An enterprising partnership
This husband and wife team bring a novel multidisciplinary focus to their collaborative research in the fields of business and management.
Researchers Associate Professor Brendan Boyle and Associate Professor Rebecca Mitchell view corporations as the sum of those working within them. Boyle's research specialty is the study of multinational companies, while Mitchell is a psychology-trained academic with expertise in organisational behaviour and human interaction in the workplace. While both pursue independent research streams, they also frequently work together to bring what Boyle describes as a "macro-micro approach" to studies of big business.
"My focus is on international business, or the 'macro' side of how multinational companies behave and interact with governments and other businesses, whereas Rebecca looks more at who makes the decisions, how they are made and the dynamics of the management teams within these organisations," Boyle explains. "By combining our expertise we get a better appreciation of the whole."
"Analysing these micro processes of business is important in forming a comprehensive understanding of how international companies operate," Mitchell adds. "I am interested in the qualities of effective leadership and factors that contribute to a good workplace culture or successful teamwork."
Boyle and Mitchell completed their Masters at the highly regarded Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School at University College Dublin, and their doctorates at the University of Sydney before taking up appointments with the Newcastle Business School in 2008. Mitchell has been recognised with many prestigious academic awards for her scholarly writing and won a competitive fellowship to the University of Newcastle's Centre for Institutional and Organisational Studies (CIOS). The pair also worked for University College Dublin at its partner institution Centro de Estudios Superiores Universitarios de Galicia, in Spain, an experience that sowed the seeds of shared research interests in multinational business and the internationalisation of education.
Both Boyle and Mitchell are part of a team examining multinational enterprise restructuring in China following the rise in foreign investment in that country over the past decade. The project brings together researchers from the universities of Newcastle and NSW and China's Nanjing Business School and Guangdong University of Foreign Studies. It aims to produce new insight into the workings of multinational enterprises that will inform government policy makers, economists and the business community.
"China is the most dynamic economy in the world and a fascinating example of an economy in transition so there is no better place to study changing practices within multinational companies," Boyle maintains. "Multinational companies, as international entities, are unique in that they behave very differently to other organisations. We are particularly interested in how the Chinese policy environment influences their behaviour."
Boyle is also a lead investigator on an Australian Research Council Discovery Project studying employment practices in multinational enterprises. This project, involving researchers from the University of South Australia, Curtin University, Victoria University and La Trobe University, will integrate findings from a comprehensive Australian study with data from partner institutions in Ireland, Canada, Denmark, Norway and the UK.
"Multinational enterprises play a leading role in shaping employment practices globally as their power disproportionately influences change in managing people," Boyle relates. "This project, conducted across six countries, will enhance our understanding of how these organisations influence and shape the employment practices and systems in host contexts."
Closer to home, Mitchell and Boyle have led research into the unusually collaborative nature of the Hunter Valley wine cluster, a project with potential to expand internationally. Mitchell chairs the Wine Industry Research Collaborative, a program under the umbrella of the CIOS that brings together researchers in social sciences and business, and in 2009 staged Australia's first Wine Business Research Symposium.
"The Hunter Valley is quite successful at wine tourism and one of the reasons is the very innovative and unified approach the winemakers have to marketing," Mitchell comments. "They are competitors but also collaborators who help promote each other's products in a way that you don't see in other industries. We see a lot of potential in growing this project by undertaking comparative research overseas, particularly in the old-world wine regions in Europe."
"As with all of our research, there is added value in having two researchers who can bring different perspectives to a project," Boyle continues. "Business is by nature interdisciplinary, so there is a wide audience for the kind of work we do."
Hospitals are an intriguing case study in workplace dynamics, with the sometimes conflicting interests of different medical professionals coming together in a high-pressure and often emotionally charged environment. Dr Rebecca Mitchell has studied interprofessional staff groups in hospitals for the past four years and her research has produced some surprising findings on the best ways to facilitate effective teamwork.
"The adage that doctors and nurses hate each other is not necessarily true but there are professional barriers and demarcation lines that can lead to adversarial attitudes between the different medical, nursing and allied health professionals who work in hospitals," Mitchell states. "One of the unexpected findings of my research is that a little bit of tension or disagreement within a group can actually bring aboutmore innovative and higher quality outcomes – as long as the group leader has been able to successfully convey the importance of the team's goal. If, for instance, you have one practitioner arguing over a patient's treatment from a specialist view and another arguing from a more holistic view, and neither are willing to concede, you can actually end up with a better solution than if no one argues for an alternative opinion."
Mitchell's cross-disciplinary research into interprofessional teams in the health sector is conducted in collaboration with the Hunter New England Local Health District (HNELHD) and researchers from the University of New England and Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Her work has attracted the interest of influential professional organisations, including the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the Nursing and Midwifery Office of NSW Health, and has been implemented by HNELHD through the establishment of interdisciplinary networks to encourage better teamwork and knowledge sharing. The project represents a novel integration of research fields relating to interprofessional relations, organisational studies, institutions, sociology and organisational psychology.