Interviews

‘The attitude of the person goes on to determine the altitude’

Dr Alka Munjal, Director, Apeejay School of Management, says the institute believes in developing the soft skills of a student to kick-start a process of life-long learning

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With more than three decades of experience in higher Education, Dr Alka Munjal has recently joined as Director, Apeejay School of Management, Dwarka, New Delhi. Armed with a doctorate in finance and strategy, in a freewheeling video interview, Dr Munjal talks about, among other subjects, the importance of creating good human beings at management schools, the NEP imperative for B-school syllabi, the rise of artificial intelligence, how blended learning is here to stay and why investing in value-based education and good faculty pays in the long run. Edited excerpts:

What, according to you, are the qualities of a good management school?

The qualities of a good management school are the qualities of any good business. We would look at the inputs, the process and the output. In a B-school, the input is basically the admissions: The admission criteria and the kind of students that we take and the admissions process and the filtering that we do, all of these have to be well thought of. We have to use good parameters so that we get good talent whom we can mould. Then our process has to be in line with this. Therefore, our teaching-learning, our curriculum, our research, our institution-building activities, our infrastructure support, our best practices and our governance, all have to be aligned with the objective that we are seeking and the final output that we get is based on the progression. I think the best quality of management school must be this: We must make good citizens and good human beings who also happen to be good managers. The important aspect of what we have to build in the students is the concept of being responsible citizens, of being good human beings. When we are looking at a business school we have to look at all arenas. That is how you amalgamate all this and take the business school to being a good business school. And you have to walk the talk. Whoever is running the institute along with their team cannot have feet of clay. This is because students are actually simulating their real life through the management schools. In these two years we have to expose them to probably every possible industry, through case studies and the pedagogies that we use and through these are able to get them aligned with any kind of future industry or company or organisation they will join. At ASM, we also like to work on the soft skills of a person. Because we very strongly believe that it is the attitude of the person which is going to determine the altitude of a person.The better the attitude, the more positive the thinking, the higher the altitude. We can do a lot of simulation, a lot of sensitivity analysis and help them to go through probably the kind of concerns they will face in the future. However, the concerns which they actually face will be very different. So, basically, you have to build them to be life-long learners so that their learning doesn’t end with the end of the programme. It is a short, two-year programme. But at the end of the programme, a good management school will switch on the button of learning in a student so that the student is continuing to improve, imbibe and keep on learning. So I would say that if we look at a good business school, these are all the patterns that we have to follow.

How important do you think is institution-building for an educator, particularly in a value-based brand such as Apeejay?

For Apeejay as a group, we have a legacy. Our founder chairman Dr. Stya Paul himself was a leader from whom you could imbibe so many qualities. I did not have the fortune of being able to meet him, but whatever I have heard of him and whatever I see also in our President Sushma Paul Berlia Ma’am, who has imbibed so many qualities of our founder-chairman, shows to me that we are we are following the process of working towards a value-based approach to management in totality, not management education alone, but overall. I was made to feel very welcome. And I was made to feel very much part of the group and very much part of the family. I’ve been given lots of time to discuss and been given support in all my suggestions, whatever I’m thinking of. The whole vision of being rooted but soaring high is something that is so beautifully depicted and seen through our President Ma’am and the family members. And hopefully I would want to see that each one of my students who goes out from the Apeejay School of Management follows the same principles and the same values. And as I said, you know, nothing better than walking the talk. So, if the leader shows you these kinds of qualities, then it inspires all the followers, all the team members, to actually imbibe similar qualities and deliver them to the next generation. So, I’m really privileged to have got this opportunity to work in a group like Apeejay, where I’m seeing that there is really no gap between value-based working and what our management is actually professing.

ASM had the first-mover advantage as one of the first private B schools in the National Capital Region. How do you want to build on that legacy as one of the pioneers of management education in the private sector?

