Publishing Early: Three IS Doctoral Students Tell Their Stories

June 28, 2010

In a traditional doctoral program, students, at least in their first two years, are expected to be seen but not heard. Seen at the library. Seen at the departmental offices on weekends. Seen in seminars, listening attentively.

Their comments and opinions can wait until the later years of the Ph.D. program, after they've taken their comprehensive exams and shown that they've mastered the basics of their field. At that point, they've begun work on dissertations -- the crucible in their journey of becoming a scholar.

This old-fashioned trajectory doesn't hold in the information systems department at the W.P. Carey School of Business. A hallmark of its doctoral program is the expectation that Ph.D. students will participate in -- and ideally publish -- research during the first two years of what's typically a four-to-five year course of study. Earlier than in many programs, doctoral candidates in the Carey IS department become partners with their professors, digging through data, debating ideas and creating and refining the sorts of elegant arguments that are the center of research projects in nearly any social-science discipline.

"Our goal is to produce people who have the high-level capabilities for business-school scholarship," says Rob Kauffman, an information systems professor. "We want them to be able to go and work as faculty members at top-level, research-intensive universities."

"Giving students a jump on doing research, with hands-on projects during their first and second years, is critical to making that happen," Kauffman says. The projects often serve as head starts for the students' dissertations, with their first- and second-year paper topics evolving into their dissertation subjects. These projects also enable students to become co-authors of several published peer-reviewed papers before they've even graduated.

The experiences of three current IT doctoral candidates show this process in action.

Procurement strategies

Juliana Tsai arrived at ASU after a decade-long career in IT. She'd earned a bachelor's in computer engineering at Texas A&M University and then worked in information systems for a software company in Texas. Soon, she moved to California and jobs with well-known outfits like Oracle and MicroStrategy. (Along the way, she earned an MBA at the University of Nevada, Reno.) She has always had the desire to pursue a Ph.D., and a business trip to Phoenix and a visit to ASU sealed the decision.

"I liked that there was a high-tech community here in Phoenix," she says. After spending several years in Silicon Valley, "It offers opportunities to partner with industry firms on research projects."

When she visited, Tsai and Kauffman discovered that they share common research interests. Even before she'd enrolled, they'd begun a research project together, studying procurement strategies in the enterprise-software sector.

Several of the large enterprise software vendors, including Tsai's former employer, Oracle, have bought up lots of companies. This has changed the dynamics of enterprise software market, she says. "In the past, buyers liked to pick the best-of-breed," she explains. "They'd go with whoever had the best of each technology and then try to integrate that into the rest of their systems."

But with Oracle and other vendors expanding their offerings through acquisitions, companies can now acquire all of their enterprise systems from a single source. That brings both benefits, like seamless integration, and risks, like being limited to a single vendor's technology strategy. Tsai and Kauffman's paper examined this phenomenon and weighed the pros and cons of the unified procurement strategy. They published it during the first semester of Tsai's second year in the Ph.D. program.

Tsai's research also examines the way in which a broad underlying phenomenon -- in this case, the adoption of industry-wide standards -- can affect firms. Standards, in one form or another, have existed for ages. In their simplest form, they are agreements, either formal or informal, that allow different companies' products to work efficiently together. They can govern everything from the width of railroad tracks to the sizes of bolts and wrenches. In IT, standards allow computer programs to talk to each other: the implementation of the portability of cell-phone numbers, often taken for granted today, is the result of industry standards.

"My goal is to help industries understand the value of industry standards," Tsai says. "Telco is a mature industry with respect to standards, and there's so much you can learn from that. Maybe we can translate that knowledge into healthcare. Accessibility and reliability of medical records for business travelers is a major benefit."

Subject matter search

Greg Schymik, too, had ample professional experience before arriving at ASU. He'd spent fifteen years as a software developer in Detroit, working for Ford and General Motors. Before that, he'd earned a bachelor's in computer engineering at the University of Michigan. While working in the auto industry, he also earned a master's in information systems from the University of Detroit. After he graduated from the master's program, one of his advisers invited him to teach at the university, as an adjunct professor. Six semesters in the classroom persuaded him that he wanted to become a professor. And that led him to ASU.

