Christine Beckman Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange
Christine Beckman Interview
moderated by Paul DiPerna
Christine...I understand that you completed your Ph.D. in
Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
home What was your graduate school experience like?
interviews index There were two sides of graduate school.
On the upside, I had great opportunties to
work with a number of faculty who had
subscribe to email updates different methodological and theoretical
approaches. I actively sought out
opportunities to work with a wide range of
people on the premise that the breadth
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would improve the quality of my thinking and
eventual scholarship. In academia, I think Beckman's Bio
this is particularly useful because, although
Paul's bio and projects the profession encourages and rewards depth in a particular topic, I
Paul's email admire and learn the most from scholars that know work across
boundaries. Some of those early research opportunties resulted in
publications but others were just good opportunties to see how very
comments policy smart people thought and went about their work.
was really learning (for example, after my first and only econometrics
class). Parts of graduate school were really hard. In the down
moments, my husband would point out the changes in how I thought
about the world (I talked differently and didn't even realize it). Those
discussions helped me to remember that this was right for me. On
balance, it was an intellectually stimulating time. I developed
friendships and co-author relationships that have helped sustain me
What were some of the major influences - events, people,
readings, etc - that got you interested in organizational behavior?
I was fortunate to be an undergraduate at Stanford...; In my second
year, I took at class from Jim March called "Organizational Decision
Making". March is both a great academic and an inspirational teacher.
He gave engaging lectures at 8 in the morning to a packed auditorium,
and he learned everyone's name. The class challenged the way I had
always thought about the world -- that perhaps it wasn't a completely
rational place ruled by consequential logic.
I took another class from March the next year where we talked
about leadership while reading War and Peace, Don Quixote, and
Othello, and I was hooked. I stayed to earn a master's in Sociology,
and March was my advisor. He encouraged me to think about going to
graduate school, and I did. He told me not to go to Stanford but in the
end I did.
What do you see as some of the biggest challenges for graduate
students today, and what advice might you have for those who want to
pursue a doctorate?
The practical challenge is the loss of income for quite a few years.
It's a huge commitment. The intellectual challenge is learning from
faculty and peers in one class or one project or another -- and then
having to put it all together and synthesize it. There were two other
graduate students in my cohort, and we spent a lot of time talking and
arguing about how the field fit together. More generally, it's important to
develop a support system of people that understand what you're going
through (even if it's someone from a different discipline). My parents
still don't understand what I do, and I found it really helpful to have
close friends that had gone through or were going through the same
process and could offer encouragement.
As for advice... before embarking upon a doctorate, I would first
encourage students to do research about the field and the schools
they are interested in. If you read the academic journals of the field and
find them uninteresting, that's not a good sign. The journals don't have
to be completely intelligible -- because there is a lot of jargon in
academic work -- but they should be interesting. It also helps to be
sure about your choice (as sure as you can be without having done it).
Being a graduate student is a lot of hard work and it requires a very
high level of self-motivation.
When it gets to dissertation time, I have advice for picking a topic.
One of my mentors, Joanne Martin, had me write a dozen sentences.
Each sentence summarized the findings from a potential dissertation
topic. I could share that with a variety of people - without them needing
to invest a great deal of time -- and get a sense of what might be
interesting and valuable as a topic.
Do you have a particular regimen for your work, such as launching
projects, publications, attending conferences, teaching lesson plans,
reading academic journal and popular periodicals, time with students?
I work best when I have time to focus on a project. I try to arrange
my teaching schedule so that I can have time without teaching to
immerse myself in research.
I always have too many projects going at once hopefully projects at
different stages. Right now, I have one paper under review, one paper
that is in the final stages before being submitted, one paper that is in
the data analysis stage, and several data collection and data cleaning
efforts going. It's difficult because I work better on one project at a time
but I try to dedicate a day or an afternoon to a project before shifting
gears. I also like to have deadlines internally or externally imposed that
motivate me to work harder.
I like smaller conferences to try out ideas, and I enjoy giving
colloquia at different universities. It's a treat to have a room of people
listening to you talk about your work and offering their ideas about what
you could do better.
I'm still trying to figure out a particular regimen and looking at my
senior colleagues and peers to see how they organize their time. This
is a tough question! My current challenge is trying to carve out time to
reflect and think about I would like my next project to look like.
I enjoy collaborating with people. I believe in collaboration as a
means of increasing the diversity and quality of ideas -- and it's more
fun too. In the beginning these were collaborations that began in
graduate school. I'm at a point now where I'm developing new ideas
through my interactions with graduate students. We find common
points of interest and a project emerges from those conversations.
Working with graduate students has been a generative and engaging
process, and it encourages me to think about issues more broadly.
