Creating a Community of Change-Makers

Since it was founded in 1979, the Gujarat-based Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA) has focused on the mandate of training managerial talent for the rural sector. But critics in recent years have begun to wonder if the organization is trying to sell itself as any other business school might, and whether students there possess the idealism that a devotion to serving rural India would seem to warrant.

“IRMA was founded to train professional rural managers who could build sustainable rural institutions for the benefit of the country’s largely rural population,” says Sanjeev Asthana, an IRMA alumnus who is now president and chief executive of Reliance Retail. Adds alumnus Ajay Gupta, the founder and CEO of rural job portal ruralnaukri.com: “IRMA was started to sensitize and train competent youth, to realize the desperate need to manage rural businesses and to contribute to improving the lives of the rural masses.”

“The objective of IRMA was to professionalize rural producers’ organizations and provide them with professionally qualified managers,” says M.J. Arul, director of the MBA program at Bangalore-based Presidency College. Graduates of the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) were not trained for this goal and generally traveled a corporate path.

In the early days, discussion centered on where the institute, the teaching methods and the curriculum were going. Today’s questions are more about where the students are going, experts note. Are they giving up their idealism and turning to mainstream corporate jobs? Was the quest to serve rural India ever a primary motivation, or was IRMA just a second choice for those who couldn’t get into the IIMs? Has IRMA started selling itself on salaries and placements like other B-schools? Must it become an IIM clone?

“Specialist institutions imparting specialized skills are always needed,” says K. Raman, head of infocomm, media and education at Tata Strategic Management Group, an independent management consulting firm. “Institutes will constantly need to reassess their relevance in meeting such needs and evolve, just like products or services in other industries’ institutes need to change and evolve per customer needs.”

IRMA was created through the efforts of Verghese Kurien, chairman of the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) and the inspiration behind Operation Flood, which ended India’s chronic milk shortage. “IRMA was very much a Kurien organization, and his views and beliefs were the only guiding force; others filled in the details,” notes Saswata Biswas, an IRMA professor of organizational behavior and human resources. “Kurien should be credited with the fact that he created IRMA as an independent organization and gave it enough resources so that it did not become beholden to either the state or the NDDB. IRMA could freely pursue its agenda without being fettered by ‘grant’ ropes of the state or any other organization.”

But Kurien, known for his sometimes rigid views, brought weaknesses as well as strengths. “The academics were free to pursue their research agenda as long as it met the overall criteria of being in tandem with Kurien’s policy,” states Biswas, who has been with IRMA for 18 years. “He was the greatest strength of IRMA as well as its soft point. Research in IRMA did not include all the alternative pathways to development. The faculty members had to tread a particular path. This often led to faculty alienation.” By the late 1990s, almost all of the initial faculty members had left the institution.

Time in the Field

From IRMA’s inception, training involved a strong field-based component. Students spent more than a third of their time in the field. They were required to live in a village for at least four weeks, and faculty members were expected to accompany them. This structured fieldwork helped develop a bond between students and faculty, and enabled the institute to transmit its core values informally.

However, the mission was vague, insiders say. Rural management was uncharted territory. As new faculty came on board to replace faculty who had retired, the new hires brought their own ideas. Healthy debate surrounded the adoption of a mission statement: to promote sustainable, ecologically friendly and equitable socio-economic development of rural people through professional management.

Teaching methods changed. Case analysis and, more importantly, case writing took a backseat. “The faculty induction included going and working in a rural organization for 10 to 18 weeks for [those instructors] without work experience,” Biswas says. “The underlying message was that only when you have lived and soiled your hands can you go to the classroom and teach. Without firsthand experience in the field, you would not have credibility with the students.”

IRMA has evolved over three decades. The institution has added other farm and rural activities to its academic portfolio. The original one-year course (alongside a year of work with an outside organization) gave way to a two-year course. Eventually the one-year course was brought back. Specialized programs such as a certificate in dairy management were introduced.

Taking Stock of Performance

The question of aping the IIMs is a recent one. In 2004, then-director K. Pratap Reddy commissioned a study by the Mumbai-based Stratdesign India to take stock of the institute’s performance in its first 25 years. The daily newspaper Indian Express characterized the report as one “that sought to change the character of IRMA and mold it into the IIM model.” The newspaper quoted Kurien as saying that Reddy — who was soon fired — had tried to change the institute’s mission and character. “It hit at the soul of IRMA as it was conceived,” Kurien told the newspaper in 2005. “It was condescending in tone and against the grain of the IRMA idea.”

