Ask most people for a list of the most influential business schools in the world, and they will probably name the usual suspects: Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, INSEAD, and London Business School. They wouldn’t be wrong, exactly, but that sort of list doesn’t tell the full story.
As the world’s economic center of gravity shifts, new names are gaining more influence, and new knowledge is becoming increasingly important. To understand the way business education is developing you need to look away from the big Western cities and toward the dynamism of the emerging economies. The Indian School of Business might fly under the radar of many MBA watchers, but for those in the know – and especially the huge number of Poets&Quants readers in India – it is up there with the most celebrated names. For over 20 years it has been educating India’s business elite and with a new dean at the helm, it could be about to move into a whole new era of its history.
Madan Pillutla was appointed ISB’s sixth dean in the middle of 2020, following a career of over 20 years as a professor specializing in organizational behavior at London Business School. The Indian-born academic is no stranger to the mission of ISB, however, because he has been teaching there since 2001, the year the very first cohort passed through its lecture rooms. Indeed, he was named best teacher by the inaugural batch of students. Over the years he has combined his duties at LBS with teaching on ISB’s PGP. (For complicated reasons to do with the Indian educational system the school cannot use the name MBA and has to teach a “postgraduate program in management” — an MBA in all but name.)
‘INDIA IS A VAST CANVAS ON WHICH YOU CAN PAINT’
So, what has driven Pillutla to swap his life in London for one hopping between the ISB’s twin campuses in the southern city of Hyderabad and Mohali in the north? Was he bored of London? “Ah, you can never be bored of London,” he laughs over a Zoom call with Poets&Quants. “London is home. My daughters are there and eventually, once this adventure ends, I’m going to come back to London. In that sense, I am a Londoner. I never, never aspired to be a dean. But if I was going to be a dean anywhere, I was going to be a dean at ISB.”
Why? “This a place where I find that I could move the needle,” Dean Pillutla explains. “There are things that we could do here that we can’t do in other places. There is a vast canvas on which you can paint, which is India. The unique status of the school means that it allows you to have an impact in ways that you would not in any other school. Perhaps you also have that in Harvard, or maybe the National University of Singapore, but not really anywhere else.”
When he talks about “moving the needle” he means going well beyond just churning out more postgraduate business education. “I’m very interested in understanding how we can bring about socioeconomic mobility,” Pillutla says. “Part of my research has been about the democratization of education, and there is a lot that can be done in large parts of society which we’re not doing. The number of people who are taking our courses is very small. No matter how large an MBA program is, in a place like India it’s just a drop in the ocean.” By leveraging ISB’s contacts and network, Pillutla says, the school can start to upskill India. “One aim is for ISB to use its skills to help the 5,000-or-so MBA programs and thousands of undergraduate business degrees and see if we can help them create better materials, better pedagogy, and improve business, financial and entrepreneurial literacy.”
A STRATEGY TO DEVELOP ONLINE COURSES TO DEMOCRATIZE BUSINESS EDUCATION IN INDIA
In practice, this means partnering with other organizations. “We already had uptake from two of the provinces, and that can become a template for us, a baseline,” Pillutla says. “We are developing online courses, and my first idea was to offer them to other institutions, but since I’ve come in here I’ve realized that we have good relationships with state governments. Partnering with them can be quick wins, by improving their in-house capabilities. An incredibly pleasant surprise I’ve had is that state governments treat the school with pride and joy, so there’s a lot of support that comes that way. This is a major strength of the school that I had underestimated when I first came in.” Within 18 months, Pillutla hopes that ISB will have developed a suite of online courses which can be offered to other business schools and corporates, and even to individuals on a retail basis.
That said, the new dean understands that having “a high-powered MBA program” is hugely important for a business school with global ambitions. “That is the calling card of a top-flight business school,” he acknowledges. “We cannot ignore that. We are always innovating on our MBA and executive MBA programs. Those programs are still going to be the focus of attention. Our MBA students should get the best kinds of jobs and our EMBA students should rise fast in their organizations. We’re not going to ignore those.” There are no plans, however, to expand the numbers on the flagship programs. In the last year, ISB boasted 6.6 times more applicants than it had classroom seats, enrolling a cohort of 934 students on the MBA out of 6,203 applications. The school admitted 1,167 out of its applicant pool for an acceptance rate of 19%, an admit rate lower than Wharton, Chicago Booth, or MIT Sloan.