Breadth has costs, both because it's harder to be known for
something in the academy when you're broad and because there's a
fairly diverse set of literatures that I need to keep up with, but it keeps
About a year ago, you co-authored "The Influence of Founding
Team Company Affiliations on Firm Behavior" in the Academy of
My understanding is that the central conclusions were founding
team prior affiliations and experiences have a great impact on the
paths and decisions a new firm will take. The more diverse the
experiences within the founding team, the more "exploratory" and
"exploitative" their behavior. I believe another conclusion was that team
members' prior affiliations can predict firm growth.
Is that on target? Can you summarize that project?
It's close to right. The paper you refer to was published in the
August 2006 issue of the Academy of Management Journal. It is one
paper in a series of papers using a sample of Silicon Valley high
technology companies that were founded in the late 1980s and early
1990s (see below).
The paper looks at the affiliations of founding teams; that is, I was
interested in what companies the founders had worked in before
starting the entrepreneurial company. I found that when founders
came from a variety of different prior companies, or had diverse prior
company affiliations, they were more likely to start a company that had
an exploration or innovation-based strategy, and they were more likely
to change their initial founding idea over time. Founders that came
from the same prior company, or had common prior company
affiliations, were more likely to start a company that had an exploitation
or incremental strategy, and they were faster at bringing the first
product to market.
The findings are consistent
".. research with research that suggests
suggests demographic or functional
demographic or heterogeneity on a team can
functional promote innovation, but I focus
heterogeneity on diversity that in prior
on a team can employers. When founders
promote have worked at different
innovation..." companies, they have unique
information, contacts and
perspectives that encourage innovation and creativity. In contrast,
shared affiliations give founders a shared language, perspective and
way of doing things that allows them to move quickly to market and
incrementally innovate. I also find that founding teams with both
common and diverse affiliations are likely to grow; thus, there are
advantages to creating a founding team with both common and
diverse prior experiences.
One of the contributions of the paper is to focus on a source
diversity affiliations or prior employers that has not received much
attention. Another contribution is to link the composition of the founding
team to the strategy of the firm.
Can you describe (if possible) the steps taken by you and co-
authors in that research?
This paper came out of a large-scale research project that I have
worked on for many years called the Stanford Project on Emerging
Companies (SPEC). The sample was drawn from a variety of high
technology industries in Silicon Valley (i.e., telecommunications and
networking, manufacturing, biotechnology and medical devices,
research, computer hardware and software, and semiconductors) and
examines over 170 entrepreneurial companies. These firms were
less than 10 years old at the time of the first round of interviews in
1994, and they had at least 10 employees.
The faculty leaders of this project were Mike Hannan and Jim
Baron. My colleague from graduate school, Diane Burton, was
involved in this project from the inception and it provided the basis for
her dissertation. Diane is now at MIT, and we have co-authored a
series of papers using this sample of firms. We collected additional
data on the career histories of the founders and top managers
involved with these firms from founding through 2001.
It was an intensive data collection that we did over a period of six
years, with lots of help. From these career histories, we coded the
affiliations of the founding and top management team (we have a
paper forthcoming with Charles O'Reilly in the Journal of Business
Venturing that also looks at affiliations of the entire top management
team over time; and we have a 2002 paper with Jesper Sorensen that
examines founder prior affiliations with prominent firms). Although
Diane was not a co-author on the AMJ paper, we worked together on
the collection of the data and she has been a co-author on every other
paper that I have been part of using this data.
As for steps in coming up with the idea, I outlined the basic idea
while on a long drive with my family (my husband was driving!). I
wanted to use the data to look at issues related to organizational
learning, which is a topic I am very interested in. In talking about how
organizations learn, I felt that learning came not only from what and
whom you know but from where you come.
I was fortunate to have a good editor at AMJ, Christina Shalley, and
some terrific reviewers that encouraged me to develop my ideas
further. They were critical of the initial manuscript but constructive in
their suggestions. I worked hard to think deeply about, and then
address both theoretically and empirically, the issues that they raised.
Several colleagues were also generous with their time and read drafts
of the paper.
Are there Internet or ICT-focused companies that provide good
examples reflecting your conclusions?
I have not done any work on Internet companies. The Silicon Valley
companies were founded before the internet boom. I think there are
many innovative companies that are diverse on a number of
dimensions such as functional background, affiliations or race. These
are companies that validate the general ideas in the study.
We've briefly discussed that you have a young family.. Your
daughter was born five weeks before your first academic job interview!
How do you balance being a mother and wife with your teaching
and research work in academia?
Being a wife isn't so hard, but being a mom is a lot of work. I often
have graduate students ask me about the best time to have children.
