Research Environments

December 12, 2011

What makes a research environment in a business school thrive? Not the same stuff that makes firms profitable or breeds winning sports teams. It would be too easy.

The good and the bad: Consider the following scenarios I see played out at campuses across the country: Just recently someone asked me – “Why do you come in to work when you are tenured?” He looked at me as if I was irrational and that I should be away somewhere lying on a beach or making heaps of money by starting a company. And again, another junior professor inquires of a tenured one – “Why are you in today, when you are not teaching?” I have noticed at many universities that junior faculty do not go to seminars as much as senior ones. Is this a permanent cultural shift in academia? How come junior faculty are not being shepherded by seniors as they used to be in the old days? Why are there so many empty offices, and so little discussion in the hallways? Is this a reflection of the new generation of young faculty, or is it a reflection of norms gleaned from the senior ones?

There are warning signs, but also signs of encouragement and hope. There is more collaborative work than before, a greater number of seminars, and higher promotion standards, as the old excuses for the inability to publish are being shelved, as a few brave young faculty show us all how it can be done, even as journal space becomes scarcer and aggressively fought over.

A Categorization of Faculty: We may think of research faculty along two dimensions: (a) Activity: producing high quality knowledge, and (b) Presence: engaged with research activities. Just being research active is not enough, being present to facilitate the research environment is important. Viewed along these two dimensions gives us four types of faculty: {Active, Not Active} x {Present, Not Present}. I suppose it is easy to categorize any faculty into these four buckets. What type are you? Which bucket do you fall in?

The {Not Active, Present} category is more common than we might imagine. This is part of a natural cycle where Active faculty burn out and yet stay in the game by being Present. Indeed their experience is still valuable as they maintain standards, carry valuable institutional memory and perspectives, mentor junior faculty, and can judge work to ensure that promotion standards are not lowered. This is also often a temporary phase where folks take a pause to recharge batteries and then embark anew, often on something fresh.

The {Active, Not Present} group presents an interesting challenge. How does the organization engage them so that they are more than the sum of their own activity? Being present means fostering spillover benefits. But make no mistake, being Present is a double-edged sword, it is costly to Active faculty but also comes with benefits. Too much of it can be counterproductive. But, none of it is more surely a dead loss to the research organization and the researcher as well.

Outcomes: There are several benefits/costs of tenured faculty being Present, depending on which way you look at it. Here are some:

  1. Mentoring junior faculty.
  2. Working with junior faculty and enhancing tenured faculty Activity.
  3. Sharing the burden of ad-hoc demands on the faculty that otherwise have to be borne by the Present set.
  4. Quicker and higher quality group decisions in a face-to-face manner.
  5. Keeping tenured faculty expertise “on-line” for access by others.
  6. Better utilization of office space, a scarce resource in academia today.
  7. Demonstration effect/Building culture: setting a good example and high expectations for the next generation.
  8. More attendance at seminars to improve quality of discussion, and show a strong presence to outsiders so as to leave a good impression of the school’s scholarship quality and environment.

There are several flavors of Present. Some faculty are introverted but work intensely with a few junior faculty. Others help a broad swath of faculty or resolutely maintain standards. Some don’t come to work a lot, but come to all seminars and engage with juniors. And so on. We academics are all unique and we must each choose our own brand of Present.

Assume a highly Active and Present senior faculty. What features of the junior faculty would be evidence of the benefits of such a research environment?

  1. Higher quality and quantity of scholarship.
  2. Junior faculty who actively talk about their research with other faculty. This enhances the general awareness of what everyone is working on, and brings benefits of several faculty offering suggestions and pointing out related research. A self-exciting and perpetuating research atmosphere.
  3. Junior faculty who give their papers to others to read, actively asking for comments.
  4. Junior faculty that actively seek out engagement with practitioners, and continually ask themselves how they might influence practice.
  5. Junior faculty that actively take steps to enhance the research environment by organizing seminars, inviting special speakers, setting up labs, engaging in popularizing scholarly work that transcends mere publishing.
  6. Confident junior faculty who actively demand more resources for their research, and also generate their own means and funding.
  7. Junior faculty who work with faculty in other departments and disciplines.
  8. A greater number of submissions to top journals.

Making progress: How does a school take steps towards this idealized environment? First, measurement. Take stock by classifying existing faculty into the four bucket model. This is easy for department chairs to do. Place each faculty person on the 2×2 {Active, Not Active} x {Present, Not Present} grid. What is a reasonable number in each bucket?

Second, self-realization. Discuss the grid with the faculty and ask them to think about where they are and where they might want to be.

Third, incentivize movements into the {Active, Present} bucket. Use a coarse system of raises. Faculty in the {Not Active, Not Present} bucket get no raise, and in fact should be moved into shared offices. Faculty in the {Active, Present} bucket should get three times the raise of those on the {Active, Not Present} and {Not Active, Present} buckets, recognizing that being Active and Present is worth more than just the sum of the two dimensions.

Fourth, raise salaries to market so that departments can compete in the marketplace, and raise funding to support research so that junior faculty are able to compete with others from other schools.

Lesson: There is a tide in the affairs of research schools, when taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.

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The Less You Know

December 5, 2011

The more you learn, the less you know.

What? How can this be? Some sort of weird paradox? No — the more you learn, the vastness of what you do not know becomes more apparent, and hence, you become increasingly aware of how little you know. The ignorant are unusually blessed for they know not what they do not know.

I think it is true to say that knowing what you don’t know is even more important than what you know. So many mishaps have occurred because we assumed we knew, when we deep down we knew we didn’t. You should not make a virtue of trusting in your ignorance. Instead, admit that you don’t know, because it is the first step in knowing deeply.

Half-knowing is just as bad. But not knowing and assuming that it’s okay is worse. I’d feel much safer with a doctor who would tell me he did not know what was wrong with me than with one who said he did when he didn’t. Or a lawyer for that matter who gave me false hope or advice. Because in the end, the truth is most important, and someone who leads you on as if he/she knows pushes the truth further away, and in some cases, such as medicine, it can be quite dangerous.

Admitting one’s ignorance to one’s self is very hard, and often our egos won’t allow it. But letting in the admission is winning the battle. It marks the beginning of the learning process. Sometimes you have to learn it the hard way. I remember the first few months of my graduate education at Berkeley when I was studying computer science. I was the only one in class with no background in engineering or computers, so was pretty lost in those early weeks. I was floundering and not sure what to do as jargon and terminology, as well as math, kept whizzing by. Having had plenty of experience with continuous math, I found discrete math hard, but failed to admit it, so I just assumed I should know, and that I did know. Yet, I didn’t and nothing would change the facts. I was stuck and not learning.

In the end my frustration got me to admit to myself that I did not know a lot. I began to carry a little notebook around to jot down every word and concept that I had no clue about and that I needed to know. I would return to my cubicle after class and then bug whoever was around to tell me about the new unknowns in my notebook. This little book was my confession of how little I knew. It was also my salvation. I went home every day enlightened by answers to the ever-growing list in the little notebook. It became the symbol of my salvation, my new found knowledge. I began to feel good about how little I knew, because it was gratification wrapped up in humility. The less I realized I knew, the happier I became.

Make a list of stuff you don’t know (see http://swanson.github.com/blog/2011/12/04/whats-on-your-learning-list.html )– it is your gateway to knowledge. Of course, it is impossible to make an exhaustive list, it would take forever. So make a list of things you do not know, and are interested in. Keep it short. Even if there is just one thing on that list but you spend time to get to know it well, it will be exhilarating.