James Wetherbe is an inspiring professor, business thought leader and one of the founding fathers of Entrepreneur & Innovation Exchange, an online journal for business owners, entrepreneurship professors and students. He has been a professor of management information systems for more than 40 years.
A highly sought-after speaker who has delivered more than 1,000 speeches worldwide, Jim has written hundred of academic articles and authored or co-authored 40 books. Jim has also been teaching at Texas Tech University since 2000 and has served as a board director at a number of companies, including consumer electronics giant Best Buy and CIBER. Since 2012, he has been helping the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship, at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, reinvent the staid academic journal through EIX, whose online readership is approaching 5 million viewers a year.
In this interview with Bob Buday, Jim talks about EIX, his career as a thought leader in academia and business, why businesses and business schools should be collaborating much more than they do today on thought leadership research, and his headline-making stance against academic tenure.
Transcript: Jim Wetherbe and Bob Buday
Bob Buday: Jim, let’s talk about early in your career, when you recognized the need to be seen as a thought leader, not just within the academic world, but also in the larger business world.
Jim Wetherbe: As a professor, you have the “publish or perish” dynamic. The basic mission is to advance and disseminate knowledge. Advancing it is through research, and disseminating is through publishing and teaching. So early on, the academic journals were very important. You have to establish your research findings with your peers through peer review, to the top scholars in your field, who must consider your work to be worthy.
The problem with that it’s a very small group, when you think about it. If you’re not careful, you just end up having scholars talking to scholars. And if you wanted to have an impact on the business world, you had to have other distribution channels. One of the strategies that I used was, if I had an article in a good academic journal, I would try to spin off two or three translations of that into practical guidelines for practitioners, and start publishing in practitioner journals to achieve that goal.
Bob: Was that a common practice at the time among your university business professors? Were most of them doing something similar?
Jim: Not most of them. The people who I started looking up to were doing that. Two people from Harvard [Business School] made a real impression on me: Dick Nolan and Warren McFarlan. They published in the Harvard Business Review, which is a good practitioner outlet. That was where it became very apparent. I saw them giving speeches, and I realized their content was based upon their interactions with businesses.
I used to be a rock musician. If you wanted to get bookings, you had to have a record on the radio. If you’re a scholar and you want to get invited to engage with businesspeople and speak at conferences, you better get your work exposed. An article in one of those publications is like a single record, if you will. And a book is like an album. That was part of what I was learning.
To give you some really glaring, embarrassing statistics, 50% of academic articles never get cited [in other academic articles]. They just don’t get read, particularly by businesspeople, with any volume. I’ve got some articles in academic journals that are very well-regarded. They may have been read 500 times over the life of the article, as opposed to having something read half a million times or a million times [in the right business journal].
Bob: One of the things that impressed me when I first saw you on the stage, back in our days at CSC Index in the late 1980s, was that you are a very effective presenter — from a content standpoint and a speaking skill standpoint, which was not the case with most of the business professors who I had seen giving presentations at that time. It seems to me you recognized that it’s not just the content, it’s the way that content is presented on stage. Would that be fair to say?
Jim: You have to be interesting, and quite frankly, it helps to be humorous. Research shows that if people have a good laugh every five minutes or so, you double their attention span, which is why people can watch the “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon for an hour. And if you try to watch “Meet the Press,” you’re really struggling because it can get a little bit dry. So it has to be it has to be useful, and it has to be entertaining. That’s part of the goal of developing good content.
Bob: When you first began doing public presentations, were you that good as a speaker? Did you use a lot of humor in those speeches? Was that a natural skill? Or is that something you developed over time?
Jim: I always like telling jokes. It’s kind of natural. But you don’t really want to tell joke jokes. You want to just blend it into the presentation. Also, I’ve been a rock musician. I was used to being on stage and knew that you had to maintain eye contact and look at the audience to keep them engaged.
Bob: You didn’t have the stage fright that I sense a lot of young professors may have in front of a big audience, not just a classroom of 30 people.
Jim: It’s funny you mentioned that, Bob. I remember a graduate student once asked me when I was about 32 years old, “It must be great to be like you.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “You just have no fear of failure.” I said, “Failing is my biggest fear.”
