Interview with Distinguished Scholar Award Winner

Brittany Bond (Cornell) interviewing Ann Langley (HEC Montreal), winner of the OMT Distinguished Scholar Award


Brittany Bond (BB): Huge congratulations on the Distinguished Scholar Award - quite the recognition! It is a real privilege and pleasure to be interviewing this year. I loved your talk. It was honestly very warm and inviting while covering the global pandemic. I don't know how you pulled that off.


Ann Langley (AL): Thank you – it is good to hear that, because to be frank, I originally had absolutely no intention of talking about the pandemic. I'm not an expert in pandemics or epidemiology. I do research on healthcare organizations, but not on health as such. So that was not at all the plan. When I was first invited, it was in February, so it was before the pandemic. And I was thinking, okay, I will say something about process research and try and relate it to OMT. But then as we got closer to the time, I felt that the pandemic was not something I could just ignore, since we were all so deeply affected by it.


And I thought it did work out in the end. And in a way, it also created an opportunity to say something about OMT. I don't know how you see this, but it seems to me that there's a sort of a mood in the broader academy these days, which is suggesting that we are too engaged with theory and that instead, we should be dealing with “real” practical problems. Theory seems to have acquired a bad name as being a distraction from that. But I think that the OMT Division represents the value of theory. So for me, it was an opportunity to push back on the notion that theory is not relevant, and to point out that theory is entirely practical. It is useful to help us think about real-world things. And so, in a certain sense, I felt that this was an occasion to show that, yes – here is a real phenomenon that is important and that we are all going through (the pandemic). However, if you want to talk about it intelligently and do research on it you need to think through what it is a “case” of. That's what we're about in OMT. I wanted to get across there that theorizing about a major issue like this is worth doing because it's so useful in helping us grasp the implications, and in moving forward to address them.


BB: Yes, absolutely. Let me give you an opportunity to share what you had been thinking about before shifting gears to address the pandemic in your talk.


AL: There's a trace of what I wanted to say in the talk because I was thinking of discussing four different approachs to process theorizing. This is an idea based on a recently published book chapter. I did indeed address the four approaches in the talk, but I had previously been thinking of applying them to organization theory more broadly. The talk would not have been quite so focused on one specific object. The book chapter that it was based on applied the ideas to identity, actually. The ideas are quite flexible. So what I did was to show how these four different ways of thinking processually could be mobilized to consider the organizational issues raised by the pandemic.


BB: Maybe say more about your perspective on organizational identity.


AL: Yes. I have only recently become interested in organizational identity and so I have not written a whole lot about it so far. However, Davide Ravasi, Mary Tripsas and I recently edited a 2020 special issue of Strategic Organization on “Exploring the Strategy-Identity Nexus” which we are quite proud of. I have been particularly interested in trying to think about organizational identity from a processual perspective. Along those lines, I really like the notion of “organizational identity work” that I think nicely expresses the idea of identity as something that is constructed continually by organization members. 


I have a recent paper in Organization Studies, which might give you an example of this approach. I call this the “ghost” project, as it deals with the influence of deceased executives and founders on expressions of organizational identity in the present. The origin of this paper was an archive of employee magazines for a cooperative bank which was founded in 1900.  The archive goes back over 80 years from 1935 to 2015 and we have over 600 issues and it is all digitalized. What interested us was how the organization cites the name of the founder in this magazine over time to talk about organizational identity, and indeed also to stretch organizational identity as expressed in discourse over time. What we did basically was search the archive for the name of the founder, Alphonse Desjardins and then looked at how writers were invoking him, across time. It was a lot of fun.


BB: The immortal life of Alphonse Desjardins.


AL: Indeed. We saw how at different moments during history, Alphonse Desjardins was invoked differently. For example, at first, the magazine writers (mainly executives of the organization) would cite his exact words to express who they were, and also to determine what they should do. It was almost as if the man’s spirit was speaking from the grave. He was gone, but his words were still there and they were still influential as they were mobilized by many people in making decisions and in affirming identity.  However, over time the organization stopped referring so much to his exact words, but instead focused more on his character and achievements. So instead of saying ‘We should not change, because if we changed, we would not be respecting the word of Alphonse,” they started to refer to his persona as a visionary, which enabled them to say, ‘Well, we should change, and by doing so, we will be like him because he was a visionary and an innovator’. So in the discourse expressed in the magazine around Alphonse Desjardins, we see managers doing organizational identity work by continually associating themselves with the founder, yet changing the meaning of that association as time wore on.


