Professor Ronald Burt is the Hobart W. Williams Professor of Sociology and Strategy at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He has a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Chicago and was a full-time professor at the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University before returning to the University of Chicago in 1993, and INSEAD in 1998. In 2000, he was Vice President of Strategic Learning in Raytheon Company, directing the Raytheon Leadership Institute.
Professor Burt recently joined us as part of our celebration of the university’s 70th birthday, where he talked to students and professors about their research work and delivering a talk as part of the events.
His research focuses on the way social networks create advantages for some people but slow other people down so that they never become the person they could be. There is a very long trajectory of active research on social network analysis in the social sciences that predates social media. However, social media made the popular version of social network analysis more visible.
He also studies the kind of behavior that turns a network into a success: what has happened is that with time, the people who earn the most money, who get promoted more quickly, or do better at any dimension of performance tend to have a large open network.
Then, he explained us more about his research field:
We took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to ask him a few questions:
How does your work contribute to the society as a whole?
By explaining which companies do well, which cities do well, which people do well; then the details of what things slow people down the most, and when I say slow down, I mean why didn’t I get the promotion? Why didn’t they take my proposal? and the answer is that it is usually based on the network.
How would you describe your teaching philosophy?
There are three different batches of that. First are the MBAs and they are quite different depending on the program, so there are some children who have maybe 3 yrs. out of college and they are on the full-time program. They are very smart but very inexperienced and so when you teach them things about networks and people, they haven’t really risen to a rank yet where they can understand but they are so analytically smart that they are great fun to teach. There are the people on the part-time programs and they are really superb because they tend to be about 5 or 10 years older, and they have had some beatings at work, they have had setbacks, failures, and they immediately see what happened. So it is really valuable that they can take it immediately back to the job. Then there is the older group; the executives and they are just amazing. They tend to be in their mid 30s; they have had some failures, some successes and they are looking to change the trajectory of their career. Then there are executives where the company has decided that it wants its people to understand how to coordinate flexibly without a chain of control, so Chicago gets hired to come in and give course on that. These are the most fun of all because they are rich which is wonderful, and they have a lot of experience, and if something isn’t immediately useful, they will get angry that you are wasting their time. So you learn to be really efficient. So the teaching has been incredible in the US. But I also teach in Italy and China, and the stunning thing there is the scale. You have a room with 200 kids in it, and a lot of really dumb questions. But then you have 10% that are wicked smart and ask really smart questions. So 10%, that’s 20 people. When I look at out PhD program, if we have one or two I am happy but 20… they’re going to take over the world! So it is exciting to deal with that sort of phenomenon. It is well received and it is fun. So all good.
What do you learn the most from the interaction with your students?
It varies. So from the analytical ones, I learn algorithms for computer software. They are much more in touch with that so I learn from them. From the older ones -and there are shades of gray between the very youngest and the very oldest-, I learn an enormous amount about situations that I hadn’t anticipated, where things worked a particular way and then I would write a paper about that. I have so much Data that I can say that I didn’t know that happened here. This is how it must work and then show evidence of that. It is a really stimulating environment.
During your visit, what surprised you about Colombia?
Really heavy traffic. But gorgeous, just gorgeous. It’s a really pretty place.
What would you highlight from your visit to Universidad de los Andes School of Management?
It is incredible. Big open architecture and the space. I have had just one workshop and the people were really smart, really active. Wonderful.