Dominant affiliation groups

I was writing an email to connect two friends, when I realised that when you know someone through more than one affiliation group, one of the affiliation groups becomes “dominant”, and you will identify with them through that group at the cost of others. And sometimes this can lead you to even forgetting that you share other affiliation groups with them.

In social networking theory, affiliation groups refer to entities such as families, communities, schools or workplaces through which people get connected to other people. It is not strictly necessary for two connected people to share an affiliation group, but it is commonly the case to share one or more such groups. Social networking companies such as Facebook and LinkedIn sometimes suggest connections to you based on commonly identified affiliation groups.

So my hypothesis is that when you share multiple affiliation groups with someone, you are likely to have been more strongly connected to them through one than through others. For example, you might have gone to the same school and then worked together, but your interaction in school would have been so little that it almost doesn’t count. Yet, the school  remains as a common affiliation group.

Does it happen to you as well? Do you forget that you share an affiliation group with someone because it is not the “dominant” one, since you share another? And due to that do you miss out on making connections, and thus on opportunities?

I had this hilarious incident two weeks back where I was meeting this guy W with whom I share three affiliation groups – BASE (the local JEE coaching factory), IIT Madras and IIM Bangalore. Due to the extent of overlap and degree of interaction, I know him fundamentally as an “IITM guy”. And there’s this other guy X who I also know through three affiliation groups – BASE (again), IIM Bangalore (again) and a shared hobby (the strongest).

So I was talking to W and was going to bring up the topic of X’s work, and suddenly wondered if W knows X, so I said “do you remember X, he was in your batch at BASE?”. And then a minute later “oh yeah, you guys were classmates at IIMB also!”.

The rather bizarre thing is that I had completely stopped associating both W and X with IIMB, since I have much stronger affiliation groups with them. And then when I had to draw a connection between them, I even more bizarrely picked BASE, where I hadn’t interacted with either of them, rather than IIMB, where I interacted with both of them to a reasonable degree (X much more than W).

I know I didn’t do much damage, but in another context, not realising connections that exist might prove costly. So I find this “interesting”!

Is there anybody else in here who feels the way I do?

Another view from yet another other side

A few years back, after the first time I had interviewed people from campus, I had written a blog post about the experience. That post had ended up ruffling a few feathers, inviting angry comments from placement committees that it was my duty to make sure I read all the drivel they put out on their CVs and that the process I had followed was wrong.

Today I had an opportunity to be on the “other side” of another process I had gone through over a decade back – IIM admission interviews. This had nothing to do with my teaching position at IIMB; they had called for volunteers from among the alumni to help out with the admissions and I had put up my hand and thus went.

So there were two sessions, in each of which nine applicants were supposed to turn up. As it happened, only five and six respectively turned up, making our job easier. This is surprising since back in my days (2004) for most IIMs, most of the people who had applied would turn up for the interviews. The only IIM interview where I saw low attendance was Kozhikode (it was in Chennai, unlike others which were in Bangalore) where attendance was little over 50%.

The good news is that the group discussion (GD) has been done away with. It never really served much purpose anyway, and the IIMB Admissions Committee probably realised that. It is possible that GDs biased admission in favour of the more vocal and assertive, and I’m not sure if it was a great thing. Anyway, good riddance. The GD has now been replaced by a written test. Applicants are given a question they must comment on in writing. This is to test both their analytical reasoning skills and their written communication. I think that’s a great thing. We didn’t have to evaluate that though .

Coming to the interview itself, after the first few interviews I realised that there is a simple metric the professors use while judging a student. This is essentially a version of the O’Hare test used by investment bankers (banker bankers, not traders) to recruit. In the O’Hare test you evaluate if you’ll be able to get along with the applicant if you are stranded in a long layover with him/her. More generally, in a job interview you are testing if you’ll feel comfortable working with the applicant.

In a B-school admission interview, you evaluate if you want the student in your class. There are certain features that make for good students, and judgments of these vary from teacher to teacher of course. And decisions on whether to admit a particular student is made based primarily on whether the interviewing professor wants to see the student in class.

For example, if the student doesn’t display much energy, you’ll worry if she will participate enough in class. If the candidate is too loud and aggressive, you’ll fear that she may be a disruptive influence in class. If the candidate is stupid, then you know she’ll add no value to the class, and might hold back the class with her stupidity. If you think the candidate cannot work in groups, you’ll worry for her potential classmates who might have to team up with her for projects!

A similar list of examples can be produced for the other side. So essentially it boils down to this one thing – if you are going for an admission interview, you should be able to convince the interviewers that you will be an asset to the class that you’ll be sitting in, and that they should take you for that! Everything else is subordinate to this!

There are no other pertinent observations I can make without a breach of some kind, so I’ll stop here.

Perpetual giving up is the truth of life

That’s my biggest takeaway from my trip to Calcutta, which is where I’m writing this blog post, sitting in back of a car. On my way back to the airport having delivered a lecture on “the role of data and scientific temper in democracy” at the “management centre for human values” at IIM Calcutta.

image

Talk went off okay. I’d assumed an audience of mostly MBA students but turned out there were mostly professors and grad students. It’s possible that my lecture was a bit too laddoo.

