On Sunday, November 29, all eyes were on IIM Indore as about 2 lakhs MBA aspirants took CAT exam across the country. CAT 2020 wasn’t just a test of MBA aspirants but also a huge challenge for IIM Indore, the Convening IIM for CAT this year, and TCS, the Testing Agency. CAT Centre at IIM Indore must have felt a huge relief by 6.30 PM when final Slot 3 was completed without any glitches. IIM Indore deserves congratulations for a glitch free CAT 2020 inspite of the unprecedented COVID 19 challenge. MBAUniverse.com relooks at the CAT 2020 success journey, which could well be a Harvard Business School Case Study on business continuity, agility and crisis management!
Indeed, IIM Indore is relieved and happy that CAT 2020 went off well. In an exclusive interview after CAT, Prof Himanshu Rai, Director, IIM Indore, told MBAUniverse.com, “Yes, we are happy that we were able to hold CAT 2020 successfully. CAT Convenor Prof Harshal Lowalekar and his team deserve all the congratulations!”
Echoing the sentiments, Prof Lowalekar told MBAUniverse.com, “Yes, we are relieved that CAT 2020 was successful. Due to COVID, it was a challenging year.”
Prof Rai and Prof Lowalekar highlighted the various challenges that IIM Indore faced, and the management principles that they adopted to ensure that CAT 2020 was a success.
But before we go ahead and talk about success principles, let’s relook at the key CAT 2020 facts.
Glitch free exam at 430 test centers in 159 cities
CAT did the commendable job of conducting the CAT exam without any technical glitches. Despite all this reorganization of CAT exam slots and various Covid-19 disruptions calling for preventive measures to conduct the exam, none of the 430 test centres reported any major technical glitches during the three slots of CAT exam which was conducted smoothly on November 29.
IIM Indore ensure that CAT 2020 followed all Pandemic safety Protocols issued by Union and State Government. Accordingly, candidates were given clear instructions to comply with various exam day guidelines. No major hiccups or glitches were reported. Speaking at an MBAUniverse.com webinar on CAT Day, India’s leading test prep experts shared their appreciation for IIM Indore. Said Hemang Panchmatia, Program Director, PG-India at IMS Learning, “We haven’t heard about any glitches from across the country. IIMs deserve to be congratulated.” Arun Sharma, Author of bestselling CAT Prep books, added, “IIM Indore has done a remarkable job and deserves all the appreciation.”
2.28 lakh candidates’ registrations, only a marginal dip expected
When CAT registrations opened on August 5, 2020, there was chaos all around. COVID 19 Crisis was at its peak. Business press had only negative stories of layoffs and business closures. Exams like JEE and NEET were getting postponed by NTA.UGC and AICTE were issuing new guidelines and circulars every fortnight for Admission 2020. Amidst all this, it was anticipated that fewer candidates would apply for CAT 2020. But, the charm of doing MBA from top B-schools prevailed and despite all the speculations, 2.28 lakh candidates applied for CAT 2020. This was only a marginal fall of 6.5% as 2.44 lakhs candidates had registered for CAT 2019.
So far so good. A lot of challenges lay ahead of IIM Indore.
In the run up to CAT, the CAT Centre at IIM Indore faced many challenges that they had to deal with. Admitting the challenges, Prof Rai said, “Yes, there were plenty of challenges in holding CAT this year. We are happy that we were able to face them and succeed!”
So, what were the key challenges? While COVID 19 was self-evident, there were plenty more!
“Yes, COVID was the biggest challenge this year. The test preparations effectively could begin only in June instead of April,” said Prof Lowlekar.
COVID 19 Returns
When CAT was announced on July 29, 2020, most of the medical experts believed that COVID 19 will subside by October-November. While COVID Cases did slow down in September, there was a second wave due to an elongated festive season.
Very close to CAT 2020 exam date, night curfews were imposed in many cities in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh among others as the second wave of Covid-19 had started to spread. All the States implemented more travel restrictions. It posed a great challenge in conduct of CAT exam on the designated date of Nov 29 and CAT organizing team needed a solution how to manage this critical situation on the D day on which 2.28 lakh candidates were expected to appear in the exam.
