The Madness in the Method

Posted: April 13, 2011 by Anindya Dutta in IIM
Tags: , , , , ,

Disclaimer :  Despite the views expressed below, the author of the post believes that IIM Ahmedabad is still the best business school not only in India but also in Asia, and competition has a long way to go to match the pedigree which IIM Ahmedabad has and continues to produce year after year. Moreover, the cost-benefit tradeoff of business education in IIM Ahmedabad is the best in the world.

Often over the last twelve months, we have been criticized for romancing IIMA a tad too much in our blog articles. However, as our lives’ train pulls out of the station at Ahmedabad, and we catch a fleeting glance of the red bricks in the distance, it is just about the right time to present an ode to this towering institution of management education sans the romance. (Apologies for the allegories and the metaphors, but sipping onto hot tea in a nice condo in Singapore, listening to the Beatles, my literary juices have just about started flowing!)

A few days back, an IIM aspirant, driven by the belief that WIMWIans drink magic potions of invincibility like the Gauls of Armorica, asked me for my perspective on the much hyped Indian growth story. Caught slightly off guard, I did my best to gather all that I had read and heard, added a dash of jargon learnt over the last two years and topped it up with a dash of myself – and out came a concise, three-word reply – “Confused and confusing”!

No, I was not referring to my state of my mind but to my views on the Indian macro-environment, and as I write this piece today, I realize that as a genuine reflection of the Indian political, economic and social fabric, I find IIMA as an institution eerily “confused and confusing!!!” Borrowing subtly from Catherine Taylor’s imagery on Mumbai, IIMA can aptly be called a strange beast. She will wake up every morning, hug you tightly, let you go abruptly, smile at you, hug you once again and just as when you come around to believing that everything’s fine, she will slap you right across your face. This is IIMA. Full of contradictions, surprises and dead-ends. Confused and confusing!

An MBA is honestly not meant to be an academic program – it is meant to be a logbook of experiences – experiences driven by industry-persons, by instructors, by assignments and most importantly by peers – experiences to learn from 24*7. For an MBA to be meaningful hence, batch diversity is an important cog in the wheel. Although international business programs’ emphasis on diversity borders on being a touch too exaggerated (some of the selections which these schools make for the sake of diversity are outrageous!), the equally calamitous lack of emphasis on batch diversity at IIMA is profoundly disturbing. At a time when India is staking claim to the global high table, it is expected that India’s premier MBA program should acquire an international flavor. After all, it would be just about logical to expect that India’s best B-School should be home to a classroom environment where experiences from all over the world work towards solving local cases and problems, rather than local experiences brainstorming cases from the Western world, as is the current norm. But alas, despite the lucidness of the argument, IIMA fails, year after year, to make breakthrough changes to a selection process which can be described as archaic and rickety at best.

IIMA, as a revered institution of higher learning, is often expected to be a beacon of India’s aspirations for the future, and not a lame reflection of the problems historically associated with our education system. It is hence, disheartening, to see that the most challenging experience for WIMWIans on a daily basis is that of grade micromanagement. The intensity of case analyses, classroom participation and assignment completions are often reduced to the sheer economics of marks. Such a skewed incentive system often results in hijacked classroom sessions with incomplete case discussions and half-baked learning. Obviously, the complete breakdown of the learning experience is a systemic failure since right from the day we step into the “hallowed precincts” of IIMA, we are told about the singular importance of a job out of campus, and hence the relevance of a “stud CV” and an “I-Schol” ranking (For the uninitiated; I-Schol, derived from Industrial Scholar, refers to the top 5% students of the batch). This kind of an academic system which makes students, several of them in their mid-twenties and with few years spent in the industry, bicker and lose sleep over sub-grades or a day zero summer internship makes for an abysmal and sorry picture. What’s more disheartening, is that after a few months, you realize that such a culture has been created more by design rather than by accident. Rarely, does anyone in the administration or otherwise talk about preparing for the long haul and building a strong focus on learning, which in the right incentive environment would also be the relevant precursor for good grades.