She said, “How in the world can you stand up in front of hundreds and thousands of people, with that fear?” And I said, “Well, that’s what makes me work hard because I just don’t want to fail. I want it to be an enlightening, engaging experience for them.”
One of the things that happens when you start to learn what works is you get comfortable with that. You get in your comfort zone.
Wetherbe’s Thought Leadership Model
Jim: It might be useful to lay out my business model in terms of how I put together content. It’s a very straightforward model that I share, particularly with junior faculty. Imagine a dial that starts at 12 o’clock. It starts with research: a question that needs to be answered. For example, when I was on the board of Best Buy, one of the issues was that the internet was [changing the retailing model]. How are customers going to decide whether to click or brick?
That’s a good research question. If you’re trained to do research, the next thing you do is move to 2 o’clock on the dial. From your research comes articles, moving down to about 5 o’clock. If you’re writing articles, you have the ingredients to create books, moving over to 7 o’clock. I’ve got my singles in my albums that we talked about earlier. That creates kind of a billboard of visibility, if you will, to help people find out about you.
Through that they invite you in, to do consulting, maybe seminars or keynote addresses. And the funny thing about those three, which you learn quickly, is that the more people who are in the room, and the less time you spend on it, and the more you get paid. This was very counterintuitive because I worked my way up through life getting paid by the hour. Keynote addresses, quite frankly, pay obscenely compared to say, a day of consulting or a week consulting or a week-long seminar.
But if you’re engaging through consulting and seminars and speeches, you’ve got lots of people coming at you with more questions and problems that they’re having. That takes me back up to 12 o’clock, again, from, say, the 10 o’clock of doing the engagement. You’re back to: What are the new questions and problems that I should be working on? This is my virtuous intellectual circle that’s kept me productive for decades.
Bob: Are there any quick roads or shortcuts to getting there?
Jim: If you’re an academic, you’re going to do a dissertation to get a PhD. I tell people to pick a really good problem or question to focus on, because that’s going to launch your career. That’s something you’ll publish, and that’ll help you get your first job. And make sure that it’s something that people care about.
If I’m talking to a person [outside of academia who wants to become a thought leader, I say the same thing. You want to find a problem that needs to be solved, or a question that needs to be answered. The difference is that an academic has a whole methodology and a set of tools for doing more elegant research, which is why it’s very good to have businesspeople pair up with academics.
We have a saying: “You can do real research on real problems. The problem is discovering a really important problem. Start with the question, what do people care about? What do they want to get solved? I was more technical in the early days, and it was about “How do you find out what information executives want so you can give them a system that really helps their decision making?”
At the other extreme, you can do toy research on toy problems. But it’s nothing people care about, and methodologically it’s not very good research. A lot of academics do real research on toy problems. They use elegant methodology, experimental designs and all kinds of stuff, but don’t focus on something anybody really cares about.
So you want to do real research on real problems. A lot of consultants go wrong because they don’t have the methodology of good research down pat, so they do toy research on real problems. A lot of research you read in newspapers and magazines shows they don’t understand causality. They’ll suggest “Because two things correlate, one causes the other.” That’s just not good science.
EIX: The Launch of a Disruptive Academic Journal
Bob: Let’s switch gears here and talk about Entrepreneur & Innovation Exchange — EIX for short. This was a venture that you and Dick Schultz, the founder of Best Buy, were talking about 10 years ago.
Jim: We started talking about it 2012 and we launched in 2014.
Bob: What was the opportunity you saw that could help Dick, given that he had he had donated to the University of St. Thomas to get the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship going?
Jim: A funny side story: When I was at the University of Minnesota, I was serving on the board of directors of Best Buy. Our fundraising people took me out to lunch and said, “We’d like to approach Dick Schulze, the founder of Best Buy, for a gift. And since you’re on the board, perhaps you could give us some insight into how best to do that.”
