The World Comes To IIM Trichy – Interview With Prof. Ram Narasimhan Of Michigan State University (USA)
Ram Narasimhan is a University Distinguished Professor and the John H. McConnell Endowed Professor of Business. He holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, and is an alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad. He also holds an M.S. in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research and PhD in Management Science from the University of Minnesota. He is the recipient of the Distinguished OM Scholar Award from the Academy of Management, the Distinguished Global Researcher Award from the Pan Pacific Business Association, and the Dennis Grawoig Award from the Decision Sciences Institute for outstanding service to the profession. Dr. Narasimhan is one of the most widely cited scholars in operations and supply chain management with over 6,145 citations to date. He has chaired 20 doctoral dissertations and been a member of 12 doctoral dissertation committees. A detailed account of Professor Narasimhan’s profile can be found here: https://broad.msu.edu/facultystaff/narasimh/
IIM Trichy had the privilege to welcome Professor Narasimhan to deliver a seminar in his area of expertise – Operations Management to the Doctoral students of IIM-T. The transcript of the interview:
Q: Good evening, Professor Narasimhan. I hope you had a pleasant journey so far. Before we begin, I had the privilege of going through your biography and saw that you had done your B.S. from IIT-M, before you moved abroad for your further studies. Would you say that Indian Institutes, whether Technology or Management have something very unique to contribute by way of enriching students’ intellect, comparatively?
Well, the obvious answer is yes. It was an elite school back when I was there. There was German co-operation at the time, so there was significant number of German professors who came from Germany and stayed on campus with us and all of us had to learn German for three years of the program so it was a phenomenal part of my life- it was formative, transformative and I would say that it gave me the opportunity to interact with students from different parts of the country. And it is curious that you mentioned schools of Management because right after I graduated from IIT Madras, I went to IIM Ahmedabad. I was saying to the doctoral students during my presentation, in those days there were only two IIMs- Ahmedabad and Calcutta and I secured admission at both, but I chose to go to IIM Ahmedabad. And once again what impressed me the most was not the quality of architecture, not the method of instruction but the students who were from different backgrounds, especially educational backgrounds and interacting with them was stimulating – it was as stimulating as sitting in a class and being exposed to subjects that had nothing to do with anything I’d studied before. Yes, so I think that the Indian Institutes of Management and Technology that I knew, I consider them the pillars of technical and professional education. Although what I’ve seen now on this campus (Trichy) is really impressive.
Q: Moving on, as you would have had a look around, IIM Trichy recently moved to this permanent campus. It has been envisioned to be quite an ambitious project in terms of the infrastructure, which has sustainability and convenience at its forefront. How much of a part do you think these two qualities have in determining the kind of B-School experience students aspire for in this era?
I wish I was 50 years younger (laughs). I would have loved to be in this room, on this campus, because what I saw, it’s just beautiful- the way it’s laid out. The library at the centre of learning and the academic wing and the administration wing literally surrounding the library (reading centre) and I love the architecture, the openness, and the volume, there’s something symbolic about this openness and its unobstructed views as you walk the hallways, things are not coming down at you overhead, it’s wonderful. And it does make a difference, the environment. How you feel about your education environment influences behaviour and it’s good that it subscribes to the idea of sustainability because it stays with you.
Q: Speaking of the B-School experience, Institutes today, including IIM Trichy have realized the need for inculcating social consciousness in young minds. Here, at IIM-T, we have the “Make A Difference” Project as a part of the course wherein students step outside and take up a social problem and practically show their responsibility towards the society. How effective do you think practices like this are, in your personal experience and how can IIM-T improve on this front?
It could, I wouldn’t say that it will, but it definitely could, because it is an experiment. I have a colleague in the Finance Department and he used to say that as far as students are concerned in Business Schools, only 3 things matter- get the cash, get the cash and get the cash. But I think, today’s generation in the US is much more socially conscious, they’re much more environmentally conscious, they’re sensitive to sustainability and social equality. This was not the case, say 15 years ago. I was the President of a University that would be the counterpart of Dr. Metri’s and I found that they have rejected this “Get the cash” or “get more stuff for themselves” ideology, and I see that a majority of the students graduating today want to lead a meaningful life. They want the cash, because cash gets you all the conveniences, but they do want to make a difference in the lives of those who are not as privileged as perhaps those of you who go to IIM-T, so there is a growing sense of social responsibility that they must give back to society and that they are realizing that all the institutes in this institute, it is a privilege to be in this place and you are going to be well off, when you are done. So, these kinds of social engagement, I think, will help develop socially responsible citizens and I see a lot of Indian Institutions go along the same lines. It is easy to get caught up in the consumerist, materialistic aspect of our lives especially when you graduate from an institute like this, you are going to make good money, you are definitely going to be in the upper middle class if not more. So the earlier such values are inculcated, the benefits will be seen maybe 10 years from now, and you’ll be better citizens than my generation was.
