New ASU professor examines how culture can shape business
Editor's note: New Faces on Campus is a monthly feature by ASU News showcasing faculty members who have been hired in the 2022–23 academic year.
Amanda Sharkey is an economic sociologist at Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business.
At first glance, it’s a job description that may seem like a contradiction in terms. But given her career trajectory, it now fits like a glove.
Sharkey originally planned to become a business reporter when she entered college, double majoring in economics and journalism at Northwestern. She enjoyed writing and constantly learning new things, but she ultimately decided she wanted the opportunity to delve deeper into the topics she wrote about than the fast-paced news cycle typically allowed.
After a stint working for a consulting firm where she discovered the challenges many companies faced in translating business strategy into action, Sharkey was inspired to return to academia so she could better understand organizations. She attended the London School of Economics, to study social research methods, and Stanford University (where she earned her PhD in 2011), to study sociology. She then spent the first 11 years of her academic career teaching and researching at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.
That combination of experience resulted in her receiving tenure as an associate professor in the Department of Management and Entrepreneurship.
ASU News spoke to Sharkey about her academic journey, how she is shaping her field and how she ended up in Tempe, Arizona.
Question: Can you tell us a bit about your background — where you’re from and how you ended up in academia?
Answer: Never in my wildest childhood dreams did I think I would become a professor! In fact, when I was about 10 years old, I remember telling my best friend that I didn’t think my parents would let me go away to college. I am the oldest of five kids, and I was worried that I was needed too much at home. But I did go away to college and now have spent almost half of my life on college campuses.
Originally, I thought would become a newspaper reporter, and I enrolled at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. I double-majored in economics as a backup plan, based on doing well in an economics class I took during my first quarter in college. I loved writing, but my “backup plan” became increasingly appealing to me, as I was also drawn to logic and statistics. I eventually ruled out journalism, in part because I wasn’t sure about how I would combine the hours of a reporter with eventually wanting to have a family. After college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I did what a lot of people from my school did: took a job as an analyst at a large management consulting firm. It was a great chance to get exposed to different industries, to travel and to also be able to pay off my student loans.
Working in management consulting, I saw that there was often a big gap between the recommendations found in the slides of a PowerPoint deck and the ultimate way that things played out in organizations. This made me see very clearly that organizations don’t always function the way they’re supposed to function. I wanted to figure out why. I also saw that relationships mattered a lot — in being able to sell work, in getting information to do your job, in getting people to support your ideas. This is part of what inspired me to go to graduate school and study economic sociology and organizations — the idea that the economic and the social are deeply intertwined.
Q: What is your area of research or academic focus? What are you most excited about regarding your research?
A: I am an economic sociologist who studies how social processes affect outcomes in organizations and other business settings. I have been fortunate to do research on a variety of different empirical contexts, including book publishing, peer-to-peer lending, environmental ratings, auditing, gender pay gap transparency laws and corporate social responsibility. Across many of these empirical settings, a common theme of my work is the role that information intermediaries – such as ratings, rankings, prizes and other forms of public evaluation that firms undergo — play in shaping how organizations behave. Many of these ratings and rankings are implemented with an eye toward getting organizations to improve on social dimensions that they might otherwise ignore, such as environmental performance or gender/race diversity. Despite these good intentions, ratings and rankings don’t always lead to the outcomes that drove their implementation in the first place. But I’m excited about the potential they have and about figuring out ways that we can design them to achieve their potential.
Q: How do you want to see this field advance to the betterment of society?
A: Looking beyond my own research on information intermediaries, I want to see management researchers continue to work on demonstrating their relevance to the world around them. Early in my career, there was an increased emphasis on rigor and demonstrating causal relationships among the variables that we studied. This is clearly important. Without rigorous research design, we can’t be sure our conclusions are valid. But sometimes it leads researchers to study obscure topics, simply because certain features of the empirical setting enable them to conduct a strong test of a causal relationship there. Today, I am seeing a shift toward emphasizing relevance as much as rigor. Editors are increasingly willing to advance papers through to publication because they shed light on societally important questions, even if we can’t 100% identify a causal effect. This balance of rigor and relevance is healthy for our field and healthy for society.
Q: What is something you wish more people realized about what you research?
A: Ratings and rankings are everywhere these days, and many of us use this kind of information to make decisions. Some of these decisions are mundane, such as choosing where to go for dinner. But others are highly consequential, such as selecting a nursing home for a loved one or choosing a neighborhood to live in based on the quality of the local school. In these cases, ratings and rankings simplify — and often oversimplify — what can be a very complex and multi-faceted reality. For example, they encapsulate the quality of a restaurant or nursing home in a single number. My work shows that the mere presence of ratings and ratings can cause organizations to respond — sometimes in desired ways and sometimes in unintended, negative ones. For these reasons, I think it would be wise for people to exercise caution when relying on ratings and rankings to make important decisions.
Q: What brought you to ASU and what do you like about the university?
A: I am really inspired by the mission of the university — the idea that we as a university measure ourselves by who we include, rather than exclude, and by how they succeed. I have always believed strongly in education as a driver of opportunity and mobility in our society, and I think ASU is a place where it’s possible to see the power of how education can affect people’s livelihoods very clearly. We have students from all backgrounds and in all phases of life — those doing the traditional four years, from ages 18 to 22, to those who are older, perhaps with families and/or working full time. It means a lot to me that we serve these diverse constituencies, and I also think it brings an energy to campus that isn’t found at all universities.
Q: What specifically would you like to accomplish while at W. P. Carey?
A: I hope to continue to understand the ways in which the social and cultural world is intertwined with the business world. I will continue to do work on information intermediaries, especially as they are involved in shaping firms’ behaviors on social dimensions. In addition, I hope to return to a stream of work on entrepreneurship that I pursued earlier in my career. For my undergraduate teaching, I hope that my students will remember my class as one that helps them develop their critical thinking, logical argumentation and writing skills, as well as their business knowledge. Finally, I hope that I will be able to serve as a mentor and example to doctoral students, particularly those who have young families. I had two of my three children while in graduate school and currently am balancing work and career. It is not easy, but it is extremely rewarding. I hope my example may be helpful to others who follow in a similar path.
Q: What’s something you do for fun or something only your closest friends know about you?
A: I didn’t learn to swim until I was in high school. And even then, I wasn’t very good. But at some point, I decided I wanted to complete a triathlon. So I took more swimming lessons and trained. I eventually completed my first triathlon in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in 2003. I actually backstroked part of the event and was the last person out of the water, though I was not the last person to finish the race. I’m very proud of having completed something that was such a challenge for me. It’s been my only triathlon to date, but maybe there will be one in my future when my kids are grown.
Top photo: Amanda Sharkey is an associate professor in the Department of Management and Entrepreneurship at the W. P. Carey School of Business. She has studied how social evaluations, such as status and reputation, affect organizational and competitive dynamics in a diverse set of industries, including book publishing, auditing and nursing homes. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News