Sunday, November 29, 2009

Crash Proof CAT

This is the article that I wrote and which was published in The Hindu BusinessLine on Monday November 30, 2009. Comments are most welcome.
I followed the TV news yesterday and read the newspapers this morning about the problems in the online delivery of the CAT exam; the indictment is very clear. Technology is to be blamed. Here is a wonderful example of a great idea that has failed to see the light of day and everyone has found a convenient scapegoat – technology!! I am reminded of the justifications provided by the Charlton Heston types in the gun lobby who said, “guns do not kill people – people do”.

Technology does not kill ideas, managers do!! As someone who pioneered the online entrance exam in this country about a decade ago, who initially failed to successfully conduct the XLRI exam online but then succeeded in delivering similar exams for several educational institutions, I can humbly say that there was nothing wrong with the technology then and nothing wrong with it now. I successfully delivered online admission applications and online tests for institutions when technology was less advanced and the internet infrastructure fragile. Today, the technology has advanced, the internet is more robust and available, and software architecture for concurrent use of many thousands of users is well known. Therefore, I am sorry to see that technology is being blamed for the issues faced by the CAT exam. I can emphatically say that it is the ambitious expectations of people who switch over to technology; it is the decision making and implementation approach of managers; it is the process of outsourcing, where we need to look for answers.

Delivering an online test for about 300,000 candidates (and even that, across multiple days and sessions) is not rocket science these days. The Directors of the top management schools should be aware of this. But then the CAT committee is made up of academicians from across 7 different institutes who have least interest in these kinds of implementation issues. The first thing to focus on is the structure of the CAT as an institution. It should be run by professional managers who are held accountable for an activity that generates upto Rs.50 crores annually on an annuity basis with very little marketing. All that they need to do is implement the project right and this revenue can multiply many times over.

The second issue is the technology adoption process. CAT went overboard with their demands on how the online CAT should be delivered with biometric identity systems, online video and audio screening, etc. which have loaded the system with unnecessary frills that take the attention away from the task of secure, online delivery of exams where the candidates have a pleasant experience. In the traditional paper-and pencil test, there is no such video/audio screening; there is no such biometric identity capture, so why demand that in an online exam? Why can’t we build the process of online exams step by step and increase the technology component gradually? By adopting an all-or-none attitude, we have not gradually matured in technology adoption and assimilation.

The third issue is the award of the contract of the online test delivery to an agency which has limited experience in India with such large scale exam delivery – either manual or online. But then I cannot blame the CAT committee members for being representative of most government agencies who wholesale buy anything that is foreign, especially American. When there are multiple local Indian companies which have successfully conducted online tests in the last decade in India, and who have the technology and the necessary infrastructure, it was a serious mistake on the part of the CAT to select an agency that does not have its own infrastructure in India that it can control.

Finally, I would argue that the successful delivery of a test of this magnitude requires infrastructure that is under a unitary command rather than the current approach of commissioning several independent centers whose infrastructure is not meant for such test delivery purposes.

Trouble started brewing as early as August when the online application system did not work as it should have. Early warning signs were not heeded. During the last few years, the CAT results which were delivered online invariably had problems. Clearly, the CAT committee has not taken these issues seriously.

Having said all this, it would be inappropriate if I did not propose some thoughts for how the CAT test can be successfully delivered online, and, at a much lower cost than the whopping $40 million reported in the media.
1. CAT has the opportunity to be much bigger than the GMAT and thus has the opportunity to become an international test and earn foreign exchange and make the country proud. So, given this prospect, the CAT organization should be made a permanent institution with full time professional managers who are held accountable to the community of more than 150 business schools; not just the 7 IIMs. The leaders of the affiliated schools should demand this of the CAT.

2. The CAT Institution should be made an independent organization, independent of the IIMs, and one in which all the affiliated business schools should all have a stake. This also means that they are involved in the governance and the sharing of the surplus revenues.

3. Once the CAT committee decided to deliver the test on multiple days, why was it not offered over 30 days instead of just the 10 days? This would put less pressure on the infrastructure and field managers and enable buffers to set right things. For a test with about 300,000 test takers, with 30 days and 2 sessions a day, the CAT can be delivered in 60 sessions with not more than 5,000 computers across the country.

