Rajnish Karki is an archetypal management strategist, albeit with a difference. Solemn and serious with eyebrows pulled together, his face looks up studiously from the jacket of his debut book, and he looks every inch the serious, sincere scholar that he is. It’s when you read his book or meet him that the sparkle of innovation and direct candour in his thinking shines through.
Through research and consulting work, Rajnish has explored alternative approaches towards strategic thinking in Indian companies, and his efforts corroborate his claim as an independent, original thinker.
Recently, he wrote his first book Competing with the Best: Strategic Management of Indian Companies in a Globalizing Arena (published by Penguin in 2008). In the book, Rajnish uses his years of experience working with Indian firms and his experience in the field to write about management approaches that he believes apply to the Indian social and economic context rather than adapt previously handed down approaches that he believes, may have been suitably crafted to address a specific American milieu.
Using eight case studies, he talks about four viable configurations for Indian companies and argues for changes that are important for their growth. Though he identifies the whys of the Indian firms, the one area this book hasn’t addressed enough is that of telling its readers the how of undertaking these approaches or the tools and process-vehicles that will accompany these specific strategic alternatives for transformation in Indian firms.
We met up with the affable Rajnish at his office at Powai in Mumbai and chatted about his book, his career as a management thinker, entrepreneurship and other things.
1) When did you first think about writing this book and was there any trigger of inspiration?
The book was in my mind since early 2001as it directly related to my doctoral and professional work. Looking back, I first spoke about the idea enumerating the need for a distinct Indian strategy doctrine in a strategic management forum in 2004 (attended by IIM faculty and strategy professionals). This was received well and thus encouraged me further. Around that time my paper in this respect was published as a lead article in Vikalpa (IIM Ahmedabad’s management journal). Perhaps the inspiration for the book took shape at that particular time. In early 2005, I started thinking actively about it.
At a philosophical level, I have felt there should be a unique corporate strategy doctrine that is applicable to India. And gradually we have recognised that.
2) Why do you think we need a distinct strategy doctrine in India?
The need for such a doctrine is both contextual and temporal. Approaches to strategy even in the US, have shifted almost every decade, indicating the importance of applying an appropriate approach best suited to a particular context in time. There is a critical requirement to address the specific context in which Indian firms operate. The situation prevalent at one point of time in one country may be better compared with the business culture and situation prevalent in another society at a different but relevant point in time.
3) What has been the major shortcoming in respect of serious work on strategic management thinking in India, in your opinion?
Well, we have relied more on handed down approaches recommended by thinkers in the US, like CK Prahlad and others. When you look around, there isn’t much worthwhile management research that comes out of our institutions. In the bargain, we’ve had to depend on work done by management scholars in the US. I totally disagree with the argument that a management approach can be generalised and applied across a different context and culture. CK Prahlad is someone who I respect for the work he has put in, but in this context he has got it wrong. Strategic imperatives are unique to a specific country over context and time.
Here, because I feel that these studies have a certain context, I have used a decade wise study to help us understand the patterns and changes in the environment.
4) Have you found your ideas being attacked and criticised often?
Oh yes, I have. I feel there is a certain element of politics in scholarship, which is obviously wrong. If scholars in the US propound a theory, there is a large-scale acceptance to that even in India because of the follower mindset. However, there needs to be introspection with regard to how much of those theories have value across different business environments. And a healthy discussion on their viability in the Indian scenario should be welcome. Instead, what we see is intolerance to original ideas visualized by Indian scholars. That needs to go. Tolerance levels need to increase and we need to get out of this follower mindset.
5) If you were to sum up the key lessons in your book, what would they be? If you were to suggest someone to read the book, how would you sum it up to get him interested?
Indian companies are in a position today from where they can shape the global marketplace. With a sea change in their capabilities, beliefs and aspirations, Indian companies come across as aggressive and confident, which is similar to the Japanese companies of the 1970s and promise to have a similar effect on the potential world of business in the coming decades. We need to remember that in this effort, we must evolve original approaches rather than depend on borrowed ideas to obtain sustainable advantage in the global marketplace.
I would tell the prospective reader that the management approaches given in the book are original and that he should read them because they are grounded in the Indian economic and socio-cultural context. This book is different from many others because it bridges the gap between theory and practice of strategic management and highlights the under-explored yet globally significant aspects of Indian companies. That’s why this book is a useful read.
6) Your book has been praised by some critics who have called it ‘perhaps the first world class book on strategic management of Indian companies.’ Would you call yourself a successful debutant author?
I am very happy with the way things have gone so far. The book has sold more than I expected. Penguin has done a wonderful job and the due credit should go to the editors for being so thorough and meticulous. As far as being a successful author goes, there is still some way to go before I can call myself that (laughs). For that to happen, the book not only has to sell more, it also should help catapult the credibility of Indian management thought to the position it deserves and relieve our managers of the existing dependency mindset.
7) There is an allegation that Indian entrepreneurs, as a class, haven’t been able to carve out a reputation for creating wealth through diversified innovation in products and services. For every Infosys or Biocon or Bharati there are hundreds who still do not include business innovations. How do you think that is going to change?
Innovation is a part of the economic cycle. Even Japanese companies started off by creating cheaper copies of existing products. They began innovating with their products only later once the market situation demanded it. Innovation, again, I feel has to be seen in the correct context. If there is something that the market needs and I innovate, I am a successful innovator. However innovating for the sake of innovation is not what I support.
