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Ajay Kohli is a professor of marketing and holds the Gary T. and Elizabeth R. Jones Chair at the Scheller College.
Ajay Kohli is a professor of marketing and holds the Gary T. and Elizabeth R. Jones Chair at the Scheller College.
The University of St. Gallen (Switzerland) honored Prof. Ajay K. Kohli with a doctorate in economics for his contributions in the area of marketing management, particularly those concerning the market orientation of companies. Picture credit: University St. Gallen / Hannes Thalmann
The University of St. Gallen (Switzerland) honored Prof. Ajay K. Kohli with a doctorate in economics for his contributions in the area of marketing management, particularly those concerning the market orientation of companies. Picture credit: University St. Gallen / Hannes Thalmann

Faculty Profile: 'Market-Orientation' Research Leads to Honorary Doctorate for Ajay Kohli

What does it mean for a business to be market oriented?

The answer to this and many other related questions form the basis of Ajay Kohli's groundbreaking research, which was recognized this past fall when he received an honorary doctorate in economics from the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland.

"I am grateful and humbled to accept this honor," said Kohli, a professor of marketing and the Gary T. and Elizabeth R. Jones Chair at the Scheller College of Business. "That it comes from a university with such an outstanding reputation around the world is particularly meaningful to me."

Kohli is also the recent recipient of the 2017 American Marketing Association Irwin/McGraw-Hill Distinguished Educator Award, one of the preeminent recognitions in marketing academia. 

Although one of the smallest universities in Switzerland, St. Gallen has the largest business administration faculty in the country and is highly regarded for its curriculum specializing in business administration, economics, law, and international affairs.

Kohli, along with his colleague Bernie Jaworski, a marketing professor with Claremont Colleges in Los Angeles, defines an organization's market orientation as the generation, dissemination, and responsiveness to market intelligence. These actions reflect the "marketing concept."

"We then developed and validated a multi-item scale to measure market orientation," said Kohli, who joined the Scheller faculty in 2008. "This scale has been used by businesses to benchmark against other businesses and to track progress over time."

"We also identified a broad set of organizational variables that drive a business's market orientation. These range from top management variables to inter-functional variables to organization-wide systems. In addition, we proposed that market orientation is more important for business performance in certain markets and industries; however, our empirical results indicate that market orientation is important regardless of markets and industries."

The University of St. Gallen honor is Kohli's second; in May 2015 he was awarded an honorary doctoral degree by the Corvinus University of Budapest, Hungary, in recognition of his research benefiting the international marketing community, including his work on market orientation.

Ajay K. Kohli grew up in and around Kolkata, India, then called Calcutta. Like most of his teenage peers in the late '60s and early '70s, career choices were shaped more by society's outside influence than by individual ambition.

"The economy wasn't very good back then," he recalled. "It wasn't growing or creating lots of opportunities for the huge population, so the competition for good jobs was absolutely mind-numbing.

"Like most middle-class teenagers in India, I was told that if you want to be someone in life or want to make something of your life, either become an engineer or a doctor, and if you can't do either of the two, at least become a lawyer," he laughed.

After high school, he applied to the Indian Institute of Technology. The competition was intense, with about 100,000 applicants vying for 2,000 openings. He was accepted and earned an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering in 1975.

Although Kohli would never work as an electrical engineer, he doesn't think of his undergraduate years as a waste of time.

"The experience taught me to be a disciplined thinker," he explained, "and that has helped me enormously over the years. And from a social standpoint, the five years spent with my classmates and dorm mates were incredibly educational, and that put me in good stead as well."

Kohli soon realized that his true interests tended more toward business — particularly marketing — than engineering, so he decided to pursue an MBA at the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta.

"What appeals to me about marketing is that it's people oriented," he said. "It addresses questions like: What does it take to understand the experiences customers really want? How do you encourage people inside your firm to do a good job of providing end-to-end solutions to customers? These issues really fascinate me."

It was also during his MBA studies that he met his future wife, Priti. The couple has three children: two boys and a girl.

After graduating, Kohli began work as a junior product manager, and then as a sales manager. But about five years into it, he was getting antsy. The work had become repetitive, and Kohli longed for something more exciting and intellectually challenging.

Meanwhile, a number of his former MBA classmates had moved to the U.S. to pursue Ph.D.'s in anticipation of starting careers in academia.

"I asked them about their experiences, and everything I heard sounded good," he said.

That was all Kohli needed to hear. He and Priti moved to Pittsburgh, where he was accepted to the University of Pittsburgh's Ph.D. program in business administration, graduating in 1986.

After teaching at the University of Texas at Austin, Harvard Business School, and Emory's Goizueta Business School, he came to Georgia Tech eight years ago. He thoroughly enjoys teaching, but admits it doesn't leave much in the way of free time. He relaxes by walking and hiking, and by indulging his passion for music. He is fond of Indian classical and folk music as well as Western classical and contemporary music.

Kohli credits a large degree of his enjoyment of teaching to his Scheller students.

"They are excellent students. They have a great attitude about learning and interacting with each other and with faculty. They're very entrepreneurial, very upbeat. What I particularly like about our students is they are not shy about rolling their sleeves up and getting to work rather than just talking about things."

One constant in Kohli's life has been his openness to new opportunities and a willingness to act on them.

"If you had to rank order all the people in my undergraduate engineering cohort as to who was most likely to become an academic, I'd probably have ranked pretty low on the list," he reflected. "And yet, here I am."

The takeaway, as Kohli sometimes tells students, is that "You never know what opportunities lie beyond the limits of what you can see at the moment. Once you puncture that boundary of 'now,' you'll find a whole new set of doors leading to future possibilities.

"Just be yourself and follow your passion," he added, "and it will open new doors for you. As long as there's a market for what you're passionate about, you'll be fine."

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Susan Ambrosetti
Director of Marketing & Communications