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Practical Routes to a Doctorate

By Katrin Althoetmar

Completing a doctorate, gaining professional experience, building important contacts for one's chosen career and earning money: Philip Räth (26), who works at IBM as a doctoral candidate conducting research into whether and how using social software can be beneficial to businesses, explains how all these things can be combined.

Practical Routes to a DoctoratePhilip Räth conducts research into social software for his doctoral thesis at IBM
academics: Mr Räth, why are you completing a doctorate - and why in a corporate environment?

Philip Räth: I already realised while I was writing my Diplom thesis in Business Management at the European Business School (EBS) in Reichartshausen that I enjoy academic work very much. And I believe that a doctorate improves one's career perspectives. This also applies to completing a doctorate in a company, because it allows me to additionally gain professional experience.

academics: How did you and IBM come together?

Philip Räth: My specialisms are knowledge management and social media. With "Lotus Connections" IBM had already developed software that integrates various components of social software on a single platform - so the company was an obvious choice of partner. A speculative application from me then met with interest from the Technical Sales division at IBM.

academics: What exactly is your doctoral thesis about?

Philip Räth: I examine social software, that is, systems designed to improve and promote collaboration. This includes for example wikis, weblogs or social bookmarking. "Lotus Connections" is like a sort of Facebook for businesses: each user has a profile with a photograph and further information about him- or herself and his or her network of colleagues. But this profile additionally links to contributions by the respective employee in blogs, wikis and other elements. I examine what benefits systems like this have for businesses and their individual employees. I also look at companies that are already successfully using social software and try to find out how they introduced it within the company.

academics: What interest does IBM have in this topic?

Philip Räth: Social media are becoming increasingly important in businesses, but they are still a new phenomenon into which very little empirical research has so far been done. Many IBM clients who are thinking about introducing Lotus Connections of course want to know how others have approached such projects, so it's helpful if data from practical experience, such as those I collect, can be presented in consultations. But IBM also benefits from my theoretical analysis; for example, I can explain why people who are well networked do better work than those who are less connected.

academics: We can't wait to find out!

Philip Räth: This assumption is based on the idea that every person has both a circle of close friends and a certain number of acquaintances with circles of friends of their own. Acquaintances therefore function as a bridge to other networks of this kind. A person with a small number of acquaintances will accordingly have less access to information from other parts of a social system. He or she will remain isolated for longer from advancements and changes throughout the system. Applied to a corporate context this means that employees with a large network benefit from faster access to new information and are therefore, for example, able to make better decisions.

academics: What advantages do you see in completing your doctorate in a corporate environment?

Philip Räth: Primarily of course I benefit from the expertise and the IBM network. As far as I know, IBM is the only company that uses a social media platform internally for over 400,000 employees around the world. In addition I am expanding my personal network and learning on the spot whether and how the results of my research can be put to practical use. And not least, IBM pays me a salary I can live on.

academics: Would you say that your research is application-oriented?

Philip Räth: Not exactly - implementation-oriented is closer. My work is based to a significant extent on the social-science-oriented US research method in the field of "information systems/management". My aim is to gain insights into the interrelationships that arise in practice so that companies are better able to evaluate the possible consequences of introducing social software ahead of doing so.

academics: Which abilities are important in order to complete a doctorate at the intersection between research and business?

Philip Räth: In my experience it is important to always bear two aspects in mind: on the one hand one's own, analytically clear research, and on the other hand the added value one's results bring to the company. The latter requires very implementation-oriented thinking. The conflict that results from the fact that science strives mainly for greater knowledge while a business aims mainly to increase its market share and improve its market position presents a challenge, but it also makes things very exciting. Language skills and intercultural experience are also helpful, as research particularly in the field of business informatics is increasingly being conducted at the international level. I myself was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to study in the USA and France for some time, which of course helps.

academics: Is it easy to combine research and practice in your day-to-day work?

Philip Räth: Yes. I spend one day a week at EBS exchanging ideas with my thesis supervisor Prof. Dr. Gerold Riempp and other doctoral candidates. The rest of my time is spent at IBM in Frankfurt-Sossenheim, where I mainly prepare information for clients; if required, I also visit clients on site. If I have technical questions, I contact the head of my department, my manager, or I discuss them with colleagues. A very pleasant aspect is that IBM allows me a lot of freedom, so if I have time, I can also work on articles for academic journals or conferences.

academics: And what are your plans for the future?

Philip Räth: Once I have completed my doctorate, I see several possibilities, for example working for a strategic consultancy or in the automotive industry. Or maybe I'll go freelance. The demand for consultancy in the field of social media in businesses is still high. I also wouldn't want to rule out a return to research. Overall, I am optimistic about my future.

academics :: January 2010

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