The Academy of Management as a truly international organization: David Patient’s lessons from a term on the Board of Governors

Monday, December 2, 2019 - 12:57

“How do you manage something that seems to be going very well, and take advantage of it, while also accepting that if we keep doing the same things in the same way, we're not gonna be there in twenty years?” David Patient, CUBE researcher and director, was elected to the Board of Governors of the Academy of Management in 2016. Now that his three year term has come to an end, David looks back on what has changed in the Academy of Management, the largest  professional association for scholars of management, and on the impact of this position on his career and his outlook on the world. 

In an interview, David Patient addresses how the Academy of Management is making more intensive efforts to reflect its international members’ different interests and perspectives, expanding its reach and its focus beyond the borders of North America, and his own role in helping that happen, as a researcher based in Lisbon, Portugal. 

How would you describe the differences between the moment in Management research when you were elected to the Board and the one we are living now? 

There have been some trends that have continued, but there have been a couple of events that have had a big influence. For example, there was the travel ban in the United States [in effect from January 27, 2017, until March 16, 2017], which was something that, to some extent, threatened the usual operation of the Academy, and also was very much against its principles. 

In what way did the 2017 travel ban in the US affect the operation of the Academy? 

In a couple of ways. One is that a relatively small number of foreign researchers were not able to attend the Annual Meeting, and steps were immediately taken to allow them to participate in other ways. On the other hand, there was probably a far larger number of scholars who might not register for the meeting in subsequent years because of the travel ban. There were also strong reactions from people who objected on scholarly and on political grounds, who said they would not be attending the Annual Meeting for this reason. And so the call to have meetings, including the Annual Meeting, outside of North America grew much stronger. 

The Academy of Management is registered as a charitable organization and, as part of that, it doesn't usually take political stands -- a policy that the Academy followed for 80 or 90 years, including through some tumultuous political times in the United States. The decision was made, following the travel ban, to change this position. To some extent, I think it turned the Academy into an organization that, although it accommodates a lot of different nationalities, political views, viewpoints and approaches, is more willing to openly advocate for the things that are most important to its membership. 

In this period, the Academy has begun to shift its focus from being very North American centered to internationalizing itself. In what ways has that happened?

It's a shift that's been happening since I first became a member, which is almost 20 years ago. At the moment, almost half of the membership is international, and the largest proportion of that is European. This is a really huge change from even 10 years ago. There has also been a feeling that, in terms of the type of research that was welcome in and presented at the Academy, that the AOM tended to be North American. The research was typically more quantitative and more positivist. In this regard also, the Academy of Management has changed. 

"People wanted to have the perspective of researchers and of teachers who come from schools that are a little smaller, that have a different balance of research and teaching than some of the top American schools, where some of the research and intellectual traditions are different..."

Over the last couple of years, for the first time, the Academy has held conferences outside of North America. There have been two small conferences that are called specialized conferences: the first was held in London and the second was held in Tel Aviv. The third is in Slovenia and then there's going to be one in Mexico. These are far smaller, but they're opportunities to experiment with different formats, to bring the Academy of Management to people's backyard, or to their part of the world, instead of always requiring people to go to North America. 

This has been part of a larger effort to attract a broader community to the Academy. The first two specialized conferences, the ones in London, on Big Data, and in Tel Aviv, on Entrepreneurship, were huge successes. 

Were there other non-North America based Board Members during your period as a member? 

There have always been a few of us, I would say. We're definitely in the minority. There's nine members at large, and then there's five people who are in the rotation for the presidency of the Academy - they enter in one role and eventually become president... So in total, the membership of the Board of Governors is 14 people. Most of the time there would be maybe two or three, maybe four non-North American Members. 

What role do you think that countries that are traditionally more peripheral can play in shifting the way that the AOM is currently restructuring itself? 

In some ways, Portugal could be seen as a country that's peripheral. When it comes to Management research, I would say it isn't necessarily. There's certainly schools within Portugal that participate very actively in different aspects of Management research, including publishing in the top journals or participating in some of the more prestigious conferences. I would say that in that regard Portugal does not have a huge presence, but there are certainly a few schools that are always present at the Academy. 

Without a doubt, part of the reason that I was invited to run for election to the Board was the fact that I could bring an international or a European perspective. I'm pretty sure I was the first person from Portugal, and maybe from Iberia. People wanted to have the perspective of researchers and of teachers who come from schools that are a little smaller, that have a different balance of research and teaching than some of the top American schools, where some of the research and intellectual traditions are different... 

I think the scholars who come from Portugal, including myself, can definitely contribute that perspective. I've found the Academy of Management very open to that. When we try to think - "How do we reach new members in Latin America?; How do we begin to attract management scholars from Africa?", both of which are very underrepresented - looking at it from the perspective of a school in Portugal, we're a little closer, we can anticipate some of the challenges, and also, maybe, help find some of the solutions a little easier than if you're in one of 30 universities based in Boston, for example, or if you're in an Ivy League university. 

