New ISB dean designate Madan Pillutla on B-schools in the new pandemic reality

Currently, an incredibly busy professor of organizational behaviour, a department that he chaired in the past at the London Business School, managed to take time out to speak exclusively to Financial Express online.

Professor Madan Pillutla
Professor Madan Pillutla

It is a Darwinian world but with a difference. Almost everyone is scrambling with equal zest to adapt to the new realities served by the COVID-19 pandemic. If one set of office-goers have nearly perfected the transition from natty suits and swivel chairs to pajamas and the stilted world of Zoom, there are others busy reskilling to escape the brunt of a labour market implosion. Businesses, depending on the size and sector, are coping with deeper demands at retooling. In this need-to-adapt-to-survive world, how do the entities that cater to both managers and management, redefine their role and impact for both the talent and the recruiters? Most experts in the management education space have maintained that if an MBA from a leading business school is to remain the stepping stone to corporate success then its content, approach and design have to address the new realities. Under such circumstances, imagine taking up the task of leading a business school. Professor Madan Pillutla is not just undeterred but in fact, excited that come 1 July 2021, he will be taking over as the dean of the Indian School of Business (ISB) – its sixth dean in 20 years. But then, ISB is not wholly new terrain for him. Professor Pillutla has been associated as a visiting faculty member with the school since its founding in 2001.

Currently, an incredibly busy professor of organisational behaviour, a department that he chaired in the past at the London Business School, managed to take time out to speak exclusively to Financial Express online.

He, however, began with an earthy caveat that as the dean designate, who had still not had a chance to discuss matters internally and with the ISB board, he would refrain from commenting on the path ahead and plans for ISB. He then took to covering the rest of the ground looking at the changing landscape of management education and b-schools in general to the emerging opportunities, challenges, and how they could impact revenue mix and business models of schools. All of these, apart from the growing competitive landscape for b-schools in India.

The 20 Years of ISB

Avoiding a forward-looking view, he does share, a sort of backward-bending glance on ISB: “I have seen ISB since its founding and it is clearly an institution that has remarkable achievements to showcase with the size of its programmes, their quality and that of the students, faculty and the pedagogy and all of it achieved in just 20 years.” Backing this, he sees two important factors: “an obvious clarity” it had since its founding on where it needs to get and in this journey maintaining rigour along with the intellectual underpinning that comes with it. One sign of that being a rising number of research papers from the school finding place in the global top 24 journals.

The second factor being the support the school gets from the business community. “The who’s who of the Indian industry is represented on the board, with them taking an active interest in the happenings at school and also being supportive of its ambitions and therefore, in many ways, the best governing body one can think of.”

The school, which began as a rather unique player with a relatively untested one-year intense MBA programme back in 2001, today churns out a very large cohort of students each year. This year, it has 693 students in its flagship programme as against a record 886 last year. This year, about 200 students have applied for a deferral so as to join next year.

Confronting Complex Problems

Talking more generally about what the changing world of education holds for business schools and the available options before them, he sees “immense opportunities opening up for leading business schools to look at the becoming important contributors to the India growth story.” To him, this is about not just training managers for the Indian and global companies but also getting to engage with the big and complex problems that a country like India for instance, has to deal with and look at how management ideas and principles can be creatively deployed to help solve real problems. He is for “rigorous research aimed at solutions in an environment where technology can facilitate scalability.”

The inter-disciplinary imperative

On how much of a sense it would make for leading schools to graduate from a niche play model to adopting a university format, he says, “while I do not want to comment about ISB specifically but I can say that such a transformation depends on the institution and its vision.” It could, he says, “either organically grow and become a university or become inter-disciplinary by entering into strategic partnerships with institutions be these from the liberal arts space, engineering or management.” In fact, the new National Education policy, the professor says, is also suggesting that they would like to see more inter-disciplinary institutions getting created. Schools that work on real-life problems could look at building such interconnections because complex real-world problems, by their very nature, tend to be inter-disciplinary,” he says.

Scope In Remote Learning

He sees an opportunity in the scope for remote learning that has now been created. “The ability to deliver teaching online is going to open up opportunities for schools to reach out to a larger pool of talent across the board – be it international students, especially women and even faculty, who do not need to get on a plane and be physically present. We are already seeing this in the London Business School (LBS) executive MBA classroom. In the class that I am teaching, there are students from Seattle in the US to Japan and they join in every two weeks. All of it goes onto making a very enriching classroom,” he says.

Race For Faculty

On the changing competitive landscape with more players entering the management teaching arena – apart from the 20 IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management) there are newer private sector players trying to carve out a niche like the BITS School of Management and the Mahindra University among others, he says, “it is a welcome development and India needs it though in the short-term there will be increased competition for faculty and schools will be under pressure to retain faculty though, in the long run, these institutions will also start producing faculty and create an ecosystem of faculty, like in the US.”

Hit On Executive Education

What about the financial compulsions and where has the pandemic hit b-schools the most? The professor says, “the data suggests that most top schools have had increased applicants and a higher number of enrolments. Schools that have chosen to reduce the intake of students may have done so because of the practical problems posed by mandatory social distancing measures.” Also, he says, “the hit has mainly been in executive education. Companies have pulled back their spending on such programs, both in terms of sending employees onto open programs as well as commissioning and running customized programs.” So, “schools, where executive education is a significant part of revenue, have had to make changes.” But then, he is quick to add “what the pandemic has taught business schools is that technology can be used creatively to enhance impact and bring in people who they have not been able to serve before either on account of geographical or space constraints into the classroom.  The increased revenue from online classes (both synchronous and asynchronous) might be permanent and could well replace some or all of the lost revenue from executive education.”

Customised & Innovative

So, what can the schools do about it and what are the types of teaching models that will become a norm for b-schools? “Several schools have been experimenting with online teaching and there is innovation happening in both teaching methods and content. I believe that online learning will play an increasingly large part in any curriculum. Schools will be able to leverage this to provide increasingly customised and innovative learning journeys for students.”

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First published on: 31-03-2021 at 18:52 IST