OneIndia brings to you an exclusive interview with Soumitra Dutta, who was recently elevated to the enviable position as Dean of Cornell Johnson Graduate School of Management as the First Major U.S. Business School Dean appointed from an International Academic Institution. The interviewer is a notable personality in his own right and is Rajeev Gowda, an Indian Institute of Management professor who is passionate about subjects like policy making, education and governance. This Bengalurean himself is an alumni of Wharton and Berkeley.
How has growing up in India and being Indian helped you as you have progressed along your career—experiences, mindset, etc?
My father is a medical doctor who spent his career in the Indian Air Force and my mother is a housewife who dedicated her life to her family. Growing up within the Air Force community, I spent time in many parts of the country – including Delhi, Jorhat and Bangalore – and also benefited from friends from across the country. Thus multi-cultarism and diversity are in my DNA and this has helped me to progress in my career as an international academic while living and working in multiple countries and cultures. My mother's influence has helped me to value human relationships and instill in me many of the core values that I cherish today and which are essential for a leadership position.
You have been far away from India for a few decades. How would you now build bridges to India?
I return to India every two to three months. My parents and sister live in Delhi and I have many friends in the country. I work regularly with many Indian institutions such as CII and Indian companies such as Infosys. I love India and I am Indian. I have never left India.
In comparison with Europe, America has traditionally been more welcoming of non-native talent (as Harvard, Kellogg, Chicago, and now Cornell business schools are demonstrating). What was your experience breaking into the top ranks of Europe’s business circles and how would you leverage that in the US?
INSEAD is a very international school, much more so than many other global institutions. I do not feel that INSEAD or other European schools have been less welcoming of non-native talent. However, what is true is that European schools have often been less competitive in attracting global faculty as many of them (unlike INSEAD) are still state schools and have limitations on financial packages which they are able to offer to global talent. This picture is changing fast as many European schools now recognize the need to compete effectively for global talent – both faculty and students.
Cornell’s President hailed your appointment as indicative of the university’s increasingly global outlook. Can you elaborate on that? Are we going to see Cornell elsewhere, outside of New York state, like INSEAD’s multiple locations?
Cornell is a very global university and has long and deep links with many countries in the world, including India. Nevertheless, the decision of Cornell University to look outside the national boundaries of the USA for the position of Dean of the Johnson school is symbolic as it shows that top universities are making globalization a higher priority for the future. My goal will be to take Johnson to the world and to bring the world to Johnson – how to effectively do this will be a matter of discussion that I intend to lead with the faculty, staff and students of Johnson in the coming months.
With your years of experience running Executive Education for INSEAD, is Cornell looking to break into corporate Europe? Given the Eurozone crisis, is this the wrong time for such an initiative?
Cornell will certainly focus on Europe and other emerging markets. The business stage today is global and no serious company can look at business from a purely national or regional basis. Crises such as the Eurozone financial crisis are temporary events which do not detract from the longer term need for a global perspective in business education and management development.
Talking of crises, in 2008, the best and brightest graduates of business schools plunged the world into deep financial turmoil. How can we fix MBA programs to prevent repeats of 2008?
It is incorrect to put the “blame” for the 2008 crisis on business schools. Only a small fraction of the people involved in creating the crisis had MBA degrees. However, it is correct to ask the question about how the crisis impacts the education that we impart in our MBA programs. While there are no panaceas, one can certainly think of a few important action items – a) take a more holistic view of business systems involving governments and society at large as opposed to a more narrow firm level perspective; b) focus not just on models and solutions but also on risks and boundary conditions – learn more about when models and assumption can fail; and c) help strengthen core values of ethical leadership such that business is seen as a force for good for everyone.
You have done some fascinating work on how the online world is transforming work and life. Is Cornell betting on you to implement those insights to transform different aspects of education?
Technology is changing the world around us and is having an important impact on both the delivery of learning and the creation of new business models in education. Cornell has a very strong department of Computer and Information Sciences and I will collaborate with them to identify ways in which technology can be better leveraged within the research and program activities of the Johnson school.
What are the next big business ideas you expect to make an impact on management thought and practice?
Business today has to become a force for good – serving the needs of not just capitalistic owners, but of all key stakeholders. Businesses have also to enlarge their vision from serving narrow needs (of immediate customers and local stakeholders) to becoming effective global citizens. The next big business theories will have to find ways to integrate these thoughts into an effective management agenda that is able to combine business performance with sustainable growth.
"You've authored a book on Innovating at the Top. Now that you're at the top, what innovations do you have in store for us?"
Leadership is a service position and so I really do not see myself as at the “top”. Yes, I have been nominated for the role of Dean of the school but my primary goal in that role is to listen to all key stakeholders including faculty, staff and alumni, to synthesize their thoughts into a common action agenda and to help guide the implementation of their ideas. I am sure Cornell and the Johnson school will innovate in many ways, but I would like to actively push innovation agendas in the direction of emerging markets, technology entrepreneurship and sustainable enterprises.