His first-year project on knowledge management became the seed for his dissertation. "A knowledge-management system can be anything that lets you capture and retrieve knowledge," he says. "It can be a customer support database. Or it can be interviewing engineers who are getting near retirement and capturing and storing their knowledge in some way."

Knowledge management matters because many companies are awash in data but often can't use the information efficiently. "Failed search [of internal documents] is costing corporate America billions of dollars a year," Schymik says. "Knowledge workers are spending something like a quarter of their day searching for information, and in about half of those searches, they fail to find what they need."

That's because you can't Google internal documents. They're protected behind corporate firewalls, and internet search methods can't be easily transferred to internal searches. Net searches typically depend on "page ranking," that is, counting the number of web pages that link to a particular document. Under this method, the document with the largest number of links gets the highest ranking. But documents stored on firewalled corporate intranets seldom get linked to.

"Companies have tried a variety of alternative means for searching, but so far, none of them have worked particularly well," Schymik says. The use of keywords is one popular method. Trouble is, any given word can have multiple meanings, and searching keywords alone can't capture context.

Schymik is investigating whether subject-matter searching might work better. Specifically, he's running experiments to understand the benefits and shortcomings of the technique. "We're running searches and looking at results," he says. "And with subject terms, we see a dramatic improvement" in the relevance and thus usefulness of identified documents.

IT and healthcare

Unlike his fellow doctoral students, Trent Spaulding hadn't spent much time in the working world before enrolling at ASU. He'd taken two years off, between high school and college, to do missionary work in Russia for his church. (He speaks fluent Russian.) But other than that, he'd plowed straight through school, earning a bachelor's and a master's in information systems at Brigham Young University.

When picking a doctoral program, he was unsure about ASU -- he and his wife didn't think that they wanted to live in Phoenix -- until he visited the campus. He found that ASU faculty members were more interested in working closely with their doctoral students than professors he'd met elsewhere. "They really seemed to have the students' interests more in mind than in the other places," he says.

For his first year project, Spaulding dove into information technology in the healthcare industry. In doing so, he discovered that healthcare is a sector rich in data -- the raw material of empirical research. That's part of the reason why he's chosen to stick with the field for his dissertation.

"I'm looking at continuous information flow" in the medical context, he says. In theory, continuous flow enables hospitals to operate more efficiently. An example would be medication management systems where each person and step in the process -- the prescribing physician, the hospital pharmacy and the administering nurse -- work within a single business process tied together by ten different information systems.

In an old-fashioned hospital, which hasn't embraced automated medication management, a doctor scribbles out a prescription on a piece of paper, and someone then has to key that information into a computer. Once the pharmacy receives the order, it might print it out and then send the drug, with a paper routing slip, to the patient's room. The nurse reads the slip and gives the drug. This creates all sorts of opportunities for errors, from a doctor's bad handwriting to a nurse's misreading of a dosage label.

In theory, an automated medication management system should eliminate many of these opportunities for mistakes and thus reduce costs. And a hospital that makes fewer medication mistakes, for example, should be sued less often.

So far, Spaulding has found that what's logical isn't necessarily true: "One of the interesting things that [my advisers and I] found out is that, in hospitals, costs always go up," he explains. "We, as a society, look to IT systems to increase quality and reduce costs. In reality at hospitals, quality rises but so do costs." Hospitals, in other words, are making fewer mistakes thanks to IT, but they're not saving money.

Spaulding and his advisers expect that the key to understanding this paradox is investigating the hospitals' businesses processes. They suspect that hospitals don't change their process or they have not integrated their systems to operate seamlessly when they adopt new IT and thus don't enjoy the full benefits of their technology.

"In some cases, hospitals have good reasons for behaving this way," Spaulding says. Many of their processes are governed by things like federal and state laws and treatment norms that aren't easy to modify.

"In healthcare, processes don't change much, despite automation. So we can examine how information systems affect business process outcomes."

  • Juliana Tsai's project advisor was Rob Kauffman
  • Greg Schymik's project advisor was Bob St. Louis
  • Trent Spaulding's project advisor was Raghu Santanam