Rishikesha T Krishnan
Director – IIM Bangalore.
Prof. Krishnan, a veteran in the IIM ecosystem, has not only taught students at various campuses of the prestigious institute but has also contributed significantly to their development. An author, academician, and administrator, Prof. Krishnan champions the cause of bringing innovation and lean, strategic management in Indian organisations. He has received the Thinkers 50 India Special Innovation Award, amongst many more honours. Let us learn from him what helped him to be an effective leader, how academic research systems are progressing, and much more.
Tell me about your book, from Jugaad to Innovation, and the concept behind it.
My first book is titled ‘From Jugaad to Systematic Innovation: The Challenge for India’. That book looked at what you need to do to make India more innovative at the macro and industry level, considering the country and its policies. This is not to say that India does not have creative and ingenious skills but more to discuss how do we translate these into larger innovations in the organizational context.
My second book named ‘8 Steps to Innovation’ talked about eight steps that companies can follow to go from Jugaad to Innovation. This book was written in collaboration with Vinay Dabholkar. In this book we look more specifically at what to do at the organizational level, to make innovation a more structured and innovative process. So, we identified 8 different steps across 3 themes. The book essentially gives a roadmap that companies can follow to develop what we called systematic innovation capabilities.
You have worked at multiple IIM campuses, handling highly responsible positions in the academic and administrative domains. Are there any distinct differences between these institutes?
The first major difference between institutions is that they are at different stages of evolution. IIM Ahmedabad and IIM Calcutta are celebrating their 60th anniversary this year. IIM Bangalore, which is the third institution, will be 50 in 2023. If you look at it broadly, there are three sets of institutions, one that has been in existence for 25+ years, then another set was born in 2010-2011, and then there is a third set, which was born between 2015-2016. The older ones are now quite mature and have the entire complement of faculty in place, multiple academic programs, are financially self-sufficient, and the organizational culture is set. But the newer ones are still going through various challenges in evolution. For example, some from the third-generation set don’t even have their campus running yet, as the campuses are under construction, and they are now at temporary sites.
Obviously, things there are relatively unsettled compared to the mature institutes. What is also true about new institutes is that they are quite small in terms of faculty strength.
What we have seen in the past is that it takes 15 to 20 years for institutes to reach a level of maturity where all the systems and processes are in place, there is a critical mass of faculty, good research output, etc. So this is the basic difference between different institutes. The newer institutes will eventually catch up, but the question is how long it will take for them to do so.
Even if you look at IIM Ahmedabad, IIM Bangalore, and IIM Calcutta, which are the three oldest institutes, at one time there were somewhat distinctive differences between the two, but over time those have narrowed partly because people have moved around. I studied at IIM Ahmedabad, but I am a faculty member at IIM Bangalore. People move from one institute to another. IIM Ahmedabad had a collaboration with Harvard Business School in its early years. This brought some distinctiveness but overtime all the institutes have picked up the case method, so some of the differences got diluted.
Your academic journey has been illustrious, with degrees from the best national and international institutes. What has helped you to be an effective leader and administrator?
It’s a very good question. The way our institutes work or our Indian education system works, we don’t get formal training on how to manage our institutes. Most of us learn on the job. We do smaller jobs first; for example, I was the chair of IIM Bangalore’s MBA program almost 20 years back, as quite a young faculty member. So, largely I learnt through experience rather than through any formal training.
I had the opportunity as you mentioned to be at the helm of multiple institutes, and it helped to develop my perspective. But I think there are a few basic things, which you have to get right. You have to treat people with dignity and respect, you have to try to be as process-oriented as possible so that things run smoothly, are predictable, and are not subject to the whims of individual people.
Academia is a very people-intensive business, and you want to provide the best possible environment for people to flower and bloom. Generally, in the IIM system, we have good faculty, as they all have PhDs from the top institutes in India and abroad, and are experts in their respective subjects. So, you need not boss them around. What you need to do is provide them with a conducive environment, so that they can give their best.
I think these aspects are straightforward, but in practice, we need some effort to make them work. These need to be done consistently. We are depending on the expertise and genius of individual faculty members to take the institute forward. We have a great advantage in that we have excellent students.
Also, we have a fair amount of flexibility. Of course, we follow the larger government framework because the models are set by the government. But within the larger government framework, we generally have a supportive board of governors and have evolved good internal processes over time, we manage to have some degree of flexibility with the process-orientation to manage things well.
After the NEP 2020, how will the higher education scenario be impacted? Are the changes presently being implemented or will it take time for the system to evolve?
Some elements of the Education Policy are already part of what we do. The focus on quality, research, accreditation, good governance processes, are all very much part of what we do in IIM. So, these are not posing new challenges to us.
We do have some degree of multi-disciplinarity, but we can do more. One thing we are all actively looking at is collaborating more with other institutions in the same city, for instance, in Bangalore, we have the Indian Institute of Science, National Law school, IIIT, and several other good institutions.
So, we are discussing with these institutes about how we can make courses available to each other’s students. So that’s one way of bringing multi-disciplinarity. One thing which is different about our plan at IIM Bangalore is that we do plan to start undergraduate programs in 2023. Given the orientation of the education policy, we are currently looking at four disciplines in which we will start undergraduate programs: Economics, Psychology & Behavioural Science, Data Science, and Environmental Sustainability. The philosophy of these programs will be liberal arts-oriented, so we will focus a lot on critical thinking, leadership, developing all-around skills; but surely it will have a focus on strong academic inputs as well. We have a new campus land, which is about 25 Km south of the current campus, so we plan to develop the undergraduate programs at the new campus.
