How business schools in India have killed off research

New, bold and unconventional approaches are needed to resuscitate the research culture

Harsh Vardhan

[By Angela Yuriko Smith under Creative Commons]

Last month, an article on business research was published on Founding Fuel. I expressed my views and this article is a continuation of my views. My comments were largely to do with the existing quality of academia in the business schools and their involvement with research. However, I do believe the subject needs lot more debate on what truly is happening inside business schools, the purpose for which they were created and what really needs to be done to make them and their research more relevant to the industry. After all, the value from business schools must flow to the industry, for which they were originally created and are expected to serve. A journey that has taken more than sixty years in India and now seems to be losing its way.

I have spent over 35 years in industry, consultancy and entrepreneurship. I am now closely associated with top-tier business schools—a journey that I particularly enjoy. Yet while it has been immensely satisfying guiding bright young minds to chart out their growth, both as managers and as entrepreneurs, I find there are several fault lines in the system, which if not addressed, may compromise the very idea of a business school in India.

To begin with, let me start with outlining the purpose of a business school. First, it is to develop managerial talent to deal with complex issues facing organisations and be able to guide their firms into the future; second, develop thought leadership; third, research in areas that pose critical challenges to the industry; and fourth, get involved with consulting (though the last one is questionable now that many good consulting firms have emerged on the scene). I recall in the late seventies and eighties, when many professors like SK Bhattacharya, Udai Pareek and Labdi Bhandari, among others, were coveted consultants to large established organisations like the Tatas, ITC, Levers etc., and also respected for their thought leadership and research.

Has this purpose been achieved, and if not, what could be done? It seems a complex issue to address, but an interesting one.

Why we need to fix the curriculum

Let me first start with the curriculum of the business school. The curriculum in a business school is a blend of theory and practice. In doing so, the business school draws its characteristics both from industry and educational institutions. Not many disciplines fall in this category, except for law and medicine.

Here’s how Warren Bennis, a revered academician, puts it, “This scientific model, as we call it, is predicated on the faulty assumption that business is an academic discipline like chemistry or geology. In fact, business is a profession, akin to medicine and the law, and business schools are professional schools—or should be.”

Much of what is useful in business education is a result of much that happens in the business on the ground

It is then not a coincidence that many of the most widely used frameworks in business schools have evolved through the works of consultants like McKinsey, Arthur D Little, Booz Allen Hamilton and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), and others and not necessarily from academia alone. These industry consultants have contributed immensely in building business schools’ curriculum and culture (BCG Matrix, 7S, Experience Curve, ADL Matrix, to name a few). Management consultant Peter Drucker shaped the very idea of management. BCG founder Bruce Henderson influenced generations of business school graduates and researchers and his works are one of the mainstays of business education. McKinsey has pioneered many a thought in dealing with the new disruptive forces, something not many in academia have even looked at. And the list goes on. The lesson is clear. Much of what is useful in business education is a result of much what happens in the business on the ground and this is what forms the core of business education and research. To do this, the disseminators of knowledge need to have had their experiences rooted in both academia (theory) and industry (practice). So where does the problem lie?

The criticisms come not just from students, employers and the media, but also from the deans of some of America’s most prestigious business schools, including Dipak Jain, the erstwhile dean at Northwestern University’s top ranked Kellogg School of Management, says Bennis.

One more outspoken critic, McGill University professor Henry Mintzberg, says that the main culprit is a less-than-relevant MBA curriculum. “We believe that is because the curriculum is the effect, not the cause, of what ails the modern business school.”

The MBA curriculum in India is set by academicians. They often set it according to their own agenda. Little or no input is taken from the industry experts.

Needed: A new class of clinical faculty

Some of the best global business school professors today are industry practitioners; revered by the students for the quality of their teaching, the value they bring through their experience and making management education in classrooms far more energetic, relevant and experiential.

Our system in India, unfortunately, seems to be shying away from bringing in such talent into the fold of business schools. The growth of freshly minted Fellow/Doctoral Program in Management (FPMs/PhDs) from various business schools hasn’t helped the cause either. Given that they are devoid of any industry experience and armed with mere bookish knowledge, results in sub-optimal learning outcomes for the students and also poor quality of research. 