Weather Gods: Unfurling the Fury
As if Covid19 was not enough a challenge, Flood and Cyclone added to the grim situation. Cyclone Nivar hit Tamilnadu, Puducherry, AP and neighbouring cities, disturbing the life and property, flooding the areas and leaving many dead.
Recalls Prof Lowalekar, “The possibility of last-minute weekend curfews and lockdowns post the festival season and the cyclone in TN and AP just before the exam further added to the air of uncertainty.”
“I remember a few days before CAT day we were sitting in a late night meeting wondering if we will be able to send invigilators from IIMs to test centers in TN,” says Prof Rai. As a practice, to ensure fair and honest exam, IIMs send their own faculty/staff to act as observers to each of the exam centres across India.
Farmers’ Agitation cripples North
To make matters worse, just a few days before CAT, Farmers’ Agitation erupted in North India, restricting the movement of the vehicles and trains. The Gurjar agitation in Rajasthan regarding reservation raised yet another alarm for the test takers who had their test centres in various cities of Rajasthan. All this was turning the situation more difficult in conduct of CAT 2020. However, braving the challenges IIM Indore and CAT organizing team used management and leadership principles that worked remarkably well.
LEADERSHIP & MANAGEMENT MANTRAS IN ACTION
Anticipating the challenges that COVID 19 will offer, IIM Indore and the CAT organizing team took some bold decisions. Prof Rai and his colleague Prof Lowalekar also evoked the leadership and management mantras that helped immensely.
Expand Geographical Reach
IIM Indore in consultation with other IIMs and testing partner TCS, increased the number of test cities to 159 and increased the test centres to 430 with the view to conduct the CAT exam on time and in safe environment keeping in view the Covid-19 challenges. This helped the test takers to opt for nearest test city and in minimising their travel time to the extent possible. Last year total test cities were 156 and the test centres were 376.
Increased Exam Slots
To keep the social distancing norms and to follow GoI guidelines, a unique solution of increasing the number of slots to three from earlier two was found. The information was disseminated as early as in mid September 2020 so that candidates could get ready for any of the three slots.
Three Slots in CAT 2020 not only made it possible to take Covid-19 precautions, it also provided flexibility for the test takers to appear in the exam with comparatively fewer candidates at the test centre in each slot. The social distancing norms could be more effectively followed by increasing the number of slots from two to three in CAT 2020 exam.
Test Pattern & Timing rejig
To accommodate three slots in a day, CAT 2020 test time duration was reduced to two hours from earlier three hours. Total questions were reduced to 76 from earlier 100. Besides sectional time limit was also reduced to 40 minutes from earlier 60 minutes.
Above decisions were not easy to take, especially when key CAT decisions are taken jointly by Top 6 IIMs. Prof Rai recalls a series of virtual meetings conducted among IIMs and with TCS before arriving at the decision. “CAT is a collective responsibility of 6 older IIMs that we share on a rotation basis. While in the past a group of IIM representatives would convene together face to face and take decisions, this year we had to do all this virtually, which was a big challenge.”
One of the standout features of IIM Indore leadership was its proactive communication.
For instance, just a week before CAT day, rumours on postponement of CAT were spreading on social media. MBAUniverse.com sent a query to CAT convener at 1.45 PM. Lo and behold, we received his emphatic response at 1.48 PM! He emphatically said, “CAT will happen on 29th November only. There is no talk of postponing it! “That’s how swift IIM Indore was…MBAUniverse.com promptly published this news and nipped the rumour.
In another instance of quick thinking, as Farmer Agitation spread in North India, IIM Indore took immediate steps. To make it easy for the candidates to travel to Test Centres in curfew bound areas, CAT centre wrote to Secretaries and DGPs of all the States in India to treat CAT Admit Card as the curfew pass. This facilitated in smooth conduct of CAT exam. “Our letter to public administration was well received and we are thankful that they extended support, quickly and unhesitatingly,” says Prof Rai.
