Innovator goes beyond the book
Written By: Dave Alexander
2003-04-29Dr. Stan Li is all for mixing business with pleasure. In fact, it's integral to what he studies.
A professor in the University of Alberta Department of Strategic Management and Organization at the School of Business and recent Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award recipient, Li has gained recognition for research that applies social network analysis to strategic management concerns. His investigations focus on the critical role of “social capital” (the network of inter-firm connections in business transactions) to the survival of companies, the examination of alliance strategies amongst firms, and the effects of networking among firms in the same industry. His work has been heralded for taking innovative approaches to applying formerly separate theories to issues of diversification and multi-market contact. In other words, Li wants to know what makes people tick in the economic world.
"When I was a kid I was always fascinated by business circles," said Li. "I knew that even as a kid I wanted a career related to business. I have a strong interest to find out why people buy stuff and sell stuff, what makes them provide potential services to customers. From a very young age it was just a fascinating puzzle for me to figure out.
"I never really branched out into other areas like Arts and Humanities...My father once asked me to major in mathematics because he had some misconstrued ideas about the superiority of hard sciences for soft sciences. I refused his request and became a student at a business school. I never regretted it for a single moment."
After attending Shanghai Jiaotong University in his homeland of China, Li worked at two Asian securities firms. His role was to place shares from the two stock exchanges in China, one in Hong Kong and one in Taiwan, for clients in Singapore. It was here that he first noticed these activities actually revolved around social networks. The social networks between businesses were actually key in determining the flow of assets. It was an important component of his work but had never been taught to him in school.
He became fascinated with the influence these seldom-considered forces had on the way companies list their shares on the stock market. At the same time, he also became disillusioned with his job.
"Six years ago I became extremely bored working in a securities firm for two reasons," he said. "The first reason is that I felt there was no challenge in my work at all at that time. I was doing the same routine day after day.
"The second reason that made me switch from the industry to the academic circle was that I found out that the finance theory I learned in my Master's degree--I got my Master's degree in Financial Analysis--actually did not apply at all in my job as an investment banker. I was extremely puzzled and disappointed by this fact. I wanted to find out why I couldn’t apply the knowledge I learned in my textbook to my big activities. Is there some gap in the finance field that we never uncovered?"
He decided that, to answer this question, he'd need to become a researcher. After moving to Britain to earn his Master’s Degree in Financial Analysis at the University of Stirling, he went to the University of Toronto and earned a PhD in Strategic and Organizational Theory. Then he came to the U of A to combine his real-world working experience with textbook theory to properly equip Business students for the job market.
"At the beginning of each semester I bombard my students with the idea that what you learn in the textbooks, from my own experience, you cannot directly apply to your future job at all," he said.
"They're shocked, and some even protest that they pay big bucks to the business schools, and they learn something so in flux, so they're disappointed, but eventually what they realize is that what they learn is a discipline of social science."
It seems that Li just can't separate the social aspects from business, nor does he want to. His favourite pastime is shopping because it's "the perfect mental and physical exercise" for him. Edmonton also offers the best place to mix business with pleasure--a giant, attraction-filled shopping mall.
Li says it's the ideal place for him to indulge his interest in discovering the social aspects of commerce.
"I quite like West Edmonton Mall. It sounds weird but that's the way I was brought up--in those huge cities, which are extremely crowded without much green space. Commercialism was everywhere, in every corner of the streets.
"Thinking about those things while I'm shopping makes me happy. I always combine my research with my daily observations. There are so many clothes stores in West Edmonton Mall, but why does this one work and that one not work? Who are they targeting? Why do they have different kinds of sales in different seasons? What's the logic?"
It's that kind of questioning that has Stan Li taking the concept of the "smart shopper" to a whole new level.
This article originally appeared in Express News.