One of the high points in my IIMA stint was attending a class by a senior professor where he discussed a one page case-let related to a situation which he had personally experienced while consulting an Indian blue-chip company. Seventy-five minutes of gripping discussion left the class spellbound, such was the quality of insights and the control of the instructor. As I walked out of the class yearning for more, it struck me that the quality of learning in an MBA program can be strongly enhanced if case discussions were driven by people who have actually lived the case!!! Sadly despite this being commonplace in the Western B-School system where a case discussion is usually signed off by the protagonist of the plot, rarely does one get to experience such quality of discussion in IIMA.

To extend the logic further, the dearth of student-industry interaction makes learning very often too dogmatic, theoretical, unrealistic and a tad boring at WIMWI. The truth of the matter is that there can be no better business learning than from opportunities to hear from industry leaders and alumni who have been there and done that! But IIMA’s inability to encourage platforms where industry leaders participate and take interest in our learning on a continuous and regular basis in the form of mentorship programs, corporate tours and networking fairs is disconcerting and reflects a lack of will and desire on the establishment to think beyond the traditional style of education.

Speaking of networking, many people at IIMA believe that networking is an overrated concept not realizing that networking is not always about fake smiles, planned interjections, robotic nods of the head and business card exchanges. Rather, networking can be a potent knowledge multiplier and an opportunity to share experiences and learning. Networking literally means building a network of relationships, some of which, if not all, can develop into strong personal and professional support systems over time. As future business leaders, it is the quality of relationships which an individual maintains which make the difference between good and great leaders. Such relationships will be driven by a painstakingly brewed mix of strong business expertise and compelling people skills. Although, IIMA does a fairly good job of trying to provide the first of the two qualities, its efforts to educate students about the importance of the latter are almost non-existent.

Hence, in the absence of the requisite push from the institute to help students work on their personality development, student initiatives have often sought their own creative license. Sadly, however, such efforts are often given step-sonly treatment by the institute. Student enterprise and ingenuity does not, in most cases, receive the requisite encouragement, guidance and faith from the administration. Recently, one of my juniors came up to me with a suggestion for an event which the finance club could consider organizing. The concept was loosely based on a similar event in the US B-Schools called “A Day in Wall-Street”. The idea was to take all finance enthusiasts of IIMA down to Mumbai for a 1-2 day workshop wherein they could spend time at a variety of the financial institutions to experience first-hand what it is like to have a career in finance. The plan was well-structured and researched and I, being the outgoing coordinator and an evangelist of the finance club, would have loved to encourage the plan to be taken up with vigor. Unfortunately, having worked closely with the system, I am just as aware that such an idea will never see the light of day purely because the administration would never be able to reconcile with an event plan which involved the loss of 1-2 seemingly precious academic workdays. Such is the thickheaded approach of the institute with regards to the superlative status of academics, that creatively designed events and ideas which can prove tremendously value-additive for the students are not only not encouraged but are actively discouraged.

Last but not the least, IIMA despite all the hype and hoopla about being one of the best business schools internationally, is for all practical purposes a placement agency – an exceptional placement agency. A student’s learning curve at WIMWI is all about resume preparation, remedial sessions for last minute interview preparation, a Day Zero summer internship, a pre-placement offer and if that does not come by, then about the same rigmarole for final placements. A vast majority of the students’ reputations are made and marred by the day/cluster in which they were placed. When it comes to selecting electives for the second year, everybody wants to know which course is a high-scoring one to give that final push to their GPAs as people look ahead towards final placements. Rarely would you ever sit in the canteen and overhear conversations on RBI’s approach to interest rate management or HUL’s latest marketing campaign or for that matter, Uninor’s differential pricing strategy. If you however chose to complete that exceptionally poorly made coffee/tea at the canteen at your leisurely pace, you would surely hear words and phrases like PPO, Day 0, sub-grades, quizzes and REMs. To sum it up, IIMA teaches you how to package yourself well for that 40 minute interview, though I am not so sure how several of us would fare once the wrappings came off.

