Dr. Ranjan Banerjee talks on his role as the Dean of SPJIMR and looks to the road ahead for an institution that he says has a robust foundation, much like a banyan tree with strong roots. Here are excerpts from a long reflective interview conducted over multiple sittings
The following interview was published in the September 2016 issue of SPJIMR News
You have completed one year and well into your second. How do you assess your tenure so far…are you pleased with yourself?
There are things to be proud of. On the whole the answer to are you pleased with yourself is ‘Yes’. Is there more that we can do? Is there more that I have to learn? Is there scope for me to improve? Again ‘Yes’.
When I joined, it was a reasonably complex situation because you had a strong leader who was there for a long time. He was not there for a year, but I think he had started moving away before that. When I came in there was a lot of ambiguity, there was a lot of uncertainty, a lot of people sitting on the fence. I did know that at that point of time some of the faculty was considering whether they should stay with the institute, whether it had a future.
It has been a very good journey. There is an environment of positive energy. Many people who wanted to do things within the faculty are doing things. There has been a significant amount of outreach in terms of alumni engagements, alumni conversations. We have had our share of challenging situations and we worked on them as a team.
So I think ‘Yes’ if you look at it on multiple fronts, I would say we have moved forward in tangible terms. I think the expectations of everybody including external stakeholders, our own expectations from ourselves, all of these things have gone up. So I think the spirit if I have to look back is that I think we have laid the foundation for something substantial. But there is a lot more to do.
You interact with a lot of people. What are people telling you? What are you reading?
The initial six months because there was uncertainty and people did not know what to expect. Once they realised that there is somebody coming in who is going to be fair, who is going to be objective. I think reference points were low so there was an initial euphoria. People were happy. We were doing a lot of things right, we aligned people, and we got stuff moving.
I think we have reached the steady stage where we are doing quite a few things. There has been progress on multiple fronts. And a lot of the things that we considered as significant milestones one year back are done and dusted and now taken for granted.
There was a point in time where the five day a week was a significant decision. Changing the structure of the faculty meet was a significant decision. But those things are done. And I think now we have two three things.
What are people telling me? People are saying that, “Look this is a good environment. I know I have the freedom to do what I want.” But now we are also trying to do a lot of new things. We are doing things like thought leadership; we are doing a lot in research. And I think one of the things faculty is saying is that there are two real challenges we have to move on fairly quickly. One challenge is that we have to recruit a lot of new faculty, because we have been an institution that is known for teaching excellence. We are doing things to strengthen that teaching excellence. But for an academic institution to be excellent teaching, consulting, research, thought leadership these are all synergistic activities. Now for those synergistic activities to continue and to be managed in parallel, people need some blocks of time, with the level of activity a little less frenetic. So people have spoken about a non teaching window. So essentially people are saying that we need to look at schedules and bring on more people so that some of our core faculty who are also potential researchers and thought leaders get a little more time to think.
We have brought in quite a new faculty. We bring in some more people. So that to me is one clear dimension. The second dimension is that we have excellent staff, a strong staff. We have paid more attention, I think it is fair to say in year one to what we do on faculty alignment and faculty development.
The last strategy meet that we had was the first meet where we had faculty and staff strategising together and that is yielding I think pretty good results. But it is fairly clear that we need to do more for staff. This includes we need to be listening to our staff more. Second is we need to create visible career paths. So a staff member who is interested in research must have a career path into the faculty. A staff member who is in administration must have a career path into programme administration. So that to me is one kind of direction.
The second kind of direction is on research and teaching excellence. We have done something’s in terms of faculty development. We need to translate that now into tangible projects. So I think we are moving from a phase from where lets says we focused on quite a few things which were basic. We put the ground work in place and we put some fundamental infrastructure in place. And the innovations are now coming. So the new outputs whether it would be new programmes, whether it would be changes in our non classroom, whether it would be the fact that we have done our design thinking piece. This is the point in time when we have to put our resources behind these innovations and make it move, while at the same time strengthening the fabric of the institution.
What we have done is that the institution is stable, our core programmes are in place, there is a certain amount of faculty engagement, a large number of small initiatives are in place which are going to create the culture, there are a couple of large initiatives which are in place. What we need to do is we need to strengthen our teams. We need to probably build in a strong second line of leadership. That is one. We need to strengthen the faculty core. Then we need to balance workloads such that faculty get time for the diverse portfolio of activities that we are giving them. In some cases this time is already there, but I would say that there could be at least 15 to 20 people in the faculty who could justifiably feel overloaded. So how do we manage that? And that may not be something that we could do in the next one or two months. But we will do it gradually over a period of time.
So if you were to answer this question to a board of directors and say here are the three or four big ticket bullets that I want to say and put before you in the next two minutes, this is what I set out and this is what I did and this is what I did not do. What would those be?