Dick Schulze is one of the people I admire most on the planet. He’s the real thing — a real entrepreneur, with the courage and the innovativeness to make things happen. I asked [the University of Minnesota fundraising people], “How big of a gift are you looking for?” They said, “Whoa, a million dollars.” I said, “Well, that shouldn’t be too difficult. But I wouldn’t even ask him for a gift. I told them there’s two things I know about Dick. One is he never got a chance to go to college, and he regrets that. And the other is that since he’s right here in town, people don’t realize what he’s building, but it’s a big deal nationally. And he feels what’s going on in the backyard of the University of Minnesota is not being fully appreciated.
I said, “I would just tell him you’re so impressed with what he’s achieved that you want to give him an honorary degree.” That doesn’t cost the university anything. He’s the type of person who would be worthy of it. But [the University of Minnesota] didn’t do that.
A couple of years later, the University of St. Thomas, a local Jesuit school, gave Dick an honorary doctorate. He gave them a gift of $25 million to start the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship. Academics can be their own worst enemies.
Now the University of Minnesota has [since] given Dick an honorary degree. He’s given about $50 million to the medical school there. His wife died of cancer, and he’s very supportive of medical research. But he’s given well over $100 million to the University of St. Thomas to help with business and entrepreneurship education. And he also helped fund the law school there. He is a philanthropist. By the way, entrepreneur CEOs are typically twice as philanthropic as non-entrepreneur CEOs.
He reached out to me to find ways to impact entrepreneurship in this country, because his view is that entrepreneurs are the ones who create the jobs. And if he can help more entrepreneurs succeed, he’s helping the economy. He also was interested in increasing the profile of the Schulze School.
So in my little circle model, that’s a problem and a question: “How do we do this?” When I was at the University of Minnesota, which was ranked as the top [management information systems] program in the country, a key part of that had been the MIS Quarterly. It was and is still the leading journal in the field of [managing] information systems. But there were problems with that journal. As a journal gets more popular, the publication queue becomes a problem. We could get an article accepted through the normal vetting process and peer reviews and all that. But we couldn’t publish it until about four years after it was accepted.
You can’t have timely useful information if you’re doing that. The only solution for [an entrepreneurship journal at the University of St. Thomas] was to create an online journal, but still have the vetting and so forth. I said, “Let’s create a new paradigm for what [an academic] journal should look like. People have snobby ideas about printed journals. We could create one, and have it vetted with a strong editorial board of scholars from all over and top practitioners as well.”
That was the idea I presented.
Bob: What was Dick’s first reaction when you explained it?
Jim: Dick’s an interesting man. It was very positive. Dick learns, from years of being an entrepreneur, that you bet on the person. If the idea sounds reasonable, good people make good things happen. And it may not be what you initially think it’s going to be. But through a little adjustment and trial and error, the good people make it happen.
During the years I was on the board of Best Buy, I convinced them to put up bestbuy.com. And when we tried to double our number of stores in two years, Circuit City was raising their prices in all the cities where we didn’t have markets and then lowering them in the cities that we were in, to try to drive us out of business. Our only solution was to open 80 stores in two years.
To do that, Best Buy had to sell a whole bunch of bonds. As we saw with Southwest Airlines over the holidays [with planes grounded in winter storms], their IT infrastructure didn’t keep up. As the IT guy on the board, I said our IT infrastructure can’t handle more stores, so we’d have to invest in that. He said, “Good point,” and threw another $200 million in bonds for it. It was the easiest money I’d raised in that in that amount.
I also convinced him to get bestbuy.com — and more importantly, not to shut bestbuy.com down when it wasn’t making a profit. They wouldn’t have survived the pandemic without bestbuy.com.
He just believed in me. When big shots believe in you, you have a huge responsibility and do not want to disappoint them.
That’s how EIX got launched.
Creating a New Kind of Academic Journal
Jim: Entrepreneurship is an emerging discipline, just as management information systems were in the 1970s when MIS Quarterly was launched. It was an emerging academic discipline then, without much academic respectability. MIS Quarterly played a key role in helping us achieve that.
So I wanted to share with Dick what I had learned back then in helping an emerging discipline. We had a really good scholar at St. Thomas — David Deeds. The two of us got together and we approached a group of the top faculty in the country with this idea about a new academic journal on entrepreneurship. We launched a conference in Minneapolis at St. Thomas, and invited them in and shared our vision. That’s how we got people on board.
