Nohria euphoria

When Nitin Nohria became the new Dean of HBS, India's chest welled up with pride. But a deeper question on why no Nohria is made in India remained unaddressed.


Rohit Bansal | May 19, 2010

HBS Dean Nitin Nohria
HBS Dean Nitin Nohria

A few hours after Indian newspapers (and the rare television channel which isn’t obsessed with TRPs!) got excited over the new, incredibly gifted, IIT-trained dean of Harvard Business School, the Financial  Times posted a sobering thought.

“Amidst the euphoria, Indians generally celebrate the success of their overseas compatriots on the global stage, often equating the individual’s achievements with an endorsement of India itself. Little wonder, then, that corporate India is exulting in this (Nohria’s ascent to one of the top jobs in the academic world). But among the more sober-minded, the question now is whether Indian policy makers, busily debating reforms to reinvigorate the country’s own sclerotic higher education system, can  turn Indian universities from heavily bureaucratic degree factories into institutions more like Harvard – standing at the cutting edge of knowledge itself,” Amy Kazmin, the FT’s South Asia correspondent wrote, even as the predictable sequence of anecdotal journalism featuring his father’s friend (mercifully not the friend’s neighbour!)  played out on Indian television.

I hope that echoing Ms Kazmin’s sentiment doesn’t amount to treason.

It is all very well to pat ourselves for having an IIT which could school Nohria, but it’s equally true that our IITs aand IIMs are getting old. Young blood is no longer attracted to teaching at IITs and IIMs (and my own St Stephen’s). The one’s I know are either marking time before they can  test themselves with the best for tenured jobs in the US. Or they’ve slipped into a cozy existence where you can get along without needing to have any contact with the world outside. The result is that an IIT-Bombay, in Nohria’s case, can produce an uncut diamond, but it has taken MIT and Harvard’s resources and academic culture to produce the new dean.

Let’s first talk of resources. Harvard, despite the embarrassing shave off  in its once enviable corpus of $35-billion ($1Billion is Rs 4,500 crore) has an annual budget of nearly $3.5 billion. Now, before we start justifying our own lack of comparable resources or even blame Harvard for it, let’s take note of the academic culture that governs these spends (and therein the amazing volume of endowments). HBS, I am aware, allows its faculty to accrue one day for research and “outside” pursuits against each week of teaching. This gives the faculty 52 days in a year to get their hands dirty with the nuts and bolts of global industry. The academic gets to keep the entire money. The incredible system will allow Nohria to draw in from over 200 equally talented colleagues, illustratively, Michael Porter who advises national leaders from Armenia to Taiwan (and reportedly charges $30,000 a day!), Srikant M Datar who sits on the board of Novartis, David Yoffie who had been on Intel’s board since 1989, Tarun Khanna whose exposure ranges from global powerhouse AES to microfinance powerhouse SKS Finance, Ranjay Gulati who co-produces a CNBC show with Suzy Welch, and Sunil Gupta, who moved in to HBS from McKinsey, and remained contemporary enough to go back for a sabbatical there. (Datar , Gulati and Gupta went to IIM-A)

I hope I am terribly wrong here, but  Indian universities merely produce the raw material, but we no longer  have the institution-building capacities to nurture,  attract or retain global academic leaders like Amartya Sen, the late IG Patel and Sumantra Ghosal, Deepak Jain or Nitin Nohria. The day when international, non-Indian academic leaders would want to work for our universities is even farther away. To paraphrase the poser inherent in Amy Kazmin’s post: what beyond Nohria Euphoria?

Honoured and amused by this ecstatic reaction at home, Prof Nohria (along with Rakesh Khurana and Scott Snook) is tying up a vigorous debate over the next few days on the future of leadership. Challenges exist in HBS’s own backyard. The world’s online education demand is getting bigger but faculty is uncomfortable getting into it. Then, corporates are increasingly inclined towards GE’s Crotonville-type training programmes. These columns have referred to Srikant Datar’s questions on the future of the MBA itself. The school’s weak to modest India strategy  and the relative success in similar efforts in China is another one.

Not surprisingly, Nohria’s facebook points to six outstanding blogs on the future of leadership []. One of the pieces talks of Ray Chambers who has built a coalition of six large non-profits to raise $3 billion to buy enough insecticide-treated-bed-nets for Africa, potentially saving a million lives from malaria every year.  The formula: A simple solution/technology that everyone could understand and rally around; an honest broker, Ray; a half-dozen credible groups who lock hands and commit to working together; and an enabler to ensure the collaboration continues and progress toward its goals are measured and coordinated.

Another link Nohria suggests draws from Paul Polman, the CEO of the consumer products giant Unilever, who has announced that the company - the challenge will be “doubling our size whilst reducing our environmental footprint.” Polman’s idea is that “businesses can do a lot — whether in their supply chains, factories, in the design of their products or in using their brands to educate people about more sustainable living. And tackling this with urgency and priority makes good business sense. Companies that embrace it and make it part of their strategy will be rewarded with higher rates of growth and lower costs. Those who wait to be forced into action or who see it just as reputation management or CSR, will do too little too late — and may not even survive." If you need more endorsement, remember that John Chambers, at Cisco, has announced that he thinks the Smart Grid will be bigger than the Internet.

Another idea Nohria commends relates to leading from behind, a phrase borrowed from Nelson Mandela. Mandela equated a great leader with a shepherd: "He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind."

Is it a concept whose time has come, given that the psychological contract between companies and employees is changing and  Innovation — not simply incremental but continual breakthrough innovation — will be a key driver of competitiveness? Let’s hope the answers don’t just come from Nohria’s HBS or MIT, but his beloved IIT too.



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