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Home > Business > Columnists > Guest Column > Ajit Balakrishnan

The research dilemma at the IIMs

December 14, 2007

"Please explain to me," said a senior education ministry bureaucrat to me recently, "how is it that our IIMs are so successful in producing world-class graduates but fare so poorly in international rankings for their academic research output."

"What is the evidence that you have that the IIM research output is so low," I asked him.

"Take a look at worldwide rankings of universities by various international publications. While IIMs occasionally figure in the top 100 list, their ratings on research tend to be low."

In the world of business education, there is no shortage of rankings. In Europe, the Times Higher Education Supplement, the Financial Times and The Economist put out rankings. In the United States, BusinessWeek leads a large pack of rankers. Indian business magazines don't lag in this either with annual rankings from Business World, Business India and Business Today. Issues of magazines that carry these ratings outsell regular issues manifold and so there is a strong incentive all round to publish these kinds of rankings.

In a sense, there is as much or as little science in making these rankings as there is in the Miss World contest. And there are as many criteria used as there are rankers. Some are survey-based in which a group of respondents is asked to rank institutions on various criteria. The choice of respondents varies. Some restrict the respondents to alumni and recruiters, others to a peer group of academics.

The geographical spread of respondents also varies widely but respondents from the United States and Europe normally make up two-thirds or more of respondents. The weight to research output is usually 10-20 per cent. In measuring research output, rankers are increasingly moving away from opinion surveys and trying to use indices like the number of papers published in reputed journals.

"What is your take on why IIMs do not figure very high as research institutions," I asked a cross-section of professors across various IIMs.

 "Research does happen at the IIMs but not enough," says a professor. "It happens a lot in pure discipline areas like computer science and economics but not enough in functional areas like organisation behaviour, marketing and finance. This is because there is an acute shortage of teaching staff in these areas and the teaching pressure on professors in these areas is so high that it leaves little time for research."

"The way incentives are aligned at the IIMs tends to crowd out research," says another professor. Teaching in the core PGP programme gets rated by students and thus there is pressure to improve pedagogic performance, executive education gets financially compensated, so does consultancy so there is attention paid to these, but there is no recognition or reward for writing a book or publishing an article."

There is a chorus of agreement that the key to stepping up research output is the doctoral programme, called the fellows programme at the IIMs.

"The fellows programme is the foundation of any research output. Clay Christensen's acclaimed book The Innovators' Dilemma, for example, came out of his doctoral dissertation. Unfortunately, we have too few numbers coming out of this programme. All the IIMs put together produce less than 50 doctorates a year whereas we ought to be producing 200-300 every year."

What stops us from stepping up the number of doctoral students? It appears that intake is restricted because too few good candidates apply and part of the reason is that job offers from industry after the MBA programme are so lucrative that few pause to consider a career in research.

The magic appears to have a plentiful supply of doctoral students and then align teaching consulting and research.

There is one example that illustrates the intricate linkages between research and consulting. In 1990, Robert Kaplan, a professor of leadership development at Harvard Business School, and David Norton, head of the research arm of KPMG, the accounting firm, started a one-year multi-company project to explore new ways of measuring organisation performance.

The study became necessary because intangible assets like databases, customer relations, and responsive processes and so on were fast becoming the basis of competitive advantage and these were not being captured in traditional financial reporting. The Balanced Scorecard: Measures that Drive Performance was published in the Harvard Business Review in 1992, reporting their findings.

As a response to this article, several organisations called them to implement this measurement system. In working with them, they found companies linking these measurements to managing strategy. They described this in a second HBR article and a book in 1996: The Balanced Scorecard: Translating Strategy into Action.

In following more companies in their implementation of these ideas, they discovered that executives were using the words "alignment" and "focus" to describe the benefits. They documented these experiences in 2001 in their next book, The Strategy Focused Organization.

More work with companies revealed that objectives could be linked in cause-and-effect relationships and executives were drawing arrows to graphically display these relationships. They described this in their fourth HBR article and their 2003 book Strategy Maps has become the No 1 selling business book worldwide.

Ajit Balakrishnan is the founder and chief executive officer,
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