Sunday, February 3, 2008

Sumantra Ghoshal

A soft-spoken physicist from Calcutta, Sumantra Ghoshal (1948-2004) began his career with Indian Oil Corporation. When he moved on to management academia he had had a solid grounding in corporate life. After gaining doctorates at Harvard and MIT, he worked at INSEAD, a leading European business school in Fontainebleau, France, and London Business School before dying at the age of 55.

Ghoshal’s influence far exceeded his written output. He was an inspiring lecturer, a popular colleague and a gentle man. He first made his mark in a seminal critique of the widely used matrix form of organisational structure in which managers reported in two directions—along both functional and geographic lines. Written with his close collaborator, Christopher Bartlett, the article argued that this dual reporting leads to “conflict and confusion”. In large multinationals, “separated by barriers of distance, language, time and culture, managers found it virtually impossible to clarify the confusion and resolve the conflicts”.

Bartlett and Ghoshal argued that companies need to alter their organisational psychology (their shared norms and beliefs) and their physiology (the systems that allow information to flow around the organisation) before they start to redesign their anatomy (the reporting lines). Their work set off a search for new metaphors for organisational structures, borrowing in particular from psychology and biology—for example, the corporate DNA and the left brain of the organisation.

Typical of Ghoshal’s colourful communication was what he called his “springtime theory”. He would tell his audiences about his annual visit to Calcutta to see his parents in July. “Imagine the heat,” he would say, “the humidity, the noise, the dirt. It sucks up all your energy, drains your brain, and exhausts your imagination.” And then he would take them to the forest of Fontainebleau, near INSEAD, where he was a professor at the time, and point to “the smell of the trees, the crispness in the air, the flowers, the grass underfoot. How one’s heart lifts up, how the energy and creativity bubble away.” Go through the door of any business, he would say, and you can tell whether it is Calcutta or Fontainebleau. A manager’s task is to create a working environment that is like Fontainebleau, not Calcutta.

Shortly before he died, Ghoshal wrote one of his most contentious papers, in which he suggested that much of the blame for corporate corruption in the early 2000s could be laid at the feet of business schools and the way they try to teach management as a science. Such a method has no room for morality. Thus, argued Ghoshal, “business schools have actively freed their students from any sense of moral responsibility”. Ghoshal’s criticism of business education mirrors that of Henry Mintzberg and Warren Bennis .

Despite the enormously high regard in which managers held Ghoshal’s seminal work, “Managing Across Borders”, Bartlett (his co-author) said after his death: “Borders never meant much to Sumantra.” He was more inspired (and inspiring) as a teacher and conversationalist than as a writer.

Sumantra Gohshal was the founding dean of the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad.

No comments: