Interview with Prof Kevin C Desouza

Prof Kevin C Desouza is on the faculty of the Information School at the University of Washington. He is a Director and founding faculty member of the Institute for Innovation in Information Management (I3M) and the Institute for National Security Education and Research, both housed at the University of Washington. His most recent book is Managing Knowledge Security (Kogan Page, 2007). In addition, he has published over 100 articles in practitioner and academic journals, and frequently keynotes at international academic conferences and industry conventions. Dr Desouza has advised major international corporations and government organizations worldwide on strategic management issues ranging from knowledge management, to competitive intelligence, and crisis management. He is a fellow at the Royal Society of Arts… And… he only got his doctorate in 2006.

We had an opportunity to interview him. The first “answer” is a quick briefing about Prof Desouza from more of a personal side, which I learned from informal discussions and talking with his friends. Thought they are interesting enough to share as a warm-up.

  • Nationality: Indian, Grew Up in Doha, Qatar. Moved to the US in 1996, has traveled to over 25 countries…
  • Enjoys rugby, football (not American but the real football), and wine…
  • Spends his free time learning more about the art of wine making and touring wine regions of the world…and enjoys watching rugby and football….
  • Best time to do writing and intensive research work: between 4 AM and 9 AM…when the mind is fresh…
  • Does not have Internet or Cable TV at home…When he gets home he relaxes by enjoying good food, wine, and the company of good friends…
  • Is surprised to be a “star” and is humbled by the recognition. He argues: “There are many other individuals who have a more impressive profile than myself.”

Now the “official questions”… PS: Thank you, dear site visitors, for suggesting questions for the interview.

Can you talk a bit about your current research projects?

Sure. I am currently pursuing two related research streams. The first is to get a deeper understanding of how organizations innovate and manage their intellectual assets. This research stream draws heavily on my prior work in the area of knowledge management. The focus of this work is to understand the process of organizational innovation. I am particularly interested in understanding how organizations secure their competitive advantages from innovation by (1) superior customer engagement, (2) effective integration with business partners, and (3) embedding security programs to protect their intellectual assets.

The second research steam seeks to examine information-based organizational fragility. Information management can make or break an organization. Unless an organization manages its information and knowledge in an optimal manner, it is likely that it will operate inadequately. In this research project, I am developing a conceptual framework that examines how the lack of robust information and knowledge management practices at various levels (the information sources, analytics used to process information, interpretive methods applied for sensemaking, and the calibration of actions) leads to breakdowns within organizations and in networked settings (i.e. collaborations across organizations). To date, I have examined breakdowns in several cases including: (1) the US Intelligence Community’s failure to estimate Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) capabilities, (2) the current challenges of the USIC as it re-designs itself to operate as a public sector network under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and (3) stakeholder interactions that led to the collapse of the Seattle Monorail Project. The goal of this work is to develop both applied and theoretical knowledge on information-based organizational fragility.

Each of these projects is aimed at contributing new theoretical insights, while also designing applied knowledge that can be appreciated and utilized by executives. The first project will arrive at new methods and frameworks to manage innovation in organizations. The second project will provide an understanding of the impacts of information and knowledge management on organizational fragility. The findings from this project can be used by crisis managers to plan for adverse effects, by IS managers to make business cases for investments in IT and conduct process improvements, etc. The second project has already received seed funding from government sources, and once we do the initial work, I am hoping to get private enterprises involved.

Can you share your views on how you interact with organizations and get them to participate in your research?

As an applied field, we have an obligation to take our stakeholders seriously when we conduct research. To my frustration (and I know that I will upset a few people by saying this), the IS field has a long way to go in this regard. Most of the research that gets published in our most respected journals seldom makes an impact to practice. Theory development and theory testing seems to be the predominant focus of many. I believe that theory is important but it should not be viewed as the end product of a research project. Theory is a means to an end. The end should be developing value-added practices for our stakeholders (business, government, non-for-profits, and society at-large). If we do not impact society, we are wasting valuable resources and energies. Only through making positive impacts on society, crafting innovative businesses and management approaches, and empowering individuals to recognize and take advantage of the transformative power of information technologies, will we make a difference!

With this view in mind, I place great emphasis on interacting with the stakeholders of my research. Here are a few examples. In 2006, I was invited by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Slovenia to Bled to European Strategic Forum to meet with Heads of States, Elected Officials, Senior Government Officials, Policy Makers, Business Leaders, and Entrepreneurs of the European Union to discuss the changing nature of innovation and power in a global context. During the three day summit, I not only learnt about how critical is the role of information systems in the transformation of economies, but also realized that most of policy makers have no knowledge, not even awareness, about the research being conducted in the IS discipline. This year, I have had the opportunity to meet with about five executive boards of leading organizations in emerging markets (e.g., in South Africa, I presented to the senior executives of First National Bank (FNB) on the invitation of the CEO). During each of these discussions, I came away with new problems that need scholarly attention yet are not conducive to publication in top-tier journals. The reason for this is simple – these problems need approaches and methods that are focused on creating value rather than reporting on what has transpired.