While some business schools like XLRI and few Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) like Indore have started Executive Fellowship Programs supposedly to overcome this chasm, they too seem to be falling short of expectation. While some candidates do come with good diverse industry experience, many IT professionals with close to 10-15 years in hard-core technical functions have enrolled, trying to get out of IT. They seem to grapple with an entirely new discipline and subsequently go on to teach subjects like marketing, strategy, finance, etc. I am not sure of the value they bring to the system. Expecting them to produce quality research seems a tough call, their ability to identify true business problems remains a challenge. Business schools, on their part, are quick to recruit these FPMs hoping to enhance their scores from various rating and accrediting agencies.

The new economy is challenging every management concept. That’s a fit case for professionals as faculty

Unfortunately, many rating and accrediting agencies evaluate business schools like any other college, hence completely missing the point that they are fundamentally different from normal universities and colleges. Looking at the way international business schools are accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the most sought after accrediting agency globally, brings out the point very well. It has two main category of professors—Academically Qualified or AQ (the PhDs) and Professionally Qualified or PQ (industry professional, also called clinical faculty). In its charter, AACSB very clearly mentions that it strongly recommend its accredited business schools to maintain a healthy balance of both, clearly never 100% AQ faculty. This becomes especially important in today’s business environment, where the new economy is challenging every management concept. A fit case for professionals as faculty. Perhaps accrediting agencies in India would do well to rethink their approach towards evaluating business schools.

How to make research relevant to industry

This also leads me to the topic of research. What is most important in research is to be able to identify your research problem and define your research question. Which requires good amount of study and understanding of the business environment, some serious field work and interfacing with the industry.

Business data is often sketchy, noisy and hard to come by. It is also difficult to identify accurate parameters for research. Data collected is not of good quality and at best provide some weak signals to the researcher. Interpreting these signals requires very sophisticated qualitative techniques and a very mature, intuitive and a creative mind, besides good experience in the field. Since most of the academic research is modelled on the traditional lines of quantitative methods, deep insights seem missing. Researchers here are more interested in showcasing their methodologies, rather than addressing the core problem in the research and proving the outcome and its relevance to the business environment. Academia without good industry experience may find it difficult to correctly interpret the signals, though areas like quantitative finance or operations may be exceptions.

As Bennis argues, “When applied to business—where judgements are made with messy, incomplete data—statistical and methodological wizardry can blind rather than illuminate…By allowing the scientific research model to drive out all others, business schools are institutionalising their own irrelevance.” Wise words, indeed.

Business research has to prove its relevance to existing problems and show how it will make a difference

I have been engaging with several international institutions on the research front and find some key differences. Business research there has to prove its relevance to existing problems and show how it will make a difference to the society at large. Qualitative analysis is on the rise. There are professors and researchers like Dr Gerben Moerman from the University of Amsterdam who has spent significant amount of time in Indian villages to validate his research problem, meeting a cross-section of people in the country. Their view is that unless you have your feet on the ground there is no way you can read the signals or interpret what respondents really mean. Not many Indian professors and researchers would do that. Several professors I know in the US have been on regular trips to various locations around the world to interface with industry as a part of their research. Research here is largely done in the confines of offices with laptop and Google as the only interface. Unfortunately, the connect seems completely missing.

Research here is largely done in the confines of offices with a laptop and Google as the only interface

The problem with business research is that any problem that we imagine regarding the future may not even exist when the future arrives, what with the environment changing virtually every day. Business research needs to be topical. It has to do with the environment we live in.

Globally, organisations are battling some very grave issues, most of which have to do with the current disruptive environment. New technologies, largely termed as industry 4.0, are throwing up many challenges to the industry in managing their business environment and they do not have answers. The future seems uncertain. Surprisingly academia, which is supposed to be in the forefront of research, too is clueless.

Frankly, I have not seen any insightful academic research in India dealing with the vagaries of e-commerce, even though the area is over 15 years old. It appears that a practicing manager in such industries is in a much better position to identify problem that has not been addressed so far, and if explored and analysed, has potential to add significant value to the body of management knowledge. But then the two minds do not meet. This is where I believe that consulting firms have been able to score over pure academia. They have written several very good research papers, touching upon issues that are both current and have future implication. These papers have been widely read by the industry. Rarely, I find any industry person reading academic research papers. So what’s the utility? Is it merely to fulfil some criteria some guidelines? Intuitively, it seems so.

Research on entrepreneurship: A missed opportunity

I have been an entrepreneur and as a part of my course on entrepreneurship, I continuously engage with the industry people, especially other entrepreneurs who are trying to solve a societal problem with new technologies. This, to my mind, is a fertile ground for research. Students too, benefit from such engagement. Normally, such professors are industry people, not full-time faculty, who might find time to teach a subject like entrepreneurship. In India, this tends to be a missed opportunity.

