- IT Management
- Creative Businesses
- Performance Management
- Read the Impact article featuring research from Professor Austin
Robert D. Austin is a professor of Information Systems at Ivey Business School, and an affiliated faculty member at Harvard Medical School and Aarhus School of Business and Social Sciences. At Ivey, he is the faculty director of the school’s Learning Innovation Initiative.
Before his appointment at Ivey, he was a professor of Innovation and Digital Transformation at Copenhagen Business School, and, before that, a professor of Technology and Operations Management at the Harvard Business School. At Harvard, he chaired the executive program for Chief Information Officers (CIOs) for more than ten years.
Professor Austin has published widely, in both academic and professional venues, such as Harvard Business Review, Information Systems Research, MIT Sloan Management Review, Organization Science, Organization Studies, and the Wall Street Journal. He also is the author of nine books, more than 50 published cases and notes, three Harvard online products, and two popular Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) running on the Coursera platform.
Over the years, Dr. Austin has consulted and delivered education experiences and consulting to many multinational corporations, working mostly with C-level executives, and he has served on numerous boards, especially for technology companies. He is a member of the international jury for the CIO 100 Awards, which selects for recognition the best examples of IT projects that “[create] new business value by innovating with technology” and he has advised the European Commission on “e- Competencies for Innovation” and “e-Leadership.”
- Design and Technology Management (MBA)
- Leveraging Information Technology (HBA, 2 sections)
- PhD, Management and Decision Science, Carnegie Mellon University
- MS, Industrial Engineering, Northwestern University
- BA, English Literature, Swarthmore College
- BS, Engineering, Swarthmore College
Recent Refereed Articles
Austin, R. D.; Hjorth, D.; Hessel, S.,
(Forthcoming), "How aesthetics and economy become conversant in creative firms", Organization Studies.
Abstract: Research on creative organizations often highlights a concern that economic influences on creative work might crowd out aesthetic influences. How this concern can be managed, however, is not well understood. Using a case study of an economicaesthetic conflict within a design firm, we develop theory to describe how the economic and aesthetic can be constructively combined. We propose the concept of conversation as a way of theorizing about a constructed sociality via which creative firms manage this conflict we propose the concept of ensemble as a way of theorizing about a conversationally nurtured but fragile form of intensified sociality that most successfully combines conflicting influences when it can be achieved. Together, these theoretical conceptualizations contribute new insights and help organize a fragmented landscape of ideas about creative work.
Rahrovani, Y.; Pinsonneault, A.; Austin, R. D.,
2018, "If You Cut Employees Some Slack, Will They Innovate?", MIT Sloan Management Review, August 59(4): 47 - 51.
Abstract: The idea of using slack resources -- in the form of time, technology, and support -- to bolster employee innovation falls in and out of favor. We found that different types of employees respond in different ways to slack innovation programs; that different kinds of slack resources are better suited to certain types of employees than they are to others; and that different kinds of slack innovation programs produce different kinds of innovation. Our findings suggest six issues for companies to consider in designing and implementing slack innovation programs: 1. Slack innovation programs are not one-size-fits-all undertakings. 2. Encouraging employee innovation requires managerial support at all levels. 3. Combine slack resources with appropriate motivational framing. 4. Provide a "safe place to play" for employees who have low expertise and/or low self-assessed innovation. 5. Employ the right kinds of slack for the right employees. 6. Design slack innovation programs for the type of innovation you want.
Austin, R. D.; Pisano, G. P.,
2017, "Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage", Harvard Business Review, April 95(3): 96 - 103.
Abstract: Many people with neurological conditions such as autism spectrum disorder and dyslexia have extraordinary skills, including those in pattern recognition, memory, and mathematics. Yet they often struggle to fit the profiles sought by employers. A growing number of companies, including SAP, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Microsoft, have reformed their HR processes in order to access neurodiverse talentand are seeing productivity gains, quality improvement, boosts in innovative capabilities, and increased employee engagement as a result. The programs vary but have seven major elements in common. Companies should 1) team with governments or nonprofits experienced in working with people with disabilities, 2) use noninterview assessment processes, 3) train other workers and managers in what to expect, 4) set up a support system, 5) tailor methods for managing careers, 6) scale the program, 7) mainstream the program. The work for managers will be harder, but the payoff to companies will be considerable: access to more of their employees’ talents, along with diverse perspectives that will help them compete.
Austin, R. D.; Upton, D. M.,
2016, "Leading in the age of super-transparency", MIT Sloan Management Review, December 57(2): 24 - 32.
Abstract: An essay about super-transparency among organizations is presented. It states that the trend is influenced by the social media and increased flood of data. Also mentioned are best practices for managers to meet expectations which include examining assumptions to keep information contained, reviewing strategy for dealing with data vulnerability, and reviewing information flows.
Austin, R. D.,
2016, "Unleashing creativity with digital technology", MIT Sloan Management Review, September 58(1): 157 - 157.
