Mark McCormack’s best-seller implied that even graduates from the most esteemed business school in the world often lack the ‘people sense,’ critically needed to successfully manage business situations or, in other words, ‘people situations.’ The science and art of packaging development too demand the cultivation of excellent ‘people skills.’
Around the mid-eighties, Mark H McCormack, an American business owner and sports agent, first published What they don’t teach you at Harvard Business School. The book, which went on to become a bestseller, contains anecdotes about typical business situations that can help business graduates and executives get a grip on the ‘real world.’ The insinuation was that even graduates from the most esteemed business school in the world often lack the ‘people sense,’ which becomes a critical need to successfully manage business situations or, in other words, ‘people situations.’
In this way, the book intended to fill the perceived gap between the curriculum of prestigious business schools and the common-sense knowledge of the street. It succeeded resoundingly to become a popular bestseller – testimony to the reason and eloquence it contained.
In this context, it seems appropriate to consider, what is the situation about fresh graduates from professional schools, with particular reference to packaging schools in India? How ready for the real world does industry consider them, when they appear for campus placements or after acquiring their diplomas or degrees? Is there a universal aspect of learning beyond the classroom (or even industrial training) situations that goes beyond graphs and case studies and simply needs to be learned ‘on the street’? How significant is the role of ‘clarity of communication’ and ‘people skills,’ in particular, for graduates from professional courses in packaging and printing schools? Do packaging graduates, in particular, need to be equipped (or sensitized) for some specialized skills?
In India, the Indian Institute of Packaging pioneered packaging technology education in 1985, with an initial intake of 20 students. Since then, the intake has gradually increased to 500 students per year, and there is an alumni pool of about 3500 IIP graduates placed in leading positions in the user as well as the manufacturing industries. Many IIP graduates have been appointed in prestigious positions at leading international branded product companies to head their overseas packaging development operations. Such appointments are perhaps a good indicator of the quality of professional education received by the students at IIP.
The IIP Post Graduate Diploma in Packaging is a two-year course spread over four semesters. The entire fourth semester is assigned to a project report produced during the student’s final five-month on-site industry training. The industrial training is arranged at a live manufacturing site or at user companies where students undergo on-the-job professional experience. In the first three semesters, too, significant credit hours are devoted to industrial visits and lab practicals. In broad terms, the IIP PGDP is designed to gradually introduce a diverse population of graduates from a range of academic streams to the multi-disciplinary and vast field of packaging.
As highlighted in the IIP Prospectus, ‘Since packaging is an inter-disciplinary subject, the first semester includes exposure to subjects like Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Mechanical, and Electrical Engineering. Packaging technology is then introduced with detail and elaborate coverage on various packaging media, which includes paper and paperboard, glass, metals, plastics and composites. Similarly, laboratory practical training and visits to packaging converters and user industries are a part of the curriculum to expose students to the practical aspects of the subject. Since a packaging professional has to play a vital role, management subjects such as Production Planning and Control, Total Quality Management, Industrial Engineering, Materials Management, Marketing, and Financial Management are also covered. Over the decades, in view of changing needs, the syllabus has also been updated to include Eco-Regulation, Computer-Aided Design & Mold Design, and Communication Skills.’
It would appear from the above that, by and large, packaging development training in India is adequate. Campus placement of all the graduates each year ensures a steady supply of trained manpower for the industry. The yearly record of 100% campus placements from IIP might indicate that employers must be satisfied with the knowledge and skill levels of the candidates. It is also often observed that fresh employees learn quickly on the job. More confident and entrepreneurial graduates are also emerging and giving rise to start-ups.
Could it be done better?
According to McCormack, the first five years of one’s career are fundamental to the outcome of the rest of your life. For this reason, the role of quality education must be to equip the student with all that will be needed at the start of a career to be able to dive-in at the deep end and be able to swim along. But is that the case? The field of packaging is constantly evolving and encompasses diverse subjects and roles. Should packaging graduates know some more things before they come out of their formal education and take up industry jobs – particularly in brand owner companies?
These questions may require more formal review in a larger, more qualified forum. However, I tried to address the issue by requesting comments from Vijay Sood, former head of Packaging, Nestle India and Sriman Banerjee, CPG & Pharma Global Team, GSK, based in New Jersey, USA. The comments and responses received are placed within the specific heads they were invited in.
Given the vital need for creativity and design innovation in modern packaging, how well are packaging graduates equipped or sensitized to it? Please comment with particular reference to brainstorming and other creative processes as well as aesthetics and art appreciation.
Sriman Banerjee – Currently, creative thinking is not a subject in packaging schools. However, it is taught in design schools. Having said that, in the Western world, creative thinking is advocated and encouraged right from elementary school onwards. Therefore, a student is likely to have a better appreciation of it when he joins the industry.
What is the role of the packaging function in a management hierarchy? How is the typical ‘push-pull’ between marketing and production functions to be handled? How should development timelines be committed without succumbing to marketing demands?
