Teaching is the best way to learn, because then you have to have enough depth to answer questions
The main challenge for academic institutions comes on the cultural side academic institutions are slowest to change when it comes to revising programs and doing things differently
Prof. Rajendra K. Srivastava is the Dean of the Indian School of Business (ISB) and the Novartis Professor of Marketing strategy and Innovation. With an experience of over 30 years as an academic and administrator, he has held several tenured faculty and administrative positions during his career including senior management positions at the University of Texas at Austin and Emory University in Atlanta. Before joining the ISB, he was Provost and Deputy President of Academic Affairs at Singapore Management University.
What prompted you to join ISB as the Dean?
ISB is a premier institute and I felt that I had the opportunity to contribute academically and also towards building the culture of this ambitious organization and taking it to greater heights. I am an academician and although I have been an administrator for about two decades, I have been in the classroom for every single day of those two decades. What I want to do is raise the culture and leave a legacy. ISB has a lot of good faculty from around the world but as an institution, it needs to be recognized as being the best institutes in the world. And for this, we need to contribute to the global thought leadership. My ambition is to make people in the West to think of ISB when they think of the East, at lEast in the management discipline.
You still teach and research. Do you think it is important to be close to what’s happening in the classroom?
I think if you are running any business, you need to be close to your customer. If you are running an organization that is embedded in education, you need to be with the faculty, and with the students. For us, there is not just faculty and students but also other people we cater to — our other customers include the corporate community and the government too. The reason why I like to spend time in classroom is because people ask questions. A lot of my work has been informed or inspired by questions that are asked. Teaching is the best way to learn, because then you have to have enough depth so that you can answer questions. So teaching is important from the learning viewpoint, from the viewpoint of having an exchange, proper exchange with the students. My research is very closely aligned with the teaching that I do.
What is your approach towards making ISB a global institution? What are the building blocks that you think will be critical in achieving this?
I feel very strongly that one needs a balance between theory and practice. Many academic institutions including the ones I have been to are too vocational and scientific. However, we need interaction with the business community and with the government to understand the issues that are important, relevant, critical, time sensitive and which are bound to make a big impact — so we need rigorous thinking that comes from academia. I keep reminding our faculty that we need to think about the problems that needs resolution. So, one is theory and practice, the second element is that we are very biased in our thinking and consider that a lot of great ideas come from the West. They do, but it doesn’t mean that the Europeans or Asians don’t know what is going on or what should be going on. For e.g. today we write case studies about Intel, but who is giving Intel a hard time these days? It’s a company called TSMC - Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company and it happens to be from Taiwan. Taiwan is a country of I believe 23-24 million people and look at the impact that they have on consumer electronics. So, why can’t we learn from the Taiwanese, why can’t we learn from Hyundai or from Samsung? There is a lot of strategic thinking, lot of leadership, and notions that we can pick up from the East. So my second element revolves around balance the East and the West. The third element is impact, which is also embedded in the first two. Impact to me is multi-disciplinary and in order to have impact we need to understand how to make better decisions. For example, take innovation, it has creativity and leadership embedded in it - so you have to be able to wear multiple hats in innovation. Or you take something like mergers and acquisitions, it’s a regulatory issue, an accounting valuation issue, HR issue with and it certainly is a financial strategy and corporate strategy issue. So, in PhD programs we teach asset pricing, we teach finance but we don’t teach M&A. So in my opinion, the impact will come if ISB is the place that is respected; where people from business and government come to for ideas to be implemented within the company or in the policy reforms in the government.
You have completed 90 days of being the Dean of ISB. Did you have a 90-day plan when you started?
I did have a 90-day plan. We have done a lot in the first 90 days – in the first two-three weeks, we looked at the programs and the faculty. So we held the faculty retreat in the first 22 days, where the faculty and I shared our thoughts and views. I needed to tell them about balancing East and West, theory and practice and that the goal has to be impact. Then the next thing we did a few days later was to hold a retreat for all the center and institute directors, again sort of figuring, communicating but also listening to them in order to do this balancing the East and West, and theory and practice and then to have impact. The first 30 days also included the first Board meeting, discussions about the challenges that we faced and what had to be overcome. We also did budgeting for the next year. The main challenge for academic institutions comes on the cultural side – academic institutions are sloWest to change when it comes to revising programs and doing things differently. This also engenders from the committees that are constituted for taking decisions on changes and overcoming challenges. These committees take decisions and make changes in small and measured steps. For me, instead of taking small measured steps and having a large balanced committee representing everybody, I’d prefer two or three-person taskforce, that comes up with the straw model which can be improved and made better with constructive criticism.
If you were to take a step back, what are the things that you think pose a challenge and make ISB vulnerable as a school, if you look at the longer vision?