In hindsight, all the discipline and rigor makes IIMA students very conformist – very “managerish” if I may take a few liberties with my English. We learn to be on time for appointments, to prepare well for team meetings, to base our analyses on rigorous number-work and to respect the sanctity of deadlines. And quite rightly so! However, there seems no place at WIMWI for the maverick, for the visionary, for the leader, for the rebel, for the out-of-the-box solution. As one of my friends, an alumnus from IIMA, rightly pointed out – “IIMA makes great managers, but does not make great leaders or thinkers!” No doubt, IIMA will get its own share of CXOs who have risen through the rungs of an organization for over two decades, executing projects with élan and poise before finally they get their view from the top. But IIMA does not prepare people to be the next Lee Iacocca, Jack Welch, Richard Branson or for that matter our very own Sunil Bharti Mittal – IIMA does not prepare people to be ahead of the curve…

Have no doubts, my dear friends, IIMA still is undoubtedly a very fine business school with a strong pedigree of faculty, students and alumni – the finest in the region. But as we prepare for a globalized world, when IIMA is going to compete against the Harvards and Whartons as they set their sights on the lucrative Indian education market, it is time for the institute to not rest on the strength of its brand identity. It is time for IIMA to rediscover itself, to create new paradigms of business management and to deliver on its pledge to create leaders for the future.

I wrote a few months back about how there was a Method in the Madness here at IIMA. As I sign off and as the red bricks are reduced to a mere blur, I wonder whether after all, there is a Madness in the Method as well…

  1. Anandh Sundar says:

    Really amazing piece. It truly sums up my feelings at the end of first year..let alone the 2nd year which I’m yet to face. Hopefully, you will be an exception to this.

  2. Vishal Gupta says:

    Very well written. Agree completely when you say that IIMA is an exceptional “placement agency”. I would also add that somehow I have a feel that the institute has entered a comfort zone where it has taken its position for granted. Although I have heard the director talk about the threat from foreign B-schools for over 1.5 years now, I did not notice a single step in that direction except for highlighting it in every forum.

  3. Lalit Kumar says:

    I think that to solve majority of these problems, work-ex of minimum say 2-3 years be made compulsory and interviews should focus entirely towards motivation for an MBA.

    Half of the aspirants in interview tell they wiould like to open their enterprise once they pass out.But maybe their will is not strong-enough or they consider it safe to become a rat in the rat-race.

    True, if People cannot dream at IIMs, where can they .But for that to happen, they will have to let go of the ‘perception’ thing.All the Welchs & Bransons took their time to be where they are.This point should be put across to the students convincilngly at campus.

    • Abhijeet says:

      Very well written. Completely agree on the placement agency part. Having spent one year in a b school, i do not feel much of value addition on learning front. The whole system of education in our country is designed to produce people who can do the work well for the stream they have chosen, and not to become a good leader, visionary or simply put, it doesn’t makes you a better human being.

  4. Thanks a lot everybody for your comments and views. Appreciate the various viewpoints!

  5. Deepti says:

    Very well written article indeed.
    However, I am not sure if any college can train one to be a jack Welch or a Richard Branson and the like.

