Gies Quarterly, January 2023

ISOI Newsletter Header May 2023


Changing the Conversation

Businesses of all kinds need new frameworks and practices for developing their strategies and their organizations. And the Illinois Strategic Organizations Initiative’s purpose is to bring together the scholars, students, and practitioners who can explore and develop them. 

For William Ocasio, James F. Towey Professor of Business and Leadership and ISOI director, a key part of those new frameworks will be the concept of transdisciplinarity. Yes, that means organizations that encourage collaboration among people from different technical or scholarly fields. But transdisciplinarity also requires much more – a focus on research that directly engages with issues critical to practitioners, notions of collective intelligence, and a desire to explore new spaces both quantitatively and qualitatively. 


William Ocasio

William Ocasio, ISOI Director and James F. Towey Professor of Business and Leadership

It’s an ambitious, complicated lens through which to consider business strategy and the world. We talked to Ocasio about ISOI’s approach to its transdisciplinary research for this month’s newsletter. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Q. Can you put transdisciplinarity in the context of a college of business and research around organizational strategy for us?
A. This is, in a way, an attempt to change where many business schools have drifted. Back in the 50s, an influential report by the Ford Foundation said that business schools were becoming trade schools. They lacked a rigorous understanding of the social sciences, economics, and quantitative methods, so they started hiring all these disciplinary folks. And in many universities – much less true here at UIUC –  business schools have become basically places for disciplinary people to do their own work and then they happen to also teach a class. Not necessarily being particularly relevant to managers or interacting across disciplines.

That also has changed the dynamics of publication. Very disciplinary journals became the more high-status places. So we’re trying to change the conversation a bit among researchers. 

Q. And that’s limiting and doesn’t match the way much of the world or education works?
A. You’re dealing with issues, problems, and opportunities that transcend the questions and concerns of people in individual disciplines. Particularly in terms of issues that are central to the practice of strategy and organizations – research that we are doing and the audience that we talk to. Academics need to produce research that goes beyond academia. 

Transdisciplinarity is a very University of Illinois word, which I didn’t start using until I was here. It is part of the land-grant college tradition, which is about service to the community, education beyond liberal arts. It’s not just about knowing about the world, it’s about making the world a better place. And doing research that is more, in that sense, applied.

A very specific example that we are doing is a really direct attempt to confront the issue. There’s all this concern among CEOs and board members about corporate purpose. And this is a conversation that, up until recently, has not been led by business school faculty; it has been led by business executives, lawyers, and consultants. The questions are fundamental to the future of capitalism and how it confronts climate change, increasing inequality, and the long-run sustainability of business corporations. 

At ISOI, our conversations and work have started with translating existing business research into practitioner conversations on corporate purpose. But our transdisciplinary research goes beyond translation  – we seek to undertake novel interdisciplinary research on critical problems and combine them in a way that is meaningful to practitioners. Transdisciplinary research is a recursive process. We extend interdisciplinary research by being exposed to practice, rather than only considering the issues of concerns to academics.

Q. Can you give us an example of some of this work?
A. We are working on a project with INQUIRE, Melissa Graebner’s initiative focused on qualitative research in business. Professor Gopesh Anand, SHIELD Illinois Director Ron Watkins, and a healthcare policy specialist round out the faculty research team. 

We’re studying SHIELD Illinois, which is the COVID-testing initiative launched and run throughout the pandemic by the University of Illinois. We’ve gotten access to all the emails, which is highly unusual, if not unique, for organizational research. In this project, we’re focusing on scaling. How do organizations scale from the prototype of, in this case, a lab and testing facilities developed here in the Urbana-Champaign campus to a major statewide initiative? 

This is a specific example of a more general issue of how entrepreneurial ventures grow. Not just from the operational side. From the marketing side, from the organizational side, from the culture side. Here we have remarkable access to an organization. Scaling is a real-world problem, and many entrepreneurs are working on the fly, right? 

Q. And probably under extreme conditions as well?
A. Exactly. And they have to try to invent things that don’t exist. So here we have terrific data. It’s a single case, but there’s a lot that can be learned from this single case about a very real-world problem. This is a very transdisciplinary case, and it’s highly informed by existing research. In this case, it’s building on my own work with what I call the attention-based view of the firm, which is a very interdisciplinary perspective in itself. It links a psychological perspective on attention and also looks at the firm from the sociological, political, and economic forces that affect the attention of firms. 

Now we’re trying to understand things, not just from the perspective of the attention-based view itself, but how to address a real-world problem of how we scale an organization. The attention issue includes so many different things that have to be attended to. They’re all changing all the time, and we want to know what are the formal and informal processes of those changes to structures to be able to handle all that information and processes that to make the right decisions at the right time.

