There are two truisms about the tech field. One is constant change; the other is it’s a man’s world. Women make up about 25% of all IT employees, a seemingly low number except for the fact that it has been steadily growing over the past decade.
So what’s the secret for women to break into tech-related business? How can they be successful? And what leadership skills will keep them at the top?
On September 9, Olin welcomed Lisa Nichols, CEO and cofounder of Technology Partners, a provider of premier IT staffing, solutions and software, for the Leadership Perspectives event “Reality Bytes: The real story on women and leadership in the tech space.”
Nichols also hosts the interview podcast Something Extra, which shines a light on each guest’s distinct leadership qualities.
Nichols sat down with Staci Thomas, Olin professor of practices for communications, for a conversation that touched on many aspects of business in the technology space, including female representation (or, more appropriate, the lack thereof), innovation, entrepreneurship and values-driven leadership.
Forget the 30,000-foot, big-picture view. When faced with a cutting-edge technological idea, business leaders who approach the idea in more concrete “how” terms — rather than in abstract “why” terms — are less likely to be deterred by its novelty and more likely to recognize its utility, which increases their propensity to invest, according to new research from Olin.
This method of information processing, known as a low-level construal, is especially useful for leaders who lack technological expertise.
In today’s rapidly changing world, companies that are willing to embrace new technologies often have an edge over the competition. Yet decision-makers who are out of their depth with a novel technology often reject it because they lack the expertise to make sense of the technology, resulting in a sense of uncertainty and general unease with the idea.
“The further removed decision-makers are cognitively from an idea, the less likely they are to invest in it,” said Markus Baer, professor of organizational behavior and study co-author. “Keeping up with the rapid pace of technology can be especially challenging. But missed opportunities and failing to keep up, technologically speaking, is a recipe for failure.”
What’s a business leader to do?
“Research suggests that managers tend to undervalue ideas that fall outside their area of expertise and overvalue ideas that are squarely in their wheelhouse,” Baer said.
“And it gets worse. The further removed they are intellectually from the idea, the more likely they are to view it as too ‘out-there’ and as less useful, both of which make it less likely that decision-makers will financially commit to the idea.”
To overcome this expertise gap, previous research has suggested managers should engage in a type of deliberate cognition that involves drawing on prior experience with similar ideas to evaluate new technological ideas. However, that’s not possible when the idea is truly novel.
Baer — along with Matthew P. Mount of Deakin University and Matthew J. Lupoli of Monash University, both in Australia — wanted to better understand the ways in which managers process information about novel technological ideas and how that influences their interpretation and likelihood to invest.
Their research findings, forthcoming in Strategic Management Journal, offer a way for business leaders to overcome organizational inertia and recognize new technological opportunities.
Abstract vs concrete?
Baer, Mount and Lupoli conducted two experiments to study how expertise distance and information-processing style influence perceptions of novel technological ideas and likelihood to invest.
The first experiment took place “in the field” and involved 300 senior R&D and innovation investment decision-makers who work for organizations that were exploring Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) as a novel cybersecurity technology. QKD is a secure communication method that relies on cryptographic protocol involving components of quantum mechanics. Participants were given information about the technology and then were asked to rate how novel and useful the technology was. Finally, they were asked to specify the proportion of their annual disposable income they would be willing to invest to bring QKD to market.
The second experiment, an online survey, included nearly 500 middle- and upper-level managers. Participants assumed the role of a senior executive of a fictitious, application-based taxi company “AppCab” faced with the prospect of investing in a fleet of self-driving cars. They were randomly assigned to one of the four conditions — expert/concrete thinking, expert/abstract thinking, non-expert/concrete thinking or non-expert/abstract thinking.
Respondents in the expert groups were given detailed information about the self-driving cars, while respondents in the non-expert group were given general background information about the taxi industry. Respondents in the high-level construal groups were asked a number of “why” questions to switch their thinking to an abstract mode, while respondents in the low-level construal groups were asked “how” questions to shift their thinking to a more concrete mode. They also were asked questions about the perceived novelty and usefulness of the technology. Finally, they were asked to rate how likely they were to invest in the fleet of self-driving cars.
“Across our two studies, we show that decision-makers who are distant from a highly novel technological idea in terms of domain expertise are less likely to invest in it. However, our results also show that the effect of expertise distance is entirely dependent on how abstractly vs. concretely they approach the idea,” the authors wrote.
Shifting managers’ perspectives
As the current research demonstrates, how decision-makers process information influences their interpretation of novel technological ideas, which ultimately shapes their investment decisions.
“Highly novel ideas, when evaluated by decision-makers who have no expertise in the relevant domain, are perceived as too uncertain and too risky,” Baer said. “Changing how they approach the idea can help managers mitigate the negative effect of expertise distance.”
Many leaders believe they need to focus on the big picture and leave the day-to-day tasks and small details to lower-level managers and employees. Indeed, there can be benefits to this high-level perspective. Decision-makers engaged in high-level thinking are future-oriented and tend to focus their attention on abstract, broad information related to distant goals.
However, when it comes to evaluating novel technology, this type of high-level construal thinking can hold leaders back.
“Most decision-makers have a preference for rationality and predictive accuracy over the uncertainty inherent in novel technological ideas,” Baer said. “When leaders focus only on the high-level, abstract features of the technology, they tend to over-emphasize the novelty and risks of the idea, which, in turn, decreases their likelihood to invest.
“Our research shows this type of thinking can compound the negative effects of decision-makers’ expertise distance on the propensity to invest in novel ideas.”
