It’s All Connected: Getting to the Heart of Strategic Management and Organization

    UAlberta Business PhDs are learning to connect the dots under the mentorship of some of the world’s most influential research professors

    By Mike Kendrick on October 16, 2017

    What do digital journal systems have in common with Tanzanian villages? At first glance, the topics may seem worlds apart, but to business researchers, these and other disparate ideas are closely connected by the threads of organizational management. At the Alberta School of Business, students from around the globe have flocked to the PhD program to work with world-renowned researchers like Royston Greenwood. Through their collaboration, these researchers are transforming the way that businesses and organizations approach real-world problems, advancing our understanding of the underlying forces that tie institutions together.

    Greenwood, alongside fellow School of Business professor Michael Lounsbury, have been a part of the prestigious Thomson Reuters Highly Cited Researchers list two years in a row, pinning their work as some of the world’s most influential in their fields. In turn, that’s drawn the business world’s brightest minds to Alberta as they’ve worked to complete their degrees under the mentorship of the world-renowned business professors that call UAlberta home.

    Laura Claus (3rd from right) works with locals in Tanzania to help successfully implement foreign aid programs.

    Greenwood has spent his career passionate about the theoretical perspectives that link these seemingly unrelated concepts and challenges. He says the key to succeeding at organizational management relies on understanding the social and cultural factors that shape how people behave. By examining behaviour at the organizational level, researchers can create theoretical frameworks that allow them to better predict behaviours in unrelated contexts, and design solutions to entirely different problems.

    “Psychologists talk about ‘knowing your rat,’” Greenwood says. “I feel exactly the same when people study organizations. Get inside and understand it. Look at big problems and big challenges. How do you change taken-for-granted institutionalized norms and ways of behaving?”

    It’s this perspective that’s inspired PhD researchers like Laura Claus, Evelyn Micelotta and Asma Zafar to study under Greenwood’s mentorship and gain better understandings of their own specific fields of research. Despite the seemingly unrelated connections between their respective areas of study, both have hailed Greenwood’s influence as immeasurably profound in the way that they approach organizational challenges.

    Originally from Germany, Claus completed her undergraduate degree at the University of San Diego on a tennis scholarship before pursuing her Master’s at Cambridge. This is where she met Greenwood, who invited her to the University of Alberta as a visiting scholar to work under his direction as she studies social innovation in developing countries.

    “Royston is an amazing mentor for a lot of people at Cambridge and Oxford,” says Claus, whose research has taken her to poverty-stricken regions of Africa and Southeast Asia as she investigates challenging issues like child marriage, slavery, and abduction. Through her research under Greenwood’s supervision, she’s working to create solutions that empower institutions to effectively address those issues sustainably and self-sufficiently at the local level.

    Claus is drawn to the systems of western social enterprise in these regions, and the underlying issues behind why they can fail to meet the needs of the local populations they’re trying to help. This summer, her work earned her the OMT Best International Paper Award and the Carolyn Dexter Award at the 2017 annual meeting of the Academy of Management in Atlanta, Georgia, for her paper on the challenges facing social enterprises in developing countries.

    From a strategic management perspective, Claus says that, when foreign intervention fails, it’s often because western organizations underestimate the existing institutional arrangements and cultural traditions that are already in place.

    “What we find is that oftentimes in these contexts, you find legacies of power that linger on that are very difficult for a western organizations to overcome and navigate,” Claus says, pointing to Tanzania’s collectivist, socialist organizational structures that can be unfamiliar to western aid organizations. The legacy of colonialism continues to define these regions, she says, which creates generations-deep traditions that make many locals leery of foreign intervention.

    Evelyn Micelotta came to the Alberta School of Business to complete her research on how digital publication systems are changing the way academics share information

    Through her work with Greenwood, Claus says she’s gained the ability to approach these challenges through a theoretical lens, distancing herself when firsthand intervention may hinder developmental efforts, while still building and maintaining strong interpersonal relationships with the individuals she and other organizations set out to help.

