Indian B schools should not blindly emulate the US research model, but focus on inquiry that is actually relevant to practice: SPJIMR Dean Dr Varun Nagaraj

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Updated on November 9, 2021
In June 2021, SPJIMR announced the appointment of Dr. Varun Nagaraj as the new Dean of the Institute. He formally joined the institute in September. So how does IIT Bombay Alumni and Silicon Valley CXO turned management academic see management education in India – its strengths and weaknesses? How does he view SPJIMR, and what is his vision and plan? Continue reading this exclusive Interview for an insightful discussion.
SPJIMR Dean Dr Varun Nagaraj

In the hypercompetitive world of Top 10 B-schools in India, the last five years have been very eventful for SPJIMR Mumbai. Even as Top IIMs, XLRI and a few others compete tooth and nail for glory, SPJIMR is one B-school that has risen to the top of the league with a very distinct student-centric strategy. So much so that as per a recent article, SPJIMR offers the best “ROI” amongst all B-schools including IIMA, IIMB, IIMC. No surprise that SPJIMR is also ranked No 2 in India after IIMA and before IIMB in the prestigious 2021 FT MiM Rankings that ranked flagship MBA/PGDM programs.

On June 10, SPJIMR announced the appointment of Dr. Varun Nagaraj, a US-based practitioner-academic, as the new Dean of the Institute. The news was greeted with some scepticism as the management education community expected a known face from any of the top Indian B-schools to be given this important responsibility. But true to its image, SPJIMR chose a relative outsider to step into the big shoes of legendry founder-leader late Dr. ML Shrikant and Dr. Ranjan Banerjee. Dr. Nagaraj joined SPJIMR in September 2021.

IIT Bombay alumnus Dr. Nagaraj is an eclectic combination of a successful tech CXO, a practitioner-academic and a life-long learner. He holds B. Tech from IIT-Bombay, an MS from NC State University, an MBA from Boston University, and a PhD from Case Western Reserve University. His 30-year corporate career spans many CXO assignments in the Silicon Valley at the peak of the tech boom. Interestingly, despite his busy career, he found time to conduct research at Case Western and teach at several well-known US Universities like University of Notre Dame, Pepperdine University, and Boston University, in the areas of Digital Product Management, Innovation and Strategy.

So how does Dr. Nagaraj see management education in India from his vantage point? How does he compare top Indian B-schools with leading names in the West – what are we good at and where do we need to catch up? How does he view SPJIMR, which has many strengths but remains a relatively niche B-school? And more importantly what is Dr. Nagaraj’s vision and plan for SPJIMR?    

In last few weeks, interacted with Dr Nagaraj to get answers to all these questions…We also took a deep dive into his academic and professional journey, starting with the IIT. Dr. Nagaraj obliged us with a lot of personal anecdotes and his candid view on how he sees the Indian management education setup as it stands today. He also revealed his plans of pivoting SPJIMR from a niche B-school to….well, we will let the Dean say that! Read the edited excerpts from the exclusive interview: 

Q: Let’s start from the start. You graduated from IIT Mumbai in 1986. So did you write CAT and apply to the IIMs? Did you crack the admissions!
Yes. I wrote the CAT and got admitted to IIM-B and IIM-C (I did not apply to IIM-A for a silly personal reason; in hindsight I should have, so I could’ve claimed a 3 for 3 record). The IIMs were a backup plan for me in case I was unable to go to US for my master’s in engineering. I did get a visa and a full scholarship– and off I went to North Carolina State University as a 21-year-old looking for a great adventure.

Q: How will you summarize your corporate experience since you graduated from IIT. What were the key milestones?
I’d split my journey into 3 parts: After my MS in Computer Engineering from North Carolina State University, I spent approximately 6 years learning to be a good R&D engineer, product developer, and program manager at Hewlett Packard. I completed my MBA in an evening program at Boston University while I was working at HP, and after that, I joined a great management consulting firm called PRTM (now part of PwC) that focused on product strategy and supply chain strategy for technology-based product and service companies. The 7 years there were the best “finishing school” one could hope for after an MBA.

I became a partner at PRTM after 5 years but realized that there were more exciting things that were happening in the world of tech startups, so I made the unusual decision to quit a lucrative partnership and move to the tech start up world.

I then spent the next 20 years in that world, mostly in Silicon Valley. I stayed true to my product strategy roots – I ran product management teams at a few companies before I had the opportunity to serve as COO and CEO at a few cool companies. But even in those roles, I was always a “product person” as the fraternity of product management likes to say.

Q: You completed your MBA in 1994 from Boston University’s Questrom School of Business while working full-time at Hewlett Packard. What was the experience like…
I drove into downtown Boston to BU’s campus from HP’s campus in Andover (north of Boston) every Tuesday and Thursday for classes from 5.30 PM to 8.30 PM for three and a half years. I was newly married at that time and my wife was doing her Masters in EdTech at BU as well. We didn’t see each other much during the week but would spend the weekend together studying. For example, our Saturday morning date was spending a few hours at the laundromat studying and after the clothes were done, eating a late lunch at a small Mexican restaurant on Route 9 on the way home. Good days!

