Archive for August, 2011

Welcoming India’s Scholar Prime Minister to IIM Calcutta

Speech I made at IIM Calcutta Aug 22nd 2011

Our cup of joy is overflowing in this, the 50the year of our founding!
First, we show up as Number 1 in the All India Management Association survey of management schools for 2011. We have all through our 50 year history been in the Top 3 but it is especially sweet to be in the top spot in our 50th year. This reaffirmed our belief  that concentrating on better pedagogy and better curriculum matter more than anything else for an educational and research institution like us.
We had the best placement record of all IIMs last year as judged by the starting salaries our students commanded. We don’t spend a lot of time aiming for this but nevertheless it is gratifying to get such an acknowledgement from important stakeholders like recruiters
Then, our faculty published more articles this year in international peer-reviewed management journals than all other management school in India. This proves to us that the  decision we made three years ago to fund our own research has paid off.
Then we have commissioned a quarter-of-a-million square feet of new classroom and hostel space in our campus this year to ease the pressure of having nearly doubled our student intake in the last four years. You can see all these beautiful new building around you outside.
Finally, this past year, 10% of our revenue came from online education, a percentage higher than the Harvard or Stanford business schools. In the coming battle to deliver high quality higher education at an affordable cost, this is a very big step forward.
A second reason why our cup of joy is full: our state Chief Minister is with us today- welcome Madam. You have proved yet again that what Bengal thinks today, the rest of India thinks tomorrow. By focusing the national attention on the need to sensitively and justly deal with the great and millennial transition from agriculture to industry that our country is going through, you have helped refine our country’s approach to this issue. Madam, your predecessor, Bidhan Roy was the man who energized the Sarkar Committee which recommended the setting up of the IITs and IIMs in India. So, welcome to IIM Calcutta, Madam.
A warm welcome to our Governor, Mr Narayanan. You have dedicated your life to making our country a more secure place to live in. You have our heartfelt appreciation for this life work of yours , sir. Welcome to IIM Calcutta, Mr Narayanan.
Topping up our cup of joy is the visit today to IIM Calcutta of our beloved scholar-Prime Minister. Sir, we watch with admiration as you tackle the many complex issues that face our nation. We particularly admire your exhortation that we grow our GDP fast, and your insistence that we do it in a way that the benefits of growth include all Indians. We want you to know sir that at IIM Calcutta we have a large group of scholars from diverse fields such as Economics, Statistics, Sociology and Operations dedicated to research in just this: how to mathematically model the welfare impact of public policies.
We only wish we had a little more time with you today to show you some of that work. In any event, we want you to know sir that our appreciation of the dilemmas of inclusive growth is not merely emotional but intellectual as well.
Welcome to you sir, our scholar-Prime Minister!

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Debating IIM Research on the 7am flight to Delhi

this appeared in the Business Standard

The Jet Airways flight from Bombay to Delhi had hardly started taxiing for take-off when the attractive 40-something woman seated next to me, glancing at the stack of IIM reports on my lap, flashed a friendly smile at me and said,

“What do you feel about Jairam Ramesh’s statement that reputation of IIMs and IITs are not because of their faculty and research but because of their excellent students?”

I turned around to take a closer look at my co-passenger. She was trim and fresh-faced even at this unearthly hour and wearing what looked me like a Ritu Beri outfit.

“Isn’t such a public debate healthy?” I countered as I tried to figure out what kind of answer would make sense to her.

“I think such statements by Ministers bring down the image of institutions that we Indians are proud of,” she declared.

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Reputations of higher educational institutions are a complicated thing to unravel. What makes these reputations, whether it is the research output of the faculty or whether it is the latter life success of its graduates or even the iconic style of its campus is something which truly deserves a debate. It is as esoteric a subject as figuring out what sets a company’s stock price: over the long run it has something to do with that company’s past profits and future prospects but it also seems to matter whether that industry is in fashion right then. Some academic researchers have even concluded that picking stocks to invest in by throwing darts at a board listing all the companies trading on the stock market and picking those that the dart sticks on is as good a way as doing rigorous analysis. That is to say, random chance, does as well as analytical rigor.

Something similar could be said about the rankings and reputations of Business Schools. The rankings that Indian and international magazines put out from time to time usually ascribe a weightage of about 20% to the ‘quality’ of research output. By far, the highest weightage across all such rankings, and often adding up to as much as 40% is for the salaries awarded to its graduating students. And since, in recent years, international Investment Banks and Management Consulting companies have offered the best salaries, those institutions that place their students in these sectors tend to get the best starting salaries and hence the best rankings in surveys.

Judging the research output of an IIM is an art form. The current method is to count the number of research papers published in international peer-reviewed journals which is somewhat like judging a person’s health by looking at his weight-to-height ratio. Too high a weight-to-height ratio probably means you need to exercise more or eat less, too low a ratio probably means you are neglecting your food. But for the vast majority of us who fall in the middle range, the ratio may not reveal much.

Most of the IIMs, at least the older and settled ones, neither publish too little nor do they dominate the international sweepstakes with their output.  Most published papers in the world seem to be the result of the mandatory doctoral work of Ph.D. students. So, a sure way to increase the research output of the IIMs is to substantially increase the number of Ph.D.’s we produce across the IIM system. That should increase the research output dramatically.

