Posted 7.17.07Professor Fred Collopy of the Information Systems Department sits down with Weatherheadlines and discusses teaching, business forecasting, and "managing as designing."
What is your current position at the Weatherhead School?
I am a professor and chair of the Information Systems Department.
What is your favorite part of teaching?
I think it is when I get surprised in the classroom. Sometimes a discussion will go in a direction I have not seen before. Students will make connections that shift my way of thinking about a topic that I have been over many times. I also love hearing from former students about how they are using an idea or technique that we explored together in the classroom.
What brought you to the Weatherhead School? What do you think of the Cleveland area?
The people, in particular the faculty, brought me here. I was especially interested in the opportunity to work with Dick Boland and Michael Ginsberg, but there were other faculty whose work I respected. And I am fortunate to have had the chance to work with many of them over the years.
For those of us not familiar with the concept of "managing as designing," could you explain it for us?
Management and management education have come a long way over the past half-century in understanding and improving decision-making. And there is no question that managers do a lot of research, analysis, and choosing among options. But increasingly there is great value to be derived from generating new options. That is what managing as designing is about -- asking what principles developed by designers in other fields can be of use to managers.
In what way does business stand to benefit from design?
There are many levels and ways to think about that. The most obvious is in the creation and revision of products and services. Design of that sort is getting a good deal of attention. And managers who are sensitive to the true nature of design can play a big role in elevating it in their organizations. Many designers complain that they are brought into the product development process too late to make their greatest potential contributions. But everything about businesses and social systems is designed. The way in which a customer problem is addressed is the result of a design. Compensation packages are designed. Relationships with suppliers, distributors and customers end up constituting an organization's design of its supply chain. One of the large aluminum manufacturers located in the Cleveland area has established a design center to rethink everything from how recycling is done through how they can be more responsive to their customers' need to integrate aluminum with other materials in new production processes. They are finding that as more of their employees think about these things as designers they are getting more useable ideas. In a 2004 Harvard Business Review article, Daniel Pink observed that he thinks we are entering an age where "the MFA is the new MBA". I don't know if he is right in that assertion, but clearly there is growing demand for the sensibilities of designers throughout all sorts of organizations. Managers must both understand those people and work alongside them effectively. Everyone who is trying to make complex things better is in some sense designing. So, we need to better understand how to do that well.
Could you tell us more about your work concerning business forecasting? There has long been a problem in business forecasting that no one method is good in all situations. So an interesting question is how you can choose the best method for a particular forecast. Working with colleagues I approached that question by developing an expert system that combines forecasts based upon features of the situation. I got to work with some of the world's leading forecasting researchers and the resulting system has performed very well in comparisons with the best methods generally used. In the course of doing that work we had to think hard about how to design the software, how to calibrate the models and how to evaluate performance, so I also have made contributions to those areas of literature.
What do you do in your spare time?
My wife Marianne and I are coming to the end of a rather long adventure in which we home-schooled our two sons through most of their education. That has been both interesting and absorbing. Kids take you in such interesting directions, so that I learned things I would never have set out to learn were it just up to me. I remember days when I'd teach executives about systems in the morning and high school kids about geometry in the afternoon. I also have been designing an instrument to play abstract images in the way that musicians play sounds. It's called Imager. Imager uses musical instrument interfaces, but instead of outputting sounds it controls a computer to generate graphics that move and change color and shape rhythmically. I play the instrument along with jazz musicians and find both the give and take and the blending of visual and musical elements very satisfying.
What is the best book you have recently read or are reading?
Daniel Levitin's This Is Your Brain on Music. It is about the cognitive science of music. Why do we enjoy the music we do and what does that tell us about how our minds work? Levitin was a musician and a recording engineer before studying cognitive science, so he brings both perspectives to bear on an extremely interesting topic. I gave the book to my musician-psychiatrist brother-in-law as a holiday gift and he said it changed his life. So, it's an easy book to recommend. Best is a tough call though. I recently read Scott Rosenberg's Dreaming in Code, which is about the Chandler software project being led by Mitch Kapor who created Lotus 1-2-3. It was engaging on at least two levels. As a detailed description of a large project being undertaken by creative and competent designers and developers it is a good look at the current state of the art in software practices. Rosenberg also did a nice job of weaving in some of the most important ideas from the history of computer and information sciences. And there is enough agony, angst, and suspense to make it pretty good summer reading.
Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University cultivates creativity, innovation, and purpose-driven leadership to design a better world.