Tuesday, November 24, 2009

CAT: restore the faith

Eight days into the 'mother of all exams' reports of hardware problems, software errors, poor administration, repeated questions) and other testing issues are still coming in.

It is time the directors of IIMs acknowledge this experiment has failed and call for a re-test - in old fashioned paper and pencil format. A high stakes exam like CAT is an act of faith. When that faith in its fair delivery and character of merit is at doubt, it no longer serves its purpose.

Just like when it physically leaked in Nov 2003; and had to be re-administered.

But the issue goes beyond this year. At some level we've all accepted that computer based testing is better, more efficient than traditional methods. Is that really the case?

The issue is not just hardware or software - but more fundamental. This exercise is a 'CAT and mouse' game - and not just because the exam went online this time.

On the one hand you have a couple of hundred IIM professors, a handful of whom would sit down, rack their brains and come up with the CAT paper. On the other hand, you had hundreds of 'experts' preparing mock CATs, analysing past papers, predicting future patterns. And many of these experts are IIM grads themselves.

When it came to setting one paper a year, the CAT could somehow pull it off. Remain distant, difficult, unpredictable - the Mount Everest of all exams. Putting it online - with a poorly set question bank - has taken it down to the level of a Sahyadri.

This destroys everything the CAT has stood for - all these years.

Now one can dispute whether CAT actually does select people with the best managerial potential in the first place. An article posted on fairtest.org notes that in 1985 Harvard Business School (HBS) decided to eliminate the GMAT from their admissions process.

John Lynch, the Admissions Director at the time, gave several compelling reasons. In a blind test, Harvard found that admissions decisions made with and without the GMAT were essentially the same. Success at Harvard depended on intangibles such as motivation, interpersonal skills, perseverance and hard work – all factors not measured by GMAT.

Looking at undergraduate grade-point average (UGPA), ethics, leadership, community activities, prior work experience and the interview made GMAT scores "superfluous".

However, 11 years later HBS reinstated use of the test. The point is, as long as you are using a GMAT or CAT, let there be no doubts about the administration and standards of that test.

Which brings me back to the question of computer based testing. In 2008 there was a GMAT Cheating Scandal involving Scoretop, where 'live' questions were posted on a members-only website. This article published at that time reveals some interesting facts:

1) The item pool is periodically refreshed, but the same questions are reused for at least several weeks.

2) The testing industry was well aware of the vulnerability of computer adaptive tests to what it calls “pre-disclosure.” Before the 1993 introduction of the computer adaptive Graduate Record Exam (GRE), two researchers at the Educational Testing Service (ETS) wrote about their “fear [that examinees] will remember questions and reveal them to their friends or to a coaching school” and that “a group of examinees [might] memoriz[e] subsets of the pool and combin[e] their knowledge.

3) To expose the problem, staff from the Stanley Kaplan Education Center took the computerized GRE, compiled a list of items they had memorized, and presented it to ETS officials. ETS, which then administered the GMAT as well as the GRE, responded by suing Kaplan for copyright violations, even though the questions were never made public (see http://www.fairtest.org/ets-and-test-cheating).

4) After this incident, test-makers said they began using much larger item pools and changing them more frequently, but there is no proof for this claim. In 2006, ETS lost the GMAT testing contract after a series of administrative and scoring errors. The test is now run by the global conglomerate Pearson.

Under 'Indian conditions' where stakes are so high for both students and the coaching classes, I think it will be far more difficult to maintain the integrity of the question bank!

In conclusion, computerised testing can work - but requires herculean effort and partnership between the IIMs and the testing agency. It's not an exercise which IIMs can simply sub-contract - like housekeeping!

Brand IIM is like the venerable banyan tree, and the CAT forms the mighty roots of that tree. Destroy those roots and the very tree will start withering...

The IIMs must reclaim the CAT immediately, or they will lose the ground beneath their feet.

For more on the issues related to effectiveness and fairness of SAT, GRE and GMAT see articles on www.fairtest.org

ET 500: Old is gold, alas

I usually scan through the pink papers in under 5 minutes. But this morning I picked up the annual "ET 500" report (free with do rupaye ka ET every year) and actually spent over an hour poring through it. Just.

