iMahal Interview Series:
May 24, 2000
Professor Datar, as you know, one of the goals of iMahal is to motivate our audience in their formative years to achieve their goals by emulating career paths of successful people such as yourself. We believe that, while it is necessary that our target audience of students and young professionals have access to all the information that we have accumulated to facilitate their eventual goal, it is very important that they hear directly from and draw inspiration from experiences of people who have been through the process.
Thanks for the compliment and please call me Srikant. It would indeed be quite satisfying if I am directly or indirectly able to motivate people through my experiences, much like I was influenced by several people I will always hold in high regard.
iMahal: Thanks Srikant. Tell us about your current position and what it entails, including but not limited to, teaching, research, administration and consulting.
I am currently a senior associate dean at the Harvard Business School and hold the Arthur Lowes Dickinson Endowed Professorship. As senior associate dean, I work closely with the Dean of the Harvard Business School on all aspects of strategy and policy. I also have primary responsibility for faculty recruiting. I teach a course on Achieving Profit Goals and Strategies (APGS), which is a second year elective course focused on ideas about the implementation of strategy. In today's rapidly changing business environment, the ability to quickly execute on strategies is critical. The course deals with issues of organization structure, incentives and rewards, measurement and feedback, levers of control, and management of risk. My research has been in the areas of incentives and game theory, productivity measurement, and economics of quality, time-based competition, and modern manufacturing practices such as just-in-time systems. I have been fortunate to consult with and do field-based research with many companies including Boeing, Du Pont, Ford, General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, Mellon Bank, Novartis, Solectron, TRW, and VISA.
iMahal: Please tell us about your earlier work experience at Carnegie Mellon and Stanford Universities and how and why you ended up in your current position.
Immediately after I finished my Ph. D. at Stanford University, I had the good fortune of having a number of job offers for Assistant Professor positions at most of the leading business schools. I chose to go to the Graduate School of Industrial Administration (GSIA) at Carnegie Mellon University for two main reasons, the fabulous research environment at the School and the opportunity to do interdisciplinary research. GSIA has always been an outstanding research institution. A little known fact outside the academic community is that many Nobel Prizes in economics, including those given to Professors Robert Lucas, Merton Miller, Franco Modigliani, and Herbert Simon, have been awarded for work done at GSIA. My interest in operations developed during my years at GSIA. I doubt I could have done the research I did at the interface of manufacturing, economics, and management control at any other school. I t was also at GSIA that I developed my interest in field research thanks to the work I did at General Motors Corporation on design for manufacturability.
The decision to leave Carnegie Mellon and return to Stanford where I had been trained as a Ph. D. student was not an easy one. Of course, the fact that Stanford was my alma mater played heavily in my decision as did the fact that I was getting more interested in the high technology sector. My experience at Stanford was very rewarding. My research continued to deepen and develop in both the more theoretical and the more applied areas. Just like at Carnegie Mellon, I was able to work with an outstanding group of doctoral students. I learned a lot from them. In 1991, I became a coauthor of the world's leading cost accounting textbook. The book had been written by Professor Charles Horngren of Stanford in 1962. The book revolutionized the field because of its emphasis on management relevance rather than accounting procedures. I had the pleasure of studying from the book in 1978 while I was a student at the Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad, India. I felt privileged and honored to be invited to be a coauthor of such an influential book and to be able to work so closely with the person I consider to be the most influential figure in management accounting in the latter half of the 20th century. The decision to leave Stanford and go to Harvard was also very difficult. It was prompted mostly by family reasons and a desire to do more applied work with corporations.
iMahal: Please tell us about your post high school education. How and why did you choose to pursue this course of action?
Immediately after finishing high school, I considered sitting for the Indian Institute of Technology entrance examination. My father was not keen on my doing this because he felt I would have a better career if I joined the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) or the Indian Foreign Service (IFS). I had also been awarded the National Science Talent Search Scholarship, so I enrolled for my B.Sc. degree at St. Xavier's College. When I graduated, I was still under the minimum age that an individual needed to be to sit for the IAS/IFS examination. I decided that I would use the time to qualify as a Chartered Accountant (CA) in the belief that a professional degree would be very helpful should I actually qualify for the IAS. I thoroughly enjoyed my exposure to the world of business and gradually the allure of working for the government began to decrease but it was never quite extinguished. As I began considering what I would do after I finished my CA, I chanced upon an advertisement for the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIMA) Entrance Examination. Due to series of very fortuitous events, I sat for the entrance examination and enrolled at IIMA in 1976, still not eliminating the possibility of sitting for the IAS/IFS examinations.