The school’s MBA program achieved its highest rank ever from the Financial Times in 2010 when it was ranked 12th best in the world, something of an aberration since ISB typically ranks in the 20s. Last year, the school rose five places to finish 23rd after the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and just before the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. That ranking made ISB’s MBA the highest honored program in India, a dozen places ahead of the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore which ranked 35th and 25 places ahead of the IIM in Ahmedabad that historically had been India’s best-ranked MBA. IIM-Ahmedabad ranked 48th last year (see below chart).
'WE COULD HAVE GONE FROM 900 MBA STUDENTS TO 1,800 OR 2,700'
“We could have gone from 900 MBA students to 1800, or 2700, but we are not going to do that,” says Pillutla. “We still keep our MBA students at 900 and we will still be a very prestigious super-selective program. But along with that, we will pursue the democratization of business education that I'm talking about. So people will see that these are the courses that our MBA students are getting, and others can get it to in different forms.”
Almost a quarter-century at LBS must have been a formative experience. What did he learn from it? “It's an institution that I admire a lot,” says Pillutla who first went to London as a professor in 1999 after a four-year stint as an assistant prof at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “I love the institution. It made me who I am. Here is the thing about LBS. What makes it so admirable is its faculty members. They have made a tremendous effort to turn it into a world-class institution, without the resources of a Stanford, a Harvard or a Chicago, or even a Michigan. It doesn't have those kinds of resources. LBS has become world-class because there is a sense of ownership. I felt that it was my school. We weren’t stupidly blind to its faults, of course not, but if there was a problem we would roll up our sleeves and we would solve it.” LBS, he says, is “nimble, innovative, and ambitious to be a global player”.
The obvious question, then, is whether his ambition at ISB is to turn it into an LBS-style global brand? “Absolutely. Absolutely,” says Pillutla. However, he accepts that the cities where ISB is based might not have the broad appeal of London. But for those who have an interest in the problems of developing economies, ISB should be a world leader. “Winning the battle for students who don’t have those specific interests – well that is going to be hard. But we want to be a role model for what schools and a developing economy should look like. That will be our USP,” he says.
AN ATTRACTIVE VALUE PROPOSITION
ISB still has the same, attractive value proposition that it has since its inception – offering a world-class MBA equivalent at a third of the price of a comparable program in Europe or the U.S. Also, the program is just 12 months long, which means it has less opportunity cost than a two-year MBA with strong employment prospects. Last year’s graduating class achieved the highest 80% median and 80% mean starting salaries domestically ever: 27,13,055 mean Indian Rupees (up from 25,06,434) and 27,00,000 median (up from 24,10,000). Some 308 companies registered with ISB and made 1,195 job offers to the 691 graduating students.
But these factors are not everything, of course. ISB lacks the student and faculty diversity common to other world-class business schools, with a mere 2% of its student population considered international. It currently gets “a handful” of students for its PGP from such places as Korea and Japan, and “very, very few” from Europe and the U.S. Those who do come from those countries tend to have Indian origins because India allows “overseas citizens of India” who are also citizens of another country to come and study with the same rights as Indians and grants them an unlimited lifelong work visa which allows them to come and go as they please for life.
But internationalism is not a useful metric for evaluating an emerging-nation business school. Unlike European or U.S. business schools, ISB is not trying to curate classes packed with students from all over the world. Instead, it is looking for a select group of highly talented individuals with a common interest. “In terms of jobs, if you are looking for something exciting in a developing economy then India is the place to be, and ISB is at the center of the Indian economic ecosystem, whether it is in entrepreneurship or the really, really big companies in India that are doing innovative things,” says Pillutla. “India is an exciting economic environment, and ISB will give you the keys to the door.”