well wishers, and from the media. There can be no disagreement from everyone, inside and outside, who participated in this battle, that this is the time to open a discontinuous new chapter of big, hairy, audacious goals, and shift the frame of reference from being far better than the average Indian university, to being as good as the best in the world This push to achieve a quantum leap in excellence must be in three key areas (1) academic excellence and knowledge creation through teaching, research, consulting (2) accountability and formal governance structures and processes (3) social contribution and good citizenry, because after all these are public institutions set up with public money. The reason for not mentioning financial self sufficiency is that the older three IIMs are there already, and have demonstrated the ability to raise resources for quality services rendered.

Who should drive this new agenda? The Government or the board of governors could drive this. But what would be even more sustainable (survives directors, ministers and bureaucrats) and successful, would be the new push and the plan coming from the institutes themselves, bought into and actively supported by all stake holders, including the main 'promoter', the Government. The big three for sure, have a wonderful and unique (for Indian academia) system of collegial faculty governance, that is not widely known or appreciated. I can speak for IIMA which I know well, where there are very formal and rigorous processes for assessment and evaluation of every activity and most faculty do take this role very seriously. I am sure this is true for the others as well.

Now is the time for those IIMs that want to, to singly or collectively, define big, hairy, audacious goals of excellence and work towards them, with aggressive time frames (read that as reasonable time frames, slashed to one third). Merely for illustration, let me take the first of the three areas that I defined earlier - academic excellence, and within it, focus on one parameter, say, "making case material totally contemporary". The goal should be to ensure that all case material pre 1995, if still in use, be discontinued, unless the case is reviewed and classified as a timeless classic. And further, that all the trials, tribulations and learning that has accrued in Corporate India this past decade, be captured through several new cases, and made available not to just students here, but to the international schools who are very interested now in emerging market themes. The thrust should be to ask "How can this be done in two years"? Proper case writing is expensive and very time consuming. But we need to examine non traditional options. Outsource, use the alumni network, hire case writers and train them to minimize faculty time, use video conferencing to cut travel cost, pool resources across all the IIMs and do joint case writing and so on.

How about research, which has a less than desirable presence in the IIMs? All the ivy league majors are setting up research offices in India, and the IIMs need to join the race, if they are to be world class. In the next one year, can one new and significant, world class piece of research from each area, from each institute, be produced? To make it easy, let us say it must focus on India centric issues, and must be reviewed and certified by people around the world who know what good academic research is, even if widespread publishing takes time to happen. Ditto for consulting. In addition to individual faculty consulting, can there be a special consulting thrust, on chosen issues, by each area in each institute get four small consulting projects of high quality, so that the " lead thought and better connectivity to industry issues' quotient of the institute shoots up? Further, a specific set of pan IIM consulting and research projects for the development sector, beyond the considerable amount that is already being done, would benefit the country immensely.

My suggestion would be that the same process as was used to resolve the fee cut and autonomy issue be followed, and directors of interested IIMs get together and offer a specific plan for achieving this quantum leap in academic excellence, accountability and governance, and social contribution. And place it before the Government, the board, the alumni, and the interested public. And if this requires a substantial raising of funds, a change in faculty remuneration structure, the removal of a few rules, an amendment of the MOA, then to make a business case and suggest how and through whom it can be done. The focus has to shift from "what is, and why is it so" to "what can be, and what needs to be done to make it so".

Finally, this draft plan must be ready in a hectic three to four months, so that the implementation wheels can start turning. Who knows, there may be more cosmic chaos and the bogey men may come back sooner than we think!