Course Correction – Fortune India

Ever since Covid, fast-moving consumer goods giant Hindustan Unilever (HUL) has moved its campus recruitment process online. Though triggered by the lockdown, HUL still finds this process more robust and effective in contrast to physically visiting B-school campuses.
“Online interviews have given us an opportunity to listen to them repeatedly, and that has allowed us to raise the bar and make our selection process more scientific,” says Anuradha Razdan, executive director, human resources, HUL. It helped the organisation eliminate biases in selection, she adds. “Just by listening you can see the points that are checked for again and again. For instance, one might keep checking for people’s problem-solving and analytical abilities, but focus less on their creative-thinking skills,” she further explains.
Creative-thinking skills are a critical quality, especially in an era where businesses need to be perennially agile. If a pandemic or war brings about chaos, what can one do differently to ensure that supply chain and distribution mechanisms aren’t disrupted? It definitely requires unconventional thinking skills.
HUL’s management training models are widely followed across the industry, but the question is whether the company can afford to invest that kind of time to train new entrants when change is happening on the go. “The time to learn has shortened,” agrees Rajkamal Vempati, CHRO, Axis Bank. “We want day-one productivity. Earlier we had an apprentice model where we used to teach the ropes, but today the business reality is we need people who can run on day one,” she adds.
Cut to business schools like the IIMs, SPJIMR or Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies (NMIMS), the training that is being given to a budding management professional has also changed. Business schools are no longer about providing trainees for large organisations such as HUL, ITC or the Mahindra Group, who the companies would further train to craft into the perfect HUL or Mahindra person.
“Supply chains have been disrupted, and forecasting has become a challenge. The industry is trying to set up mechanisms to buffer shocks and improve resilience as a core function of their business models,” says Errol D’Souza, director, IIM Ahmedabad.
“The focus was on basics, about being able to read a balance sheet or understanding the basics of branding. It was based on functional skills,” points out Varun Nagaraj, director, SPJIMR.
The role of MBA schools today is about grooming students into better solution providers. It involves advanced levels of critical thinking, problem-solving and design-thinking skills. With new-age businesses being built on the back of data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, MBA schools are reinventing themselves by equipping their students with technology application skills. Concepts such as blockchain technology, supply chain management, fintech and risk analysis are integral part of MBA curricula today.
“The workforce needs individuals who are well-rounded, multi-functional and efficient communicators, besides being good at core technical skills… The role of business education should be to address challenges. It must offer training that preps professionals with adequate technological, emotional intelligence (EQ) and people skills to navigate through crises,” says D’Souza of IIM-A.
With climate change and sustainability becoming integral parts of business models, concepts such as ESG are also being woven into the curriculum. It is also an era when there is heightened level of industry participation in curriculum creation. Consulting firm PwC, for instance, recently partnered with IIM Ahmedabad to launch a programme on ESG. “We are partnering with academic institutions to co-create curriculum,” says Padmaja Alaganandan, chief people officer, PwC.
Similarly, Amazon is also partnering with business schools to co-create programmes that could teach students the ropes of running an e-commerce business. “The case studies taught are still global and mostly closer to FMCG. Amazon Classroom Connect partners with professors and takes practical learning to classrooms as part of the curriculum,” points out Suman Yadav, director, student programme, APAC & Japan, Amazon.
Course curricula are also being reviewed more frequently. “We reviewed our MBA programme last year, and there are three areas we are focusing on. One is digital, the second is data and the third is ESG. These are the three areas which most industry respondents underline as very important for MBA students,” says Rishikesha T. Krishnan, director, IIM Bangalore. The business school has also launched courses on gamification, metaverse and Web 3.0 as electives. This year it has also introduced a new course on digital business in the first year of its MBA programme.
NMIMS has set up a Board of Studies for its various course verticals, comprising senior academicians, industry professionals and faculty members. For instance, for its Operations and Decision Science course, the Board of Studies includes operations head of e-commerce companies such as Amazon. “The board meets twice a year and critically assesses how well or not so well our curriculum is aligned to the needs of the industry,” explains Prashant Mishra, dean, NMIMS.
Weaving data analytics or artificial intelligence into an operations management curriculum or digital marketing is basic hygiene, says Nagaraj of SPJIMR. He stresses upon the importance of equipping students with ‘first principles thinking skills’ such as design thinking and critical thinking, which are the important requirements of the industry as well. “We want to give our students opportunities to become good solution practitioners. Earlier there were clear problems to be solved. One launched an advertising campaign, which took the market share up from 12% to 14%. Today, a solution would be to think aloud if your product should even do what it is claiming to do. There may be adjacencies you want to explore,” adds Nagaraj. For a food/grocery delivery business quick commerce is an adjacency. But will the unit economics of quick commerce make sense for long-term profitability of the business? These are questions which business managers need to answer with immense speed for which ‘first principle thinking skills’ acquired at B-schools could come in handy.
