Taking Academic Risks

The Institute for Outlier Research in Business aims to change the business world through risky multi-disciplinary research


October 14, 2019

Over the course of its short lifespan, the USC Marshall Institute for Outlier Research in Business (iORB) has become a significant driver of research at the intersection of academic disciplines.

In just three years, the research funding initiative has supported seven distinguished visiting fellows, 11 conferences, 17 projects, and countless fruitful research partnerships spanning a wide range of subjects.

At the center of each of iORB’s programs is, “outlier research,” said founder and current-Interim Dean Gareth James at its inception in 2016. “We support big, risky ideas that can have a big payoff.”

Projects iORB has supported range from tracking the evolution of women in law, to the establishment of an elite high-tech eye tracking lab, to an investigation into status among primates. Conferences have been organized around such subjects as business in China, the economic impact of refugees, and the psychology of technology.

“Our plan is nothing less than to revolutionize research that is performed at Marshall and other business schools,” said Dean James. “We want to encourage work that has the potential for a transformational impact on society.” In addition to his role as interim dean, James is the holder of the E. Morgan Stanley Chair in Business Administration and a professor of data sciences and operations.

“Collaborating across the disciplines is the only way to answer the questions that are emerging today. We’re operating in a world that’s interconnected—the new challenges don’t have boundaries, so we can’t either.” —Nathanael Fast, Associate Professor of Management and Organization

Marshall faculty have been quick to embrace the iORB mindset.

“There has been nothing like this before at Marshall,” said Vincenzo Quadrini, chair of the Department of Finance and Business Economics, as well as the James McN. Stancill Chair in Business Administration and Business Economics. Quadrini and FBE welcomed the inaugural iORB distinguished visiting fellow, Andrei Shleifer of Harvard University in the spring of 2017, and this November, Quadrini will host the Macro-Finance Society Conference at Marshall, with support from iORB. This fall will mark the first time the event has been held at USC.

“iORB has funded a couple of conferences in FBE,” Quadrini said. “Sandra Rozo’s “Conference on the Impacts of Refugees in Hosting Economies” was a big success, and she did it herself, not with senior faculty but with support from iORB.”

According to Quadrini, “The most important support iORB provides is for conferences.

“Networking is crucial in our world,” he said. “The best way for people to know a school is to visit. A conference can bring in 10 to 15 speakers as well as all the attendees. And when they come on campus, they see we are well-organized and support a lot of research activity. That’s important for the reputation for the department and the school. The Macro-finance Society event is particularly important. People attend from a lot of schools.”

Such conferences also provide valuable exposure for junior faculty. “It’s a good opportunity for them to get in front of people, especially prominent scholars,” Quadrini said.

Crossing Boundaries

Nathanael Fast, Associate Professor of Management and Organization, won early iORB funding for the New Directions in the Psychology of Technology Research Conference in 2016.

Co-organized with Juliana Schroeder from the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, and with support from the UC Berkeley Center for Cybersecurity and USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, the national conference led to subsequent annual conferences at UC Berkeley, Stanford, University of Virginia, as well as the establishment of the Psychology of Technology Institute.

“Without iORB the Institute wouldn’t exist,” said Fast, who is co-director along with Schroeder. “We brought together an energized interdisciplinary community at the first conference and it’s become so impactful that other universities now compete to host the event. People are realizing the power and importance of being at the center of current conversations.”

According to Fast, iORB’s commitment to multi-disciplinary work reflects the challenges facing society today.

“Changes are everywhere, and science can help inform our responses, but scientists are often reactive and trying to catch up, whereas the technologies are moving ahead quickly.” he said. “By working across disciplines, we can answer the new questions that are emerging in a more effective and proactive manner.”

Associate Professor in FBE, Cary Frydman also works at the intersection of disciplines. An expert in neurofinance, he and Kristin Diehl, professor in marketing, won iORB support to establish an eye tracking lab. Frydman uses it to record attention, and where subjects in economics experiments direct their attention on a monitor. He’s exploring how to use information architecture to influence financial decision making.

Frydman said the Marshall eye-tracking lab is one of the most advanced at a U.S. business school.

“For business faculty and Ph.D. students interested in studying decision processes, it’s one of the best labs in the country,” he said, as he was able to supplement the iORB funding with resources he gained through a 2018 five-year National Science Foundation CAREER award. One of the NSF’s most prestigious awards, Frydman won it to expand not only his research program, including the addition of the lab, but also to develop an undergraduate course on neurofinance. He is one of the first scholars to study the nascent, multidisciplinary field.

Assistant Professor Joe Raffiee, along with Associate Professor Nan Jia, both in the Department of Management and Organization, are among the first scholars to study the career trajectory of women in law at this scale. Using a directory of lawyers in the labor force dating from 1870, they are studying the evolution of gender equality in American law firms.

“Our faculty are doing amazing research, which often stops at a rigorous publication. We’re looking to enhance the impact of such research. We’re excited to provide new support for this vital cause."—Gerard Tellis,
Director, Institute for Outlier Research in Business and Professor of Marketing

Raffiee said the iORB funding they received in 2018 has been invaluable to their capacity to code all the data. “It was critical to the progress of this project,” he said. “There is so much we can explore, once we get the data prepped. iORB helped us hire programmers and students to do that. We’re so grateful.”

Next steps

With the start of the 2019/2020 school year, and his appointment as interim dean, founding director Gareth James has handed stewardship of iORB to Gerard Tellis, Director of the Center for Global Innovation, Neely Chair of American Enterprise, and professor of marketing, management and organization. As director, Tellis said his priority will be to expand the impact of iORB to outstanding research papers in progress.

“This year,” he said, “the iORB board will choose one paper per month through an open competition, just like for our other three programs. Selected authors who have shown promising progress in research will get some funding to work on enhancing its effect.”

Tellis said markers of impact will be working papers, press releases, op-eds, videos, insight statements, and webinars.

“Our faculty are doing amazing research, which often stops at a rigorous publication. We’re looking to enhance the impact of such research. We’re excited to provide new support for this vital cause. In this way we not only advance business scholarship but increase its impact on management practice and public policy.”