With a PhD in computer science and MSc in business administration, Soumitra Dutta is a man whose qualifications appear to encapsulate everything that is dynamic and shining about new India — just the ideal candidate, you would think, to head the Johnson Business School at Cornell, the Ivy League university based in upstate New York State. In fact, as Dutta prepares to take up his new assignment, he comes across as a man who is as deeply concerned about addressing the challenges faced by India as he is keen to continue melding the worlds of information technology, computer science and business.
“I see poverty as much more than the lack of access to food, water and resources — it’s also about lack of information, dignity and self-respect,” says Dutta, who is professor of business and technology at INSEAD, France. “When a domestic servant in Delhi or Mumbai uses her mobile phone to plan her movements for the day, by that simple act she gains control over her time and it becomes a fact of poverty alleviation — it’s about the hope of improving your life.”
An erudite man, he effortlessly builds a link between his vision of India and his plans for Cornell, where he is expected to continue to wear the two hats of computer science and business administration. “Cornell is already a great brand and Johnson is a very strong school. My attempt will be to try and see if Johnson can address some of the bigger issues that society faces, such as energy, aging, food and health.”
He plans to do so by building links between Johnson and Cornell’s reputed medical and agricultural centres. “I want to take Johnson to the world, and bring the world to Johnson.”
Does being Indian give business thinkers an advantage? “It’s true that Indians can bring in a better appreciation of global challenges, from an emerging market context. They are much more sensitive to it. Already Indians are talking of inclusive innovation — they will need to position that in the global study of innovation, in the context of global thought.” Having grown up in an army-medico family that lived in places as varied as Chandigarh, Guwahati and Bangalore, Dutta, 48, thinks one reason Indians tend to do well in business studies is that they ‘get’ diversity. “To become a good leader in an organisation, you have to be able to manage in a diverse situation. Indians are able to do that because it’s in our DNA.”
There are also those well-known ingredients of leadership and success: a “work-hard culture” and the ability to be analytical. “They get noticed,” says Dutta, an IIT Delhi graduate who went on to gain three degrees from Berkley. For the last 10 years, Dutta has been working on technology policy at the level of governments and brings out the annual Global Information Technology report for the World Economic Forum.
As Dutta and other Indian business thinkers take up key positions in western business schools, more and more young Indians too are heading out to study in these places. “Students want to have that global experience,” Dutta says. “But they are going to different kinds of places, such as France, Germany and Holland. This trend is going to increase because Indians will need to work with global customers, in a globalised environment.”
The theme of leadership also runs through Dutta’s prognosis for India in 2012. He lists the “three Cs” that he says will be needed to guide India through a critical time as it becomes more of a “key player in the global economy.”
India will need: 1. Clean leadership that can promote the interests and demands of people from across the country; 2. Collective leadership that will reflect India's “multiple stakeholders” (so that everybody feels they have a stake); and 3. Courageous leaders (“courage in implementing education, infrastructure and foreign policies.”) Can such transformation by led by business? Dutta, optimistic as he is, clearly knows the limits. “Business can play a very important role in India and even drive the change,” he says. “But it cannot complete the picture.”