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from BUSINESS LINE, November 30, 2009 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 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 Net 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 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.

Conducting 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 seven different
institutes who have little interest in these kinds of implementation issues.

Focus areas 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 up to Rs 50 crore
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.

Early warning signs 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.

CAT has the opportunity to be much bigger than GMAT and thus become an international test and
earn foreign exchange and make the country proud. So, given this prospect, the CAT organisation
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 seven IIMs. The leaders of the
affiliated schools should demand this of the CAT.

The CAT institution should be made an independent organisation, 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.

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 two sessions a day, the CAT can be delivered in 60 sessions with not more than 5,000
computers across the country.

The CAT exam could be delivered around the year rather than just once a year. Since the CAT exam
score is now valid for two 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 crore
annually.

Avoid outsourcing The CAT online delivery infrastructure should not be an outsourced resource, 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 three lakh tests to
be delivered in a 30-day period, the total investment needed will be to the tune of Rs 50 crore. This
can be shared among the 150-plus business schools. The annual running cost will be less than Rs 30
crore, thus netting a good surplus that can be used for the improvement of the test content so that the
CAT exam can become a standardised test.

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 crore annually in revenues to the CAT organisation.

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.

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

These 100-plus centers can be spread across about 50 cities and towns around the country. The top
seven cities that typically have about 50 per cent of the candidates are Delhi, Chennai, Mumbai,
Kolkata, Pune, Hyderabad, and Bangalore.

Delhi, accounting for about 20 per cent of the demand, would need about 1000 computers spread
around 20 centers across the national capital region. These 50 cities cover about 85 per cent 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.

The current CAT is actually a computer-based test rather than an online test where the test is
delivered over the Net. While this 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.

The software needed for the online application, test and 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.

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

Go international The Dean of Sastra University suggested that the CAT exam be nationalised. 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 nationalising, I argue that we should internationalise 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 P. Raghunathan Copyright 2009 Business Line