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Updated: May 6, 2013 21:44 IST

An Indian view of management

R. Devarajan
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A very Indian approach to Management: Business Sutra. Author: Devdutt Pattanaik.
A very Indian approach to Management: Business Sutra. Author: Devdutt Pattanaik.

The management of organisations — including people management — is turning out to be a challenging task in the present international scenario, thanks to globalisation. As a science, management is developing at a phenomenal pace. The political, economic, and social environments are all changing at an equally rapid speed.

Keeping abreast of these changes and challenges per se is a big task. On top of it, the manager needs to be in constant touch with the expanding horizons of knowledge in his functional domain. Indeed, the pace and race in the evolving canvas coupled with the associated stress involved make his job most daunting and demanding.

Management is not anything new to this land, which has a long history of culture, tradition, and ethos. Ancient India led in overseas trade and commerce. Considering that it has now become imperative in the current scenario to identify innovative and creative tools and techniques to beat the competition, it is worthwhile to delve deep into the Indian mythology fishing for a fresh framework in management. It is in this context, that the book under notice is breaking new ground.

The book is in three parts. The first part forms the Introduction, which explains why and how the art and science of management can be related to Hindu mythology — the connectivity between “Belief” and “Business”. According to Devdutt Pattanaik, mythology is as much objective and pragmatic as the principles in management.

Belief is the basis from which “sprouts every human enterprise, (and) every culture…. (But) every belief is irrational and hence, a myth. Therefore, the study of stories, symbols, and rituals to decode the beliefs (that) they communicate is called mythology.”

The second part is a bold and innovative attempt to elucidate and synthesise three different streams of thought viz., the Western school of management; the Indian school of management, springing from the scriptures and its strictures; and the Chinese school “with great faith in central authority to take away disorder and bring in order.”

The third part captioned “Business Sutra, which deals with “A very Indian approach to management”, consumes 77 percent [324 pages] of the total text. The word Sutra means an aphorism – a terse statement.

There are 145 Sutra statements interspersed in the 12 sections contained in this part. Some samples are: “Decisions are good or bad only in hindsight.”; “The organization is ultimately a set of people.” “Things are surrogate markers of our value” And “We want to be seen as we imagine ourselves.”

Every Sutra is explained and amplified by an appropriate episode from the Hindu mythology. This is immediately followed by a parallel and equivalent principle in management. Case studies in management, which “case studies are imagined tales” (says the author), come next in the queue, in highlighted boxes, as an aid towards reinforcement and better understanding of the sutra.

From cover to cover, almost every alternate page in the book is illustrated by an apposite caricature — a sketch of the human form — or a contextual diagram. These sketches/diagrams which have a unique design, definition, and depiction help to illuminate the meaning and message of the Sutra in crystal clear fashion.

“This book is full of frameworks, woven into each other. While frameworks of management science seek to be objective, the frameworks of Business Sutra are primarily subjective. The book does not seek to sell these frameworks, or justify them as the truth. They are meant to be reflective, and not prescriptive.”

Eternal theme

The central theme of the book is that when individual beliefs come into conflict with corporate beliefs, problems surface in organisations. Conversely, when institutional beliefs and individual beliefs are congruent, harmony is the resultant corporate climate. It is when people are seen as mere resources meant to be managed [read manipulated] through compensation and so-called motivation; it is when they are treated like switches in a circuit board; it is then that disharmony descends causing disruption.

The book is easy to read, but difficult to comprehend; and even more difficult to assimilate. The pattern of presentation is prosaic, pedestrian, and uninviting — especially the persistent usage of non-English words. But says Pattanaik: “English words are insufficient to convey all Indian ideas.”

In any case, the book is not for a run-of-the-mill reader. It is meant for a dedicated audience possessed with an indefatigable zeal and energy to proceed along with the author in a journey to discover the depth and immensity of the subject matter.

The book ends with an enigma. The last page contains 14 opinions, each with separate quotation marks, and all are single sentences. Most of them are in the nature of a brickbat, and not a bouquet. The page carries the caption, “How to reject this book”. The rationale for this apologetic and seemingly self-deprecating stand is left unarticulated.

(R. Devarajan is a management consultant)

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