By Prof. Saral Mukherjee,
Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad
“Sir, we have a problem” said Himanshu, the PGP placement representative at IIMA to me over phone. It was October of 2009 and the preparations were at the final stages for the summer placement season beginning shortly. As Placement Chairperson, I have come to expect such phone calls as part of my daily routine. “Recruiter X wants to come on Day Zero and is threatening to pull out otherwise. We have slotted them on Day 1”. Sacrilege! How can a Day 1 recruiter come on Day Zero, the holiest of the holy days? Does it not know that the established pantheon of Day Zero recruiters would not take this intrusion lightly? After all, a Day Zero slot at IIMA is one of the hottest properties on the campus landscape. It takes years and years of brand building on campus and painstaking cultivation of the student body.
At first, I thought that the executive in Recruiter X must be new to placement arithmetic and thinks Day Zero is one day ahead of Day 1. Tch Tch. There is a Day 0.5 between Day Zero and Day 1! I picked up the phone to tell Recruiter X that it needs to move one step at a time. “Of course I know that” said the executive, sounding angry at my assumption of ignorance. “We internally benchmark ourselves with Recruiter Y who is in Day Zero. Either you upslot us to Day Zero or we are not coming”. I could identify with Recruiter X as I benchmark myself with Einstein but my students have very low opinion about me. “But no one is likely to accept your offer on Day Zero” I tried to reason. The reply blew my mind away. “We know that no one will accept our offer on Day Zero. That is not the objective. We want to be a Day Zero recruiter”.
That day the final decision was taken that the theme of the Recruiter Conclave we were planning for December 2009 would be ‘End of Days’. To an outside observer it may not make sense why we want to kill the highly potent ‘Day Zero at IIMA’ brand. To us ‘Day Zero’ is a trap. A trap in which a first year student falls when she learns the names of recruiters scheduled on specific days. There is no need to apply your mind regarding career alternatives, no need to think what you want to become in life, no need to understand potential changes in talent requirement landscape. Here is a ranking of firms done by your previous batches and here is the received wisdom of where a student should aspire to be. Give an ultra-competitive student a ladder and the student will climb it. We are taking away the day ladder. Let everyone decide for themselves rather than the collective deciding for the individual.
To the recruiter, the day ladder is a positioning tool. The problem is that there are too many disparate groups of recruiters trying to move up the same ladder of days. There is a fight for talent in the marketplace, but the talent is not unidimensional. Different students have different capabilities, interests and needs. Similarly, recruiters differ in their need for talent. Forcing different recruiters and students on to the same day ladder results in a mass-market scenario where differences in roles, opportunities, career location preferences are suppressed in favour of the only commonality – the price for talent. The day ladder is thus directly coupled with salaries on offer. Throw a little bit more money and you can push your firm’s positioning from a lower day to a higher day. If you cannot throw money then increase the Cost to Company (CTC) figure by including whatever you can dream of, like including in the CTC the insurance premium to be paid for covering the risk of the employee being taken hostage. Of course, the last option is to threaten a walk-out from the placement process and hold the institute to ransom.
The mad rush for upslotting puts enormous strain on the students managing the placement process. The easiest way to accommodate an irate recruiter is to increase the number of recruiters on a particular day. Unfortunately we have only twenty four hours in a day! Thus a natural corollary is that either the interviews would be stretched from sunrise to next sunrise or the time allotted for each interview would be reduced or both. The happiness of the executive on being a ‘Day Zero recruiter’ is broken by the knock on the door twenty minutes from start of interview. “Sorry, time up” the placement representative declares and yanks the interviewee from the seat. “The candidate has another interview scheduled now”, the representative offers as explanation and enquires “Would you like to make a spot offer to the candidate?” If the spot offer is not made the recruiter risks returning empty handed as the sense of artificial shortage created by the placement team drives the recruiters into a feeding frenzy. Students get multiple offers and are extremely happy from the increased sense of self worth. The executive makes ten offers against the original plan of four and goes back victorious having netted six highly prized catch. Uncomfortable questions like whether the students selected are at all interested or whether there is a cultural fit with the firm are relegated to the background. Anyway, few would remember who hired these jokers when they leave within two months of joining. Speed dating is matched by a speedier divorce. The Day Zero firm takes it on the chin and gives the executive a promotion for promoting the recruiter up the ladder of days.
To a top-notch student, the day process is extremely random. The student can get interviewed by two recruiters ranked fifth and sixth in his/her preference and get offers from both. Depending on the limits placed on the number of offers one can hold, the student might be asked to select one of the two offers. The student would thus be ‘successfully placed’ without having a chance to interview with his/her most preferred recruiters. To a mediocre student (by IIM standards) the day process is God-sent. It allows the student to be secure in the knowledge that the placement process would rescue the student from the evil clutches of the interviewers. Twenty minutes of torture, that’s all. To a struggling student the day process is a killer. Any person who goes through two consecutive days of rejections cares little about discriminating between firms and offers. “Any firm would do, I just need to get out of this madness.” This strengthens the commoditisation of firms and reinforces the day ladder.
The media, of course, likes this circus. Since there is no way the quality of fit between the recruiter and student can be apparent to the reporter, the only way to evaluate the ‘success’ of a placement process is the number of offers made on a particular day. The faster the speed dating, the more excited the media becomes. Comparative figures on dating speed at different business schools are splashed on front pages of newspapers and end of placement is celebrated as an end in itself.
IIMA has decided to move away from the dysfunctional day process and focus on better matching of student preferences and recruiter talent needs. Essentially we are moving away from the mass-market to market segmentation based on recruiter and student needs. Each segment is termed a cohort and represents firms which are similar in the career opportunities and roles they offer. A recruiter would not have to worry every year which day it would be slotted, the roles it offers would automatically determine the cohort. Students would prioritise cohorts as opposed to firms and hence would be forced to think more about career choices. A student who is already placed can elect to interview with a ‘dream’ firm coming in a different cohort. The interview process is being stretched over weekends to make sure recruiters are not rushed and students can refocus in between two cohorts.
In time, I expect student preferences to mature to a level where a set of students would have clear preferences for a cohort which is not ranked high by the rest of the batch. The students could then be placed in firms in that cohort even before the most sought after cohorts have begun interviewing. Whether this maturity would evolve with time under the cohort process is uncertain but I am certain that it would not evolve under the current day process.
We had successfully implemented the cohort process for Final Placement in February 2010. Both student and recruiter feedbacks have been positive. With the announcement in August that the Summer Placements scheduled in November 2010 would also be on cohort system, we have severed the last connections to a system that was originally designed for placing less than 200 students. We are fine tuning the cohort based process by listening to recruiter and student feedback and believe that it is the future of B-school placements.