Marketers today are designing customer journeys and not just a 30-second advertising campaign. The journey of a consumer wanting to buy a watch would begin from seeing an ad on Instagram or Facebook and then logging into the brand’s website before moving to the physical store to touch and feel the product and finally buy it. “If I teach you how to critically look at things, it will stay with you forever. You learn to play cricket or badminton and once you get to the professional level, every game is an application of that knowledge. You keep evolving, but the basics remain the same,” says NMIMS’ Mishra.
Specialised Skills
The pandemic has ushered in an era of hybrid classrooms. “Blended learning is the reality today,” points out Debashis Chatterjee, director, IIM Kozhikode. “There should be a component in the curriculum that needs deep introspection. It requires social learning and that would happen physically. The standard content will mostly be taught digitally,” he adds.
The other aspect of MBA learning is also a high degree of specialisation. The industry is demanding a fair degree of understanding of topics such as robotic automation process, artificial intelligence or blockchain, which is pushing MBA students to opt for specialised courses such as MBA in supply chain management, digital management or MBA in risk analysis. Most of these courses are for one-year and are gaining popularity.
“One-year specialised MBA programmes are becoming popular,” says Ashok Banerjee, director, IIM Udaipur. The institute runs one-year MBA programmes on supply chain management and digital management. “In 2021, our specialised MBA programmes had 50 seats and this year it has gone up to 95. Students are saying a two-year MBA is a costly proposition. Many of them leave their jobs for it, so there is an opportunity cost, and the fees are steep as well. Moreover, our national education policy also says with use of technology, one can do several one-year programmes.”
Many leading business schools are also partnering with online platforms such as Coursera to make international courses available to students. “An MBA institution may say there is a lot of interest in blockchain but I don’t have faculty for blockchain. By integrating Coursera on to the platform, the institute can give access to the blockchain management programme of INSEAD,” says Raghav Gupta, CEO, Coursera India, who claims the platform has partnered with 15 business schools in India. “Earlier Excel was the basic skill, now its Python and B-schools are using the Coursera platform to teach Python to students,” he adds.
Are we entering an era where MBAs will be specialists and not generalists? “It’s a world of multi-skilled generalists,” says Vempati of Axis Bank. “They have to be specialists in two-three disciplines. We want day-one productivity, people who can immediately run, hence, the need for specialisation,” she adds.
However, specialisation, clarifies Mukherjee of IIM Udaipur, is more to do with application skills. “The industry is demanding specialisation particularly in areas of digital, but if they come to management institutions for recruitment, they are not looking at students who will do coding, but how they appreciate the application of digital technology. We don’t train our students in blockchain technology, but we train them about how blockchain technology can be used in supply chain and logistics management, and for payments,” he explains.
Alaganandan of PwC agrees. “While specialist MBAs are gaining popularity, there is a value attached to general MBAs, where everyone picks up their specialisations,” he says.
Plugging the Talent Gap
Despite business schools trying to evolve with times, there is a demand-supply mismatch, says S.V. Nathan, partner and chief talent officer, Deloitte India. “Amongst consulting corporates, there is a growing demand for niche skills such as robotic process automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence, but campuses don’t spend a lot of time on these and the average shelf life of skills is diminishing rapidly in recent times. The demand-supply mismatch is because it takes one year after the spike in demand for a skill to get incorporated into the curriculum. Since the demand for skills tends to taper after three years, it leads to both, talent, and employers being on the lookout for the right fit.”
This makes it imperative for both the academia as well as corporates to invest in grooming the right kind of talent. “The academia needs to take initiative beyond the placement office and identify skills required at work and add them to the curriculum. This will enable real impact and plug-and-play talent,” says Deloitte’s Nathan.
Corporates have started taking steps towards curriculum co-creation, but it’s yet to be institutionalised. PwC is working with IIM Ahmedabad on an ESG programme, and is looking to co-create programmes on other disciplines such as cyber consulting. Axis Bank is crafting six month to year-long upskilling courses on fintech, analytics, Java and risk management. It is also looking to launch an agri MBA course with BML Munjal University to get quality talent on board for ‘Bharati Banking’ initiative.
Gupta of Coursera India believes the industry’s role of being an educator is on the rise. “Students are not only seeking a top degree but also industry credentials such as a data analyst certificate from Google or social media marketing certificate from Meta.”
“Over 88% (96% in India) students globally believe a professional certificate works better along with a degree. Around 76% companies believe they find more employability in a student who also has a professional certificate,” adds Gupta, citing a recent Coursera report. Around 2.32 lakh students applied for the Common Admission Text (CAT) in 2021.
MBA education, says SPJIMR’s Nagaraj, has to be looked upon as a service and not as a product. “If a customer doesn’t like your software, he/she has the choice to fire you. That forces a different way of thinking as every year you need to justify that the product makes sense. That’s the way one needs to look at MBA education. Every year you need to justify the fact that the concept of business education is still valid to the outside world.”
All these point to one thing — MBA institutions need to evolve with time. If B-schools are able to reinvent and offer industry-relevant training, graduates would stand better chance to bag jobs in the country’s top organisations.
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The survey and rankings were conducted between July-October 2022 by our research partner, CMS Research.
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