Back to the MBA, I was glad I worked full-time as I did my MBA because it made business more real. Working at HP was like having a living lab to practice many of the new things I was learning.

Q: Around year 2015, you started pursuing PhD at Weatherhead School at Case Western and began teaching on digital innovations. What led to this interest in academics…
Even at the age of 30, I had fantasies about moving to academia sometime later in life. I must have been a fan of tweed jackets I suppose! I was always very good at unpacking and explaining difficult and abstract concepts – so transitioning from being an explainer-in-chief to an academic didn’t seem like too big a stretch. When I was a manager, most of my reports would call my style professorial, though in hindsight, I’m not sure if that was supposed to be a complement or not!

I realized that if I wanted to transition to academia at some point in my career, it made sense to take the time to get a PhD, learn what doing quality research required, pick up some teaching experience, and see whether I would enjoy living my fantasy or not. As it turned out I found research and teaching to be fun. So, after my PhD was done, I decided to see what role in academia might be right for someone with my profile.

Q: Come 2021, what inspired you to move out from the world of cutting edge tech world in US to move back to India in an academic leadership role!
As I started considering an academic role – I wanted to find something that would leverage my long background as a corporate leader in tech along with my new capabilities as researcher and teacher. So that meant looking for an academic leadership role rather than a purely academic role.

Q: So how did SPJIMR Deanship offer come about…Was it an easy decision? What gave you the confidence that SPJIMR is the right place?
The previous dean of SPJIMR – Ranjan Banerjee – and I were contemporaries at IIT Bombay and had stayed in touch thanks to LinkedIn. He was aware of my journey towards academia and in fact had me come in a guest speaker to SPJIMR in 2019. I enjoyed my visit to SPJIMR and had fun meeting students and faculty from the information management area.

But India was not on my radar screen at that time, and I hadn’t seriously started developing a transition plan to academia. But in 2021, it all came full circle when the search firm contacted me about the Deanship at SPJIMR. It was not an easy decision. I was just starting on a very exciting start-     up that might one day change the world (I’ll let you know in a few years if they do). I was working with some of my good friends from IIT Bombay on that, and I have always enjoyed beautiful California.

But the siren song of academia kept playing in the background and the Deanship at SPJIMR seemed like a great blend of leadership, research, and teaching. Also, I have always believed that management schools should focus on improving practice, which is oddly not how US based management schools look at management! But that is exactly how SPJIMR views management. It sounds corny – but the mission statement of SPJIMR – to influence practice and promote value-based growth – is what sold me.

The decision to move to Mumbai was made a little easier because my mother lives in Bangalore, and my wife had already relocated to India in 2020 to become the principal of a wonderful school called PYDS that nurtures almost 500 underprivileged kids in the Uttarakhand area.

Q: How do you look at the Indian management education landscape? What are the strengths and areas of improvements…
I think traditionally Indian management schools have been very student-outcome-centric, though some like IIM Udaipur have more of a research-centric view like US business schools. However, I don’t think the world of student outcomes and the world of research need to be as distinct as they are. I think the bridge between the two is to focus on the practice of management – specifically, turning students into better practitioners and developing research or new knowledge that is relevant to practice. I think both these areas can be addressed much better than they currently are. Let’s look at each in turn.

As we know, creating a better practitioner involves working on three dimensions – knowing, doing, and being. “Knowing” is about more than learning deep learning or whatever the tech of the day happens to be. What matters are what at IIT we called “fundas” – the underlying fundamental principles and mindsets that let the practitioner deal with novel situations. Without fundas, knowledge is temporal. Also important are opportunities to practice and reflect – this is the mindful “doing” dimension of mastery. And finally, there is developing a sense of yourself in the context of a much bigger picture. This dimension is called “being”. I think many management schools, though student-centric, take a short-sighted view of knowing and pay insufficient attention to the doing and being dimensions.

On the question of research, with a few notable exceptions, most management schools in India are novices. However, as management schools in India look to increase their research output, my fear is that we might follow the worst of US management education – focusing on often irrelevant research from a purely publication lens as opposed to an impact lens. I would like SPJIMR to walk down the less trodden path of practice-relevant research.

Q: So, what is your vision and plan for SPJIMR? Where do you see it 2-3 years hence?
You know, 2-3 years is a very long horizon in Silicon Valley – but it’s a blink of an eye in academia! So, I’ll answer this question without a strict time horizon. Let’s call it X years hence!

Our X-year goals and plans flow from our mission –which as I noted is to influence practice and promote value-based growth. When we talk of influencing practice, it is not just the practice of our students and alumni, but that of organizations and society. And when we say influence, we mean both direct influence (such as teaching, consulting, designing interventions, etc.) and indirect influence (such as influencing organizations through our students, but also influencing organizations and society through thought leadership).

Now, this mission has remained unchanged since the 1980’s, but the world we operate in, has changed. The 2021 world is grappling with novel, profound, and simultaneous technological, environmental, and social change in a globally interdependent system. Business education is also undergoing disruption, with changing studentship timelines, new fulfillment alternatives, and the globalization and digitalization of education.  