The principal actors have since changed. An ailing Kurien, now 88, is no longer chairman. In 2007, the institute recruited a new director, Vivek Bhandari, from the faculty at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. “It would be fair to assume that following the difficulties IRMA had faced in the period before I joined, the board wanted someone who was untouched by IRMA’s past,” says Bhandari, who holds a master’s degree and a PhD. from the University of Pennsylvania, and whose fields of specialization are modern social and cultural history. “I was fresh, had experienced a rich academic life as a scholar and administrator, and was 37 years old when I started at IRMA.”

The Stratdesign report has been useful but isn’t the last word, Bhandari states. He doesn’t believe that the controversy has damaged IRMA’s image. “The image of an academic institution is fundamentally shaped by its performance in core academic activities, not the tussles in the boardroom,” he adds. “My own decision to join IRMA in the aftermath of the disputes was based entirely on the way I viewed IRMA’s potential and strengths as a knowledge institution, indeed as a distinctive knowledge institution that is some steps removed from mainstream management programs. From this, it would follow that we do not see any value in going ‘the IIM way,’ although we continue to learn from them about mainstream management culture. IRMA will, however, tread its own path.”

“I believe IRMA is a thinking institution,” says alumnus Arunesh Singh, who is director of VisionSpring, which provides eye care in underserved markets. “If it weren’t, this dispute would not have happened. This dispute is also proof of the fact that parts of IRMA want to change, to keep up with the changing times. I am not sure that IRMA needs to go the IIM way, for I am not sure what way that is. But it definitely needs to become a pioneer in rural business management.”

A Questioning Culture

Arul joined IRMA when it inaugurated its rural management program in 1980 and remained with the institute until he retired in 1998. He recalls the questioning culture of the early days. “Classes were held in the borrowed buildings of NDDB’s diagnostic laboratory. Discussions used to be rampant in the classroom, out in the open, and in the Farmers’ Hostels, where the students lived. The questions were, ‘What is rural management?’ and ‘How is rural management different from management as taught in the IIMs?'”

According to first-batch participant Mathew Cherian, chief executive of HelpAge India, an NGO that provides services to the elderly, IRMA’s early days were also marked by a high level of creativity and innovative thought. “Everybody was creative. We wanted to do something for rural India. IRMA helped greatly in this.”

As the years went by, however, the intellectual energy and curiosity that marked IRMA’s early classes seemed to diminish, Arul notes. “I wonder if it was because abundant clarity had emerged or tolerance for ambiguity was ebbing away. After about the third batch of students, I noticed a marked change in the classroom discussions; they became increasingly bookish.”

Some question if the change in the student body was because IRMA started enrolling applicants with different goals and desires than the idealists of the early days, and that IRMA was viewed by some as a second choice if they couldn’t get into IIMs. “To some extent this might be true, but all batches had participants who had their eyes on getting into IRMA purely for the purpose of getting into the development field,” states Asthana.

Bhandari was admitted to IRMA in 1992, though he didn’t attend. “I was genuinely drawn to what IRMA represented. I think of IRMA as a management program with attitude. … Come admission season, we are very conscious of projecting the true character of our program, and [want] to distinguish ourselves from the crowd. In fact, when students come for admission interviews, which we hold on campus so that prospective candidates experience IRMA firsthand, I meet all 400 of them to communicate what IRMA is, and what we expect of our students.”

The emphasis on fieldwork helps build a value system, notes alumnus Neelima Khetan, chief executive of the rural development nongovernmental organization Seva Mandir and former acting director of IRMA. “The essential difference is the time spent in the field in villages and in organizations. What I also appreciated most in the early years was [an open attitude toward] solutions. Given that poverty and development are things which no one understands fully, it helped students go out with an attitude to learn and find answers.”

“The faculty members play an important role in reconciling academic rigor with the richness of experiential learning,” Bhandari says. “Not surprisingly, the close relationships between faculty and students leave their imprint on our alumni.” Biswas describes the relationship further. “I have taught in universities, management institutes and at IRMA,” he says. “The difference I find [has] to do with the bond with students and the orientation that they have. Irrespective of where they work in later years, most IRMANs do carry certain values: a feel for the poor and oppressed, the principle of equity and justice.”

Can Idealism Be Taught?

Shared experiences create bonds; working in villages creates humility. Gupta notes that the institute and the faculty lost no opportunity to drill into students’ heads that “you are ultimately here to serve the rural masses.” But insiders have mixed views on how idealism can be taught.

“I do think that in some ways idealism can be taught,” says Vijay Mahajan, founder and chairman of the Hyderabad-based Basix, a rural-facing institution offering microfinance and support services. “One can certainly enhance idealism and bring out the latent idealism in every individual. Indeed, one of most distinctive features of IRMA’s curriculum is the high emphasis on fieldwork where students visit and interact closely with people in rural India, and many of the students get very enthused by this.”

