Friday, February 27, 2015

Indian Institute of Technology (IITM) Management Musings: Pioneering Professors of Management in Amazing Ambience of Technology

Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IITM) has been one of the foremost institutes of technological and scientific education and research in India for the last few decades. IITM was inaugurated on July 31, 1959, and by an Act of Parliament in 1961, IITM was declared as an Institute of National Importance in 1961. The Institute was backed by collaboration with the German Government. The first batch of B Tech graduates, a 5 year course at that time, passed out in 1964. There has been no looking back for the Institute from then on, as it continued to expand and diversify in its course offerings and student intake, establishing schools of excellence, year over year. Most alumni from IITM have occupied and continue to occupy leadership positions in their chosen specialities.  Dr A Lakshmanaswamy was the first Chairman of the Board of Governors while Dr B Sengupto was the first Director of the Institute. Initial Directors brought exemplary guidance to the Institute which successors tried to preserve and grow.

IITM was amongst the best among the IITs for its picturesque campus with vast flora and fauna. It was also very much a part of a growing city. Set adjacent to a vast reserve forest land, the campus even today ranks as a deer-friendly nature park. The campus had its own specialities from the central Gajendra Circle (GC) to the unique Open Air Theatre (OAT).‎ In fact, nothing symbolised the open and free spirit of IITM more than the OAT which has been a host to movies every Saturday (even in examination or vacation seasons) and to several special seasonal events such as Mardi-Gras and Sarang. IITM’s hostels were notable for their simple single room accommodation but exemplary food services. The common rooms of the hostels provided the magazine and newspaper fodder for the avid reader while there was nothing other than a humble canteen for a hangout even up to the 90s.

Course architecture

Initially at the time of its inception, IITM had just five technology streams: Mechanical, ‎Civil, Chemical, Metallurgy and Electrical. Each of the disciplines was endowed with dedicated teaching blocks and impressive workshop infrastructure. IITM was a pioneer in establishing humanities and social sciences (HSS) as an integral part of its engineering curriculum from the very beginning. Over the years, HSS began offering M Tech and Ph D programmes in Industrial Engineering and Industrial Management from the late 1960s. Eventually, even as the technology and scientific disciplines proliferated with more specialisations and sub-specializations, a Department of Management Studies came into being in 2004 to offer specialized MBA equivalent programmes.

Without doubt, there has always been a great and unmistakable technol‎ogical ambience and culture at IITM. Yet, it was somewhat intriguing to see such technology talent moving to the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) to join management courses. The other aspect, much discussed of course, has been the flight of talent for advanced courses in technology and management abroad, especially the USA. The emergence of distinct schools of management in the IITs, probably a na├»ve attempt to fight the two trends (or a practical approach to respond to popular trend) took root first in IIT Bombay and eventually all the IITs including IITM followed suit. Unfortunately, unlike in ‎some IITs there has been no major external sponsorship of the management school in IITM. That makes the growth of the management department at IITM even more impressive.

Pioneering professors

Long before the management school came on, a few professors were pioneering management education as part of the humanities and social sciences department, from the 1960s. As a student of the M Tech programme in Industrial Engineering of 1972-74 batch and the Ph D programme in Industrial Management later on, it was my privilege to witness some of the pioneering professors in management strive to be both differentiated and integrated simultaneously in the amazing, and occasionally overwhelming, technical ambience of IITM. Professors R K Gupta in Business Policy and Strategy, Dr S Ramani in Industrial Engineering, Dr V Anantharaman in Organizational Behaviour, Dr L V L N Sarma in Financial Management, M Durga Prasada Rao in Management Accounting, Dr A  Ravindran in Operations Research (visiting faculty from Purdue University), M G Asthana in General Management, Dr A V Krishna Rao in English, Dr Y Nagendra in Statistics and Dr Dipak Chaudhuri in Reliability and Maintenance Management were the early pioneers. Micro-economics was taught by Professor Ganesan from Vivekananda College with a great quantitative flair while Macro-economics was the forte of Hamsaleelavathi.  V Arumugam from College of Engineering was a passionate advocate of Work Study.

It required conviction and passion on the part of the founding professors and the other lecturers who supported them to develop and institutionalize a stream of management education in IITM from the 1960s, in a period of the Institute when such management education was seen as a needless diversion by the technology deans of the Institute. Also, it is to the credit of the professors that early on they laid the base for Ph D programs in industrial management and industrial engineering, taking a step ahead of the IIMs in that respect. But for their vision and persistence, the school of management would not have seen the light of the day. Nor would the next generation professors like Dr T T Narendran and Dr L S Ganesh (who became the Head of the Department of Management Studies) have been moulded as researchers of the first order. Unlike the IIMs, however, the professors were inward oriented focusing less on industry interactions and consulting assignments, which probably explained the low visibility of the IITM management programmes to the industry.

Unique pedagogy

The IITM management professors had unique pedagogical approaches. Professor Gupta brought to bear day to day simplicity to business policy and strategy, weaving finance and accounting concepts in the study. He was a patient teacher and was always waiting for the class to think on its feet and respond to his little intriguing but earthy questions. Dr Ramani made the complex canvas of industrial engineering a fascinating potpourri of supply chain management and management information systems, peppering the traditional time and motion study. Dr Anantharaman was unparalleled for his keen understanding of human behaviour and scintillating sense of humour. He made the multiple organizational behaviour theories of management gurus come live through his extempore presentations. His group dynamics human laboratory exercises helped many of his students understand the meanings of visible facade and invisible self that govern all of organizational behaviour.

