CAT, IIMs and the desire to go online

By | December 15, 2009

The recent CAT examination fiasco is a classic example of the pitfalls of the burning desire to go make all processes “Online”. The lust for being compliant with this buzzword has led many down a road of disaster, and now the IIMs have ruined their record for successfully holding one of the most desired exams in India.

Before jumping on the online bandwagon, the great management heads/gurus at IIMs should have thought of the following:

Why does CAT need to be an online exam?

The aim for going online is to enhance your reach, to ensure you get an audience far larger than your current numbers. Being online gives you greater visibility, ease-of-use (only when implemented properly) and a much wiser audience. But did CAT need any of these?

The answer is No. In 2007, more than 2 lakh students appeared for CAT. The number of students appearing for CAT increases by 15-25% annually, so reach and visibility is not really a problem. Every single one of India’s graduate students with any interest in management knows that CAT is the exam that they need to take one day. Visibility would anyways not be much applicable as CAT is an exam, not a commodity. So what else could be the reason?

Ease-of-use/management? Online exams are not the easiest ones to appear for, especially in a country like India where a lot of people are not used to living their lives on computers. We grow up in an environment where all the tests, exams and evaluations that we do are offline, on paper. It is not natural even for those lakhs of computer science graduates churned out by our system to appear for exams online on a regular basis. So if there is no ease-of-use for the lakhs of candidates appearing for the exam, the whose life is made easy? I would say this makes the lives of all those professors who have to evaluate those lakhs of answer sheets. But if that was the only problem, then why not make CAT an objective type exam, and use OMRs. After all, OMRs are now fairly common and used in almost all the objective type exams.

There is the ease of management, however. There is enormous amount of effort put to manage an exam of the scale of CAT. Question papers have to be maintained in absolute secrecy. Examination centers have to be set up with invigilators inside those scores of classrooms where candidates sit to write the CAT exam. Does going online reduce this logistic cost in any way? Yes and no. Yes because in the long run, there may be savings on several transportation costs, overheads, money paid to invigilators, maintaining the papers etc. No because the online version does not come for free. The software company needs to be paid to create, manage and run these tests, centers still need to be setup where candidates can go to take the test, invigilators are still needed to ensure there are no smart alecs (or munnabhais), costs go towards maintaining resilient servers that do not crash during the exams, electricity costs for all this infrastructure…. so where is the saving? And don’t for one minute think that not printing those lakhs of exam papers and answer sheets is eco-friendly. Consider the amount of electricity spent in keeping servers up and running, exam centers running not for one, but TEN days!

So there are no visible advantages of making CAT an online exam. At least none visible to me. Is it possible that these great brains who churn out hundreds of the best managers have envisioned advantages in this format that are beyond the understanding of an ordinary minion? Reality kicks in hard and reminds me that it is these great “management” gurus and their disciples who couldn’t foresee the great financial mess that we are living in for the last two years, especially when most of them were busy creating it for us!!! Myopia is a typical malfunction that a lot of managers suffer from, and it could be the same myopia that clouded the IIMs judgement when saying yes to the online CAT.

They could not! CAT went online and all hell broke loose. Several students couldn’t log in, when they did they couldn’t take the exam or submit the answers, slot appointments were cancelled, re-issues and then re-cancelled. Several centers had to actually shut down for a day or two before exams could recommence. Imagine the stress on those candidates who had to take and re-take the exam again and again, only due to the management incompetence of IIMs in holding their exams and of the software incompetence of prometric in making sure the exam is conducted successfully.

I quote the CAT website: “there are still some candidates (numbering a few thousand) who could not take the test due to genuine reasons and test has not been rescheduled for them yet. A new test date will be announced in about a fortnight to provide an opportunity to ALL such candidates to write the test”. and “CAT 2009 was an instance of computerized testing for the largest number of candidates in the time span of ten days. The tests were delivered through 361 labs, in 104 locations spread across 32 cities. Every edition of the test involved use of over 17000 computers. It was therefore a mammoth task being attempted for the first time”.

So by its own admission, there are still “thousands” of candidates yet to take the test. And just look at the numbers: over 17000 computers used at 300+ test centers. Where is the saving?

The CAT fiasco proves to be an invaluable lesson for anyone who wants to “go online”. Before you do, ask yourself: Do I really need to go online? What value will I derive out of going online? Put a solid research in place, analyse the pros and cons and jump on the bandwagon only if there is some gain to be made. Software companies will try to make you go online, resist the temptation. Making you go online is good business for the software companies, and no matter how convincing their sales people are in their swanky powerpoint and flash presentations, use your own brain and judgement. After all, you don’t need to study in an IIM to learn to think!

P.S. And it seems like the IIMs are not willing to learn. According to this article in ET, they are now looking at linux and open source as solutions. So they idea is to create a problem, then to go about fixing everything but the problem. If this is how management is taught in B-schools, I am better off outside them!

Author’s Notes:
1. Of course students who took CAT will not complain out loud! They would be mortally scared to say anything against the IIMs, they may be studying there for two years. Imagine being at the center of wrath of the college you study at!
2. Isn’t it ironic that the best management institutes in India cannot manage their own entrance exam? Oh, and the excuse of “we were doing it first time” is quite lame. IIMs are the premier management institutes not only in India, but across the world that are supposed to teach planning so that things are done right the first time, and not making excuses. Bah!
3. First hand account from student who took CAT 2009 here.
4. Prometric’s admits problems with CAT online here
5. Some sensible talk to take CAT back to pen-paper format here

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