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What is this a case of? An interview with Jerry Davis

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Interview with Jerry Davis
Wilbur K. Pierpont Collegiate Professor of Management
Professor of Sociology
Co-Director, ICOS (Interdisciplinary Committee on Organization Studies)
University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business      

Tim Pollock is the one who suggested that I interview Jerry Davis.  Tim and I had been talking about the fact that most of my interviews for Project Scrib had been with qualitative researchers (Tim and Danny Miller being two exceptions). Tim had asked me whether I had noticed any significant differences between the way qualitative and quantitative researchers wrote, and I said that based on my super limited sample of two, I hadn’t noticed anything significant. Tim suggested I should interview more quant scholars and I said, “Sure, where do I start?” to which Tim replied “Jerry.” Some months later I happened to attend a small conference at which Jerry had been one of the keynotes.  I thought, “It’s now or never.”  I joined the throng that surrounded him after his talk, waiting for a chance to make my pitch. And to my great surprise (and relief!), he immediately said, “Yes, I’d love to!”  We met at AOM in Vancouver, on the lovely outdoor terrace of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Jerry went for something healthy, and I for something much less healthy, namely a very strong expresso. Funny thing – despite having done hundreds of interviews at this stage of my career, and some twenty for the blog, I’m still nervous each time I go in:  Will I connect with this person?  Will they be comfortable enough to share interesting tidbits with me rather than platitudes?  But none of that should have worried me in this case.  Jerry was super enthusiastic, and totally engaged in the process.  He has the most incredible energy!  He is passionate about his work, and it is totally infectious.  I left the interview all geared up, thinking, “I can write a book, maybe two… I’ll start right now…”

So let’s start with my standard question:  where do your writing ideas come from?

One of my great inspirations in life was Mayer Zald, a brilliant sociologist and a mentor who passed away a couple of years ago. Mayer had this incredible “problem sense”. He would read the morning newspaper and find events in the world that he saw as being an instance of some larger social trend. He would know the importance of something and be able to fit it into some larger narrative and say, “This is interesting” in the sense of: “This is an anomaly” or “This is really representative of this or that important trend.” I remember when I was a graduate student thinking, “How does he do this? How is he able to just read the newspaper and come up with three dissertation topics?” And the answer was that he was really well versed in the literature, but at the same time, he was able to wear it lightly and use it as a guide so that he could say, “Now, that’s odd! We think that the world works a certain way, but this here seems contrary to that” or “This exemplifies an important new trend that’s worth exploring.” And so I worked hard to develop that same problem sense that Mayer had, to be able to think about events in the world as instances of something more general. Because of this, the question I always ask about case studies is:  “What is this a case of?” You might say, “This case is really intriguing on its own.” For example, we all need to know more about Uber because it has become really popular, really fast. And if you stop there, you might be able to say, “Oh! it’s interesting or it’s funny or there’s a great narrative there.” But if you ask, “What is this a case of?” you get at something that is much broader. For me, all this time I’ve been spending talking about Uber isn’t just about the cab company, it’s about the transformation of labour relations and the nature of employment today. It’s not just “cab drivers are mad at Uber but consumers like it.” It’s more about how the things that Uber does could transfer to, say, retail employment and turn the largest sector of bulk employment in the U.S and Canada into a task rather than a job. And that could have really profound social and economic consequences. So basically, when it comes to sourcing good ideas, I’m trying to be like Mayer Zald.

You mentioned that this was something that you worked at. What did you do to build up that capacity?

One of the things that doesn’t happen as much in business schools but does happen a lot in sociology is that you teach the same doctoral class over and over again. If you teach a core MBA class you might have colourful anecdotes about something or other. But I teach this PHD class on organization theory, and it’s been the same basic class for 25 years. I learned it from Don Palmer. When he was at Stanford he taught this class and I’ve taught some variation of that macro organization theory class every other year since 1990. And it gets a little dull to teach the same thing all the time. But if you’re steeped in the theories, if you’ve walked through them over and over again, then you start to process the world in those terms. (This is a digression, but this is one of the things that is lost with all of organizational theory moving out of sociology and into business schools. In sociology, you might teach the core theory class and so you’re seeing instances of things such as Durkheim and Weber and Marx – and in business, we’ll see it in terms of population ecology or status or diffusion, which are pretty good but which are not necessarily the deepest possible theories out there.) But if you’re teaching theory over and over again, you come to see that these broader trends and theories are embedded.  And then you can start to process events using that lens. I sometimes try it out on students and say, “Just take some example of something in the news and ask yourself, ‘How would you explain this in terms of the theories that we have learned?’” “Why is Donald Trump leading in the polls? What must be true about the voting public?” Thinking of it not just as an anecdote but as something to be explained using the theories that we have. That’s the way I would do it. It’s essentially what leads me to write about current-ish events but trying to make sense of them in terms of longer-term historical trends.

