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‘IIM Brand Too Strong To Be Diluted’

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At 46, Debashis Chatterjee is the youngest director among all the IIMs who took charge of IIM Kozhikode (as director) about a year back. A lot has changed since then at IIM-K and more is in the process. Chatterjee has been busy devising new ideology for the ‘new-generation' IIM and has brought a vision along with the experience with him. He wants to shift the B-School from the path of exclusive elitism to inclusive excellence. Chatterjee, who was described as one of the "thought leaders" of the world by the Harvard Business School was a Fulbright scholar at the Harvard University and MIT. After teaching at the Harvard University and founding the Leadership Center at SP Jain Center of Management in Singapore, Chatterjee moved back to India and joined teaching positions in IIM Lucknow and later IIM Calcutta. Chatterjee spoke to BW Online's Chetna Mehra during her visit to the campus about the trends in management education in India. Excerpts.

What sets IIM Kozhikode apart from other B-Schools?
In shared space where we are now, we are primarily known with the framework of placements through whatever appears in the media periodically, but what people don't know is about what goes into making of IIM-K.

We have made a decisive shift from being a centre of exclusive elitism and this is what has been the IIM-K story for a long time now. We would like to describe it as inclusive excellence and there is a difference between elitism and excellence. Elitism connotes of a certain profile of a student of the institute or faculty having high profile firms paying top dollars to recruit some terribly bright students. That has not served us too well, it has generated some consequences which are not healthy for inclusive excellence. So, for a shift from elitism the excellence is means therefore, excellence can be multiple. This school wants to excel in its own way of being socially responsible school. It wants to solve India's problem of equity and access to quality education.

We have gone ahead of any other IIM in absorbing underprivileged students, far ahead of the government mandate because in doing so, we have given exposure to the students to come face to face with the global talent. (This year we are graduating 100 such students to top jobs.)

The second feature is IIM-K being one of the most efficient B-Schools. We just have a small staff strength of 40 and our faculty strength now would be 33. This place is being managed well that too by a few people as compared to other IIMs. And if you look at the growth that we have achieved is humongous. What IIM Ahmedabad and Calcutta have done in a long period we have done in 7-8 years. This growth comes at a cost, the cost is that we have struggled to give our faculty time to commit themselves to research and this is our new thrust area now.

Is there any kind of difficulty that you face because of the location?
We need to understand that geography has become history, excellence can happen in a garage even as we have seen in the Silicon Valley. We have a location disadvantage because of the transportation but teleportation is not a problem (laughs). I think we are so caught-up with the thought that institution means a structural boundary, cement, brick and mortar. We are imagining an infrastructure which will have the intellectual architecture to morph the physical architecture irrespective of our geographical location. We have a huge interest in Dubai for our interactive distance learning programme, we have interest in Sri Lanka and Singapore too. We have an invitation from ministry of Singapore who want us to set-up IIM-K in Singapore. They have proposed to give us land. It's in a thinking stage though but we are interested. Apart from that we are collaborating with a number of top B-schools across the globe.

What about the faculty crunch at IIM-K?
Faculty crunch will continue to remain provided you decide that faculty will always be one type – analytical. This branch of excellence always comes with a caveat – if you will find excellence in one particular way you will only find it rarer. You need to find it in multiple directions, the way we are doing. We search for excellence in faculty with three lenses, one is training – the executive education, second is teaching – classroom performance with students and third lense is research – analytical, qualitative as well as quantitative. So, these are three different competencies we look for in a faculty.

So far the IIMs haven't managed to be on any of the global B-School rankings. Your comments.
Well, you can't blame the IIMs, they have been focused on India. Indian Institute of Managements' demand in India is so high unlike other countries because the quality education is very rare here. So, you cannot blame the IIMs for not being global because we have to have contained with the reality of making India prosperous. If I open my doors to everyone, Indian students will get lesser share. You have to understand that we are doing a national service here and this is true for all IIMs.

