Marco Iansiti

Marco Iansiti, ’83, Ph.D. ’88, may not have traveled far from home, but his journey from physics to business, especially radical at the time, has provided him with a fruitful intellectual adventure.

He received his two degrees in Physics from Harvard before joining the faculty of the Harvard Business School (HBS) in 1989.

Iansiti helped create, and initially co-chaired, the Science, Technology and Management program offered jointly by SEAS and HBS.

What are some of your favorite memories of your time at Harvard?

It was two weeks before my oral exam, and Mike Tinkham showed me his paper and said “Why don’t you work on this?” I said, “I’m not interested in research right now – I’m interested in my oral exam!”

But it was fun and led to a bunch of really neat things. I [also] remember the first experiment that involved creating a new device – a new tunnel junction – and cooling it at low temperatures.

I remember at 3 a.m. taking the first measurement and seeing something interesting. It felt really fascinating to see something that hadn’t been done before and get some interesting data.

Do you think that professional schools should seek out more people like you – people who have a background in physics rather than those who studied business or economics straight through?

I think they should. In my own department, I’m next door to someone who studied materials science at MIT and in the next room is someone who has a degree in electrical engineering, also from MIT.

I work with people who have backgrounds in organizational psychology. The management of technology is not a discipline, it’s a set of problems, and the best way to tackle that set of problems is by leveraging a variety of different disciplines. It’s too easy to get lost in the complexity of the data and I think having strong training really helps people.

Are you excited about the direction in which economics is moving, in terms of behavioral economics and some of the work that has emerged?

I think it is very exciting. Right now there are much more powerful tools and more powerful ways to become closer to the application world, and I think that’s really good.

It’s very hard to develop a solid understanding of a business problem if there isn’t a strong business foundation in economics or psychology or sociology or some field that can give you some structure and discipline.

What are some of the research topics that you are most interested in right now?

I’m very interested in networks of companies. In the old days, innovation was primarily done by individuals in isolated labs, such as Bell Labs. Now it is really a network phenomenon, where literally thousands of organizations are working on related problems.

Is there a modern Bell Labs out there now?

No, the concept has changed. There are a number of R&D labs that are really important in a variety of ways. You can find them in universities and you can still find them in the private sector.

Looking forward, or even looking back a few years, I think you’ll find that any innovation is really a collaborative phenomenon.