This is of course just a Press Release, orchestrated, no doubt, by NIIT's very efficient corporate communications people. Among many business practises NIIT pioneered in India and excelled in is Corporate Communications. Its consistent focus on brand messages, consistent style, hard work in developing media relations and planning and organizing high visibility events played no small part in making NIIT the big global brand that it is today. However, its very success ensures a fairly bland, predictable style in all its messages. Those who have heard Mr Pawar in person know that he is an extremely engaging speaker, a man of great knowledge and perspective, capable of producing deep insights while being on the message. However, this Press Interview looked like more an exercise that he had to - the perfunctory Chairman's message - than a real conversation. In fact, some of the sentences are so constricted - like this one, 'As Karan Singh, MP and Chairman NIIT University puts it “NIIT University gives a glimpse of what future education institutions can be”, one can almost feel a copywriter working away on a press release rather than a live conversation. This is not a failure, just too much success of corporate communication: The world has indeed moved on.
So, I am sure there is more to the NIIT University MBA than Mr Pawar gives out in the interview. The key idea is fairly simple: This is an MBA inside a multi-disciplinary university, allowing the students a great choice of electives. That's the way it should be though: I am not sure whether availability of electives is a problem in India. The message seems like a throwback from a different age, when NIIT used to compete at the 'institute' space, with the myriad of single room technical schools that mushroomed in India over the years. Why would it think an MBA inside a multi-disciplinary university is such a key differentiator?
But there is a real differentiator in what RSP says. He makes an interesting point about research focus and gives glimpses of an interesting business model. NIIT University is a technology oriented university which will put a lot of focus on research, expecting good quality research output coming up in five years time, and then, he says, the same research can be harvested for commercial purposes in ten years time. If this happens, this will surely differentiate NIIT University from its bigger, state sector peers as well. In India, the quality of university research abysmally poor, and this is going to hurt now that the companies are moving up the value chain. There are lots of discussions about setting 'world class universities' in India; Mukesh Ambani recently said that he is planning to set up one. One great thing about British University system is the rather close Academia-Business-Government linkage, and NIIT University may be able to bring the same in India.
There will be two challenges on the way though. The economic incentive of research is still low in India. It is easy to see why. BusinessWeek says India is exporting to the world its new innovation mantra - Jugaad, the technique of getting by. The Economist concurred, running a story on this and likening the Indian model, among other things, an emerging management paradigm. This is a model which has indeed served Indian businesses very well during the time when capital was limited and resources were hard to come by. Things have changed, but the approaches to innovation persisted. I would suspect that we see such poor quality research at the university level in India not just because the institutions are faltering, but also because research isn't valued and not part of the corporate culture in India. It will be interesting to see whether and how NIIT University create the desire to do serious research among the students.
This can potentially be a game changer for NIIT, in a way. Today, it has lost much of its pioneering spirit, its ability to come up with fresh ideas, innovative products and business models, its ability to be ahead of the pack. In fact, while working at NIIT in the early years of the millennium, I developed a maxim [which is not necessarily true]: Quality is the excuse of those who can't innovate! The fact that NIIT got into business education so late tells a story.
There are many reasons for this. The Indian education space was suddenly crowded and was not governed by a set of transparent, forward-looking rules. The company became too large and had to create management barriers, stamping out out of the line thinking and therefore, innovation. But most importantly, after being a pioneer of sorts on systematic research, NIIT became over-reliant on it. While NIIT had brilliant scientists in the team and they were working on pioneering projects, not much of that was being commercially used in actual learning areas. While the world appreciated the value of 'open innovation', NIIT remained inward looking. This, the university-based research and the desire to leverage it commercially, may mean a new turn for NIIT. That will surely be double good news for Indian industry.