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Unique Interdisciplinary Group at U-M Expanding the Study of Organizations with a Global Perspective

By Bob Needham

A PhD seminar on organizational studies that has been bridging disciplines at the University of Michigan for 30 years is now expanding its reach to Africa and beyond.

Jointly sponsored by the Ross School of Business and the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, the Interdisciplinary Committee on Organizational Studies welcomes scholars — graduate students and faculty members — from across the university.

As such, it has become widely recognized as the leading group of its kind, said Michigan Ross Professor of Strategy James Westphal. He serves as co-director of the seminar, along with Lilia Cortina, University Diversity and Social Transformation Professor of Psychology, Women's and Gender Studies, and Management and Organizations at LSA.

The importance of interdisciplinary

“ICOS is designed to be a nexus of scholarship on topics related to organizations or organizing, and to be as interdisciplinary as possible,” Westphal said. “People participate in it from virtually all departments and professional schools on campus that are doing social science work related to organizations. So it’s scholarly, but we've broadened the topics that we examine, and the community itself has become larger and broader.”

The group sponsors a course for master’s and PhD students, but the heart of its offerings is a lecture series. Open to anyone interested, the seminars feature leading guest scholars speaking on a wide range of organization-related topics. Last term, the lectures focused specifically on issues related to racial and gender inequality in organizations.

Other ICOS activities include a dissertation workshop and award, a camp to teach students big data techniques, and a new program in which students can discuss early-stage research ideas with colleagues at other universities.

Past students speak highly of their experience with ICOS. 

“ICOS had a profound and enduring effect on my career and my research. It is probably the venue most responsible for teaching me how to think and write in an interdisciplinary manner,” said Tim Vogus, who earned his PhD from Michigan Ross in 2004 and is now a professor of management at Vanderbilt University. “Every week for the entirety of my doctoral studies at Michigan, I got a front-row seat to some of the finest thinkers in the world in management and organizations, strategy, sociology, social work, public health, psychology, information/library science, and education. It helped me to think in a holistic and integrative way about my own work.” 

“It completely changed my life,” said Melissa Mazmanian, who participated in ICOS as a master’s student in the School of Information, and who is now a professor of informatics and management and organizations at the University of California - Irvine. “I can say unreservedly that I would likely not be a professor today, nor would I be engaged in organizational scholarship, without ICOS.”

A growing global perspective

ICOS had firmly established its leading reputation long before COVID-19 hit. But when the pandemic temporarily halted in-person seminars, instead of seeing an obstacle, ICOS leaders saw an opportunity to grow.

With the seminars converted to a virtual Zoom format, ICOS took the opportunity to partner with the Africa Academy of Management for a series of watch parties in which students and faculty members from African universities view recordings of the ICOS lectures and participate in a live Q&A session. Follow-up discussions over email extend the exchange of ideas even further. 

“The seminar speakers like the fact that their work is getting some attention in Africa, and they get a new perspective on implications of their work that they never would have gotten before. We hope it will even trigger some collaborations,” Westphal said.

In fact, the effort has been so successful that ICOS is forming similar partnerships with universities in China and South Korea. This winter, the seminars adopted a hybrid in-person/online format, which allows for broad participation. Ultimately, the group’s reach may extend all over the world.

“The goal is to form an international network of organizational scholars that engage in an ongoing dialogue about research, with ICOS and the University of Michigan at its center,” Westphal said. “I would like ICOS to have a strong footprint on every continent. Being globally inclusive — that's the goal.”

Press Contact

Bridget Vis
Public Relations Specialist
Email: visb@umich.edu

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Featured Faculty

James Westphal
  • Harvey C. Fruehauf Professor of Business Administration
  • Professor of Strategy
  • Co-Director of ICOS