We conducted this interview with Medha Bakhshi from India via Zoom after the 2021 Virtual Conference of the Association for Business Communication.
Sushil: Could we start with a little bit about your background? Where are you located at this time and how you came into business communication?
Medha: So first, of course, Sushil thank you for this opportunity and I’m really glad that I got to connect with you and with many others through the ABC conference. I think that is one benefit of Zoom and I’m very glad that, despite the circumstances, I could join in from India. So, I think that the ABC conference was a big blessing. And it was so beautifully coordinated.
Sushil: Yes, the pandemic has made all these remote events possible.
Medha: I started my teaching career way back in 2007. That was my first job in business communication at a university in India. At the present moment, I’m teaching at the School of Business Management of the Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies, Mumbai (NMIMS). It’s a private university with several campuses in India, and it is ranked number four amongst the private universities in the country. We are an Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) accredited school and it’s been almost two years since I joined. Before that, I was teaching business communication and heading the general management department at the Thakur Institute of Management Studies and Research in Mumbai. Prior to these business school appointments, I also taught engineering students.
Sushil: How do these communication courses travel across business and engineering fields?
Medha: A course on business communication and soft skills is often a requirement for students in business schools. It is also a mandatory course for engineers these days in India. In terms of my academic background, a lot of us come from either mass communication or literature backgrounds, so I personally have done my M.A. and Ph.D. in English Literature. With my previous organization in 2017, I got the opportunity to go in a faculty exchange program to Spain and I did a weeklong stint in the Erasmus program.
Medha: My paper at the ABC conference was on the topic of intuition and teaching and I talked about assertiveness training. It’s a module that we have designed to train a cohort of 650 students and so far, we’ve had tremendous success with it. In my previous organization, I was also teaching cross-cultural communication, not an entire course on that, but it was a 20% component in the curriculum of business communication to first-year MBA students.
Sushil: Are there local organizations in India where there are opportunities for networking with other colleagues in business communication or management communication?
Medha: That is a good question! That is one of the pain points for all of us in India. Unfortunately, there is nothing for business communication per se. There are a lot of small conferences conducted by schools in India and they often have a track on culture and communication.
Sushil: What about the industry side? Are there any efforts to bring business communication professionals together?
Medha: There are some special meetings in that arena and they are practice-related conferences. I might also mention that the industry interacts with what is being taught in business schools in terms of being on the board of studies for designing the curriculums. That is where we seek industry trends and requirements. We map our curriculum against what the industry requirements and demands are. We make sure that there’s a fair representation of the practice of what we teach in the business communication classroom.
Sushil: Could you give an example of this sort of give-and-take?
Medha: For example, we realized that there was a bit of mismatch between how the corporate setting demands graduates to behave and how Indian young people Are traditionally raised to behave. Many students in India are very reticent to speak up in the classroom and share their ideas. There’s a deference to authority because we’re a high-power distance culture. On the other hand, the corporate setup requires students to be more forthcoming and outspoken. That is where we identify the gap through some feedback that we received in the placement process. Students also sometimes lack confidence even when they have the right ideas. We found that couldn’t articulate their ideas in interviews so we created a training exercise to make sure that this gap is met in their behavior and performance. Industry Intervention happens in this way but there’s room for a lot more to happen.
Sushil: Are their business communication trainers who offer workshops in industry? Our readers might be interested in learning about what does your curriculum actually looks like.
Medha: We have autonomy over the design of the curriculum since we’re an independent school. We have a lot of flexibility and freedom in designing our own courses. Of course, communication is given a lot of emphasis in our school. In the first year of MBA, we have one communication course in each trimester. In the first trimester, it’s a course which is called Managing with Communication one that looks at the basics of communication, covering nuts and bolts. It ranges from email etiquette to tonality in writing. We also begin to conduct assertiveness training and presentation skills. In the second trimester, we extend the skills that students have learned to more extensive forms of writing, such as reports, proposals, and feasibility studies. In the third trimester, we, have a unique offering which we call the “business communication and analysis paper”. This project goes outside the realm of just teaching them business communication, and it is interdisciplinary in nature. As we teach students how to write decision reports, they are also looking at Problem Solving and decision-making processes. They are using multiple skills and knowledge from various other courses to come to bear on what we are doing. In the second year, we have a course on negotiation skills and processes as well. That’s just a small workshop module that introduces students to the basics of negotiation. In the second year, different faculty members offer different electives and students bid for what they’re interested in. There we have courses on persuasion, strategic communication, and cross-cultural communication. We also use literature to teach management lessons.
Medha: So these designs work very differently for different organizations, and it also depends upon how much emphasis a particular university lays on each of these areas. So, we have a certain amount of autonomy, but those business schools in India that fall under a State or central university system, they have to very closely follow and subscribe to the mandate of the university. In fact, the university centrally decides that all business schools must have these many courses, and these are the options for the first semester.