Q. Why do you think it's important to try to ‘change the conversation,’ as you said?
A. It’s back to what the foundations were saying 70 years ago. What they were complaining about.  Many business schools have become multidisciplinary, not even interdisciplinary, much less transdisciplinary. It’s the economics of organizations. The economics of strategy. The sociology of organizations. The psychology of organizations. These are often supposedly more rigorous. It’s easier and cleaner to be multidisciplinary. 

It’s cleaner because it’s more narrow, right? But it’s narrow so it becomes less applicable. Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work is hard and messier. There’s more ‘It’s complicated.’ More ambiguity. And that’s reality.

Ultimately, if you’re a manager of an organization of any kind, some specialization is a good thing. But, particularly the higher up you go, you need to have a broader perspective. Economics, psychology, anthropology, sociology, political science – they all have something to make organizations more strategic, not only in their aspirations, but in their practices. 

Purpose is More than a Buzzword

Purpose has emerged recently as a crucial topic in business and management. Professor Matthew Kraatz explains this shift and how ISOI is helping theory and research catch up with practice on the topic.

The walls of the Gies College of Business’ buildings are lined with the phrase “Business on Purpose,” offering students “the environment and resources to foster meaningful actions to put you on your path to purpose.” That concept of purpose isn't just a catchphrase, though; it's the College's brand – its promise – and it goes well beyond the classroom.

“Purpose is a word that consultants and scholars use with increasing frequency. It’s also an idea that many firms and leaders appear to have internalized quite deeply,” according to Matthew Kraatz, Merle H. and Virginia Downs Boren Professor in Business Administration and associate director of Illinois Strategic Organizations Initiative. “But the word is used in different ways, and it has only recently become popularized. Purpose is complicated and a lot of ambiguity exists around it.”

As a result, researchers are asking important questions around the concept of purpose. What is it, really? Where does it come from? What impact does it have? How do organizations create it and sustain it?

“It is a topic that has been mostly overlooked by management scholars until quite recently,” Kraatz said. 

ISOI is helping to change that and has established purpose as one of its three core focus areas. The initiative held an international conference on corporate purpose in June 2022 with participants from places like Harvard Business School, University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, University of Oxford’s Said Business School, HEC-Paris, University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, and University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. ISOI faculty are currently co-editing a special issue of Strategy Science based on this conference. It will be published later in the year.

According to Kraatz, the conference and special issue cover the ways in which purpose can be understood and have impact at three levels: societal, organizational, and individual. 


“Societies hold taken-for-granted assumptions about the basic purpose of corporations, in the same way that we hold shared assumptions about the core functions of any other category of organizations like schools or universities, for instance,” he said. “These beliefs vary across time and place, and they are also continuously debated.” 

During the last 40 to 50 years, the dominant view has been that the central objective of the corporation is to maximize returns to shareholders, with an implicit assumption that this would, in the long run, improve economic welfare. Now, many are starting to understand the corporation’s purpose in a broader way – one that emphasizes creating value for multiple stakeholders and not just investors. This is partly a response to ongoing criticisms of shareholder capitalism with growing concerns around climate change and wealth inequality. 

Many corporate leaders are embracing this perspective, if not leading the charge. The emerging idea is that corporate purpose should be a sort of “meta-goal” that encompasses and aligns the goals of different stakeholder groups, according to Kraatz. “This task is difficult, and not everyone believes that it is possible or desirable. But it’s an idea that has a lot of currency at the moment and one that pervades the current conversation about purpose.”

At the organizational level, purpose is an overarching, long-term goal. “It defines the identity of a particular organization, unites its members, and serves as a ‘north star’ in guiding its actions and decisions,” Kraatz said. “This kind of purpose doesn’t always, or even usually, exist. When it does, it can be a powerful thing.”

Individual purpose, meanwhile, is a person’s sense of calling or vocation. “Not everyone feels this way about their job, and not every organization tries to encourage it. But it is definitely a part of the broader purpose movement. It’s also something that a lot of people are looking for these days,” he said. Many companies are aware of this characteristic, especially among younger people, and they are using it as part of their strategies to attract and retain talented employees.

The CEOs of Ralph Lauren, Swiss Re America, and the apparel company Cotopaxi have also given seminars on corporate purpose and related topics at Gies through ISOI. It’s all part of the initiative’s transdisciplinary focus.

“The world seems to have changed faster than our theories and research,” Kraatz said. “We have a lot to learn – and may need to unlearn some things we thought we knew. It is an interesting time and exciting new things seem possible.”

Helping an operation flex

Professor Gopesh Anand and his collaborators developed methods for sustaining process improvement in healthcare by participating in making changes to a process for post-op education delivered to kidney transplant patients. Published in The Journal of Operations Management, the paper received ISOI’s 2021 Best Paper Award.