It's fascinating for many reasons. The # 1 company in India, by revenue, is IndianOil. Its revenues of Rs 290, 946 crores are double of the # 2 company Reliance Industries (Rs 153, 138 crores). But Reliance profits are 5 times that of IndianOil www.icocl.com (Rs 15, 296 crores vs Rs 2,599 crores).

Both companies are in the very same space (oil & gas). And no, I am not saying Indian Oil should be 'doing better' - that would be comparing apples to oranges!

A few other facts which caught my eye:

* 6 out of top 10 companies are PSUs - that's pretty much the story, every year.

* Only 1 out of the top 20 companies is what you can call entrepreneurial (started by a first generation entrepreneur in last 20 years). That company is Bharti Airtel. In fact such companies are pretty much non existent even in top 100.

Infosys (# 22), Pantaloons (# 73) and Kotak Mahindra bank (# 75) are the few exceptions although technically, they're all over 20 years old.

* Bharti Airtel and TCS are the only two companies from 'new age industries' in the top 20 (Wipro & Infosys are # 22 and 29 respectively). Oil, steel, auto, banking, power, capital goods dominate the top 50.

Interestingly, apart from ITC (# 35) and HLL (#36) and a few banks like ICICI bank (# 10), HDFC bank (#29), Kotak Mahindra bank (# 66) and maybe an Asian Paints (#95) and Reliance in its myriad avatars - you won't see any of the top 100 companies on this list on India's top 20 bschool campuses.

Except in a recession year (like this one).
And even then, they aren't places MBAs would like to join.

Which brings me to the question: is there a disconnect between bschools and the business realities of India? For long, bschools have been accused of producing 'managers' not entrepreneurs. Ok - but even within that definition, they want to be managers only in certain kinds of companies and sectors.

I understand there are cultural issues. That the majority of these top 100 and even top 500 companies are old (if this was a gathering of people you would see mostly grey hair!) A large number are fuddy duddy, family or government run enterprises.

But surely these are the very places where so called modern management principles and bright young men and women can make a difference - in the longer run.

It would be interesting if ET could come out with a report on how many MBAs the top 500 companies in India today employ. And what is the profile of the people they do employ.

Cynics might wonder whether these companies are healthy because of lack of MBAs... There's a thesis waiting to be written by someone, somewhere, on that!

Lastly, I noticed 5 companies from the 25 Stay Hungry profiles make it to the list (not counting Sintex, where Dangayach is not the owner). The highest ranked is Shree Renuka Sugars art # 227.

Am sure there are other interesting stories hidden in this list... and I'm sure someday I will tell some of them :)

Career query of the week

Hi Rashmi,

I've been working in XXX (a much admired American company) as a software engineer for the past 1.5 years. I did my BTech from YYYY, probably the best college for a computer science degree in the country.

I was always convinced that this would be sufficient even for the best tech jobs in India. However, lately I've been hearing that students who return with a "phoren" MS degree get paid almost twice as much as we do, even though their job profile may be the same as ours.

Now, I'm confused whether I should go for an MS or not. I do not wish to leave the country, neither for higher studies, nor for a job. However, I'm quite sure that an MS even from the best colleges in India does not compare to a degree from a US university, in terms of market value. Since it makes a huge difference, I think I should consider going abroad... its just a matter of 2 years, right?

Even though at this point, money is the only incentive for further studies; in the future, its possible that better jobs come to our country which require atleast an MS degree. I'm only 23 years old now. Isn't it best I do an MS now, rather than growing 30+(which is too old for an MS) and feeling sorry for not doing it when I could?

I should also make it clear that I am absolutely not interested in any kind of MBA. I love tech, and I do not wish to become a people manager. So NO IIMs, ISB, etc.

This has been a very long mail. Lets summarize.

Objective: A challenging tech job in India. Get paid as much as the other guy who is doing the same job, but may have another degree!

I have the following options:
1. No more studies. Be content with BTech and current job/salary.
2. MS from Indian univ. Will make resume a little prettier, but will it increase my package? Is it worth staying away from work for 2 yrs?
3. MS from some Indian univ affiliated with a foreign univ. Ex - JIIT(jaypee) affiliated with University of Florida. Again, I'm not sure how good this is?
4. MS from abroad.

