Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Ashish Nanda’s global blueprint for IIM-Ahmedabad

In early-2013, AM Naik, Chairman of Larsen & Toubro (L&T), took a private plane to Boston to convince a professor at Harvard University to take the reins of IIM-Ahmedabad. Naik, chair of the IIM-A board, could have called, but he wanted to personally tell Ashish Nanda why India's premier business school wanted him. "I wanted to look you in the eye and talk to you across the table to convince you," Naik had told Nanda.

Naik and a few others had done exactly that a few months back, when Nanda was in Ahmedabad to attend the 30th reunion of his IIM batch. Nanda returned, flattered and unsure. "How nice of them to consider me," he told Shubha, his wife. "I will send in my thanks and regrets."

Shubha, a practising dentist and a professor at Tufts Dental School, saw something else. "I thought it would be great for Ashish to take up the offer with a sense of adventure," she says. "And he did not need much convincing. Every time he spoke of his reunion, there was a sparkle in his eyes. Eventually, it was truly the spirit of learning, contributing and adventure that got him to return to India."

In September 2013, the 53-year-old returned to India and his alma mater, after more than 20 years. In the institute's 52-year history, Nanda was the first director to be hired from an overseas institute, and he came in with a mandate to take IIM-A to the next level—coveted by students and academics, sought by industry and respected by global peers. "I believe in global benchmarks," says Naik, who pushed Nanda's case with his colleagues and the government. "IIM-A, being a premier institute in India, needed new leadership to make it a truly global management institute that encourages diversity, thought leadership and research."

The breadth of that assignment is matched by the superlatives rolled out for him by those who have worked with Nanda: scholar, teacher, researcher, manager of academic programmes, global thinker...and, they add, pretty good in all those roles. Four months into his IIM-A assignment, an appointment offers a clue of what could follow in Nanda's five-year tenure.

Sharon Barnhardt worked on Wall Street, before doing her PhD in public policy at Harvard. In August, she joined the public systems group at IIM-A as full-time faculty. "Ashish Nanda perfectly understands what makes research faculty tick because he's a great researcher," she says. "Ashish also understands how important it is to bring up the infrastructure and research environment of the institute to global standards in order to attract faculty and people from outside."

Academic Connect
Be it people appointments, orientation shifts or directional turns, 'global' is a refrain while discussing Nanda. It's for good reason, says Nitin Nohria, Dean of Harvard Business School who has known Nanda personally for 20 years, and has taught and researched with him.

Nohria cites the experience of an executive program they took together for a company that was struggling with a range of issues related to its globalisation. "We had developed a case study for the company, and it brought to the surface a range of tensions as the discussion unfolded," he recalls. "Ashish used the teaching process to help the participants navigate these tensions and recommit to a shared strategic vision."

Nanda will need to draw on such skills to balance a key challenge: adding new faculty while managing the old guard. During Nanda's days as student at IIM-A, between 1981 and 1983, the institute had about 400 students and a faculty of about 80—a teacher-student ratio of 1:5. Today, with about 1,000 students and a faculty of 90, that ratio has declined to 1:11.

Nanda wants to correct that ratio, but he wants to do it while improving quality: though a mix of young and old, Indian and global. IIM-A is looking to hire more professors in their early-30s at entry-level positions, like Barnhardt, and experienced faculty at senior levels. "They are bright academics who are intrigued by the idea of working and research in India, and want to build specialisation in the Indian setting," says Nanda.

Simultaneously, IIM-A is looking to invite academics from abroad on short-term assignments and visits. "(The idea is)... we learn from their knowledge and experience," says Nanda. "While we may not match the compensation packages offered by some of our Western counterparts, we are making sure that the remuneration is good, research support is available and the work environment is congenial."