  6. Anushree Goenka says:

    I agree with a lot of things you say, but I differ on some or ascribe different reasons to some trends we see at IIM-A. No point enumerating the several points I agree with, so here go my disagreements..
    When you say that being told about the importance of the job you bag out of campus or a CV or of being an I-schol is a systemic failure, I agree to it being a failure of sorts but I disagree with the part that makes it ‘systemic’. If you do say it is systemic, it is the system that we students create and not the one that is provided as environment when we enter IIM-A. If you really think of it, the institution or professors or anyone/anything other than fellow students have never spoken of the importance of any of these. In fact, professors almost show amusement or even contempt at the importance that students lay on placements and grades. You are never officially allowed to skip a class for placement activity; in fact you’re discouraged from doing so. So the system really counters the hype around it, it’s only students, fellow classmates and seniors, who create this whole obsession.
    And about IIM-A being a top-notch placement agency, no doubt that it can be one but that’s if that is what you want it to be. You can make it what you want to make it. The reasons why fewer people seem to give the vibe that they’ll turn out to be the Jack Welch or Richard Branson type are many. These are of course my views and you may/may not think similarly. So firstly, most of these guys you mention dint really go through business education, some like Welch even worked up from way below in the hierarchy. So what they have, what it is we can debate, was not acquired in a b-school. Secondly, people who are less enamoured with the whole job obsession are less vocal about their plans because it’s a much tougher choice and one that is more uncertain. Most of them don’t have it figured out enough to rant about it the way people who always knew they wanted to be traders or marketers or consultants can. People who want to get into consulting or finance can have clubs and sit together and talk of similar stuff and make similar efforts. Other stuff is more varied and I feel it’s more of a personal journey. If this is tilting slightly towards the entre side, then let’s talk about being a leader within a company. No one is a leader out of school and leadership is more about personality than skill. Thirdly, it’s a selection problem. Most people who come to IIM-A come to climb up the corporate ladder. We Indians are anyways safe players. In my personal experience I’ve found that people who are less sure of what they want to do straight out of campus are more open minded and end up concentrating more on learning than on grades. Because obviously people who came with something specific in mind will make all their efforts for that specific end and then you come to things like day 0 and CGPA etc. But there are those, surprising as it may sound, who come to learn. People don’t believe them when they say that and so they stop saying it. They talk like that to people who think similarly. So they have all the discussions about Uninor’s strategy and HUL’s campaign and China’s idea of development and how Ford changed the world. And they even end up taking courses which may make them work and they don’t care about grades in second year. They may sleep through class or contribute passionately in courses where there isn’t a CP component at all. They may worry about placements but they don’t make their 2 years about it. There are all sorts of people, you know some and I know some. Your set and my set will possibly make a set more representative of the group than either set alone. You can make it what you want.
    And when comparing to the Harvards and the Whartons, one needs to also pay heed to the drastic difference in culture and mindset of people who come to these institutes. Try comparing the reaction of a typical IIM-A student to that of an American B-school guy to the idea of a gap year. They just are more experimenting and more comfortable with ambiguity. We live in moulds; we’re far too homogeneous. The school can’t do too much about it. The Indian middle class has the same aspirations and they go about achieving them in the same way. Most people want to make it big quick and when that’s what one wants IIM-A becomes the placement agency you need.

    I must apologize for the length of this comment. I just felt strongly about some stuff and felt compelled to write.

    • Pich says:


    • Dear Anushree,

      Very well articulated! Several of the points which you have made are completely correct and deserve the mention and I thank you for bringing them up.

      I will give you my two cents on this and you are welcome to disagree…

      Firstly, most of my criticism is based on my desire for IIMA, as an institute which seeks to be regardest as the finest in the world, to step beyond the stereotype which Indian society is rather than reinforce the same. I have had long discussions with a lot of people on the same issues which you have raised. The way I see this, and you are perfectly in your place to disagree with me, is that IIMA should not be about a reflection of India as it is, but about what India wishes to be in this new global power game. So if the Indian mindset is an excuse, somehow it is not a good enough one.

      Secondly, I agree that there are students for whom learning has been a focus of their business studies and who would discuss Uninor’s strategy and HUL’s campaign and China’s idea of development and how Ford changed the world. The question is how many such students are there in a batch of 350 odd students? Can we make a generic case for IIMA based on them? I am afraid not. My piece addresses symptoms which represent the masses and not the exceptions.

      Thirdly, you are correct when you say that a gap year will evoke widely different emotions in an American and Indian student, but somewhere there needs to be a start right? Two years back, no one in campus would have spoken about choosing a careerpath(cluster in Placement jargon) be it Consulting, Marketing etc. but everyone would have spoken of a Day 0 or a Day 1 job. Today, we all believe that the cluster system is still a failure because companies have gamed the system but at least we have made a start! For a great climax there has to be a small beginning somewhere. It’s time for IIMA to encourage that kind of mindset change NOW, because blaming it on the social fabric will mean that we will never change.

      Jack Welch may have had humble beginnings (and may also have cooked GE’s books) and may not have gone to B-School (That was not my intention when I took him as an example), but at the end of the day, he was a maverick and he found expression of his fullest self. IIMA professors and the administration needs to encourage the students to express themselves to the fullest. How many students in our campus have found mentors in our professors? How many of us will come back to meet those professors who have changed our views on life? How many of us have built relationships with our peers so as to be business partners few years down the line? How many of us even know whom to reach out to given a strategy/marketing/operations problem? Very few, I must say. Professors pooh-poohing placements, which the institute itself proudly flaunts every year, does not reflect a system which is coherently working towards a similar goal, right? Why not create a system which encourages a symbiotic coexistence of the two? Why not bar students from mentioning their GPAs in resumes? Why not try the extreme?

