Prof Lakshmi Kumar is the Dean, IFMR graduate school of business (GSB), a part of Krea University in Sri City in Andhra Pradesh, around 60 kms from Chennai. Prof Kumar, who holds a PhD from IIT Madras, handles macroeconomics, managerial economics, international business and micro finance for management students at the B-school.
In this interview, Prof Kumar talks about the upside of being located in an industrial hub, and how recruiters seek out its students because of the finance specialisation it offers. The B-school is also launching this coming academic year, a five-year integrated BBA-MBA programme where the students have an option of opting out of the programme at any stage as defined by the NEP. Excerpts from an interview:
How has being located in the middle of an industrial zone in Sri City helped IFMR GSB as a B-school?
One of the biggest positives is we are in the heart of a vibrant industrial location. One of the things about Sri City is the presence of several companies producing all kinds of things. Act of production has not been seen by most of the students; though about 40 per cent of them are engineers, they are computer science engineers. They’ve never seen a factory. They don’t know these processes. The Sri City board has been very helpful in connecting us to the companies and the students go to these companies for internships.
So, these are live projects that they do. It could be finance, but mostly it’s marketing or how to go about a marketing plan or understanding, for example, just in time, or the manufacturing process itself, which they see in class, in theory, they actually see it in practice. So in some sense, we prepare them for the internship and when they come back, they’re really rounded and understand what to expect of a company and what not. This has been a great advantage for us.
So is finance still a big differentiator for you since IFMR GSB has traditionally been known as a B-school that specialises in finance?
That’s our legacy and we are not able to give up on the fact that we are stuck with the acronym which has finance (Institute of Financial Management & Research) in it. The market perceives us as a leading business school in finance. In 2014-15, when we came here (to Sri City from Chennai), we said are going to be a full-service B-school and expanded all our departments. In fact, whether you take operations or marketing to HR all departments are full.
But, every year when electives are floated for the second year, we find 80 per cent of our students still opting for finance. So if we rebrand as a full-service B-school, we are not sure what would be its impact.
Do you have student opting for other disciplines as a specialisation?
Absolutely. So the second highest is marketing because many students are interested in it. Again, when they say, I want to do marketing, they don’t want to do sales, and sales precedes marketing, and they don’t realise that. When we get them sales jobs, they say we want to do marketing. When we teach them strategy, they say we want to do strategy, but we all know as youngsters, nobody is going to take them seriously.
Manufacturing is picking up now because there are a lot of roles where companies want people to have a dual specialisation — finance and HR or manufacturing and HR or marketing and finance. But I still find that most companies still want some kind of good finance background. Or, maybe the companies who come to us are like that.
So is your finance department better staffed than other courses?
Our MBA curriculum is such that even in the first year when we do core courses, we do more finance than anything else. Initially, it was because we were perceived as a finance school and made our students very strong in finance. But later we find even when we pull back on finance subjects, that often the market, the recruiters, say that your students lack the following skills.
And we have deduced it’s all to do with finance. So, often the recruiters drive our curriculum when they tell us that students must know these skills a little more in-depth. Again, every few years we have an external set of reviewers who come and benchmark our curriculum. So with all these inputs, we find that finance is stronger in the core subjects.
How have you kept apace with teaching students new skills in social media marketing, digital marketing, data analytics, et al which industry is demanding to today?
We have data science department in the marketing department. So what we do is we encourage faculty to upskill. So that’s the first thing we do and they are encouraged to go and get trained. A couple of our faculty have got trained for almost a year in digital marketing as well as in AI, and we do get youngsters to teach the latest programming.
So we have Python; there’s open source as well as now you cant get away with not coding. So everything which is needed in the market, either the faculty upskills and bring it to the class or we get external faculty. So if you take the school itself, we have only about 35 faculty. We get people from the outside, from the market where either they come from industry or they come with a skill which we don’t have. So that way we keep up with the times and all our faculty are told to change their syllabus depending on today’s needs.
Do you have industry interaction to help you with the syllabus?
Yes. So we have a Board of studies, and the Board of Studies consists of three external members from the industry for us. So when the industry members come in, we present what we are doing and they give us detailed comments. So if it’s economics, we ask an economist if it’s a finance we are asked a finance person and so on. So they go through, they tell us what we must add.
We are in touch with Hindustan Unilever. So one of the things which we are planning to curate is courses run ideally by our faculty and an industry expert where the student gets the best out of it because there’s no point in just doing theory. Management theory doesn’t make sense unless you can translate it to practice itself. So what we are trying to do is we have 30-hour sessions and a person from the marketing department, for example, and someone in Hindustan Unilever will formulate a course which is rigorous, as well as which gives them practical insight. And therefore this year we plan to introduce many courses in various specialisations.
For example, in data science, we’ve got a person who’s working in one of the four IT companies who’s working with us to formulate a course on data analytics. So that’s one, Hindustan Lever and us, as we are formulating two courses in sales and distribution and services marketing. For manufacturing, we are in touch with Mondelez, they want to work with us. They also want us to train their workers because we are now going to introduce an integrated MBA, which is a BBA plus MBA, a five year programme.
So you could leave after three years and according to the NEP, you can leave after the first year, second near third year, fourth year of fifth year. So we’re going to go on those lines. And Mondelez very much one wants us help train the people and offer them a BBA.
Do you offer an executive MBA?
We were going to do so then the pandemic hit us. And right now we’re planning to offer it in 2024 and MBA for people working here. Again, I’ve been talking to three city people and they said we could help you do it. We worked it out in 2018. By the time we came up with the plan, this pandemic hit us. And so now we’re going back again and really working on it.
How did IFMR GSB fare on placements in the last season?
We had a batch of 180 students and maybe a little more one or two more. And we have placed all but two of them. The highest went to companies like Nomura. which was paying Rs 20 lakh as the package for them. I would say this year’s season went very well because last year we hit an average of Rs 11 lacs and this year as of now it’s Rs 13.5 lakh (compensation package).
By all standards, I think the percentage increase is very high given the layoffs, given the problems and economies, though I don’t India is not all that bad. Students seem very happy and pleased. What we do typically is when companies come, they get their jobs and then in the month of January, we open it up to dream offers and many of them have made it. They’ve got the confidence after being interviewed two or three times
There’s a lot of debate on the MBA. Does the MBA need to be redefined in the pedagogy or the manner of delivery? Is the way forward going to be a mixed model? What is your opinion on that?
Well, I do think that a completely online MBA adds no value. The first and most important learning in an MBA is to build peers as friends. And from there you build your career. The trust that you build when you are present is very different from the trust that you build when you are online. most of us are very suspicious of the way things are done online.
Management and leadership are all about understanding people and taking them along. And unless you’re in a classroom situation, I don’t think you learn. Maybe hybrid might be an option because people might want to work and a lot of part-time MBA have done well.
I’m still not very convinced about teaching online because MBA is not about teaching and is about discussing. And there are so many solutions to every single management problem. And it’s all about discussing, listening, assimilating and also changing when needed. I think that happens best when you’re are together in a class.
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