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Donna Kidwell

DBA Graduate - 2012

Thesis title

From Functional Leader to Knowledge Broker: Case Studies in the Practices of Principal Investigators in Nanotechnology


Vincent Mangematin
Principal investigators are critical actors in nanotechnology research, yet few studies have explored the personal actions and experiences of PIs. In this study, I examined various principal investigators and their approach to new boundary spanning and entrepreneurial roles. Using a case study methodology with a combination of interviews and observation over three years, I investigated the actions of PIs who led multiple nanotechnology projects, successfully funding their efforts, building and nurturing teams, forging relations with industry, and facilitating the commercialization of their work. This thesis presents two areas of analysis: PIs and their experiences moving beyond functional roles and an analysis of a new role as knowledge brokers. This study suggests that by engaging in specific brokering activities, investigators can move from being inventors to being innovators. In the first area of analysis, I found that these PIs actively seek organizational alignment that allow them to “make things happen” while creating harmony between the university and enterprise. They sought organizational alignment while working in roles beyond those of the functional tasks of program management. The PIs demonstrated boundary-spanning activities, in particular a propensity for welcoming strangers into their labs and practicing “good grantsmanship” through thoughtful collaboration. The study found that the PIs manage tensions with the mentorship of aspiring researchers vs. their goals of getting PhDs and tenure and technology transfer tensions by working informally outside of technology transfer offices. PIs drove projects through a combination of creative acts that manifested themselves in multiple ways, including the traditional publications but also in the production of patents, products, and talented students with new skill sets. In the second area of analysis, I explore the activities of the PIs and suggest a model for knowledge brokering. The PIs acted as brokers, helping to increase the absorptive capacity by identifying structural holes and building trust. The PIs identified structural holes by extrapolating potential applications for their nascent discoveries and then actively seeking individuals and opportunities to build bridges between the holes. They built trust through initiating projects and aligning interests external to the lab through careful execution of projects and while doing so, they deliberately anticipated possible risks that could thwart their goals and prevent the new technology from leaving the lab successfully. These findings have management implications including key skills that we might train and encourage in PIs. I propose a training workshop for PIs on the activities of brokering, including an instructional design and workshop scenarios. Through this research, I provide an opportunity to hear the voices of PIs on these topics and contribute to our understanding of PIs as critical actors in the pursuit of science.