While studying management at Pune’s Symbiosis Institute for Management Studies, Govind Shrikhande, now chief executive officer at Shoppers’ Stop Ltd, had been taught to idolize market research. Every business move and strategy should be plotted on the basis of research, the textbooks had ordained. But it took a marketing flop in his job at a reputed textile company to teach him the true relevance of inputs from the research team.
His colleague, who oversaw the suiting division, decided to take the market leader in premium suiting, Raymond Ltd, head on. Market research revealed strong brand recall among customers, and the young MBA hired a leading agency to advertise the new suiting range through a lavish Rs3-4 crore campaign. All he ended up with was a resounding flop and a lesson: Don’t
follow market research blindly.
Finishing touches: Shrikhande, an alumnus of Symbiosis Institute, says there is no substitute for experience.
“In his enthusiasm, my colleague failed to see that the brand had a strong recall only as a household name and not as a premium brand,” says Shrikhande. “The customer was clearly not willing to buy a premium suiting from our brand, just as he was not keen on buying a Raymond towel.”
As a young business analyst, Vivek Gupta, MD, AT Kearney, and his team came up with a business framework for converting natural gas into liquid form for a lesser price than crude at British Petroleum. Everything seemed right and highly profitable about the plan on paper, yet the management team turned it down. That taught Gupta a valuable lesson—the need to include real life factors in blueprints.
“We did not factor in the fact that the world is much more complex than analytics, charts and data. There were anxieties, expectations, political agendas and conflicts underlining the plan, which were critical to the success of it,” he explains.
The differences between the classroom and the conference room, though expected, still manage to surprise the brightest minds. While management education and training help develop the right approach, the right thinking and the right attitude with a thorough grounding in the theory, analytical structures and past case histories, it is the practice of management that teaches the executive some hard lessons.
“Classroom learning can at best simulate the real world in a very simplified, and, at times, even simplistic manner,” says Subhash Rao, director, human resources, Cisco Systems India Pvt. Ltd.
Theory and practice
Some experts go even further: B-school training is like learning swimming from a handbook, they say. It can give you all the required theoretical inputs, concepts, understanding of the rulebook, examples and case studies, but it is only when you get into the water that you learn to swim.
“Strategy sessions are mostly about simulation and analysis of case studies, which help reduce the learning curve on certain critical areas and action plans,” says Sugato Palit, head, human resources, Perfetti Van Melle India Pvt. Ltd. “But they are all very situation-specific and give general ideas about what works best in a particular set-up,” he adds.
And no two situations are exactly alike. There may be certain common aspects with a scene from the past, but each problem comes with a certain set of unique realities, which puts it in a different perspective. And it is these differences which put a premium on on-job experiences: The manager learns to deal with the multifaceted problem and not the two-dimensional case studies.
Clayton Christensen, professor at Harvard Business School, and Michael Raynor, director, Deloitte Research explain the drift: “Managers who have successfully worked their way up the ladder of a stable business unit—for example, a division that manufactures standard high-volume electric motors for the appliance industry—are likely to have acquired the skills that were necessary to succeed in that context.” The “graduates” of this school would show finely honed operational skills in managing quality programmes, process improvement teams and cost-control efforts, they explain.
But the lessons learnt from such experience, too, are limited. “Even the most senior manufacturing executives from such a school would likely be weak in starting up a new plant because one encounters very different problems in starting up a new plant than in running a well-tuned one,” Christensen says.
Strategy and execution
Curiously, most B-school curricula emphasize strategy over execution. While chalking out strategies, their weaknesses and strengths are gone over with a fine-tooth comb, the problems and challenges of execution find lesser space. This may be probably because the practical challenges of the implementation are more difficult to simulate in a classroom.
Rajiv Phadke, executive director, HR and business development, Angel Broking Ltd, says: “Strategy is cerebral work, while implementation requires discipline, perseverance and diligence. Strategy is empty talk without execution.”
A number of young managers face flak on their strategies due to lack of attention to various parameters of execution. All too often, an inordinately longer time is spent on strategizing, say experts. “It is always better to smartly pilot/experiment in market your hypothesis or business idea than trying to strategize too much, particularly at the early stage of evaluation,” says Hari Nair, principal, Innosight Asia, a consulting firm which helps build new ventures.
One of the major challenges of execution is managing uncertainties, something classroom simulations are not equipped to handle effectively. The fast-changing elements of business, people management and cultural differences play a vital role in execution. And these come to the fore only in real-world situations, something which a fresh MBA has to learn fast in his first job.
Almost everyone joins the workplace with strong technical skills and wants to put into practice what was learnt in school, only to be pulled up short by the lack of understanding of the nature of the business ecosystem. “You need to understand the financial performance and whether the growth being talked about could actually be achieved and how you can make a difference,” says Nair.
The other thing that one picks up on the job is dealing with people issues and team management. Most business situations require a gamut of skill sets as most businesses work across functional areas and geographies. Teamwork is a pre-requisite, especially in an increasingly globalized and collaborative world.
“Being able to work in teams requires a whole new set of skills,” says Gupta. “In order to succeed, you need consensus,” he adds.
In this respect, the importance of role models, mentorship and apprenticeship cannot be overemphasized, say managers. And so is the application of intuition, most often than not neglected by the education system.
“Many decisions are dictated by gut feeling...it develops over time with experience and knowledge,” says Shrikhande. “A lot of times my gut feeling has helped me get it right.”
While the opinion remains divided on the degree of importance of education and training in professional lives, the importance of on-the-job training cannot be overemphasized. As Gupta puts it: “There is no amount of training that can teach you to decide in a split second at the moment of performance.”