What they don't teach you at Indian B-schools

This last Sunday, I watched a show on CNBC called Lessons in Marketing Excellence. Essentially, it featured the final round of a competition for B-School students across India conducted by CNBC and Hindustan Unilever Limited. The four finalist teams were asked to address the problem of how to help the Indian Railways innovate. As the bright students in their dark suits made their presentations, they unwittingly offered several lessons for why we lack innovation and leadership in India. The show especially provided an ironic commentary on how the education we provide in Indian business schools and the general eco-system of Indian business are boxing us in and curtailing even a tendency to innovate.

Lack of original Indian thinking

Almost 15 years ago, I had just graduated from Wharton and was cutting my teeth as a young B-School professor at Purdue University. Pankaj Chandra (a fellow-alum of Wharton although many years my senior) who was at IIM-A (and is now Director of IIM-Bangalore), invited me to a conference on operations management that he was organising in India. I accepted but had to cancel out at the last minute. However, a senior colleague at Purdue went and, when he came back to the U.S., I asked him how it had gone. He told me that he was struck by the fact that both in methodologies and in applications, the conference was completely West-oriented. The only presentation that had Indian “roots,” he said, was a paper that discussed how to optimise scheduling idli-cooker operations in a Bangalore Darshini restaurant. It is sad that more than a decade later, the same disease plagues our B-Schools and, consequently, our management thinking in the business world — a lack of original Indian thinking. I am hardly advocating a B-school version of Indian nationalist sentiment, but one must surely pause to ask if we are teaching our students to reject a language they know well and to instead put on a voice and idiom that they only half-know.

People and Colour

When one imagines India, the highlights are universal: People and Colour. Does it signify anything for our business world that the B-School students, including women, were without exception dressed in dark “business” suits? Where were the bright colours that India exudes? Dark business suits perhaps proclaim one's arrival into an elite club. But throttling ties and stifling suits are also metaphors for the dark state of management education and thought in India in particular, but generally all over the world. As we seek to close the door on such closeted-thinking, Shashi Tharoor's Hindi-practising colonialists ironically present a solution: To say “ Darwaza band karo,” they practised “There was a banned crow!”

Why do I call these presentations symptoms of the stifled innovation and struggling strategy that is dogging Indian business? One of the central questions of the Indian Railways case that the students analysed was: “How does IR innovate to generate revenues, build capacity and increase market share?” Or as the show host put it, “Suggest innovative strategies to increase revenues for the Railways.” Look at the presentations and the solutions that the students put forth after one whole month of research. Why wasn't there even one bit of colour in what was supposed to be a marketing presentation? Of course, when I say colour, I use it symbolically to imply freshness in thought. Again let me make it clear — I do not hold only the students responsible for the wan thinking. In fact, we — management educators and stuffy sultans of strategy in the corporate world — are the ones who have brought this about. Did we see one video of a train compartment; hear one audio interview of a passenger, or an employee? No. These presentations evicted colour, but they also evicted the sense of people that is India. Instead of exploiting the aesthetic resonance of train travel, we heard long-winded statements in boring voices from behind tall podiums. Why? Because we have taught them that that's the way to be leaders. In this country, of all places, we seem to have forgotten the power of storytelling and the rich repertoires we possess. And we call these shows “Lessons in Marketing Excellence.”

The solutions proposed also primarily fed off the data in the case and worked at marginally increasing revenues from the operations. One team suggested that the addition of a new class between Second Class and 3-Tier AC would generate additional revenue because Second Class passengers would choose the newly introduced class that was higher-priced. The Railway officials on the panel of judges dismissed it saying that when they introduced 3-tier AC between 2-tier AC and Second Class, rather than Second Class passengers opting to go up to 3-tier AC, 2-tier AC passengers opted to go down. Another team proposed looking at three Indias — India-1, India-2, and India-3 — in terms of paying power, and suggested a focus on India-1. Promptly the Railway executives said that ignoring the largest and least wealthy India-3 category would not fit into the mission of the railways. In short, solutions like these kept bumping against the fact that the Indian Railways has both a social mission and a business vision. Such solutions focused only on milking existing operations, and consequently were only incremental. The point is that there was no demonstration of any out of the box thinking. While the team from FMS did propose a few refreshing, although small alternate streams of revenues, it is telling that they did not win the competition.


Ok, let's take a step back and ask ourselves another question: In what other way could the students have approached the Indian Railways case given to them? Let's start at the basics. What strikes me most about Indian Railways is the consistency with which they have maintained the design of the train and the architecture of the railway station. If Mahatma Gandhi came back and looked at the Indian train today, he would not find it very different from the ones in which he travelled across the country about a hundred years ago. And they certainly haven't changed much from the trains I used to take several decades ago as a young school kid going for the summer holidays from Mumbai to my grandparents' house in Tumkur, near Bangalore. How would it have been if the students had started with thinking about how to change the basic structure of the compartment? Not incremental recommendations about providing “pillows and blanket sets”, but something more whole, more substantial. Could they have examined restructuring the bathrooms on the trains? For decades, with the help of the Railways, we Indians have been defecating across the face of the nation. Can we change that, and perhaps monetise the solution? How about using the waste to generate fertilizers or energy? What are the pluses and minuses of that? Alternately, would a redesign of the compartments with lighter material lead to fuel savings? What could be the cost savings? What safety risks would the lighter compartment bring? Another thought: How about building better railway stations and creating a whole new, beautiful retail space in the station? Can we convert that precious space of the “railway station” which is mostly located in the central areas of the city into a “third place” to hangout — between office and home? What revenues could be derived from the retail stores that will populate the “new, cool railway station,” the “third place”?

Straitjacketing approaches

The straitjacketing approaches we teach in B-School and promote in the Indian corporate world are not going to help pose or answer such questions. Innovation requires breaking bounds not just in application, but also — and more importantly — in thought. Paradigm shifts should not be just the effect, but in fact, should be — again more importantly — the cause for innovation. Would it be heresy to teach B-School students that Porter's framework and the concept of positioning is not all that there is in strategy, that the core-competence approach despite its brilliance has limited application, that Blue Ocean for all its attractiveness does not tell you what to do when your blue water is bloodied by lean and mean sharks? Would it be heresy to teach them that all these approaches to strategy are necessary but not sufficient conditions for strategic success? Would it kill us to teach them that we need to stop thinking of organisations and businesses as mere machines to which we apply formulas and frameworks, and instead think of the next frontier in strategy where we will have to work with organisations as if they are living, breathing, humans who have stories to create, live, and tell?

Till we find our self-confidence, our own voices, and brand Indian ways of innovation that go beyond the stereotypical jugaad that seems to be our only answer to innovation, we will have to remain content with aping others and making the same mistakes that the others made — others, who incidentally are not brighter than us. Till that time, no original innovation will come out of India.

It's now time to ban the crow-ness of B-Schools and executive cadres. It's now time to also proudly bring in the colourful finches, the macaws, the mynahs, the bulbuls, and the whatever. Are we ready?

(Baba Prasad is president & CEO, Vivékin Group & Visiting Professor of Management, IIIT-Hyderabad.)

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Printable version | May 4, 2021 10:53:08 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/What-they-dont-teach-you-at-Indian-B-schools/article13073315.ece

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