Sunday, March 9, 2008

Get IIMs out of matchmaking

They are supposed to be the best and the brightest, the future business leaders of this booming nation that needed them ready yesterday. They attend classes that encourage innovation, thinking outside the box, challenging convention.
Before taking on corporate India though, students at the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) need to apply their lessons a little closer to home. Job placements have been unfolding this week at several elite business schools. Like years past, a sea of stress and black suits marks both sides of the table.
Indeed, interviews should force preparation and cause some palpitation. But the placement process has evolved into a scramble for a certain “A” list on “Day Zero” with the crumbs left for companies deemed second-rate in the alphabet soup of IT (information technology) and FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods). The lousy feeling, of course, extends to the students who are interviewed by these once sunrise darlings of the placement process and so, their experience goes a little something like this:
“Investment banking represents a challenge and I love working with numbers and I aspire to go overseas.”
“Consulting plays to my greatest strength—strategizing and problem-solving. I love working with clients and building relationships quickly.”
“FMCG is booming. I have had many opportunities to go overseas, but home is where the action is… Patna to start, you say? I’d go there. Tier II towns represent our future.”
You get the picture. Suddenly, a large chunk of the batch has multiple personality disorder as they very horizontally hop among “verticals”.
In many ways, the placement process represents the culmination of what’s wrong with business schools today. Students don’t know what they want. Understandably. At IIM Ahmedabad, the class of 2008 consists of 43% freshers. At Harvard Business School, the same batch has an average four-and-a-half years of work experience.
While the premier Indian School of Business (ISB) and even the IIMs increasingly encourage applying with experience, the number of MBA aspirants whose exposure to the workplace amounts to visiting parents at the office is scary. Even that other brightest of the bright group—graduates of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs)—fuels the trend by applying for IIM right after graduation. Work experience? A whopping month of internship.
Besides links with the private sector and superb infrastructure, a part of the reason for ISB’s success is that students do their best learning from each other. They can swap stories about dealing with difficult bosses, wooing international clients, and the pluses and minuses of certain sectors.
Sadly, ISB’s pioneering spirit falters when it comes to placements; its campus last month, according to observers, felt as much a circus of stress, tension and inadequate interviews as its government-run counterparts this week. Business schools also need to recognize that there is nothing wrong with less than 100% placement; graduates who take time to find their passion or dream job or start a business should be celebrated.
Besides candidates, employers also jockey for prime recruitment positions and try to strong-arm candidates into taking their offers. Obviously, the integrity of the recruitment process can help determine whether or not an offer is accepted. Why then are companies bad-mouthing other employers, forcing decisions to be made right away, even refusing to participate if they don’t obtain a Day Zero entrance? A lot of top business schools, in response, now have two Day Zeroes—mere semantics to assuage ego.
The American way is not necessarily the solution either. For example, I attended a government-run college and, despite a stellar education, can’t remember a thing the place did to help me get a job. My brother, alternatively, attended one of the Top 10 universities in the US and went through 40 interviews before choosing a gig. Neither scenario is ideal.
But to the US’ credit, in good economic times and bad, employers generally give coveted candidates time and space to make a decision. They bring them back to meet more people, tour the office, dine with immediate supervisors and future colleagues. It helps ferret out the candidates who are just GOP—good on paper. Any recruiter in India can regale you with tales of the surfeit of GOPs at the IIMs.
There is little reason for institutes to play the role of meddlesome matchmaker. Career centres, information sessions, advice on interviews, resum├ęs, even wardrobe—all of those are still needed. But IIMs can best serve applicants and the private sector by staying out of the way. If students had to fend for themselves as adults and home in on goals and desired profile, they might focus less on the brand and salary—and more on the work.

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