Tell us about the importance of Entrepreneurship by youngsters, and how the IIMs facilitate entrepreneurship?
We have an entrepreneurship centre at IIMB. This was set up 20 years back, so we celebrated our 20th-anniversary last year. The entrepreneurship centre does many things, like providing incubation services and mentoring. It runs a lot of programs for entrepreneurs. Also, thanks to the focus on entrepreneurship, we are providing a lot of entrepreneurial inputs to our students as well. We are one of the few institutes, which has an entrepreneurship course as a part of the core MBA program.
In the first year, students compulsorily have to do a course on the entrepreneurial mindset and motivation. This is one of the initiatives, which we think will create people with an entrepreneurial bent of mind. We do not think that entrepreneurship necessarily means you have to do a start-up, there is a good scope for entrepreneurship even in large companies. Large companies are constantly looking for avenues for growth and diversification, and they need people inside the company who can lead those efforts. Even if students are not doing their own start-ups, the fact that they have gone through this entrepreneurship orientation will help them when they are working in larger companies.
Our incubation activities are quite widespread and quite large in scope. We are working with thousands of people these days because we will be doing big programs with the national commission for women, where we are working with 2000 women entrepreneurs. We have a Goldman Sachs 10k program, in which we are working with hundreds of experienced entrepreneurs. We have a women start-up program, which has been sponsored earlier by Goldman Sachs, and now by Kotak Bank, which again focuses on women start-ups. Now we have specialized programs, which are focused on mobility, for which we are collaborating with Maruti, we have a program in Fintech, where we are collaborating with ICICI securities. So, there is considerable action in the entrepreneurship space.
You have penned over 100 research papers. Is the Indian education system moving towards a profitable research and patents system, as well as higher collaboration between industry and academia?
That’s probably more immediately relevant to the engineering colleges and, there we have seen lots of things happening in the last few years. During the pandemic, many of the IITs have come up with products for ventilators, testing kits, personal protective equipment, and lots of things. I think this emphasis was not there earlier. The skills do exist, and when there is an application that has to be met, there is the capability to address that application. To facilitate this on an ongoing basis, perhaps some changes need to happen inside our institutions.
For example, in the way we measure the contribution of the faculty. Traditionally we measure their contribution only in terms of their research outputs, we don’t look at the contribution to start-ups, we don’t necessarily look at the new products they have created. Hence, we need to review the way we measure and incentivize faculty within institutions. Some of the IITs for example, are doing this quite well. If you look at IIT Madras or IIT Bombay, they have already got huge start-up incubators, they have a faculty and student start-up policy, and hundreds of faculty members and students are getting into the start-up mode. So, the recipes are available.
In management, things are a little different because we don’t work so much on technical ideas, we do things that go into service businesses. But even then, there is scope for faculty members to get more involved in translating their ideas into actual businesses. We are looking at different models, and how we can encourage and promote the translation of faculty ideas into businesses.
Strategic management and innovation are the need of the hour. Which sectors will provide the best avenues for students who are passionate about these streams?
Some sectors are quite obvious. The Health sector is one. We have seen during the pandemic that our Healthcare system has several shortcomings, and this is a great area for students to get involved. Whether it be in products or services, there are so many opportunities in Healthcare, particularly, if you are willing to look at ways for providing affordable and accessible healthcare. Luckily, India has a long tradition in that area. We had companies like Narayana Healthcare, or non-profits, like Aravind eye hospital, which pioneered low-cost and high-quality methods of providing healthcare in their respective domains. We need more people who can use the same principles and ideas in other domains as well.
Education could be another sector. In India, we still have many problems to solve, unlike the west where most of the basic problems have been solved and now it’s all about the aspirational needs. Here we have basic “quality of life” issues, and many of them need to be addressed. There is the issue of availability in drinking water or sewage processing. You can take an issue like this where there is so much to be done. So, I would recommend that students should focus on solving the visible problems that affect the quality of life in India; that’s a great place to start.
Having studied, as well as taught in foreign universities, where do you think we need to focus on for reaching international standards in education?
There is no magic wand, I think you have to go step by step. You have to focus on quality and excellence in all that you do. I think the way to go is to use accreditation processes to benchmark institutions against the best, which need not necessarily be abroad, even benchmarks against better institutions within India. We need to take the steps required to close the gaps and take the institutions forward.
I think the challenge is somewhat similar to what we saw in the quality movement in the automobile industry maybe thirty or forty years back. In India, before Suzuki entered, through the collaboration with Maruti, Indian automobile industry quality standards were not very high. But, when Suzuki came in and set up the Maruti plant, the whole equation, as far as quality is concerned, remarkably changed. If you wanted to supply to Maruti, you had to be able to improve your internal quality processes. In the history of quality development in India, the founding of Maruti Suzuki is often seen as the turning point. It acted as a catalyst.
But individual companies had to work hard to put in place the quality management systems, adopt the quality practices and it was not a process that happened overnight. In some cases, it took 10 or 15 years for many automobile-component companies to come up to the levels required. We need to replicate such a process in academia as well.
Some institutions are doing well. We need to understand what enables them to do well, and then we need to put in place our quality processes to make similar things happen in our own institutions. Typically, in academia, accreditation is the route through which this happens. Good accreditation processes drive quality improvement. So maybe that’s the way to go. That’s what the Education policy also says, and we have to make it work.
Another thing that the NEP talks about is collaboration with foreign institutions. Are there any plans for such tie-ups by the IIMs?
We have several partnerships, and we are part of many international networks. We have student exchange programs with 60 to 70 universities, research collaborations with several faculty members and institutions abroad, and some dual degrees as well. While we have some tie-ups in place, there is further scope, and we will continue to explore them.