Father E. Abraham, the director of Xavier’s Labour Relations Institute (XLRI), Jamshedpur, is an authority on human resource (HR) education. He has authored several research papers and books on HR practices in Indian industries. Under his leadership, XLRI has turned into one of the top management institutes in the country. His insistence on ethics and social responsibility in the B-school curriculum has become even more relevant in an environment of corruption in both the government and private sector in India. In an interview withhe reveals how B-schools can bridge the rural-urban divide and groom future leaders with a conscience and empathy for the underprivileged. The Village Exposure programme is XLRI’s way of making future managers socially responsible.
Why did you introduce the Village Exposure programme?
You must be aware that XLRI is quite different from other management institutes. We emphasise a lot on students being socially responsible and sensitise them to the hard realities of rural India. Villages in India have not benefited in an equitable manner from the country’s high economic growth in the last two decades. So it’s imperative for management students — future leaders and managers — to bridge the yawning gap between rural and urban India. The three-day Village Exposure programme seeks to play the role of a catalyst in ensuring there is all-round, inclusive growth across India by exposing future leaders to rural life. It is an elementary effort towards sensitisation of students who come from a predominantly urban background and have limited exposure to village life.
Do you think one can understand rural India in three days?
lNo, it is not enough. That is why I say this is an elementary effort. We’ve been organising village visits since 2006 but now we are making this programme more formal. Now students go for it in the initial stage before they start their one-year or two-year courses. This is meant to orient them to the situation in rural India from the very beginning. And, actually it’s more than exposure — they have to stay there, live with the villagers and eat with them. For most of them it is a rude shock. From this year we are taking the process a notch higher by getting students to apply organisational behaviour studies to real-life situation. For instance, when they visited a farmer’s market they analysed the supply chain and tried to diagnose the problems. Then they found out ways to solve these problems so that farmers can earn better and get fair returns on their hard work.
In other words, students are now taking up bottom-of-the pyramid projects [The phrase is used in reference to the development of new models of business that target the poorest socioeconomic group, often using new technology] whereby they can contribute towards solving day-to-day challenges of villages located in and around the campus. This is how many of the students voluntarily stay in touch with the villages for several months. Some of them keep visiting on weekends till the end of the term. In a few cases, they maintain the link even after they have passed out.
Do you think most MBA graduates nowadays have tunnel vision as they are groomed to maximise profit for business houses rather than protect local communities or the environment?
Across the world, including India, most organisations in their quest for profit maximisation have often overlooked the short and long-term damage to the silent stakeholders and the environment. However, in the last few years, many forward-thinking organisations have embarked on a “triple bottomline approach” in which due importance is being given to embedding sustainable practices across various aspects, including economic performance, environmental issues and social dimension (labour practices, human rights, society and product responsibility). Yet, a lot more needs to be done and organisations across all sectors have to keep pushing to embed sustainable practices across their respective industry and organisational value chains. It is possible for organisations to “do well by doing good”.
Can unethical practice among business leaders — vis-a-vis 2G spectrum or the Satyam scam — be stemmed at the root if B-schools insist on teaching ethics?
Yes. If management institutes instill a sense of ethics in students, MBA graduates will certainly think twice before undertaking wrong business practice. Their conscience will remind them that if they go to jail, the corporation’s reputation will suffer in the long run. However, undertaking short-cuts or unethical practices to gain market share or increase profitability is fundamentally wrong irrespective of whether one gets caught or not. Our primary intent in making “business ethics and corporate citizenship” a compulsory course for all students is to shape responsible business leaders for tomorrow. But, I also believe that such a course in a management institute can only work if a sense of ethics and empathy is inculcated in students at home and school from early childhood.