At some point in time as a boy I noticed that I was a curious person. So when I climbed on trees, on rocks, or into caves I realized that most others would not go with me but rather remain cautious and stay behind. Despite a broken arm from falling down I found the discovery of new things exciting. To my parents’ chagrin and bewilderment, my excitement about discoveries tended to win over my parents’ cautions. Also early on, I began insisting on having the main say in my own personal affairs. Over time those two traits combined produced some interesting outcomes and experiences. Learning from failures I came to understand was both painful and powerful.
When I embarked on an industry career in my early twenties, my excitement about exploration, discovery, and self-determination were still dominant factors. At various organizations, for which I had worked over the years, I actively pursued assignments to investigate into unknown areas critical to the organization or to help break new ground. In1990 the Berlin Wall came down, which gave me an unforgettable opportunity in that regard: By that time, I was a regional manager with Apple in Europe. Apple’s Central European management asked me to take the lead and rapidly expand the company’s business into the virgin East German market. That mission was historical and a unique experience in my life. Real change and real transformation happened before my eyes, and, lo and behold, I had become a contributor in and to that process.
During the twenty-five years of an industry career in the information and communication technology sector, I held technical and managerial positions at firms such as Data General (now EMC), Apple, and ITT. Among the challenges at those companies was managing the pattern of rapid growth followed by sudden stagnation in those years. Quite a few managerial practices I had been exposed to in that context I found highly ineffective and ill informed regarding their long-term (mostly negative) and costly consequences.
In the mid-1990s I came across two studies, which influenced my decision to start over and pursue an academic career. In their now famous book “Built to last” Collins and Porras (Collins & Porras, 1994) presented compelling arguments why some organizations were ‘built to last,’ while others disappeared. Over a period of 50 years, those successful companies, which the authors labeled visionary companies, had produced a fifteen-fold higher market capitalization for an investor than the average Dow Jones firm. The same year ‘Built to last’ was published, Arie de Geus, the former head of strategic planning of Royal Dutch Shell, published a book under the title “The Living Company” (Geus, 1997) based on a longitudinal study on firms one hundred years and older, which independently and strongly confirmed the Collins and Porras results. I was electrified by the depth, richness, and insightfulness of both studies. Gradually, I began to realize how much better such research endeavors and the academic world suited my aspirations and deeper interests.
My dissertation focused on firm survival. Via a computer simulation model, I was able to reproduce many of the key dynamics in “visionary” and “living” companies described in those two studies, and I demonstrated how those dynamics reinforced sustainability or sudden death of organizations as observed in practice.
During my doctoral studies, I worked as a research associate and project manager at an applied research center in the North Eastern United States dedicated to the use of information technology in government. The public sector I found through the position at the research center was a fascinating and much more complex environment than I had ever imagined before. What impressed me the most in those projects, which we had with government agencies at the research center, was the determination and personal commitment of many public sector workers and civil servants to protecting and maintaining the public good. Before my first-hand exposure to and working relationships with real people in the public sector, I had had no clue of how strongly those public sector workers believed in their mission to serve the public for the better. I could highly identify myself with that mission and that passion.
Profoundly I began to realize that democratic governance is much more complex in practice than I had ever perceived it to be. Through this process and those insights, a new horizon of study had opened up for me. By the end of my doctoral studies, I had developed a second and separate research interest and a new passion in the study of electronic Government phenomena. In a way, my dissertation provided closure to my previous work life in the for-profit world, while the research position kindled my interest in this new domain of study.
Studying complex phenomena such as electronic Government I realized requires contributions from a number of academic disciplines in order to be effective. Although multi- and interdisciplinary research projects present numerous methodological challenges, they hold the promise for rich and relevant results. Historically, however, the academic system is mainly organized along disciplinary lines including its promotional scheme. When I sought a tenure-track position, I was fully aware of the potential tension between my research interests and the promotional requirements at many schools.
It was the scholarly community of the Information School (iSchool) at the University of Washington (UW) who warmly welcomed my multi- and interdisciplinary research agenda and explicitly encouraged my pursuing of relatively nascent fields of study. As a relatively novel academic endeavor itself, the iSchool emphasizes research impact and innovation in research. It recognizes that novel study domains and multi-/ interdisciplinary research endeavors need their unique publishing outlets, which they might have to develop in the first place. When I accepted the offer to join the iSchool at UW, I found that the school’s orientation and my own research interests were very well aligned in that regard.
Collins, J. C., & Porras, J. I. (1994). Built to last: Successful habits of visionary companies (1st ed.). New York: HarperBusiness.
Geus, A. d. (1997). The living company. Harvard Business Review, 75(2), 51-59.