Kellogg World Alumni Magazine, Winter 2001Kellogg School of Management
In DepthIn BriefFaculty NewsClass NotesClub NewsArchivesContactKellogg Homepage
The Spirit of Kellogg
New! Improved!
Behind the scenes in the Office of the Dean
Networking—the Kellogg way
Bringing the Kellogg spirit to the world
The art of business
In the shadow of the towers
Taking hold of terror
Address Update
Alumni Home
Submit News
Internal Site
Northwestern University
Kellogg Search
Web Exclusive

The spirit of Kellogg: teaching and research

Professor Edward Zajac

Prof. Edward Zajac  
Professor Edward Zajac  
Edward Zajac, the James F. Beré Distinguished Professor of Management and Organizations, spoke with Kellogg World about his research.

What 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 faculty.

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 way too.

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 happen?

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 development?

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 are.

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 practical.

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.

©2001 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University