Bob: There were dozens of academic journals on entrepreneurship back then.
Jim: We couldn’t just be one more and make a dent in the way that Dick Schulze wanted to make a dent in the business world, and academically as well.
No, we started with our target audience. It would be a journal for academics, professors, students, and practitioners. We’ve achieved that. We had different types of content and promoted it in different ways. We also have done something very significant: We work with [competing] academic journals and ask them if we could cherry pick their best stuff, make it more readable, and publish it.
One of the keys to that was having Cathy Buday, who you’re very familiar with, get a journalist to work on that. Academics tend to write to impress, and if you want to get businesspeople to read it, you have to write to express. All of our articles are vetted for their methodology and are written by really good scholars. But we have the journalists go over and then make them more readable. That’s been one of our keys to success.
Bob: What’s been the impact on readership of EIX?
Jim: When EIX started, we were lucky to get 20,000 views a year. We’ll be exceeding 5 million views this year. [Note: EIX launched a sister publication, Family Business, in 2017.]
Our audience [has grown beyond] our wildest expectations. But there was a lot of push back in getting there. People told me point blank, “You can’t get that. It will not succeed.”
Bob: Professors told you that?
Jim: Certain ones did. The president of the University of St. Thomas didn’t think it was a good idea. Any new idea will be scoffed at and be a joke. But if it’s a good idea, it ultimately will become obvious that it is a much better way to do things. The dean at TexasTech at the time didn’t want me to work on this. And Best Buy gave [TexasTech] a $200,000 grant to start EIX. [The dean at that time] gave it back to try to kill it. I just went ahead without the funding, and we got it done anyway.
Someone told me a long time ago that if you’re going to make a difference in this world and do something truly innovative, you have to be willing to get fired.
Bob: I’ve also noticed that St. Thomas’ Schulze School of Entrepreneurship is now in the top tier of entrepreneurship programs. That wasn’t the case before EIX.
Jim: EIX has accomplished what Dick asked us to accomplish. He wants to help entrepreneurs. And he wants to increase the profile of the school. Both have been achieved. That means so much to me because, like I said, you don’t want to disappoint Dick — and not because he’s a difficult person. It’s just that when someone believes in, you just don’t want to disappoint them.
Bob: When you look back at these 12 years working with EIX while teaching at TexasTech, and everything else you do, what are you most proud of?
Jim: There’s a great saying that the marketplace doesn’t lie to you. It’s a pretty honest place. The market has told us that the idea was a good idea. They’ve embraced it, and a lot of entrepreneurship scholars are getting visibility they would have never otherwise achieved, which has helped them in terms of engagement.
EIX also helped the Schulze School launch an annual competition for entrepreneurship students across U.S. colleges. It’s called “Entrepreneur Festival,” or e-Fest. Students from all over the country compete. They come into the Schulze School and present their ideas, and they’re awarded huge grants to help get their ideas converted into businesses.
We did a good job picking the EIX staff. It’s a virtual team. We come together once a week for a one-hour meeting and plan things out, and it’s just been an absolute delight. Working with those people and their energy is positive. They’re people who want to make a difference. And they’re excited to see the difference happen.
Bob: Jim, I have to tell you, you’ve been the straw that stirs that drink at EIX for 12 years. You have a lot of good people working with you. But the publication wouldn’t be here without you, and it wouldn’t have gotten as far as it has.
Jim: But I couldn’t have gotten it done without the team, either. They made it much better than I could have ever made on my own. So there’s a synergy that happens when you get good people. When you make good staffing decisions, you reap benefits from that you just can’t get with dysfunctional teams.
Academia is always challenging. People ask me, “What’s it like to be a professor?” I say, “You remember all those kids in school who were really, really smart but couldn’t get along with others?” Academia is a great refuge if you’re smart and you don’t want to have to get along with others. We cherry-picked the people who we thought would be good colleagues to work with on EIX.
Why More B2B Companies Should Partner with Universities in Thought Leadership Research
Bob: As you know, many companies across B2B sectors today want to be thought leaders. But many hesitate to work with business schools on thought leadership research. We saw this work well 30 years ago at CSC Index. The firm had great partnerships with a bunch of professors including yourself. And you’ve done that at the University of Memphis (the FedEx Center for Cycle Time Research). And you’ve been doing that at TexasTech.
