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Influencing a generation

Professor Kathleen Eisenhardt’s impact inspired a symposium and conference presented by her former students.
Prof. Kathleen Eisenhardt (center) with a group of scholars she inspired | Image by Anthony Ruth 

When Melissa Graebner (PhD '01) founded the Initiative for Qualitative Research in Innovation and Entrepreneurship (INQUIRE) at the University of Illinois, she immediately wanted her longtime teacher and mentor Kathleen Eisenhardt to be the first scholar-in-residence.

Eisenhardt's name is practically synonymous with INQUIRE's focus. The tech industry’s fast pace makes large, quantitative datasets hard to come by. So, Eisenhardt, who is the Stanford W. Ascherman M.D. Professor and a professor of Management Science and Engineering (MS&E), conceived a new method that uses qualitative data and inductive theory-building for unpacking how these innovative companies operate. Her seminal paper articulating the approach, "Building Theories from Case Study Research," has been cited over 75,000 times, and the "Eisenhardt Method," as it was coined by other scholars, is now in use across many disciplines.

As a Stanford undergraduate studying Industrial Engineering, Graebner's introduction to Eisenhardt came through her class on organizational behavior (now MS&E 180). "I still remember that course very distinctly," said Graebner, who holds four Stanford degrees in all. "Kathy—Professor Eisenhardt to me at that time!—was and is a great teacher. Over the years she has shifted from teacher to mentor to friend, but I will always look up to her and her accomplishments."

Graebner hoped to spotlight some of those accomplishments with the INQUIRE residency, which was set to take place in spring 2020. "We all know what happened then," she said.

As universities shifted to remote learning during the pandemic, INQUIRE had to postpone Eisenhardt's visit. But Graebner, professor of Business Administration at Ilinois' Gies School of Business and INQUIRE's director, saw a silver lining. “The delay gave us the opportunity to develop a bigger and better plan," she said.

Eisenhardt's eventual residency included a talk at Gies on the Eisenhardt Method, along with a symposium where qualitative researchers received feedback from her. That drew scholars and PhD students from areas across the school including strategy, entrepreneurship, organizational behavior, international business, operations, and accounting. "Kathy's influence really spans disciplines, and her visit brought this group together," Graebner said.

An Eisenhardt 'family' reunion

The extra time of the pandemic also allowed Graebner and INQUIRE to plan a second major event—a weekend conference devoted to Eisenhardt's work and her influence on strategy and organization scholarship.

Held last spring in Chicago, the conference featured over 20 presentations and panels, including about 15 papers by MS&E PhD graduates and their students. Most had been advisees of Eisenhardt and affiliated with STVP, the Stanford Engineering Entrepreneurship Center, where she is co-director emeritus. As one of the center's first co-directors, she helped make it the premier destination for PhD students interested in strategy and organizing in tech-based companies. To date, more than 60 PhD graduates have been affiliated with the center, with many on the faculty at engineering and business schools around the world and in leadership positions in technology firms and government.

Graebner recalls that when Eisenhardt learned about the idea, "She made it clear that she wanted to showcase the work that her former students and other friends are doing." The resulting event had the feeling of a family reunion. Presenters came from across the United States as well as Hong Kong, Singapore, and the United Kingdom. "Many of us have known each other since our doctoral student days," explained Graebner. "I decided we didn't need name tags!"

Eisenhardt's colleague Riitta Katila, who is the W. M. Keck Sr. Professor, professor of MS&E, and a current faculty director of STVP, kicked off the conference with a toast to the guest of honor. Katila sourced tributes and anecdotes from MS&E colleagues and coauthors past and present. They spoke of Eisenhardt sharing teaching materials, painstakingly reviewing drafts of articles, and fueling long co-writing sessions with her secret "power pack," chips and salsa, which Katila presented to Eisenhardt as a gift.

"Kathy's list of publications is astounding, and looking at it in its entirety, I was struck by the diversity of her work and who she works with," Katila said. "In addition to her PhD students, Kathy is an incredibly generous collaborator with junior and peer faculty. She also has been an important role model and trailblazer as one of the first female faculty members in the School of Engineering."

A broad, deep, and enduring influence

When it comes to publications, Eisenhardt's impact goes far beyond the method that bears her name. The conference was organized into five sessions on topics where Eisenhardt's work has paved the way for new scholarship. The presentations covered new perspectives on corporate strategy; knowledge, learning, and cognition; entrepreneurial processes; government and regulation; and entrepreneurship in geographic contexts.

Pinar Ozcan (PhD '05) speaks at the INQUIRE weekend conference | Image by Anthony Ruth

In the session on entrepreneurial processes, Pinar Ozcan (PhD '05) presented her paper "From Flexibility to Rigidity: The Interplay of Actors and Technology in Machine Learning Ventures," which shows how users of machine learning technologies can drive the companies that sell those technologies to become increasingly specialized, even when the firms strive to remain flexible in their approach. She attributes Eisenhardt's stature in part to her knack for looking at problems from novel perspectives.

"Kathy has an amazing ability to contribute to streams of literature that people haven’t thought of either in combination with other streams or in modern settings, for instance, involving technology," said Ozcan, professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Oxford University. "She modernizes literature and points out paradoxes that can be understood and resolved by changing our point of view, for instance, looking at the seller's perspective in acquisitions or the low-power firm's position in ecosystems."

Eisenhardt's work continues to educate and inspire the thousands of Stanford students who enroll in courses affiliated with STVP as well as the PhD students who conduct original research with the center.

"As a longtime leader of STVP, Kathy has been instrumental in developing curricula to teach engineers and other aspiring entrepreneurs about responsible tech innovation and venture creation, and in training a new generation of doctoral students who will continue advancing the many research streams that have made up her life's work," said Tom Byers, Entrepreneurship Professor in the School of Engineering and professor of MS&E, who has been a faculty director of STVP since it began in 1997.

For Graebner, Eisenhardt's influence runs deep, and keeps going. "I learned how to do case study research from her—how to identify interesting topics that have managerial relevance and to frame them in theoretical terms; how to see patterns in messy data; how to present findings in a compelling way," Graebner said.

"Even at the conference, I managed to get some new tips from Kathy!"