As the winner of the Louis Pondy Award, I had the privilege of interviewing Alan Meyer, the OMT Distinguished Scholar of 2018. This was a wonderful opportunity to pick the brain of a great organization researcher. We talked about the organization and management theory field, the value of community in scholarship, internationalization, and a whole bunch of things. The interview transcript is available below and the full audio is available via this link:
OMT Is the Place to Be: An Interview with Alan Meyer
Pedro: Congratulations on your award. Let’s start at the beginning of your career. What motivated you to go to grad school in California and eventually become an organizational theorist?
Alan: I’ve always had a thing about universities, I love them! I had a great time studying economics at the University of Washington as an undergrad. My MBA wasn’t quite so much fun, but it was better than being drafted to Vietnam. From there I got a job teaching at Alabama State University, one of the historically black universities, and that was where I figured out that I had a lot of fun in the classroom. So that pushed me to apply for PhD programs. I mean, what could be better than being at Berkeley in the seventies. As far as why organization theory, I think that was really based on random encounters with some smart and sort of kind-hearted mentors. Lee Beach, a decision theory psychologist at the University of Washington, a guy named Charles Summer, who was the President of the Academy of Management long ago. And then Ray Miles and George Strauss at Berkeley, and Bill Starbuck. I don’t think organizations were attractive to me until I was well into my studies — I was on an exploratory mindset.
Pedro: You explored manofy different themes and approaches in your career. Is there an invisible red thread connecting them? Do you think that having a “coherent” research program is even desirable?
Alan: That’s a great question. If I’m candid, I was driven mostly by curiosity. In retrospect, it’s easy to find some ‘red threads.’ Starting with my dissertation, I was especially interested in organizations' reactions to upheavals that were going on in their environments. You know, technological discontinuities, the doctors’ strike, regulatory changes, those sorts of jolts. I figured out early on that although it messed up your research designs more often than not, very interesting things happen during those episodes when an organization gets knocked away from equilibrium. Along with that, I’d gotten increasingly interested in emergence and self-organizing and things like auto-catalysis and so forth. You know, only about maybe 90% of organization science is the science of organizing either at equilibrium, orreally, really close to it. But that other 10% is pretty interesting!
Pedro: In your talk at AOM 2018 (link here), you raised a number of interesting points. What do you hope OMT members took away from your presentation in Chicago?
Alan: In this talk, I represented and interpreted my career in terms of a social network that was built out of an Invisible College consisting of a set of 174 relationships that I’d formed with 112 different colleagues. About 90% of the people and the connections in my network have been drawn from the OMT division. And that was a big surprise to me. I also realized that all of my research, at least all of the one I'm proud of, was leveraged out of that social network. So, one thing that I hope people took away is a different, and maybe a deeper appreciation of why OMT matters and what it can do for them. I think we have something powerful going on here.
So, what makes OMT special? First, OMT sits at a sweet spot. It’s serving a function that no other division in the academy can do. It closes that structural hole between the micro hub with OB at its center and the macro hub which has strategy as its hub. We’re sitting right at the crossroads. A second thing that I discovered is that OMT is associated with greater longevity: on average, its members have longer tenure than any of the other divisions. So, people stay. And I think one of the reasons they remain is because OMT harbors this colony of cooperators, of people whoreally are kind-hearted, who have high standards and integrity.
Pedro: I wanted to dig a bit deeper into the idea of being at the intersection. What do you think it means in practical terms? Are we the bastion of a specific kind of theorizing or questions?
Alan: I think we are sitting at a meso-level. You know, as organizations sort of begin to dematerialize and disaggregate into global networks and so forth, we’re sort of uniquely positioned to, when necessary, go down a level of analysis and see the groups that are being plugged into and out of these networks. Or to pop up to the next higher level of analysis and look at those changes in the structure of the fields in which organizations are sitting. Organizations may be morphing from rigid, formal, bureaucratic types as per the classics, into what Jerry Davis calls a network of contracts. But whether you believe that or not, you're still sitting at a pretty sweet spot to be able to go where you need to go, to understand organizations and management.
Pedro: I am curious about your work concerning the African Academy of Management and indigenous scholarship — both timely in light of current talks about internationalization in OMT. What was the inspiration to engage in that?
Alan: Jim Walsh was the one who led the initiative to take the Academy to Africa and convened groups of about twenty-some young African scholars from across the continent, and put them in a boot camp-style situation similar to a typical OMT consortium. It was a very highly interactive and immersive experience. One remarkable thing to me was to discover that it was felt as a quasi-spiritual event by participants. I mean, I almost felt sort of cheap, rolling out little snippets of PhD 101, stuff that I’ve taught and used in workshops and classes over the years, as it was received there as a ‘sacred’ gift that produced tremendous insights. The participants were so ready! Just a small input had immediate, remarkable consequences. Yet that initiative has run its course, and it turned out to be challenging to find sponsorships for pan-Africa events. It probably would have been a smarter move if we wanted to sustain the program to focus on one nation at a time.
Pedro: This makes me think of the Invisible College. In academia, our collaborations are usually unscripted, and we work with people we are familiar with … but this can exclude minorities and people from non-traditional backgrounds. So, do you think there can be a dark side to it?
