40 years dedicated to interdisciplinarity

On 1 February, the former rector and dean at Aarhus School of Business, Professor Børge Obel, celebrates his 40th anniversary as a state employee. His focus remains unchanged - as does his passion.

2014.01.30 | Pernille Kallehave

Optimising organisational design, big data, sustainability and designing the future emergency departments in Danish hospitals. These are definitely not small, insignificant projects and dusty subjects, and what characterises the working life of Børge Obel, Professor and Director of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Organizational Architecture (ICOA) at Aarhus University, is not an attitude of indolence.

This February he celebrates his 40th anniversary as a state employee. His anniversary is celebrated at Aarhus University; the place where it all began 40 years ago, when he started teaching and doing research at the Department of Mathematics. 

Since then, his research and his work has taken him to Odense University (now the University of Southern Denmark), Duke University and Stanford, and in 2004 he returned to Aarhus and was appointed rector of Aarhus School of Business. In 2007, the school merged with Aarhus University, and he continued on as dean. Since the beginning of his career, he has been involved in research, university politics, administration and management, in Denmark and in the U.S. 

Everything has exploded

The above-mentioned projects are representative of Børge Obel’s work throughout the last 40 years. Both in his PhD and his higher doctoral dissertation from 1977 and 1982 respectively, he worked on an interdisciplinary approach to organisational design. Fast forward to today, this is still the focal point for most of Børge Obel’s work. And his current work is in fact more pertinent to society than ever.

According to Børge Obel, no matter where you look, you find proof of the constant need and pressure to reorganise both private and public organisations. There is pressure from the outside world, demands for growth and sustainability and technological developments. Time there is a desperate need for transition, because the consequences of remaining the same increase all the time.

“Once, a company like the telephone company Jydsk Telefon could go 20 years without making any major changes, but since then it has exploded. A lot of organisations are well thought out and based on good ideas, but they nonetheless face some decisive organisational problems,” explains Børge Obel, using NASA as his primary example:

“When the space shuttle Columbia was wrecked in 2003, the crash was of course due to a technical error. All the required knowledge, which could have prevented the error, was actually present at NASA. But due to pressure and poor organisation, the right information was not obtainable for the right people, and then it went wrong. Subsequently, NASA invited a long list of organisational experts to help them,” he explains eagerly.

Not surprisingly, Børge Obel was one of those experts, and together with his American collaborator, Professor Richard Burton from Duke University, he went to New York to tell NASA how to avoid such disasters in the future.

Eager to get new things going

“I have always been interested in taking science from one area and testing it on another. Combining different academic approaches and viewing things from a completely different perspective and getting new things going,” explains Børge Obel enthusiastically. It is not everyday you get to stop and look back on your 40-year career.

“40 years in the field indicates a certain stability, but the content of my work has always varied and been subject to constant changes. The contrast is rather amusing. For instance, I have worked within all the main academic areas (editor’s note: the humanities and the natural, social and health sciences), and here at ICOA we also have affiliated researchers from all four areas.  It is both inspiring and increasingly necessary to combine the sciences. Not least when it comes to finding the ideal organisational design,” he says.

Synergistic traces and interests

Apart from his extensive work in the university community as a researcher, teacher and university official, Børge Obel has also been busy with work in smaller companies, numerous executive boards and chairmanships, books and publications - and then of course his wife, two children and their six grandchildren, one of whom he just dropped off at kindergarten this morning.

An obvious question is how does 65-year-old Børge Obel manages to keep so many balls in the air? Does he have 48 hours in a day, and is his energy level inexhaustible?

“There has always been cohesion between between my activities, so that the knowledge I derive from one place can always be used somewhere else. As a result, there has been great synergy between research and practice, which means I did not have to spend so much time on each area. And then I have been very lucky to have been surrounded by so many accomplished colleagues for so long. Not least the core of people who know me so well and can tease me about my stubbornness, which I guess is one of my most distinctive characteristics,” says Børge Obel with a crooked smile.

Børge Obel has just renewed his contract with Aarhus University, and at the time being he has no plans to retire. “As long I I am having fun, I will keep working, and my perspective is, as such, limitless.”


Professor Børge Obel

Email: bo@asb.dk

Tel.: +45  2020 7355


Børge Obel's CV

ICOA, People , Announcements
Tags: Børge Obel, Anniversary