Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Why India lacks a "Harvard Business Review" - a case study

Appeal for the World
Management institutions are built to serve three core purposes - (a) promote direct education of young and mature students, (b) create productive academia-industry engagements, and (c) act as a research and publications platform for high-quality, original thinking.

It is the third role that we will discuss in this case study.

Undoubtedly, when there's a lot of original research going on in a B-school (if you have a smile on your face, you know the malaise!), there will be an inclination to publish it. It's perhaps the best currency of power you have with corporates. It can generate future revenue streams for your school more reliable than student enrolment, perhaps.
So, research and publications at any management institution depend on some factors:
  1. Quality faculty willing and capable to do original research
  2. Enough industry interfaces available to ensure lots of credible raw material to research on
  3. Design and publications team that can present the ideas and research paper in a lucid manner
  4. Successful commercial interface (advertisements and marketing promotions)
  5. Process owner - the key driver of the effort
The number of managements institutions that dot the landscape of India, the amount of public funds that the central government lavishes on the chosen ones (the Indian Institutes of Managements - IIMs) and the tremendous media heft that these B-schools carry with local and national media, suggest to a layman's mind that there would be several world class management journals being published from these hallowed portals of management education in India.

Surprise, surprise... there is not a single world class publication that India can genuinely showcase. That you can take to the boardrooms of the world's top corporates and read (and show) with pride. And if you set the HBR (Harvard Business Review) as the benchmark, the situation is visibly shameful. Indian management publications stand nowhere. And in the past 3 years, it's all the more amazing that HBR has been able to hold its high ground, when the whole edifice on which western capitalism itself stands is shaking wildly than ever!

To put it crudely, most of the so-called management-journals being printed in India by various business schools seem only to be there to fulfill some requirement of the AICTE or UGC law. Drop that requirement, and the number of journals will drop overnight. When you print something just to fulfill some norm, it's obvious what commitment you'll carry behind it!
Before I move any further, let me define what I feel will qualify as a "world-class management journal". I feel it's a publication that engages, enthralls, excites, and raised the reader's intellectual level without him/her even consciously realising that. It presents the real world problems in a colourful, tasteful, artistic and lucid manner that most people can comprehend. And most important of all, it lacks bullshit disguised as academic jargon. Stuff that's only there because some professor wanted to prove a point.

Example of bullshit - "Customer-engagement metrics were redesigned and recalibrated to create a sustained harmony of user-experience that was unparalleled in the industry landscape dotted with horror-stories of failed paradigms that threatened to obfuscate the need for ground level research"

Simplified, it reads
- As many companies had failed in this sector, we redesigned our approach to customer service. We wanted them to get a fantastic user-experience.

This example is a strong indicator of the editorial scissors that must be used in ample measure.

So, why is the situation so bad when it comes to management journals from India? And is it really a bad situation? Let me offer a dispassionate review.

I have been a subscriber to the HBR for more than 15 years now - the international edition. They played around for a while in between automatically offering local Indian edition, but reverted quickly to the original western edition upon my protest. (This further gave me a strong insight on why Indian publications simply lack the kind of gravity you get addicted to when using the western editions.)

What makes HBR solid? Here are eight differentiators -
  1. Terrific presentation - from the cover page to the cartoons, and from the graphics to the colours, it's totally gripping. The graphics are outstanding, the cartoons very enjoyable!
  2. Intense commercial engagement - advertisements and promotionals from leading brands of the world make it very credible, and readable (the advts are generally so well-designed, they are an education in themselves!)
  3. Cohesiveness - the whole issue looks cohesive end-to-end; one does not feel like putting it down without completely absorbing what's in it. Leaves a great impression everytime, and a deep sense of satisfaction
    Colour, taste, style, substance
  4. Goodbye, academic bullshit - management professors are very good at quelling all resistance from ordinary mortals through their complex presentation of facts, statistics and statements. HBR consciously seems to distance itself from all such nonsense. Very rarely does one find an article one wishes to skip due to its academic rigour. This absence of bullshit is commendable because the editors must be inundated with tonnes of it, I am sure. The scissors are sharp, indeed
  5. Real world problems in a simple language - a senior practising manger can relate to at least 60-70% of an issue. An entrepreneur can relate to almost 70-80% of what's being said. A young b-school student can understand at least 50% of what's written in any issue of HBR. That's the power of simplicity
  6. A big central theme - each issue (generally) picks up a big theme that's the cover story, and that's appealing, and then goes on to dissect it. Innovation / Leadership / Emerging Markets ... you name it!
  7. Big names all around - as you flip through the pages, you see photos and interviews of names you have heard of, seen on TV, and perhaps one day dreamt of becoming! This creates the readership glue most magazines strive for
  8. ROI - there is a conscious effort through all this to make the reader feel there's a great ROI on what he/she is investing in - it's more than putting in colours and graphics.. it's a conscious effort by an owner to tie the whole thing together in a tremendously market-friendly package
Now compare the typical management journal from one of the leading IIMs in India. How does it rate on the above 8 parameters? Here is my reading. (You may surely differ!)
  1. Presentation - dull, drab, almost colourless, academic graphs only 
  2. Commercial engagement - (forced or friendly) advertisements of leading corporates who perhaps fear denial of slots during campus placements :)
  3. Cohesiveness - missing, sense of accomplishment (to a reader's mind) - totally missing
  4. Academic bullshit - I found stuff that most practising managers may not understand or relate to; you be the judge!
  5. Real world problems - present, but presented in a manner that takes a lot of effort to digest
  6. Language - tough, definitely not user-friendly, replete with jargon amazingly arcane and senseless
  7. Big names - do not hit you hard anywhere
  8. Practical ROI for anyone who reads it sincerely - the big question  :)
I subscribed to two such journals around 10 years ago, and discontinued after 2 years of failed effort to engage myself with them. There's just no appeal! It's so sad.