Samir K Barua, former Director of IIM-A, says Nanda brings in an understanding of how global business schools operate in the US, particularly North America. "That is an enormous advantage he brings today," he says. "The major challenge will be in getting the right global faculty, with the right qualification, to India." It's not an easy task as there is a global shortage of faculty, and IIM-A wants to attract academics who would otherwise be prime candidates for institutions of repute. "Nanda's connections with the academic world will help in motivating colleagues to a part of IIM-A in one way or other," adds Barua.

Industry Connect
Nanda wants to step up IIM-A's engagement with the world outside, both in form and frequency. "The institute has been a bit insular in the past. But a dynamic organisation must foster interchange of ideas and collaborations across boundaries," he says.

So, on the one hand, he wants IIM-A to engage more with global researchers, practitioners and policymakers, and local community. "Sometimes, IIM-A feels like a bubble, disconnected from its environment," says Nanda. "But it is not. We need to nourish our local roots by connecting better with the local community, contributing to them and learning from them." On the other hand, he wants to deepen and widen connects with industry through, for example, executive programmes or research. At Harvard, Nanda designed, launched and ran executive programmes, which are aimed at working industry professionals.

Martha Minow, a professor of law at Harvard Law School, remembers those programmes for their effectiveness. "His vision, attention to detail and inspired teaching are superb. His capacity to build memorable discussions and meaningful learning experiences is rivalled only by his talent for listening," says Minow, who has taught at Harvard since 1981. "He helped Harvard Law School become a place where law firms seek assistance in equipping lawyers for a changing world."

Shikha Sharma, MD and CEO of Axis Bank, would like to see more of that happen at IIM-A to place it on the global map. "IIM-A is already a strong brand in terms of teaching," says Sharma, who passed out of the institute in 1980. "It would be great to see more of research that influences corporate and policy action, as well as leveraging the platform for executive education. And the most important thing is to get the research to global standards."

Institution Connect
Some of these changes might involve questioning and changing established patterns of doing things. IIM-A, like any other long-standing academic institution, has complexities and challenges an 'outsider' may not be sensitive to. "I am a little bit of an insider-outsider, having spent 30 years outside India, but having been an IIM-A student," he says. "Coming here has felt like coming back home. People have been very warm and welcoming."

All through his student days, be it at IIT (Delhi) or IIM-A, Nanda won the highest of accolades. At IIM-A, he won the president of India gold medal twice and the IIM director's gold medal. He also spent five years at the coveted Tata Administrative Service, before moving on to Harvard, first as a teacher and subsequently in administration roles as well.

"He has always got the best ratings as a professor," says Amrita Chowdhury, country head and publishing director at Harlequin India, who worked with Nanda in her earlier capacity as associate director-education at Harvard Business School India Research Centre. "A warm, effusive and energetic personality, Nanda is dramatic and theatrical in the way he teaches."

Cyril Shroff, managing partner of legal firm Amarchand & Mangaldas, has known Nanda for about a decade. He first met Nanda in connection with the activities of the Harvard Law School concerning professional services, and remembers a man with "razor sharp intellect, intellectual curiosity and a flair with which he conducted his classes". Shroff feels the big strengths Nanda brings to the table as IIM-A director are his international exposure, and his ability to conceptualise and execute projects. "Also, despite being in America for so long, he has retained his Indian roots," says Shroff, who has attended several of Nanda's classes.

Changes will follow at IIM-A. Nanda, for instance, talks about the need to not just have good academics but also have administrative staff of a high calibre. Dr Srikant M Datar, a Harvard professor who is also on the board of IIM-A, feels Nanda has the skills and temperament to initiate that change with sensitivity to the institution and its people. "Ashish has the skills to work well with others to make changes," he says. "He is dynamic and thoughtful, with strong interpersonal skills. He is a wonderful developer of people."

Nanda, on his part, advocates a strategy of balancing continuity with change. "The institute does not need a drastic overhaul, nor will a cookie-cutter solution suffice," he says. "But, at the same time, one shouldn't get too comfortable with the status quo, or else changes in the environment can render even the best obsolete. The pace and sequencing of change have to balanced on a fine edge."

Source: The Economic Times, January 21, 2014

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