Interview with Mike Smith – Part Four

Part Four:  Interview with Mike Smith – Associate Professor of Information Systems and Marketing, Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University

This interview began in part one discussing Dr. Smith’s graduate student experience and job search and continued in part two discussing Dr. Smith’s experience and advice as a faculty member.  In part three Dr. Smith explained some of his perspectives on research.  In this session we will discuss his perspectives on teaching and his overall thoughts on Information Systems as a discipline.

Perspectives on Teaching

You’ve received many teaching awards and honors during your time at the Heinz school.  Have you always been a strong teacher, or is that something you’ve had to work on?

I have gotten better over time because I think I’ve come to understand what the students are looking for.  Again, it’s just really hard the first couple of years to know what the students are looking to get out of the class.  It is important to recognize you will not get tenure by being a good teacher. At the same time I really enjoy teaching, and I probably spend too much time on it from a purely rational perspective.  Faculty members really do have a privileged position, this notion that you get to stand up in front of people and talk about the research you’re doing and how that might matter to their careers is a really privileged position.  It is an opportunity that I really cherish, even though it has very little impact on job advancement.

Some strategies you can use are to try to keep your teaching as closely aligned as you can to your research as possible.  Try to teach as much of your research as possible, as much as you can get away with.  I have had a couple of classes where there were topics that I was intellectually interested in that I put in as a course module to force myself to learn something about it.  So this semester one of the modules we’re doing is on disruptive innovation, Clay Christianson’s work at Harvard, and it was something that I wanted to learn that I thought would also be interesting to students. And typically if you are interested in the subject that will come across in your teaching.

Is there any advice you could give for PhD students as they prepare to teach for the first time?

Teaching for the first time is just hard.  On one hand, if English is not your native language, I think it is a good signal to the market to say, “I taught this master’s level course as a PhD student, and I didn’t get killed,” but other than that I try to advise my students to teach as little as possible during your PhD because it is really all about the research.  When you do have to teach, start with a really detailed and clear syllabus. This will guide both you and the students. In the syllabus, lay out what you’re going to cover, how the topics relate to each other, and then lay out the class-by-class structure of the course. This is the right way to go because planning the course as you go along is really miserable.

Perspectives on the IS Discipline

You’ve been very involved in the IS discipline through your involvement in as an editor for Information Systems Research, Decision Support Systems, and Management Science, and your involvement in many conferences.  What do you see as the defining characteristics of the IS discipline?

I would like to see IS as a discipline be kind of like Marketing, in the sense that I see Marketing is very focused on consumer behavior, but willing to look at that consumer behavior from a bunch of different lenses.  I would really like for the IS discipline to be focused on how information technology changes things, where things can be organizations, things can be markets, things can be governments and societies, but how does IT matter.  Then, we need to see the benefit of looking at that from a bunch of different perspectives:  not just economics, not just technology, not just behavioral, but we benefit from looking at this phenomenon from a bunch of different perspectives.  I think that is a winning combination for the discipline, because technology is going to continue to evolve, I’m not in the Nick Carr camp that says technology is going to become a commodity.  I really think the technology curve is going to be a series of small “S” curves on different technologies and it’s going to continue to grow, and it’s going to continue to impact the structures it comes into contact with: whether that’s small organizations, or governments, or societies, or markets. And I think that as a discipline we can carve out a piece of that development that says our core competency is looking at that change from a bunch of different viewpoints.

Where do you see the field of IS heading in the next five to ten years?

One of the things technology gets us in addition to changing things is it gets us the ability to collect, process, and analyze large datasets.  Bringing in the Machine Learning discipline to our discipline and figuring out how you can analyze these masses of data to draw out the technological change piece is going to be important.  Daniel Neill on the Heinz faculty is exactly that sort of person. We brought him over from computer science and machine learning and he’s looking at how you take massive amounts of data and pinpoint things like bioterrorism. These are the sorts of questions that we as a discipline should be looking at, technology has changed our capabilities and we ought to be at the forefront of figuring out what that means for structuring policy decisions, organizations, and groups.

Do you have any other thoughts or advice for PhD students in the OCIS community?

Get as well trained as possible, and pay attention to your advisor.  One of the things Erik taught me, if not explicitly then implicitly, is to never start working on a project if it doesn’t have a chance at an “A” publication.  At the top research schools, “A” publications are really all that matters.  There’s no mapping function from “B” publications to “A” publications:  there’s no sense in which five B’s equals one A.