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Summer Institute Poised to Build on 2016 Success

For decades CASBS has played a central role in defining and integrating the disciplines that study organizations. Robert Merton and Herbert Simon were among the Center’s founders. Some of the most critical, foundational work in the field was pioneered at CASBS by towering figures, including Kenneth Arrow, Ronald Coase, Robert Dahl, Charles Lindblom, James March, Roy Radner, Philip Selznick, Harold Wilensky, Oliver Williamson, and many others.

In addition to nurturing pioneering work through its fellows program, in years past the Center’s influence in the area of organizations entailed summer institutes. In 2016, CASBS returned to this tradition with a summer institute on “Organizations and Their Effectiveness,” supported by funding from MIT, Stanford’s Dean of Research, the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, and the Hoover Institution.

The institute was co-directed by two scholars eminent in their own right – Bob Gibbons (Sloan School of Management and Economics, MIT; CASBS fellow 1994-95, 2014-15; at right in photo) and Woody Powell (Graduate School of Education and Sociology, Stanford; CASBS fellow 1986-87, 2008-09; at left in photo).

The intensive, two-week “boot camp” brought together 12 junior scholars representing political science, sociology, economics, communication, and management. It blended 20th-century classic literature and 21st-century frontier work from organizational economics, organizational culture, economic and organizational sociology, networks, ethnography, and public administration. Lectures, seminars, and presentations mixed with pizza-fueled problem-solving collaborative exercises, as well as walks to the nearby Dish and lively ping pong sessions.

The summer institute also included group dinners with special guests who shared insights and perspectives from a variety of organizational landscapes. These included Hal Varian, chief economist at Google; John Seely Brown, former chief scientist at Xerox PARC and current CASBS board member; Ed Hoffman, chief knowledge officer at NASA; Larry Prusak, founder of the Institute for Knowledge Management and currently lecturing at Columbia University; and Roberta Katz, former associate vice president for strategic planning at Stanford and now a CASBS board member and research affiliate.

One immediate aim of the institute was to bring participants out of narrow disciplinary silos and comfort zones – often imposed by the mindset of university departments – to promote a depth and breadth of thinking. With this goal squarely in mind, the institute provided the exposure, time, and space for enabling discovery in a safe intellectual atmosphere.

Based on exit interviews, it worked spectacularly well.

“When working on a particular research problem within a specific field, it’s easy to get caught-up in minutiae,” said Russ Funk, a sociologist from the University of Minnesota. “There’s something about discussing research problems with colleagues from different fields that pushes one to see which questions are important and which are less likely to move important conversations forward.”

Indeed, the summer institute instilled or renewed commitments to engaging in interdisciplinary scholarship in the service of gap-bridging and boundary-lowering.

“My view of interdisciplinary work in the social sciences…changed a lot as a result of this institute,” said Mike Powell, an economist from Northwestern University. “In the past, interdisciplinarity seemed often sold as an object in itself…rather than as a means to achieve an understanding of complex social phenomena by going beyond my own discipline’s boundaries.”

Northwestern colleague Ameet Morjaria received a similar take-home message.

“The workshop was an eye-opener,” he said. “Prior to it I had limited exposure and knowledge of how other social sciences pursued scholarly work on organizations. … I hope to internalize a more open-minded pursuit of questions and identify opportunities where I can leverage some of the insights from other fields.”

“The opportunities I have for this kind of sustained engagement with big ideas in a small group of extraordinary interlocutors are limited. I am deeply grateful for the chance to have been part of this institute and believe it will have multiple positive impacts on my scholarship along different dimensions and time horizons. I plan to continue many of the conversations that started during the workshop – at the individual/personal level with other participants, at the conceptual level through my research, and at the institutional level by seeking-out opportunities to extend and replicate aspects of the experience at my home university and other settings.”

- Aaron Shaw
Assistant professor of communications studies
Northwestern University

Such sentiments were shared in one form or another by all participants, including Stanford PhD candidate Christof Brandtner (sociology) and Stanford assistant professor Melissa Valentine (management science and engineering). The institute compelled Valentine to “crave the…creativity that can come from thinking hard across disciplines.” Equally important, it inspired her to encourage her own students “to think about the big important questions, to look higher up the tree of knowledge for where they are making their contribution, and to take organizations as a social phenomenon seriously for changing the world.”

This impact beyond the actual participants was intended and gets to the heart of the institute’s larger purpose – to revitalize and raise the intellectual bar in the field of organizations over a period of years. It seeks to harness the gains from trade from studying various types of organizations – firms, legislatures, hospitals, courts, churches, schools, social movements, and others – and spread learning from instances of successful “bright spots” within and among them.

The revitalization process starts here, at CASBS, with a small cohort of scholars that will grow not only through successive summer institutes, but through an infusion and diffusion of fresh conceptual and applied thinking in which the participants carry ideas, findings, and knowledge back to their respective institutions and personal academic networks and, ideally in the long run, to society at large.

“As a result of the Summer Institute I am starting to understand the field of organizations much more and to situate my work within it – to see where my research fits and what I can learn from other works to strengthen it,” said Consuelo Amat Matus, a political science PhD candidate at Yale University. “My scholarly career now has a strong link to a community of organizational scholars that I did not have before.”

The feedback during and after the institute was gratifying and affirming to its co-directors.

“Bob [Gibbons] and I, in collaboration with CASBS director Margaret Levi, want to raise the intellectual aspirations of what we hope will develop into a new cadre of cross-disciplinary, problem-solving scholars who attain fluency in a wider set of theories and methods – from field experiments to archival research to ethnography to simulations – in an array of organizational settings,” said co-director Woody Powell. “Truth be told, as co-directors we learned greatly from the participants, too. The experience influenced my own teaching and research considerably.”

The first year of the institute bodes well for this ambitious enterprise. Various 2016 participants found the experience “life-altering;” the cohort created an internal wiki page for comments, discussion, sharing of research, and general networking that, months later, continues to grow. There’s a buzz about annual reunions.

“I believe that the ties that formed during the two weeks will last and could lead to many interesting collaborations and future exchanges,” said Manuel Grieder, a post-doc at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

Some even expressed interest in returning as volunteers at future summer institutes. They may very well get that chance.

Once again co-directed by Gibbons and Powell, CASBS is pleased to offer the next Summer Institute on organizations and their effectiveness from July 10 to July 21, 2017. Fourteen fellowships covering tuition, room and board, and travel will be awarded. The deadline for applications is January 9, 2017. Learn more about the institute’s topics and purpose as well as application eligibility and procedures here.

It’s difficult to overstate the instrumental role of CASBS in this multi-year effort. The summer institute helped Russ Funk, for example, “see how tremendously valuable places like CASBS are for giving scholars shelter from day-to-day demands…and offering time to think about and develop higher impact work.”

And if the 2016 participants were not previously aware of the historic significance of the ground on which they tread, they certainly were by the end of the two-week institute.

“It’s enormously fitting that we undertake this enterprise at CASBS," said Gibbons. “It gives us two storied traditions: a substantive tradition in the study of organizations, and a methodological tradition in the integration of disparate (often silo-ized) disciplines. We hope to do both traditions justice by guiding a generation of emerging scholars as they prepare to tackle vital organizational questions and problems of social significance.”

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