Four Women that Have Shaped My Research – Ada Lovelace Day

I already told you about Ada Lovelace Day – it’s the day for everyone to write blog posts celebrating inspiring women in science and technology. As I mentioned, there are a ton of good candidates doing great work these days. Since there are likely still a bunch of hours left in March 24 wherever you are, you should write a post yourself about one of them. Or someone else. But I’d like to talk about four women who have had a substantial impact on my academic career.

The first is Edith Penrose – author of the groundbreaking book The Theory of the Growth of the Firm. Here is what she set out to do in the book:

So far as I know, no economist has as yet attempted a general theory of the growth of firms. This seems to me so very strange that I am sure anyone attempting it should indeed watch his (or her) step, for naturally there is always a good reason for what economists do or do not do. Perhaps such a theory is impossible to construct, unnecessary, trivial, or outside the ale of economics proper. I do not know, but I offer this study in the hope that all four possibilities will be rejected.

Penrose succeeds admirably in rejecting those four possibilities. It is a beautifully constructed study, and a wonderful book to read. It’s been cited over 10,000 times, although her ideas are oftened mangled so sometimes I wonder how many times it’s actually been read. In any case, her key thoughts have formed an important part of the development of evolutionary economic thought. She builds on many of Schumpeter’s ideas, and in turn, her ideas contributed to great subsequent work like A Behavioral Theory of the Firm by Cyert and March and An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change by Nelson and Winter.

Here is a brief statement that encapsulates the key points in her approach:

One of the primary assumptions of the theory of the growth of firms is that ‘history matters’; growth is essentially an evolutionary process and based on the cumulative growth of collective knowledge, in the context of a purposive firm.

Those are some of the key ideas that have driven evolutionary economics ever since. Edith Penrose conducted beautiful research. She developed important ideas based on deep observation and understanding of firms. Even though she’s been widely cited, I still think she’s a bit under-appreciated. If you have any interest in how firms grow, you owe it to yourself to read her book. The idea that firms grow through the growth of knowledge is a strong argument for experimenting, data gathering and innovation as key functions within organisations.

The next great economist that has influenced my research is this year’s Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom. I’ve already written both about why I think it’s great that she won the Nobel, and also some of the implications that I see in her research for innovation studies. I’ve already said quite a bit about how great her research on common-property resources has been. I’ve modeled part of my overall research program after this work, and I also think that Ostrom’s ideas will provide valuable insights when they are applied to open innovation initiatives.

Ostrom and Penrose have both had a substantial impact on my approach to research. So has the third person that I want to talk about, even though her profile is much lower – and that’s Elizabeth Garnsey. If I remember this correctly, Edith Penrose was Elizabeth’s PhD advisor. In any case, I know that they were friends, and that Elizabeth is in my view the current scholar with the best handle on Penrose’s work. Furthermore, she is a wonderful researcher in her own right. I met Elizabeth when I was four months into my PhD at a conference here in Australia aimed at teaching PhD students how to apply complexity theory to innovation studies. I had already decided to take this approach while working on my masters, but Elizabeth’s two keynotes were inspirational.

Her work has been a longitudinal study of the evolution of firms that have been spun-out of Cambridge University, and the business ecosystem that has developed around them. The central puzzle that she’s worked on is this: many firms start-up, but only a small number are successful – what distinguishes the successful ones? There is a fundamental problem in most of the research into this question – it is based on panel data which end up being so noisy that the majority of variance in performance is never actually explained. Elizabeth has done great work in documenting the different trajectories that firms take, identifying the pitfalls that occur at different stages of the growth cycle, and using these to help identify what actually drives success.

For me Elizabeth is a great role model. She is doing meaningful research in a very effective manner. She has developed a deep understanding of firms that is based on studying firms over an extended period of time. Like Penrose and Ostrom, she does research in a way that makes good sense to me. Elizabeth’s work is seriously under-read. I recommend going to her web page and looking at some of her articles – they’re readable, and packed with insight.

Edith Penrose, Elinor Ostrom and Elizabeth Garnsey are all fantastic economic researchers. All have generated ideas that have significantly influenced my thinking. The last scientist that I’d like to talk about for Ada Lovelace Day is another excellent researcher – my wife Nancy Pachana. Nancy studies ageing and has done great work looking at issues around older adults and driving, nursing home care and especially geriatric assessment. She was just finishing her PhD when we started dating, so she ended up with about a 15 year head start on me in academia.

This has been very useful, because she has provided me with an excellent blueprint to follow as I’ve started my own academic career. It’s been great to see the enormous positive impact that she has had on people through her work. Nancy has been a partner, role model, advisor and guide for me in my career.

As I’ve been in academia longer, I’ve also come to realise that even today, there are definitely issues that arise for women in research that do not come up for men. That’s why I think that Ada Lovelace Day is so important – so that we can give the women that are shaping our world the recognition that they deserve. These are four of the people that have helped shape my intellectual world. Who are yours?

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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