ISBInsight: Thought leaders from academia and industry have converged at the picturesque ISB campus for conversations, debates, and discoveries around Strategy. Why did you pick India and Hyderabad for a Strategy conference?
Charles Dhanaraj: Everyone acknowledges the fact that India is the world’s fastest growing major economy, having come a long way after it opened itself up to market forces. Over these decades, India has witnessed the emergence and growth of strong indigenous businesses expanding domestically and globally, as well as the entry of many multinationals who have evolved here and have helped create a vibrant economy. Successive governments have continued to sharpen the focus on governance and infrastructure. As a result, despite the problems surrounding the global economy, India has continued to keep its growth momentum and hence offers a great setting for discussing evolution of strategy.
Anand Nandkumar: Hyderabad is a perfect city to play host, and I don’t say this only because I live here! Hyderabad is a living example of the seamless blend between the digital and physical worlds. It’s a city that breathes tradition, while basking in technology-driven success. What better venue could one ask for when the theme of the conference centres around ‘Paradox’? Also, as one of India’s leading business hubs, with leadership in Information Technology (IT), pharmaceuticals and biotech, the city offers a great industry talent catchment area for such a conference.
What issues were at the top of your mind when you planned for this edition?
Charles Dhanaraj: Everyone realises that the planning timespan used for businesses has shifted from years and decades to quarters, months, and even weeks, driven by the environment and market forces. The approach to strategy and models also needs to reflect this compression, and this was one of the overarching thoughts for the Conference.
Anand Nandkumar: The other aspect that was important for us was increasing scholar capacity and improving the understanding of current issues within academia to answer: ‘Where is our understanding of strategy stuck and what do we need to do understand about the changing needs of industry?’. The important task was to bring future PhDs up to speed with current tools and methodologies and the Scholar-Practitioner workshops were intended as a partnership between academics and industry to this end.
Charles Dhanaraj: Honestly, if we want to understand disruption, then even our PhD pool needs to be disruptive in its approach. Feedback from industry was that academic research was not widely read. So, it was a question we had to ask ourselves as well about how we keep research relevant. It spells trouble for our profession if our PhDs cannot put out relevant literature.
Tell us about the genesis of the SMS Special Conference from the 1st edition onwards.
Charles Dhanaraj: During my early days as Visiting Faculty at ISB in 2006, I was struck by the vibrancy of the country, this city and the campus. This got me thinking about holding a strategy conference here. I contacted the Strategic Management Society (SMS) and they suggested I get in touch with MB Sarkar who also had a similar thought. We both understood that we cannot push this innovation on our own and that a giant of the game was needed to seed this. Between us and SMS, we decided to approach CK Prahalad, who also liked the thought. Scale for the conference is something that CK always had as a pre-condition, and for this he managed to attract senior and prominent industry practitioners for the 1st edition in 2008. The Conference was dear to CK because he always believed in the value and reward of good research capabilities. In some sense the first edition provided impetus to expand research in India since at that time outside of ISB, none of the Indian B-schools focused on research in a meaningful way. The current edition is a tribute to both CK and MB Sarkar, who have both unfortunately passed away while leaving behind a rich legacy.
The difference this Conference makes is that: one, it looks at local issues with a greater focus; and two, it helps to build up research capabilities through exposure as well as tailored workshops.
Anand Nandkumar: Participation of industry is another continuing unique aspect of the SMS Conference. Since the Conference focuses on local issues relevant to academia, practitioners also get incentivised to attend and collaborate with researchers. All the editions so far have had this underlying theme and in the current edition we have specifically focused more on the pace of change and how to cope with it.
Going into the third edition of the Conference, how have you seen it evolve?
Charles Dhanaraj: Clearly the scale has grown with increased participation but more importantly, the depth and coverage is greater. In 2013, we had 2/3rd participation locally and 1/3rd from overseas; now it was more like 50:50, which shows that the Conference has made its mark and is moving beyond the location where it is held, in terms of its reach and attraction. I see a marked and continuous improvement in the quality of the papers and the presentations too.
Anand Nandkumar: In 2008, and perhaps even in 2013, it would have been impossible to do something like the ‘New Doctoral Workshop’ since there was hardly any research being done in Indian institutions. In a short time, research work has taken root in India in a big way and this has contributed to the popularity of workshops focused on developing cutting-edge empirical research capabilities in the current edition.
What thoughts went behind the current edition? Why discuss paradox?
Charles Dhanaraj: This is the right time to think about paradox in business. Globalisation and digitalisation are bringing the world closer together, while at the same time political factors are pulling people and economies apart. So, are we coming together or are we drifting apart? Similarly, is technology universally good for everyone and every business? Clearly not. Another area is social responsibility, which runs counter to corporate profitability objectives. All these are persistent tensions and contradictions under which businesses operate. Hence, it is becoming increasingly important for business leaders to understand, appreciate and even co-opt paradoxes in furtherance of business objectives.
Anand Nandkumar: Way back in 2008, CK had also alluded towards the paradox that exists in India. As an example, he spoke about the world-class ISB campus that was hosting the Conference while a completely different world existed barely a kilometre outside the gates. Hence India in some way is the ideal setting to discuss paradox and strategy. Besides, India is a living paradox due to the diversity and size of the Indian market. In fact, many businesses look at India as 29 markets and not one.
Charles Dhanaraj: A unique thing about India is that people here live with paradox more comfortably. We want to be efficient, but we can be accommodating. We can be intensely personal and yet intensely professional. We can be spiritual and yet scientific. We do not see any of these as contradictions. This is very difficult– though just as important- for people from some other countries to understand.
What were some of the key insights on managing and leveraging paradox coming out of the discussions?
Charles Dhanaraj: There were three specific insights. First, there was a view that strategy is broken, and traditional models do not work in an age of paradox. Yet, there is an acknowledgement that strategy is important, especially since the difference between winners and losers has magnified. Hence, new ideas in strategy need to be seeded. Second, a universal acknowledgement that technology and digitalisation are both challenges and opportunities. Technology will be an enabler but what about concerns like privacy? And what about job losses? This is why it is important for us to think systemically about change so that we can anticipate it. The third aspect is implications for management education. Future leaders who pass out of these corridors need to recognise that paradox is a business reality and we as teachers need to prepare accordingly. A related point on digitalisation and technology for B-schools is also that the implication extends beyond debates like online vs offline instruction and far beyond delivery media, and into, for example, duration. Are we looking at a continuance of the traditional model of 2-year or 1-year instruction or does that itself need to change? The conclusion is clearly that technology will shape what is learned, how it is learned, and when it is learned.
Anand Nandkumar: There is also the insight of how firms need to change to cope with disruption, paradox and other challenges. Firms acknowledge that they have to change but their gripe with academia and strategy models is perhaps that they are not getting insights on how to change. Since they do not have a guide book, they end up responding feebly to strategic challenges. Secondly, as Charles said, on education there was an acknowledgement that this is an area ripe for disruption. The impression in education is that students tend to use digital medium as a supplement and this led to the situation where technology was used only in the fringes and not at the core. However, the conclusion from the discussions is clearly that academia needs to be at the forefront of understanding disruption, adjusting accordingly, and in turn handhold industry in dealing with it.
About the Interviewer:
Ujval Nanavati is a Chartered Accountant, Chartered Financial Analyst and an ISB alumnus. He is a co-founder of a bio-technology engineering start-up focused on opportunities in waste to value.