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How Harvard professors are mining India for lessons in management
By Nikhil Menon, ET Bureau
From the logistics of Dabbawalas to the redevelopment of Dharavi, Harvard professors are mining the country for lessons in management.
The sight turned quite a few heads on Mumbai's suburban railway network. Long used to ignoring everything in their antlike frenzy, commuters who saw a dapper-looking foreigner gingerly alighting from a local train in the company of a bunch of dabbawalas couldn’t help but pause for a while. But if they were puzzled, Stefan H Thomke, William Barclay Harding Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School (HBS), was astonished-and getting more so by the second.
A regular visitor to India for a quarter of a century, Thomke had first read about the dabbawalas in a magazine in his hotel room. He says, "I immediately asked myself: how could an organisation with so few resources, technology and management knowhow achieve such high-delivery performance? When I came back to Boston, I researched the organisation and found more questions than answers."
In Pic: Professor John Macomber, co-author of the case study on Dharavi, on a Mumbai street.
'The Dabbawala System: On-Time Delivery, Every Time'
In February 2010, HBS published his observations in the form of a case study, entitled 'The Dabbawala System: On-Time Delivery, Every Time'. One of the most authoritative analyses of the dabbawala community and the environment they operate in, the case study has since been debated and discussed extensively in classrooms as well as in Harvard's management development programmes .
"It seemed like a fascinating and unusual setting that is unique to India but with potentially powerful lessons for the world," says Thomke. "People with average skills and education can do extraordinary things. Perhaps there is a bigger lesson here. India has many people, but are all of them being used to their full potential?"
Thomke isn't the first Harvard professor to evince an interest in the great Indian growth story. From Jamnalal Bajaj and Mahatma Gandhi to Infosys and the Indian railways to SBI, India teems with countless examples of resourcefulness and stories of ingenuity in the face of serious challenges. For an academic, particularly , from one of the world's bestknown business schools, India provides a virtual goldmine of case studies.
In Pic: A worker polishes a kitchen cooking stove at a small-scale stove making factory at Dharavi, one of the world's largest shantytowns, in Mumbai, India on Friday, June 10, 2011. (Image: AP)
Setting of India Research Center was a significant step by Harvard
Harvard's India connection has been growing steadily over the years. In recent times, the School has begun running full-fledged management development programmes (MDPs) in India for future leaders. Professors from top Indian B-schools are also becoming regulars at Harvard's Global Colloquium on Participant-Centered Learning, held in Boston. But arguably one of the most significant steps taken to boost this mutual relationship was the establishment of an India Research Center (IRC) in 2006.
The Center, one of seven worldwide , is designed to run like an Embassy , through which Harvard will 'share the best of Harvard with India and vice versa'. One of the Center's main objectives is to support and guide members of Harvard's faculty who routinely visit India on research projects that culminate in case studies. These case studies, says HBS Dean Nitin Nohria, enable the school to share Indian knowledge with the rest of the world.
"We know that we could never possibly scale to meet the growing demand for what we do and we don't aspire to take the place of business schools in India or elsewhere ," he says.
In Pic: A boy carries his two-year-old brother through a flooded pathway in a Mumbai slum on June 6, 2011. (Image: REUTERS)
Most Harvard case studies from South Asia are India-centric
"So we have chosen instead to go where the knowledge is, to study it first-hand and then share it with the world through our publishing and teaching. Our research centers in various parts of the world, including India , help us to build relationships with business leaders in those regions to facilitate the writing of cases and other research."
According to Anjali Raina, executive director of the IRC, as many as 80 of the 120-plus recently documented Harvard case studies from South Asia, are India-centric . "There is a tremendous amount of knowledge lying across the three spheres of business, society and government. HBS researchers are actively studying all three individually, as well as cases that lie within the interaction of multiple spheres," she says.
One such example is Dharavi, Asia's largest slum and home to an indigenous economy all its own. The redevelopment of Dharavi is fraught with politicial, social and financial repercussions. Yet, it is a necessity for a growing economy like India to provide a better quality of life to Dharavi's residents.
In Pic:High rise residential buildings are seen behind a slum in Mumbai on July 20, 2010. (Image: REUTERS)
Dharavi is a very complex place
Lakshmi Iyer, Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard's Business, Government and the International Economy Unit, co-authored a study along with Professor John Macomber and Namrata Arora, entitled 'Dharavi : Developing Asia's Largest Slum'.
Written in the year that ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ swept the Oscars, the case uses imagery and even the occasional quote from the movie. It tracks a real estate developer's journey, negotiating the various risks and questions that inevitably arise during redevelopment. Add to that the fact that Dharavi is a very complex place with different communities that have strong personal views on redevelopment and it becomes a perfect candidate for a case study for the world's brightest minds.