This was my second time in the city, and I was here after a gap of nine years. Both trips were rushed. Both trips were to IIM. In fact on both trips my point of business was the same hall!

This time I was put up at the campus guest house. It’s a rather ancient building but well maintained. The staff were also extremely nice – like for example when I got there at 10pm last night they had saved dinner for me though the dining hall had closed. And this morning I was woken up by the loud ringing of my room doorbell and presented with a flask of easily the best tea I’ve had in a very very long time.

The city is a bit surreal though. Both on my way to IIM last night and on my way back to the airport today the roads have been funny. You travel on wide roads for a while and then it suddenly gets narrow. The next moment the driver has sneaked into some tiny residential gully!! And at times the road is extremely wide. So wide that the shops are all very far away.

On my way back to the airport now I realised that it helps knowing people from the city you’re visiting. I messaged Manasi asking for places I can get good sweets. She called and spoke to the driver and he takes me to this little sweet shop near the rather hilariously named “mahanayak Uttam kumar” metro station. There was no pace to park so I hurriedly gorged down radhaballabi, jaggery chum chum and jaggery Sandesh. All very good stuff.

I need to make another trip to this city sometime. If only for the sweets and snacks and tea! And for perpetually giving up in life.

Batch size at IIMB

A few days back I had written about how the new IIMs with a sanctioned batch size of around 60 and a faculty strength of 20 are unviable and need to scale up quickly. My argument was that one of the big strengths of the older IIMs is its faculty size which leads to a large number of electives, which allows students to shape themselves the way they best feel. In this context it would be interesting to compare these IIMs to one or more of the older IIMs.

I recently received a mail by the IIMB Alumni Association asking me to reach out to batchmates who are not part of the association. This mail had been sent to all IIMB Alumni who are registered with the association, and the purpose was to increase membership and reach of the association (and no, there are no membership fees). And the mail came with a very interesting data set, and one of the fields was the size of each graduating batch at IIMB.

Source: IIMB Alumni Association
Source: IIMB Alumni Association

It can be seen that IIMB also started rather small, with about 50 students graduating in the first batch in 1976. By the end of the decade, the number was close to a 100, which is where it stayed through the 1980s. Around 1990 was when the batch size increased to about 150, and the number stayed within the 150-200 range for another decade and a half (the 2004 batch was bigger than the ones around it, possibly due to the IT slowdown in 2002 when this batch entered IIM).

And then after 2006 (when I graduated), the batch size increased. My batch had three sections as would have the 15 batches prior to that (based on this data; IIM sections normally consist of 60-70 students). In fact, the “quantum” nature of the increase in batch size at IIM can be put down to the concept of sections – so the increase from the 100 to 150 level was a function of addition of a third section, and so on. After 2006, though, the batch size has exploded, and the current batch (2013-15, who I’m teaching) has a strength of almost 400 students (divided into six sections).

A good addition to this dataset would be some data that could show the prominence or measure of success of IIMB Alumni who graduated in each  batch, which can then allow us to examine whether batch size has had anything to do with continued career success of the students. It would be interesting to examine how this additional data can be collected.

Educating at scale

You can’t run a high-quality business school with 20 faculty members

In the course of a twitter discussion yesterday, journalist Mathang Seshagiri quoted numbers from a parliamentary reply by the ministry of HRD (on the 24th of November 2014) on the sanctioned faculty strength and vacancies in “institutes of national importance”. While his purpose was to primarily show that even the older IITs and IIMs have massive vacancies, what struck me was the sanctioned faculty strength of the newer IIMs. Here is the picture posted by Mathang:

Source: Parliamentary Proceedings (Rajya Sabha). November 24th 2014. Reply by MHRD

Look at the second column which shows the sanctioned faculty strength in each IIM. Once you go beyond the six older IIMs, the drop is stark. The seven newer IIMs have a sanctioned faculty strength of about 20! The question is how one can run a business school with such a small faculty base.

About ten years back, when I was a student at IIM Bangalore, I had gone for an event where I met someone from another business school in Bangalore whose name I can’t remember now. During the course of the conversation he asked me how many electives he had. I replied that we had about 80-100 courses from which we had to pick about 15. This he found shocking for in his college (from what I remember) there were only three or four electives!

The purpose of an MBA is to provide broad-based education and broaden one’s horizons. Thus, after a set of core courses in the first year (usually about fifteen courses), one is exposed to a wide variety of electives in the second year. It is a standard practice among most top B-schools to fill the entire second year with electives. In fact, in IIM Bangalore, electives start towards the end of the first year itself.

With 20 faculty members, there are only so many electives that can be offered each year. For example, in the coming trimester, IIM Bangalore is offering students (about 400 in the batch) a choice of about 40-50 electives, of which each student can pick four to six. This gives students massive choice, and a good chance to tailor the second year of their MBA and mould themselves as per their requirements.