      Several of us are engineering students who have had a relatively cosy stress-free life in our undergraduate days. Yet, the institute shocks us out of our stupor in the first year when academics are the most rigorous in the world, as many claim. And, despite our 4 years of fun and masti, we adapt and absorb the shock. Alumni world over claim that IIMA products stand out because of the rigor they have learnt in their first year. Then why not shock us more? Why not challenge us more? Why not give us more reasons to adapt, to learn and to change our lives?

      You rightly mentioned “No one is a leader out of school and leadership is more about personality than skill.” Correct, then why not create an environment which challenges me to build that personality which will create a leader not necessarily straight out of business school, but some day down the line? You can’t create the Welchs and the Bransons in school, but you will surely be giving yourself a fairly good shot that several of them will become thought leaders in their fields, right?

      Start slow, start steady! Things will not change overnight. The mindset of our seniors will not change overnight, but keep nibbling away, and yes one day we will be proud of what IIMA gave us – which hopefully will be more than just a job and a pay package to take home.

      All said and done, I have a dream for WIMWI and many might argue that my view is Utopian. But trust me I have had the lucky opportunity to speak to a lot of the members of the faculty who will tell you that WIMWI was headed towards this Utopian world a few years back, but just lost its way over the last few years!

      My two cents. Appreciate you bringing up these issues. At least it gives people a variety of perspectives to look at this issue in!

  7. Anubhav says:

    Very interesting points of view and I am enriched reading each and every one of them…i concur with the various instances of failures on part of IIMA and other Indian Bschools in developing us for the future leaders that some of us could have been. It makes me remember an instance in 1st yr when one of the to-be-retired prof didnt want to listen to an alternate method of solving smething and just yelled,” What I am doing is right and your way is wrong”. This incident,though one-off, can really discourage a student to learn..To progress. If two people-one starting his MBA and the other who has jst graduated from his MBA, are asked to describe their thoughts on any world problem, I believe that the only diff between their views would be the jargon and nothing else. We might be able to recall one of the hundreds of cases that we read during the 2 yrs but how often can we remember the imp lessons learned from a landmark case when we really are in a fix..
    The views are completely my own and apologize if ppl feel otherwise.

  8. Roy says:

    Exceedingly good article man…..

  9. Roy says:

    Exceedingly good perspective.

  10. Shannon Lester C. says:

    As fragile as your deluded and inflated egos may be, I won’t hesitate to tell you that it’s nowhere close to the likes of HK Univ of Science and Tech, NUS, INSEAD etc.

    In terms of Infrastructure and architecture, your drab and dull Louis Kahn constructions leave a lot to be desired. In fact, when searching in Google, the only glimpses of your campus one is likely to catch are the external snapshots of Kahn’s designs – ersatz, wrongly portrayed, not in any way reflecting the true state of affairs. It’s like judging all of Dubai’s interiors based only on the Burj Khalifa.

    There are hardly any images of what’s in and around the campus (the slum-like, undeveloped areas), the condition of the students’ rooms and class rooms (which are “extremely modest” by most Hong Kong and Singaporean standards) etc.

    And have you ever noticed? When searching for “life in b school”/”b school madness”, you Indians studying in the IIMs are the vast majority blogging away, blowing your trumpets? I’ve read many articles my students of different Bschools, but none have bragged about their achievements in the elitist way that you people do.

    Show me a Harvard MBA grad’s article that talks about how exclusive they are, and how consummate their achievements have been?

    And diversity? What diversity does a batch of 99.99% Indians, almost all from the middle-class strata of the Indian society have? Did you just say varying job roles and profiles? Rubbish. Diversity doesn’t only imply that one person have experience in Marketing and the other in Aerospace Engineering. Well it does, to a certain extent, but a far more meaningful implication of diversity would be that the crowd comprises people of widely varying ethnicities, cultural beliefs, nationalities.
    Where does your institute stand on that aspect?

