IIM Kozhikode teaches business history to students

Indian Institute of Management Kozhikode turns to business history to develop a new breed of socially responsible managers.

The 5WH in brief

Who: Dr Aparajith Ramnath, historian and visiting assistant professor, Humanities & Liberal Arts in Management, IIM Kozhikode, and Dr M.G. Sreekumar, adjunct professor in Humanities and Liberal Arts in Management and convener of Indian Business Museum, at IIM, Kozhikode

What: Developed a course in Evolution of Indian Business.

When: In 2013

Why: To cater to the need for sensitive managers who can build socially responsible businesses.

Where: Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode

How: Through a course which sets students thinking about the wider impact of their role as managers, and helps them see the bigger picture and make connections between the state of the country (not merely business) and the path business has traced.

On the face of it, an artsy museum has no place in a management institute. But the Indian Business Museum at Indian Institute of Management Kozhikode (IIMK) plays a key role in helping students make sense of the bigger picture. In management speak, that means appreciation for the social ramifications of business in addition to its hard aspects such as finance, marketing and manufacturing. 

A sprawling expanse of over 23000 square feet, including exclusive pavilions of top corporations from India such as TATA, Godrej, Reliance, SBI and Infosys, Indian Business Museum acknowledges the contribution of these business leaders in the making of India. Its RBI gallery displays the evolution of the Reserve Bank as well as the history of the financial system in India. The Kozhikode-based Malabar Chamber of Commerce’s Malabar Pavilion includes a model of the boat on which Indians sailed the seas in the 15th century. A pavilion dedicated to India’s Space Research is poised to be the next addition to the museum.

In order to get students to think more deeply about the traditional construct of management, and create socially responsible managers who can complement hard results with critical thinking, IIM-K felt the need to go beyond showcasing Indian business history.

Taking history forward

IIMK aims to prepare students to act on the bigger picture, that is, hone managers who are sensitive to the larger political and social contexts in which their businesses are operating, and of the impact their decisions could have on society. To this end, the institute roped in historian Dr Aparajith Ramnath (whose doctoral research at Imperial College London dealt with the history of engineers and industrialisation in India) to join Dr M.G. Sreekumar (Convener of the Indian Business Museum) in designing “Evolution of Indian Business”, a term-long liberal arts course in its basic form, allied with the museum.

Across the higher education spectrum, there’s a growing realisation that liberal arts courses help create well-rounded personalities who can think-out-of-box. In particular, business history in various forms is being taught in top global business schools such as Harvard, Copenhagen and NYU/Stern, with good reason. According to Professor Ramnath, “Business history furthers students’ understanding of business in the larger context of society. When students learn to look at a situation historically, they can correlate the features of a particular company or business sector, or the challenges it faces, to its origins. Present challenges often have their roots in the past.”

In designing the course, the team was deeply inspired by the writing of former IIM-Ahmedabad faculty and business historian Dwijendra Tripathi, co-author of The Concise Oxford History of Indian Business. “Dr Sreekumar interacted with Professor Tripathi to get his advice on what students need to know about Indian business history,” shares Professor Ramnath. Evolution of Indian Business, the course, is highly relevant to the Indian business climate.

 

The making of the course

Here are some of the key features of the course, Evolution of Indian Business:

Detailed Curriculum: Its curriculum spans a wide time period, starting with trade and commerce during the Indus Valley civilisation and coming up to the business environment in contemporary India.

Course Delivery: Teaching Indian business history to students involves more than just tracking events and narrating history. Professor Ramnath explains: “Students are not merely told a linear ‘story’ but encouraged to identify and interpret patterns and causal links in Indian business history.” For instance, what was the relationship between the Indian nationalist movement and big business? What does the Arthashastra tell us about the relationship between the state and business enterprise in ancient India, and how do we characterise that relationship today?

Integration with Museum: Since the course is an extension of the thinking behind the creation of the Indian Business Museum at IIM-K, its themes are integrated with the various sections in the museum, e.g. Ancient India (which includes the Indus Valley Civilisation), Medieval India (the Mughals), colonial India (the East India Company and British rule) and post-Independence India. The museum provides an excellent learning resource for students pursuing this liberal arts course. Visits to the museum are thus an integral part of learning and the faculty hopes to encourage students to take up project work based on the museum and its contents.

 

Qualitative outcomes

In 2013, IIMK ran an abridged pilot version of the course in the form of a six-session workshop for around 360 incoming students of the Postgraduate (PGP) and Fellow (FPM) programmes. Professor Ramnath and Dr Sreekumar delivered this programme. This was organised during orientation week. The level of detail was reduced accordingly, but the course still covered the lengthy timeline. Visits to the museum were incorporated.

Next, the institute is considering offering the term long course as a full-fledged elective course for second-year students. A deeper exercise, this would involve students engaging with primary historical materials and secondary literature, and being introduced to the nuances of historical interpretation.

Some of the expected outcomes of teaching business history are qualitative. Students’ historical awareness will increase as will their critical thinking skills and ability to analyse large amounts of qualitative data. Drawing on the broad contours of Indian business history helps students to contextualise the Indian cases and examples they encounter in other business courses. Also, showing students the path to success through innovative ideas, diligence and perseverance is likely to inspire aspiring entrepreneurs among them. “While conditions vary across eras, a critical analysis of ventures that have succeeded and failed in the past serves as an excellent starting point for the entrepreneur of tomorrow,” observes Professor Ramnath.

In future, the course may be offered, in an appropriate form, to students of other institutions or corporate employees as part of a Management Development Programme.

Here’s how two students sum up their course experience:

Perwez Alam, 1st year:

"The course gave us insights on how to go about starting a business. Budding entrepreneurs have great lessons to learn from ventures of Indian businessmen like the Tatas, the Birlas, the Wadias, etc. How they overcame a tough political economic and scenario during the British rule to set up successful businesses. Also, the course enlightened us with the heritage of diversity, opportunity and perpetual transformation of Indian business through the years. I am really looking forward to learning Indian Business History in our second year curriculum of electives. There should be such courses in every B-School."

Suhani Popli, 1st year:

"What I enjoyed most about the course is that it helped me build on my knowledge of how the industry has, over the years, evolved to be what it stands as today. Once you know what happened and why it happened, it becomes relatively easy to understand the present, and probably predict some part of the future as well. Having graduated in Economics, and now doing a Masters in Business Administration, I believe this course has not only allowed me to learn from the strategies and plans of the past, but also has enabled me with a broader perspective to view better the profession I shall choose for myself."


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