4. The CAT exam could be delivered around the year rather than just once a year. Since the CAT exam score is now valid for 2 years, there is no reason why the exam should not be offered round the year just like the GMAT. It will not only benefit the students but also the Institution since now a test taker may take the CAT exam multiple times in a year, and this can possibly raise the revenues. My estimate is that the CAT revenue can easily, and at the very least, be in the range of Rs.60 crores annually.

5. The CAT online delivery infrastructure should NOT be an outsourced resource and more so, to the myriad engineering colleges around the country. It should be a dedicated uniform infrastructure controlled by a single entity. This is not impossible. For a capacity of 3 lakh tests to be delivered in a 30-day period, the total investment needed will be to the tune of Rs.50 crores. This can be shared among the 150+ business schools. The annual running cost will be less than Rs.30 crores, thus netting a good surplus that can be used for the improvement of the test content so that the CAT exam can become a standardized test.

6. This dedicated infrastructure can then be used for similar online tests that are conducted by XAT (XLRI), SNAP (Symbiosis), NMET (Narsee Monjee), IIT-JEE and GATE among others. These agencies can contribute about Rs.30 crores annually in revenues to the CAT organisation.

7. Once the CAT exam is delivered online across 60 sessions, with just 5,000 computers, the number of computers per center will be just 50 across 100 centers. Managing a center with 50 computers is much less taxing. Managing the entire dedicated network of 5,000 computers on a uniform infrastructure is much easier than managing a disparate outsourced network.

8. Once the infrastructure is dedicated, then all these 100 centers can be networked into a dedicated wide area network that can be better and more securely managed.

9. These 100+ centers can be spread across about 50 cities and towns around the country. The top 7 cities that typically have about 50% of the candidates are Delhi, Chennai, Mumbai, Kolkatta, Pune, Hyderabad, and Bangalore. Delhi, accounting for about 20% of the demand, would need about 1000 computers spread around 20 centers across the national capital region. These 50 cities cover about 85% of the candidates who apply for CAT. Once the tests are delivered across 50 cities, the test goes closer to where the candidates live. This way, technology delivers clear benefits. Candidates save time, money and effort; more importantly, there is no fatigue factor when a test is given.

10. The current CAT is actually a computer based test rather than an Online Test where the test is delivered over the net. While this CBT worked earlier, given the new technologies and the bandwidth speed available at a much lower cost, the fully online test is a better architecture to adopt. This is also much more secure especially in a dedicated WAN.

11. The software needed for the online application, online test and the online result delivery can be sourced from existing Indian vendors who have proven technology in the local environment. The architecture has to be critically examined for the scale needed. Every year a parallel review of the architecture based on new information can be conducted and new features added incrementally.

12. Finally, an event of this scale needs to be insured such that, if a disruption were to happen, candidates who have spent the money and become disappointed, can at least be reimbursed for their expenses.

The Dean of Sastra University suggested that the CAT exam should be nationalized. I believe that instead of moving it from the frying pan into the fire, we should free the CAT and privatise it. More importantly, instead of nationalizing it, I argue that we should internationalize the CAT.

As the demand for management education grows in this country, going by the demographic trends, it is my estimate that about 10 lakh candidates will apply for the CAT exam by the year 2012. In addition, if CAT goes international, there is a huge market in China that can clearly make CAT humungous. Therefore, it is absolutely important that CAT gets its act together immediately. The business school community should demand that this be done.

Sankaran Raghunathan

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The first term is well on its way

The first batch of students started the program on Vijayadasami Day on Sept 28, 2009. After a week of orientation classes and activities, the first class started on October 5th. It is now more than a month and the batch has now gone through 3 courses - Legal Environment by Prof. Raman, Managerial Economics by Prof. Fritz and Management by Prof. White - and has had one Leadership Interaction visit to the campus by Justice Chandru of the Madras High Court and another one with a visit to Royal Sundaram Alliance Insurance to have an interactive session with their CFO Ramkumar.

Students stay at the School's student housing complex at Sholianganallur in fully furnished apartments. They commute to the School campus at the STPI complex daily while we wait to occupy our own campus in Navallur by the end of November.

It is not all work and no play!! The students had their first shot at golf at the AKDR Golf Village last week. While some used the club to drive the ball; some drove the club itself!!

Overall, the group is cohesive. The students are working hard and hopefully playing right.
Dean's office