Dr. Sandhya Shekhar
CEO,
IIT Madras Research Park

It is a worrying anomaly that a country which has a very large number of institutions of higher learning, generates a mind-boggling number of graduates every year, has very favourable demographics in terms of the age of employable resources, is still grappling with a very serious problem of demand-supply gap for manpower. While the industry is deeply worried about the employability of fresh graduates, academic institutions are perennially trying to find ways of ensuring that the quality of its output does not get diluted on account of the need to focus on quantum. It is an issue that requires the serious and immediate attention of all stakeholders, otherwise we have to contend with the unpleasant reality of India continuing to remain a country with enormous potential – however with the potential never being tapped.

Institutional efforts that have managed to scale have largely been focused on just one or two of the many issues on hand – like faculty training, certification or soft skills.

There have been several initiatives by various institutions and organizations, including the government to deal with this problem. These have included several organizations, coming forward to impart practical training to students, helping educational institutions with training resources and inputs to keep the teachers updated on latest technologies, providing opportunities for student projects etc. Other organizations have attempted to create evaluation and accreditation systems to ensure minimum acceptable knowledge and skill levels. Educational institutions on their part have tweaked their curriculum to include more project based work and interaction with industry. Industrial bodies and government departments have taken important steps to provide technological and infrastructural support in this mammoth task.

Despite all this however, the problem still remains. While most of these initiatives are extremely laudable and absolutely necessary, they are constrained primarily on account of two factors. The first issue is one of scalability. Organizational initiatives often remain as pockets of excellence but are unable to ramp-up to an all inclusive scale that can straddle all institutions in multiple geographies. The second issue is that of scope.

nstitutional efforts that have managed to scale have largely been focused on just one or two of the many issues on hand – like faculty training, certification or soft skills. The crux of the matter is that the issue is a highly multi-dimensional one that needs to cover the gamut of issues from alignment of curriculum to industry needs and pedagogy to issues- of nurturing innovation and creating strong IP within the country.

In this context Research Parks can be an important strategic tool. The IIT Madras Research Park is the country's first university research park of its kind. It attempts to take industry- academia interaction which has been restricted predominantly to a recruitment centric phenomenon to a different trajectory altogether. Some of its highlights are:

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  • It brings all the important stakeholders together – viz., the academic institution, the government and industry. This is extremely important if any initiative is to have a lasting impact.

  • It does not rely on just one organization or a single sector but gets multiple organizations together to work on a common agenda. This is important to create critical mass and be able to scale the initiative.

  • It does not wait for the students to graduate to impart the necessary skills but gets the industry to actively engage with the students throughout their tenure in the institution.

  • It attempts to seamlessly blend industry initiatives with as many priorities of educational institutions as possible in order to have an all-pervasive impact. These include:

  • -Teaching by industry personnel to facilitate greater exposure to industry practices

    - Use of students as project interns so that they are more industry-ready by the time they graduate

    - Sponsoring employees for part-time programs to increase the quantum and quality of research within the educational institution

    - Collaborative research and product development to be able to create a strong portfolio of IP

It is hoped that an initiative of this kind can be an important tool to significantly bridge the industry- academia divide.

--Sandhya Shekhar is currently the Chief Executive Officer of IIT Madras Research Park, an independent company set up for a pioneering effort in India to provide a significant impetus to innovation and R&D through industry academia collaboration. Earlier, she was working in the IT industry for over two decades. Sandhya is a University rank holder in her bachelor's degree and did her management studies from the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. She earned her PhD from IIT Madras, with her dissertation on 'Knowledge Transfer in Virtual Organizations' winning the international award for Outstanding Doctoral Research for 2007 from the European Foundation for Management Development and Emerald.

--In her previous assignment in the industry, Sandhya was a Director with Gartner Inc. She set up the consulting practice of Gartner in India and was the competency lead in Enterprise Solutions for the Asia Pacific region. Earlier she has held positions as Chief Technology Officer of BconnectB.com, Head of Knowledge Management Research in Aptech Ltd., and Group Consultant in the software division of NIIT Ltd. Her key focus areas have been IT driven Business Strategy, Enterprise Solutions, Software Engineering, E-learning and Knowledge Management.

--She was given the Excellence Award while at Gartner and has also been given outstanding achievement awards at Aptech and NIIT. She has coauthored a book, 'Knowledge Management – Enabling Business Growth', published by Tata McGraw Hill. This was the first Indian book on KM and was launched at the KM World Conference at Santa Clara. Her latest publication is in '21st Century Priorities in Engineering Education' publication by Macmillan.