If you are to look at what we have been doing, and our output – it is our students, our alumni, and the community that assess us, i.e. the corporate, the government, and the people who hire our students, and also academic community – if I look at these dimensions I think that ISB needs to maintain a balance between our residential faculty and our visiting faculty. Our visiting faculty mostly is from the West and so is the case with this residential faculty. However, we have done rather well because we have a schedule that is grinding – 51 weeks of mayhem, you guys learn how to work, how to get things done, you learn some of the softer skills presentations, group work etc. and you know how to hit the ground running, so I think we have done something right in the mixture of course. But we may need to look at the revisions that are required because we have many jobs today that didn’t exist ten years ago and the world is talking about VUCA. We have been living VUCA but what I want the students to do when they leave here is to learn. It doesn’t matter what the world looks like five years from now or ten years from now, they should be capable of handling it. Thus, we need to make sure that they leave with the confidence of being able to learn, they need to have flexible minds. What I have discovered here is of course you have breadth in the core course. What I am discovering is that people are in two concentrations or one concentration and once specialization, so everybody in the educational community is talking about a T-shaped function, which is the breadth and the depth. But we have a ‘pie’ shape function - breadth and two depths, which means our graduates are actually more flexible and more ambidextrous than is normal and that is good. Also, 1 in 6 ISB graduates starts a company. So for a school that is 15 years old that is pretty good but that is not enough, because what we need is the prominence, and the leadership coming out of the alumni, so it’s great to have a senior job and start the company but I think our alumni also needs to stand for the society and do something for India and they will.
The students who come to ISB are obviously highly ambitious professionals. Do you see a difference in the kind of students who come and study in ISB from what you would have seen probably 15 years ago? Is the definition of ambition changing?
I don’t see that much difference on the student front because if you ask what the students are looking for, they are looking for a good learning opportunity at the end of the day and they are also looking for a good job. Motivation to go to a good school, whether it is in the East or West is based on the expectations of the faculty. The way the branding that ISB has, it has wonderful faculty and I don’t want that brand perception to be mitigated in any way. I think it is a correct perception and I think it should stay there. So, students are looking for a learning opportunity but at the end of the day they are facing a situation where they have to take loans to come to school and they really do need that payback. At the same time, I feel that when I talk to the alumni, they are getting a little bit more ambitious on the global side compared to fifteen years ago, and that is partly because India has become a little bit more ambitious which is partly fuelled by opportunities within India.
What is it that you are thinking of doing differently to bridge the gap between the business leaders who are looking for ambitious professionals and these professionals who are looking for such opportunities?
The answer is fairly obvious — you get the business leaders in ISB and you also take ISB outside of ISB. We need more of that collaboration with the industry. I think some of the things you learn from the business leaders is getting beyond the spreadsheets, so we need to get more of that engagement. Students need to hear from the business leaders, things like managing across borders matters, taking care of your direct reports, etc. For example, while I was in Singapore, we persuaded TATAs to hold a case writing workshop with 23 Tata managers. There were three case writers and five faculty and this was the first crowd sourcing of case writing. But the logic was that as managers you have to communicate the value system, the processes you are using, why you are using them. That is how we were trying to get corporate sector in helping us write the cases. Now in parallel, ISB is already turning around 50 cases a year and thus we are becoming the largest repository of cases in India but we need to do it for Asia and not just for India. So more exchange with the industry people in terms of spending a week on some sort of executive residence, intermingling with the students and talking to the faculty – providing a learning journey in a week.
What is the role that technology really plays in business?
On that front I have a couple of views. One is we use the word technology and invention synonymously and that is not correct. Innovation goes way beyond developing a new technology. When it comes to technology, the question is what are we going to do with the technology; it is the impact of that technology that really matters and that impact is dependent on the value that technology creates for you and me. Technology can open doors and in the case of emerging markets, it is allowing us to leap frog. Technology can become a facilitator, an enabler, a cost reducer and when these kinds of things happen then the question is how are the benefits being shared and who is getting those benefits. And for the emerging markets, technology can be big enabler and in some cases, technology gets adopted faster in an emerging market because there is no legacy system that is resisting it.
What will be your message as part of your vision, mandate to the different stakeholders you are aligning with to support you in making ISB a global institution? Alumni plays a very critical role, what will be your message to support the school?
One is come back and contribute - we need the alumni to come out because they have the tools and resources, experience and so on. But we need to find the platform by which to make it happen. Alumni who are in senior positions and who are making important decisions for larger or small companies can come and talk about what they doing and why they are doing it, where they see the future going etc. Our students could be working with the alumni on live case studies as opposed to published case study. Thus, contribute to the education of the next generation and that is one thing. The second thing is we have to give the alumni something in return and what I can give in return is the alumni itself. Thus I’d like to make a move on developing some community of practice where we can get virtual groups of alumni interacting. We can organize events which can act as opportunities for alumni from different batches to get to know each other, so they can help each other along.