Abstract: An essay is presented on the use of digital technology to nurture creativity in business management. It argues that technology can be used to augment people and organizations' creative abilities which is crucial for innovations. Topics include colorist and executive Stefan Sonnenfeld's digital color artistry and use of computers for human intellect augmentation.
Austin, R. D.; Sonne, T.,
2014, "The dandelion principle: Redesigning work for the innovation economy", MIT Sloan Management Review, January 55(4): 67 - 72.
Austin, R. D.; Lee, D.; Sullivan, E.,
2012, "Accidental Innovation: Supporting Valuable Unpredictability in Creative Process", Organization Science, September 23(5): 1505 - 1522.
Abstract: Historical accounts of human achievement suggest that accidents can play an important role in innovation. In this paper, we seek to contribute to an understanding of how digital systems might support valuable unpredictability in innovation processes by examining how innovators who obtain value from accidents integrate unpredictability into their work. We describe an inductive, grounded theory project, based on 20 case studies, that looks into the conditions under which people who make things keep their work open to accident, the degree to which they rely on accidents in their work, and how they incorporate accidents into their deliberate processes and arranged surroundings. By comparing makers working in varied conditions, we identify specific factors (e.g., technologies, characteristics of technologies) that appear to support accidental innovation. We show that makers in certain specified conditions not only remain open to accident but also intentionally design their processes and surroundings to invite and exploit valuable accidents. Based on these findings, we offer advice for the design of digital systems to support innovation processes that can access valuable unpredictability.
Link(s) to publication:
Austin, R. D.; Nolan, R. L.; O'Donnell, S.,
2009, "The Technology Manager’s Journey: An Extended Narrative Approach to Educating Technical Leaders", Academy of Management Learning & Education, September 9(3): 337 - 355.
Abstract: Technology management poses particular challenges for educators because it requires a facility with different kinds of knowledge and wide-ranging learning abilities. We report on the development and delivery of an information technology (IT) management course designed to address these challenges. Our approach is built around a narrative, the "IVK extended case series," a fictitious but reality-based story about a newly appointed, not technically trained chief information officer (CIO) in his first year on the job. We designed the course around a narrative and composed the narrative in a specific way to achieve two key objectives. First, this format allowed us to combine the active student orientation typical of case-based approaches with the systematic construction of cumulative theoretical frameworks more characteristic of lecture-based methods. Second, basing the narrative on the monomytha literary pattern common to important narratives around the world that encourages students to more fully inhabit the story's heroleads to fuller engagement and more active learning. We report results using this approach with undergraduate and graduate students in two universities located in different countries, with executives at a major multinational corporation, and with participants in an open-enrollment program at a major business school. Student course feedback and a follow-up survey administered about one year after the course suggest that the extended narrative approach mostly achieves its design objectives. We suggest that the approach might be used more widely in teaching technology management, particularly with "digital natives," who have come of age in an environment crowded with engaging approaches to communication and entertainment competing for their attention.
Link(s) to publication:
Austin, R. D.; Devin, L.,
2009, "Weighing the Benefits and Costs of Flexibility in Making Software: Toward a Contingency Theory of the Determinants of Development Process Design", Information Systems Research, September 20(3): 462 - 477.
Abstract: In recent years, flexibility has emerged as a divisive issue in discussions about the appropriate design of processes for making software. Partisans in both research and practice argue for and against plan-based (allegedly inflexible) and agile (allegedly too flexible) approaches. The stakes in this debate are high questions raised about plan-based approaches undermine longstanding claims that those approaches, when realized, represent maturity of practice. In this commentary, we call for research programs that will move beyond partisan disagreement to a more nuanced discussion, one that takes into account both benefits and costs of flexibility. Key to such programs will be the development of a robust contingency framework for deciding when (in what conditions) plan-based and agile methods should be used. We develop a basic contingency framework in this paper, one that models the benefitcost economics described in narratives about the transition from craft to industrial production of physical products. We use this framework to demonstrate the power of even a simple model to help us accomplish three objectives: (1) to refocus discussions about the appropriate design of software development processes, concentrating on when to use particular approaches and how they might be usefully combined (2) to suggest and guide a trajectory of research that can support and enrich this discussion and (3) to suggest a technology-based explanation for the emergence of agile development at this point in history. Although we are not the first to argue in favor of a contingency perspective, we show that there remain many opportunities for information systems (IS) research to have a major impact on practice in this area.
Link(s) to publication:
Wareham, J. D.; Busquets, X.; Austin, R. D.,
2009, "Creative, Convergent, and Social: Prospects for Mobile Computing", Journal of Information Technology, June 24(2): 139 - 143.
Abstract: This paper highlights the over-arching themes salient in the rapidly converging mobile computing industry. Increasingly, the developers of mobile devices and services are looking toward exploratory, non-determinist or, user-driven development methodologies in an effort to cultivate products that consumers will consistently pay for. These include Design Thinking, Living Labs, and other forms of ethnography that embrace serendipity, playfulness, error, and other human responses that have previously rested outside the orthodoxy of technology design. Secondly, the mobile device is likely the world's foremost social computer. Mobile vendors seeking to foster the production, propagation, and consumption of content on mobile devices are increasingly viewing the challenge as a complex social phenomenon, not a merely a well-defined technology problem. Research illustrating these themes is presented.
