Jan-Mar 2012

Inculcating a Culture of Research

In the second of the two-part interview, Professor Krishnamurthy Subramanian talks to Anjan Thakor, John E Simon Professor of Finance and Director of the PhD programme, Olin Business School, Washington University in St Louis, on the importance of research and on building a strong team of faculty at the Indian School of Business (ISB). 

As a ten-year-old institution, ISB is still finding its feet as a research-oriented institution. The School’s vision is to be known as a thought leader for tomorrow. However, we must recognise that publishing in the top-tier journals is a culture that is often not very natural to countries outside the United States. As such, in this debate between relevance and rigor, what are the steps that ISB must take and who are the stakeholders that ISB needs to engage in the path towards realising this vision?

I think that for business schools, there are two key stakeholder groups – recruiters and faculty. Under recruiters, one group consists of the companies that are recruiting your students and the other comprises companies that you would like to welcome on board as recruiters. You need to engage with these companies and ensure that you understand their needs. You must also make sure that the students they recruit fit those needs. The other key stakeholder group is faculty. Besides that, there are also other important stakeholder groups such as students, alumni, etc, – but they all fall in place if you attend to the two key stakeholder groups that I mentioned. You must make sure that your faculty has the resources to do high-quality research and an environment that is conducive for that. I think having high-quality faculty who engage in high-quality academic research is the lifeblood of a good institution. I really believe that. Often, people question the need to have faculty who publish in top-tier journals that business people can’t read. I think this is important for a lot of reasons. Firstly, people misunderstand the role of research in teaching and in the success of an institution. If you have a high-quality academic research focus, it attracts the smartest people and brings cutting-edge research into the classroom. There is a difference between a faculty who is simply presenting material researched by somebody else versus someone who is teaching from his own research and imparting the practical applications to students. There is a qualitative difference; but as teachers, we have to do both. We can’t just teach based on our own research. We also have to teach material that other people have developed but we know that there is a difference in the level of enthusiasm, conviction and passion that is brought to the classroom when you are talking about your own research. Having cutting-edge researchers implies that more cutting-edge knowledge is being brought to the classroom. This also permits creation of knowledge that helps companies think about the “next practices” as opposed to “best practices”. This is a term coined by CK Prahalad, my former colleague at Michigan. He used to talk about this with companies. According to him, you have to lead the thought process in companies as opposed to simply telling them about the best practices. Research enables you to do that. I think applied research is important too. You have to be able to bridge the gap between what we publish in journals and what somebody else is going to read. For this, you need to have a good core of clinical faculty who are doing applied work or writing books that managers read. The best example of that is probably Harvard Business School. But there are others as well. When I was in Michigan, we had a core of thirty or so clinical faculty. They had a ladder rank system and they were required to publish and have visibility within the corporate communities. To get promoted, you had to have CEOs write letters of recommendations for you if you were a clinical faculty member. These professors were not tenure-track. But they had their own system of evaluation and they were encouraged to think independently and create knowledge that was more applied in nature. The other thing I would say to educational institutions like ISB, and Indian companies in general is to have more of a global ambition. I see that in China. The Chinese have enormous global ambitions. They think about the time when they were the dominant country in the world and they want to return to those days. When I come to India, I sense that there is so much satisfaction with the economic growth that has occurred, that people seem to have forgotten the glorious tradition of this country. Between 500 BC and 1400 AD, India was the richest country in the world. There was a time when this country had close to 40% of the world’s GDP. These are also the times when the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians were thriving, so these numbers for India are truly impressive. We have got to think big. We can’t be satisfied just because we are growing at 8% a year. We cannot be satisfied with five or six billion dollars in FDI. China receives 55 billion dollars in FDI every year. I think by the same token, ISB, for all its commendable success, has to think more globally. I would like to see this institution thrive as a global player on the research front and in terms of attracting students and faculty. Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) had that ambition to be more global, so half their faculty now is non-Chinese and they are also very research-active. I would like to see ISB flourish as a global institution, as the School has a fantastic campus, great facilities, a good brand name, and an emerging research faculty. I think ISB also has the potential to become a more visibly-networked player in the global research community.

Given that ISB’s faculty pool is growing, it needs some amount of mentoring from people who are accomplished and can provide advice on how to overcome certain challenges that young institutions face. How can we build our capacity in this area?
The Chinese schools are also going through this process. The simple answer is to hire some senior faculty. This is easier said than done – but it is not just a question of money. It is a question of the network within which people reside. They don’t want to leave their network because there is a lot of value in belonging to a particular network. Even for US schools, it is a very daunting task to hire senior faculty from other schools. I think a better advice is to create some sort of a system whereby you can attract senior faculty to come and spend a substantial amount of time here, to work with people. But again, the challenge is that these people are busy. I am sure that there are many ways to do this. One of the ways would be for the ISB faculty to begin developing interesting databases about India because there are so many interesting problems that you can study if you have access to data. I think ISB is ideally situated to play this role. If you can become the assembler of important databases and provide opportunities for people who are interested in research to come and spend time here, become familiar with the database, work with the faculty here, then I think you will get collateral benefits that address the issues you have mentioned.


In conversation: Anjan Thakor (left) with Krishnamurthy Subramanian (right)

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