But then, there is a raging debate in international academic research circles whether publishing in reputed international journals really amounts to anything.

Two academics, Julian Birkinshaw and Michael Mol, took a look at the fifty most influential ideas in management of the last 150 years, things like Just-in-Time inventory management, the Six Sigma quality system, and the Balanced Scorecard method and point out that all of these breakthrough ideas originated within real-life business settings not from within academia. The role of management academics in these innovations appear to be to merely document them and spread the word about them.

                *                           *                            *

“Well, what do you think?” asked my attractive traveling companion, bringing me back to earth from my reverie.

“I think that the IIM faculty do a great job of picking the right students for the IIMs, they run the entrance exams and interview process strictly on merit and in a country where most things can be bought, an IIM seat cannot be bought, so the credit for even the student quality should go to the faculty. And do you know that 75% of the students come from families with family income less than Rs 70,000 a month.”

‘But still, should ministers say such things in public?” she asked

“I think such public debates are good”, I said, realizing immediately that I was repeating myself. “Are you worried about these issues because you are an alumnus of an IIM or perhaps a faculty member?’ I asked.

“No!” she said, drawing herself up in her seat. “My husband owns a business.”

“See!” I said triumphantly, “Jairam Ramesh’s statement has drawn even you into the debate about research at the IIMs and IITs. Is that not a good thing?”

She gave me a side-long look, checking whether I was pulling her leg, then opened the copy of Bombay Times and buried her head into it.


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eBooks near tipping point?

This appeared in Business Standard

When Johannes Guttenberg, in 1439, thought up moveable types and oil-based inks and fixed them on an agricultural screw press no-one watch all this could have thought of this as a revolution. But a revolution it was, by making ideas and learning available to an audience larger than ever before.

This year, 2011, will perhaps be remembered in times to come for an invention that is likely to have an impact of similar magnitude, the eBook.

On the face of it, there isn’t anything revolutionary about reading a digital rendition of a book. It certainly is more convenient to carry one eReader with a dozen books on it than to lug a dozen books in your travel baggage; the word ‘revolution’ seems to be too big a word to describe this weight-saving invention. Then, why all this excitement and anxiety in the cultured world of publishing?

For one, eBooks are downloaded from websites and that bypasses bookshops, imperilling those charming symbols of civilization. Will the whole system of publishing made up of agents who discover talent, editors who help authors shape the manuscript wither away? Will this lower the incentives for books to be published  and perhaps make that genteel mark of civilization, ‘the reading habit’, become just another quaint memory?

In a sign of changing times, Stephen King, that master of horror novels and Paul Coehlo, the author of  The Alchemist and other best-sellers are reported  to be considering  direct distribution of their books via ebooks . Their hope perhaps is to expand their earnings beyond author’s royalties and take a share of what their publishers used to make.
There are other ominous signs as well. Books that used to be sold for $20 in their printed avatars fetch half that price, $9.90, in their ebook version without, as yet, any noticeable increase in the number of copies sold. 

Some of these anxieties were given a fillip when Amazon announced recently that more ebooks are nowadays being sold on their website than are printed books.

But pragmatists point out that statistics of this kind are probably misleading. eBooks make up just 10% of all books sold even in the United States. In  countries like the UK and Netherlands and even in Guttenberg’s own Germany, where one would have thought early adopters for new reading methods abound, eBooks account now for a mere 1-2% of all books sold.

On the face of it eReaders and eBooks burst into sight just last year but they have been in the coming for more than two decades. The first attempt was by Sony; with their 1990 product Discman, they no doubt hoped to do to books what they had successfully done to music with their Walkman. More attempts by Sony and others met a similar fate. For eBooks to take off, there needed to be a large enough number of internet-enabled consumers, price points needed to be lower and, most of all, enough eBooks available for download. All of this came together in 2007 with the launch of Amazon’s Kindle in the United States.

Today, there is a dog-fight in the business of eReaders. In addition to dedicated eReader makers, tablet manufacturers, notably Apple with their iPad, are in the fray not to mention every PC and mobile phone maker in the world. Models are getting ever thinner, ever lighter, and ever cheaper and batteries are lasting ever longer.  Social software features that, for example, show what other readers have bookmarked, enhance the reading experience.

There are many incumbents who look to be winners in the eBook movement. Textbooks, those weighty, dull staples of college life, are blossoming in the eBook era by adding audio and video content. In some examples that I saw recently, physics and chemistry textbooks really came to life with these multi-media enhancements.

Magazine publishers are another lot who are looking optimistically at the eBook era after facing a decade of onslaught of the web and its free culture. Consumers appear to like reading magazines on eReaders and, more importantly, seem to be ready to pay for subscriptions.

 eBooks, as we noted, as yet account for a miniscule part of book sales even in advanced Western countries, but the tipping point may not be as far away as it appears. A recent study done by the consulting firm PWC in the US, UK, Germany and the Netherlands, shows that a mere 15% of people in these countries read 50% or more of all books. That means that if the penetration of eBooks rises from its present modest levels to even10%, a tipping point would be reached. Some experts say that this penetration level could occur if eReader prices drop to below $50 from their present $125.

Like Guttenberg’s invention, this may herald the true democratization of knowledge.

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