Current events are a dime a dozen though, you could easily become overwhelmed with all this on-the-spot theorizing, no? Do you have a way of organizing your ideas or a way of processing them that makes it easier for you to decide, “Okay, I’m actually going to work on this” or “I’ll just shelve that for now.”

What I’ve found, especially as I get older, is that I have a portfolio of topics that I try to keep track of. For example, when I started out, I followed any article or world event about networks because that was how I defined what I did. And there was some stuff about corporate governance that I added in. And then I added in some additional topics, architecture strangely enough and finance and social movement related stuff. Now I’m at a point where anytime I’m reading newspaper articles, there’s a handful of topics that I will always follow. So if you have a portfolio of things that you care about, then you can be monitoring those for interesting developments – and then, when something happens like, data are now available on X, or there is a naturally occurring experiment on Y, then you might want to pursue that as an opportunity for research.

For example, recently Gerry George, who is the editor at AMJ (Academy of Management Journal), started this grand challenge initiative at the journal. They have a special issue call for papers on grand challenges. It’s a great initiative because there are ongoing challenges out there that we don’t have answers to. One of these is supply chains. We study organizations and boundaries but we’re not very good at studying dispersed supply chains.  In 2010, the Dodd Frank Act in the U.S required companies listed on U.S stock markets to report whether their products contained certain types of minerals coming from the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), which were considered to be conflict minerals. Companies are required to look into their supply chains and disclose if they are using conflict minerals that might be funding warlords. Companies started reporting last year and this year was the second year that they’ve done it. With Yong Hyun Kim, a doctoral student of mine, we saw this as an opportunity to dig into these reports to see which companies are able to figure out whether they are contributing to conflict in the DRC. And the shocking thing is that of the 1,300 companies that filed these reports the first year, only 1% were able to say, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that they were not inadvertently funding conflict in the DRC.  It’s like what the heck? To me this is one of those instances of a bigger thing. Contemporary capitalism has led corporations to disperse their supply chains all over the world. Now, suppose you want to buy products that don’t contribute to genocide, can you do that?  Companies had three, four years to figure this out, and a bunch of consultants helping them, they still can’t do it.  To me, this is fascinating and it sheds some new light on the nature of contemporary capitalism. That’s an instance of “what is this a case of?” It’s a case of having a portfolio of topics on hand.  Then Dodd Frank comes out, data become available and so now, we can actually get some insight into supply chains that wasn’t possible before.

Ok, so you’ve got this researchable idea, and you’ve got data.  Now it’s time to start writing. How do you go from having an idea to writing text?

In the case of the supply chain study, we tried to do it the right way, with a sort of monster literature search to see what others have said about this problem. And we found that in our field, there’s surprisingly little. There are conceptual things about global value chains, but as far as empirical research goes, you discover very quickly that it’s really hard to track supply chains. We went to our buddies in Operations Management, who teach classes on supply chains. They have models of supply chains and simulations. But as far as empirical research, there’s not a lot out there. So then we thought, “What is this a case of?” What are the theories that apply? Is this about resource dependence theory or is it about birth and death rates? Is it related to Brian Uzzi’s embeddedness stuff? We tried to look at all the theories that might give us some insight. We’re starting with a problem that has never been addressed, and we’re starting with possible theories as well as everything else that’s ever been written that might address it.  That’s how we went about it. Bricolage is my standard style, which is – if I take an empirical problem, I don’t say, “I have a theory about why X happened.” I try and say, “What are five theories that have something to say about this topic?” And what would each suggest is going on here?

You’re studying supply chains and one theory says you should expect to see X. You know more of X leads to more of Y. And another theory says more of X leads to less of Y. That tells you you’re in a good place:  a good place is where there’s conflict that can be resolved. This is what I tell the students in my methods class:  “This is what you want for your dissertation:  when you come up with a way to frame a problem before you actually collect the data, the best case is to have opposing implications, because then, no matter what you find, you have something to talk about. If you make a really strong prediction and you’re wrong then you kind of go home. There’s nothing to write about. But if you say, “Here’s a case where there are really conflicting or opposing views” – then you collect the data and find out the truth. Somebody’s right and somebody’s wrong and you’re guaranteed to have something to say in your job paper.