Is there anything that you will take from these three years' experience at the AOM onward to different professional and academic challenges? 

I was surprised and honored to run for election, and even more surprised when I was actually elected. It was in some ways a pinnacle of my career, and a proud moment, I hope, also for this school and for people doing the kind of work that I do in Portugal. 

"Because of this, one of the things that have really been reinforced for me would firstly be the importance of buy-in. This is even more important when the work is done by volunteers. The reason they're doing it is they believe in something."

There are several things I learned. Even though the Board of Governors meets infrequently in person, when we meet it's very intense, because there are a lot of decisions to be made and because there are a lot of interests to take into account. The Academy of Management is a member-driven organization, and there are more than 20 thousand members who come from more than 20 different divisions which often represent different approaches and academic disciplines, and most of the work of the organization is done by volunteers. There still needs to be a head office, there still needs to be a board who establishes a strategy and takes care of governance, but the large part is just trying to facilitate the work of these different divisions and to engage them, and so that means that when the board does meet we're extremely busy, we have a lot of decisions that need to be made. 

Because of this, one of the things that have really been reinforced for me would firstly be the importance of buy-in. When you have a very diverse membership, it makes it more important than ever that when a decision is made, people feel listened to - and this is even more important when the work is done by volunteers. The reason they're doing it is they believe in something. 

When the travel ban was instituted in the States, the President of the Academy of Management said that there was no way that the organization as it was constituted could take a political stand, until it changed its internal rules, which it did several months later. A lot of the members were not happy with this decision. They felt that, like many other academic organizations, the Academy should have spoken out, and sent letters, and been in the press. Instead, the Academy moved a bit more slowly, but it did so in order to get buy-in, and to share ideas, and to get lots of feedback. The President of the Academy of Management at the time was Anita McGahan, who is a Professor at the University of Toronto. I think she received something like 2.000 emails from members, and she responded to each one personally. Over a two or three week period, herself and the Executive Director of the Academy of Management basically worked 24 hours a day to respond, to at least make members feel listened to. 

What is another lesson that you feel you’ve learned from this period at the Board of Governors? 

The Academy of Management has been super successful - it was formed before World War II, it's become a large organization, it has substantial reserves of money, it publishes the most highly cited journals in management. It has leveled off in terms of growing in size, but I think you can quite confidently say that when it comes to the areas of management scholarship that it covers, that it's the premier academic organization. 

"The Academy has been trying in some ways to break its business model, certainly to improve on it."

Things have gone well so far, and what's especially impressed me since I've been a part of the Board is how there is general agreement that the organization needs to change. In spite of things going well, the organization believes that if it continues doing what it's doing in the way that it's doing it, it's not going to be serving its members in ten years, and that it may not exist at all. 

There's a lot of different types of conferences out there, there's different models of publishing, members have really different expectations, and so on the one hand the question is: How do you manage something that seems to be going very well and take advantage of it, while also accepting that if we keep doing the same things in the same way, we're not gonna be there in twenty years? This is a challenge facing so many organizations where the past has been great and in spite of that they need to move and they need to change even before it seems urgent. 

I would say, in that regard, the Academy has been pretty outward-looking. They've been through a whole strategic planning exercise, and part of that was to look at other similar organizations and benchmark itself against them. They found that in different areas, other organizations were far stronger. The Academy has been trying to learn from those, in some ways to break its business model, certainly to improve on it. 

Finally, there are some really strict rules around meetings at the Academy, at least in Board of Governors meetings. There are some practices that I would try to bring in to other areas in my professional life. For instance, we always begin the meetings by reading through the values of the Academy, by reading the mission of the Academy, and also by reading the rules that we had all agreed upon in terms of how we discuss things. 

Does this reading of the mission of the Academy at the start of meetings have a big impact in the way the meeting takes place? 

For new members, I think it's pretty powerful. It's only powerful if people actually follow it, but I think the fact that you do this at the beginning of every meeting emphasizes the importance of it. 

Some of the values and practices that are reinforced in this way are not things that we always do. I've been at plenty of meetings where people do not always express disagreements respectfully and politely, where people do not always feel safe speaking up with different opinions, where people do not always commit to some of the same values. Probably because the membership of the Board changes every year -- you bring in four new people and four people leave -- this provides some continuity. 

But it's something that really marked me, because what's created is a place where people feel free to speak up. There is lots of conflict, but in my experience over the past three years it's always been very constructive. It probably has to be this way: when people can only meet for a few days every three or four months, you need to put some rules around not only what you talk about but how you talk about things. And I've found that I've learned a lot through how things are talked about at the Board. 

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