The spirit of Kellogg: teaching and research
Professor Edward Zajac
Edward Zajac, the
James F. Beré Distinguished Professor of Management and
Organizations, spoke with Kellogg World about his research.
makes Kellogg a special place for teaching and research?
What distinguishes Kellogg from other schools is that its
senior faculty is engaged in multiple fronts of activity.
We try to continue to excel on research beyond tenure. The
best researchers are those who view getting tenure as a milestone
along the intellectual journey, rather than a time for them
to shift their attention away from their research and relax.
A lot of our senior faculty, myself included, continue to
pursue our research even though tenure is now a distant memory.
I think that adding on the activities of Executive Education
and external work with outside companies, while not losing
sight of our research, is really what distinguishes Kellogg
Are there challenges in trying to maintain a balance between,
say, your primary research and participation in the activities
you just mentioned?
I've been here 15 years and there are several role models
in different departments who are really doing it the right
way. They continue to stay true to their research, but yet
add onto this work another component by talking to executives
at the Allen Center and participating in executive programs.
That along with the right amount of outside work -- not too
much -- makes for a very healthy mix. I really do believe
that our advantage in the Executive Education field is that
we primarily have Kellogg faculty teaching there, primarily
research-oriented Kellogg faculty.
Consulting can be a double-edged sword in terms of its
demands on your time. Yet it seems one potentially good way
for faculty to remain well grounded in both theory and practice.
Yes. When I teach executive education courses, I find that
those people really appreciate the intellectual frameworks
that are based directly or indirectly on our research. I teach
a course on alliances at the MBA level and I'm interested
in strategic alliances, but I've also worked with companies
on alliances. That experience has also informed my research
on alliances, so now I can use frameworks that I've developed
for my research with executive and MBA teaching. And my executive
teaching informs my MBA teaching, and a little bit the other
There seems to be a nice synergy operating.
Strategic alliances is an area with a lot of what I call platitudes
circulating. These are little bullet points -- find a good
partner, have top management support, things like that. If
you're a researcher you just cringe when you hear that. If
you're not a researcher maybe you think those are sensible
ideas. As a researcher you know how to separate things that
are platitudinous from things that are intellectually grounded
with some basis in research.
In other words, the platitude may sound great but how does
a manager go from that slogan to making the idea actually
Exactly. What are the intervening processes? You have to put
the structure and process together. I think the model at Kellogg
works harder to balance these synergies. The intellectual
synergies are very strong here and are one of the things that
makes Kellogg very different from other business schools,
particularly in the Executive Education realm. As an executive
student at Kellogg, you are likely to be taught by senior
faculty, whereas at other schools you typically see instructors
who have been imported from a variety of other places. The
school then puts its name on the program, but the class is
not really worthy of the school's name. Here, we're not saying
you can't have some imports, but a lot of the ideas are home-grown.
We like to be at the forefront of knowledge production, and
we're very good at that.
Can you describe other aspects of the culture here, such
as faculty peers and institutional policy or structures, and
how these factors impact faculty innovation and curriculum
The culture of academic freedom is really strong here. No
one has ever said to me "this is the area you should
be working on." I don't know who that person would have
been, but I actually do know of other schools where some research
paths are encouraged and some are discouraged. Here, that's
not the model at all. Our model is that, from the time you
arrive as a young faculty member, you work on what it is you
think are important issues. You may have colleagues who tell
you whether or not they liked a particular paper of yours.
You always get feedback from people, but there's never research
that is off-limits.
In addition, I've used a variety of research methodologies,
which is another way of thinking about innovation. I have
several streams of research, but one of my biggest is corporate
governance and executive leadership issues. When I was a young
faculty member here, I needed to reach CEOs of major corporations,
and [former Dean] Don Jacobs was very helpful to me. He said
how can I help you? I pre-tested my ideas and survey with
the Dean's Advisory Board. I did a questionnaire that gave
me some unique data. That would have been hard to get elsewhere.
How has the Kellogg administration been helpful in advancing
research at the school?
The dean's office at Kellogg over the years has been very
helpful in providing the right resources and tools for my
research. We have a culture here where everyone does research.
Our new dean and our associate deans are themselves spectacular
researchers. That is something that is in the air at Kellogg.
From an organizational standpoint, you can try to have clear
material incentives to make people behave the right way, but
you can also try to encourage excellence by instilling a particular
culture inside an organization. You get the appropriate behavior
because it's the right thing to do. I think for many of us
here, research has always been an integral part of who we
In a sense, you select the appropriate people to join the
organization, and then the socialization through the culture
works to reinforce the values you want. Talk a bit about how
you typically approach a research project. What are some of
the overarching intellectual frameworks you might employ?
We're a little more on the deductive side around here. Typically
we are interested in taking the principles we identify as
being fundamental and then go out and test the data on real
organizations to see if these principles make sense. I try
to highlight to my students that theory is actually quite
Best Practices is a type of approach that studies high-performing
organizations. This approach is the bread and butter of consultants,
but we try to show how a lot of times, from a research perspective,
this is a flawed design. We like to have a theory about why
we think an organization might be better than another, or
better in a particular area than another.
You don't want to be chasing after some nebulous possibility
with little chance of pinning down the specifics about cause-and-effect.
Exactly. The "in search of excellence" problem,
based on the book of the same name in the 1980s where they
said "here are the high and low performers" and
then a few years later that was no longer true. The approach
was a bit rudderless. We give students an actual rudder so
it helps them figure out how the world works. This approach
doesn't mean our models are always right, but the students
can then test out the findings. Our students see how teaching,
research and consulting are all linked.
Returning more specifically to your own research, what
is it that's most exciting to you about what you study?
What distinguishes my work is that I try to relate both economic
and behavioral science perspectives on specific organizational
phenomena, such as corporate governance, strategic alliances,
and organizational adaptation. Economists have some pretty
clear-cut models on how they think the world works, but I,
along with many of my colleagues in Management and Organizations,
argue that there are very important social, political, and
psychological aspects of organizations that need to be taken
into account to understand more accurately and fully how organizations
work. No one is denying the relevance of some of these economic
models, but what I'm continually striving towards is the development
of a rigorous theory of organizations and strategy that is
informed quite fundamentally by a behavioral science perspective.
Such theorizing is both descriptive and normatively useful,
insofar as it maps more closely to how organizations really
work, and it is what our MBA students need and what executive
students clamor for, as well.