Vijay Sood – There is always a healthy disagreement or interaction between all stakeholders in any management to be able to achieve common objectives. This conversation is worth encouraging. The primary role of packaging development is advisory and R&D oriented and, therefore, must be understood as a ‘staff-function.’ While making timeline commitments, the practice of providing a ‘safety cushion’ needs to be avoided. Such types of practical insights need to be imparted to students.
Sriman Banerjee – Globally, management is not taught to packaging students and becomes challenging for individuals. Fresh graduates find it challenging to navigate the corporate world. Again, in the Western world, a student does not join the industry as a permanent employee. He has to undergo at least two years of internship before being absorbed as a full-time employee. Graduates need to be prepared for this.
How well should students be prepared for the vital need to maintain quality throughout the packaging operations? How are specification deviations dealt with, and how should branding deviations get handled?
Vijay Sood – Optimal specifications are a must. Do not over-specify. Ultimately, it costs more money. Even rejections cost more money. Students need to understand this. In addition, the vital and often trouble-prone field of artwork management, proof checking and print approval processes need to be adequately highlighted.
Sriman Banerjee – In India, packaging specifications are co-created alongside the vendor. In the Western world, there are set standards for the same. Differences in practices, such as these, need to be appreciated.
Best practice in predicting packaging shelf life needs to be emphasized. Methods to take the guess-work out of the development process and data analysis based decision-making need to be learned.
Vijay Sood – Marketing stakes in new product launches are getting higher. Brand image cannot be allowed to take a beating at any cost. In spite of it, surprise failures can always happen. This is a crucial aspect to be learned and discussed.
Sriman Banerjee – Software to predict shelf life is available nowadays. Students must be familiarized with it. The use of data and analytics must be taught for decision-making.
The process of achieving standardized packaging quality while receiving supplies from two-three different vendors needs to be understood. Qualifying packaging ‘runnability’ by testing on production machines without disruption of production schedules needs to be explained.
Vijay Sood – One has to rely on Vendor Production Process once the Specifications and Quality Monitoring Systems are agreed. In-house controls need to be minimal. I believe it’s most important to develop long-term, healthy business relationships with vendors based on mutual faith and trust to achieve beneficial results. At the same time, however, more than one vendor needs to be cultivated to stimulate healthy competition. These aspects must be discussed with students in detail.
Stamina and tenacity
What exactly is demanded of the packaging professional while performing his role? How should he be willing to commit long hours of physical effort to perform test procedures instead of indulging in ‘desk research’? How work must be delegated and how to trust and control the outcome?
Vijay Sood – It is not practical to perform physical tests on all lots. Limited testing based on statistical controls is needed. In addition, regular vendor audit processes can ensure good quality compliance. Students must learn to appreciate the importance of performing and maintaining regular quality management audits.
The increasing importance and relevance of this aspect are not reflected in the packaging school syllabi at all. With the spread of online shopping and globally spread markets across vast geographies, this aspect must find a place in the learning curriculum.
Conditions and realities of the Indian retail market – organized as well as unorganized – are often not sufficiently understood. Demands of online retail are an emerging factor. How well are the new packaging professionals prepared for it?
Vijay Sood – Organized retail (such as supermarkets) poses an innovative challenge for packaging designers to create innovative packs with high shelf appeal. This must be understood.
Sriman Banerjee – Retail dynamics vary by geographical context. The US has predominantly big retail stores, while Asia is full of small stores. Packaging needs to be developed and adapted in the context of the display and consumer use requirements.
IT and AI-enabled collection of consumer data have resulted in the need to create niche and personalized packs. How well equipped is the packaging student about methods of collecting consumer feedback and its translation on to the pack, in the form of convenience features, color, text, and statutory marking?
Vijay Sood – Periodic interaction with the field sales team and frequent retail shop visits are a great help in obtaining data about packaging acceptability and performance.
Need for a better understanding of issues, such as – The emerging impact of environment and sustainability activism
Sriman Banerjee – This is a key area. Sustainability was not a subject within packaging and is a new area where individuals are learning as they develop. Also, there are new tools for CO2 calculations, which are being used by the industry.
New technologies that have disruption potential – Sriman Banerjee – Packaging is making inroads into digital and other technologies, and that is an upcoming area that could disrupt the way packaging is currently done.
Importance of keeping up-to-date – Vijay Sood – Packaging professionals in particular need to stay regularly updated with day-to-day changing technology and legal compliance needs as well as consumer aspirations.
Vijay Sood – In packaging, common sense combined with the practical application of technology is the best way to get results. One should understand that technology is a tool and should be used judiciously, keeping in view both corporate objectives and market conditions. This learning needs to be ingrained in new students.
Yes, indeed, common sense, as endorsed by Vijay Sood, is a commonly heard secret ingredient in business success; and in the words of McCormack, “Obviously, the real answer is common sense. But if you don’t have it already, you probably never will, and there’s nothing I can say here that is going to change that.”
We must ensure that packaging schools are equipping their students adequately for the world of common sense.