BB: And talking about organizational identity as a process, how do you see this pandemic playing out for academic organizations if you could take like a very long-term view from your particular vantage?


AL: I don't think things can fully go back to the way they were before. And in terms of organizational identity, I am sure schools must be thinking ‘What is our identity if we're online?’


I did my undergraduate degree at Oxford and those were the best years of my life, being young and living in that amazing physical and social environment: punting on the Cherwell and the wonderful architecture and lying on grass in the quad, drinking coffee until 3:00 am with friends discussing everything under the sun. But wherever you go to study – at HEC Montréal, it would be similar – the place is just so important. Place confers a distinctive identity and meaning in part because of the physical environment and in part because of the people you meet. And then you go online. You go from having an atmosphere, a place where people meet each other, and to which they become attached, to being online in the zoom universe. You could be studying anywhere and it would be no different. So I don't know what happens to organizational identity in an environment like that. I think it is a little problematic.


That said, the pandemic has taught us many things. We've all now learned how we can work online, actually, surprisingly well. In December. I was still using very basic technology and it was clunky and terrible and it went down all the time. Now we can have a decent conversation. Associations like the Academy may change as well, perhaps partly for the better, because they can be more inclusive.


BB: That sounds positive. However, that was one thing I was going to ask you about: having such a momentous career occasion for you being the first OMT Distinguished Scholar occasion executed virtually.


AL: Of course, it would have been nicer in person, but I thought that there are also all kinds of positive things about the online conference. For example, you could go from session to session at the click of a button. So that was good, and also people could come from all over the world without having to pay airfares and accommodation. And so those things are good. But it also raises questions about whether you actually need to have conferences once a year. In addition, we now know that there are ways which are much more satisfactory of trying to bring people into professional development. There were so many things such as webinars and online meet-the-scholar events that got started because of the academy coming up. I hope that they will continue. However, it takes energy to keep them going.


BB: Do you have any advice for PhD students and junior faculty who have to navigate this important time of their career socially? Any advice for ways to, you know, feel confident going into it and less feeling shortchanged?


AL: I still think that we need the face-to-face. I mean, when you're a new faculty or PhD student and you go, physically, to the Academy meeting, it's very important to do that. But on the other hand, it also depends where you come from, you know, whether you come from a big school or a small school – but I have terrible memories of feeling so lonely at these big face-to-face events. I mean so lonely in a crowd.  The doctoral consortium helps with that. But in a certain sense, it might be easier if there was some kind of organized sessions, perhaps online, where you go and you meet people and people comment on your papers. Perhaps that could help when you do actually go on to the physical meeting afterwards. I didn't really enjoy my first Academy meetings. I really didn’t like the big socials – standing in the middle of the room with a glass of wine, not knowing anybody. And, I didn't feel confident enough to go up to a group and say, Hello, I am Ann. I couldn't do that. I actually still don’t enjoy those big socials very much. I prefer a smaller group of people I know.


BB: First Academy, you're still a student so you feel like anything you do will be seen as instrumental.


AL: Yes, so what difference does being online make to that? I mean maybe it could make it easier to make that first contact. I don't know. And then when you go to a physical meeting afterwards, you're talking to people outside your own local environment more because we have now learned to do that online beforehand.


BB: Okay, so let's take you back to Oxford again. Can you share about how you went from a math undergrad degree and an operations research masters to Distinguished Scholar in OMT?


AL:  I was good at mathematics at high school. And so that's what I studied at university and I wanted it to be practical, so then I went to do the masters in operations research and then I worked for about three years for a candy company. Following that, I married a French Canadian and moved to Canada where I started doing work as a consultant in the healthcare sector in Montreal. And it was not exactly operations research, but I was using some of my analytical skills. I suppose that throughout all that experience, I started to feel that management was much more interesting than operations research. What I was enjoying was the organizational aspect, not the modeling aspect and so at that point, when I decided to do a PhD, I was really quite interested in drawing on and developing what I had learned informally from working in organizations.


