Explaining “industry integration” at b-schools and how it can be improved

Alumni can be a great bridge and can take the initiative from inside the industry

68-Ranjan-Banerjee Ranjan Banerjee

Many business schools have a department or an area of activity that is given the name “industry integration”. Typically, the activities under this head include areas like executive education, guest lectures by industry faculty, field visits, internships and jobs. Perhaps this is the first area that we need to address. When we look at the word integration, the dictionary meaning is the process or act of uniting different things. When we look at business schools and corporations (“industry”), this could be interpreted at two levels―the institutional level and the activity level. Specifically, there is a common, mutually agreed goal which governs the direction of mutual action that the corporate and business school will undertake together. All the activities which the corporate and the business school will undertake will be in service of this common goal.

B-schools have largely approached industry with a menu card of activities and requested support or involvement in these activities.
Industry integration has to be an institution-wide initiative and cannot be laid at the feet of any single element of the structure.
Alumni can be a great bridge. Senior alumni can be the industry champions who kick-start the initiative from within the company.

Currently, industry integration activities of most business schools would not meet this definition. Business schools have largely approached industry with a menu card of activities and requested industry support or involvement in these activities.

What are the benefits of moving from a multi-transaction to a relationship/partnership approach? First and foremost, it implies a greater understanding of each other’s needs and consequently, a relationship based on mutual respect and common goals. Secondly, it throws up the possibility of multiple formats of creative engagement which can create new layers of value. Here are some examples which have been practiced by some leading institutes (albeit not consistently):

Partnered custom leadership modules: The faculty are a mix of senior leaders from a company and faculty from an academic institute. Ideally the content is not developed only by the institute, but co-created with senior leadership of the company. Further, academic content is integrated through capstone projects, which address issues and opportunities of the company, with joint mentorship from academic leaders and corporate leaders. This kind of collaboration not only results in greater benefit to the company, but implies that faculty are continually embedded in the realities of current practice. When this works well, this will often result in the creation of new case studies and research opportunities.

Faculty immersion in industry: We are all aware of faculty sabbaticals, where a faculty member spends time at a different university―the idea is to get a break from the routine, immerse in a different context and discover new research partners. Sabbaticals are earned and paid for by the faculty member’s institute. This can be extended to industry sabbaticals; a faculty member spends a year in industry working on mutually agreed projects in areas of identified interest. The faculty members work for the company, but their salary is paid by the institute. This can often be a great idea for early career faculty with limited industry exposure. An extension of this is seen globally, when senior professors are deputed to top companies like Amazon and Google, to apply their technical prowess to challenges that the company is facing.

Extended industry immersions built into the curriculum: A great example within engineering institutions is the practice school model which has been pioneered in India by BITS Pilani. An extension to management might be a sandwich model which is seen in German management institutes. Coursework in management specialisations is seen as alternate phases of courses, followed by immersion in the relevant practice. Essentially, there is a cycle of theory, exposure to current practice, and reflection to integrate theory and practice. This could be a model which can solve much of the relevance gap in management education.

Research which managers care about: A lot of the senior management’s time and attention is devoted to here-and-now questions. There are many questions which are long term and critical, but often suffer from lack of bandwidth. Through suitable exploratory conversations, faculty members and interested business leaders can work together on research which is potentially of interest to both parties. This was the model followed by many of the pioneers in management thought. With practice upgrading much faster than the processes in academic research, this is an area of collaboration that perhaps has great potential.

Corporate leaders’ academic sabbaticals: Senior leaders on the path to the C-suite can be given a one-year sabbatical to immerse in academia. They benefit from learning the latest conceptual frameworks and feed off the energy and freshness that young students bring to the table. If developed well, this has the potential to be a highly effective component of leadership development for the corporate.

Industry-partnered curriculum and courses: The first level of this is already practiced by many good institutes, that is industry advisory councils are allowed to critique the curriculum and offer their perspectives, suggest new courses and more. The next level of this is that a faculty manager and an industry specialist co-own the course, and deliver each class together. While this is still nascent in India, it has been well adopted by institutions like the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

These are just a few examples of the possibilities that can be created when we adopt a broader, relationship-oriented view of industry academia partnerships. How do academic institutes begin to move in this direction?

Firstly, industry integration has to be an institution-wide initiative and cannot be laid at the feet of any single element of the structure. As a simple example, senior faculty and institutional leaders, need to have regular, exploratory open-ended conversations with senior leaders of the institute. The team involved in executive education and career services must engage with the company at multiple levels, and there must be a continual effort to create greater understanding of context on both sides. Essentially, academic institutions must implement key account management, and senior faculty and industry integration professionals must work together in pursuit of identified common goals.

How does an existing institute begin on this path? You start by looking at your strongest current relationships and identifying one chief sponsor in each organisation who is committed to the larger cause. Initial conversations must be exploratory. There will come a time when trust has been built and it will be appropriate for a team of leaders from both institutions to work together and create a joint charter for the relationship.

There are many challenges on this path. The primary one is mindsets on both sides. Industry integration will require leaders on both sides of the table to shed current mindsets and habits, and approach integration with an open mind, curiosity and the willingness to learn.

Alumni can often be a great bridge. They are the stakeholders who understand both the institute and the company, and senior alumni can be the industry champions who kick-start the initiative from within the company. Often, they can be the sponsors of the idea inside the corporation. This will also imply that we rethink the very nature of alumni relationships―currently, it is too driven by a global model which sees funding as the primary purpose of alumni engagement. If done right, integration will enhance alumni engagement and funding, but it will do so much more.

The change must begin within academia. We, who preach curiosity and openness to our students, must demonstrate it in the way we reach out to industry―with an open mind and a listening ear.

Banerjee is dean, BITSoM (BITS School of Management), Mumbai.

As told to Abhinav Singh