It is common to think of consultants or practitioners as the ones who have the responsibility to develop innovative practices in industry. I know of quite a few senior scholars who make statements like, “do not be a consultant focus on theory”. In my opinion, such thinking is not only short-sighted but will negatively impact the growth of our field. We need to develop theory, yes, we do. However, we also need to ensure that we take this theory and actually make an impact to practice. Else, why is there a need for theory! Theory in itself has limited value, even though some claim that there is nothing as practical as good theory. Good theory is just good theory. Now, whether the theory can help change businesses, positively impact stakeholders, and advance society, should not be left to chance, wishful thinking, or be relegated to something that consultants do. We have a responsibility to ensure that our theoretical contributions are making a difference. After all, society funds universities and subsidizes a lot of our research (especially if you are in a state or government institution). Why should they continue to invest in us if we do not deliver knowledge of value to our stakeholders!

During discussions with colleagues I very often see that many just can’t get to the data for their research. It seems that companies are more and more reluctant to share their views with academics. What do you think the reasons are for this? How have you been successful in getting organizations to allow you into their premises, and more importantly, how do you manage to engage senior executives in your research?

Executives get frustrated when they sense that all you are doing is trying to get a paper published at their expense, rather than fundamentally helping their organizations advance.

Here are some simple rules that I follow when involving stakeholders in my research:

  1. The stakeholders are your customers and you owe them actionable knowledge.
  2. View the problems/issues from the eyes of your stakeholder first, and only then from the theoretical lens.
  3. Work with your stakeholders to refine the problem statements and co-create solutions.
  4. Be respectful and mindful of the pace of business and do your best to provide actionable knowledge under severe pressures of time and resources.
  5. Always provide value to your stakeholders as they have contributed their valuable time and resources.

I am always mindful of the time that executives give me and I never take it for granted. I make it a point to report back to executives no later than 10 weeks from the time that I have engaged them in a conversation, interview, or collected data from their organization. Further, I write up an executive briefing first, before I begin to craft a paper for an academic journal.

In terms of process for engaging them in the research, the answer is “it depends on the problem”. But, in most cases, I try and have an informal phone or face-to-face conversation with executives who are close friends of mine. I use this as a process to vet my research problem and ensure that it is one that has traction and merits executive consideration. Then, I ask them to recommend colleagues who might be interested in the research. Executives have vast personal networks, and many are willing to share their contacts, if they trust your work integrity and believe in the research exercise. After I assemble a base of organizations and executive support, I then construct a research briefing. This consists of the problem statement, expected research approach, and expected results. I then present these to executives who share their feedback and we jointly refine the problem statement. Next, the research gets executed. Most of the time, I send out weekly updates to my research stakeholders updating them on progress and coming milestones. After completion, I schedule a conference call or in several cases, an organization will be willing to host a workshop with their key people, where the research results are presented, discussed, and refined further. I wish I could say that crafting an academic journal paper happens simultaneously, however, it seems that this is just what I hope for now. So, after reporting-back to organizations, comes the task of crafting an academic journal paper. And if I may add at this point, stakeholders that you need to tackle with equal professionalism are the journal editors and reviewers.

I firmly believe that engaging deeply and seriously with our stakeholders makes research enjoyable and impactful. Simply put, you will not get a deep appreciation of the environmental context in which problems reside and solutions must appropriate in, without engaging with your stakeholders. I also think you will be able develop more interesting papers for submission for academic journals, as you will have better stories to tell and a richer understanding of the contextual details surrounding a theoretical model or framework.

Can you talk about your mentors? Who has had the most influence on your work and your approach to IS research?

