Nickerson has knack for success

Olin associate professor solves problems

One day last fall, Jackson Nickerson looked down from his second-story office in Simon Hall to the newly redeveloped parking lot below. He spotted trouble brewing.

Jackson Nickerson, Ph.D., and Lyda Bigelow, Ph.D., assistant professor of organization and strategy, discuss their classes. Georgetown University colleague Jeffrey Macher says of Nickerson,
Jackson Nickerson, Ph.D., and Lyda Bigelow, Ph.D., assistant professor of organization and strategy, discuss their classes. Georgetown University colleague Jeffrey Macher says of Nickerson, “I have yet to meet someone as well-organized and efficient at getting things done.”

While cars raced about, students streamed across the lot, oblivious to the dangerous traffic. Nickerson saw an accident in the making and took up the cause, quickly producing a video that documented the action.

With evidence in hand, he used his position on the University’s Undergraduate Council to install speed bumps and a metal fence that made it safer for students walking from the South 40 to campus.

Problem solved.

Nickerson, Ph.D., associate professor of organization and strategy in the Olin School of Business, has also worked wonders inside Simon Hall. Until last year, his office was decorated in a style that might charitably be called downtown chic, but to Nickerson’s eye the mismatched furniture was just bad news.

Thinking that his colleagues might share his sentiments, he organized about 30 of them and cut a deal with the Closet Factory to design and install custom-made cabinetry at a deep discount. Today, many Simon Hall offices have a polished appearance befitting the boardroom, not the backroom, thanks to Nickerson’s fix-it efforts.

Nickerson’s problem-solving skills extend to all aspects of his life. His colleague at Georgetown University, Assistant Professor Jeffrey Macher, says, “I have yet to meet someone as well-organized and efficient at getting things done.”

But Nickerson saves the best of his makeover talents for his students and for the long list of diverse companies that he studies.

With his easy-going manner and the appealing looks of the late actor John Ritter, it’s easy to imagine how the 41-year-old Nickerson might win over his students with simple charm. So it’s surprising that he prefers to administer a stern dose of “tough love” in Management 100, a required course for freshmen entering the business school.

He sets the tone on the very first day, cold-calling on nervous young men and women who’d rather raise their hands when they have something to say. A “wave of fear rolls across the class,” he says, but he keeps the pressure on for the next several weeks.

One of Nickerson's great pleasures in life is taking his children Will, 8, and Genevieve, 5 (and three-quarters!), to school on a tandem tag-along bike every morning.
One of Nickerson’s great pleasures in life is taking his children Will, 8, and Genevieve, 5 (and three-quarters!), to school on a tandem tag-along bike every morning.

“I drive them hard,” he says. “I give them a very hard first exam,” and many fail. Then Nickerson invites the struggling students to his office for a conversation.

“I sit down with each of them for 15 or 20 minutes. This could be 120 kids. This consumes my month of October. Very quickly I figure out where their weaknesses are. Is it the way they study? Is it the way they take notes? Is it the way they read? The way they take exams? …

“By the eighth week, they get on board. … Most students end up doing very well (and) remember this course as a transforming experience. … They are set up for the next three-and-a-half years. … They’ve made the transition from high school to college.”

Students and colleagues agree that Nickerson’s classroom strategy works, rewarding him with numerous teaching awards since he came to the University eight years ago. In January, he accepted the 2003 Governor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching from the Missouri Department of Higher Education.

Nickerson has researched several companies in unrelated industries such as trucking, information technology, and, most recently, the pharmaceutical industry. Just as he gets to know the needs of individual students, he figures out what distinguishes each company and studies ways to match the company’s activities with the appropriate organizational choices.

“Just about all the papers that I’ve written tie into organization choice: teams or no teams, centralization or decentralization, make or buy,” he says. “It’s not just the organization choice that is important, but also how that choice translates into performance.”

Jackson Nickerson

Title: Associate professor of organization and strategy, Olin School of Business

Degrees: Ph.D., 1997; M.B.A., 1990; M.S.M.E., 1986; University of California, Berkeley; B.S.M.E., 1984, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Hobbies: Woodworking, bicycling, coaching kids’ sports

Screensaver: A giant antenna that Nickerson worked on as a young mechanical engineer. “This antenna is 100 meters tall and 70 meters from here to here. I designed control algorithms to track Voyager I and Voyager II to communicate with the Mars landers.”