Alan: In short, yes, there is a dark side, I think. Although I don’t have anything to say that is close to a solution, but I honestly do feel that OMT harbors a lot of people whose values are very inclusionary. It is a place of social inclusion in my opinion, more so than some of the more rigidly pragmatic fields, or those based on skillsets and tools or do not see the rationale for being particularly sensitive to the kinds of issues that you're raising there. In short, I would say: stay in OMT, and you’re less likely to be excluded! There has been a lot of work by Emily Block and many others, including Marc-David Seidel trying to figure out how to make everyone feel at home and welcomed in OMT. The other positive initiative that comes to mind is the one Andy Van de Ven structured about indigenous engaged scholarship. But there’s no question that I had a privileged point of access to a pretty sweet set of colleagues, that somebody in Africa or Brazil, you know, or Peoria, Indiana, doesn’t necessarily have.
Pedro: Thank you for this reflection, and I agree that on/off-program initiatives may bring people together in a unique way and create space for ‘random' encounters beyond one's network.
Alan: I guess the other bright spot is that as people go through their academic careers and arrive at a more senior position, they take on a service orientation to the academy as an organization. I guess the action implication here is to, first of all, expect that and nurture it among colleagues, that transition from being more output-focused and research-focused to being more service oriented and a little bit more reflective.
Pedro: You probably accumulated a lot of lessons in your career. What would you tell your younger self that might be relevant to junior OMTers?
Alan: What advice would I give myself? There are things that I did not figure out until later, that would have been great to know. The first thing, if I could put a bug in my ear back when I was 25 or 26, I would say: ‘Hey, you know, congratulations, you have just stepped into the best job on the planet!’ Think about it. We get to design our jobs ourselves; we can study whoever, whatever we like, almost anything or anyone that arouses our curiosity. We also get to pick ourown co-workers, and that’s something that’s not quite so often appreciated. Try to give me an example of a job where you can decide who your closest colleagues are going to be? There are various strategies; mine has been, because I've never been really productive in the volume sense, I haven’t had a lot of time to build a social life and research career, and so I’ve made a practice of working with my friends and getting friendly with the people that I'm collaborating with. And this has been a tremendous work-life integration because our families grew up together and we seek each other out for fun, as well as for academic research.
A second piece of advice I would tell myself is to avoid the rooky mistake of believing that research and scholarship are solitary pursuits. What I’ve learned, fortunately relatively quickly, is that scholarship and research are incredibly social. And you know, the whole exercise of deconstructing and reconstructing my network, indeed drove that home for me. A related rooky mistake of seeing scholarship as solitary is thinking that my identity as a scholar is going to take shape in sort of a natural, organic fashion. That it would be some function of my values, my beliefs, the skills that I’ve developed. Once again, totally wrong. At least looking backward at it, I’d think that a young person has the opportunity to carve out an academic identity, and to change it when necessary, when desirable, when you're bored, or when some new intriguing opportunity presents itself, you have that kind of control.
A third lesson — that I was lucky to learn early on because of the people I was studying with is building a field research component into every study that you do. I'm not a particularly extroverted person, but being a field researcher gives you the license to go into people’s worlds, to collect data from them by interacting with them on their own turf. You have to understand what they care about to keep them engaged in the conversation, you have to learn their jargon so that you can talk to them, and in the process, it opens windows into just really incredibly fascinating occupational worlds.
Another painfully-learned lesson was to be compulsive about craftsmanship. That means things like, do not submit your paper prematurely, use your colleagues as a sounding board. When you've got something written, volunteer to give a talk about it. When it’s written, circulate your draft and persuade people that you do not want them to pull their punches, and then treatand every misinterpretation of what you've written, as evidence that you still haven’t figured out how to communicate it correctly.
And I think the last point is, you don’t have to trade off quality for quantity. Believe me. There are many people in our field that do care about quality, they're looking for it, they know it when they see it, they're prepared to reward it. So, your goals can be not to get published, but to get read and get noticed and to make a compelling case for your position. And you know, life’s too short, you need to give yourselves those kinds of intrinsic rewards, as opposed to succumbing to the pressure to slice your data thinly and multiply your publications and so forth.
Pedro: We talked about the past and reflected a bit on your path. So, what about the future? What are the trends that you see and what do you think the future holds for OMT?
Alan: I think it holds some real disruption. There’s a narrative in the social sciences and in organization theory that’s in pretty heavy rotation. Academic publishing is in shambles. There’s all this p-hacking going on – that was never a problem when I was a kid. There’s the replication crisis in psychology; there’s been this massive surge in article retractions in our field, as well as in medicine. And authors are getting pretty testy; they're complaining about editors that are hijacking their articles and almost becoming complicit co-authors, that reviewers are forcing them to rewrite their hypotheses.
Once again, I would invoke OMT as I think of the first layer of protection against being infected by some of those nasty viruses. But I think a good editor is going to increasingly have to be prepared to be disrupted. For me, a good editor is somebody who acts like an author is his or her social and intellectual peer. And that sounds kind of obvious, but it’s not. I'm talking about somebody that writes comments as though he or she was speaking to the author personally. One of my favorite quotes is from H.G. Wells, who said: “no passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.” So editors need to learn how to curb their enthusiasm for doing that.
But maybe even more important is to realize that academic publishing is, as I said, on the cusp of being disrupted. You know, paper journals are disappearing, authors are self-publishing at websites, like SSRN and Research Gate. We’ve got these alternative reputation systems that are popping up on social media platforms, like Mendeley and LinkedIn. I would not want to own an academic journal. I think they’ve extracted surplus value from the research and publication process at too high a rate for too long, and I’d go short on academic journals right now. It’s going to bereally interesting to watch what happens to promotion in tenure reviews and journals. Because they’veof had sort of a conspiracy to slow down open sciencedoesn’t – you know, it serves both of their interests to maintain the status quo. But times are changing.
Pedro: Thank you for this great chat! It was enlightening. I am sure the OMT community will appreciate your insights.
Alan: My pleasure.