...And what about IIM graduates going abroad for higher pay packages?
Going abroad today does not mean that they will remain abroad for life. There are many people who will come back. I have served abroad but I came back that too with the wealth of knowledge. Indira Nooyi is a chairman PepsiCo. but when she comes and advices government of India she brings her wealth of experience. People from abroad are doing great service to India. Such divides have become very blurred now.

It is noted that the growth in MBA programmes since 1991 was 800 per cent whereas for PhD in management it was just 4 per cent (2006). What could be the reasons for such a disparity?
It is in context with the market, if you look at the market of the management PhD students, the pay that the industry gives is too low. So, we need some seriously inclined students to pursue research. PhD is a sacrifice in financial terms, if you look at the 3-5 years of absolute and intense locking period with virtually no pay offs or benefits. We are looking at sacrifices which not many people are able to make because the market standards are such that the value of management graduate is pretty high than someone who is pursuing a PhD. Those taking up an MBA gets around 5 to 6 times than more what somebody taking up an acedamic career (fellow students).

By numbers you can infer that the stipend given to PhD students is much less than the B-School graduates. In financial terms we cannot compute the value of a PhD. But if you will look at the period of 3-4 years of academic and professional excellence that they spend is immensly worth it. The stipend for a PhD student per month amounts to Rs 20,000-30,000 at the moment. But at the same time, they can attend one or two international conferences and several  national conferences. They are given a grant for that. They are exposed to a world class academic mileau. Still, the ratio of the fellow students to the MBA students is around 1:20. 
…having said that, the students who want to pursue doctoral studies prefer doing it abroad and not in India?
Let us not have any delusions over the fact that the infrastructure for research in abroad is much superior, particularly in the top B-Schools. We should not compare the two. India is still in the process of putting research formally on the national education agenda. I am sure it's going to happen with innovation becoming the buzz word and knowledge creation becoming a reality. I think we will soon have those research centres and there will be lot more funds coming both from the private enterprises and from the government. It is just a matter of time, as the quality of our infrastructure improves we will have greater researchers.   

Lot of your work is based on human values and leadership. How do these qualities help one in becoming a good manager?
You do not teach values, you model values in the way you chose to go about your personal and professional life and by osmosis students pick it up. We are not talking about the human values at intellectual plain but as a stark reality. Very often in the class students ask me to tell the truth but you cannot tell them the truth, you can only tell the fact. Truth cannot be seen or told today to be lived. So, these are things that have to be examined in the light of how we ourselves are ignorant of what messages we send our students. For me values become the deep drivers of excellence. Without those values you cannot make a mark in present context.

The difference between a high skilled person and a high values person is that the high values person always makes a mark in the social context, skills become secondary. If the values are found to be wanting, skills become absolute. The competence multiplied by poor values become incompetence.   

Tell us about your forthcoming book Timeless Leadership?
Timeless Leadership is based on 18 insights from the Bhagvad Gita. One of the insights is the war within us, the fight within my own mind, a detention between the reason and my emotion. My need to go out in the world and my need to introspect. These are the kind of wars that goes on in the mind of Arjuna and there are Arjunas among ourselves. We are talking in Timeless Leadership about something that is a deep structure of the awareness of human consciousness from where we make profound decisions about our work and about our lives. This book is hopefully going to impact the world with a depth and insight because Gita is a very underrated management text and it is not known in the world in the way some of the other texts are. So, I take it as my duty to take the message.

Many are of the view that opening new IIMs would somewhere dilute the brand IIM, what do you have to say?
1.2 billion people, 300,000 taking the test, only 3,000 and less making it, what is happening to the rest 2,97,000, has anybody bothered to find out? There are some very bright students out there. How will you dilute the brand if it is based on such a rare selection? Can't we find 10 thousand quality students? Yes, but every IIM has to be built with the same kind of rigour and intensity that all the other IIMs have been built upon. And I am certain this will happen when the government and industry will pay attention to the quality. The brand is too strong to be diluted.