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How India's best-known B-school got built

Chandu Nair | Updated on September 11, 2011



The people who helped shape IIM-A into the institution that it is today.

It is rare in India to come across a biography (if one can call it that!) of an educational institution or one who is closely associated with the creation of such an institution. It is rarer still to see a combination of both in one single book. T.T. Ram Mohan, an alumnus of IIM Kolkata and a professor in the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, attempts precisely that in his evocatively and aptly titled Brick by Red Brick —Ravi Matthai and the Making of IIM Ahmedabad (published by Rupa & Co).

The oft-photographed brick facade of what is arguably India's most famous B-school is familiar to anyone with any aspirations to, or interest in, management education.

However, not much is known of its origins or the role played by key individuals in its founding and its transformation into an institution of repute. And to that end, this book is a welcome addition to the little literature that exists on the subject of management education in India today.

It is a fascinating story of institution building, of a coming together of a “constellation of forces” (to use a much favoured expression of Prof Dwijendra Tripathy, one of Ram Mohan's key sources) — of personalities, Governments (State and Central), thinking politicians and bureaucrats, and the foreign hand (the role of Harvard Business School and other overseas academicians) who somehow seemed propelled by some force to achieve a higher goal.

It is especially remarkable to see how various personalities got together to create and, thereafter, define the contours of their vision of a management educational institution.

Each personality is striking — be it Vikram Sarabhai (a remarkable modern day renaissance man, responsible for the founding of many of India's famous institutions), Lalbhai, a prominent industrialist and no mean institution-builder himself, Prof Kamla Chowdhury, who is widely credited with the academic framework in the initial years, and, of course, the main protagonist and IIM-A's first director, Ravi Matthai, who many credit with the unique culture and appeal that IIM-A continues to have even today. These driven helmsmen are possibly the reason why IIMA is where it is today.

What Ram Mohan also clearly shows is the way frameworks and processes were designed and implemented in a manner that contributed to IIM-A's unique way of working at different levels — be it the active involvement of the faculty in key policy decisions; the autonomy that IIM-A sought and got from the beginning; the deliberate creation of a culture of informality with accountability; thinking big as evidenced by the choice of Louis Kahn as the architect (thereby, rendering IIM-A's old campus a tourist attraction even today!); and so on.

There were several key decisions taken in the initial period which are valid even today — granting a diploma for the PG course as opposed to a degree; allowing freshers without work experience to join the PG course; permitting faculty to do private consulting; having a strong, independent Board of Governors; and frequent Faculty Council meetings, among others.

Ravi Matthai, the founding director, seems to have had a major role to play in the formulation and implementation of many key aspects of the institute's functioning, many of which have had a long-term impact.

It almost seems like any director thereafter decides on major issues asking himself this question ‘What would Ravi have done in this situation?'!

Ram Mohan, who has never met the man (Ravi passed away in February 1984), is clearly inspired by the enduring legacy and imprint that Ravi has left behind in the form of key processes, his approach to making key decisions, and IIM-A's unique culture.

Above all this, what absolutely stands out is Ravi's clear determination, right from the time of his joining to stepping down as Director after five-seven years; he actually did that, much to everyone's utter shock at that time, and continued as a regular faculty member.

It is pretty hard to imagine that there would be men like that in India today who would voluntarily give up position and power!

A key lesson that emanates is what Ram Mohan enunciates on page 38 — “You do not need extraordinary people in order to create great institutions, you need ordinary people who are highly motivated and are driven by a shared sense of purpose.”

This message is particularly apt today when many of us are witness to institutions being compromised or subordinated to the greed or hunger for power of a few individuals or groups or vested interests.

One sometimes gets the feeling that Ram Mohan is torn between two approaches. One side of him, the academician, wants to keep it analytical and thoughtful, while the other side of him, the columnist, itches to make it more racy and fast-paced.

It looks like the former generally prevailed (perhaps, because he continues to be a faculty member there) though there are occasions where the latter has managed to sneak through (cases in point being some alleged triangle between Vikram Sarabhai, his wife and a former professor, or Ravi Matthai being sent off to England after a road accident).

But these bits are mere sideshows and the overall intent of the book — to show us how a world-class educational institution can be built and sustained — is pretty effectively conveyed.

More than anything else, it shows us how one man, in this case Ravi Matthai, can give totally of himself to build a pioneering centre of excellence, without expecting anything in return.

Published on September 11, 2011

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