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The curious case of the Indian MBA

By Veena Venugopal

Last week I was shivering in the -12°C weather in a historic little town called Segovia in Spain. I was there on invitation from one of the big universities, IE University, to give their students an idea about contemporary India [1]. What is India beyond the global headlines of the IT industry? What are the social, political and economic issues that India and Indians currently face?

On the panel with me was Eugenio Luján, who is the dean of philology at Complutense University of Madrid and a scholar on vedic history. He traced the strengths and problems of India from a historical context and my job was to inform them about their contemporary status. How does caste work, what are the gender norms for Indian women, why is it that there are communal clashes here; actually since people live so close to each other, how is it that there aren’t more communal clashes? How do the rich behave? How do the poor cope? How does inequality play out across various areas?

What was fascinating for me was not just the fact that a bunch of students braved the weather and turned up at 7pm — after a full day of class — because they were curious about issues in India but, more importantly, that they did this for something that has very little to do with their coursework or examinations. They don’t earn credit from this, they are not tested on their knowledge of this country. They merely wanted to get an idea of how things worked in other places. Last year, they listened to people from Russia [2]. Next year, they’ll pick another nation and try and grapple with the ground realities there. It was impressive, this commitment to general awareness of the world around them.

In India, especially among students pursuing professional courses, it is virtually impossible to find an audience that is eager to understand the nuances of society in their own country, much less a distant land. If there isn’t a grade or a job offer at the end of it, Indian students will not “waste” even a minute of their time on it. While this is a rather all-enveloping phenomenon, it is particularly prominent among management graduates. Other than a routine one-credit course covering business ethics, there is very little that forces these young managers — really the crucial one per cent creamy layer of Indian society who can actually make a big difference — to think about the country they occupy as anything other than a “market”.

Partly, it is our culture of competitiveness in education that is to blame. Earlier this week, speaking to mark the 200th year of Presidency College in Kolkata, President Pranab Mukherjee said, “It is not enough for students to pass exams with high grades and take up professions of their choice. For building the India of our dreams, we need to focus on an environment where the youth can speak their minds and have the confidence to look for ground-breaking, creative solutions,” he said. The linkage between education and economic prosperity is so high that Indian students still make career choices largely on the basis of what will fetch them higher pay packets than what will bring about tangible societal change. (Do we need our IIT graduates to sell detergents?” the President asked.) From an early age children are taught to aspire to get admission in a handful of good colleges and for this, they are encouraged to keep their heads down and focus on their books. The bigger your blinkers are to what goes on around you, the greater your chances of personal success.

The other part of failure of Indian management graduates is in the ethos of management education itself. The curriculum is so insular, so entirely focussed on achieving only one stated goal — maximising shareholder returns — that not only does it not encourage an objective look at the real world, it even suggests that success is a zero-sum game and for one to win, others must lose. In management, as in mathematics, there is often only one correct answer and a generation that grew up studying engineering and management is likely to live their lives by that philosophy too. Even Sumantra Ghoshal, the much celebrated management guru who taught at the London Business School, eventually blamed the MBA curriculum for the failure of world’s managers. In a paper released after his death in 2005, Ghoshal had written “the worst excesses of recent management practices have their roots in a set of ideas that have emerged from business-school academics over the last 30 years.” He criticised how management education made both individual human behaviour (rational, self-interested, utility maximisers) as well as corporate behaviour (that the sole goal of a company is in maximising shareholder value) simplistic.

It is this double whammy that reduces young Indian managers to hard-selling, number-crunching automatons. Very few of them venture outside the shiny glass edifice of the corporate world. They are neither interested in nor able to understand the nuances of human behaviour. And worst of all, they see all suffering as necessary. “We suffer too!” protested a friend and a former B-school batchmate when I discussed this with him on my return. “The stories I could tell you about terrible bosses, the growth target that is always too high, the profit margin that is always too low. Some years we don’t even get our full bonuses!”

Where do you begin to explain the fallacy of this logic? I don’t really know. In this case, my guess is 20 years ago, in a B-school in Mumbai.

Published on BLink (27/I/2017) [3]