Sushil: So, do private universities have to follow any external standards?
Medha: At our university, we go through a comprehensive curriculum review process so there’s a review that happens every year. The Board of studies meets, and we are mandated to make a 20% change in the curriculum every year to update and revise the curriculum. After three years, we put the courses through a rigorous, review process where, if we want, we can change everything, and give the course a new shape. So, we have lot more flexibility and freedom to do that. Even in the style of running those courses, we have flexibility because a lot of it is very interactive. Our cohort size is terribly huge. We have a batch size of 600 and that means that we have 10 divisions of 60 to 64 students in each division. It’s very difficult to teach a class of 60 in communications; so, in the first trimester, we break the class into two and we teach 30 students as one batch and 30 as another so that there is closer attention to students. We have also made the effort to make peer feedback more evaluative around the activities students do in class; so, a lot of these changes have been brought in the recent past in relation to this peer feedback process.
Sushil: Could you expand on the form this peer feedback takes?
Medha: As students work together and critique each other’s work to give constructive feedback to one another. The purpose of peer feedback is to help the peer on the journey to grow and bridge that gap between our own perceptions of our work and how it appears here to the peer. So, it’s three-prong feedback that we do for most of the communication exercises that we do in the class.
Sushil: Do students evaluate their instructors anywhere in this process?
Medha: That happens at the end of the trimester.
Sushil: How do faculty use that student feedback?
Medha: There are a couple of ways in which to utilize student feedback to instructors. One, of course, it is for the immediate benefit of the faculty. We need to understand what has worked, and what areas need some change or adjustment. But also, if there are any challenges in terms of logistics or course content. How difficult it is, or if the time allotted for each activity is adequate or not. It’s also useful for tweaking the course curriculum. Sometimes, we are dealing with students who come with some business experience and they bring some helpful perspectives. If it’s feasible and if it’s possible, we take that on board, and we tweak our courses a bit this way as well. To give you an instance, this year. we were doing small group individual speaking exercises with students, where they are given a difficult scenario and they’re supposed to articulate their ideas on that. It’s really about crisis communication where they have to be persuasive. So, we wrote these scenarios ourselves and we gave them to the students. One feedback that we received was that typically a manager would get a little more time to think through the process; so, if you can send it to us a week in advance, it will give us some time to put our response together since not all of us have done this type of problem-solving. So, we thought that this merited attention, and we moved the responses to next night’s class.
Sushil: How does the administration use this student feedback?
Medha: The administration also, of course, uses such feedback to consolidate how well things are going, and if there is any course correction necessary. Because a large faculty teaches these courses, the administration also uses it for quality maintenance. They have to benchmark faculty performance to meet the assurance of learning guidelines as they have been prescribed by the education industry standards.
Sushil: Is it also used to determine who gets the next job contract and who does not since these private institutions in India do not have a tenure system?
Medha: It’s only in very extreme circumstances that student feedback would be used for someone that the administration has to intervene and take an action. It’s essentially more for just ensuring that there is quality that is being delivered. It’s more often used as a means for self-course correction.
Medha: We have permanent appointments but permanent is essentially not exactly the same as tenure because as tenured faculty you can continue to teach for as long as you’re willing to and you’re able to. In our Country for permanent faculty there is a retirement age and typically post that retirement age, people don’t teach. There are provisions to retire and then function as a senior Professor with a different contract rate. Let me clarify that we also have people who are on probation and typically anyone joining us is put on a two-year provision or contract. Depending upon how the performance has been in various areas, which the university, or the Business School, measures for meeting the requirements, the probation automatically changes to a permanent position. I might also include that we have people who work as adjunct faculty on ad hoc contracts. Those are sometimes industry people on a break who want to come and teach.
Sushil: My next question is about the conditions in which faculty work in a private university as compared to a state or central university/institute?
Medha: It’s slightly more difficult to get a permanent position in the government sector because the vacancies don’t happen that often. So that’s a bit of a challenge but once somebody is into that government system, then, movement within the organization eventually happens. Private universities, I would say, are also required to adhere to the norms of the governing bodies. No doubt, every Institute has a different policy in terms of research and funding, etc. Despite these variations, they’re a bit different, but overall, I think, in a good private university, everything is as per the book because we have a lot of accrediting bodies that take care of the quality issues.
Sushil: Thanks for sharing all this with our readers and it has been wonderful to talk to you.
Medha: Thanks for inviting me for this interview.
Sushil Oswal with Medha Bakhshi. (2021). A conversation with Medha Bakhshi. the Western ABC Bulletin. 3.2.