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BW Businessworld

‘I Tapped Into Indian Philosophy’

Mrityunjay B. Athreya is a management guru in the true sense of the term – a celebrated member of the faculty of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Calcutta, who went on to advise both industry and government

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Mrityunjay B. Athreya is a management guru in the true sense of the term – a celebrated member of the faculty of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Calcutta, who went on to advise both industry and government. In 1991, for instance, he chaired the Athreya committee on telecom restructuring. Athreya was honoured with a Padma Bhushan in 2014. BW Businessworld picked his mind on the evolution and efficacy of B-schools in India in a conversation with Madhumita Chakraborty

Since 1961, management institutes have proliferated and their numbers are growing. Has this mushrooming growth been in step with the quality of education offered at many of these B-schools?
Since 1961, when the Indian Institute of Management - Calcutta and the Indian Institute of Management - Ahmedabad were set up, there have been several phases of expansion. The first phase was the opening of a few good quality schools, such as the Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies - Mumbai, the Xavier School of Management - Jamshedpur (XLRI), Management Development Institute - Gurgaon (MDI), School of Management - Manipal University and some good university departments, like the Faculty of Management Studies (FMS) of the University of Delhi.

Then came business schools at the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and some other leading technical institutes. Later came an explosion of stand-alone private business schools. Whenever there is such an exponential expansion in any sector, quality is bound to suffer, for some time. Still, for rapid business growth, quantity is needed. There has been a learning curve. Many schools have been improving their quality... The facts to be noted are that students were keen to enroll in the new institutes in their state, or even district. Parents were willing to pay the fees; and employers absorbed them.

The IIMs alone have grown to 20 in number. How does one differentiate a presumed ‘top B-school’ from a second-rung one?
Any new institute or school can claim any epithet in its brochures, advertisements, etc. But, students and employers will make their own assessments. The best differentiator would be a track record of attracting bright students, adding value to them of good management education and sustained placement in a widening range of employer firms.

Are these burgeoning management institutions able to offer the desired quality of faculty?
At the beginning, they are not able to offer the requisite quality of faculty. There may be one or two stars; a few experienced, part-time guest faculty from industry; and many greenhorns. There are well-known strategies for long-term faculty development, such as special teacher training in India and abroad; own Ph.D programme; fellowships to do Ph.D abroad and return; collaboration etc.

The IIMs have recently been advised to double their student capacities to 20,000. How important is the teacher- student ratio for B-schools?

If India were to grow at eight per cent plus over the next decade, even a capacity for 20,000 (students) at our IIMs is not enough. Generally, in post-graduate studies the teacherstudent ratio will fall. In MBA, the ratio needs to be relatively higher in the second year, elective courses of specialisation in a particular management function, or discipline. Even there, the use of online learning, through assignments, submissions, feedback etc. will help each faculty handle a larger class.

You have the unique distinction of studying in US business schools and teaching at Indian and British business schools. Overseas degrees were initially not considered effective for the Indian business environment...
In the first two post-Independence decades, foreign degrees had a premium. But, as the IIM and other graduates, grounded in the Indian scene, became available, they were preferred. In my case, the Harvard Business School management doctorate was a great start for an academic career. Besides, before going to Stanford and Harvard, I already had four years of working experience in Indian industry and had qualified as a Cost and Management Accountant, with the ICWA, Kolkata, winning both the Intermediate and Final allIndia Gold Medals.

Young people in India are now flocking to European and US business schools. How are these degrees rated now?
Once again, now, foreign degrees are useful to compete in the liberalised and globalised business environment, with no protected, safe markets.

Is it really true that in your teachings, you have relied not just on best management practices, but also on principles from the Bhagwad Gita?
On my second return (to India) from abroad – this time from the UK in 1978 – I saw the influence of national cultures on management in Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands etc., besides Japanese management. So, I started exploring the possible benefits of tapping into the best of our own spiritual, philosophical values and lessons, to blend them into modern Indian management. Besides the Gita, one could also draw from our Upanishads, epics, icons, dharma sankats, (religious or moral predicaments) - their resolution, etc.

The IIMs were traditionally the hunting grounds for managers, especially by multinationals doing business in India. Do B-schools now focus on creating entrepreneurs too?
Till the reforms of the 1990’s, Indian industry’s primary need was for managers. As firms grew, the need was felt for good leaders, who also knew management. More recently, the climate is turning conducive to entrepreneurship. Many business schools are catering to this through special courses; projects; internship; incubators, etc. devised for entrepreneurs.

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