Recent books read for fun: Harry Potter and Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond. Nickerson also is a big fan of The Zone: A Dietary Road Map to Lose Weight Permanently, by Barry Sears and Bill Lawren.

Last professional article read: “To Build a Winning Team: An Interview With Head Coach Bill Walsh,” by Richard Rapaport, Harvard Business Review.

Historical fact: Nickerson’s ancestors founded Chatham, Mass., on Cape Cod. Today, visitors can spend the day at Nickerson State Park. For generations, his family trolled the Atlantic for cod and swordfish.

Unlike his colleagues in more specialized business fields, Nickerson, an expert in organization and strategy, looks at things holistically. His wife, Cici, a librarian who has worked in the business school’s Kopolow Library, says her husband “can see the forest,” as well as the trees.

Nickerson explains, “I care about finance; I care about economics; I care about marketing; I care about operations; I care about organizational behavior. We’re integrating all of these different functional specialties into one gestalt — one big picture.”

But he insists there are no universal answers in business. “It’s about matching, not about one mode of organization always being superior to another.”

His two-part study of the pharmaceutical industry, being conducted with Georgetown’s Macher, examines company operations as well as Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations, which will soon be revamped for the first time in 25 years with input from the study.

“There’s no one that we are aware of today studying (pharmaceutical manufacturing) from a management and organization perspective,” Nickerson says. “There are huge opportunities to understand production, find ways to improve it from an organizational perspective, and to help the FDA understand how to change their regulations to not only assure safety, but then to improve on these other measures of productivity.”

Nickerson says that changes in regulation and organization could lower drug prices by as much as 15 percent to 20 percent.

Significant results like these lead Olin School of Business Dean Stuart I. Greenbaum, Ph.D., to say, “Jackson Nickerson is a gifted teacher and scholar with a keen eye for policy impact. He is also a totally engaged citizen of our community who argues his views with reason and passion.”

Nickerson suggests that the University has made organizational choices that foster community.

“I think WashU is a great place,” Nickerson says. “It’s a collegial place. It has a great culture, and the culture is very much about relationships. …

“At least in the business school, I don’t think we have a star system, which is very good. A star system tends to lead to these problems of envy and animosity,” which Nickerson also studies.

Assistant Professor Hideo Owan, who has co-authored several papers with Nickerson, says that his friend’s outgoing nature helps him make the most of the University’s open culture. He “is a great collaborator,” Owan says.

“If he doesn’t have a full range of necessary skills to analyze complex problems, then he will talk to people with the needed skills, make them excited about the idea, and then start working with them,” Owan says. “He is always excited about something.”

Envy, Nickerson argues, negatively impacts the collaboration and productivity that he values so highly — both on a personal level and organizationally. He notes that a “highly differential reward system,” like a star system, is one of the things that can jeopardize collaboration and lead to envy and undesirable behavior.

“We study how envy causes management to adopt certain organization structures, incentives and internal procedures in order to provide a certain degree of egalitarian environment to encourage coordination and communication,” Nickerson says.

To ameliorate envy and solve complex problems, Nickerson says, “you want people to work as a group,” which usually requires that people with complementary skills and talents work in close proximity.

This is precisely the setup he sees on his corridor in Simon Hall. One of the tidy “Nickerson Rules” he has created states: You tend to interact with those people within plus or minus 20 feet of your door. If you have people from other areas, other disciplines, within 20 feet of your door, you get a great exchange and interaction where you identify interdisciplinary issues.

While envy is not much of a problem in Nickerson’s professional life, he admits that it’s the “biggest issue” with his children, 8-year-old Will, and Genevieve, a proud 5 and three-quarters. Collaborative teamwork at home, as at the office, does much to eliminate the strains between the siblings.

And the tandem with a tag-a-long bicycle that Nickerson uses to transport the children to New City School each day is a gigantic help. Will says that he enjoys pedaling in sync with his dad; Genevieve contributes by changing the gears as directed.

The kids are totally jazzed about bike riding, echoing their father’s sentiments about his life at the University: “I’m here because I’m jazzed. I love what I do.”