Stanford Business Professor Returns

After a ten-year absence from Cambridge, Stanford Business School Professor Joel M. Podolny ’86 will bring his interest in how businesses and people interact back to Harvard next fall.

Podolny, known for his research into the social networks within corporations, will split his time between the Harvard Business School’s Organizational Behavior Unit and the sociology department in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

“I have a lot of affection and tremendous respect for both the sociology department and the Business School, and it’s a wonderful opportunity,” he said.

At Stanford, Podolny was Timken professor of organizational behavior and strategic management and served as the the Stanford Business School’s senior associate dean for academic affairs.

His work has focused on using the concept of social status—something Podolny said sociologists usually apply to high school competitions or dating rituals—to describe how firms choose their business partners.

Harvard College Professor Mary C. Waters, who chairs the sociology department, said Podolny is an expert in network analysis in markets.

He has found, for example, that firms often accept bids from corporations with higher social status, rather than those that offer the lowest price for service.

Podolny said he would continue that work at Harvard but has recently become interested in people’s changing perceptions of certain commercial enterprises—from art forms to money-making business.

For example, quilting had been considered a market trade in the past but is now seen as art, while wine-making has made the opposite transition, he said.

Waters called Podolny a “cutting edge, exciting scholar” and said it’s unusual that a scholar like Podolny will be teaching undergraduates as well as graduate students.

“It’s kind of rare for someone who’s been full time at a business school to come back to being a professor of arts and sciences,” she said. “Usually it’s the other way around.”

Podolny said he enjoyed teaching Harvard undergraduates as a tutor for social studies in the late 1980’s and expects to teach approximately three courses a year—one each for undergraduates, doctoral and MBA students.

He said he hopes to offer a Social Analysis Core class on how sociologists and researchers in other fields look at the same problems.

Podolny graduated from the College in 1986 and returned to Cambridge the next year to earn both a masters and a doctoral degree.

He has been teaching at Stanford since 1991, where he has offered courses in business management and served as co-director of Stanford’s Global Organization of Business Enterprise Initiative.

Although Palo Alto, Calif., was a balmy (by comparison) 60 degrees yesterday, Podolny said he’s looking forward to his return to the East Coast despite the weather.

“Nobody out here believes it, but I have always preferred Boston to California,” he said. “Having said that, it’s been ten years since I’ve had to buy a sweater.”

—Staff writer Elisabeth S. Theodore can be reached at theodore@fas.harvard.edu.