The truth is that there is no good time -- which means you should have
children when it makes sense for the rest of your life. In retrospect,
having children during graduate school would have been great... but
my husband and I weren't living in the same city! In graduate school,
you have the problem of too little income; in the beginning of your
career, you have the problem of needing to get publications out with
some speed; later in your career, people risk having fertility problems.
We are fortunate in that we have enough resources to have lots of
help.; In the most difficult early years, I outsourced everything I could
think of (grocery shopping, house cleaning, childcare). My goal was to
make sure that as many of my non-working moments as possible
were focused on my children. I didn't have much time for myself or my
husband, but I survived. One of the benefits of academia is that there
is flexibility, so I was often able to move things around to meet my
children's schedules. That said, just last week I needed to have a
babysitter come early in the morning to walk the kids to school
because I had an early morning meeting. My husband's job is less
flexible, and he travels a lot, so I end up doing more than my share of
juggling. I don't think there is a balance but there are a series of trade-
offs. Every day I assess what's most important and make trade-offs
How is Irvine, CA, for raising a family?
Irvine is a great place to raise a family; in fact, I grew up in Irvine
and my parents still live here. However, for my first six years at UCI I
commuted from Los Angeles (where my husband was working), so I
didn't get to take much advantage of the location. The 50 miles from
my house to my office sometimes took over two hours to travel. I was
very glad to move a year and a half ago (my husband changed jobs
and now he commutes). Irvine is a very easy, safe place to live, with
very good public schools. It is a perfect place to live right now when I
have two elementary age children. I miss the energy of a more urban
environment but Irvine is great for a family. It's close to beautiful
beaches and hiking too.
If you could list your favorite 2-3 essential readings in organizational
theory/analysis, what would they be and why?
This is a timely question because I just finished teaching a PhD
course on organizational theory. So I have just finished re-reading
many of my favorite articles and books. My favorite classic is Richard
Cyert and James March, The Behavioral Theory of the Firm. The book
raises so many of the critical issues that we continue to wrestle with
today. I find John Padgett and Christopher Ansell's 1993 article on
"Robust Action and the Medici" in the American Journal of Sociology to
be an inspiring piece of research. The data is fascinating and the story
beautifully told. It reminds me of the value of careful historical work and
nuanced analyses of patterns of interaction. I'll stop at two but the
syllabus for my PhD course is on my website.
I don't know if you've come across the group blog called
orgtheory.net, but the bloggers -- four professors of sociology, and one
professor of management -- do a nice job of bridging academic work
to a broader audience. Often times they connect concepts in
organizational theory and past research in organizational studies to
Recently they described the field of organizational studies as being
a field in flux and one (my take) having a kind identity crisis within
academia.. (in this post they cite Jim March)
How would you assess the state of organizational studies?
I am familiar with orgtheory.net, and I think it's a terrific site with
many thought provoking posts. As for the identity crisis in organization
theory, in the last class of my PhD course this quarter we talked about
exactly this issue. There have been a number of articles written in the
last couple years suggesting that the field is adrift or changing in
potentially problematic ways (Walsh, Meyer and Schoonhoven, 2006;
Gerald Davis, 2006; W. Richard Scott, 2004; as well as some papers
with Jim March as you note).
I am of two minds about this.
On the one hand, these are thought provoking discussions but not
particularly distressing. These types of debates occur with some
regularity (Jeff Pfeffer, John Van Mannen and others engaged in some
heated debate in 1995 about the advancement of organization theory).
These are not discussions to get hot and bothered about. As one of
my students said, and some of the discussion on orgtheory.net would
support (and in a much more eloquent manner than I am here),
perhaps this is just about some of the first and second generation
scholars concerned that their theories are not getting enough
attention. I'm not quite that cynical. However, I do appreciate the
plurality of opinions in the organization theory community, and,
although frustrating at times, I think it more interesting and reflective of
reality than some of the other disciplines. But it does mean there is
regular angst about where we are heading and whether we're going in
the same direction.
On the other hand, there are some real concerns. The move of
jobs from sociology departments to business schools (although the
orgtheory.net is run by some very good organizational sociologists still
in sociology) has led to a change in the types of questions that are
asked. And, more recently, there is a tension in business schools as
organization theory jobs become less prevalent. Jobs for new faculty
members, except at the elite schools, tend to be in organizational
behavior or strategy. At the MBA level, many schools are dropping
their organization theory classes. Although the classes often still exist
at the undergraduate level, there is a question at the MBA level about
what practical things organizational theorists can teach. And in a
business school, without a clear application to the real world, there is
a risk of being marginalized. In order to find jobs, our doctoral students
need to think of themselves as organizational theorists
andentrepreneurship or innovation scholars; organizational behavior
scholars; strategy researchers. I worry about that.
