Friday, August 24, 2012

Ahmedabad’s IIM

Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad [IIMA] celebrated a somewhat low-key golden jubilee in December 2011. Three books came out during the year, which looked at the making of IIMA. The first Nurturing Institutional Excellence was a collection of essays written by past and present faculty members talked about the internal processes, launch of programmes, management of specific activities and some reminiscences. Given that it was written by a diverse set of people, with differing styles and perspectives – it gave a set of anecdote like look into the Institute. This was followed by a book independently written by TT Ram Mohan – Brick by Red Brick, which examined the history of IIMA, but largely from the lens of the first full time Director Ravi Matthai. Anubhai’s book is different from both the above, and provides the history of the Institute from a different perspective.

Anubhai has been associated with IIMA for long years – both as a board member, a visiting faculty who has taken substantial teaching load and as a member of multiple committees for future direction – a planning and goal setting process of IIMA which is set up once a decade. He has a better view of IIMA and a sense of history for having been there. Therefore his version of the story should have been exciting and readable. However, Anubhai’s rendition does not engage the readers’ attention. This is because his rendition falls between two stools – it does not locate itself in the larger paradigm of IIMA as a good case in managing higher/professional education. That approach would have brought out challenges of funding, structure, alumni relations, curriculum design and delivery and new programmes in a different light. Given that Anubhai is the Chairman of the Board of Management of Ahmedabad University that has an ambitious plan of setting up a large campus with multiple disciplines, he was eminently suited to undertake such an effort.

For instance, Anubhai does not bring out the fundamental differences between IIMA and IIM Kolkata [the only difference he brings out is that Kolkata campus was built by public works department as against an architect designed campus of Ahmedabad]. Both were set up around the same time, but took significantly different growth trajectories and managed differently. The involvement of the local industrial houses in Kolkata and the state government was not as deep as in case of Ahmedabad. How or whether this mattered would have been interesting to analyze.

Alternately given his involvement, he could have taken the memoir approach with a range of anecdotes to make the story engaging.

Instead of the two approaches Anubhai takes a ‘case analysis’ approach to dissecting IIMA. He uses correspondence, facts and also some of his own personal experiences to do an inward looking analysis of IIMA. Not only it is inward looking, it is somewhat board and Ahmedabad centric with little engagement with the processes within the faculty body, the alumni, the industry and so on.

Mention IIMA, and the association is strongly with Vikram Sarabhai and Ravi Matthai. Anubhai in his narrative highlights the role of Kasturbhai Lalbhai, and his contribution to the building of IIMA. This is an important part of the narrative. Sarabhai and Matthai set up the internal processes; Matthai cut out known organizational hierarchies and brought in functional hierarchies. However, the role of Kasturbhai in managing the external environment, his contribution to the hardware of the Institute – particularly being on the building committee and getting Louis Kahn to design the campus is usually missed in the narrative and Anubhai fills in the gap.

Anubhai tells us that Kasturbhai refused to be the Chairman of the board of governors of IIA even when he was offered the position more than once, while he accepted to be the Chairman of IIT Mumbai. The reason: He wanted IIMA to be perceived as a national Institute and his assuming chairman’s position had the danger of sending the signal that it was a very Ahmedabad based institute.

Ahmedabad as a city has the tradition of nurturing institutions of excellence and taking pride in the fact that these institutions are a part of the city. While the intellectual power for sustaining the institutions come from across the country and is cosmopolitan, the support structures for the institution come wholeheartedly from the local community. This is the aspect of Ahmedabadi pride in National Institutions is what is captured effectively in the IIMA Story.

To understand the elephant called IIM, we now have multiple descriptions. Apart from the books named above, one could look at Chetan Bhagat’s Two States to get a perspective of the student life, or Prashant John’s Second Degree to get another perspective. Anubhai’s narrative style is flat and bereft of emotions, a difficult feat indeed for somebody so closely associated with IIMA. He tries to use numbers to justify his arguments. He uses bullets to summarise something that he has narrated and makes the book like a long presentation. It could have been more engaging, bringing some insider perspectives and with implications for management of higher education. But the story of IIMA remains just the story of IIM of Ahmedabad. Given the visibility and size of the Institute, the story could have been much larger, broader, bigger. While it is a very interesting book for what it is, it disappoints when we consider what it could have been!


The IIMA Story
The DNA of an Institution
Prafull Anubhai
Random House India
pp.269. Price Rs.599.

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