Sunday, March 11, 2007

Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad- The beginnings

In 1963, a group of four Indian profesors was sent to Harvard Business School for training. Its mission: learn the case study ideology followed at Harvard. The professors were to teach at a new management institute being built at Ahmedabad. One of the four profesors, Surinder Pruthi, had turned down a job offer from Massachusetts Institute of Technology to teach at this new management institute. It was at the insistence of his friend who thought that a world-class institute was needed at Ahmedabad and stole it from Mumbai, Harvard's original choice. The friend was Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, the architect of Indian space program, and the institute was going to be called Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

The blueprint of the building gave no indication that it was going to become the toughest business schools to get into.

But it did. The toughest and the best.

The Founder

Vikram Sarabhai:
While management guru C.K. Prahlad, then one of the 48 students of the first IIMA batch, was falling in love with a girl studying in a nearby university, some of the older students went on a strike for a day. The reason: bad food and pressures of a system that thrived on sleep deprivation and vexing case studies. Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, the founder and director of IIMA, went to meet the students and charmed them into submission. The food stayed the same and so did the system pressures. But C.K. Prahlad’s love life did improve; he managed to woo his future wife.

Little did the dissenting students know that they were not the first, and not the last either, who couldn’t resist the charm of Vikram Sarabhai, the brilliant scientist and visionary. In 1947, when Vikram returned to India after completing his PhD at University of Cambridge, he persuaded charitable trusts controlled by his family and friends to endow a research institution near home in Ahmedabad, the Physical Research Laboratory. And even while he was humoring the students at IIMA, Vikram Sarabhai was courting the Indian Bureaucracy with great success to get ahead with the Indian Space Program. The result was the Arvi terminal, a ground station provided by Intelsat III for the international telephone network. Sarabhai’s persuaded the bureaucracy to let him build the terminal himself, which he did before schedule. It saved India the equivalent of about $800,000 (in 1969 dollars) in foreign exchange and redefined the rules of the game. The space program acquired operational autonomy from the bureaucracy, as had the world class management institute he created a few years ago.

The Builder

(Louis Isadore Kahn)
In 1962, Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi invited Louis Kahn, one of the most influential architects of 20th century, to design the building for the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Ahmedabad. It was to comprise a main building with teaching areas, a library and faculty offices around the main courtyard, separate dormitory units for the students that were to be interconnected with a series of arched passages, and houses for the faculty and staff. Kahn’s presence in the 1960s signals a turning point in contemporary architecture in post-independent India. When designing the school, Kahn put into question how and where people learn. Learning was not happening strictly in classrooms, but in the corridors and the spaces in between as well. It was in his uncompromising approach to rethinking the fundamentals of architecture that young Indian architects found in Kahn. Through his massive yet austere brick forms, Kahn offered these architects a spiritual experience that made them believe they could effectively build the new nation and achieve a balance between modernity and tradition. Built between 1962 and 1964, the IIMA complex now sits on a 60-acre campus.

In 1974, Louis Kahn died of a heart attack in a bathroom in Pennsylvania Station in New York City. He had just returned from India, where he was overseeing the ongoing work at Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. When Kahn was found dead he couldn’t be identified for three days, as he had crossed out the home address on his passport. But the building he left behind in India is identifiable to many twinkle-eyed mba aspirants. Fittingly, one of the portions is called the Kahn Plaza.

The Students

Choose your students well, so that you can’t go wrong inspite of the faculty, the IIMA professors were told. The 48 students selected out of 4 000 were going to be the first students to taste the case study method in India.

(The First batch of IIMA)
In the 1960s, while a third world peasant army was inflicting grave damage on the US military machine in Vietnam, while contraceptive pills were being introduced heralding a new freedom for women, while JFK was being assasinated, and while Psychedelic Hippies were striking a chord of rock music, drugs and free love, a girl kept fainting in the classrooms of Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. She couldn’t handle the pressure, sleep deprivation and back breaking routine. None of her classmates could help her though; they were themselves busy solving case studies and preparing for the next class. A 15-hour-a-day work routine meant the institute never slept and never let anyone sleep either. Food was atrocious, proffesors were mercilessly punctual, and the case study method meant that their brains had to remain charged-up throughout the class. And yet, these students survived and thrived.

