Leading the way among laggards

The IIM Indore currently has 600 students across the five years (every year around 120 students are admitted). Two batches of the five-year programme have graduated; they receive a diploma from the institute and most get a degree through IGNOU. Photo: Wikipedia
In 2008, when Professor N Ravichandran took charge as the director of IIM Indore, no one would have thought it was a 12 year old institute. The campus and its infrastructure was nothing to speak of, the institute hardly had any students (150-odd), 25-odd faculty members, offered a single programme and had an atmosphere of hopelessness. It had seen a few directors come and ago — more than one had left facing corruption charges.

“It felt like a government run institution with a 9 to 5 culture. At best drifting”, says Ravichandran. The institute was enveloped in a sort of negativity with staff that had “given up”. 

Ravichandran started to tackle one problem after the other soon after he took charge. Infrastructure and the general air of hopelessness aside, he found research was not a priority with the professors, the campus environment was dull and quality of education average. 

He started from the very basics. Although the institute had been in the making for a while, it lacked physical infrastructure. Many of the buildings one sees today were constructed at the time. A large Olympic sized pool was added as was the new auditorium that can handle an audience of 1,800 (the old one could manage 180). A sports complex and cricket ground were added.

But it wasn’t just the physical buildings, there was a need to make the campus more “livable”. So gradually a lot of secondary services were added — the campus got a barber-shop, a beauty parlour, medical center, a laundry, a grocery store and a tailor shop. Prior to this, all these services had to be sought from outside the campus — a distance from the main city. A regular shuttle was started between the city and IIM campus. Every Saturday a film began to be aired in the auditorium. Slowly but surely, the campus began to lose its “ghost-like” atmosphere.

Recognising that its own full time faculty was weak — both in numbers and quality — Ravichandran made a beeline for visiting faculty and paid three times the regular teaching rate per hour In the second year. 2/3rd of the elective courses were taught entirely by visiting faculty.

Meanwhile, a massive recruitment drive was launched. 7-10 full time professors quit, around 500 interviews were conducted and almost 50 new staffers were taken on full time. Job applicants were given a decision within 21 days. A lot of the new recruits were fresh PhDs from IIM Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Kolkata — which also instilled young blood in the institute. As a result, the total number of PhDs at IIM Indore rose from five (when Ravichandran took charge) to 100 by the time he relinquished charge.

Research and other good work by faculty was incentivised. Extra teaching and more publications in research journals was rewarded through increased compensation. Faculty was encouraged to travel and attend international and national conferences. 

New courses were added : the institute started a one year executive MBA (around 50 students were taken), a three month residential teachers development programme was introduced. 

But perhaps the biggest winner was the new five-year integrated MBA programme — a unique course that students can join straight after they finish Class 12. The course was started in 2011. “A lot of students end up doing engineering and then management. Many of them never wanted to do their engineering but there aren’t so many management courses that you can join straight after school. To plug this gap, this was introduced”, says Ravichandran. The institute currently has 600 students across the five years (every year around 120 students are admitted). Two batches of the five-year programme have graduated; they receive a diploma from the institute and most get a degree through IGNOU (taking the exams simultaneously).

Although his term was not without controversy, Chandran left IIM Indore a far more “awake” place than when he took hold of the reins. And while not all may agree with his mode and manner of leadership, most acknowledge that his tenure made the difference.

So, when the next director Rishikesh Krishnan (1996 to 2013, he was teaching at IIM Bangalore) took charge in January 2014, he says a “lot of the initial hard work had been done by his predecessor” and the institute was already on a steady course.

But like with any institution that leans on human capital, there were problems that had crept in. The academic programme had grown very quickly during Ravichandran’s time but Krishnan found faculty was overburdened and many were teaching “almost double the time they should”. As a result, research and their publications work was suffering. 

Krishnan also decided to target PHD students from the others IIMs. To make his offer more attractive, he introduced three new things : one, more money was made available to fund research. All the databases and statistical tools that they may require for research have been made available.

