Dr Michael Smets is Associate Professor in Management and Organisation Studies and a Research Fellow at Green Templeton College. He is also a member of the Centre for Professional Service Firms, based at Saïd Business School.
Michael’s research focuses on professional service firms (PSFs), especially their internationalisation, innovation and regulation. Professional services play an increasingly significant role not only as an important business sector in their own right, but also as a lubricant for business transactions and government activities more broadly. Critically, with the increasing ‘servitisation’ of manufactured goods and the rise of ‘hybrid’ organisations that bring together experts from a variety of disciplines, understanding professional service firms and the lessons we can learn from them helps address a wide range of challenges faced by 21st century organisations.
Michael focuses especially on the management of global law, consulting and reinsurance firms. He employs innovative qualitative methodologies, such as video- and team-ethnography, to capture the minute details of professional work. Most recently, he did so in a widely-noted ‘fly on the wall’ study of reinsurance trading in Lloyd’s of London.
He uses these data to contribute to institutional theory, practice theory and the field of professional services knowledge. He is being recognised as one of the first to blend those theories in order to connect individual, organisational and institutional dynamics in the study of professional organisations. His study on the integration of cross-border services in global law firms and its impact on local regulatory systems has been awarded the 2012 Best Article Award of the Academy of Management Journal.
His second research focus on changing career systems and innovation capacity in PSFs is attracting growing industry attention. His recent work explains how new career paths can be strategically leveraged to simultaneously address two of the most critical pressures on contemporary organisations – staying ahead of the competition through continuous innovation and addressing the work-life balance demands of professional staff.
Michael regularly speaks at academic and practitioner conferences and delivers executive education programmes for leading companies in the legal, consulting, reinsurance, and healthcare sectors. His research is published in leading academic journals, academic and professional handbooks, and has been featured in the national and professional press.
Michael obtained the equivalent of a BA in Business and Economics from Cologne University in Germany before joining Saïd Business School for his postgraduate education. There he obtained an MSc in Management Research and a DPhil in Management before accepting a post-doc position jointly held by Saïd Business School and the School of Management at the University of Alberta, Canada. Before re-joining Saïd Business School full-time in 2013, Michael was a Lecturer in Strategy at Aston Business School, Birmingham. He is also a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
Areas of expertise include:
Dr Michael Smets’ research focuses on professional service firms (PSFs), especially their internationalisation, innovation and regulation, and studies in particular the management of global law, consulting and reinsurance firms. He uses innovative qualitative methodologies such as video- and team-ethnography to capture the minute details of professional work and thus contribute to the fields of institutional theory and practice theory. He also examines career systems and innovation capacity in PSFs to investigate how the strategic leveraging of new career paths can help organisations both stay ahead of the competition through continuous innovation and address the work-life balance demands of professional staff.
Cross-border professional work and its institutional impacts
The coordination of cross-border professional work poses a central problem in the integration of global professional service firms. Local regulatory and institutional frameworks have, in particular, been identified as complicating the achievement of seamless cross-border services. Michael’s work examines ways of aligning professionals from different jurisdictions and delivering more integrated services. More importantly, he also examines the impact of such cross-border work on the local institutional frameworks it straddles. Blending institutional and practice theory, this research highlights how practical work and institutional frameworks are recursively linked, that is, how professional work is shaped by, but also shapes institutional frameworks. These insights are of particular relevance for understanding international management, the organisation of global professional service firms, and the limits to regulatory oversight.
Smets, M. & Jarzabkowski, P. (forthcoming) “Reconstructing institutional complexity in practice: A relational model of institutional work and complexity” Human Relations. [details to be added later]
Risk-trading in the global reinsurance industry
The financial crisis has painfully highlighted the challenges of managing financial risks and the threats posed by an over-reliance on financial modelling. Michael’s research project, which is co-funded by the ESRC and industry bodies, develops a micro-social perspective on financial risk trading decisions. Based on an unprecedented ‘fly on the wall’ study of live trading in Lloyd’s of London and Bermuda, this study uncovers the minute details of trading financial risks electronically or face to face. In doing so, it explains the roles of models, relationships, professional judgement and material surroundings in risk-trading decisions. With the entire dataset covering all leading reinsurance marketplaces (Lloyd's of London, Bermuda, Europe and South East Asia), the study also explores the coordination of dispersed pricing mechanisms and the connectivity of risk in global financial markets.
The project makes ground-breaking use of video- and team-ethnography to collect micro-level, ethnographic data of an entire marketplace. Its practical relevance and impact has been recognised with the 2013 ESRC Award for “Outstanding Impact in Business” for project leader, Professor Paula Jarzabkowski of the Cass Business School.
Jarzabkowski, P., Smets, M., Bednarek, R., Burke, G., & Spee, A. P. (2013) “Institutional ambidexterity: Leveraging institutional complexity in practice” in M. Lounsbury & E. Boxenbaum (eds.), Institutional logics in action (Bingley: Emerald) pp349-373.
Jarzabkowski, P., Spee, A. P., & Smets, M. (2013) “Material artifacts: Practices for doing strategy with ‘stuff’ “ European Management Journal 31(1): 41-54.
Jarzabkowski, P., Smets, M., & Spee, P. (2012) “Leveraging Relationships to Get Ready for Change” in Heimer Rathbone, C.L. (ed.) Ready for Change?: Through Turbulence to Reformation and Transformation (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan) pp165-184.
Jarzabkowski, P., Bednarek, R., Burke, G., Cabantous, L. & Smets, M. (2012) Beyond Borders: Charting the Changing Global Reinsurance Landscape, Commissioned Report, Insurance Intellectual Capital Initiative (IICI) .