Dr L V L N Sarma exemplified the virtuous approach to management studies. Powered by a keen intellect and a sharp wit, he propagated many techniques and tools of modern financial management, from dividend signalling to portfolio analysis and from discounted cash flow to ratio analysis, long before they became fashionable.  Professor M D P Rao made the dry but critically important discipline of management accounting as simple as the peeling of banana. Between the teasing of master accountant Guptaji and the challenging of the financial strategist LVLN, MDPR’s genial approach provided the much needed comfort to the engineers who tended to be at sea in the accounting and finance oceans! No one who went through IITM management can forget the rigour of statistics as taught by Dr Nagendra. He was such a master in statistics that the ordinary failings of his students looked unforgivable to him. So was Dr Dipak Chaudhuri in his exposition of quantitative rigour for developing reliability and maintenance management paradigms befitting of engineers. S G Asthana was an ever-smiling exponent of principles of general management, taking care to move students along with him.

Dr A V Krishna Rao who headed the English faculty as well as the department for several years taught the linguistic and communication skills with an everlasting smile. Amongst the next generation professors, Dr T T Narendran set out new vistas in systems simulation while Dr L S Ganesh focused on operations research, forecasting, decision sciences and public policy. Dr L S Ganesh was particularly focused on matters of public policy as much as on the emotional wellbeing of the students. Dr R N Anantharaman came on to fill the void left by Dr V Anantharaman with his brand of classic psychology for management. The Industrial Engineering stream continued to get enriched by Dr C Rajendran and others. As with any institutional evolution, old guard yielded place to the new, but one cannot but recollect with nostalgia and respect the contributions made by founding professors of management, humanities and social sciences in an overwhelmingly technological ambience. Credit also must be given to the fact that the technological depth of IITM gave a rare edge to management students – who else other than Professor H N Mahabala could have taught Computer Science and Engineering in such a delectable manner in the overflowing hall of Central Lecture Theatre (CLT)?

Uniquely different

It is to the credit of the management professors at IITM that‎ despite the overwhelming technology ambience they did not succumb to style over substance. While they could have appeased by christening their course as Technology Management to the appreciative nods of the engineering faculty, they chose to name and position management for what it is as a unique and integrative discipline. As compared to the IIMs, however, they gave a strong quantitative bias to the management course, making the graduates hone their analytical skills further. With certain specialized course focused on aspects of inventory management, reliability management, statistical quality control, operations research and management information systems, they laid the foundation for the subsequent evolution of Operations Management discipline. Dr A Ravindran added a masterly touch to the courses at IITM with his inimitable teaching of Operations Research. One of the more complex yet real time oriented branch of mathematics, Operations Research was followed by the students with total absorption when Dr Ravindran taught the subject.

Amidst the quantitative orientation, the perspectives and insights that were generated out of organizational behaviour and financial management were unique and absorbing to the engineers who made up the intake. It is to the credit of the professors, Dr Anantharaman and Dr LVLN that they offered the mind-expanding disciples as serial courses across semesters helping the engineers become better real world managers. It is even more creditable that the professors encouraged full-fledged MS and Ph D‎ programmes in such core non-technical disciplines too, adding to the multi-disciplinary nature of IITM. In fact, MS by research is a programme unique to IITs, representing a bridge option for those students who are research oriented but do not wish to spend several years on a deep research topic. Many students in management found the MS option relevant and satisfying.

Blessed I am

While God decides our intrinsic capabilities and competencies through genetics handed down through parents and grandparents, te‎achers and professors play a significant role in expanding our horizons, deepening our knowledge, honing our competencies and developing our capabilities. In a way, institutions such as the IITs and IIMs and their dedicated professors, and the competitive but egregious student population help us re-discover and re-position ourselves. It is my fortune that as a student of the M Tech Programme, I was spotted, developed and appreciated by my learned founding-professors of Industrial Management and Industrial Engineering. If the M Tech programme in Industrial Engineering made me confident and capable as well as industry ready, the Ph D programme helped me to drive attributes of perfection and diligence to new highs, and more importantly embed in myself the fundamental tenet of robust research - understand the available knowledge, hypothesise alternate constructs and validate through empirical research a new paradigm that adds to the body of knowledge.

My research journey in IITM, which started with the guidance of Professor R K Gupta but was essentially guided and concluded under the supervision of Dr L V L N Sarma was a journey from one pole of knowledge (stimulatingly descriptive of Guptaji) to another (diligently analytical of Dr LVLN). It taught me how to utilize data and information to develop new hypotheses and validate them. It is this (positively!) bipolar quest for knowledge that attracted me to the fascinatingly descriptive Michael's Porter's works on Competitive Strategy and Competitive Advantage but go on to develop a validated analytical construct to quantitatively and statistically validate certain follow-on as well as original hypotheses of competitive strategy. If my Ph D thesis "Strategy and Structure of the Indian Automobile Industry: A Study of the Four-Wheeler Sector" remains a path-breaking thesis to date that gave a unique quantitative foundation to Porter’s descriptive theories, with several constituent papers having been published in refereed journals, I have to express my gratitude to the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, and its pioneering professors who shaped my knowledge perspectives, notably Professor R K Gupta and Dr L V L N Sarma.


When I was in school, I was fascinated by the stories penned by Sri Mopineni Durga Prasad Rao and Sri Lellapalli Venkata Laksmi Narayana Sarma and published in Telugu weeklies regularly. They were full of humorously incisive analyses of family and social relationships, and the quirkiness of human relationships. My joy knew no bounds when the very same famed writers of fiction happened to be my professors at IITM!   


I must gratefully acknowledge the role played by all the educational institutions, and the teachers of each institution, in developing me; these being Sri Sai Baba National Higher Secondary School, Anantapur, P R G C Higher Secondary School, Kakinada, Government College of Engineering, Anantapur affiliated to Sri Venkateswara University at that point of time, and finally the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, Chennai. 

Posted by Dr CB Rao on February 27, 2015

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing with us such a useful information!

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