Process improvement in hospitals is particularly challenging. Frontline providers are given standard procedures, patients are an active part of the service delivery, and those patients’ health conditions, expectations, and behaviors vary widely. 

This environment is more complicated when a patient has received an organ transplant – which made it a fertile subject for Gies College of Business Professor Gopesh Anand and his collaborators at Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University and Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina. Their research was published in The Journal of Operations Management in 2020 and received the Illinois Strategic Organizations Initiative’s 2021 Best Paper Award.

Gopesh Anand

Gopesh Anand, Professor of Business Administration and William N. Scheffel Faculty Scholar

The team worked closely with providers at a large hospital in the United States to redesign the education that patients receive after a kidney transplant. They also developed a general method for implementing process improvements in such interactive environments and sustaining those improvements long term. 

“For a hospital, there are trade-offs at the frontlines. There, the compromises come in terms of how much you want your employees to be following standard procedures and how much you want them to be able to flex when it is needed by a particular patient or a caregiver who is interacting with those patients.” Anand explained. “We’re talking about: How does a hospital function when patients have varying needs? By varying needs, it could mean their health status, but it could also mean their preferences. Some people like to chat when the nurse or doctor comes in. Some people like to mind their own business. How can an operation flex and still have a certain level of standardization?”

Finding the right balance with such a variety of behaviors and scenarios required deeply understanding them by observing them. Intense interaction with service providers – and lots of them – was crucial to the research. The team worked in a 1,500-bed hospital for three years. Over the course of that time, the hospital did more than 570 kidney transplants. The research team collaborated with 32 caregivers, who were engaged to different extents in the development of the post-transplant care curriculum.

“We’re not telling them how to do kidney transplants, of course, or even suggesting content of the post-transplant education. We’re helping them design a better education system for the patients and the caregivers,” Anand said.

The key was providing the caregivers, who are engaging with the transplant patients on an ongoing basis, a sense of the organization’s strategy and what the hospital was trying to achieve as an organization. Then, empowering those caregivers with plenty of room to explore the trade-offs between following exact rules and making adjustments to processes in the moments of delivering care.

“When we talk about process improvement, they are the ones involved in coming up with these combinations of rigid ways of doing things and flexibility in those ways of doing things," said Anand. "If they can come up with those combinations, they have a much better understanding of why this flexibility was built in and why this rigidity was built in. They’ll be following [procedures] for the right reasons. Not just because the manual says so or because they have to check these boxes. But because they believe it’s the right combination. And if they’re involved in process design, that’s the best way.” 

An evidence-based, team-designed procedure is powerful. But, if an organization puts in the effort to build it, it should be built to last. Salary can incentivize working within procedures. However, there’s often more an organization can do to create buy-in, especially in healthcare environments, according to Anand and his co-authors. 

“It’s more than just saying, they can get more money or promotions," Anand said. "There’s already a lot of interest in how to best treat patients. There are many people in healthcare who are not just in it for the money. There are many who are there because they like doing this, who are there because it is important work. The ‘what’s in it for them?’ becomes showing how this will help them do their jobs better.”

Ultimately, the team showed that improved processes, combined with engaged and intrinsically motivated caregivers can positively impact patient outcomes. Their analysis indicated that patients were readmitted to the hospital 25 percent less than the control group after the new system was fully implemented. Patient satisfaction also improved.

“When improvements are based on insights from frontline providers and evidence they see about potential impacts of changes, we can achieve the things we’re trying to achieve with process improvement initiatives. Doing that and applying it on a day-to-day basis – some level of standardization and some level of flexibility, and participating in making process changes – are things that people can and want to do,” Anand said. “People want to do their jobs better. In healthcare, they want to spend more time talking to their patients. These methods helped them do that.”

ISOI Distinguished Speaker Series

Instead of serving as a traditional research paper seminar, the ISOI Distinguished Speaker Series focuses on opinion, viewpoints, and debate about our research field(s), and makes a connection to practice (in part, by having speakers with experience leading organizations). To date, the speaker series as included more than 25 top scholars and industry professionals. Some of the most recent include:

Andy Hoffman
Holcim (US), Inc. Professor of Sustainable Enterprise
University of Michigan

Rebecca Henderson
The John and Natty McArthur University Professor
Harvard University

Paula Jarzabkowski
Professor of Strategic Management
University of Queensland & University of London 

Jerry Davis
Gilbert and Ruth Whitaker Professor of Business Administration
University of Michigan

Fiona Kun Yao
Assistant Professor of Business Administration
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign 

Davis Smith
CEO and Founder, Cotopaxi

J. Eric Smith
Former President, Swiss Re Americas 

Venkat Venkatakrishnan
Director of Research, Discovery Partners Institute