Wednesday, April 15, 2009

End of a noble experiment

For near 20 years, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation began support for in-depth study of specific industries. (This is the same Sloan who created GM and whose name adorns the MIT business school).

The foundation funded research centers on 26 industries, and with that dozens of dissertations, books and research papers. As the website proclaimed:

Since 1990, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Industry Studies program has been founded on the belief that industries are sufficiently different from one another that they individually deserve rigorous and deep academic study. The industry studies community is composed of scholars who deeply understand industries by taking a direct approach to the companies and people of each industry for data and observations.

The multidisciplinary research conducted by industry studies scholars generally employs a wide range of both quantitative and qualitative research methods (including direct observation and primary data collection), often conducted across multiple firms within a particular industry. This leads to a contextually rich picture of business phenomena and a depth of understanding and insight that can uniquely complement both more theoretical academic research and individual, firm-level studies.
The foundation once sought both recognition and financial support from industry
American industry confronts many changes and opportunities in today’s global marketplace. The Sloan Industry Centers are a powerful resource for industry, as well as those whose work is concerned with overarching issues that affect industries. Each Industry Center dedicated to a single industry is able to examine in-depth the features of that industry and work closely with its leaders.

The Sloan Industry Centers comprise a unique national network. Housed in many of the nation’s most prestigious universities, they listen to the current concerns of industry – attentive to the needs of business, and relying on the accumulated experience of business leaders – as they address solutions.
Regular readers know that my research interests are more industry-focused that discipline focused. Working at a teaching school I’ve had a limited role in the Sloan program, which funded centers at major US research universities.

I was peripherally (!) associated with UCI’s Personal Computing Industry Center, which was hosted by my co-authors but didn’t start until after I left UCI for SJSU. I also gave an open innovation keynote in 2005 for the paper business products center at Georgia Tech, and presented two papers at the 2007 conference held at MIT.

However, all good things must come to an end. Today, Sloan is pulling the plug: pushing the program out of the nest in hopes that it can fend for itself. As the head of the revised program announced last week:
Barring unforeseen delay, the Industry Studies Association will accept responsibility for the domain from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation on Wednesday, April 15, 2009.

Going forward, will inform viewers about the ISA and the activities of its members. As the organization grows, the ISA web site will increasingly become a resource for ISA members and place where many other scholars and the general public can go to understand more about industry studies research and this interdisciplinary community.

After launching the ISA web site we will also transition management of the industry studies listserv from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to the ISA, and this will take place in discrete steps.
The new ISA faces daunting odds: it has no journal, one conference and few resources. Most academics maintain primary allegiance to their disciplinary associations, such as the American Sociological Association or the Academy of Management.

Frankly, the loyalty came from the money that allowed academics the time and resources that made in-depth industry study possible. Now that the centers have received their final grants, most university centers will wither to a fraction of their former selves if not disappear entirely.

The end of the Industry Studies program marks a major cutback in Sloan’s support for empirical research on the US economy. With Sloan gone, there’s really no private foundation funding this sort of research. Some work gets funded by NSF’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences, but historically it has provided much smaller amounts for such studies.

Still, I am the first to admit that it’s better for a program to end on top. I am grateful for Sloan funding this effort for nearly 20 years.

I am only sorry that Sloan was unable to build the network of industry, foundation and/or government funding that would have allowed it to continue permanently. America has graduate education and research that is the envy of the world, and it seems a no-brainer to continue to deploying some resources to better understand the dynamics of the success or failure of the drivers of the American economy.

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