The Best Of Both Worlds

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The rise of a new generation of Indian-born business thinkers offers groundbreaking inspiration say Thinkers50 founders Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove.

The rarefied world of business thinking has been largely American terrain over the last hundred years. From Frederick Taylor with his stopwatch at the beginning of the twentieth century to the modern generation of gurus, Americans have monopolized business wisdom. Even the brief love affair with Japanese business practices in the early 1980s was intellectually colonized by American thinkers such as W. Edwards Deming and Richard Pascale.

Now change is in the air. A new generation of thinkers and ideas is emerging from India and elsewhere. Superstars in the business guru firmament over recent years have included C. K. Prahalad, coauthor of the bestselling Competing for the Future; the itinerant executive coach Ram Charan; the Nobel laureate in economics Amartya Sen; Vijay Govindarajan, professor of international business at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business; and London Business School’s Sumantra Ghoshal.

There are many others. Indian business thinking has entered the mainstream.

More will undoubtedly follow. The world’s MBA programs have a growing number of Indian students. This is not just an American phenomenon. When last we checked, the biggest national contingent at France’s business school INSEAD was Indian. The same is true of many other business schools throughout the world.

“God does not discriminate across countries on intelligence. So if you say that 20 percent of people are smart, that means 200 million smart Indians, and that’s a lot of human capital,” notes Tuck’s Vijay Govindarajan. “At the same time, there is no doubt that Indians have had a disproportionate influence on management thinking and practice. As a percentage of the U.S. population they are minuscule—less than a single percent—but look at their representation in business schools. I remember when I got my job at Tuck 20 years ago I was the first Indian faculty member. Now it’s not unusual to see 20 percent of the faculty with Indian roots and connections.”

One obvious conclusion is that it signifies the development of a distinctively Indian school of management, but this tends to be played down by Indian thinkers. There appears to be no definitive Indian way.

However, the increasing influence of Indian thinkers coincides with a period of introspection into the nature and purpose of Western capitalism. After Enron and the 2008 financial meltdown, there has been disillusionment with the individualistic model, a sense that corporate America has been a breeding ground for executives whose personal greed and egos eclipsed their sense of public duty. Indian thinking taps into this debate. India’s collectivist culture offers a foil to America’s rampant individualism. Among Indian thinkers there is a keen sense of capitalism’s ethical and societal obligations—witness C. K. Prahalad’s most groundbreaking book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, which advocated a new approach to business to take account of micromarkets among the world’s poor.

The Future of Competition, the book Prahalad coauthored in 2004, also examined how the balance of power is changing between the rich and the poor. The book’s core idea is to move the debate from a firm- and product-centered view of value that has persisted for over 75 years to a view of value based on the co-creation of unique personalized experiences.

The ability to reconcile conflicting views and experiences is an integral part of the Indian culture. This informs the way Indians manage and lead.

“Many Indians growing up in the United States detect an inconsistency or incoherence about modern life, which for Indian-born people like my parents is very, very difficult,” Harvard Business School’s Rakesh Khurana told us. “Somehow you are supposed to be moral and generous in your private life, but that doesn’t apply when you go to work—you don’t have to be the same person. That kind of role fragmentation or inconsistency was really seen as profane. One must find a way that synthesizes both who you are in private and who you are in public life and work. One has to find a role that creates integrity. In India they are also dealing with the issue of how do you reconcile traditionalism, where there’s a lot of meaning and symbolism imbued in everyday life and family and community, with making sure you get the benefits and individual spark of modern society.”

Khurana points to the fusion seen in Indian Bhangra music—a synthesis of modern dance and traditional music—and the questions raised in literature by Indian authors such as the Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul and Arundhati Roy.

“People are trying to find a synthesis between the benefits of modernity without losing the meaning associated with traditional structures such as family. A growing number of people are uncomfortable with the winner-take-all markets as they currently exist and that the indicator of one’s worth in the world is perfectly correlated to the size of their bank accounts. Another key question for them is how we can enjoy the advantages of modernity—but without a 50 percent divorce rate.”

Raising such questions lies at the heart of much of Indian business thinking and practice. It is not that Indian thinkers are negative about the Western business world. Indeed, they tend to be enthusiastic in their praise of the opportunities on offer. But they offer a unique viewpoint, the best of both worlds.

Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove are the creators of the Thinkers50. Their new book on the rise of Indian business thinkers is published by McGraw Hill in September.

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