Please advise!

dear S
I'm not too happy to learn about the foreign MS degree holder getting paid twice as much as you.. but that's life I guess. I think an MS from a top university in the US is a good idea for you.

As for which school, which program - I leave it to the wonderful readers of this blog to advise you! Folks, please do share what you know with this young man...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Double Life of Ramalinga Raju - a review

Flying can be hazardous to mental health these days, unless you have a book or two to help you cope. Well, despite being well stocked up on a recent trip, I bought this one at Mumbai airport.

Ramalinga Raju beckoned , "Pick me up, pick up!" Pick up and read all about the bad-bad things I have done in life.

Well, quite like Raju's life, the book too does not live up to its promises. Agreed, nine months is a short time to put together and release a book but one does expect to learn *something* new?

"The Double Life of Ramalinga Raju", unfortunately, is like a 180 page long newsreport. With neither the brevity nor the breathless immediacy of 'news'.

Starting from the infamous "confession" the book takes you 'back' - but very superficially. There is a chapter on the crucial board meeting of Dec 16, one titled 'A Scheme is Hatched' - on the sub prime crisis and its effect on Raju's ill empire.

In between there is some mention of Raju's early days, his family, a faint whiff of his personality. But too soon, we are back to Maytas, Hyderabad metro project - the exoskeleton of the scam. What's missing is the pounding of the heart, the taste of fear, the rush of blood!

Author Kingshuk Nag thanks dozens of people connected with Satyam and the Rajus for 'sharing their insights' but very few of these insights shine through. And none are actually attributed to anyone.

While I don't expect a 'jeena isi ka naam hai' with Raju's primary school friends being asked to comment on him, surely some former confidantes could have been persuaded to talk?

Among them D V S Raju (a cousin who was instrumental in setting up Satyam between 1987 and 1992) and Srini Raju (brother in law, who helped run Satyam till the year 2000. Also the fesity Income Tax dy commissioner who almost derailed Raju with her queries back in 2002... wonder what *she* has to say!

At the end of this quick read, I gazed at the puffy clouds around the aircraft window and thought to myself...

a) Ramalinga Raju , you did all this for land, land and more land. But tell me, tu lekar kahaan jayega?. Kingshuk Nag makes just this point by referring to Tolstoy's classic short story "How much land does a man need?"

The answer is:"A man needs only six feet of land to cover him from head to toe..." Unfortunately this country is full of Rajus, who never quite understand that!

b) Raju was the proverbial dork who wanted to be Mr Popular. Quoting from page 76.

"It was partly a deep inferiority complex that made Raju embark on this unholy path... Raju knew that he could neither match Narayana Murthy nor Azim Premji, as Satyam procured mucht of its business by quoting cheaper rates... But Andhraites had made him into an icon and he had to live up to this image".

Raju had to show 'as good' quarterly results as an Infosys or a Wipro - hence he fudged. The company actually waited till Infy released its figures and then decided what numbers to show!

c) Lastly, blind love for his sons was another fatal flaw. Again, common with Indian politicians, actors and businessmen. No known cure for this affliction!

To sum up, 'The Double Life of Ramalinga Raju' will sell decent numbers but does satiate the thirst to get inside the mind of this smooth criminal. Perhaps someday we'll have a 'David Frost' to do unto Raju a full and final confession.

I think, like Nixon, he would probably justify his actions and say, "Karna padta hai - sab karte hain". Only to rue the fact that he was the unlucky one who got caught.

'The Double Life of Ramalinga Raju' by Kingshuk Nag
Rs 250, Harper Collins

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Career question of the week

Q: I am a software engineer working in a product based company in Bangalore for the last 3 years. I want to go for higher studies (M-Tech) but at the same time i cant leave my job. So can you please suggest me some reputed institutes where i can pursue my M-Tech as a part time or by correspondence. My problem is that i need reputed institutes only because i have done my B-Tech with a private engg. college in U.P. and now i want a tag.

Also please tell me the value of that M-Tech in the market. I know i am asking for too much but please suggest. i am confused.