Faculty confidence and institute work environment. Building a positive and conducive faculty environment, an open environment where people can critique, where people can talk. So overall if I look at this ambiguous thing called the smell of the forest or morale and motivation, it is better that in was. It is significantly positive; there is no concern in that. Tangibles? I think some our programmes that were going through a little bit of turbulence like the Family Managed Business Programme. I think that programme has stabilised. It has leadership; it has direction and it is ready to make the next step. Within some of our core programmes, so big ticket right? We are talking about two three big ticket in terms of what we have done.
I think the first one is still work environment and faculty alignment. I think the second one would be the quality of intellectual discourse in the institute has gone up. We are discussing ideas at a better level. The quality of interaction at the faculty meets has gone up. More people are speaking. So we are closer to the spirit and content of high quality academic institutions and this is also intangible. Number three, I think we have strengthened some of our core processes and even built new processes, which is where I would say you have your design thinking initiatives come in, strengthening of the non classroom initiatives would come in, thing like a SParC talk which we have introduced would come in . So a number of new initiatives have been successfully launched and are seeing some direction.
I would say alumni and external perception also have improved significantly. So alumni, external perception, PR, communication, the way we manage our social media, the quality of our website and put that in a larger bunch that is saying managing the quality of the external interfaces improve. I would like to think at a larger level and this needs to be validated from the student community, overall students would feel that the institute is more responsive and is listening better today. So students feel that there are people who listen, students feel that things get done. So I think there was particularly on the infrastructure a degree of alienation of the students from the institute historically, I think that has been muted, I think that has come down significantly. I think the faculty student connect has gone up. It is still not where we want it to be, but possibly our faculty- student connect is among the highest in institutes in India, because our think our faculty care deeply about the students and are available to the students.
What would you say on the colour, the flavour, the grammar of leadership at SPJIMR today as distinct from what it was when you came in?
I think it was in transition so it’s not fair to comment on the grammar when I came in. I think there is a feeling that leadership is approachable. I think people can talk in open forums so I think there is more approachability, more openness. That I think is definitely there. I think we have also moved to a certain extent, in the sense that I don’t know whether we call it a second line, but there are things that we are trying to do, where there has been a delegation to a second level team and that team is carrying the momentum forward and things are happening. So some level of a creation of a second line and movement of a second line has been there. The third is I think and it is in very small things but I think that there is a general perception that the overall transparency within the institution has gone up.
So in terms of leadership I will say approachability, I will say transparency. I will say that there are multiple people who are now having their own projects which they are taking forward. So there is a tie up with the centre for creative leadership, there are people handling that is moving forward. There is a dimension on thought leadership, a workshop being done, there is a process on that is moving forward. We had to do things on infrastructure, there is an eyeleting, faculty members are involved, they are looking at individual projects, and those projects are moving forward. Something like design thinking, you have created something world class, you have created something that is national level appreciable; you have trained seven-eight faculty, that is moving forward. And that has been satisfying that I have been able to be involved at the beginning, be part of the momentum creation, find a process champion and step out.
So what’s your broader management philosophy and how has this emerged for you?
Co-created direction, enlightened trial and error which design thinking talks about, building self belief and capability in the people you lead and creating heroes in every role. People don’t know what they are capable of, it’s your job to make them realise that. The rest will follow.
You have often said that we do a lot of things, and even if a small fraction of this gets done, we would have achieved a lot. Were these off-the-cuff remarks or was it a chosen and professed direction?
I would only say that we will try many things but we will focus on a chosen few. I think it is true that if we try ten things at least three-four will fail. But I think now we are adopting a route which is somewhere in between. It’s not saying 100 ideas and ten will come through. That’s a venture capital approach. So our approach is more that we will focus on seven or eight which our resources allow us to and three or four will come through. And those three or four will be enough for us to move to the next level. And those three or four that fail we may just bring back as learning in a different version or a different avatar.
I recall a late evening at the BCCA hall where an American leadership professor with you on the stage said leaders are not those who speed things up but who slow down. Is this some dynamic that plays with you or energizes in some other direction?
I am still trying to formulate my own philosophy and school of leadership. In terms of action, leaders speed things up. In terms of a leader’s mental process, he needs to slow down. As you move to higher levels of self awareness you will become a better leader. So in that sense a leader slows down simply by being more reflective, so creating the space where you can reflect. And that reflection changes your behavior. But as long as there is that overall environment where there is direction and you keep communicating and you keep pushing the bar, most people will recognise and appreciate that.
SPJIMR overtime came to acquire its distinct position which was rooted in what was purpose, meaning, service. Now as we look back at these origins and shape this for a modern era, what do you think needs to change, what do you think needs not to change?
I think purpose meaning service is still very much there. I think directionally SPJIMR had a mission statement that was always very clear. It says we seek to influence practice and it is value-based growth.