 They say that sustainable competitive advantage is always in the eye of the customer. Our faculty is very good. Our systems are very much in place and we have the advantage of having a 30-year legacy in management education. However, we are not so visible. So, what we are trying to do is to ensure that at least the students know it. I am not doing anything drastically different from what is being done. Because what is being done is pretty good. But of course we will tweak it further. A lot of systems are already in place. The faculty is very rich. Our research potential is very good. Just today, I was inaugurating a conference on Business Data Analytics. We keep having conferences, we have a lot of research publications. We have a lot of integration of what we are doing. But we just want to reach out to the students and I want the students to know that this is a great option for you to consider for your MBA. My only request to every MBA potential aspirant who’s looking for admission for MBA would be: Please come and see us and then make a choice. Because when I saw the Apeejay School of Management after my experience of nearly three decades in higher education, I was so happy and in a way so pleasantly surprised because as a group, we have value-based education and we have a value-based management as well, which also entails that we will not really talking about our laurels. We got international accreditation way back in 2012. We have active MoUs with France, US and Nepal. And they were active even during the Covid-19 pandemic. And while we have all of these international accreditations, national ranking, which is all very high, because we have the credibility, we have the roots. So I want all the students to see it. Our placements are very good despite the fact that we are sitting on a Covid-19 pandemic and the market is a little dipped. Even then, for my batch which will graduate in June 2022 I have already placed more than one third of my total student population. And my average package is listed at above Rs eight lakh. So it’s a good package in a time like this and with very good companies. Great companies are coming themselves and they’re asking for our kids because these kids are good. We have the credibility, we have the knowledge and we are very strategically located. It is very easy to reach our campus, housed in a beautiful building, an architectural delight. We have a very-well equipped library, very well-equipped auditorium and classrooms.  We have been using an outcome-based education model for more than 10 years. So we have the advantage of our group backing us. Housed along with me is the Apeejay Institute of Mass Communication. And I’m going to do some integrated programmes with them. So my students will get exposure to liberal arts as well. I have my sister university, the Apeejay Satya University, which has got multiple programmes, I have the Apeejay Institute of Design, and I have multiple locations where my higher education institutions are running. So, you know, the exposure to our students is manifold. Of course, we teach them all that we have to in terms of management, but we also try to give them an experience in all other areas as well. So that they come up as holistic persons. And I will again put in this suggestion to every potential MBA aspirant: Please do visit ASM Dwarka before you make a decision of where you want to do your MBA from. We are a very, very good Institute and we have a legacy.  

The top leadership at Apeejay has been a strong advocate of the new National Education Policy (NEP). In light of that, what changes must management schools bring in into their pedagogy and teaching methodologies?

NEP 2020 is something which has happened after 34 years in the arena of education in India. There are a lot of changes which are envisaged in the NEP and they are across all realms of education. Right from primary education, to school education, kindergarten and to high school and then school and then they talk about higher education where again they first talk about graduation and then they talk about post-graduation. For us at the Apeejay School of Management, we are a PGDM-oriented college. We run two PGDM programmes. In terms of NEP we are going to look more at the integration aspect. So, we are trying to see that we are not studying in silos, we are trying to do an industry connect. A management student who doesn’t understand political science, or economics is incomplete. Tomorrow when he is going to work in whichever country or domain, globalisation is a reality. Even in a small venture, you would need to combat global pressures. So, you know, in that context, it is important that we understand economics, it’s important that we understand all arenas, it is also extremely important in a stressful situation where we all are, that we have a stress-buster. So you know, beautiful things like fine arts and beautiful things like music are very critical. As I said, it is important for us to create good managers, but it’s more important for us to create good human beings, and for that a holistic education and education which is into different arenas, not reducing the emphasis or reducing the value of your core management education, but adding on to the value of other aspects also will really enhance our youth. So the NEP and the changes that it that it will envisage  will of course, be incorporated by the Apeejay School of Management, Dwarka, but more importantly, what we are going to see is that our coming generations will not just be following the three Rs, they will be more rounded and complete human beings. So we will find that with the change in the education policy, we should be able to get a kind of a generation that is not just running after high grades. A lot of students today are talking about words like depression. We as students, in the 80s had not even heard of it. But today when you speak to the youth, it’s become a common occurrence. In some ways, I think that as an education system, we have also contributed to that kind of situation. Because the number game is very heavy, the pressure is too much. So in management education, one of the changes that we would be very appreciative of is: We want a population which comes for post-graduation which has already got industry experience. So they join the management programme with work experience, much like it happens in the western part of the world. It really enhances management education, not only for the students, but also for the faculty. So if you have not got exposed to the shop floor, how would you tell us what a shop floor is? And if a student has never seen a shop floor, how would they understand when we’re talking about LIFO or other concepts? So it’s very important that those changes also come in and with the four-year undergraduate programme that NEP has proposed we will probably get more mature students into our PG programme, more rounded students who would have not just a base level knowledge, but an understanding of different areas. We will work towards that kind of system where we are able to integrate other areas as well.

You mentioned Apeejay had got international accreditation way back. How important do you think these rankings and traditions are when parents and students are making a decision regarding choosing a management school?