Q: You’ve directed the study abroad program for the Executive MBA program from Midwest Universities Consortium for International Activities (MUCIA) encompassing visits to most of the EU, the UK. Clearly, Business Education is somewhat incomplete without a global perspective, and this coincides with our belief- we have an elective called International Business Practices, an international week and of course exchange programs. Could you tell us about your viewpoint, based on your transition from India to the US?
Although I was born in India, I left India almost fifty years ago. So, for all practical purposes, I’m American. And America is very America-centric. News to us means what’s happening in the US, not someplace else. But what’s happening in the last 15 years as the markets are so open, with Europe and Asia competing, it has really given American consumers an alternative. People quickly realized that America cannot continue to focus inward. They have to pay attention to the world around them. All companies were globalized and the cross differentials in emerging markets brought not only opportunities but also challenges. A fantastic example would be that Americans would go to Japan to negotiate business deals, the Japanese would bring their translator, so everything the Americans said would be translated. The executives would be closing the deal and yet the Americans would sit there waiting for the Japanese translator to tell them what the Japanese said. Thus, there is information asymmetry and of course, you’re at a disadvantage. People (in America) still don’t know the importance of interacting with cultures who speak different languages. In fact, they are surprised that the Japanese did not speak English. And then there’s cultural ignorance. Many times, this interferes with American companies while negotiating deals with companies in other countries. Thus we started this executive education for all mid-level executives and we take them to primarily various European countries, multinational institutions in prominent economies, mostly Singapore, Hong Kong, and other countries primarily to learn different leadership styles, as in the future they are going to lead their respective organizations. And since I was directing the program, I wanted to make them realize the meaning of different leadership styles and that it doesn’t always have to be “I win, you lose” type of strategy. Most importantly I wanted them to learn to respect different cultures. I used to take my children with me on some of these trips and the American children often said, “That’s weird” and I used to tell them “It is not weird, it is different. Being different does not make it weird”. But that US-centric attitude is often displayed by executives, “We are the best, we know how to do everything, nobody knows how to do anything better.” The whole purpose of the executive education trip was to expose them to different management styles, different leadership styles, and different ways of bringing out the best, apart from a few technical aspects as well.
Q: The beating heart of the campus as we like to call it, or the Learning Research Center, in addition to the Finance Lab and Behavioral Lab and a Center for Management Science and Analytics, are some of the many facilities that will be available to students. Does the shift in the way Management education is conceived today, far more practical than ever before, make you wonder what it’ll be like maybe a decade or two in the future?
It has to be more practical in the future. The objective of these institutions is to develop executives and leaders for tomorrow. Not just leaders for respective organizations, leaders who will contribute to the development of this country’s future. So to me, management education must be highly practical oriented. I did see the Finance Lab which is under construction and when it’s done, it’s going to be beautiful. I’d love to come back and see how it looks. But to me, this is new pedagogy. Even as much as ten years ago, management education was delivered in a manner that you had to sit in a classroom, listen for an hour and a half, take notes and go back. But Harvard changed that around 30-40 years ago, using the case method of instruction. And the case method of instruction was borrowed from the way lawyers learned. That’s why it’s called a “case”. In law, you learned the finer points of law by reviewing cases that are adjudicated. And Harvard School borrowed that case method of instruction and brought it to the instruction of executives. So instead of lecturing, if you’ve read the case, analyzed the case, either by yourself or in groups and the professors in general use the Socratic method, they didn’t teach or lecture per se, they discuss the case, then the principles that you’re supposed to learn, emerge from the discussion of the case, thus accomplishing active learning. It engages the students as they participate and contribute to the classroom learning, where the professor is not someone who knows everything and since the students are from different backgrounds, they look at the same thing differently which enriches the learning experience for everyone. Now, you have the Finance Lab, the Behavioral lab and others, I see it as an intensity of student engagement. Because what you learn by doing is the best form of learning.
We thank Prof. Ram Narasimhan once again for sparing time from his busy schedule and agreeing to grace the occasion at the Maiden ISDSI International Conference hosted in IIM Trichy. We wish him success in his future endeavours.