Ok.  But when in that overall process does the actual writing start?

Ok, so now I’m the old guy who is compulsive about taking notes on articles in Endnote so that they’re easily searchable and have key words. And I now have a monster directory of notes on academic articles with direct quotes and everything you need to know about almost everything significant that I’ve read going back to 1985.  In 1985, when I was in graduate school, I started keeping really good notes on a word processor program and I imported them all into Endnote.

So you cut and paste quotes from the articles and put them all in Endnote?

Yes. Actually if you use a dictation program like Dragon Naturally Speaking, which is ingenious, you can dictate your comments as you’re reading. And then, what you’ve got at the end of the day is all sitting on your USB drive or in the Cloud.  You’ve got this file with all of the raw materials that you need from the literature that you can then sort of turn into writing. If you read something and don’t take good notes, you will forget it the next day. I’m pretty compulsive about keeping track of what I read. I read Jensen and Meckling’s paper 28 years ago and I’m still relying on my notes and quotes from back then, because I keep good track of this stuff. For me this is like a carpenter with his tools. I’ve got all of these things sitting on Endnote. It’s readily accessible so when it’s time to write, I look through all of my notes, and say, “What do I have to say about this topic? What do the theories have to say about that?” It’s like having a big old tool bench with all of the goodies you need to do the work that needs to get done. For newspaper type articles, I use Evernote. I’m also compulsive about keeping track of current events. If I want to say something about Uber, I can quickly go through Evernote and find everything I’ve read on Uber. That’s two sets of tools: Endnote for the academic literature, and Evernote for keeping track of more current things. With all of that, after I’ve analysed all the data and I have a sense of what I’m up to, I start writing.  Usually from the inside out.

Meaning?

I think that writer’s block comes from trying to write the first sentence of a paper’s introduction. I never, ever write the introduction first. The introduction should be the absolute last thing you write. Well, maybe the abstract.  But in the body of a paper, you should only write the introduction when you actually know everything you’re going to be writing about subsequently. If you start by trying to write the first sentence of your introduction, you will go berserk and quit the profession. Instead of that, I’m a super compulsive outliner. After we’ve gone through enough of the data and we have a broad sense of what’s going on and we’ve declared ourselves, I outline. I’m like an eighth grade English teacher when it comes to outlining stuff. I outline with this program from Mindjet called MindManager Pro. This is a program that makes these mind maps, which are basically brachiating trees with ideas and arguments in them. It’s a very simple idea but you never get writer’s block when you’re looking at a tree.  Do you ever use this stuff?

No, I’ve never heard of it.

I’m about to change your life. You’re going to abandon your blog in favour of writing a book. So, let’s find Chapter Three of my new book. (Jerry opens up his computer and shows me the mind map he built for his book, I comment on what he’s showing me).

So you build this tree with all the things you’re going to talk about. I can see that it’s quite detailed. And I see that you can open each box up with still more branches. Okay, so that’s pretty cool.

This way, you know what the main sections of your article or book are going to be. And I have this rule. To start, you open up a new file and you write, “intro.”  But you don’t write it.  You don’t touch it – but you’ve already got a branch, you’ve already started writing, so there’s no writer’s block. Then you ask yourself, “Ok, what does the next section have to be?” Well, probably it’s going to be context. That’s easy, you need to explain what happens in the cell phone industry, where did Dodd Frank come from and so on. Then I have this rule that I follow at the level of paragraphs, which is at this level of outline (Jerry shows me this on his computer) – and my rule is that you should always start a paragraph by using a declarative statement that could be true or false in principle. So for example, instead of saying something like “institutional bricolage”, you would say something like “Trying to create institutions often involves bringing dispersed elements together into a new form.” So you see?  That’s a sentence that can be true or false.  Now, if you do this properly, you can understand the entire argument of your paper just by looking at the topic sentences you wrote into your map. If I’m your dissertation advisor and you send me 500 pages to read, I’m going to be bummed out. But if you send me this, I can see, “Yeah, but structurally you need to argue this first and this argument should go over there.”  It’s hard though, because you have to declare yourself and state each topic sentence as a true or false statement. That’s harder than just writing “institutional bricolage.” But that discipline forces you to recognize what the logical flow of your argument is. When you build a mind map like this one, you realize, “Oh! This section should be back here instead of here. To establish this claim, I need to argue that first.” It forces you to be systematic about the argument that you’re making, and make sure the logic flow is there. So that’s the way writing works for me. The absolute last thing you write, once you’ve got all the things you need and you know what you’re going to say, is the introduction.

