In her book, No Logo, Naomi Klein describes how during the last few decades, "brands" have acquired a life and identity of their own, independent of the "product" they are supposed to represent.
The phenomenon is part of the contemporary zeitgeist, where
- the 'labels' one wears significantly contibute to one's self-worth
- the 'address' one lives in replaces the experience of 'home'
- the 'lifestyle' becomes a substitute for personal identity
... Broadly, the the 'form' and 'style' in life become more important than it's substance.
This article, Grabbing at a Chimera by Santosh Desai (The Week, Dec 17, 2006) is quite illustative of this trend...
(and oh, yes, while the author mentions IIMs, but the same can be said for any B-School in India!!!)
- Last week, I attended the first pan-IIM meeting in which the subject under discussion was 'How to build the IIMs as a global brand'. As a subject, it is broadly indicative of the mood of the country for the very next day I was at another seminar where 'Marketing India to the world' was the topic being debated. Usually these discussions follow a typical India-is-ready-to-take-on-the-world-in-everything-except-cricket pattern and can be safely slept through.
The interesting thing about the IIM discussion was that the enthusiasm of the alumni for the subject was not shared by the directors and senior professors of the IIMs. Their consensus was that the IIMs had a very long way to go before being considered world-class. They pointed out the abysmal salaries that faculty draws in India, spoke frankly about the absence of any research emanating out of these elite institutions and the inability to attract meaningful number of foreign students, given the absence of infrastructure. Add to this the distortions caused by constant governmental interference and the picture looked anything but promising.
There are two aspects of this debate that have larger ramifications. The first is that we discussed this subject at all. Given the pitiful number of seats that elite educational institutions in India account for and the pressure on these from reservations for the socially backward, one could argue that globalising the IIMs should be the last thing on our minds. And as the professors pointed out, if not in so many words, that if one looked at the ground realities, this question walked the thin line between fantasy and insanity. The need for a globally respected IIM brand came from its alumni to bolster their credentials retrospectively.
This is symptomatic of the current trend towards a sense of hyperbolic euphoria that borders on drunken megalomania. As a nation, we seem to have interpreted an ability to walk as a sign of an impending Olympic sprint medal. Our ambition has catapulted from being a participant in the world order to leading it with fanfare blaring. We want Bollywood to cross over, we want Mumbai to metamorphose into Shanghai, we want everything that we do to be acknowledged by an adoring world, by which, of course, we mean the west. We hate our cricket team because they make our desires look silly. And we can mount our fantasies on flimsy foundations - that IIM students get salaries we cannot comprehend is evidence enough of their global credentials.
The 'we' in question is of course a small minority that has appropriated for itself the mantle of India. Which brings me to the second larger dimension of the IIM debate. The divergence in the view of those running these institutions and the exuberance of its alumni is a graphic reminder of the divide between the residents of a New India and others.
IIM graduates today have a good chance of starting at salaries higher than what their teachers can hope to make. Like luxury liners, these students cast off from their dilapidated docks into the New World. The irony is that the air of excellence that surrounds our elite institutions has less to do with their intrinsic quality and much more to do with their scarcity. In a country of India's size, the access to quality education is so limited that anyone who 'gets through' is assured of a passport to New India. This is not a sign of our coming of age globally but of the distance we have to travel in making opportunities accessible to all.
If teachers of India's most elite institutions can be thought of as citizens of the lesser India, then the divide between the two Indias is a very real one. The desire to become instantly respected globally will only intensify this division. Our priority is to do well by our citizens and fulfil their aspirations. This does not rule out global ambitions, but calls for a hardheaded look at where these ambitions are legitimate. With our limited resources, we cannot fritter away our energy on endeavours that are designed to inflate the ego of a few. The focus of our efforts cannot be outer-directed; we cannot care so much about what the world thinks of us. What matters is the nature of the new reality we are able to create for ourselves. For all of us, not merely a few.
Update 1: er... forgot to mention that the author of the above article is himself, a graduate of IIMA - used to be the Head of the ad agency McCann-Erickson, before he joined the Biyani's.
Update 2: I think must add this. I got a mail from a friend this evening:
- I have to agree... even though I am an IIM-A alumnus myself. The reason for being far away from World Class is not because of low staff salaries alone either. In my view it is the lack of academia-industry partnership as well as the lack of rigor about research and learning. The case method which is followed in most IIMs as the main method of teaching is only as good as the research with which it is backed. And that is a big questionmark.
The other factor that creates this fantasy about being global is the hype with regard to the placement and salaries that a few of the toppers are able to get. Don't ask me the logic behind paying more to a fresh MBA graduate than most companies will pay a manager with 20 years of hands-on experience. In my view it commoditizes education and reduces it to something that can be measured on the basis of a salary that one kid can get. What value can a fresh graduate add to the company that is worth the money that some of them are paid? I am a graduate from the same system and have since taught in the IIMs and other B-schools and can tell you that in my view there is no justification at all to pay a fresh graduate the ridiculous salaries that we periodically hear about. No wonder that the alumni tend to feel that the sun shines because of them. It also produces a know-it-all attitude that banks more on image than on substance to get ahead in life and so the life expectancy of the graduate in his first job is less than 2 years. What a waste of an education!!
I was invited to deliver the key-note speech at a conference of all the MBA colleges in Andhra Pradesh and began by asking the faculty and students what their purpose was in teaching business. They said it was to teach students to become businessmen and women. I then asked the students if anyone had a business of their own. They all looked at me blankly. I then asked the faculty if any of them had a business of their own. They also looked at me blankly. I then asked them how possible for people who had never actually done business to teach others how to do business without any practical experience in the training? I made a lot of people very uncomfortable but I drove home the point by recommending that B-Schools must scrap Placement Cells. Business School graduates must be taught to create businesses so that they can go out and create employment for others. Not become another statistic in the begging line for jobs. Or another highly paid paper pusher who now does it on a laptop.