By having 20 faculty members, the number of electives that can be theoretically offered itself is smaller (given research requirements, most IIM professors have a requirement to teach no more than three courses a year, and they have core and graduate courses to teach, too), which gives students an extremely tiny bouquet of choices – if there is any choice at all. This significantly limits the scope of what a student in such a school can do. And the student has no option but to accept the straitjacket offered by the lack of choice in the school.

In the ensuing twitter conversation this morning, Mathang contended that it is okay to have a faculty strength of 20 in schools with 60 students per batch. While this points to an extremely healthy faculty-student ratio, the point is that for broad-based education such as MBA, faculty-student ratio is not a good metric. What makes sense is the choice that the student is offered and that comes only at scale.

Thus, the new IIMs (Shillong “onwards”) are flawed in their fundamental design. It is impossible to run a quality business school with only 20 faculty. One way to supplement this is by using visiting faculty and guest lectures, but some of the new IIMs are located in such obscure places (where there is little local business, and which are not easily accessible by flight) that this is also not an option.

Merging some of these smaller IIMs (a very hard decision politically) might be the only way to make them work.

PS: Here is the sanctioned faculty strength and actual faculty strength numbers for IITs (same source as above). I might comment upon that at a later date.

Source: Parliamentary reply by Ministry of HRD; November 24th 2014

Analyzing IIMA Admissions

In response to an RTI query, IIM Ahmedabad has disclosed the cutoff percentiles across various categories for getting a seat in IIMA. Before we analyze further, there are two points to be noted. Firstly, what has been disclosed is the “minimum cutoff percentile”, which means that at least one student with that percentile score was admitted to IIMA in that year. It gives us no information on the “average percentile score” for admitted students belonging to that particular category. Secondly, CAT percentile is only one of the criteria used for admission into IIMs. A response by IIM Bangalore a few years back to an RTI query showed that the CAT percentile has only a 15% weight in the entire admission process (the rest going to 10th and 12th standard board exam scores, college CGPA, performance in interviews and the like). Given these two conditions, we should look at the following analysis with a bit of salt.

First up, here is a graph showing the minimum percentile among admitted students of various categories over the years:

Rplot

 

There are a few things that stand out from this graph:

1. The cutoff percentage for general category students has been consistently high. Despite a comprehensive set of factors being used for admissions, if you belong to the general category, a high CAT percentile is a necessary condition to join IIMA

2. Reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) happened in a phased manner. In the first year (2008) only about 5% of the seats were reserved for students from these classes. This has been gradually ramped up to the statutory 27.5%. In the initial years, after reservation for OBCs was imposed, commentators mentioned that their cutoff was not much lower than that for general category students and so there would be no dilution in quality. However, the data above shows that it was a function of the extent of reservation that the cutoffs were similar. If CAT percentile is to be taken as a general statement of an MBA student’s quality, reservation for OBCs has definitely led to dilution.

3. There is massive volatility in cutoffs for SC/STs. It must be noted here that the percentile scores are national – percentiles for students from different categories are not disclosed separately. It seems like the quality of applicants belonging to SC/ST categories has been varying significantly over the years. One year (2008/09) SC/ST students need to be in top 10% of all applicants to gain admission into IIMA. In another (2013) students belonging to ST category need to beat only 40% of all applicants to get in! This is bizarre, and it brings us to..

4. Students from ST category getting admission with 40 percentile in CAT in 2013 is plain absurd. What makes it more absurd is that more than half the students who attempted CAT in 2013 got ZERO or less (remember that CAT has negative marking). Maybe there was a real dearth of applicants from the ST category last year but what this tells us is that someone who got an overall negative score in CAT got admission into IIMA last year. Actually this is beyond bizarre.

5. Time for a personal anecdote. Close to 20 out of the 180 odd people who started at IIM Bangalore with me (2004-06) did not make it to the second year, based on their performance in the first year. About half of those were put on a “slow track programme” and finished their MBA in three years. The other ten did so badly they were asked to repeat the first year in full, without concessions. From what I remember all of them eventually dropped out. A large proportion of these twenty who did not make it past the first year belonged to SC/ST categories. I must also mention here that there was a significant number of students from these categories that did rather well and finished close to the top of the batch.

While it might be seen as an act of nobility to give admission in a premier college to someone with a low score but from a historically underprivileged background, the impact on their careers must also be taken into account. All said and done, the flagship course in IIMs is a rather tough course, and it is not difficult to fall behind. What is the use of giving someone admission only for him to fail and eventually drop out? Would he not have been better off continuing in his pre-MBA job rather than having his career disrupted by admission to a premier institute and subsequent failure?

All this said, it would make sense for someone in an IIM (a professor involved in admissions, perhaps) to do an analysis of correlation of CAT scores with performance at IIMs (I understand that one of the reasons the weight of CAT score was  reduced was that one such study revealed CAT score was less of a predictor of IIM performance than high school and undergraduate scores). An analysis such as that might reveal that there is an absolute lower cutoff in terms of performance in CAT such that students scoring lower are extremely unlikely to do well. It might give a case for reassessment of the affirmative action policies.