KSU's Harmon: Listen and learn from India

Ken Harmon, Dean of the Coles College of Business at Kennesaw State University, returned Jan. 24…

Georgia (Jan 27, 2010)

Ken Harmon, Dean of the Coles College of Business at Kennesaw State University, returned Jan. 24 from a trip to India, with a delegation that included Dr. Govind Hariharan, chair of Economics, Finance, and Quantitative Analysis; Dr. Mike Salvador, Director of the Executive Education for the Coles College; and Alvin Miles, Director of the Coles College Executive MBA program. The trip included stops in Mumbai and New Delhi. The Coles College is exploring joint opportunities with the Mumbai Business School, including helping them launch an Executive MBA program. The College was also a key sponsor for the 4th Annual Indian Marketing Summit in New Delhi.
It is Wednesday morning. My three Coles College colleagues and I are sitting in the back of a minivan careening through the streets of Mumbai, India. For two of my colleagues, this is their first trip to India. Just as I recall from my first trip, their senses are being shocked at every turn. They are shocked by the traffic, where lanes have no meaning and inches matter in missing cars and pedestrians. They are shocked by how tropical it feels, with the palm trees and parrots and 80 degrees in January. They are shocked by the slums dotting the landscape. They soon learn, though, these slums house people of great dignity and drive, people who could teach us a lot about life.
Along the way, we review the question: Why are we in India? The answers are relatively simple. India has the world’s largest democracy, the second fastest growing economy, and is second only to the U.S. in the size of its English-speaking workforce. U.S. exports to India have been growing more than 30% per year. Also, with the largest under-25 population in the world, the prospect for India’s dominance in the world economy is virtually assured. Kennesaw State University prides itself on being an international university, and the Coles College likewise sees itself on the cutting-edge of international business. Why are we in India? We have to be in India.
After the ride through Mumbai, we arrive at the office of Dr. Sunil Rai, CEO of the Mumbai Business School (MBS). We met Sunil a few months ago, and we have been exploring joint opportunities between the Coles College and Mumbai Business School. Sunil is a wonderful man who believes first in good relationships and good humor. He also is a take-charge, ex-military businessman who knows how to put quick closure to the most complicated tasks. While we had a lot to discuss that day, Sunil started the meeting by asking us first to participate in a brief ceremony to honor Saraswati, the goddess of learning. Dr. Govind Hariharan, my friend and colleague from the Coles College, explains the tradition and its meaning while MBS staff members set up the flowers and incense in Sunil’s office. We eagerly join in this Indian tradition, take off our shoes, and follow the lead of others. The ceremony is brief, yet it symbolizes so much. To me, it unfortunately symbolizes the very reason so many U.S. companies have failed in India. For businesses to succeed in India, they must understand India, and they must connect at levels far beyond those dictated in legal contracts. India has a story, a beautiful story of history and culture, but too many businesses don’t take the time to listen.
The day after the successful meeting with Mumbai Business School, we fly to New Delhi to take part in the 4th Annual Indian Marketing Summit. The Coles College is a major sponsor of the summit, and we have been invited to participate. The focus of the conference is small enterprises. In my presentation, I assert we are entering an era where small companies likely will have the competitive edge. I argue that, according to the great strategist Gary Hamel, the world is leaving the “information economy” and entering the “creative economy.” Small companies have a distinct advantage in such an environment. In a country like India, where small business and entrepreneurship define the economy, this era of creativity also spells great potential beyond India’s demographics.
The next night, the Coles College delegation boards a plane for the return to Atlanta. We are exhausted, but we feel energized by a week of great meetings and positive outcomes. More than the business outcomes, though, we realize we are witnessing something extraordinary.
In my office Monday morning, I open my email and soon find messages from some new friends in India. One is from an executive who thanks us for a great dinner, but takes the time to word his thank-you note as a poem. Another message is from a server at a restaurant in Mumbai, thanking us for talking to him about career and education options. India is a wonderful place; its people make it amazing.


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A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu