Interview with Bob Galliers, Provost at Bentley University, Waltham, MA – USA.
Appointed to his current post in 2002, Bob Galliers came to Bentley from the London School of Economics, where he was Professor of Information Systems and Research Director in the Department of Information Systems. Before joining LSE, he served as Lucas Professor of Business Management Systems and Dean of Warwick Business School, and earlier as Foundation Professor and Head of the School of Information Systems at Curtin University in Australia.
Marco: This is my interview with Professor Galliers. He’s going to talk about IS in the world, his experience as a professor, and some suggestions for PHD students. Thank you Professor Galliers for being here with us.
Galliers: My pleasure. Would you like me to say something generally, or have you got a specific question you’d like to ask?
Marco: I think something generally is really interesting.
Galliers: Okay. So perhaps I could start with the field of information systems on how it has grown and developed over the years. If you think, as an academic subject, it probably had its genesis in the 1960s, so we’re almost 50 years as a subject area. And, of course, it had its genesis out of computer science and some of the other cognate fields, such as organization science, operations management, operation research and others.
But it has really developed, I think, into something much more than simply the development of computer-based information systems, which is all you ever heard about in those early days – IS development methodologies. And now we’re covering such territory as organizational, strategic impacts of information technology, which may change the very nature of the business. We are talking about societal issues such as the digital divide, and some of the ethical considerations associated with the use, application and impact of information technology on societies. We’re talking about security and privacy of information and so forth.
So it’s a hugely different field to what it started out to be and that’s what’s exciting about it because it has many aspects, which impact on other disciplines. And then that leads me into the whole area of what I call transdisciplinarity, because it seems to me, in order to be able to understand those phenomena in any depth, one has to apply tools that are not just from the field of information systems, but from those other fields as well.
And then what’s even more exciting is that information systems itself as a field of study can inform other so called disciplines like organization science; even sociology, psychology. So our materials should have an impact on those other fields of study as well. So that’s what I’d like to start, in a sense, the emerging nature of the field itself. What else can I say? Something about my own interests? Something about my life as a provost and academic?
Galliers: So my own interests really stemmed from an interest in the strategic impact of technology on organizations. And when I did my PHD, there had been some preliminary work done in the United States, and to a lesser extent in the UK about approaches to information systems planning. But at the time, I was based in Australia and there had been nothing done at that stage in Australia about what it was that organizations are doing to plan for their information systems. And there had been limited empirical work done in the United Kingdom.
As I did my PHD at the LSE, I thought why don’t I do a comparative study on what’s going on in Australia and the United Kingdom using my location as a means to get some empirical data, which was missing. I could relate it then to earlier work that had been done in the U.S. that could hopefully add value to that earlier work. So I conducted some survey research of IT directors and senior executives to identify what approaches they were using and what impacts those approaches were having and how successful they were. I think that enabled me to develop an understanding of the process of information systems strategizing.
And rather like people in the strategy field generally, I see the strategizing process as being at least as important, if not more important than the outcome of the process. So people like Henry Mintzberg, who talk about the emergent nature of strategy, is something similar to my understanding of the strategizing process and information systems. You and your colleagues in Italy have an interest in the work of people like Michael Tushman and others on both the exploitation of the technology and how we can explore with the technology, so the potential ambidextrousness of that process is what’s interesting to me.
And it’s much more than simply a mechanistic application of some methodology or other. That learning process that organizations go through I think is fascinating. If I then go into how on earth can I do this work while at the same time being a provost of the largest business school in New England? That’s an interesting question. First of all, I should say why I do it, before I answer how I do it.
Why I do it is that I got into academia to be a researcher and a teacher, not a manager. It seemed to me that in order to have an impact on the curriculum and on the research reputation of one’s institution, you can’t say to colleagues don’t do as I do, but do as I say. You had better be able to demonstrate what’s important for your institution is important for yourself.
My ethos, if you like, in relation to being a chief academic officer has to be about connecting with the Academy. It has to be about connecting with students. It has to be about testing your ideas in the classroom and in practice, otherwise it’s an exercise, which has no impact on life. So, when I get an opportunity to meet, for example, with PHD students, I take that chance. So last year, I taught the information systems course on the Bentley PHD program.
And it was fabulous on a Tuesday afternoon to get in a seminar room and meet with bright, emerging talent, who could ask some quite pointed questions about the material, which enabled a conversation to take place and new ideas to emerge from that.
Now, given the nature of my job, it means that I really can’t spend a lot of time out collecting data. I just haven’t got the time to do that. But I can either write conceptual pieces – reflections, which is what I do, and/or partner with colleagues and students who have the time to go out and collect the data. And what can I do to help in that regard? I can help in terms of the planning of the research project, the approach. I can be a sounding board for a project as it develops. And I can be of help when it comes to writing up the articles, which emerge from that work.
So that’s the role that I tend to play now. I don’t have sufficient time to do a major longitudinal piece of work. But if I’m talking with practitioners, I could test out ideas with them quite informally. I wouldn’t call it research, but I think that one can still get a sense of what are their concerns and whether there is any traction of one’s ideas on them as practitioners. But, primarily, I see myself as an academic who has a role to play in furthering – in this instance, Bentley – as a business university, and raising our reputation as a major player in that space. How better to do that than to give a keynote address at a major conference, or be seen to be active in the Academy?
That, in itself, not only is an example to colleagues, but is a way of marketing my institution. So I see it being synergistic really. It’s important to me as an individual, but it’s important in my role. If I were simply taking the view that I’m a chief operating officer of my institution, then how on earth can I, as an individual, get the message over about Bentley University nationally and internationally? I can’t do it. So I have to be active in order to be visible and help to raise the reputation of the institution.
That’s why, in addition to doing a little bit of teaching, doing a little bit of writing, and continuing to edit The Journal of Strategic Information Systems, I respond positively to invitations to talk, to visit other institutions, to be a visiting professor, and generally be seen to be active in the Academy. Is that enough?