So my doctoral thesis was titled “The role of formal analysis in organizations.”  And it was inspired by my experience as an analyst with this background, and it was qualitative. I don't think I would have done that particular thesis had I been in a different PhD program. I was in a joint PhD program in Montreal that included the four business schools in the city. It was here that I took a course with Henry Mintzberg from McGill who at that time was highly critical about analysis and he was also talking a lot about the importance of getting close to phenomena to study them well. For example, he had written an ASQ paper in 1979 about doing “direct research” which tended to imply using qualitative methods. So if I had not been in that environment, I would probably have done a mainstream quantitative thesis, possibly on the same topic, but not using qualitative methods. So you could explain the shift by the fact that I was in this environment, that I was being encouraged to see that qualitative research could be valuable and that there was a lot of support for that, and also the topic was extremely relevant to my experience.


My learning from that is if you're doing a PhD, it is a good idea if you build on your own tacit knowledge, which is rare and that nobody else has in quite the same way. If you can make your thesis project an extension of your prior life in an interesting way, you don't need to go to the library. Well… not true, you do have to go to the library. But that is just a support and not the source of your idea. So that would be one of my suggestions to Ph.D. students:  don't look for your thesis topic in the journals. Or rather, find a topic which relates to who you are and then see what the journals also say about it and build from that. That's a much better strategy, I think, for developing something different and original.


BB: That's great advice. The other question I have that you made me think of is less grand, but whether or not this is the time to learn something different than your main area of interest or a different method?


AL: When I started doing qualitative research there wasn't a whole lot written about it in the management journals. There was a lot of material written about it by anthropologists and so on. But the management journals really, there wasn't much there. And there was, in particular, very little about how to analyze data. So I felt that I was learning as I was going along, when I was doing that. Things have become so much more structured since then, and there's so much more out there to help you to learn a new method, but it does take an enormous investment. And both the qualitative and quantitative methods have become more sophisticated with time. So I think you need to say, ‘Okay, if I'm going to invest in a new method, this is going to take a lot of time and I'm going to have to really invest in it and it will take attention away from something else. So, personally, I would not try to do everything. Pick and choose the methods that are going to be most useful, and that you will enjoy working with. And realize that there are resources out there. I would strongly recommend the CARMA webinars and workshops to familiarize yourself with new methods.


BB: Thinking about students in particular, who may be looking for research ideas, can you suggest what unexpected thing does this pandemic and moment present where it might offer a good opportunity for a way of generating insights that might not have been possible before?


AL: I think you would need to start thinking about what are the kinds of data that now exist that did not exist before. And, you know, will they continue to exist when this time is over? I don't know. But there are certain sources of data, which have been created because of COVID.  Like recordings of meetings. There were also sources of information out there previously that were being created but that were not being exploited as much as they could have been, although that is changing. So there are electronic sources of information – which didn't exist a few years ago – that provide immense opportunities in terms of analysis. Of course that means that data in a certain sense drives your research topics.


BB: One thing I wanted to make sure we touched on before any closing remarks from you was the encouragement in your talk for scholars to dive into the process you are studying without any fear.


AL: Usually when you have a research project, you have to write a research proposal, you have to at least give the impression that you have some idea of what you are doing with a conceptual framework. Moreover, if it’s quantitative, my understanding is that it is now seen as important to write down your hypotheses beforehand and put them in a safe deposit box (or the equivalent) to avoid accusations of p-hacking. But my experience – and it is possibly because I do qualitative research – is that it never works out quite like that. I mean In order to get a research project started and to get your PhD supervisor to sign off on what you're doing, you usually have to write a document, which says, here's what I'm going to do. However, when you actually get into the field, you usually find that the questions and the concepts you put in the document don’t fit. And so you should be open to seeing what is interesting. And open to going back and, dumping, if necessary, some of what you thought you would look at in the beginning.


If you're doing qualitative research it's almost always a discovery process. Unfortunately, when you only discover what you're doing as you are doing it, it can be quite insecurity-inducing. For qualitative research, the insecure part is late in the process when you have all your data and you have not worked out what it means yet.


BB: Any extra feedback if you find yourself in that scary place?