I'm part of the Organization and Management Theory (OMT)
division of the Academy of Management, and this is a topic we talked
about at our last meeting. We talked about how to be clearer that OMT
brings critical ideas to MBA education such as managing innovation,
leading strategic change, understanding social networks, building
sustainable organizations, and institutional entrepreneurship. The
connections are there but they sometimes get lost.
Currently you're working on some research that I find very timely --
examining how Navy sailors connect and keep in touch with their
family and friends by way of email.
Can you describe the project?
How did you get the data?
I am part of a group called CRITO, the Center for Research on
Information Technology and Organizations, and one of the advisory
board members of CRITO works for the Department of Defense. The
advisory board member was very interested in how email influenced
the morale of soldiers and whether soldiers intended to re-enlist. I
agreed to examine that question because I was interested in how
email technology was shaping relationships within and outside the
I first proposed the project in
early 2003, and I received a small
grant to interview a number of Navy
personnel. The advisory board
member put me in touch with a
retired Commander who helped
recruit interview subjects. I
collected the data with a graduate
student and several marketing
professors (the marketing
professors were interested in how
consumer decisions are made over email), and we interviewed about
20 sailors who had just returned from an overseas deployment in 2003
and 2004. We also interviewed their spouses because we were
interested in how they used email in their relationships. We asked
questions about the frequency of email use, their access onboard
ship, the topics of email conversations, and we asked people to
compare email with other forms of communication.
For the questions important to the CRITO advisory board member,
we learned that morale was improved because of email but that
intention to re-enlist was not (among those that we interiewed). We
found that email was a lifeline for sailors and spouses alike -- it is a
critical means of communication. Email keeps sailors from feeling as
socially isolated -- they are part of consumer decisions, celebrating
holidays, disciplining children, and paying bills even when they are
thousands of miles apart.
The extent of involvement in daily life is truly amazing. Sailors
talked about emailing their spouse 10 times a day while deployed.
This makes it easier for sailors to integrate back into thei! r life off the
ship. But the physical isoloation remained a very real consideration as
people considered whether the Navy was going to be there long-term
Other than the reduction of feelings of social isolation, email
reinforced many of the basic aspects of the Navy, including the
hierarchy and the culture. We found greater lateral communication
within the Navy through email. However, the Navy hierarachy
remained strong. In addition, despite the increased difficulty of
monitoring communication, sailors and spouses alike had largely
internalized and accepted the limitations of the technology (such as
limited access to email during certain times during the deployment
and the restriction of sharing certain types of informatition over email).
So the culture of the Navy supported email use in ways that were
generally consistent with the overall values and goals of the
This is still a work in progress, and I'm working with my graduate
student, Taryn Stanko, to continue to analyze our interviews. It has
been a very fun project.
What do you plan to do with your research findings?
In terms of connecting with a broader audience?
Much of the work that I have been doing with Diane Burton, that we
discussed earlier, I see resonating with entrepreneurs. I'd like to
synthesize the findings from our last several papers in a journal that
speaks directly to managers. The organizational theory aspect of
entrepreneurship is still in the development phase, and I think we have
a lot to say to entrepreneurs about the process of designing and
growing an organization. That's what I'm thinking about at the
I understand CRITO is pretty influential in the field of social
How does CRITO function as an organization? Is it fairly
decentralized in terms of setting research agendas and coordinating
CRITO operates as a partnership between academics and industry
board members. The industry advisory board meets twice a year, and
faculty propose new research proposals during those meetings. If the
proposal is something that the board agrees would be useful, they
agree to fund the project. There is also a place in one of the meetings
for pre-proposals (I have forgotten the formal name of these). This is
a chance to float an idea, get feedback, and learn what to add or how
to change the proposal so that it has a better chance of being funded
in the subsequent meeting. During those meetings, they also bring in
outside speakers and have project updates from faculty that have
previously been funded.
How are CRITO's research and findings normally disseminated to
The CRITO staff puts together a newsletter and updates the
website regularly. They're very good at encouraging the researchers
to summarize our work using language that is more readable than the
typical academic journal article.
Do you have any upcoming plans this year that you are especially
looking forward to?.. could be professionally and/or with regards to
I'm looking forward to sitting down and reflecting on what I've
learned and what I still want to know about how organizations operate.
In Built to Last by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, they talk about an
organization's Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHADs). People need
them too, and I'm looking forward to revisiting mine and figuring out
where I need to turn next. Between the race for tenure and raising two
little kids, I haven't had much time to revisit what I want to accomplish.
An introspective person by nature, I am looking forwarding to
indulging in some thinking about my future research. It's an exciting
prospect and it reminds me of what a great profession this is spending
my time trying to answer questions that I hope will make the world a
better place (in some small way).
May 10, 2007
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