I have never had formal mentors in research training. Most of what I have learned about research has come from trial and error; however, I hold a few scholars as role models. These scholars influence the kind of research that I undertake. Let me share three of my role models, in no particular order:

  • Professor Richard (Rick) T. Watson, J. Rex Fuqua Distinguished Chair for Internet Strategy, Department of MIS, Terry College of Business, University of Georgia
  • Professor Robert (Bob) D. Galliers, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Bentley College
  • Professor Omar A. El Sawy, Professor of Information Systems, Department of Information and Operations Management, Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California

I met Rick Watson during my doctoral studies, while he visited the University of Illinois at Chicago. I was immediately impressed by his dedication to reforming the manner in which we as a discipline conduct MIS research and teaching. Rick presented on reducing waste in academic teaching and scholarship. Privately, Rick and I had a chance to share a pint (and tasty fish and chips) while he took a break from touring houses built by Frank Lloyd Wright. During our discussions, I not only got to know him as a friend, I also got to know him as a scholar who wanted to make changes to our field. Advocating for change requires a lot of courage and the ability to tackle “big problems.” Rick conceptualized the Global Textbook project (to which I continue to contribute and to which I urge all of you to consider contributing also).

Bob Galliers and I met during an ISOneWorld event in Las Vegas, also during my doctoral studies. We shared an enjoyable dinner, after which he dropped me a very nice thank-you note. Bob and I continued to exchange emails as I completed my doctoral studies. He took part in two ICIS panels that I had the privilege of chairing. I have come to respect Bob’s view on crafting and managing IS strategy. He is one of the first people within the IS discipline (of whom I know), who has called for greater appreciation of diversity of research methodologies and frameworks and for a trans-disciplinary (inter-disciplinary) approach to IS research [See the book he co-edited with Lynne Markus and Sue Newell, Exploring Information Systems Research Approaches (Routledge, 2006)]. His work at Bentley College has been nothing short of marvelous and he continues to contribute in numerous ways to the IS field.

I met Omar El Sawy during the same conference as Bob. Omar and I chatted briefly as he was running to catch a flight back to Los Angeles. We then exchanged a series of emails, and like Bob and Rick, he also joined the ICIS panel that I chaired in Las Vegas. Omar is a world-class IS scholar. I have read almost all of his papers, and in my opinion, they are nothing short of fantastic. Omar cares deeply about making a difference to business and taking our business stakeholders seriously. He continues to be a scholar I would like to emulate; he has been able to contribute to the rigorous development of theory, while ensuring that his work makes a significant impact on business. He has won numerous awards from the Society for Information Management (SIM). The word that comes to mind when I think of Omar is “reverberation.” Omar’s research reverberates, meaning it spins off new lines of inquiry and makes shifts in the IS field.

Now, I will briefly mention a couple of other people who have acted as my role models. John King, who I first met at the Academy of Management (AOM) Doctoral Consortium in New Orleans, first introduced me to the concept of Information Schools. Samer Faraj, who I also first met the AOM Doctoral Consortium, has impressed me with his research and attitude toward developing scholarship, both his own and others, as a reviewer and editor. There are many more people who have influenced me but I have not mentioned here.

Each of you should choose your own role models and try to emulate the good in them.

How and why do you travel so much? How do you get time to do your research with all the travel?

I love to travel. Traveling provides me the opportunity to learn and explore. You get so much more out of being in a country then reading about it. Luckily for me, and I am thankful for this every day, about 80% of my travel is related to my research. In my opinion, you cannot study applied problems and not go to organizational locations. I hence travel to meet executives and organizations. The other reason I travel is to give research presentations and meet colleagues at universities and research institutes around the globe. I actually do most of my writing and deep reflective thinking while on airplanes. This works for me. I have on occasion, even acknowledged the airlines in some of my writings. For example, in the acknowledgement section of my book, Agile Information Systems: Conceptualization, Construction, and Management, (Boston, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2006), I write: “…for the last few months as I prepared this book, I have had an unusually busy travel schedule. During this time, I have been on over 40 flights all of which have been on United Airlines. I did most of the work for this book while on flight, and it is fitting that I extend my sincere warm gratitude to all of the airhostesses who made my travels safe, calm, and peaceful. I would not have completed this book on time if not for their generosity and kindness. As scholars, we are uniquely and generously blessed with the ability to travel to places to explore phenomenon. I would not have it any other way…

We thank Prof Kevin Desouza for sharing his thoughts with us.

Did you find this interview interesting? Do you have any questions you always wanted to ask some OCIS faculty members or practitioners? This is your chance, just let us know your comments/questions and your faculty of choice and we will get the answers for you.

5 Responses

  1. Fantastic! Great interview! Glad to know that people do have a life, beyond doctoral studies! Thank you so much for this interview!

  2. […] Interview with Prof Kevin C Desouza on AOM-OCIS Student Site […]

  3. Truly personable and genuine. I enjoyed reading this and surely learnt some good tips. We need more role models like Kevin (Prof. Desouza).

  4. I like the model on interacting with stakeholders. Are there any papers in the IS literature on this issue? Papers that talk about lessons learnt? I have read on the rigor and relevance debate.

  5. The bit on your mentors was an interesting insight

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