Remembering the man who made it happen

In the genre of biographies, T T Ram Mohan?s Brick by Red Brick is a double treat. The dual journeys of the Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad.

In the genre of biographies, T T Ram Mohan?s Brick by Red Brick is a double treat. The dual journeys of the Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad (IIMA), arguably the country?s finest management school, and the person who was largely instrumental in steering it on to the path of glory, Ravi Matthai, an institution-builder par excellence, have been traced with precision, candour and rare insight that long after the last page has been turned, the memory both of the creator and his labour of love lingers on. Since its foundation 50 years ago, IIMA has undoubtedly reached lofty heights.

For the academics and students of today, IIMA has come to symbolise excellence in education. But few of us may be aware of the fascinating history of this premier institute. And even fewer may have heard of Ravi Matthai who almost single-handedly ensured that IIMA reached the towering heights it has, to be counted among the foremost educational institutions in the country today.

A graduate of IIT Bombay and IIMC, with a doctorate from the Stern School of Business, New York, author of this unputdownable book, T T Ram Mohan is himself a faculty of IIMA. Despite this, he confesses that though he had ?heard of Matthai when I joined the Institute (IIMA) in late 1998 but did not know him then.? However, in the first couple of years at the IIMA, Mohan noticed that ?many important processes or initiatives in the institute were traced back to Matthai?s time. These early impressions?of a larger-than-life figure?stayed with me. One day, I stumbled upon a collection of Matthai?s speeches and writings. Going through the papers, I was struck by the quality of his writings. It was evident that this was a man who had thought through the IIMA experiment with great care.? An article on Matthai written for an economic daily evoked tremendous response from readers, which is when the idea of writing a book on him took seed.

A meticulous research on Matthai and those who knew him or had worked closely with him during his stint at the helm of IIMA provided Mohan with a wealth of information. Drawing on his insider?s insight into the functioning of IIMA, Mohan has managed to lucidly bring out the strengths and weaknesses of IIMA in particular and other institutions like the IIMs and IITs in general.

Though the canvass on which he has chosen to etch the history of IIMA and Matthai is vast, Mohan has been able to straddle both remarkably well. Although at times his treatise on what ails management education does tend to get rather ponderous and repetitive. However, he has achieved to weave together the institute and the institution-builder with deft master-strokes.

An outsider to the rarefied world of academicians and a virtual novice in the arena of higher education with no qualifications or impressive degrees, Matthai, though the progeny of independent India?s second finance minister, Dr John Matthai, was a plain graduate albeit from Oxford University. Originally a student enrolled for a masters programme at Allahabad University, then hailed as the Oxford of the East, he was unceremoniously bundled off to the original following an accident in which an inebriated Matthai mowed down a pedestrian. Instead of fleeing the upright young man put the body in his car and drove straight to the nearest police station to surrender himself. A police case was registered against him and when the then PM Jawaharlal Nehru refused to bend rules for his finance minister?s son, it was his home minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel who suggested that the lad be packed off to England.

After graduating from Oxford, which, by his own confession years later, he ?was very reluctant to leave because I did not see working for living as fun,? Matthai did brief stints in the corporate world, ending up as the CEO of a company before giving it all up for a job with the IIMC. Matthai?s transition from an ?upper middle-class background, elite schools, Oxford, a well-heeled executive at a British firm? to an institution builder has been detailed brilliantly, illustrated with anecdotes provided by those who were closely associated with him.

Interestingly, when Vikram Sarabhai, one of the luminaries who was instrumental in setting up the IIMA in close coordination with management guru Prakash Tandon, industrialist Kasturbhai Lalbhai and academician Kamla Chowdhry, announced the appointment of Ravi Matthai as the first full-time director of IIMA, there was bewilderment in the IIMA community as no one had heard the name of the 38-year old who was clearly too under-aged and under-qualified for a position of such import. Though the self-deprecatory Matthai maintained that ?when they got to me, they had run out of all viable names,? Mohan argues that ?Sarabhai was far too clear-headed, too good a judge of men, too competent an institution builder and far too committed to IIMA to have settled on Matthai simply out of desperation.? A write-up on Matthai in a special edition of an in-house journal of IIMA too gave an inkling of what might have transpired. ?With his uncanny sense to judge the hidden value of people, Sarabhai was struck by the clarity of Ravi?s thinking and articulation and also his ability to relate himself with his colleagues and associates. Tandon shared Sarabhai?s judgement about the young professor.?

In the course of chapters like ?Erecting the Edifice?, ?Towering Over the Rest?, and ?Light and Shadow?, Mohan delves into the reasons why IIMA forged head and shoulders ahead of all other management schools; thanks to the processes and initiatives Matthai put in place. The author maintains that ?the work atmosphere itself is extremely relaxed with no insistence on working hours.? Embroidering it with an anecdote, he reveals, ?A lady faculty member had asked Matthai whether members were required to come on time and leave on time. Matthai?s response: This is not a factory!? In many ways, IIMA has been the creative worker?s dream organisation come true, a world without too many rules and, for everyday purposes, no boss. Exactly as Matthai had intended.?

But while admitting that ?IIMA affords faculty the fullest opportunity for growth? and ?there is no external impediment to the institute?s growth?. Mohan is scathing in his criticism of recent trends which have caused a dilution of the exacting standards set in place by a colossus like Matthai. ?The community (IIMA?s own board-appointed community which selects candidates for directorship) lost sight of the Matthai dictum that autonomy is won by unilaterally setting for oneself the highest standards,? he rues while succinctly observing that ?the limitations and constraints to growth are internal to the Institute and are entirely self-inflicted. The devil, as always, is within.?

Summing it up with the precision and clarity of a veteran management guru, Mohan opines that institution-building and leadership are ?not about enormous resources or great ideas although these are useful. Institutions are built around values and true leadership is all about putting the institution first.?

True to its name, Brick by Red Brick is a perfect reconstruction of a great institution and its primary architect. A must-read not only for aspiring management students, educationists and academics but all those who just enjoy reading a good book when they see one.

Brick by Red Brick: Ravi Matthai and the Making of IIM Ahmedabad

T T Ram Mohan

Rupa & Co

Rs 495

Pp 281

Get live Share Market updates and latest India News and business news on Financial Express. Download Financial Express App for latest business news.

First published on: 10-07-2011 at 03:11 IST