Jarzabkowski, P., Smets, M., & Spee, P. (2010) Trading Risks: The Value of Relationships, Models and Face-to-face Interaction in the Global Reinsurance Market, commissioned report, Insurance Intellectual Capital Initiative (IICI) and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
Career structures and innovation capacity in Professional Service Firms
Michael studies changing careers structures in PSFs and their impact on firms' innovation capacity. Specifically, he explores how the introduction of new roles, promotion policies and career paths affects the time, energy and motivation that staff at different levels have available to invest in innovation. Insights from this study help PSFs tackle two of the most critical pressures they currently face: staying ahead of the competition through continuous innovation and addressing the work-life balance demands of professional staff.
Morris, T., Smets, M., & Greenwood, R. (forthcoming) “In Pursuit of Creative Compliance: Innovation in Professional Service Firms” in Daniels, P.W. & Bryson, J.R. (eds) The Handbook of Service Business (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing).
Continuous innovation in knowledge-intensive industries
Knowledge-intensive and professional services are extremely prone to quick commodification. Continuous innovation is therefore a virtual ‘must’ for these organisations. Michael explores how knowledge-intensive organisations can start a creative ‘Swirl’ that continuously updates their core capabilities. The model developed in this project has been extremely well received by practitioners across a variety of industries and forms the centrepiece of Michael’s executive education programmes.
Reputation management in Professional Service Firms
PSFs, more than any other organisations, rely on their reputation to market their services, but also to attract new talent. Michael’s research explores the different dimensions and levels of reputation in PSFs and how they can be most effectively managed.
Harvey, W., Morris, T., & Smets, M. (2013) “Corporate Reputation: Definitions and Dimensions” in International Bar Association (ed.) Law Firm Strategies for the 21st Century: Strategies that Work Globe Business Publishing.
The research projects that Michael has been involved in have attracted around £300,000 over four years and have been covered by the national and professional press. Articles have appeared, for example in the Financial Times, Insurance Insider, Reactions, Compliance Complete, Insurance News, Insurance Day, Risk & Insurance, and Strategic Risk.
His research outputs have appeared in leading academic journals, such as the Academy of Management Journal, Human Relations, International Journal of Human Resources, as well as in academic and practitioner handbooks, and in industry reports.
Michael’s work is generating industry impact through a variety of channels. Industry reports (one and two) supplied to the reinsurance industry have been well received and widely cited. The Insurance Institute of London has made some outputs available to its membership and is awarding Continuing Professional Development (CD) points for their use. The study on Risk Trading in the Global Reinsurance Industry has received the ESRC’s inaugural award for “Outstanding Impact in Business” in 2013.
At the organisational level, Michael engages research participants through tailored reports and customised workshops. He also contributes to practitioner publications such as the International Bar Association’s handbook on Law Firm Strategies for the 21st Century and the ‘Insights’ series of the Centre for Professional Service Firms, and he engages practitioner audiences through conference presentations to, for instance, the Financial Services Knowledge Transfer Network in London, the Georgetown Law Symposium in Washington, and the Bucerius Law School Autumn Conference in Hamburg.
Michael’s research has had significant impact on management practice through industry speaking engagements, executive education programmes, and consulting work. Most notably, the ‘fly on the wall’ study of reinsurance trading Michael conducted with colleagues from Cass Business School, London and Aston Business School, Birmingham, has received the 2013 ESRC Award for “Outstanding Impact in Business”.
Michael’s research has also generated academic impact across a variety of areas. He regularly organises or contributes to symposia and professional development workshops of the Academy of Management and British Academy of Management. In particular, he has recently used these occasions to develop capabilities in video ethnography, both as a data collection tool and as a means of enhancing corporate engagement.
He also acts as a reviewer for journals such as the Academy of Management Journal, Organization Studies, Journal of Management Studies and Journal of Organisational Behaviour, and for conferences (Academy of Management Meetings) and is a member of the inaugural editorial board of the Journal of Professions and Organization. He is a three-time recipient of the OMT Division’s ‘ABCD Award’ for outstanding reviewers.Michael has been nominated for the 2013 Best Paper Award of the Academy of Management Journal, currently the second-most impactful management journal in the world. His work examining how cross-border professional work can impact on local regulatory systems is among the first to blend practice and institutional theory and to develop a multi-level understanding of individual, organisational and institutional dynamics in professional organisations. His contribution is significant insofar as it opens a new perspective on the earliest moments of institutional change and outlines new ways of managing institutional complexity, the collision of conflicting institutional demands on highly regulated organisations.
He has also received three Best Paper Awards from the Academy of Management and the European Group of Organization Studies, and has been shortlisted for two more over the past five years. His awards span divisions such as International Management, Strategy-as-Practice, Consulting, Organisation Theory, and Organisational Ethnography, giving credit to the wide repertoire of theoretical and methodological approaches Michael brings to his studies.
Michael is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and has substantial teaching experience at the undergraduate, postgraduate and executive level. He teaches modules on strategic management, innovation and business development on customised executive education programmes. He mainly works with clients in banking, law, consulting, and healthcare. Recent clients include Commerzbank, Clifford Chance, Deloitte, ICBC, and CCB.
Michael’s classes are highly interactive and applied. He encourages his students to engage with the material by applying it to real-world case studies or testing it against their personal business experience. The focal point of his teaching is an inquisitive mind-set that takes students to critically examine the assumptions behind various models and their applicability in different situations. He says: “There is no ‘silver bullet’, no model that provides all the answers in all the situations, so it is critical to understand under which circumstances which ones work, and which ones don’t; and to thoughtfully select the most appropriate. That kind of critical thoughtfulness is what I am trying to instil in my students.”
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