"Your dependent variables make no sense," he said.
"Excuse me?" I asked, pivoting to look at the older gentleman who challenged the model I had just drawn on a makeshift board. Knowing that I couldn't count on a whiteboard or a projector, I had hand-carried to Montreal large sheets from a Post-it Easel Pad, together with colored markers, so that I could draw my model as I described my work and bring it to life.
"Your dependent variables are arbitrary. They represent accounting concepts and aren't very good measures of performance." He spoke with firmness and certainty, with the confidence of someone who had no doubt of the veracity of his perspective.
The room was quiet. There were at least 75 people, in a room arranged to create a makeshift circle at the center, and I had just presented my quantitative research on leadership's impact on innovation as measured by financial performance. Truth be told, I was quite proud of having collected very robust financial statistics on a wide array of public companies as my dependent variables. I was baffled by this response.
I took a moment to pause and collect my thoughts when another person interjected, defending my choice of revenue growth and EBITDA growth as a measure of performance. And soon, the voices bounced back and forth. My model and my research was, for the next few minutes, the topic of vigorous debate on the measurement of performance and the proper outcomes of innovative behavior.
After the session was over, several people sought me out and we continued a discussion of my work, where I intended to take it next and how it was connected to other research in the field. My challenger came over to introduce himself, and to give me some more thoughts and some reactions. I still disagreed with his assertion, but we had a good conversation, and he ended by giving me excellent advice on the development of variables in a well-drafted paper.
"As a journal editor, I can tell you that we send papers back if they aren't extraordinarily well defended. So I encourage you to take my advice. By the way, I really like the first part of your model. You are on to something very interesting." With that, he left.
All the while, a colleague from the DM program was standing nearby, incensed on my behalf that this man had, in essence, picked a fight with me about my hard work, and in a room full of strangers!
But frankly, despite my concern at the essence of his comments, I was surprisingly exhilarated. My research struck a chord with enough people that a meaty and interesting conversation ensued from my presentation. Having just attended a symposium on a related topic presented by the known scholars in the field, my work excited as strong a response as theirs! How best to feel like you've arrived than to have your work discussed and debated - even deflated!
In my career, I've presented to lawyers and to for-profit and non-profit executives, to family members and to strangers, to friends, to colleagues and to children. So, in theory, presenting at AOM should be "just another" chance to talk to a group. But it's different. Both highly structured and completely unstructured, AOM is like nothing I've ever encountered before. In my experience (I've presented twice now - my qualitative paper in 2009 and my quantitative paper in 2010), no two presentations are the same, so to be prepared is to be willing to simply go with the flow. And the responses are all over the map - from enthusiastic interest to arms-crossed disdain. But perhaps the most intriguing aspect for me was listening to and watching other papers being presented, many from long-time and well-known scholars, and knowing that my work could go toe-to-toe with theirs. This is the beauty of the DM and its ability to take a group of willing practitioners and afford them a language and a methodology to pave the way to enter that formidable process known as AOM.
So who was that man? When I shared the experience with Kalle Lyytinen, Director of the DM Program, he laughed. He knew exactly who the person was: a known luminary in the management field, the senior editor of a distinguished A-level journal. And furthermore, Kalle wasn't worried in the slightest that he hadn't liked my dependent variables - he was impressed that he had liked the other parts of my model!
"Well," said Kalle, "it's time to write this paper up and send it to his journal!"
Presenting at AOM is not for the faint of heart. It's as crowded and nutty as one might imagine of a conference with over 10,000 attendees. But amidst the crowds of students and newcomers, there are deeply experienced and seasoned scholars, whose lives have been dedicated to the study and dissemination of social phenomena, large and small. And for a brief few minutes, although I had no idea who he was, one of them was discussing my work.
Ann Kowal Smith, DM Class of 2010