Going by my European experience, where I am engaging with several universities on the research front, I find that entrepreneurship is a big area across business schools and much of the research seems to be happening in this area. That I am being encouraged by them to look into this kind of research given my background, shows the forward thinking their business schools have on the subject.

Should business research be formal? Not necessarily. Many great business frameworks like Porter’s Five Force Analysis, BCG Matrix, 7S System, were the result of extensive observation, while at work or consulting. They all started with addressing a live problem their clients and the industry were facing. They were extensively documented and have now become much sought after MBA curriculum. They have also stood the test of time.

Rethinking the research approach

So is there a way out of this conundrum? Should the industry and business school conduct joint research? I am sure everyone will agree. But I see too many hiccups as well. Like I said earlier, the two minds may not meet. Time and funds may be issues. Syndicated research funds may be a way for financial support. But it is the business schools who have to take the initiative.

Here are some of my thoughts on possible ways some of the problems could be addressed:

  • Break down the barriers between industry professional professors and the pure academia while recruiting for permanent faculty at the business schools. Let there be no disparity. Most of the IIMs still seem to prefer FPMs to industry professionals.
  • Let there be a continuous flow of industry professionals in and out of the business schools, e.g. short-term assignments for six months to a year. I know many senior professionals would like to take a sabbatical to teach. The same goes for professors.
  • Let there be some guidelines as to who can do a PhD in business. Make at least 10 years of relevant diverse industry experience a must for someone to pursue his PhD.
  • Their experience must also guide their specialisation. Changing streams at such a late stage may not yield desirable result. I’ll go back to my earlier example. After having spent 10–15 years in IT in the technology services area, one should actually be specialising in operations or technology, not marketing, strategy or finance. There is very slim chance of his doing justice to the subject.
  • Make part-time PhDs for industry professionals an aim for IIMs. It is welcoming to see a few IIMs and XLRI have taken steps, but there are simply too few of them. In Europe, this has become extremely popular. It brings business schools closer to the industry. It also helps improve the quality of research based on real issues. And it allows senior managers to get directly involved with academic research.

And finally there is this culture issue. A business school must not be treated like a college. The drivers are very different. The culture of a business school is very different form that of a college or a university. The student and professor relationship tends to be a lot more mature. It is only in such a mature environment that quality of both teaching and research will prosper.

Business schools need to rethink their business model before it is too late. 

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Mihir Kumar on Jan 16, 2018 11:47 a.m. said

Its a treat reading an Industry veteran's opinion on one of the most important challenges of Business Academia. Couldn't agree more on the suggestion of focusing on Part time Phd's.

Harsh Vardhan on Jan 15, 2018 2:57 p.m. said

Yes, I do agree that compensation of Indian profs is lower than their western counterparts. But that alone may not explain the situation we are in. Earning from consulting and commissioned research may be substantial. Several good professors from the top tier BSchools do earn through consulting. Commissioned research is negligible. BSchools have to get little aggressive in this area, of course without compromising teaching. The way I see it that industry would be only too willing to extend any support and work to BSchools if they have confidence in the deliverable and the quality of output. After all, this was the trend in the 70s and the 80s. Much of the work now goes to the consulting firms. I have seen several consulting and commissioned research assignment done by the consulting firms that could have been given to the BSchools. Responsibility to get the work must largely be that of the institutes and not professors alone.

Bruce Bolton on Jan 14, 2018 2:24 p.m. said

Does the problem have anything to do with compensation of professors?
US/European professors are have decent salaries and some have tenure.
Some will still jump to the private sector for higher pay but at least many are already comfortable so can concentrate on research.

How big is the gap in India between professors and what they might earn consulting?

About the author

Harsh Vardhan
Harsh Vardhan

Strategy Consultant

Harsh Vardhan is a strategy consultant with over 30 years of work experience in strategy, marketing and brand building with organisation like HCL, ITC, JWT, O&M and Draft Worldwide. He has had a track record of developing and launching new products, building well-known brands and turning around underperforming businesses and brands. He launched several well known brands for clients like Bacardi, General Motors, Evian, L'Oreal, Levers to name a few and was head of leading global marketing services firms in the country. He now consults with several large Indian firms and start-ups helping them develop strategic leverage and build sustainable product strategies.

Harsh co-founded two entrepreneurial ventures in marketing technology area. Besides consulting, he is a faculty member at leading business schools teaching courses in strategy and competition. He has done significant work in the area of value innovation in the current technology driven environment. He is an alumnus of XLRI, Jamshedpur.

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