My research interests center on agency in a variety of institutional settings. I was one of the originators of the theory of agency (1973), including its name, and am responsible for one of its key logics: Because the benefits from securing and assuring perfect agents often fail to exceed the perceived costs of obtaining such agents, social and organizational institutions are structured to manage the resulting dilemmas. The institutional theory of agency then focuses on such major questions as the means by which social and organizational performance failures persist and are managed, the relational dynamics of agent and principal, the strategies used by agents and principals to assess the qualities of their exchange partners, including the credibility of the testaments provided about those qualities, the normative governance of agent-principal relations, the external presentation of and/or reputational manipulation of agency relationships, and many others.
In a series of papers with Robert C. Ryan, we are exploring various aspects of the social construction of organization systems by participants in the face of uncertainty, including how individuals and organizations judge the characters of social settings as credible, and commit to action in such settings.
Mr. Ryan and I published “On Making Meanings: Curators, Social Assembly, and Mashups,” in Strategic Organization in May 2015. This paper argues that institutional theory has three legs: meaning-making, meaning-evangelizing (cf. the literatures on institutional agency/legitimacy/isomorphism), and meaning-applying (cf. the literatures on categories and on sensemaking). But scholars have so far paid insufficient attention, both in theory development and in empirical work, to meaning-making institutions, actors, and logics. In this paper we introduce the creator/curator distinction of actors and logics, and their importance for institutional theory. We also introduce the concepts of social assembly and social mashup.
In other papers, Mr. Ryan and I examine how actors in institutional settings make decisions and commit to actions in the face of uncertainty, and the set of meta-cognitive actions that managers take to add value to a problem-solving organization. In one paper, we look at the means by which organizational routines are adjusted by micro-level managerial interventions (“tiny acts of management”) to adapt appropriately to both new technological demands and to changes in other organizational routines. We suggest that managers work from a portfolio of meta-cognitive analytic processes, and we characterize and sort these approaches.
In a second paper, Mr. Ryan and I develop a model of how organizational participants commit to action, including such steps as gathering perceptions about the social environment, testing the quality of those perceptions, assessing them in the light of commonplace and/or characteristic beliefs held by the observer regarding the context for action, reaching a judgment regarding the credibility of observations and the likely consequences of given actions, and, finally, committing to action. We critically examine the analysis of the Mann-Gulch fire disaster presented by Karl Weick in the light of our model.
In a third paper, Mr. Ryan and I are extending my theory of testaments, a theory of how decision makers assess the credibility of the presentations made by others about the social world and the nature of their participation in it. Social actors seeking assignment of credibility to their qualities and actions can present reports about the past, claims about the present, and predictions about the future. Social processes of verification of reports, validation of claims, and confirmation of predictions are then applied. But the assessments that occur are not costless, and so participants tend to economize on the “assurance load” attached to these evaluations. In addition, they use rules of thumb such as the requirement that a statement about phenomena be matched by a second independent observation (but not necessarily additional observations, because of the cost) -- which is termed the Rule of Two. The theory can generate explanations regarding a variety of common organizational phenomena.
In the same stream, my Sumner Marcus Award Address (2015) on “Practical Plagiarism….” at the SIM plenary presented a social constructivist approach to academic plagiarism. The paper identifies a set of social mechanisms that result in plagiaristic behaviors.
In a series of papers on reputation with John Mahon, we examine both the behavioral and the normative underpinnings of the management of reputation by firms. We seek to understand the ways in which social perceptions of performance are enacted, modified, and assigned value. Mahon and I introduce the concept of “reputation-set,” discuss the processes of manipulative reputation-shifting, and introduce the normative principle of reputational optimality or reputational “bliss.”
Perhaps my major research contribution is the origin of the theory of agency, a theoretical approach that has now spread across the social sciences and that has had applications in virtually every business school discipline. For an account of the origin of the theory of agency and copies of some of the original papers on agency, see my SSRN author page: http://ssrn.com/author=95600
The theory of agency seeks to understand failures of control and direction. For example, unintended and undesirable behaviors in organizations can occur because of perceptions that it does not pay to correct them; the costs of correction exceed the benefits. In actuality, however, from the wider viewpoint of society, intervention can indeed be rational. The institutional theory of agency seeks to understand how such failures occur and how they may be prevented. I independently originated the theory of agency in 1973 and was among the very first to publish on agency in a social science journal in 1975.
A recent series of papers has focused on the theory of testaments (see above), which examines some central aspects of the social processes that bind people together in organizations. In general, successful joint action or incorporation in organizational action requires that credible testaments, i.e., statements that produce belief that organizational performance will occur as it is claimed to occur, must accompany the credible commitments that provide rational support for such action.
I have also written in such related areas as failures in implementation in public organizations; norms of fiduciary behavior, i.e., norms of acting on behalf of others; incentive failures in organizations in general and in such settings as nuclear power plants; and the nature of the public interest.
I also have a significant research stream on government regulation and on corporate political activity. My 1980 book The Political Economy of Regulation: Creating, Designing, and Removing Regulatory Forms (Columbia University Press) is considered one of the basic treatises on the area (its definition of regulation is sometimes labeled "classic" by scholars in the area), was translated into Spanish, and is still frequently cited. Reviews of my 1993 book on corporate political activity described it as an essential resource on this topic.