It is this context we ask: what does it take to influence practice going forward and how do we increase our effectiveness and scale of influence. Effectiveness refers to how well we influence their practice in a manner that results in value-based growth in today’s context. Scale is about who we influence and how many. To increase the effectiveness of our direct influence, we must deeply but ubiquitously embed digital and sustainability principles into our curriculum and experiential pedagogy, while also giving our students and alumni the fundamental tools, experiences, and mindsets that will help them design innovative entrepreneurial solutions to the world’s complex and changing problems. To scale our direct influence, we must develop and deliver a broad range of cutting-edge and stakeholder-relevant programs (such as around FinTech), along with unique “SPJIMR-ethos-based” programs (such as Wisdom in Leadership) to more segments of our society than we currently serve. To improve both the effectiveness and scale of our indirect influence, we must focus our faculty research and the activities undertaken by our Centers on creating, synthesizing, and disseminating rigorous and relevant thought leadership in select areas related to value-based growth.    

Q: While SPJIMR offers great education, social-immersion and placements, is the research at par with the best? What are your plans in the area?
On conventional international metrics pertaining to research – the number of citations, the quality of journals, and so on – let’s be fair in our criticism – almost all Indian b-schools have a way to go. But we are focusing on closing this gap, as are some other leading Indian b-schools. In our case, we are doing it through focus, process, and culture. I already mentioned our focus on research that bridges the gap between theory and practice. Also, over the last many years, we have been hiring great faculty who combine an aptitude for teaching (which is a must at SPJIMR) with strong skills, passion, and proclivity for research.

All else being equal, we are looking to build research in SPJIMR mission aligned areas like digital sustainability, to pick an example. Our FPM/PhD program is gathering stream and I am excited about the research questions – many of which broadly explore the role of technology in society – that our scholars are pursuing. We have developed an Office for Research and Innovation that has created processes and funds to support our researchers. We have a regular research seminar series – only yesterday we had Dr. Anandhi Bharadwaj, an eminent information systems scholar from Emory University in the US visiting us in person sharing with our faculty and FPM scholars her upcoming paper on empirically measuring the effects of business model innovation. Our goal is to add research competency to our institute without diluting our traditional strength of teaching excellence.

Q: All said, SPJIMR is a strong but niche B-school. Are there plans to scale SPJIMR…
We are definitely one of the smallest and one of the most selective management schools in the country. While that is a good thing at one level, our goal is to increase scale in addition to effectiveness. If we really want to influence practice, we need to reach more practitioners! As noted earlier – our scaling strategy involves creating programs that address currently underserved needs of those we already reach today, and also designing new programs that address segments that are not served well by management schools today. This latter approach, by the way, is in keeping with the character of SPJIMR – we created a program for women returning to the workplace after a long break, and developed a program for CSR leaders and NGO leaders involved in sustainable development.

Q: Given your expertise and research on Technology & Innovations area, do you think the current MBA program curriculum and pedagogy is aligned to the changing social and business world?
Only partially. I see management and technical schools placing emphasis on buzzwords and specific skills. That may be necessary but is by no means sufficient. As I noted, the real challenge in using technology to positively impact our changing world is to focus on the fundas of continuous learning – the mindsets and the analysis/synthesis approaches required to analyze complex systems, formulate innovative responses, and appreciate the seen and unseen economic, social, and environmental consequences of action. This is easier said than done. I will consider my term at SPJIMR a success if our pedagogy reflects this viewpoint, and if our subsequent generation of students deploy the required level of technical, social, and environmental consciousness as they make and implement business decisions.

Q: Given a clean slate, how will you like to reimagine the MBA for Post Covid World?
I’d focus the curriculum on designing sustainable systems for a complex world and work everything from that point down.

Q: While last 18 months were painful, what are the lessons and practices that should continue in the post Covid world?
I think the pandemic did more to further digital transformation than all prior management efforts combined! From a management education perspective, we learned that education must be timely, bite-sized, and delivered whenever, wherever, and however the recipient wants it. I think this trend in what education means and how it is delivered / received is here to stay. At a societal level, I think we learned that we are all connected in a worldwide interconnected web – highlighting again that the real skill an MBA or other management education should impart is providing skills to students on how to navigate and shape this sort of a complex world.

Q: Finally, how will SPJIMR look like in say 2030!
One thing you learn in tech is that it is hubris to think in terms of specifics that far ahead. I am a believer in setting a direction – which I think I communicated – which is to increase the effectiveness and scale of how we influence practice and drive value-based growth in a world that is changing rapidly and unpredictably. In tech, you develop a minimum viable product and iterate, and it generally turns out that the specifics of the final winning product evolve through trial and error. In the next ten years, we will get some things right and a few things wrong. We will course correct and adjust.

All I can say is that in 2030, SJIMR will still be delivering on its mission and doing it effectively and at scale. If we do all that we must between now and then, I expect that our contributions to our students, alumni, industry, and society will be reflected in our consistent position as the number one private school of management in India and in our international reputation as an institution that is shaping a better world in its unique “SPJIMR-way”.