Open Doors, Open Minds

August 1, 2017
Professors Wes Cohen and Victor Bennett discuss research

When Professor Victor Bennett came to Fuqua, he was mildly surprised to find faculty actually worked in their offices.

“This is a school where everyone comes to work every day,” he said. “There’s a culture of coming to the office and being available for each other.”

It was one of the things that prompted Bennett, who worked at Google before getting his Ph.D., to stick around. He was accustomed to faculty working remotely, from home or wherever they plugged in their laptops. But he quickly saw the benefit of having colleagues close by.

“Ronnie Chatterji came down to my office and we were talking about a paper he was just reading,” Bennett said. “We were just shooting the breeze, and it turned into a project we’re going to run. This only happened because he came by my office.”

Chatterji, who studies entrepreneurship, said that collaborative environment is essential to generate robust research.

“When I first got a job at Duke, I thought it wouldn’t really matter where on the globe I worked from, I could be in front of a computer and my co-authors could be anywhere,” he said. “But I realized that like a startup company, or anyone coming up with something new, being able to brainstorm back and forth is really important. The best ideas are not flashes of brilliance in the shower that arrive in complete form, it’s a process where you need quick feedback from other people. And somehow, calling up someone and saying ‘You wanna brainstorm?’ is not as effective as being able to walk down the hall, knock on a door and get coffee and talk.”

"It’s how we bring out the best in one another." 

When Chatterji and his Fuqua colleague Sharon Belenzon were puzzled by some of the findings in their latest research, about entrepreneurs who name firms after themselves, they presented it at a brownbag lunch where professors discuss early-stage research with colleagues from different business disciplines. Professor Brendan Daley was there.

“Brendan brought a very different skillset to the table, being able to build economic models to understand about how entrepreneurs were making decisions,” Chatterji said. “Working on projects with Brendan and Sharon has been some of the most exhilarating and productive time I have had in my career.”

All this collaboration does not happen by accident. There is a deliberate expectation at Fuqua that faculty will be in the office and available for one another. It’s an approach that’s tangibly different, according to Bill Boulding, the school’s dean.

“When a door is closed, you don’t know if it’s closed because that person doesn’t want to be bothered, or if it’s closed because they’re not there,” he said. “But the point is that the door is closed, and that cuts off the chance for any kind of interaction.”

Boulding said the open-door culture is both symbolic in meaning and substantive in effect.

“The symbolic part is that you are welcome, you don’t have to be afraid to poke your head in someone’s office,” he said. “Substantively, it matters a great deal when you have casual conversation that leads to questions, that leads to interesting ideas, that ultimately leads to really interesting work. In my own career, I would literally be nowhere in terms of academic accomplishments without that kind of engagement. And that engagement would start in the building and it would continue elsewhere. It’s just phenomenally important. It’s how we bring out the best in one another. That is in some ways the secret sauce of our research successes. We have unbelievable research productivity because we work together.”

"It’s a huge advantage to know you can walk next door with whatever idea you have and bounce it off someone." 

Professor John Graham is director of The CFO Survey and has a decades-long research career at Fuqua, a career he said has benefitted from that approach.

“Early stage creativity, in my opinion, is much enhanced by personal interaction,” he said. “It’s a huge advantage to know you can walk next door with whatever idea you have and bounce it off someone. When there’s no one there, great opportunities can get lost and evaporate.”

The same is true of teaching, Graham said.

“I have walked back from class looking frustrated because something I tried didn’t work, and when a colleague noticed and asked me about it, I ended up with a suggestion for another way to tackle the problem,” he said. “That happened because we passed each other in the hallway rather than being in our own silos.”

Professor Wes Cohen, an office neighbor of Bennett’s, said there are two eureka moments researchers look for: coming up with the right question to ask, and finding an answer. Both, he said, are easier with collaborators around.

“Face to face interaction is basically essential," he said. “There’s a lot of serendipity here, and the more interaction you have, the greater the likelihood that lightning will strike and things will click.”