SPJIMR’s new dean on the future of management education in a post-pandemic world

SPJIMR’s new dean on the future of management education in a post-pandemic world

Last month, Dr.
Varun Nagaraj, a US-based practitioner-academic joined Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan’s S.P. Jain Institute of Management & Research (SPJIMR) as the new dean. Dr Nagaraj spoke to ET’s
Sreeradha D. Basu on the road ahead and the future of management education in a post-pandemic world.

As the new dean of Bhavan’s SPJIMR, what are the primary focus areas for you?

SPJIMR’s mission is to influence practice and promote value-based growth. Our goal as an institution is to shape the practices that our students and alumni, companies, and society, will deploy to achieve such growth.

Our mission remains unchanged since the 1980’s. But the world we operate in has changed. My remit as dean is to increase the effectiveness and scale of how SPJIMR influences practice and delivers on its mission in this changed world.

There are four additional areas that we need to focus on to respond to the challenges of our time. 1) We must deeply but ubiquitously embed digital and sustainability principles into our curriculum and pedagogy. 2) We need to give students the tools and experiences that will help them design innovative entrepreneurial solutions to the world’s complex problems. 3) We must develop and deliver a broader range of cutting-edge industry-relevant programs to more segments of our society than we currently serve. 4) We need to create, synthesise, and disseminate rigorous, relevant knowledge in areas that address the grand challenges the world faces.

From COO to dean at a top B-school, what are the learnings you bring from your career so far to the running of SPJIMR?
I was CEO and COO at private startup companies creating disruptive digital products. As CEO, I also led a legacy public company through digital transformation, and as a management consultant, I advised large companies as they sought to reinvent key aspects of their business. Operating in a VUCA world is what I know and enjoy.

The management education sector is now undergoing a massive change with new competitors appearing, and novel alternatives emerging on when to deliver education and how. I am hoping to leverage my career learnings to help SPJIMR navigate through such disruptive change. Change is less daunting when you set a big vision or audacious goals, but take small, iterative, and adaptive steps towards those. It is okay to experiment and fail so long as we learn quickly from mistakes and course-correct, but it is not acceptable to sit on the sidelines.

Second, there is always a risk that what got an organisation to this point may be necessary but not sufficient to take the next step. But adding new capabilities without losing existing capabilities and cultural elements that are still relevant to the changing world is a delicate balancing act. And this is an even bigger imperative at institutions that have a distinct legacy and culture as SPJIMR does. New capability building needs relevant key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics that can be measured to provide feedback. I hope to adapt such an objective, measurement-driven approach to academia. And finally, inspiring your team to embrace change rather than being threatened by it, is a true test of leadership.

How will business education change in a post-pandemic world? Where do you see SPJIMR going and what are the changes you would like to implement?
The pandemic showed us that we should expect the unexpected going forward and that we must have the courage to act and react with limited information and poor visibility into the outcomes that those actions might create. An implication is that management education needs to create managers who can frame problems and craft solutions in such a world. Achieving this will require a critical review of the curriculum and pedagogy – for example, are students learning how to learn, are they developing a scientific and experimental mindset, do they understand the dynamics of complex adaptive systems, and so on.

The pandemic highlighted the fragility of our existence and made the UN Sustainable Development Goals an immediate concern rather than an abstract position paper. The SDGs provide a wonderful lens through which one can look at business education. SPJIMR has always addressed many of these concerns, but the pandemic has highlighted that we can and must do more to prepare the next generation of leaders.

The pandemic also showed us that education can be delivered quite well using digital technology. We have always strived to create programs for under-served segments, and digital makes it possible for us to take an even more expansive view of various segments of society that would benefit from management education.

Do we see any new specialised programmes at SPJIMR in the near future?

Besides looking to reach new segments with segment-appropriate programs, we will also look to address the lifelong educational needs of our current segments. Some of our programs might be diplomas, some might be certificates, some might take the form of coaching. Some new programs might address emerging areas of interest such as one on Fintech that we recently launched, while others might offer a uniquely SPJIMR-take on topics like leadership, wisdom, and personal growth. Some of these programs might be purely on-line, while some might be hybrid. I expect to see a fair amount of experimentation and iteration as institutions look to shape the future of management education.

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