This is a generation which looks at ratings such as Zomato even when they decide to go for food. All of us look at Google maps when we want to go somewhere. So artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) have actually made all the concepts of ratings and rankings really popular. For instance, we have a 30-year-old institution, we have everything in place. But then how does the world know that we make a difference? If our rankings and ratings are good, they would know yes, this is a good school and a good college. On the other hand, I would also look at the ratings and rankings in both internal and external ways. In terms of external, people are able to understand that yes, you mean business and you’re working as per the norms. So, we have got a good ranking, we have always been in the top 50, we are the seventh top private institute in India, when it comes to management, we are 17th overall in India. We got the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP) recognition way back in 2012. We are one of the rare PGDM programmes, which is equivalent to MBA given by the Association of Indian Universities. But how do we learn what the rest of the world is doing? It is through accreditations. So accreditations also help in a lot of processes in terms of our internal working. Indians are notably weak in keeping documentation. So rankings have forced us to keep the documentation. We are closing the loop that was many a time left open before, because of accreditations. Something as simple as outcome-based education, which of course the NEP also talks about and is now being made compulsory for everybody, we have been doing it since 2012. And though we’ve been doing it since 2012, I would like to share that with the ACBSP. Because the first time we also heard of Bloom’s Taxonomy and the six levels and knowledge etc., was through ACBSP accreditation. So when you’re looking at accreditation there is a double benefit.  There is an internal benefit of learning and improving your own present systems. And there is an external benefit of being able to present yourself to your stakeholders in a more acceptable and certified method.

The placement record of ASM has been brilliant. What is the strategy you want to adopt to ensure that campus placements for ASM students continue to be among the best in the industry, particularly in the pandemic?

 We want to literally be the aspirational school for everyone, and I’m not looking only at placements. For me, when I’m looking at students, I’m looking at their progression. Sure, we are focusing on students who are looking for corporate placements and for that we are building them up by doing a lot of exercises with them. We are sharing knowledge not just on going through all the subjects but on topics such as how to tackle the interviews, the group discussions and getting them to be a little more settled in terms of handling any communication challenges which they have. In the university you get a bouquet of students with different skill sets. But the industry wants specific items. Those who get rejected are not bad: it’s just that their skill sets don’t match. So we have to know exactly what it [the industry] is looking for?  But in terms of progression, I’m also looking at entrepreneurship. So, I will also want to be in line with what our Prime Minister is talking about – Atmanirbhar Bharat, Make in India. So we are also trying to focus on entrepreneurial zeal and trying to see that our students who are desirous of becoming entrepreneurs, how we can hand-hold them, how we can provide them venture capital funding, How we can help them to write their projects, so that they can get their first round of financing. Basically equipping them for their entrepreneurship.

There is another section of students who want to go in for higher education, and are looking at competitive examinations. Some of them want to become civil servants, some of them want to give some other competitive examinations. So, we also want to look at them in those aspects, and try to see how we can help them to get into higher education colleges, either abroad, or you know, both go ahead and do their research, go ahead and do the PhD, if they so desire.  All our students go for a 6-to 8-week summer internship and we’ve got some wonderful reports from the industry about the work they have done. And so we are trying to crystallise those, too. Industry is involved with us at every step of the way. But in the future, I’m also planning to start some industry-led programmes in terms of management for specifically the Apeejay School of Management, because I believe we have the intrinsic strength to do so in terms of faculty, in terms of academic acumen and calibre and sheer background. Our library is fantastically rich and we have a location advantage. We are in Dwarka, where it’s very easy to get very good PGs and very good places to stay and food etc. Very close to Metro stations. So accessibility is not an issue. And we are trying to see that we are able to integrate all of those aspects.

The crisis of the pandemic has provided an opportunity for B-schools in terms of new innovations in pedagogy, research and ramping up infrastructure. Do you see it as an opportunity in this crisis?

Yeah, I see it as a great opportunity. And I would say every cloud has a silver lining. Of course, Covid did cause a lot of pain and globally it has brought in a lot of disasters, but every opportunity and every threat goes together. So we find that there is a huge opportunity which we have seen like this morning, we had a conference on business data analytics, and my guest of honour was Professor Samuel Fosso Wamba from the University of Johannesburg. Another of my keynote speakers was speaking from Bombay, things which were possible even before the pandemic, but were not very acceptable. These have now become a reality. So has the whole concept of online classes: right now we have called back students who have got double vaccination. For those who are not yet fully vaccinated, we are doing classes in the blended mode. I think blended learning is something which will continue for years to come. Because you will have this concept of being able to work across borders. I am traveling out of the country next week. I’ve told my office staff that it’s not holiday time, I will be there with you, every given minute because there is the WFH facility. All these technological innovations have been with us for many years. We were ourselves not very keen to use them. The Covid pandemic has changed all of that and all of a sudden, everybody had to deliver their sessions, through different media. I’m not saying that it will lead to a replacement of face-to-face education. Face-to-face does have its positives does have its merits and will continue, but I think the future of management education will be in blended mode. So whatever it is that we can get out of the technology we will use it for the betterment of our students. The exposure that you want from a senior industry person, however accessible and however close and how well located we may be: it is difficult for somebody to come especially for a one-hour guest lecture. But sitting in his own office taking the session is possible. Even this interview with you is possible because we have Zoom.