In your experience, do enough businesses come to universities to conduct research together?
Jim: There’s not enough of it. But it’s a two-way street; the faculty aren’t doing enough to reach out to the business community, and vice versa. But the economics are overwhelmingly in favor of it.
First, businesspeople aren’t trained to do research as methodically and rigorously as the academics. On the other hand, academics can be very content doing irrelevant research. And I will tell you that most business faculty go throughout their career without having any of their research funded by a business. They just do their research. They’ll maybe pester someone to let them collect some data from them.
So this research is going to happen one way or another, because publishing is the only way to avoid perishing.
I would go out to companies to find out what problems they were having and suggest research. Over time, I got my research funded.
Again, most faculty go through their entire careers without having any of their research funded. Just understand the absurdity of that. I’m talking about public universities supported by taxpayers. When a business professor is doing research, the taxpayers are paying for the research when it really should be paid for by businesses.
So, just taking the example of Best Buy in the question of how people decide whether to go click or brick: Best Buy put together a half-milllion-dollar grant, and we started doing research on it. The beauty of doing research is you’re creating knowledge. We studied people using the internet and building shopping carts but who then decided not to finish the sale. The number one reason was shipping costs. [If they felt it was too high], they’d just go to the store.
The smart companies include free shipping. We had a whole lot of findings like that. Companies should find faculty receptive to engagement, and faculty should be doing a much better job.
Jim’s Active Stance Against University Tenure
Bob: Let’s switch gears again. You’ve had a very interesting take on tenure, and the value of it in academia. You believe tenure isn’t good for universities or their students. So tell us about your stance on tenure.
Jim: First, academic freedom is critical. The original reason for tenure was academic freedom. This goes back to religious schools in the very early days, a couple hundred years ago. If someone wants to teach, say, evolution at a private religious school and a donor disagreed with that being taught, then someone could lose their jobs. That was the origin of tenure, and it was a very legitimate concern.
Unfortunately. It morphed over years of the years into a guaranteed job for life. If you’re running a business, you expect to have somewhere in the neighborhood of 5% to 8% turnover to get rid of the deadwood. We don’t do that in academia.
The Chronicle of Higher Education did a study a while back, but most people say it’s still representative. They looked at roughly 50,000 tenured professors in the country. They fire less than 50 a year. Imagine running a business where you put up with that. Margaret Thatcher got rid of tenure in the UK in 1988. People said she’d destroy higher education, but the reality is Oxford and Cambridge are doing just fine. Without tenure, they’re still among the top 10 universities in the world.
The cost of higher education has been going up exponentially — at a much higher rate than inflation. Part of that is student loan debt. But the cost of getting an education is going up, in part because we don’t get rid of the non-performers, they just give them fewer classes.
Now, I want to be real clear: The majority of faculty do a great job, and they’re very dedicated. But why carry the dead weight of people who are abusing tenure?
I got myself in hot water by being an outspoken critic of tenure. You have to see the humor in this. I was retaliated against for speaking out against tenure, which is supposed to protect academic freedom. I’ve been involved in some litigation with this: the First Amendment does, in fact, protect academic freedom.
Bob: Jim, when you look back at your academic and business career, what are you most proud of?
Jim: There are some interesting metrics that give you feedback. One is, if you do a lot of research, how much is that research cited? That’s one sense of value. Another is that you’ve got people who’ve read your work and let you know that it really helped them in their career, and helped their business. I talk about the magic of students. When you can see them going from not getting it together to succeeding in business and doing well, that’s the real reward.
I could have afforded to retire years ago. But I’d rather be in a room with people and help them develop skills for their careers than playing golf on any given afternoon. That’s the reward. It’s a great occupation from that standpoint. We’re in the business of creating and sharing knowledge. It’s a wonderful career.
Bob: Jim, you are a remarkable person, and you’ve had a remarkable impact on the business and IT worlds, and you’ve had a remarkable impact on me and my career. Thank you.
Jim: It’s been a two-way street.