A professor’s point of view

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Asmall but growing number of companies are enlisting the services of business school professors to serve as in-house academics to keep the company up to date with the latest in management theory and lead employees to find solutions for their most pressing challenges.

The trend shows the renewed emphasis that MBA programmes and faculty members are placing on the intersection of theory and practice.

Business school faculty have long taken on consulting gigs for companies, but in the past these consultations have resembled executive education courses, according to Ron Sims, professor of organisational behaviour at William & Mary Mason School of Business, Virginia.

“The old model is that a professor from a ‘who’s who’ school would come in to a company, do a brain dump at the executive level, take their fee and walk away. It was more of an ego trip for the company,” says Prof Sims, who has served as an embedded academic for a public utilities company.

“Now, smart organisations are starting to recognise there is value in bringing in a cutting-edge thinker who studies a particular field or industry and who can push employees to think differently – to drill down contemporary management theories to apply them to real world situations.

“It’s not just about your theories and your models. You have to get in there and get your hands dirty and really understand what the company is trying to do and what their struggles are,” says Prof Sims.

The key difference between traditional consultants and in-house or embedded academics lies in the mode of problem solving: consulting companies are hired to work on a challenge the company faces. The consultants collect data, analyse it, come up with a solution and figure out how best to implement it. Embedded academics, however, are usually brought in to work for a company because their research focus – innovation, operations, or branding – fits with the company’s needs. They tend to adopt an advisory rather than a teaching role.

It is a symbiotic transaction: companies get the benefit of an employee aware of new theories and best practices at a much smaller price tag than a consulting firm. And academics get a front-row seat to the inner workings of a company, which provides fodder for research.

Cristina Simón, who teaches organisational behaviour and human resources management at IE in Madrid, has been an embedded academic at Inditex, the fashion retailer that includes brands such as Zara and Massimo Dutti, since May.

She describes her role as an “an idea provider“ alerting the company to HR trends and offering context about what is going on in other industries and sectors. “I raise interest in topics that might be valuable for the company – and I raise questions and issues that they don’t like. I have 100 per cent academic freedom.”

Begoña Lopez Cano, head of human resources at Inditex, says it is preferable for the company’s employees to find answers to problems themselves – with the help of Prof Simón - rather than use outside consultants.

“The employees have the knowledge of the company, so that they can adapt the solutions to the particularities of it. Moreover, once the project is finished, the knowledge remains in the company and we increase the involvement of the employees.”

Prof Simón is working with the company on several projects from piloting a corporate volunteering scheme in Catalonia, to developing a job advancement programme at Zara stores to reduce the company’s high rate of employee turnover.

“I provide them with a different context and make them think from a different perspective,” she says. At the same time, “I am enriched by their experience and their way of doing things. It gives me a look at what is going on in the business world.”

In 2008, Vijay Govindarajan took leave from Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business to become the first professor in residence at General Electric.

Prof Govindarajan says he “had the advantage of an outsider with the access of an insider” and that other employees recognised and appreciated that he had no particular agenda. He later worked on several projects, including expanding GE’s healthcare efforts in India. He helped guide GE on a “reverse innovation” strategy: creating an inexpensive and portable electrocardiogram machine that is today sold in 194 countries.

Prof Govindarajan describes his role as a “one-man gunslinger”. “I was brought in to push their thinking, to help the organisation self-diagnose its problems and figure out what to do. I gave them a process and a methodology, but all the work was done by GE employees.”

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