Dear Confused - the best (and only distance learning MTech) I know of and can recommend to you is BITS Pilani. However from what I gather you need the consent and support of your organisation, including a Mentor at your workplace.

Can anyone who's completed this program provide more details? Also info about any other such 'part time MTechs' which have value in the job market.

You can post comments here or drop me a line at rashmi_b at yahoo.com

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Business Standard on IIM Shillong

A day after my story on IIM Shillong Business Standard has done a wonderful report on the very same issue.

IIM-Shillong loses half its faculty over differences with director
Archana Mohan & Kalpana Pathak / Bangalore/New Delhi November 10, 2009, 0:31 IST

In slightly over a year since the inception of the Rajiv Gandhi Indian Institute of Management (RGIIM) in July 2008, nearly half the 13-strong faculty have left following differences with the institute's Director Ashoke Dutta...

The story made it to the front page on some editions :)

I do hope MHRD & the Board of Governors of IIM Shillong as well as other stakeholders find out the facts for themselves and take corrective action. The time to act is now!

Monday, November 09, 2009

IIM Shillong - a mockery in the name of 'IIM'

IIM Shillong - a mockery in the name of 'IIM'
- Rashmi Bansal

Can a person without academic credentials or a PhD be appointed as director of an IIM?

Can administrative staff attend faculty meetings and interfere in academic matters?

Can faculty be denied their allowances and even the contributory provident fund (CPF) due by law?

All this and much more constitutes the shocking state of affairs at IIM Shillong - the newest IIM which started functioning from July 2008. Every process, from the appointment of faculty members to the purchase of equipment, has been subverted, resulting in an institute which is only an IIM in name.

No less than 7 of the 13 full time faculty members who joined IIM Shillong in 2008 left in less than a year, leaving a demoralised student body and questions about how an institute by the name of 'IIM' can get by without following any prescribed norms.

At the core of the issue is the appointment of Ashoke Kumar Datta as director of IIM Shillong. Dutta's profile includes 40 years of erratic corporate experience and does not list any academic credentials. Directors and faculty at IIMs are generally required to have a PhD in their subject.

Mr Dutta's biodata lists his qualification as PGDM from IIM Calcutta and 2 years on the doctoral program of Case Western University between 1971-73 (he left without receiving the degree).

At the time of his appointment Mr Ashoke Dutta was already past the age of 60, a fact which should have disqualified him from what is meant to be a 5 year term.

A source who was closely involved with IIM Shillong at inception stage says, "Mr Dutta's appointment was not cleared by the PMO and earlier by the Dept of Personnel for a full three/four months after selection. I understand there was a problem of Security Clearance and a question of age besides the PHD which kept them from clearing the appointment. It took the intervention of the then MHRD Minister through a letter to the Prime Minister to obtain the clearance".

The appointment of a number of faculty members did not follow due process as well. A former professor at IIM Shillong, recounts the horrific way in which rules were flouted to accomodate some faculty members.

"A prospective faculty member is generally required to present a paper before the students and existing faculty, before being invited for interview. In the case of at least one faculty member, there was neither a presentation nor an interview."

Another shocking case was that of a candidate who was rejected by the interview board and yet appointed as a 'faculty associate'. Three months this person was promoted to the post of assistant professor.

Another professor was recruited to teach a subject, despite having no experience or background in this subject. These and many more decisions related to academics were taken by the director unilaterally, without consulting the Dean and other faculty colleagues.

The collegial system of governance, the Director's complete lack of powers in appointments and his accountability to the Faculty Council are at the heart of the IIM model of merit and excellence.

Apart from these processes not being followed, major issues with the organisational culture soon became obvious. Some of the strange practices at IIM Shillong included:

a) Daily faculty meeting for 1 hour between 9 and 10 am with no specific agenda

b) Administrative staff being invited to attend faculty meetings where they have no locus standi

c) Administrative staff interrupting lectures on minor pretexts.

d) Officer on Special Duty (Finance) sending emails questioning professors on issues related to CAT interview selections

e) Professors being humiliated in faculty meetings, intimidated verbally and through memos; and being told by the director "you are welcome to leave" if they raised their voice on any issue, including issues like CPF (contributory provident fund) not being provided by IIM Shillong, as per prevailing laws of the land.

