Great expectations

Written by Kirtika Suneja | Updated: Apr 22 2012, 05:36am hrs
What it took to realise the vision of building a top-ranked institution, not just to be world class but to be seen to be world class

Ten years ago, the founders of the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, articulated a vision that was as daunting to execute as it was simple to state: to build a world-class business school in India. The rest is history. Within a decade, the ISB grew from a start-up venture to a globally top-ranked business school, named among the top twenty business schools in the world three years in a row, with the distinction of being the youngest business school ever to enter the world top twenty rankings.

Pramath Raj Sinhas An idea whose time has come traces the ISBs eventful history and also examines the reasons that account for the institutes success. What emerges is a tale of perseverance and dedication, of challenges met and rewards reaped, and of an unshakeable idea that was painstakingly transformed into an invincible institution. It is no wonder that the ISB continues to attract thousands of confident, purposeful men and women every year and mould them into talented professionals.

The book is a captivating read, brimming with interesting anecdotes from the schools decade-long run that are bound to resonate with not only management professionals but anyone who is curious about the ISB. It opens with a damp summer day in 1998 when a group of peoplegovernment officials and business peoplestood looking at a low hill in Gachibowli, about ten miles north-west of the centre of Hyderabad, to set up Indias first, truly international business school.

That day in Gachibowli, we saw an idea whose time had come, writes Sinha, while the founding chairman Rajat Gupta reminisces in the foreword about how after a few months and a couple of meetings, the idea transformed from a Department of Management Studies (with a Master of Business Administration programme) at the Indian Institute of Delhi into an independent, world-class business school. Building a world class institution would surely require the commitment of many, many leaders. Some of my colleagues didnt want to devote so much money to hard infrastructure, he recollects.

Sinha himself was intensely involved with the ISB since its inception in 1996, first as the projects CEO and then as the ISBs founding dean and executive board member. Among the teething problems, he recounts that though the initial board members provided generous seed funding and the institute attracted lots of additional funding, but even as all the stakeholders were feeling euphoric, the dot-com bust put them in somewhat of a crisis.

All was not hunky dory as, through its establishment and subsequent growth, ISB ran into a number of problems. Some were external and others, the author admits, were of our own making. Noteworthy among these challenges were the pressure of time, the choice of part-time versus full-time deans, and relationships with governmentsespecially on the issue of lack of certification from

the All India Council for Technical


Adi Godrej, chairman of the ISB, in the prefatory note, says: We faced a formidable task. And sadly, we ran up against entrenched opposition from bureaucrats who saw our project as a challenge to their own power.

On the other hand, the key success factors, he narrates, were Rajat Guptas leadership and support of the executive and governing bodies, McKinseys expertise and support, along with teamwork and belief.

Thinking back over the last ten years and seeing how the school was founded and has grown, Sinha talks about five key pointsindependence, ambition, innovation, structure of governance, and the mental model used for setting up and running the ISB.

Going forward, when the mentors of the school decided to add the Mohali campus to expand the schools presence, the world markets started to experience jitters in 2007including the collapse of the Lehman Brothers.

For business schools, this was an even tougher environment. ISB was not unaffected by the downturn and the school did become more strict about managing costs. We suffered other, more personal losses. At the end of 2008, MR Rao found himself caught up in the Satyam scandal, Sinha recites.

To sum up, Sinha says that collaboration, innovation, ambition and independence explain ISBs success in ten years.

Gathering support

The moment of truth for Anil (Kumar) came when he read a newspaper article which mentioned that people at another Indian industrial groupthe Aditya Birla Groupwere in talks with the London Business School about the possibility of support for a private business school.

I looked at all of them and thought, My God, do any of us have any idea of what it takes to put a business school together We all want to start doing things on our own. Lets try to start doing things together. So I called Rajat (Gupta) and said, There are all these Indian business houses that seem to want to do things in business education but they are all trying on their own. Shall we see if we can get them together And Rajat said, Sure.

Anils next call was to Anil Ambani. He asked him, Do you want to do something bold and audacious Anil Ambani agreed at once, and set about contacting other Indian business leaders. Rajat and his colleagues did the same. PC Chatterjee and Adi Godrej indicated that they were willing to come on board. Anil Ambani invited Lakshmi Mittal, the London-based steel magnate. Kumar Birla of the Aditya Birla Group, too, agreed to join. They invited VS Raju of IIT Delhi to join them; although his institution was no longer directly involved, his views and expertise were greatly valued by Rajat and the others. Anil Kumar also invited Jairam Ramesh, then advisor to the minister of finance, who was able to give valuable advice on the governments perspective.

In early 1996, on the campus of IIT Delhi, this group held the first meeting of the Executive Board of what later became the Indian School of Business. It was resolved that they would pursue the idea of a private, independent international business school in India, and that they would take the project forward as swiftly as possible. Thus was born the idea of the Indian School of Business.