Two, the institute started a collaborative research programme where the institute would sponsor stays for faculty at campuses abroad to collaborate on research work for 60 days. Every year, three faculty members are sent.

Second, they have also been sponsoring faculty to attend research methodology workshops in universities abroad, usually in summer programmes. “This allows faculty to recharge their batteries and get back into research mode”, explains Krishnan. 

The institute started a young faculty (targeted at assistant and associate professors) research chair. Every year, one young professor is picked who has done exceptional work in research and he is made the chair for a period of 3 years. A modest amount of money is also made available and a research grant. “All of this is designed to get faculty more interested in research and producing original work and I think we have provided all the support needed to do good research”, says he. 

If hiring new faculty has been a focus, so has retaining faculty been a priority. “There’s no point in hiring five and losing 3. So, we have kept an eye on existing faculty so that we minimize our churn”. As result, they have lost only 6 people in the last three years — more for personal reasons like relocation and so on. Total faculty strength has gone up from 56 to around 100 today.

If rapid expansion had resulted in overburdening faculty, quality of programmes had also taken a hit. So, a second area Krishnan decided to focus on was international accreditation. There are three accreditation agencies and only 100 business schools globally are accredited with all three (UK, US and European). While IIM Indore has got the UK accreditation, it is now actively working on the other two. The accreditation and the external reviews force institutions to meet certain standards and international best practices. But even more than that Krishnan says that the “process of getting the accreditation is as important as the milestone as it forces you internally to re-look at everything and introspect”. 

The institute is also now experimenting with different teaching methodologies. Krishnan says that students have changed and today’s student is far more distracted than one of even two decades ago. Retaining their interest is getting harder and harder. “The classic method of teaching through case studies is still relevant and important but we find simulations and games are an equally powerful method of learning”. Since mid of 2014, an increasing focus has been on this method of teaching. “In simulations, the outcome is dependent not just on decisions you take but also how rivals react and students seem to enjoy the real-life flavor it lends”, explains Krishnan. Case studies being post facto don’t have the dynamic nature of simulations.

Entrepreneurship is the new buzzword and the institute is also keen to produce not just good managers and leaders but also high quality entrepreneurs.  The institute debated this for a while and came to the conclusion that “entrepreneurship is about doing something – sitting a class and listening about it pales in comparison to taking the ball and running with it” says Krishnan. So now in the second year of the post graduate programme, students are being exempted from regular class credits and will be given credits to develop a business plan and start a new enterprise. All support to start the venture — mentoring, seed capital and an incubation center — will be provided by the institute over time. Two students have so far decided to try it out in the first year.

Placements remain a slight challenge for the institute but more because of the sheer numbers (600 students graduate from IIM Indore every year across three programmes). But most the companies, banks and consultancy firms that recruit from A, B, C and L also come to Indore although the number of offers and the packages offered at the latter will be lower.

Many of the other new IIMs have failed to take off as they had not had the right leadership, infrastructure and faculty. Abhijit Bhaumik, a St. Stephen’s and former IIM-Ahmedabad alumnus, says that getting good teachers who can combine book learning with practical experience is rare. He says that even in IIM Ahmedabad, only a handful of professors stood out in terms of quality so the new IIMs — often in pretty remote locations — have little hope of attracting good faculty. 

Roy Cherian, Trivandrum College of Engineering and IIM-A alumnus argues that the new IIMs lack identity as the government expanded too fast. Their locations work against them as students have good options in institutes like S.P Jain, MDI and IMT Ghaziabad — all closer to the cities and doing reasonably well.

But many agree that two terms of good leadership have helped IIM Indore bridge the distance between itself and the older institutes. Pramath Sinha, a former IIT and IIM Ahmedabad alumnus says that while Ravichandran “laid the foundation, his successor, Krishnan, is building the pillars”. And this single factor — leadership — can set one institute apart from the other. And while it may still have a way to go, IIM Indore is one example before us.