So what are we saying, the core values of the institute: authentic, value based, with the courage to build our own model of management education where we take the best of Western case based education and pedagogy and combine it with innovative non-classroom teaching – all this was always there.
That other element is influencing practice. When we are looking at things like thought leadership, we are looking at research, we have said very clearly is that we want to do research that has the potential to impact practice in a five to ten year horizon.We do not want to do necessarily a theoretically rich research which may or may not ever be used. So as far as possible, the inspiration from our research will come from real world problems of today and tomorrow. And we will combine rigorous theory, strong methodology with this. And we are really gearing up the organisation to do this.
What was also there is to teach management and administration in fundamental and deep ways. This core was there. Some part of this core was through theory; a significant part of the core was through the non-classroom initiatives. We have simplified them, strengthened them and deepened the reflective component of non-classroom learning.
The second piece in the core and this is possibly something now that we are bringing in. Increasingly you see more and more organisations becoming matrix organisations or even network organisations. You see a lot of the problems becoming more ambiguous because the boundaries are blurring.The boundaries between disciplines are blurring, the boundaries between categories are blurring. Often you would have organisations that are competing and collaborating simultaneously particularly in the technology space.
So the dimension is how you teach management students to solve problems when the problem itself is not well defined. Now we looked around and we found that design thinking was one of the tools that were increasingly being adapted for this categorization and then we acted quickly. So we have had a workshop done by Dr. Shrikant Datar, we built on it and we have trained over 10 faculty. The beauty of this is that this faculty was not drawn from any single discipline. We had a statistics faculty, we had a marketing faculty, we had an economist, we had an organisational behavior faculty and they all came together to create one module and execute one module and that’s one of our best received programmes.
What’s looking ahead looking like?
We have some big things coming along. We have launched the Fellow Programme in Management (FPM), the Management Programme for Women (MPW) which is a very interesting second career programme to bring talented women back to the workforce to provide corporate India with the women leaders of tomorrow.Towards the end of this year, early next year you should see the Advanced Management programmes coming in which means we will be able to give senior level programmes collaboration with foreign universities. You will see our faculty becoming more international so SPJIMR faculty teaching regularly at international universities will become a norm.
We are putting in the infrastructure for thought leadership.We have launched our own blogs. So you will start to see the next level which is one a level of innovation, two a strengthening of core programmes, three where there are gaps in our placement, where there are top companies going to the other premier institutes in India and not coming here. You will see those corrections happening as we reach out more and more to the Industry.So there are is a set of things which are saying that we need to strengthen, a set of things we are doing to make it competitive and then there is a set of things saying that we need to break new ground.
Then you are seeing a building of faculty capability, so the faculty are not only excellent teachers but they are translators of ideas, they are creators of new ideas and their ideas start shaping the way corporate think. What people notice the intellectual contribution that our faculty are putting out there either through blogs, through an institute magazine, through newspapers articles and ultimately through publications and top research journals. So I think is that those kinds of directions are what you will see.
Ultimately what are we trying to do? I said this very early that in a B-school your goal is not revenue or profit. We are going to maximise one of two things or may be both. Contribution to society, reputation, as a consequence our revenues and our surplus will grow, but they are a consequence and that growth of revenue and surplus is necessary because your growth of reputation and contribution needs to be sustainable. But the objective function is reputation/ contribution. We keep that in mind, everything else falls into place.
You will also see quite a few people coming in and there will be a healthy balance of dynamic new people with their own ideas and your existing people who buy into the values of the institute strongly, want to do a lot of things and now getting the freedom to do that. And you see that coming together.
What worries you and on the other side what puts a spring in your step?
If I look at it, there are two big concerns. Will we be able to grow our infrastructure in terms of quality and volume fast enough to keep up with our aspirations? So managing infrastructure is a concern it’s getting better but it’s still not where it needs to be.
The second thing that I would say is that there is this entire disruptive element of technology and how it’s shaping education. We are doing something, we are beginning to embrace it but I don’t think we are at the cusp of technology. So how prepared are we for the new disruptive business models that technology will bring to education is something we need to be vigilant about and continually think and re think.
The third is the feeling that I get from time to time that perhaps we are teaching our students too much. So how can we have less teaching and more learning? And this a larger question that says that how can we redesign MBA curriculum, so that we can have less intensity of input and greater depth of reflection. I think finding the answer has to be the next way because SPJIMR has been a leader in pedagogical and academic innovation. And to keep that leadership going we need to ask these fundamental questions. The worry is because we are successful we could continue with incremental change for an extended period of time.
What would put a spring in my step? So there is this cliché that I used once which goes to say that I have had many good days at the Institute, I have had bad days in the Institute, I haven’t had a boring day at the institute. So what keeps me the spring in the step is that this is a place where people are doing things. There are new things happening every day.