Business India ×

Published on: Oct. 21, 2019, 6:45 p.m.
A journey to the future, from past
  • The pandemic has challenged every belief, every assumption we hold to be true about business. Photo credit: Sanjay Borade

By Suresh Ramanathan. The author is Dean & Professor, marketing & strategy, Great Lakes Institute of Management, India

On a hot summer day in July 2019, I stood in front of more than 400 students in the cavernous combined classrooms quaintly labeled Lake Veeranam and Lake Manasarovar, addressing them as the new Dean of Great Lakes Institute of Management, Chennai. It was an onerous responsibility, as I was filling the shoes of a giant, a larger-than-life personality who was instrumental in the start of several reputed business schools in the country including MDI Gurgaon and the ISB, namely, Padma Shri Dr. Bala Balachandran, a renowned academic from Kellogg School of Management.

I spoke about my vision to transform Great Lakes into an institution at the forefront of knowledge creation rather than merely knowledge dissemination. I spoke about how business education was at a crossroads, with several schools around the world facing the challenges of commodification due to the sameness of curriculum, and worse, the sameness of thought. I emphasised the need for agility and flexibility to remain relevant in a world that was changing rapidly, and for students to be prepared to adapt themselves to these changes by continuous learning.

Little did I know that these words would ring truer than ever before in just the space of a few months. The pandemic has challenged every belief, every assumption we hold to be true about business, and perhaps about life in general. Every business around the world has been impacted by the crisis. Many were coasting along on a pathway lined with gold, secure in their beliefs about the infallibility of their business models and the power conferred by incumbency. When the pandemic swept through the world, several organisations were forced to question these beliefs, not at a time of their choosing as would be the case in a planned transformation, but rather abruptly, without warning, and certainly without any opportunity for planning. Companies such as Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Apple, and Google announced that they would move to a Work from Home policy for the whole of 2020 and into 2021, with Twitter going one step further and preparing for a future where several of its employees could be working permanently from home. Closer home, TCS also took proactive action in announcing a long-term work from home policy. Meanwhile, the pandemic also disrupted supply chains, causing widespread impact on operations for many businesses. There was a real and tangible financial impact and more importantly, the crisis raised several fundamental questions about the assumptions being made about the nature of business.

If businesses have had to question their business models, the obvious question we must all ask is the following: Shouldn’t business schools do the same? If the frameworks and tools being taught in the classroom are no longer as relevant today as they were before the pandemic, where will new frameworks come from? Who will create the knowledge that will serve as the foundation for educating tomorrow’s leaders? Yes, businesses will no doubt evolve their own models based on experimentation. However, without significant investments in research, business schools in India will always be playing catch up to industry practice rather than leading the way in shaping thought and practice as is commonly the case in the West. While it is encouraging to see the winds of change in education with the announcement of the New Education Policy that emphasises the importance of research, there must be a concerted effort from both private and public business schools in the country to embrace a collaborative model of research excellence, putting India firmly on the global research map.

An even bigger challenge that faces business schools today is the relentless drive towards sameness. The MBA curriculum has not changed significantly since my days as a student at IIM Calcutta 33 years ago. We are still teaching concepts published by scholars a few decades ago. It is true that we are providing students with skills and techniques that are modern and cutting-edge. At Great Lakes, for instance, the AIMLAB major (AI, Machine Learning, Algorithmic Analytics, and Blockchain) is extremely popular because it provides students with a very deep understanding of analytics in a wide range of functional areas. We are now seeking to broaden those skills to inculcate an analytical and agile mindset, capable of quick thinking and abstract problem-solving. Many of these skills are being developed jointly in partnership with industry. The future of business schools will be determined by how well they can create sustainable value for students and businesses through innovation and experimentation. Oftentimes, it might mean jettisoning old shibboleths in curriculum design, and embracing the willingness to take leaps of faith in content and delivery. We are already seeing changes in delivery models with the rapid rise in popularity of ed-tech companies offering online courses from institutions around the world. While this may not completely disrupt the market for business education in the country in the near-term, we can clearly see the threats to incumbents.

Indeed, these changes will imply a redefinition of value for prospective students. While not all will embrace the idea of online learning for post-graduate education, there is certainly a market for such an offering. At the very least, we can anticipate a democratisation of the MBA degree, making it more accessible to several who get excluded by the cruelty of rigid CAT/GMAT score cut-offs. That in turn could create a much wider community of would-be-entrepreneurs. While traditional business schools may not consider such products as competing with their own classroom models, they would be foolish to ignore the enormous possibilities of these highly innovative ventures. History has shown in a variety of industries where incumbents go with a business-as-usual strategy and ignore the threat of potential disruptors, they eventually end up on the losing side. The past thus offers us lessons about how we need to navigate the waters of the future.

So, as I stood before my students in Lake Veeranam/Manasarovar, I could not but help think back about my own journey in the past. Having graduated from IIT Delhi and IIM Calcutta, I spent the first ten years of my life working with various organisations in India, first in sales and marketing, and then later in the advertising industry. Little did I imagine that I would create a disruption in my own career path by choosing to pursue a PhD at the age of 33 at the Stern School of Business at New York University. Going back to being a student was strangely liberating because it forced me to question every single belief I had about myself. It also opened my eyes to the beauty of academic research, where one can pursue ideas with complete freedom rather than being constrained by business exigencies. After a successful career in academia as a Professor of Marketing, first at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and later at Texas A&M University, I created the second disruption in my career, this time choosing to return to India to take on a leadership role at Great Lakes. The past has thus served as a reliable indicator of the way I think. I am here to challenge every assumption we hold to be sacred and true. I believe that the only way forward in these times is the restless pursuit of change – from Good to Great.


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