PM Leadership

Building World Class Institutions using Good Governance

Nibu Thomas, PMP

Nibu Thomas works as an Associate Director, Information Development at Whatfix – a digital adoption startup. This article was compiled with inputs from Mandar Chitale, Ravi Murthy, (IIT Alumini from batch II), Rathinakumar B and GV Ranganatham.

It’s an institution that is 20 years old. (Like the PMI Bangalore Chapter!) Consider the following facts

• One of the few institutions in India where entrance is based only on merit.

• It competes with the IITs, charges higher fees, and is still a much sought-after institution

• There were 4200 plus applicants to the first program they rolled out!

• This institute ensures 100 percent placement. Down to the last student.

• It’s a completely autonomous institution and financially self sustaining

• It’s often mistaken to be the IIT in Bangalore.

• The professor who headed it since inception in 1999, is still at the helm.

We are talking about the International Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) and Professor S Sadagopan. A team from the PMI Bangalore chapter had the opportunity to interview the professor and learn from him about how he set up and grew the organization into what it is today.

The interview team got to take a picture with Prof Sadagopan and a surprise visitor to the institute that day, Prof Y S Rajan of ISRO, and TIFAC fame.

IIIT has a three pronged approach that has made it a sought after institution not just across India, but also exchanges scholars with world famous institutions. Success has been attributed to ensuring it has autonomy both in decision making and finance by being self reliant and independent. It’s an excellent example of stakeholder management – who include technocrats, politicians, bureaucrats, technology leaders, etc. And there’s the obsessive focus on the students and in ensuring quality faculty.

“Many Institutions today are built with too much focus on the infrastructure of the campus to attract students”. The professor believes that an institution should be like a flower. “People should be attracted to it because of the fragrance it emits”. By results. IIIT was set up to be the IIT for IT.

“Leadership is not about being in the front and expecting everyone to follow you. It’s about standing at the back and urging people towards success.”

IIIT is a flat organization that is person-independent and built on systems. For organizations to be sustainable, the goals need to focus on the long term. The goal is to become like Harvard like institutions that have stood the test of time for centuries. Building networks with institutions helped it secure scholarships and funding whenever required. In the initial days, one of its KPIs was to establish MOUs with other world renowned universities. This kind of networking became so good that they are now trying to limit it to a few institutions!

There are no department heads in IIIT. Faculty are given a free reign in doing the “right things” – no permission is required. Every batch is welcomed with a statement that starts with “Welcome to YOUR institute”.

The moto of the institute is ‘Jnaanam Uthamam’ which means – Knowledge is Supreme.

The professor believes in setting the right examples, even if some of them have to be staged. People have to catch you doing the right thing. Because people learn by seeing. And a good example is a great lesson.

IIIT has been able to fight off political interference because it is able to sustain itself and does not depend on the government for anything. There were several examples where he cited political pressure was tried, but the professor was firm about not buckling. He cited his wife who supported any guest he brought home. Her only condition was that they must not enter “my kitchen”! And he’s followed the same principle.

The institute welcomes diversity and has invited people from across fields both at the national and international level. Visitors to this institution have included heads of institutions, organizations, and even Presidents of various countries.

Several chief ministers have found mention in his interaction. CM SM Krishna was credited for conceptualizing and bringing up the concept of a IIT like institution in Bangalore. There was once a chief minister of a north eastern state who sat through a 40 minute class along with the students!

Visitors include Bill Gates, and founders of various other world famous organizations. The institute believes in building relationships with other institutions at a global scale and also across industries. This has helped in making those vital connections that have helped in getting every last student placed.

The professor felt that the Indian culture helped as well in establishing the institute. He being older than most other faculty helped because in general, age is given some respect. And so people listened.

Getting the first 7 faculty took 7 years. That’s how picky he was with ensuring quality to ensure they are aligned with the vision of setting up a sustainable world-class institution.

The institute focuses their research on three areas – data, devices, analytics. He recalled how different inventors discovered fuel, electricity, engines and how all of these inventions came together to the brilliance we see today. He says the institute believes in interdisciplinary knowledge and draws an analogy with the Olympic rings. Each ring touches at least two other rings. And that is how they develop their own DNA as an institution. They also believe in the 3F – being Fair, Friendly, and Firm in everything they do.

As the institute grows, it believes that poverty must not restrain you, and wealth must not corrupt you. The institute determines its own fee structure and salaries as well.

IIIT competes with the top IIT and IIMs for the same quality of students. Despite the higher fees, it continues to attract the best of the best every year. They have decided to limit the number to 1000 students to ensure quality does not drop because of any further increase.

It was a delight to watch the professor speak so passionately about this world class institute that he has been associated with from the start. None of what he has achieved was easy. He had his share of challenges as well. Books can be written about how he overcame each challenge and set a precedent for anyone who’s trying to make a difference in the education system in the country – to follow.

It was possible 20 years ago. It was not easy. Nothing good can be easy. But everything good is possible.