    Time to put your head down and think a little harder. I’m more than sure that none of this will ever get past the delusions you carry, since they are so deeply imbibed into your already corrupted thought process.

    IIM A/B/C/I/L are not nearly as good as you think. I know you know it already, but your pride doesn’t let you admit it. Vanity, is that the right word to use here? I think so, yes.

  11. Lalit Kumar says:

    @Shannon : From

    Dude,how do you define ‘not as good’.
    Its the expectations with which ‘the middle-class’ goes to an institute and the institute meets their expectations.I am sure that whichever foreign insti you went to or plan to , there will be 10 better than that.Its all about expectations,again.Your ‘famed foreign institutes’ are beyond the reach of budget of most people and don’t even assure a job as good as IIMs in PPP terms 3 months out of the college.

    Three things are obvious :
    1) You simply cannot digest the :fame and standing IIMs enjoy in India with all the ‘middle class people’.
    2) You just found an excuse as to why you are not at one of these IIMA/B/C/L.
    3) If 2 is true than I am sure that you could not have even made it to thse institutes if only merit and not dad’s paying ability was major factor.

    PS: I am not from IIMA.But that doesn’t mean that any Tom, Dick and Harry can come and shower his uncalled for intelligence.

  12. Roy says:

    Shannon Lester


  13. Aditya says:

    Brilliant! Loved the writeup. Agree to most of the points especially lack of freedom to students and over-the-top importance for grades and academic schedule. This place is becoming more of a assembly line that churns out managers, analysts and consultants rather than people who change the rules of business. Its all about a Day0 job even now!

  14. Anoop Gupta says:

    Fabulous read Anindya.

  15. Shrey Tandon says:

    Brilliant entree of articles before a person like me who is an IIMA aspirant. The debate on which many of you have been lingering around is not about IIMA(or for that matter HBS,INSEAD etc.) being the best or having the diversity in diversified terms.

    It is something about what many people who have had the opportunity to be at the esteemed IIMA, where every year around 2 lacs aspirants spend their Rs. 1500 hoping to get an entry into the premier B-School(rather A-School) of India.

    Just recall the time when you had your A interview lined up, were you not praying to every god on the earth, that please help me on this one, just help me one last time and eventually when you made it through, with all due respects to your intellect & hard work, didn’t you feel on the top of the 7th heaven.

    Today when you have passed out from the one college everyone wants to go to, no matter there would be shortcomings at the institute, the question is: can you change it?? Do you want to change it??? Or do you just want to write it in your blog(which is very well written,no doubt,BRAVO).

    And for people who might have their reasons for disparaging the image of Indian B schools, my dear friend, agreed that culture,regional diversity would not be found at the Indian B school as it is there in INSEAD,HBS etc.

    But ask yourself, is IIMA catering to the students of India, who as they believe will go on to be world leaders, or should it be catering to the world students and forgetting the home made students of its country and leaving them in a dejected state just because both the institute and the candidate is from the same soil.

    The middle class Indians, as you mentioned: they(rather we,I’m from a middle class family) will not be able to afford the best education available across the globe in US or Singapore or wherever. Thus, having a premier B-School like IIMA makes every sense to every aspiring Indian who either has been there or aspires to be.

    * The views are completely personal. Kindly treat them as views not intended towards any individual.

    Cheers people!!

  16. aralcman says:

    I agree with the substance of shannon’s remarks. I would also point out that the majority of people at the IIM’s from perhaps 1980-1995 were from a very conservative middle class safety-security frame of mind. Given the economic conditions then, that was not an unreasonable mindset. I do believe we exaggerate the status of IIM’s in India, mostly because either dont know better, or a simply parochial in outlook. In most ways, an MBA is a useful stamp or screening mechanism.

    Since we don’t encourage or like non conformists in our country, we can hardly compare our IIM students to places like INSEAD or stanford business school. This may be changing, but i’d give it 20 years before systemic changes can hapen at established IIM’s. On a separate note, I’d like to post a link to an article on the MBA credential, and its history.

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