Link(s) to publication:
Austin, R. D.; Nolan, R. L.; O'Donnell, S.,
2009, "A Novel’ Approach to the Design of an IS Management Course", Communications of the Association for Information Systems, June 24(1).
Abstract: We report on the design and implementation of an unusual course in Information Systems (IS) management built around an extended case series: a fictitious but reality-based story about the trials and tribulations of a newly appointed but not-technically-trained Chief Information Officer (CIO) in his first year on the job. Together the cases constitute a true-to-life novel about IS management (published, in fact, as a novel, as well as individual cases). Four principles guided development of the series and its associated pedagogy: 1) Emphasis on integrative, soft-skill, and business-oriented aspects of IS, independent of underlying technologies 2) Student derivation and ongoing refinement of cumulative theoretical frameworks arrived at via in-class discussion 3) Identification of a set of core issues vital to practice that collectively approximate IS management as a business discipline and 4) Design for student engagement, in particular by basing the case story on the monomyth, a literary pattern common to important narratives around the world. A supporting website facilitates sharing of teaching materials and experiences by faculty using the case series. We report results from using this curriculum with undergraduate and graduate students in two universities in different countries, and with executives at a multinational corporation and in an executive program at Harvard Business School. Our results suggest that a novel-based approach holds considerable promise for use at undergraduate, graduate, and executive levels, and that it might have advantages in addressing the so-called enrollment crisis in IS education, especially with the generation of digital natives who have come of age in an environment crowded with engaging approaches to communication and entertainment that compete for their attention.
Austin, R. D.; Busquets, X.,
2008, "Managing Differences", Innovations: Technology, Governance, Globalization: 28 - 35.
Link(s) to publication:
Austin, R. D.,
2008, "Aesthetic Coherence and the Hunt for Big Margins", Harvard Business Review: 19 - 20.
Austin, R. D.; Nolan, R. L.,
2007, "Bridging the gap between stewards and creators", MIT Sloan Management Review, December 48(2): 29 - 36.
Abstract: Many technology-intensive companies today depend on employees with specialized technical skills, and managers may not fully understand the work these employees do. Moreover, managers and technical employees may have very different worldviews, and their worldviews may conflict during the process of business innovation. After researching the movement of Internet and computing pioneers among various organizations during a period between the early 1960s and the mid-1990s, the authors identified two distinct personality types that are both vital to successful technological innovation - but whose mindsets often clash. The authors dub these two types stewards and creators. An organization's stewards are usually managers; their goal is the careful allocation of the organization's resources, with an aim of achieving an optimal return on investment. Creators, on the other hand, are often skilled, specialized employees, and their focus is on a grand vision and mission; they frequently view business concerns as secondary. According to the authors, conflict between stewards and creators is, to some extent, inevitable. However, when such conflict is managed poorly, the organization's capacity to innovate effectively may be impaired. The authors suggest eight guidelines for managing steward-creator conflict more successfully. These guidelines include (1) Keep talented creators around, although they can be difficult to manage; (2) balance the influence of stewards and creators in the organization, so neither group always wins; (3) cultivate people who have credibility with both creators and stewards and can help resolve conflicts; (4) use peer review to more accurately evaluate creators' specialized technical work; (5) structure the innovation process so that creators produce tangible artifacts regularly; (6) realize that there will always be some conflict between an organizations' creators and its stewards; (7) avoid overly prescriptive control mechanisms that may alienate creators; and (8) ensure that closure on projects is achieved neither too quickly nor too slowly.
Austin, R. D.,
2007, "Kiva as a Test of Our Societal Creativity", Innovations: Technology, Governance, Globalization, June 2(1/2): 57 - 62.
Link(s) to publication:
Works in Progress
- Project: Deploying IT to Enhance Organizational Innovation
- Project: Neurodiversity as a Source of Organizational Talent
- Project: Living and Leading in an Era of Super Transparency
Honours & Awards
- Ivey Research Merit Award, 2018
- SAP Autism at Work Leadership Award, 2016
- Danish Society for Education and Business (DSEB) Prize, 2015, with Shannon Hessel
- MBA Society Recognition Award, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, 2015
- Industrial Engineering and Operations Management Distinguished Service Award, 3rd Annual Conference on Industrial Engineering and Operations Management, 2012
- Richard Beckhard Memorial Prize for Volume 48 of MIT Sloan Management Review, 2008
- Book Artful Making (co-authored with Lee Devin) honored with the Elliot Hayes Award, by the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, 2004
- Herbert A. Simon Doctoral Dissertation Award, Carnegie Mellon University, 1995
- Professor, Management of Innovation and Digital Transformation, Copenhagen Business School
- Dean, Faculty of Business Administration, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton
- CEO, CBS-SIMI Foundation, Copenhagen, Denmark
- Associate Professor, Harvard Business School
- Head of Operations, Oliko, a subsidiary of Novell
- Manager, Ford Motor Company