Recently Rajiv Bajaj hosted a workshop on Ikigai for ASM students sitting in the Bombay office that we covered…. 

Yes, the world has become our own oyster. We will be interacting with faculty from across the globe. Just this morning, I had somebody from Johannesburg and another person from Mumbai addressing my students. We try to add value in all our courses with industry personnel and working professionals and it’s a lot more conducive for us and for them to get that. There is going to be a blended approach and I think that’s here to stay. Now everybody has realised its value. As they say, Covid was bad for everyone, but very good for some. I did miss coming to the campus and seeing the bright faces of students running around the activity quotient, but at least they didn’t lose time, at least they all had a good education. The Covid batch of students are all getting fantastic placements, because the industry does not compromise. So, a company which had last year recruited 12, or the year before last recruited eight students, has now recruited 19 students in one day.

People are talking about investing in a curriculum that looks at emerging technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence, what is your view on those?

 I was talking about business data analytics at the conference this morning. Data analytics is an integrative approach. So, we are talking about integration of data analytics, statistics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, marketing, HR, finance or strategy. So, now, we are not working in silos. And so, you can’t say I am a marketing expert so I don’t know anything about IT. Because a marketing expert has to do predictive analytics, has to find out future markets, has to do prospective analytics, and you are working primarily on data analytics in a big way. So, when we are looking at the entire concept of Education 4.0, we are basically trying to look at all the IT interventions we can bring into management. So, the tunnel vision approach is dying. You can’t not look left and right and say I don’t need to know it: you have to know it. The manager of tomorrow has to be aware about all areas of all types and all the new tools. So we are upgrading our syllabi. By the intake of 2022 we are trying to integrate many courses which are into artificial intelligence, machine learning, not as standalone but integrated with marketing, HR, finance and with business as a whole. That is an ongoing process that I’ve started and by July 2022, when new students come in for the 2022-24 batch they will get curricula which will be NEP-ready, adapted in totality and have an influx of AI and ML. 

Apart from putting in place mechanisation, quality of education and great infrastructure, how important is it for a business school to invest in human capital, and the quality of faculty. A mix of facilities as well as faculty?

 It’s like the body and the soul right? So if we are talking about any service sector, it is actually dependent on the kind of people who are running the system. So we are trying to develop our faculty because we believe in three words: Learn, unlearn and relearn. So, they have to keep relearning and they have to also unlearn some of the earlier practices. At the Apeejay School of Management, I believe excellence has no finishing line. And though we are very, very good, we are striving to be better. So by the time the next batch comes, you will see that if the Apeejay School of Management was already one of the best in the country, it’s only going to strive higher and go forward and become better. And we can do this only with the support of HR. A leader is as strong as their team. The human resources that we have, the faculty that we have is actually the soul of the Apeejay School of Management. So while the infrastructure is the body and face, the actual soul of ASM is our faculty. And I’m very proud to say that we have a very positive and research-oriented and enlightened group of faculty members. As many as 95% of our faculty have PhD holders and they have completed their research and they are doing a lot of research. So even during the Covid period, in the last few months, I have got 23 publications. And these are all index journal publications. We are motivating them, hand-holding them and we’ve been with them through the pandemic. The management was standing with our faculty as family members. We supported them in every way possible. So despite the Covid pandemic and whatever problems we are facing as a group, we never let them translate to our faculty because we believe that our faculty members must have anyway been troubled by the pandemic, so we should, we should be there with them as family and literally we were there at every step. Anybody who needed technological upgradation was supported to update their skill set. So we kept their learning curve alive. And they also delivered back by giving us good research publications. So in any school of management or in any business school, any college, any organisation, HR is most critical, except when we are totally mechanised and everything is happening through machines and then robots can take over.

Bots taking over is still some time away it would appear…

 I hope it never happens because finally that human touch would always be there.

“A good management school will switch on the button of learning in a student so that the student is continuing to improve, imbibe and keep on learning.”

-Dr Alka Munjal, Director, Apeejay School of Management

Aasheesh Sharma is a seasoned journalist with an experience of more than 25 years spread over newspapers, news agencies, magazines and television. He has worked in leadership positions in media groups such as Hindustan Times, India Today, Times of India, NDTV, UNI and IANS. He is a published author and his essay on the longest train journey in India was included in an anthology of writings on the railways, brought out by Rupa Publications. As the Editor of Apeejay Newsroom, he is responsible for coverage of the latest news and developments in the Apeejay institutions. He can be reached at [email protected]

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