Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

Spring 2016

Jeannette Colyvas Photo by SALLY RYAN

Associate professor Jeannette Colyvas adds new dimensions to her theory of innovation as she collaborates in varied domains—from education to law and media.

Org\scientist Jeannette Colyvas; Building Understanding of Organizational Innovation


By Marilyn Sherman
Jeannette Colyvas

“Stick” and “spread.” These terms are shorthand for the innovative niche that associate professor Jeannette Colyvas has established for studying organizations. She is keenly interested in building theory about what makes innovations spread and what makes them stick.

Coming from the world of sociology and management science, Colyvas crosses borders as an organizational sociologist. Above all, she wants to know how something becomes entrenched within an organization— and how this process changes objects, settings and people. She channels her unique area of study in multidimensional ways that make a difference for many.

Learning about innovation in organizations

Colyvas describes her specialty, which focuses on universities and entrepreneurial science, as “thinking about institutionalization beyond innovation.” In recent years as more academic scientists have become inventors, Colyvas has discovered how universities and people transform during the entrepreneurial process of technology transfer.

For example, she has found out how patenting affects scientists. “Becoming an entrepreneur adds to your identity. It actually transforms your career trajectory,” she explains. The inventions of entrepreneurial science also often change universities, and she finds the levers that trigger those changes.

“There’s a two-way flow,” Colyvas says of university academics. “Learning goes in both directions. … Knowledge flows out, but it also flows in.” She feels an obligation to contribute to the disciplines that shaped her. “When you draw from an area of knowledge, you also want to contribute to it—and refine it so it gets better and better,” she says.

Multiple dimensions of inquiry

Colyvas’s innovative research has multiple streams of inquiry. In her main branch of study, the spread of entrepreneurship and innovative practices, she has developed influential new insights. “I’ve showed counterintuitive mechanisms that push these things forward,” she says. “The conditions that gave rise to a practice are very different from what keeps it in place.”

Her research has also flowed into other areas, such as women in science and performance metrics in higher education. For example, a recent study with policy implications found that female scientists are as likely to succeed at obtaining patents as men.

As she explores along multiple avenues, Colyvas also employs varied methods, matching the method to the question at hand. For example, a recent study of how scientists view entrepreneurship used computer modeling. Her studies have also employed archival research, qualitative observation, field observation, statistical inference and simulation.

Through her research, Colyvas has impact by building theory. “Theories are like flashlights that illuminate invisible ink. A different dimension illuminates the invisible ink,” she says. At SESP she is testing her theory of innovation in new domains—from education to media to law.

Impact through teaching and outreach

Colyvas has also discovered multidimensional impact through teaching and outreach. She designs courses in learning and organizational change for undergraduate and graduate students, incorporating her lab findings into her teaching. Colyvas’s dedication to her students has not gone unnoticed. She has won honor roll and outstanding professor awards for her work in the classroom.

In the classroom and lab, she and her students tackle real-world problems in education and other settings. For example, they might investigate how an effective curriculum can spread widely in schools. “We want to be able to identify levers and pressure points so that things can live on sustainably,” she says.

As Colyvas collaborates with students and faculty in their areas of interest, she adds new dimensions to her thinking. “We learn more when we see how this plays out in fields like law and education,” she says. Currently she is collaborating with one graduate student looking at restorative justice practices for school discipline and another studying how a high-stress school is adapting to the Common Core.

Outreach in the community is another way that Colyvas’s theories come to life. For example, she serves on the board of a crisis housing nonprofit, working on the problem of homelessness for families in Chicago. She also teaches executive education for nonprofits.

Colyvas also appreciates being able to take on different roles around the university. On campus she is affiliated with the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems, Department of Sociology and Institute for Policy Research. She sees SESP as an interdisciplinary environment where she can be innovative. She says, “We are boundary spanners and systems-level thinkers. … We think at a systems level even though we care about the everyday lives of people.”