While keeping an eye on weather and natural calamity, CAT Centre at IIM Indore had rounds of meetings with state and district authorities to get situation update and mulling over the alternate options. All this required consistent and focused efforts which resulted in a successful CAT despite all the disruptions.
Making Experience count!
Indian management education was perhaps lucky that CAT 2020 was in the safe hands of IIM Indore, Dr Himanshu Rai and Prof Harshal Lowalekar.
Among the six top CAT convening IIMs, IIM Indore is the only one that enjoys the privilege of conducting CAT exam thrice in seven years, that too twice in consecutive years. IIM Indore has successfully conducted CAT in 2013, in 2014 with material changes and in 2020 despite all the Covid-19 challenges.
Adding to CAT experience of IIM Indore was Director Prof Himanshu Rai, a well-known management educator and administrator. Prof Rai was the Convener of CAT 2010 where he successfully restored the sanctity of CAT, which had faced major issues in 2009 when 14% of CAT centres couldn’t function due to a “technical glitches” and exam had to be reconducted for about 10% aspirants. CAT 2010 was a resounding success under Prof Rai’s leadership.
Three Management Principles
When MBAUniverse.com asked Prof Rai for the key principles that he deployed in ensuring the success of CAT, he outlined the following three principles:
- Complex Decision Making
- Effective Collaboration in Virtual Environment
- Imagination, Anticipation & Speed of Execution
When we requested Prof Rai to elaborate, he said, “Effective management is all about taking the right decisions by analysing the available information. In this case, we were dealing with an Unknowable Phenomenon, which no one could know or predict. In these ambiguous circumstances, the decision making was very complex. For instance, the decisions about reducing the test duration and increasing the number of shifts was a complex decision. We are happy that it all fell into place.”
Talking about collaboration, Prof Rai said, “Our challenges were compounded by the fact that CAT requires a collective decision-making process of six older IIMs. While it is relatively easy to take decisions in a face to face meeting, virtual meetings and collaboration have their own challenges. For instance, sometimes, while discussing a specific CAT question, the committee may debate for more than an hour on the wording of the question and the answer options! And we had to ensure that there is no leakage of discussions.”
Prof Rai also points out that CAT Centre at IIM Indore was consciously anticipating various scenarios and looking at possible solutions.
TCS – an able ‘Partner’
Presence of TCS, which has been conducting CAT since 2013, certainly helped the smooth conduct of CAT. Acknowledging TCS, Prof Lowlekar said, “TCS played the lead role in success of CAT. Given that they had conducted other exams in the COVID scenario, they had the requisite experience. Their delivery, content, and operations teams did a remarkable job even though their work increased due to the bunching of the exams.”
Visualizing the Covid-19 pandemic situation it stood firmly by the side of IIM Indore to conduct CAT 2020 on time by following all the Covid-19 precautions. Anticipating the challenges, TCS had started spadework to increase the number of cities and test centres much in advance. Test cities were increased to 159 and test centres were increased from 376 to 430. This made the CAT takers comfortable to the extent possible without putting them to troublesome journey to distantly located test cities.
Appreciating the efforts made by TCS, Prof Rai said, “We really appreciate the work TCS has put in the smooth conduct of CAT 2020. TCS played the role of a partner, and not just a service provider for IIMs. They are very prompt in responding to and anticipating customer needs.”
When asked if there was any moment when IIM Indore felt that it may not be possible to conduct CAT 2020 on November 29, Prof Rai said, “Initially, we had a to speculate a lot, and particularly, in summers there was a massive spike in COVID cases and that made us circumspect. But after IIM Indore was able to successfully hold IPMAT Exam (for 5-year Integrated Management Program), we became confident. Since then we didn’t look back!”
The success of CAT 2020 amidst all the challenges is a stellar example of what Indian management education can achieve in trying times. The IIM system, IIM Indore and TCS deserve all the compliments.
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