    “It's a very fine balance because on the one hand you want to be relatable. I have to put myself into their perspective and I try to understand their suffering. And then on the other side, it's always valuable to step out of it, because in order to analyze the bigger problems or the bigger issue you have to step away, so that you can see what it is that’s causing these problems and find the solutions to help.”

    The ability to take a big-picture, abstract approach has also benefitted Evelyn Micelotta in the course of her own research at the Alberta School of Business. Micelotta spent six years studying under Greenwood and Lounsbury as she worked towards completing her PhD on institutional change in the academic publishing industry.

    When Greenwood invited her to study in Canada, she says her desire to conduct research in the “North American style” made University of Alberta a “no-brainer” choice. Since graduating in 2015, she’s become an Assistant Professor in Strategic Management at the Anderson School of Management, University of New Mexico, and says the mentorship she received at the Alberta School of Business has been instrumental to her career path.

    “I have profound respect and immense gratitude for Royston. As I said, when I entered the program at the UoA, my training, research-wise, was very different,” Micelotta says. “I had to learn how to conduct rigorous research and, critically, how to present my findings in a concise and compelling way. Royston was a tough but wonderful mentor in both these aspects. He taught me how to ‘theorize’ — the famous idea of looking at something from 3,000 feet; he taught how to write succinctly in English (I am Italian and we can be pretty wordy); he taught how to critique fairly and constructively other people’s work; he also taught me how fun academia can be, when you love what you do and you have passionate people to share your thoughts with.”

    Through her work, Micelotta has championed the concept of Open Access in academic publishing, focusing on how technology is a fundamental driver in new and alternative means of sharing information. As the field has matured through the advent of digital library systems, her work has revealed the glacial pace at which progress has unravelled, and has pushed for more effective methods of academic information gathering and collaboration.

    “We have seen only a fraction of the changes that could have been possible, despite strong mobilization from members of the library and academic community. Nowadays, traditional publishers have coopted the Open Access model and the academic world finds itself challenged by the mushrooming of ‘predatory publishers.’ I focused on unpacking these dynamics of maintenance and resistance.”

    While Claus and Micelotta have focused their research on global issues, Asma Zafar’s work targets a more focused field, tackling social issues at the local level, with the aim of working with organizations to improve the lives of the less fortunate.

    Asma Zafar is working with organizations in downtown Edmonton to improve the way they support the city’s homeless and vulnerable populations.

    As Edmonton’s landscape has transformed in the last decade, rapid urban development is putting pressure on local organizations that offer support and resources to the city’s under-privileged populations. Zafar is primarily interested in the impact that the opening of Edmonton’s new Rogers Place arena has had on local organizations’ abilities to continue to support these populations. When considering organizational behaviour and social issues, she says it’s important to understand what’s taking place on the local level to better address those issues with a sense of immediacy.

    “The question that I’m asking is how do organizations manage their identity in response to territorial threats?” she says. “Due to the recent revitalization, the clients have felt that there is a push on their space, but also [the organizations have] faced the same circumstances.”

    As Zafar is in the midst of completing her research, she says that she still has much to learn from her findings, but the professors and students at the Alberta School of Business have had a profound impact on her own understandings.

    “I have experienced tremendous growth during the past three to four years that I’ve spent here. The people working, I not only cite them, but just from interacting with them, I’ve learned so much on an everyday basis,” she says.

    “I’ve really experienced tremendous learning. Their work has informed me, their methods have informed me, the way they think has informed my thinking, so they are a great influence. Especially if you want to do work on organizations that look at [how they are] embedded in a broader societal context, in Canada, the University of Alberta is the place to go.”

    Claus echoes these sentiments, speaking to the work she’s done under Greenwood’s mentorship, and how his influence has helped shaped the way she approaches her own research.

    “Just learning from him, how you can analytically approach some of these issues was so valuable. He really gives you the feeling that you can truly make an impact by seeing certain contexts through a theoretical lens, so that you can take some of the findings from one context and abstract them to a higher level. Then you can say something about social change more generally, not just looking at one very specific area.”