Nitin Nohria on Future of Indian Business in 21st Century

Earlier this year, the newly appointed Dean of Harvard Business School — Prof. Nitin Nohria — gave a speech at the Tata Memorial Center in Mumbai on the rise of modern India and the country’s opportunities and challenges in the 21st Century. The speech is long (full link here), but if you’re interested in the business relationship between the United States and India, as well as monitoring business trends in India, I would strongly encourage you to read all 16 single-spaced pages. It’s well-written, well-researched, and well-argued. It’s very thought-provoking and one of the single-best essays on the future of Indian business I’ve read in recent memory.

Some initial observations:

  1. This is a huge homecoming for Nohria. With degrees from IIT-Bombay, MIT, and now the dean of Harvard Business School, the news of Nohria reaching this post is a big deal in India. The speech, when you read it, is so carefully crafted that you can’t help but be in awe of what a story this is in India.
  2. The language and tone of the speech is 50% professorial and 50% political. Very sharp on all counts.
  3. Over 10% of the HBS student population is of South Asian descent. The cases studies in the catalog are increasingly becoming more global, including an entire class by Tarun Khanna and Krishna Palepu on “Globalization of Emerging Markets” which has also been turned into a great book by these authors. (I took two of their classes, which were excellent.)
  4. Nohria makes his arguments (see below) by looking mainly through the lens of the Tata conglomerate, which is a nice stylistic choice.

Key takeaways and ideas from the speech:

  • Whereas the U.S. dominated in the 20th Century, Nohria argues that the 21st Century will be a “Global Century” where the best economies elevate by surviving.
  • Nohria applies the lessons he’s gleaned from research of how America rose to dominance in the 20th Century and applies this to India for the 21st Century.
  • Up to the economic reforms of the 1990s, Nohria chronicles how business in India moved toward swadeshi and how management practices changed from being paternalistic to process-oriented and performance-based.
  • After the reforms of 1991 (led by current PM Manmohan Singh), Indian companies began looking more seriously at the global landscape for opportunities. During this time, self-confidence rose and, in turn, so did their “luck,” a key ingredient for success!
  • In the last decade, the emergence of the consumer class has fueled tremendous economic activity to serve the domestic market. At the same time, signals from consumers and their responsiveness are very, very strong, and will certainly only grow stronger.
  • HBS too may have to become more and more globalcould Harvard Business School one day have foreign campuses?

A final note to ponder, innovation isn’t guaranteed in India:

It’s now cliche to talk about innovation in India, and why it needs to happen and why it won’t happen. Nohria doesn’t recycle the same old lines — instead, he plainly says that India has yet to reach its innovation potential and, at this moment, can’t take claim to any significant mantle when it comes to global products. This could happen, of course, and he warns of the case of Japan and points to China and South Korea as examples of countries that have invested in the long-term and in their core strengths and needs. Here, he highlights the incredible leaps in one particular industry — the life sciences — where people in India can develop global products (not just generics) to serve a global market, and that the financial incentive to do so is perhaps the strongest of any other industry. In doing so, Nohria gave business leaders in India one possible roadmap for the future.