I also believe that Indians have been successful innovators. One of the instances that I can recall is of Kishore Biyani of Pantaloons and Big Bazaar who once told me about the manner in which Indians like to shop. He emphasized that Indians prefer to shop as a family, and therefore he believed the row and aisle concept of displaying products would not work as well as the open format. This has not only worked but has also been copied by some other firms.
8) How do you think that the other big half of the Indian industry - the older companies - will adapt to this transformation, considering the significant amount of structural rigidity towards change? The companies that you have mentioned are mostly those that have sprung up in the last 10-15 years. What about the older lot? The hurdles to change perceived in those companies are different. How do you think change is going to happen there?
Well, change is something that is inevitable and has to be embraced and then transformation will take place. Companies that haven’t changed in the last few years have either fallen by the wayside or have slowed down tremendously. For example, the JK Group, most Birla companies except the Aditya Birla Group etc have not been the same. One of the reasons is their inability to alter the strategic approach that they have had over the years to suit the sweeping changes in the business environment. On the other hand, change is happening in many other Indian companies, even the older ones, and gradually there is realisation that unless professionalism is practiced, the news may not be very good in the future.
9) Entrepreneurs do find it tough in India because newer ideas aren’t accepted easily. For instance, in consulting, people are lesser willing to pay for services as compared to their American counterparts. There has been a thinking that the market takes longer time to open up to newer ideas. How do you respond to that?
In my view, an entrepreneur needs to work around the demands and needs of the market. If there is a need for that service in the market, penetration can happen. I don’t think the market is slow in accepting innovation in India. The way to look at it is to see how an entrepreneur can work around the constraints and create demand for his product and services. That’s a challenge that will always remain.
10) What is your message to Indian entrepreneurs?
If you start something, think you are in a global world. Don’t do anything substandard. India’s at a very important stage and I would tell them what an American businessman said soon after the end of second world war -‘ …the world is your oyster’.
11) How do you foresee the book impacting and influencing professionals who are not in the top management cadre yet, but would like to know more about an expert viewpoint on strategic management in Indian companies?
The book addresses the concerns of everyone down the management chain. If you look at time horizons, perceptions change fast. Today, you have a far younger age profile of CEOs in Indian companies. These age profiles will drop down further tomorrow. Today, even a divisional head is a strategic manager. Someone who is in the middle rungs today will need to understand the context and the direction that the firm moves in and will need to be better informed about its overall and strategic value proposition as he grows.
12) Tell us something about your academic and professional background? What do you cherish most from your IIT and IIM days? What have been the key challenges of establishing a successful strategy-consulting firm in India?
I hold a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from IIT Kanpur, and a doctorate in strategic management from IIM Ahmedabad. Thereafter I had two stints with ACC Ltd and have also taught at a host of institutions like the IIM (A) and the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration.
IIT and IIM have given me an identity as a professional in the outside world and gave me the confidence to traverse the road less travelled.
I run a research and advisory boutique specializing in strategy and organization design and have carried out business and organisational initiatives in about two dozen organisations from diverse sectors since 1995.
I have had a successful and satisfying career doing what I have wanted to do. I have always thought independently while choosing the career path and haven’t really been pressurized in any manner by anyone. And yes, I haven’t coursed the path that most people from these institutes do. Soon after setting-up the corporate planning function at ACC, I eschewed options at a leading management institution and a global strategy consulting firm, to pursue an independent path.
14) In the 6bridges community there are professionals couched as aspiring writers, ones who haven’t yet been able to make a start yet. What is your advice for them?
First, the book should be within you. You should believe in it and be able to feel it. In case you plan a non-fiction book, you should write a few articles. In case of a fiction book you should write a few stories. I also suggest that you speak to someone who has published before. Writing a book requires tremendous discipline, and I had to allocate time to it. There were times when I went around in circles trying to convey the point, especially while writing the initial few chapters. There are also challenges as first time authors need to work harder with both distributors and the media. To a first time author, I would also suggest that he gets his work published by a good publisher, though its easier said than done.
15) How difficult did you find it to locate a publisher and convince people around you, being a first time author? How long did it take you to write the book and to find a publisher?
I am told Penguin rejects a very high proportion of manuscripts. This makes it harder for a debutant author. In this respect, I was fortunate to know someone who recommended my name at Penguin, after which they approached me to write the book. Though it didn’t take me long to find a publisher, the process of writing the drafts and constant editing and changing was a laborious one! It took me 6 months to write the manuscript. Thereafter the publishing process took one full year as the editing was detailed and we went through a number of in-house revisions. There were times when the editing looked like becoming a never-ending process. In retrospect however, I now see it as something that has actually added to the exceptional editing and fine quality of publication.
16) What do you think of 6bridges as a platform for professionals?
I feel that 6bridges is an excellent platform for professional networking and learning and people will keep benefiting tremendously from the website. Rather than being too broad a platform, it is a well-defined group, and you know whom you are addressing. In case of the book, the audience fits in well as they are very much a part of the corporate sector in India and are poised to be an important part of an emerging, vibrant India.
I like the fact that it’s an interactive medium, unlike the magazines and newspapers and I look forward to comments from readers.
17) Are you planning a second book? If so, what specific area would you want to focus on?
I agree that the tools or the how of the process that you mentioned to me have not been addressed adequately in this book. I intend to write about them in my next book and tell people about the processes involved in shaping these strategy approaches for Indian firms.