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WORLD BUSINESS

Learning the innovative way

India's illiterate delivery men become MBA pin-ups

By Peter Walker for CNN

story.lunch.gi.jpg
Management gurus: Mumbai's lunch runners.

FACT BOX

FT's Executive MBA Rankings
1. Wharton, U.S.
2. Hong Kong UST, China
3. London Business School, UK
4. Instituto de Empresa, Spain
5. Fuqua, Duke, U.S.
6. Chicago GSB, U.S.
7. Columbia, U.S.
8. Kellogg, U.S.
9. Stern, NY, U.S.
10. Cass, City University, UK
Source: Financial Times 2006

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EMBA SNAPSHOT

Executives taking the top EMBA courses in the U.S., Europe and Asia have average salaries of around $130,000 to $200,000.

A typical EMBA student is likely to be aged in the early 30s, with 6-10 years of working experience.

A top EMBA course can cost $100,000. Customized courses start at a few thousand dollars.

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Executive education

(CNN) -- In a fast-paced modern business world where every MBA course wants to lure new students, there's more to learning than textbooks and dry, academic lectures -- something schools are fast realizing.

Management schools all over the world are increasingly offering innovative ways to give their students that little bit extra.

At the London Business School (LBS), a new set of disciplines related to leadership in the globalized economy includes a test by which would-be managers can measure their "CQ," or "cultural intelligence."

"Rather than an IQ, it's a way of establishing the extent to which you are comfortable operating in and adapting to different cultures," says Craig Smith, a senior fellow at the LBS, which currently teaches students from 67 different countries.

"It's a hugely competitive market now, and our point of differentiation is most definitely around, primarily, global business," Smith says. "I think there's a pressure to be relevant, but on the other hand not faddish."

Some institutions in Asia are taking inspiration from a seemingly even more unlikely source -- illiterate delivery men.

NITIE, based in the Indian business hub of Mumbai, recently helped its management students learn with the assistance of some very special guest lecturers, representatives of the city's famed "lunch-runners."

Delivering meals might not sound so cutting edge, but the runners, officially called "dabbawallahs," are somewhat of a phenomenon among management gurus in the know.

Famed accuracy

Traditionally, many of Mumbai's middle-class workers like to have their own lunch dishes picked up from their suburban homes and delivered to their office, with the utensils returned the same evening.

Using a hugely complicated combination of color and symbol coding -- most of the runners are illterate -- and precision timing, around 5,000 dabbawallahs pick up more than 170,000 lunches from the suburbs every working day and deliver them to offices, as well as schools and colleges.

What excites management theorists is the astonishing accuracy: according to a 1998 report, the lunch runners average just one mistake per six million deliveries, a record that puts virtually every single other postal and courier company in the world to shame.

This is still more amazing given that lunches can changes hands three or four times over the course of each journey. They are collected from homes in the early morning and taken onto the suburban rail system, where they are sorted out for delivery using a system of colours, dashes and crosses on the lid to denote suburb, street, building and floor.

At terminus stations in Mumbai, a final group of dabbawallahs load the lunches onto carts or cycles and fan out around the city centre to deliver the welcome sustenance to the hungry customer. After lunch the whole process goes into reverse, and the containers are returned to their homes.

"As management students we learnt a lot from the dabbawallas. They shattered the myth of technology being indispensable to solve complex problems.," one student at the lecture told an Internet discussion later.

But however innovative the methods of teaching, stresses LBS's Smith, there's no getting away from giving students a good grounding in more traditional management techniques.

"Absolutely. You've got to cover the basics," he says.

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