Macomber has used the case in three different courses - finance, infrastructure , sustainable cities - and it's been a hit every time, provoking extensive discussion . "The case is about entrepreneurship and large-scale investment. It deals with finance, risk management, sensitivity analysis, supply chains, organisational behaviour and all the other things you learn in business school," he says.
In Pic:In this photo taken December 18, 2009, a boy stands amid plastic waste from a plastic bottle recycling plant at a slum area in Mumbai, India. (Image: AP)
Growth of middle class draws an academician's interest
Lakshmi Iyer says there are two principal reasons for India being of major interest from an academician's standpoint: one, the high economic growth rates recorded over the past two decades and the growth of a significant middle class and two, the opening up of the economy, which means that more and more global firms have a presence in India now.
"For both these reasons, it is important for our students and MDP participants to understand how business works in India," she adds. If Dharavi and Slumdog Millionaire generated widespread interest in India's growth, the terror attacks of November 2008 were a grim reminder of its vulnerability. The Taj Mahal hotel at Apollo Bunder in Mumbai has long been one of the city's most iconic symbols for Indians and foreigners alike.
But on 26th November 2008, it was thrust into the middle of India's worst terrorist attack, as armed terrorists forced their way inside, gunning down scores of innocents and engaging security forces for over two days.
In Pic:In this October 19, 2010 photo, a boy flies a kite in a shanty town in Mumbai, India.(Image: AP)
Employees at the Taj instinctively did a right thing during Mumbai attacks
The events that followed are known to most people. What could have been a human and public relations catastrophe became a story of resilience and courage that will be retold many times over. It also became a Harvard case study.
Rohit Deshpande, Sebastian S. Kresge Professor of Marketing and Faculty Chair, Global Colloquium for Participant-Centered Learning, calls the Taj incident 'the most important example of customercentric leadership from below I have ever seen' . He says employees at the Taj individually, and without prior training in anti-terrorism measures, instinctively 'did the right thing.' "The telephone operators stayed on the job despite the end of their shifts and being told to go home.
Instead, they instructed guests to turn off room lights, take key cards out of room doors, lock rooms, turn off lights, and not use their mobiles. The kitchen staff formed a human chain to protect guests from bullets and led them down secret kitchen passages and out to safety," says Deshpande.
The case explored factors for a customer-centric organisation
Apart from telling the story of employee bravery and initiative, the case also explored the factors that go into building a customer-centric organisation, starting with recruiting, training, and rewarding employees and the role of corporate culture (in this case not only of Taj Hotels but of the Tata Group) and what it takes to rebuild a distinguished, centuryold flagship brand.
And rebuild, the group did. Today , heads of state and business leaders heading to Mumbai want to stay at the Taj, a symbol of resistance against terror. Interestingly, the Taj terror case study was not planned, and Deshpande was originally planning to do a study on the hotel's changing brand architecture , which was also released in September 2010.
Raina of IRC says that over the years, the subjects being chosen for research by HBS researchers have seen a gradual shift from FMCG and marketing to other subjects. "These include sustainability , finance, urbanisation , sustainability , good governance and HR," she explains.
Accessibility of oranised data is research-related challenge
The richness of data available in the country has tremendously fascinated academicians and Indophiles alike. However, Raina admits that this data is not always readily accessible. "The data's there, but it needs to be leveraged better," she says, "Sometimes you don't know who the right contact person is, and how to contact him or her. Then the data may not be available in the right format, or may not be readily accessible or organised. This is one of the research-related challenges."
But Thomke was never fazed by these challenges, since all along he had been looking for interesting case studies that were unique to India and, at the same time, had 'broad global appeal' .
These included the first case, about the dabbawalas of Mumbai, and a second one titled 'Innovation at Mahindra & Mahindra' , which is about the role of maverick innovators in organisations and the tension between structured and informal management processes.
India's big challenge is to supplement world-class education
The case speaks about Mahindra & Mahindra's efforts to build a revolutionary new tractor, which encounters numerous problems and setbacks. Thomke recalls encountering employees who were 'hungry for knowledge' and had some pretty impressive suggestions.
But despite this, he adds that India's next big challenge is to supplement the world-class education being offered at its premier institutions with a focus on training the 'other 99% of the population' , particularly in vocational skills so as to maximise India's human capital advantage.
His observations are being echoed in India's corridors of power. However, one thing seems certain: whatever India does, it will be in its own unique way. And the world will be watching and taking notes.