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Ed Lawler A Scholar Who Gets in the Trenches

October 23, 2007
Related Topics: Career Development, Employee Career Development, Workforce Planning, Featured Article, HR & Business Administration
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Management scholar Edward Lawler is both prolific and practical. The University of Southern California business professor has written or co-authored 43 books. Lawler, 69, also was named this year’s winner of the Distinguished Scholar-Practitioner Award from the Academy of Management. In 1995, he earned the academy’s award for scholarly contributions to management. He recently spoke to Workforce Management staff writer Ed Frauenheim.

Workforce Management: This latest award is for blending theory and practice. How have you done that?

Edward Lawler: I’ve had articles appear in USA Today as well as the leading academic journals. I’ve written books for the general management market and the academic market. To do that, you have to do research that appeals to both audiences. I’ve done a fair amount of research that’s based in organizations. Not just library research or mailing out questionnaires to people, but actually getting out into organizations and creating as well as studying change.

WM: What was the most interesting project?

Lawler: The largest one was in the mid-’70s when I headed a program on labor-management cooperation. We tried to get a number of the leading unions in the United States involved in work redesign projects in some of the traditional American industries—forestry, autos, etc. Unfortunately, what a lot of those projects proved was that the union movement—and in some cases, management—simply wasn’t ready to accept the amount of change that was necessary to keep their industries competitive.

WM: Have you been wrong in your work?

Lawler: Mainly I’ve been wrong in terms of the predictions I have made. One thing, for example, that I did a lot of research on is secrecy in compensation. It has shown that the American desire to keep pay a secret is often dysfunctional. … Years ago I predicted it would end.

WM: There’s a constant torrent of management books and studies today. Are they valuable?

Lawler: Some are valuable, but managers have to ask the question, what’s the evidence behind this? If you look at many of the reports that come out, you can’t assess the research, because they don’t tell you the methodology. I don’t think these are useful.

WM: You’ve charted the course of the American workforce for 30 years. What do you predict for 30 years from now?

Lawler: I think we’re moving to a service/knowledge work economy in the United States, which is going to require a lot more skills on the part of people, a lot more career changes, a lot more flexibility in what people do. And if we can’t pull that off, if we don’t have the educational support, the technology support and so forth to successfully transform the work we do in the United States, I worry about the future of our economy. If we can do it—and I am optimistic—I see a bright future.

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