But Gopal “GD” Shrikanth, a CEO coach, stresses that “idealism is most often imbibed from parents and siblings at a very young age. In many cases, it is the result of inspiration that results from learning about icons like Gandhi and Mother Teresa. We need to realize that experiential and inspirational traits can seldom be taught in a structured classroom.”

“My experience is that those who join as idealists get an opportunity to reinforce their belief,” Gupta says. “They expect poor compensation and are prepared for it. But they are a minority. The majority can be molded either way. This segment is compensation-sensitive and tends to be enticed by any attractive opportunity. There is nothing wrong in it. What is ironic, however, is that for a flimsy reason [such as compensation] we lose out on a [person who] was equally competent and ready to do either of the jobs — selling toothpaste or being a change-maker. Toothpaste can be sold by thousands of alumni from other B-schools, whereas the entire purpose of training and [investing in] a potential change-maker gets defeated if he goes to sell toothpaste.”

In some ways, observers say, IRMA is a victim of its own success. Alumni have done well and this attracts people who see it in the same way they view a more traditional business school. “IRMA has become yet another Tier-II B-school where alumni pay lip service to ‘rural’ jobs and go for the better-paid corporate sector,” Shrikanth notes. “It is strange that despite its stated rural development objective, IRMA accepts MBA applicants who do not have any relevant development-oriented education or work experience. This ‘seat-filling’ policy could either be the result of low awareness of IRMA’s value among the development community or is due to ambiguous placement commitments by development-oriented organizations.”

Money Matters

The institute doesn’t release details about salaries received by its alumni. But school officials do talk about the quality of placement, and IRMA alumni have clogged MBA websites claiming that starting salaries for graduates as quoted are too low. Money matters, observers say, even if you are headed for a job in the boondocks.

Salary upon graduation has also become more important because an education at the institute is no longer subsidized, as it was in the early days. “IRMA had a very generous stipend scheme,” Biswas states. “There was a legal bond, which specified that [graduates] had to serve the dairy sector or any other sector that IRMA chose.” Only such companies would be called to the institute for placement. But over time, students began to violate the bond agreement, and IRMA stopped providing a stipend and free education. “This resulted in tension between the expressed placement policy of the institute and the students’ desire to strike a better financial deal,” Biswas adds. “Many students did not participate in the campus placement. IRMA slowly modified its placement policy to include a few market-based organizations, largely working in rural areas, that would pay a slightly above-average salary.”

Mahajan, who was until recently a board member of IRMA, blames the institute for tunnel vision on this score. “IRMA has been shooting itself in the foot all these years … because they have had a very narrow definition of what they call designated organizations where IRMANs can join,” he notes. “Organizations outside these are not treated as being part of the rural sector.” As an example, he cites S. Sivakumar, chief executive of the conglomerate ITC’s agri-business division and the creator of eChoupal, who is from the second batch of IRMA. “ITC is not one of the designated organizations. [Sivakumar] is too prominent to be ignored, but a younger IRMAN at ITC’s eChoupal would be seen as having left the rural sector.”

But Bhandari argues that IRMA’s rethinking of its policies was an effort to stay relevant. “As the country changed in the 1990s and management education boomed, the mainstream discourse became more placement-centric, and built into it were discussions of salaries. Within this larger context, IRMA, like everyone else, made a number of strategic choices with respect to the placement policy, its fee structure and scholarship schemes. The fact that IRMA’s fees steadily increased from the 1990s onward … led IRMA to invite private-sector organizations for campus placement. This led, not surprisingly, to discussions about what our graduates were earning. … Personally, I think discussions about starting salaries and rankings are an unfortunate attribute of the rough and tumble of management education today.”

Despite the changes, institute officials and alumni say there has been no significant migration of graduates choosing to work outside the development or rural arena. “A careful analysis would show that the majority of the alumni joining corporates are still doing jobs related to the agri and rural sector,” says Asthana. Biswas adds that, “At least 70% of IRMANs are working in organizations that are connected to IRMA ideals.”

There are other dangers in making salaries a parameter for success. “If we start selling ourselves on the basis of salaries, we will lose the advantage of our niche,” says Khetan. “If we lose our niche, we are in a very crowded space.” Bhandari, on the other hand, feels that some change is necessary. “The fact that today’s market dynamics of rural India offer diverse jobs and pay better salaries needs to be communicated. This may not fit in with the original mandate, but the mandate itself changes with evolving times.”

IRMA has delivered, concludes Sivakumar of ITC. “What attracted me to IRMA in the first instance was the idea of fusing ‘rural’ with ‘management,’” he says. “Till IRMA happened, it was only ‘development’ that suffixed ‘rural’ and only ‘business’ that prefixed ‘management.’…  [IRMA] was the right idea at the right time. If at all, what we missed as a nation is in setting up more IRMAs.”

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