Do you follow any rituals when you write? Is there a favourite time of day when you like to write? Any quirky habits that help get you going?

I have come to discover over the years that I have all my good ideas and energy in the morning. Then I eat lunch and after that, all I want to do is sleep. Morning is definitely a better time to do writing, at least for me, because I find that I can just drop all the ideas that were percolating overnight into a map and start moving them around. The other thing is I can’t write in the office. I don’t think I’ve ever written a paper sitting at my office computer. Ever.

So, where do you write?

In Ann Arbor, I write at the juice bar at the People’s Food Co-op because they have organic wheatgrass juice and ginger and carrot juice. It’s not close enough for students to be around, and it’s got hippies with interesting piercings and hipsters and so on.

So you park yourself there with a wheatgrass ginger something and proceed to dump all your ideas onto a mind map?

Exactly. I write for a few hours and eat kale and tofu, literally. The typical lunch I have at that place is steamed kale, baked tofu and brown rice. It sounds like I’m into this ascetic monk lifestyle. And nobody bothers me. I like to sit at the window. I like sitting in the window at this place, seeing the foot traffic and what people are up to. When you’re writing about society, it’s nice to be able to look at some part of society and see what people are up to. People are talking, but it’s just background noise. In Detroit, I work in this loft that I got that has this spectacular view of downtown.

You live in two places?

This is somewhat embarrassing, but we bought a vacation home in Detroit. It’s a loft in an old auto building from 1919. It’s all cement. It still has the cement floors and cement ceilings. It’s pretty cool.

It doesn’t really sound like a vacation destination…

It’s way better than it sounds. I’ve been so productive there.

That’s interesting.  I’d love to see what that looks like.  Let’s talk a bit about publishing. When do you know a paper is ready to go?

Deadlines really help a bunch. My experience is going to be really different from that of normal people because I’m an old guy and I get invited to write a lot of stuff, which doesn’t go through the same vetting process. I go through the more normal procedure when I’m working with doctoral students. So my advice there is that you have to get feedback from people because you just don’t know what makes sense and what’s confusing and what’s terrible until some other person reads it.  I don’t really do that anymore, but anyone who cares about reaching an audience really needs to do that. You need to know that your title is stupid or on the contrary, that it’s great. Writing should be part of a conversation, and if you don’t run your writing past other people, it’s a monologue, and that’s probably bad. So, running it past people who know what they’re doing. But your readers don’t necessarily have to be experts in your specific sub-field. I’ve found that it’s actually much more useful to get feedback from someone who is really smart and knows what they’re doing but who is not a specialist in my area because they bring a view that I wouldn’t get from elsewhere. A smart academic who knows what good science is but is not your nearest neighbour in terms of conceptual space, or maybe even a competitor.  You want to write for reviewers who are probably going to be diverse.

So, friendly reviews from non-traditional sources?

Yeah. I’ve found that to be really useful. The flip side is these reviewers have no reason to do this for you, so if you ask and they say yes, they’re doing you a giant favour. People ask me to read papers a lot and as a journal editor who reads a lot of papers, it’s kind of like someone who is a mover for a living being asked to spend their weekend helping a friend move in. I shouldn’t say that out loud but it is, I mean it is a big favour. You don’t want to do it frivolously. It has to be that you’ve put the work in and it’s as good as you can currently make it – only then run it past people, including and maybe even preferably people that aren’t in that specialist area. Once you’re satisfied that the writing is good and your argument makes sense, that it doesn’t annoy people, that it’s a reasonable length, then it’s time to send it off to a journal. And it’s important to pick the right journal. As an editor I’m surprised how often people send things that are completely unrelated to what the journal’s about. They’ve not even scanned the table of contents to see whether this is the right place for their paper. You need to ask yourself, “What has this journal published in the last two years?” And you look at the authors of that content and say to yourself, “Who among these authors is going to read something I wrote and think, “Wow! This is really important, this is really a great contribution!” Ask yourself, “Where do those people publish? In the last two years, has there been a conversation about my topic in this particular journal?”  Because if nobody is publishing anything on your topic, either it’s a brilliant innovation or it’s just the wrong journal.

What would you say are common mistakes that people make after receiving a reject or an R&R?