A former IIM Shillong professor who spoke to me recalls, "I realised there was a problem when on 5th July 2008, when the director tried to force a faculty member to teach the accounting paper. The faculty member had refused citing lack of experience in teaching that subject".

"The Director insisted the faculty should teach accounting or resign. The person in question did resign but was later asked to stay on."

But this faculty member was not the only one to suffer thus.

Another such person was an eminent professor of Economics, who relocated to India from the US, where he taught at reputed schools including NYU. His wife, a professional with 20 years experience at leading American banks and financial institutions (and a visiting professor at schools like Northwestern university) also joined IIM Shillong as faculty member.

This professor objected to several of the goings on, including a faculty member being appointed in the economics area without his knowledge.

In less than 15 days, the economics professor became persona non grata. The director found an excuse to withdraw the offer made to his wife and he did so in the most callous manner - by serving a discharge letter while she was in the midst of taking a class.

Both professors left the very same day and subsequently joined another IIM.

IIM Shillong also failed to provide the basic support required by professors to do their jobs smoothly.

"I have spent substantial amount along with the student co ordinators for the winter placement activity. The money spent on STD calls, faxes, couriers and so on was not provided by IIM Shillong." says the former IIM Shillong professor.

Matters came to a head when in a faculty meeting he requested Mr Dutta to release money due to the faculty under CPF (Contributory Provident Fund). Since the probation period for faculty had been extended from 1 year to 2 years, various allowances such as relocation allowance and foreign travel grant were also not being provided.

"In fact I was not reimbursed for the travel cost incurred in my recruitment interview. The Faculty Development Allowance of Rs 36,000 per year which is provided to professors to subscribe to academic journals and magazines was also withheld, despite being specifically mentioned in my appointment letter," he says.

Ultimately, the director terminated the services of the professor who raised his voice - without citing any reason.

The former professor adds,"I had a very high rating from students, the highest for any faculty member. I was relieved because I am not a yes man and because I asked questions about the improper functioning of IIM Shillong." These questions included financial irregularities.

These include the following:

* Mr Dutta happens to be the chairman of a company from Kolkata, the All India Technologies, which is appointed as the webmaster of IIM Shillong for designing and maintenance of the institute’s website.

* Another related party transaction is the procurement of a web conferencing solution from Intellisys ltd, a company in which Mr Dutta occupies the position of a director.

Sources also allege that Mr Dutta is hardly present on the campus, with innumerable foreign and domestic tours taking him away for Shillong for 15-20 days in a month. Mr Dutta was to take the Business Communication course last year but only took 2 lectures. The rest of the course was handled by other faculty members.

The two areas where IIM Shillong has maintained sanctity are the course curriculum and the intake of students. In both cases external advisors are involved. Prof Paul Srivastava of Bucknell university has helped to design the PGP course curriculum.

Former director of IIM Ahmedabad Jahar Saha was the Chairman of the Admissions Committee of IIM Shillong and with the help of former IIMA and IIMC professors, conducted the interviews of shortlisted students. This process was smooth in both 2008 and 2009.

"The Ministry of Human Resources and Board of Governors of IIM Shillong is fully aware of what is going on, but not taking any action," says the former IIM S professor who spoke to me.

The biggest losers in all this are the students, who have no option but to graduate from IIM Shillong, making the best of a bad situation. They are silent, for fear of repercussions and harassment, as well as adverse impact on their placements.

(It is interesting to note that IIM Shillong had trouble filling up seats this year with scanty acceptances from the first and second list released by the institute. A third, fourth and fifth list was released before all seats could be filled).

In response to an email and fax questionnaire on all of the above issues, Mr Dutta stated that, "Most of the points raised by you pertain to jurisdiction outside the purview of the director."

Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) acknowledged they have received my questionnaire but would not commit on a timeframe in which they would answer.

All in all it is a very sorry state of affairs. With four more 'IIMs' slated to come up over next two years, it raises important issues of academic standards, governance and accountability of new institutions toward their stakeholders. And the IIM brand name.

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