IN 2018, Indian Institute of Management Lucknow (IIM-L), took up a project to create a district development plan for Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT) under commerce ministry. The idea was to help various districts achieve an additional 3-4% growth by identifying and supporting economic activities that could be developed further. IIM-L selected three of the six districts, Varanasi, Visakhapatnam and Muzaffarpur, chosen for pilot projects. The team mapped key activities in each district with economic as well as employment potential, says Kshitij Awasthi, associate professor, strategic management, IIM-L. In Varanasi, for example, it focused on tourism, glass beads and metal repousse. In Muzaffarpur, it identified honey, lacquer bangles, leather goods and dairy products. For Visakhapatnam, it zeroed in on fisheries, handmade toys, coffee and tourism. The team also identified challenges ranging from shortage of funding to lack of training and marketing. A task force has been created in Muzaffarpur to implement IIM-L's recommendations. In other two districts, its recommendations have been shared with district officers, who are in the middle of implementing them.

Similarly, Arvind Sahay, professor of marketing and international business and chairperson, India Gold Policy Centre, IIM-A, recently led a project on front of package labels (FOPL) that indicate amount of ingredients such as salt, sugar, vitamins, carbohydrates, fats, cholesterol, LDL, etc., on behalf of Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). The authority was interested in mandating a summary sign and wanted to understand what will work for consumers. The different types of labels include multiple traffic light labels (each nutrient is represented by a separate symbol), health star rating and guideline daily amounts. The institute conducted a randomised control trial across the country on 20,500 respondents. FSSAI recently released FOPL guidelines on the basis of IIM-A's work or trial results.

These are examples of consulting and research work that top B-schools are doing for public as well as private sector. Though B-schools have often been the go-to institutions for research earlier too, what has changed now is much higher demand for insightful consulting work as organisations and governments grapple with new technologies and economic uncertainties owing to events like Covid-19 pandemic, environmental degradation and political instability around the globe. Their links with local, state and Central governments, along with rural reach, make them a good choice for ground-level research. That is why research and consulting revenue has been rising for some of the top B-schools. SPJIMR's revenue from research and consultancy jumped nearly six-fold to ₹6.3 crore in FY22. For IIM Kozhikode, it grew marginally to about ₹25 crore in FY21, up from ₹23.6 crore in previous year. B-schools, too, are building capacity for consulting and research work.

Pankaj Setia, who is professor, information systems, and leads centre for digital transformation at IIM-A, says faculty at B-schools is engaged in a wide range of research being published in some of the best journals in the world. "Industry is seeking more knowledge. Digital transformation means organisations have to learn a lot of things," he says. IIM-A runs 11 such centres, including gender, innovation, incubation and entrepreneurship, behavioural science, data science, artificial intelligence, environmental, social & corporate governance, and research and innovation.

Similarly, IIM Kozhikode has six specialised centres, including sustainability, governments, IT and digital. "Our projects embrace public and private sector. We engage with multinationals, central, state and local governments, as well as authorities in remote areas where most consultants will not reach," says Debashis Chatterjee, director and distinguished professor on leadership and organisational behaviour, IIM Kozhikode. One project involved transformation of a government school in Nadakkavu in Kozhikode district. The institute's contributions included training teachers and helping build the school using pre-fabricated materials from Dubai.

A Big Step

Big businesses can afford top consultancies. What about small and mid-sized businesses? They are turning to B-schools. "A smaller company can get equivalent recommendations, action items and maybe even hand-holding for implementation at a price that is a lot more reasonable," says Sahay of IIM-A.

IIM Udaipur has got grants to work with non-profits which help MSMEs and microentrepreneurs in training and recruiting talent as well as developing market linkages. The institute works as a think-tank while non-profits are implementation partners, says Ashish Galande, chairperson, R&D committee and professor of marketing at IIM Udaipur. Setia says IIM-A also advises start-ups and large organisations by testing their models and suggesting how they can structure their businesses.

Smaller companies, too, are more receptive to professional advice now than earlier when they relied mostly on family and friends. Sahay says companies approach academic institutions for their objective view and academic rigour. "My bread and butter do not depend on consulting. I don't need to go out and hustle for business. I will say it as it is. As my client, you may not like it, but you hire me because you want to hear the truth," he says. The gold policy centre he heads at IIM-A collaborated with International Financial Services Centre Authority to set up regulatory scaffolding for Indian International Bullion Exchange at GIFT City in Gujarat. He says it's better to engage an academic institution which keeps industry and governments at an arm's length and is not an interested party.

Awasthi of IIM Lucknow says academics may be best for projects which require on-ground experience. "We have a good understanding of ground reality, government functioning and bureaucracy. We are also more flexible in terms of work. For example, if a government wants to change the scope of a project while we are in the middle of it, we can do it, because we are not driven by financial but larger goals," he says.

Besides, consulting and training go hand-in-hand for B-schools which also provide executive education. Preeta George, professor of economics and associate dean, executive education, S.P. Jain Institute of Management & Research, points at an emerging trend — mixing of training and consulting. The institute recently trained top finance leaders of a company in data and analytics. Faculty members conducted one-on-one sessions with the executives over a period and helped them use data to come up with solutions. "It was a successful programme, a perfect blend of consulting and training," she says.

Real-World Experience

An important aim of consulting and research projects is providing real-world experience to students who will be future executives or consultants. For the faculty, it is a way of staying in touch with the real world and using the lessons learnt into their teaching process. Awasthi of IIM-Lucknow says students are keen to get involved in live projects to diversify their CVs. At IIM-Udaipur, MBA and Ph.D. students can join short-term projects. "Education institutes have two agendas — creating and disseminating knowledge. If we, as academics, get involved in projects and improve our understanding, it will impact what is being imparted in the class. It is our way of staying connected with the real world," says Galande of IIM Udaipur.

Academic institutions are also able to deploy diverse talent. Setia of IIM-A says the digital transformation centre has research associates and interns, many of whom are engineering students from IIT who are keen to learn about management or certain principles related to transformation. There is also a set of associates from varied backgrounds such as English, cognitive psychology and computer science. The faculty involved in projects is also from various disciplines–human resources, marketing, operations, management, finance, etc.

Here's hoping these win-win partnerships gain scale as B-schools get past the pandemic to meet newer challenges.

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