In contrast, decision-makers using low-level construal are present-oriented and tend to focus their attention on concrete, narrow information related to the benefits and feasibility of adopting the novel technology. By focusing on the idiosyncratic, technical details of highly novel ideas and aspects of feasibility, decision-makers may be more inclined to perceive the idea as being useful and, by extension, less novel and risky, Baer said.
Ultimately, the research highlights the unique value of adopting a more concrete way of thinking when faced with radical technological change.
“By shifting the way in which they evaluate novel ideas — from abstract to concrete — managers will improve their ability to recognize the potential value of groundbreaking ideas, maintaining a technological edge on the competition,” Baer said.
Part of a series about summer internships from Olin MBA ’20 students. Today we hear from Claudia Otis, who worked at Microsoft as a finance intern.
How did I prepare for my interview/land the internship?
I applied to the finance position at Microsoft through Prospanica’s job portal. Shortly after, I got an email saying that they wanted to interview me at the career fair.
I researched the company and the cultural change it was undergoing since Satya Nadella became CEO.
I prepared behavioral and technical questions. For example, the reasons why I wanted to work in tech and at Microsoft after working in investment banking.
After I passed the first round, Microsoft called me for the on-site interview. I prepared by doing mock interviews with my career coach at the WCC and with another classmate who was also going to the final interview.
Once the day of the final interview arrived, I just tried to be myself, relate to people and be confident about my preparation. I was so happy when I got the email saying I got the position!
How I am using what I have learned at
Olin during my internship?
Olin, I improved my networking skills, which helped me during my internship to
interact with different teams and people, expanding my network within
Thanks to my class of Power and Politics with Peter Boumgarden, I was aware of the politics within the company. I was able to read the room and navigate conversations taking the lessons I learned from the course into account.
project I did over the spring taught me how to work on a broad end-to-end
project and manage relationships with the team and main stakeholders.
How the internship is preparing me
for my final year at business school?
Managing my own project at Microsoft has helped me develop the confidence to lead a CEL project in the fall semester. I also feel more comfortable with broad or ambiguous projects. The internship at Microsoft gave me the opportunity to interact with very talented people, interns and full-time employees, and make new connections I can leverage during my last year of the MBA.
Part of a series about summer internships from Olin MBA ’20 students. Today we hear from Abraham Kola-Amodu, who worked at AT&T as a finance intern.
I spent 13 weeks of the summer as a finance leadership development program intern at AT&T corporation. Before landing this opportunity, I harnessed available resources within and outside of Olin. I attended conferences, browsed company websites, job search websites and finally, the now disengaged MBA Focus.
The latter was where I’d found the job posting, as AT&T has some partnership with Olin Business School. I applied and was invited to perform a personality test online, which led me to the next stage.
Before my first interview, I recalled that the last interview I’d had was over a month prior. I knew I was rusty and not smooth, so I engaged Jeff Stockton, a career coach with the Weston Career Center, who gave me a solid prep one hour before my interview. The rest is news.
My work at AT&T, even though it was in finance, entails a lot of project and team management. Luckily, a lot of team activities, people, time and project management skills were taught in the first year, and that was what helped me the most in the period of my internship.
For the remainder of business school, I intend to brush up
more on some aspects of finance, because there were some topics that I saw a
few other interns discuss and I was totally blank on. This is not to say there
were no topics I knew that were alien to them also.
My typical day at work is very unlike many others. I spend about three to four hours a day on meetings. Why? Because my role is heavily strategy based and by reason of that, I must meet with different teams on what to do next, appraise what was done and decide how to make improvements to the existing ideas and concepts we have.
Another hour or so of my day is spent networking—coffee chats or meet-and-greets with the top-level management company officials. Also, in many instances, an hour is spent on events or programs organized specifically for the interns, which ranges from volunteer activities to trainings and happy hour. The remainder of the day is my “me time” to do my actual work.
The finance leadership development program is geared at getting MBAs to lead the company, which is why it is structured in a way that we always meet with the executives. Networking is very vital in climbing the corporate ladder here at AT&T, thereby helping me get set of achieving my C-suite goal.
Imagine you and your significant other finally carved out some time for a vacation getaway. You did your research—booked flights, picked a few promising restaurants, dug up your favorite fanny pack—and now it’s time to find a place to stay.
You’ve heard a lot about Airbnb, so you decide to give it a try. After some deliberation, you’ve both agreed on a place within walking distance of all the local attractions, so you send a request to the owner.
But after a couple hours, you get a message from Airbnb saying that your request has been denied without explanation. For a significant number of Airbnb users, this scenario is all too real.
In the Boeing Center for Supply Chain Innovation’s latest video, Dennis Zhang, Olin assistant professor of operations and manufacturing management, discusses the topic of racial discrimination on peer-to-peer platforms.
According to Zhang, Airbnb requests made by accounts with distinctly African American names were 19 percent less likely to be accepted compared to other accounts. However, if those accounts have additional review data (i.e., at least one positive or negative review), all accounts are equally likely to be accepted.
Zhang believes that people require a bit more information to nudge them in a non-discriminatory direction. He thinks that if Airbnb offered more information within the platform, it would reduce the likelihood of discrimination by those looking to rent out their space.
Zhang goes on to mention that platforms conducting business via peer-to-peer transactions face a higher likelihood of discrimination. He says that discovering how discrimination happens on those platforms is a critical step to ensuring equal consumer treatment. Zhang’s research emphasizes the importance of information, and hopes it will be effective in the fight against discrimination.