For rejects, when people say, “Oh just get back on the horse and send it out to another journal,” I think that’s a terrible idea.  To submit something to a different journal without taking the reviews you received into account is a bad idea because the odds of getting some of the same reviewers are pretty high.  If you send it to AMJ (Academy of Management Journal) and they reject it and you send it to ASQ as is, you’re probably going to get some of the same reviewers who are going to say, “Oh! for goodness sake! You didn’t even bother to change this thing!” So, take the reviewers seriously because they’ve put a lot of work into evaluating and giving commentary on your paper. When I review, it can take me up to a day to write up my comments, which is unpaid anonymous labour. Reviewers put a lot of effort into looking at your work, and your first impulse might be to resent them and to hate them. But even so, take the reviews seriously. The vast majority of reviewers aren’t doing things just to be mean. They’re smart people who have put voluntary effort into reading your paper. So, take what they have to say really seriously, ok?  You may end up deciding that they’re just wrong about some issue, or that they misread what you wrote, in which case you need to write it better. This is a sign that they’re not getting your argument, so you need to write it better, more clearly, whatever.

Usually, when I get a rejection, I don’t even read further into the letter. I wait 48 hours for my emotions to calm down.  Then I have a glass of wine, read through the reviews and start by asking myself, what are the points that are actually good?  Then, I’ll boil down the reviews to “Alright, here are five main points that I’ve taken from these comments and this is what we need to do to revise the paper.” It’s actually true for R&R’s as well because there’s often a lot of stuff in them – I mean some reviews can go on forever. You need to summarize.  You need to ask yourself, “What are the major conceptual points that require work? Is there any conflict between what they’re telling me? Are they giving me opposite advice?” That can happen a lot. One way or the other, you’ve got to remove the emotion from it and pull the information apart. What are they telling me? And then revise in light of that, but don’t ignore the reviewers. If they misunderstood you, then you’re not writing it well. So take them seriously, assume they’re well intentioned and try to figure out what the real stumbling blocks are.

Tell me about the worst review you ever got.

They’re all bad. (Kidding!) In a paper from my dissertation, a long, long time ago, I think it was the second round reviews, and one of the reviewers wrote, “This paper is much improved and is much more clearly written. But now that it’s clearly written, I realize that it’s not really very interesting.” That was harsh. Because it was my dissertation, I was like someone saying, “Your baby’s ugly.”  Now it’s much easier.  I see reviews all the time now, and as an editor, I think we try to restrain the crazier stuff. If people are being just mean, we try to tone it down. Actually, nowadays, I think people are too nice, and that makes it hard for us as editors, because the note to the editor says, “This paper’s an incredible piece of garbage. I can’t believe you wasted my time with this.” And then they write to the author, “What an intriguing piece of work on such a timely topic. I really enjoyed your paper.”

I know you’re in a hurry, so let me ask you one last question. What advice would you give to people starting out in this field?

Think long-term. Think about a program rather than a project. The only thing on people’s minds these days is, “How do I get tenure?” Interestingly, people think that to get tenure they need to publish a ton of papers and so they might publish many extremely modest papers, each with eight co-authors. But I’ve written a fair number of tenure letters, and I can tell you that when they receive your packet, your tenure letter-writer is going to sit down with your three or so most important papers. He or she will read them carefully, word for word, and render a judgment. If you’ve written 100 papers that are Cheeto-sized stuff and you pick your best three, there’s a good chance that they’re not going to be all that significant. There might be a lot of them, but as a tenure letter-writer, I’m only going to read three very carefully, and if I think those three are brilliant, that’s going to count for a lot. Do they cohere? Do they make a contribution? If I read the top three and they’re not good, it’s not going to fly. Think to yourself, “What are the main contributions I want to make? What are my three big papers going to be?”  Don’t think, “I need to get a lot done, the person down the hall has 100 papers with 15 co-authors each.” When the person down the hall’s case goes out, and I read three of those papers, each with 15 co-author-salami-thin-slices, I’m going to say, “This is not adding up.”  If I accept to write a tenure letter for somebody, it means that I sit down for a day and a half to engage with this person’s work. That’s a big commitment. I want to leave that process saying, “Wow, I’ve really learned a lot. I’ve never heard of this person, but this is really good work that deserves to be recognized.” That’s where you want to be. So focus your efforts into quality work that cumulates, rather than quantity. That’s my advice. When I read three pieces of your work, I want to know, “Do they cohere? Does this add up to something that I didn’t know before? I really don’t want to read a bunch of disconnected things that look opportunistic.

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