Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Faculty of Business and Law

‘Swinburne isn’t too precious about the academic conventions. It’s been willing to take a punt on people and willing to think a little bit differently,’ Michael Gilding says.

He readily acknowledges that it’s unusual for a sociologist to find himself at the helm of a faculty of business and law. ‘I’ve never wanted to stay in one narrow field,’ he says. In some ways, this explains the winding path Michael’s career has taken and says much about Swinburne and what makes it unique.

Professor Michael Gilding

First impressions

Michael arrived at Swinburne in 1991 to take up a post as a sociology lecturer after a somewhat nomadic period in his early adult life. Originally from Adelaide, he moved to Canberra to study history at the Australian National University, then to Sydney to complete his doctorate in sociology at Macquarie University.

He taught at Ballarat (now Federation University) before arriving in Melbourne to take a temporary position at Monash, where he turned his PhD thesis into the first of three books, The Making and Breaking of the Australian Family. Then, after more than a decade on the move, Michael applied for a job at Swinburne because he was ‘looking for a permanent job, something a bit more long-term’.

"My impression of [Swinburne] was that it was a really interesting, innovative place."

Michael’s term at Swinburne has turned out to be longer than he could have imagined. But in other ways he has remained very much a man on the move, exploring new ground and pursuing change, often in unexpected ways.

In the early 1990s, coming from the windswept terrain and modernist high-rises of Monash’s Clayton campus, Swinburne’s narrow streets, lack of space and shared offices struck Michael as compressed and ‘a bit grungy’. Not necessarily in a bad way — grunge was firmly in fashion in creative circles and Michael recalls Swinburne being best known for its renowned film and television school. ‘My impression of it was that it was a really interesting, innovative place.’

An evolving research culture

It was the right place at the right time for Michael, who describes his approach to work as always having been influenced by the surrounding academic environment. ‘Ballarat was very much about teaching: for four years I didn’t do anything else. When I went to Monash my teaching requirements just about halved and they expected me to do research, so I wrote my first book when I was there. And then I came here.’

Even though the ‘good, friendly’ group of sociologists Michael joined in Hawthorn was research-active, Swinburne then had less of a research culture than it does now.

"Now research is intrinsic to the university’s self-identity."

Michael recalls that one year in the late 1990s he was the university’s sole staff member to receive a major Australian Research Council grant; it’s something he mentions only because today he would expect between 10 and 20 Swinburne staff to receive such funding each year. It’s reflective, Michael says, of an evolution in attitudes to research at Swinburne: ‘It started to change, then I saw it change exponentially. Now research is intrinsic to the university’s self-identity.’

Engaging with industry

Michael wrote his second book, Australian Families: A comparative perspective, in 1997. He says that what Swinburne had in spades, then as now, was a willingness to engage with the world and an absence of ivory-tower syndrome.

Michael cites long-time Swinburne staff member and fellow sociologist Terry Burke as an inspiring figure who was sceptical of the value of the more arcane aspects of sociology. Whereas Michael had been used to circles of academics ‘conducting conversations among themselves’, Professor Burke was firmly focused on what sociology could do with and for industry.

‘He was, in a way, an example for me because he was someone who did a degree in economics and sociology ... so he put that combination on my radar. He worked with industry groups a lot and developed courses around industry groups, so he put that on my radar too. He was a bit of an academic entrepreneur; he would create interesting courses specifically designed for industry groups. I hadn’t encountered an academic like that before. He pretty much exemplified something that was quite unique about Swinburne.’

A flexible and supportive environment

This openness and flexibility encouraged Michael to move in directions that he otherwise might not have. ‘I’ve never found my progress blocked at Swinburne. It’s always been a case of “what do I need to do now?”’ Having started as a sociologist specialising in the family, Michael has made a series of sideways — and on the surface, sometimes unlikely but ultimately logical — transitions.

The ambit of his research over the years has ranged from divorce and the changing character of the Australian family to the practices and philosophies of multimillionaires. He has studied succession planning in small business and busted urban myths about paternity testing. He is also an author of dozens of published papers.

"I’ve never found my progress blocked at Swinburne. It’s always been a case of 'what do I need to do now?'"

Now much of his work is in the field of economic sociology, especially around social networks in business. Most recently, he and his team have been looking at how networks operate in the biotechnology industry. What do these diverse fields and topics have in common? ‘They’ve been things that interest me,’ Michael says. ‘My research has always been curiosity-driven.’

His early focus on families was sparked by the fracturing of his own family in the 1970s, a time of enormous social upheaval. The greed-is-good 1980s and the emergence of Business Review Weekly’s annual Rich Lists made him curious about the lives and attitudes of Australia’s wealthiest people, leading to a series of hard-to-get interviews with some famously private individuals and to his third book: Secrets of the Super Rich, published in 2002.

Michael’s ability to sniff prevailing social winds and his desire to find out how and why they are blowing helped lead him to his current specialties: family business (‘there’s a lot of connective tissue between the Rich Lists and family businesses’), innovation and the social dimensions of economic behaviour.

Growing the faculty

Michael became an executive dean in 2012 and is proud to have played a leading role in expanding and enhancing his faculty. This has included the creation of a law school; the concentration of research through the Centre for Transformative Innovation and the Centre for Social Impact; the relaunching of Swinburne’s Australian Graduate School of Entrepreneurship; and helping clinch major grants and industry partnerships with top companies such as Boeing and Pitcher Partners.

He gets particular personal satisfaction from recruiting a team of interdisciplinary researchers, including psychologists, sociologists, management scholars and mathematicians, who investigate the influence of social networks in organisations and innovation. ‘Deep discipline expertise is fantastic, but it’s even better when this depth of knowledge is complemented by synergies and insights at the connection points between disciplines. That’s how new knowledge and real-world impact actually happens.’

"Deep discipline expertise is fantastic, but it’s even better when this depth of knowledge is complemented by synergies and insights at the connection points between disciplines."

Where to now? ‘I haven’t finished here. I’ve done the architecture, I’ve put the pieces in place and now I need a bit of time to actually draw the benefit from that and get the alignment across the faculty. You can have the structure but unless you have everybody working towards the strategy it’s not going to realise itself.’ In saying so, Michael sounds not unlike the many entrepreneurs and business leaders he has interviewed and studied over the years. Does he ever miss being hands-on with research and teaching?

‘I miss them both,’ he says. ‘Just today, I was sitting near some of our new first-year lecturers in the place where I was having lunch. They were talking so enthusiastically, I actually did feel an ache in my heart. We have recruited some very impressive people and they do a great job but yes, I like to revisit both research and teaching whenever I can.’

Words by Cathy Gowdie.

Meet Professor Michael Gilding

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