It was only after I had graduated with a Gold Medal from IIMA that I finally decided that I would not seek a career in government. I joined the Tata Administrative Service (TAS), a management cadre for various companies in the Tata Group, the largest industrial house in India. I enjoyed my work in the TAS a lot. I was exposed to many companies in the group including companies that were involved in the manufacture and sales of trucks, electricity generation, hotel management, and the manufacture and sales of soaps and detergents. But the idea of doing a Ph. D. in business was always something that was very appealing. My father was a professor so I guess academics was in my blood. By this time, I had also finished and stood first in India in the Institute of Cost and Works Accountants examination. To this point, I had done all my studies in India for financial reasons but also because I was keen on working in India. As I began thinking about my Ph. D., I quickly concluded that I should apply to U.S. schools. Everyone I talked to indicated that the quality of the Ph. D. programs in business in the U.S. was far superior to those available anywhere else. Moreover, financial aid was guaranteed by the top schools to all admitted students. I was lucky that Stanford admitted me to its Doctoral Program, the first Indian student to enroll directly from India. At Stanford, I had the good fortune to work with some truly outstanding scholars. I got very interested in mathematical and theoretical work and wrote my dissertation on Reputation Effects of Auditors using a multi-period game theoretic model of incomplete information. As I have already described in response to your earlier questions my research interests have continued to evolve and change over the years. One of the big advantages of the U.S. educational system is the ability to take courses in many disciplines and qualify for multiple degrees. During my four years at Stanford, I obtained Masters degrees in Economics and Statistics in addition to my Ph. D. degree in Business.
iMahal: How did you deal with financial aspects of higher education, particularly your move to the US? What role did your friends and family play in supporting your decision?
Srikant: The financial aspects of doctoral studies was not an issue. I had a full scholarship and my wife Swati worked as well. My parents were very supportive of my decision to study in the U.S. It was very unselfish of them because my brother had also left to work in the U.K. earlier that year. I am sure they missed their two children very much!
iMahal: How was the move from India to the US?
Srikant: As I have already described the move from India to the US was not a financial burden on anyone. Emotionally, Swati and I certainly missed our families. I think the fact that we were married before we came to the US made the emotional adjustment that much easier.
iMahal: What did you find the most different? What was most difficult and what was most enjoyable?
Srikant: I was really struck by the informality of the academic environment in the US. For example, professors and students often put their legs on the table during seminars! The idea is to be as comfortable physically as possible as participants engage in often spirited intellectual debates. Everyone called each other by their first names. I can remember having the hardest time calling Professor Charles Horngren, a person I had the highest regard and respect for, "Chuck!" An important part of the value system in US academia is the tremendous emphasis placed on merit. It is very clear that the only thing that counts is talent and hard work. It was also wonderful to work with faculty who so thoroughly enjoyed research and the pursuit of new knowledge.
iMahal: Were you able to connect with a support group of sorts, whether Indian or otherwise?
Srikant: We greatly enjoyed our interactions with the MBA and Ph. D students at Stanford. They were a very talented group but also genuinely nice and curious to learn about India. As far as the Indian students were concerned, our house was a veritable meeting place. Often we would have people stop by for a cup of tea. We have stayed in close touch with many of these friends.
iMahal: Please tell about your background in India and about your early education. Which place in India did you live while growing up?
Srikant: After participating in India's freedom struggle, my father founded the Nautical and Engineering College in 1947. He retired as the Principal of the college in 1977. I was therefore lucky, I guess, to live in the very same apartment on Marine Drive later renamed Netaji Subhash Road while growing up in Bombay. I studied at the Cathedral and John Cannon School right from kindergarten through high school. I have nothing but the most pleasant memories of my childhood. I loved the place where we lived, I enjoyed school very much, and had a wonderful circle of friends. I also remember having frequent guests, many of whom we would eagerly look forward to seeing.
iMahal: Do you get to visit India often? Do you still have family there?
Srikant: My mother lives in Pune so I try to visit her whenever I can as well as to help her with her election campaigns (she was an elected member of the Pune Municipal Corporation). I visit India about once a year although lately these visits have been somewhat brief. As our children were growing up, we would spend at least a month in India. Through these visits, they developed a good appreciation of both Indian and US cultures. I think this has been very rewarding for them.