FROM SERVANTS TO MASTERS The Evolution of Professional Management in India: S. L. Rao; Global Business Press, J-40, Jorbagh Lane, New Delhi-110003.
The evolution of professional management in India is of absorbing interest to any thinking manager or student. It definitely needed a historian of standing to take a critical look at the process. As one, who has been intimately associated with the development as a participant and leader, S. L. Rao is uniquely qualified for the task. He was an early member of the elite band known as the "Hindustan Lever management trainees" , during the heyday of Prakash Tandon, the first Indian to head the consumer products company. After seeing action in the thick of the competitive consumer marketing field, he moved on to head National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), which he led towards a more practical agenda of surveys and reports tracking the evolving consumer sector of the Indian economy. He has served as the president of the Madras Management Association as well as the All India Management Association.
Although political freedom from the British masters came to us in 1947, it was not until well into the following decade that the role of non-owner managers came to be widely appreciated. The notion that there could be a corps of trained professionals, who could act as independent managers in much the same way as the civil service was intended to, was yet very new to India. This led to the emergence of the managing agency system, which was a successor to the East India Company (it outstripped Wal-Mart in market power and Enron in corruption) and trading houses under the British in the early days. This was followed by the Indian counterparts that gave rise to the concept of groups which is still prevalent in one form or another long after the justification for it scarce capital, savings, and management ability has ceased to apply.
The book brings out how the conflicting interests of owner's profit motive, the exploitative goals of colonialism, and the emergence of an indigenous business management culture were managed. It was not by any central planning body but by historical forces including the two World Wars. Strangely enough, the very term "masters" was used not derogatively but idiomatically to refer to the group of members of the top management even as late as the mid-20th century. They were the ones who approved almost every significant aspect of the young manager's life, including whether he can be given leave to get married, which, in an earlier era, extended to giving the prospective bride a once-over. This unusually structured volume deals with the subject chronologically and in multiple layers. The pre-Independence historical perspective is followed by the planning era and economic liberalisation. Then there are sections on institutions, the management development movement, the role of the IIMs and AIMA. Crisp pen portraits of a number of prominent contributors to action, leadership and thought follow. There is something in it for everyone although, as expected, depth does suffer a little because of the wide sweep of the survey. Some sections such as those on the IIMs, the sad state of disrepair of Indian management education, the record of AIMA do seem patched together as a compendium rather than a narrative.
The chapters on the planned economy and the socialist regime under Nehru and his daughter are also aided by work done by Siddhartha Mukherji, a researcher. The author's debt to Prakash Tandon, his mentor to whom the book is dedicated, comes through clearly as does his admiration for the high standards of professional conduct and integrity set in the 1950s in organisations such as Hindustan Lever. Of course, later developments in the world of business all round (including an extract from a review of the film Guru) make for a sad contrast.
The book makes for easy reading and Rao's keen eye and sense of irony are evident in the pithy summing up of several key issues. We have developed management schools into an industry, he says perceptively, "that does little education but provides employment to the faculty, makes selections easier for large companies, and is of no use to small and medium companies." Equally, he deplores the self-seeking, short-term orientation that characterises much of family-led companies, just as much as it did the rapacious early colonial companies. All in all, an essential addition to any library and a companion volume to Professor Tripathy's far more scholarly history of business. One only wishes the book had been edited better for punctuation, capitalisation, and syntax.
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