AL: Well, I wish I knew. I mean I'm in that scary place now with a couple of projects because you may take a direction which you like with a study and think you have a contribution. But the reviewers may not agree with you and they may send you back to do it all again. And so you really have to set it aside and come back to it, maybe a month later, and then read the paper and read the reviews and then you'll see, well, okay, maybe they are right. Then the drama is that you have to take the piece of art that you have created and pull it apart, reanalyze your data, and put it back together. I find it's easier to do that with others. Possibly it's easier because it's a joint writing process. You get attached to the part that you wrote. You really don't want to change it. But you're not quite so attached to the other part. You have more distance and you're able to see perhaps more easily than the other person what might be done with it, and vice-versa.


The other thought is that with experience, you learn to expect that insecurity at the end of the data collection process. It is normal, and it is temporary. Everyone goes through that. You need to have confidence that you will fall back on your feet. Quantitative researchers probably go through that insecurity most at the beginning of a project as they develop their conceptual framework. For qualitative researchers, this comes at the end.


BB: Can you share a successful research story?


AL: I have been rejected a lot in my career, but some of the papers that I'm most known for were actually not that difficult to get published. My paper on “Strategies for theorizing from process data” received very positive reviews on the first round with only minor revisions. However, that was in 1999. I don’t think that would happen now. Things have become more challenging.


However, if you are interested, I do have six points about scholarship as a learning process that might be of value to younger scholars. I don’t think it’s a recipe for success exactly, but it is a set of things to think about that may help.


The first one is to consider scholarship as an intellectual process. This is about the content of the work you do. I mentioned part of this earlier, based on the idea of building on your strengths. But also, I think it is important just to always do your best, no cutting corners. Just try to do really good work.


The second point is to view scholarship as a social process. So, this is about not doing it alone, working with others, not being isolated, and not being scared to give credit to others or worried about whose name is first all the time. Scholarship should be fun, and a social collective process, where you share the journey with others.


The third point is to see scholarship as a normative process. This is all about learning the rules that you are generally expected to follow in order to do well. So this could include ethical rules but also other practices, including how papers are written for different journals. I think you can be pretty systematic about studying that. Once you have learned the conventions, you can decide which ones you might legitimately play with to bring out your own voice, but it is still a good idea to know the rules before you attempt that.


The fourth idea is to see scholarship as a serendipitous process. Many things happen because of chance, and it is important to be open to opportunities. You see something – like the database on the cooperative bank that I mentioned – which is crazily interesting. Why not see where it may lead you?! And it doesn't matter if your paper is data-driven as long as you find a question to ask which is relevant and important and which the data can answer.  People always say you should choose your methodology to best fit your research question. I say, it doesn’t matter where you start as long as in the end there is a fit between the two. Serendipity comes into research and scholarly careers more than we think. What you can do depends on where you are at a particular point in time, and who you happen to meet. You should let that happen.


Number five, is to see scholarship as an adaptive learning process. You learn while you are doing the same project, and then you learn across projects. Even if it seems as if things are going badly, you still learn and you get better at it. So, a kind of corollary to that is that failure is part of success. My theory is that those people who have written the most papers that we know about, have also been rejected the most times (which we don’t know about). That there is a positive correlation between them. You just don't see the shadow CV (the one that includes the rejected papers). Of course, maybe this is just me rationalizing my failures. I don’t get to see others’ shadow CVs, only my own. But it is a theory that might be tested.


Sixth point is to see scholarship as a balancing process. The idea is to try to ensure that you have room to enjoy the journey. What I mean is trying not to put yourself in a place where there's so much pressure that you can't move. You need degrees of freedom. You want to be stimulated, but not overly pressured. I think I've been lucky. I've always been in schools where I felt stimulated by what I was doing but not overwhelmed, at least that is how I remember it. That gives you so much agency.  So you don't necessarily have to publish everything you write in A+ journals, and you have choices in terms of how you want to contribute to in terms of teaching, research and service. Balancing is also about finding time for living as well. I must admit I was better at that when I had a child at home. It gives you important perspective that you can lose later on. I am now recapturing some of that with my grandson.


BB: Wonderful! Thank you so much for sharing your encouragement and six ways of seeing scholarship as a process.  Congratulations again on your OMT Distinguished Scholar recognition!