I am also an active researcher in the general area of corporate social performance and business ethics. My December 2002 article in Business & Society on the measurement of corporate social performance won the best article award sponsored by the International Association for Business and Society and the California Management Review. This annual award is the highest research award in my field.
I am one of the founders of the International Association for Business and Society and have had many professional leadership activities in academic management societies. In 2007, I was elected to the leadership track of the Social Issues in Management Division of the Academy of Management, the leading academic organization in my field, serving as professional development workshop chair, program chair, and division chair (2007-2012).
My research activities and professional service culminated in the receipt (2014) of the Sumner Marcus Award of the Social Issues in Management Division, a career award that constitutes the highest recognition in my field. In 2015, I delivered the Sumner Marcus Award address at the plenary session of the SIM Division.
In 2014, I was a Finalist for the Aspen Institute Pioneer Award, an international award. The 2014 award was given for teaching in the area of business and government.
My public service activities have been especially diverse and extensive. I am pleased to have been able to facilitate the creation of several programs in public school settings, the creation of the Down Syndrome Center at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, for which I wrote the original prospectus, and the creation of Down Syndrome Quarterly, which for many years was the leading journal in this field, and to have contributed to a variety of other public educational activities.
Courses Recently Taught
- BUSENV 0060: Managerial Ethics and Stakeholder Management (CBA core course)
- BSEO 2509: Business & Politics (MBA elective)
- BSEO 2115 and BUSENV1706: Market Manipulations (MBA elective; CBA Honors College elective) [business history]
Professional Service and Activities
- Chair leadership stream, Social Issues in Management Division, Academy of Management, 2007-2012 (PDW Chair; Program Chair; Division Chair).
- Associate Editor, Business & Society, current.
- Editorial Board, Encyclopedia of Business Ethics and Society, Robert Kolb, Editor-in-Chief.
- Editorial Board, Academy of Management Review, August 1984 to October 1987 (through volume 12).
- Editorial Board, American Journal of Political Science, July 1980 (vol. 24) through 1985 (vol. 29).
- Book Review Editor, Down Syndrome Quarterly, 1995-2002.
- Book Review Editor, Down Syndrome: Papers and Abstracts for Professionals, 1986-94.
- Founding Member, International Association for Business and Society, and Executive Board, 1989-92.
- Research Fellow, The Brookings Institution, September 1973 to August 1974.
- Numerous professional service positions in the major academic associations in my field.
Numerous activities in the areas of Down syndrome, historical preservation, public education, and amateur astronomy. Testified before and/or submitted comments to local and state governmental agencies; often interviewed in the media in such contexts as business ethics and government regulation.
- PhD in Political Science, University of Pennsylvania (1974)
- MA in Political Science, University of Pennsylvania (1973)
- MA in Physics, Columbia University (1970)
- BS in Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1968)
“On Making Meanings: Curators, Social Assembly, and Mashups,” with Robert C. Ryan, Strategic Organization, 13, No. 2 (May 2015), 141-152.
"Agency Theory," Wiley Encyclopedia of Management (3rd Ed.), 2, 1-6. (Oxford, UK and Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2015). Previous editions: In The Blackwell Encyclopedic Dictionary of Business Ethics, P. Werhane and R.E. Freeman, eds. (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 12-15. Revised for second edition, 2005, but version from first edition included due to publisher’s error. [Review article on theory of agency]
“Agency, Theory of,” “Fiduciary Norm,” “Interstate Commerce Commission,” “Iron Triangles,” “Market Bubbles,” “Market Failure,” “Public Interest,” and, with Kathleen Getz: “Regulation and Regulatory Agencies,” in Robert Kolb, ed., Encyclopedia of Business Ethics and Society (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2008). (All articles reviewed). Articles under revision for second edition, 2016.
“What If Corporations Really Were Persons.…The View Back from 2021,” Washington Monthly, Ten Miles Square Blog (September 2, 2014)
“Capturing ‘Capture’: Definition and Mechanisms,” in David Levi-Faur, ed., Handbook on the Politics of Regulation, 34-49. Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2011.
“Reputation Shifting,” with John F. Mahon, Journal of Public Affairs, 10, No. 4 (November 2010), 280-299.
“Assurance and Reassurance: The Role of the Board,” in Robert W. Kolb and Donald Schwartz, eds., Corporate Boards: Managers of Risk, Sources of Risk, 294-315. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. (Papers competitively reviewed; conference of same name as book.)
“The Case Against the Case Method,” Harvard Business Review online debate, “The HBR Debate: How to Fix Business Schools,” invited contribution (in four parts) and featured author (May 2009). Published in the HBR book, The HBR Debate: How to Fix Business Schools (Pub. 10.27.2009; Prod. # 12573-PDF-ENG), pp. 62-67.
Comment on Rakesh Khurana and Scott Snook, “A Manifesto for B-Schools,” Harvard Business Review online debate, “The HBR Debate: How to Fix Business Schools” (May 2009).
“The Concept of Reputational Bliss,” with John F. Mahon, Journal of Business Ethics, 72, No. 4 (June 2007), 323-333; published online November 2006.
"“Positive Agency,” in Robert A. Giacalone, Carole L. Jurkiewicz, and Craig Dunn, eds., Positive Psychology in Business Ethics and Corporate Responsibility (Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing, 2005), 165-189.