A Tribute to Jack Rockart

Jeanne Ross delivered the following tribute to Jack Rockart at a memorial service on March 1. Jack Rockart, co-founder of MIT CISR and its director from 19742000, passed away on February 3, 2014.

I’m Jeanne Ross, the current director of the Center for Information Systems Research, also known as CISR, at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. I am here to pay tribute to Jack’s extraordinary academic career, or to use Jack’s term, his TERRIFIC academic career.

Jack is best known for co-founding CISR and serving as its director for 26 years. In that role, Jack showed that research could help improve management practice. His passion for practice-based research helped establish the academic discipline of Information Systems. I think of him as the father—or perhaps grandfather—of IS management.

As a researcher, Jack is probably best known for the concept of critical success factors—a simple framework for helping executives focus IT resources on their most strategic business needs. Over time, he taught critical success factors not only as a valuable practice for managing IT, but as a valuable way of managing your life. Each year when he taught the CSF session at CISR summer session, he would eventually get to a part where he described how he had come to realize that his CSFs for his personal happiness were his wife and children. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place by the time he finished. And I can tell you that it isn’t often that an IT management session brings people to tears.

Jack was a great researcher, but he was an even greater teacher. He taught both executives and MBAs, but I mostly saw him in executive sessions. In the classroom, he would describe something he had observed, and then he would say, “I submit to you…” and finish the sentence with a unique insight. He would then encourage people to either reinforce or debate his point. Typically, the class was electric.

When he taught, Jack liked to put up overhead transparencies that were nothing but a set of empty boxes and then gradually fill in key steps or components of a simple but powerful framework for understanding IT management. He would point to one of the boxes and say, do you know what this is? Of course, we knew exactly what it was—an empty box! He once showed a slide with six empty boxes and said, “Here’s what Jeanne and I are thinking.” All I could think was, “What ARE we thinking?” But Jack would start filling in boxes and we would see the light. It was consistently amazing. His students rarely forgot the experience. I still regularly meet people who tell me that Jack Rockart’s teaching changed their lives.

Like everyone who ever had the honor of working with Jack, I am personally grateful for all he taught me. He shied away from no topic, including what was interesting and what wasn’t, what was funny and what wasn’t, even what to wear and what not to wear. His female-dominated staff, who affectionately referred to themselves as the CISRettes, appreciated his mentorship, his good nature, and his personal caring. More than once he found me sobbing because I just wasn’t getting through to our audience. He would pick me up, brush me off, and send me back into the ring.

And he not only advised CISR staff. It was not unusual for Jack to welcome young researchers into his office. He would listen to them describe their research and often say, “There’s a pony in their somewhere.” For those who don’t know this saying, it means if you keep looking, you are likely to find something valuable in your research results. That simple statement has comforted and even inspired legions of Ph.D. students and young faculty. Even though, if you think about it, a pony is not, say, a horse. What’s more, when Jack said it’s in there somewhere, he was admitting he couldn’t quite find it. But he was saying don’t give up. And that was enough for a young researcher to rejoice that no less than Jack Rockart had praised his work.

Despite his expertise in IT management—or perhaps because of it—Jack was a cautious user. He took a lot of grief for resisting the emerging fad of projecting PowerPoint slides from a computer. He preferred overhead transparencies, insisting that PowerPoint technology wasn’t ready for prime time. Truth was, in the late 1990s, this often turned out to be true. To his credit, when one of us couldn’t get our slides to show, he tried valiantly not to smirk, but he usually failed—I certainly caught him smirking. But at least he never said, I told you so.

In theory, Jack retired in 2002, but he never really retired. He continued to come to CISR sponsor events, to participate in our weekly research staff meetings, and to advise research scientists on their research and presentations.

And as we were throwing his retirement party, he was agreeing to serve as editor in chief of MISQE, a new academic journal written for a practitioner audience. Jack insisted he couldn’t agree to take on the EIC role without Elise’s blessing but, once he secured that, he was all in. He tirelessly negotiated, advised, enticed, cajoled, encouraged, and congratulated authors, funders, reviewers, and editors. He brought credibility to a journal that is now in its 11th year of publication. MISQE was the last of his many terrific contributions to a field that will forever be in his debt.

As we at CISR and throughout the IT discipline carry on without Jack’s insights and encouragement, we are reminded that our time on earth is limited, but our impact on the lives we touch need not be. I know I speak for many here when I thank God for the gift that was Jack Rockart. I miss you, Jack. Thanks for your good counsel and your great friendship.

Share your memories of Jack Rockart in the comments on the MIT CISR Blog post from February 5.