C.K.Prahalad (who recently earned the third spot on Suntop Media’s “Thinkers 50” list and is the author of famous paper “The core competence of the corporation”) was a quiet front bencher who, even then, was an original and out-of-the-box thinker. After passing out of IIMA, Prahalad went to Harvard University where wrote a PhD thesis on multinational management in just two and a half years. Prahalad has been a top ten management thinker in every major survey for over ten years. Business Week said of him: " a brilliant teacher at the University of Michigan, he may well be the most influential thinker on business strategy today." He is a member of the blue ribbon commission of the United Nations on Private Sector and Development. He is the first recipient of the Lal Bahadur Shastri Award for contributions to Management and Public Administration presented by the President of India in 2000.

Dilip Shah, who had taught himself English through listening to BBC and then gone to do English honours in the legendary Shyamdas College, was among the 48 students who were the first to experiencing the case study in India. His first job offer came when he was in his first year of IIM-A and went to do his internship in Pfizer India. When he submitted his report to the Managing Director, he grilled Shah for half-a-day on the conclusions and findings. After which, he pronounced, "Young man when you complete your second year, you need not look for a job elsewhere. Come and join us." Dilip’s Stint at Pfizer (where he achieved the post of managing director) lasted for 30 years.

And there were many others, like Dilnavaz Variava, the managing director of her family business, Bharat Tiles, and who later became (or probably already was) a wildlife enthusiast.

And oh, remember the girl who kept fainting? She dropped out of IIMA.

The Institute

In the late 1950s, a committee was formed by the Government of India, which presented a plan with the aid of the Ford Foundation about the way in which Western management experts would be transported to India to help set up the management schools. The plan was accepted and in 1959 and 1960 two management schools, named the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) started functioning in India, at Calcutta and at Ahmedabad. The experts’ discussions were the root of three fundamental decisions that decisively influenced the character of these institutions. First, it was decided the IIMs would be kept independent of state universities. As autonomous institutes, they would have greater freedom in deciding their curriculum as well as in administration matters such as salary and tenure. Second, the institutes would follow the pedagogy in use in Western schools, notably the case study and class discussion approach. These were considered useful for better understanding of the managerial issues in organizations. Third, it was decided the graduate program would be two years in length and residential; so, hostels were constructed so that students could attend the programs from all over India.

The second IIM to be established in India, IIMA was established in 1961 as an autonomous institution by the Government of India in collaboration with the Government of Gujarat and Indian Industry. Dr. Vikram Sarabhai and other Ahmedabad based industrialists such as Kasturbhai Lalbhai, the owner of Arvind mills, played a major role in the creation of the Institute. Because of its collaoration with Kellogg School, Wharton School and Harvard Business School in its initial years, IIMA pioneered the case method of teaching in India. The method still forms the dominant part of teaching at IIMA.

There are 25 dorms in IIMA, each of which can hold 25- 44 students in single-person rooms. Each dorm has its own distinctive culture and traditions. Work on a new campus is going on as of 2005. The new campus is just across the road from the old campus and houses 7 of the 25 dorms and some class rooms and seminar halls.

Today IIMA is considered one of the premier institutes in India and its MBA program is widely known to be the toughest to get into all over the world. The institute has become an island of excellence and integrity. Over 170 000 people apply each year for the entrance exam to get into roughly 250 places. IIMA is also ranked as the best management institute in Asia by Asiaweek:

Today, IIMA has become an institute that any Indian can be proud of.
If you would like to read more from this author visit

Business World
The Louis Kahn collection, University of Pennsylvania
Nasa History Division
Docomomo US
Asia Week


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