In all fairness, I must add that perhaps the global nature of business that Harvard is exposed to makes it easier for them to churn out issue after delightful issue... but then the Indian economy is no less colourful. So how come the leading Indian B-schools get it so wrong? Perhaps - and most likely - they just don't believe it's worthwhile investing so much energy into a publication. Perhaps it doesn't affect the Professors' career prospects. Perhaps they just don't understand it's the nation's image that can get bolstered with an honest effort.

It also reminds me of a painful conversation I had the other day with a student who reminded me that there was not a single Indian university in a recent top 200 ranking in the world. While that's a debatable issue, what's not debatable is the fact that there should be many Indian names in such lists, given the insanely high value we attach to a formal degree based university education in India.

My suggestions to make a desi HBR that would stand high and mighty one day -
  1. Create a dedicated team with a 5 year target - set specific metrics for what a world-class management journal from India should look like. It should be a dispassionate exercise, without fear or favour
  2. Get young blood into the driver's seat - desperately needed young drivers for a new world that demands speed, social media savvy and worldwide engagement
  3. Commercial engagement - this is the most important aspect. Understand this with an open mind - when you actively seek out commercial support from leading brands, you are forced to create a good product, a worthwhile return on investment. More than anything else, this can drive your project
  4. Get real - With almost all multinationals setting up base in India, getting uptodate inputs on practical issues that matter to most readers (many of them non-MBAs and non-Professor types) should be rather doable. Think of entrepreneurs as your potential readership base - you'll see a lot of light now
  5. Get lucid, get colourful - will be difficult once you are addicted to speaking long sentences to make a small point, but needs to be done
  6. Allocate serious funds - this thing is costly to do, and takes time, bandwidth and global reach to gain traction. It is doubtful if a smaller private player can ever pull it off. Has to be an IIM, or an ISB type giant that pushes hard till it happens
It's important to do this because it's high time public funds were used appropriately to showcase Indian management education industry's genuine and intrinsic strengths that can render asunder any cobwebs that threaten its very vitality.

Put simply, it's public money, don't waste it. Do something worthwhile!


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VVK said...

I totally agree. Let me also specify how it is hitting everyone the most: there is a dearth of good quality Indian material on Indian markets and brands. This effects the development on prospective managers since they cant identify with the foreign brands that are quoted as examples by the Academia and the Books. On the professional front, it impedes professional development of industry managers who are not completely exposed to relevant material which addresses real-time market concerns.

There are good magazines and supplements that deal with this: 4Ps of Marketing; The Strategist; Brand Equity. There is also an excellent book: Brand Positioning - Strategies for Competitive Advantage by Subroto Sengupta. The point is that the skills and the talent that are the pre-requisite for such a task are there; The awareness is beginning to come in for such material. So now would be the right time to attempt to plug this gap. All it requires is a targeted, concerted effort to achieve the same

Anonymous said...

Fantastic analysis Sandeep... no one who goes thru these magazines/journals regularly can miss this apparent point.. you have beautifully said what's needed to be dun from here on... good blog.. keep writin.. i also liked your civic sense posting. Cheers

Amit Prakash
Entrepreneur, Delhi

Anonymous said...

i wonder why the iims are not waking up to the reality?? they can try at least.. perhaps they may do it better than the hbr's of the world... but they will analyse and think, and maybe not act as fastas they shud... come on guys.. we can do it as well!!!


Abhishek Soni said...

Hello Sir,

I appreciate the kind if insight you have given in this specific blog!

Even I learned many thing while comparing the quality standard.

Thank you:)

shivansh said...

dear sir ,
you put across some relevent details which arelacking in indian magazines .
but sir i want to share you my experience of reading planman media magazines specially 4P and B&E this two have a rich content and they are with their cover stories raising the benchmark.
HBR is a big thing but they are in charge for making themselves a world magazine .
do read it and comment on the same