Research Summary

Energy, IT, real estate, and sustainability

by Rebecca M. Henderson


Professor Henderson’s current research focuses on the energy, information technology, and real estate sectors and the challenges firms encounter as they attempt to act in more sustainable ways. This work is an outgrowth of her decade-long examination of the organizational and strategic issues that well-established companies face in responding to significant technological and competitive shifts across a wide variety of industries, including semiconductor capital equipment, aerospace, branded consumer goods, automobiles, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, information technology, and telecommunications. 

Her latest work is motivated by the challenge of climate change. If, as current scientific research suggests, it would be prudent to remove 80 percent of the carbon from the economy by 2050, it is critical to find effective ways to support far-reaching change in both products and processes across the entire economy – and particularly in the energy, information technology, and real estate sectors. Increasing the use of carbon-free fuels is an undertaking of enormous magnitude to the energy industry; real estate is perhaps the largest single consumer of energy; and information technology is the most powerful enabler of change throughout the economy.

In conducting this new research, Professor Henderson is attempting to leverage the insights she has gained in studying large firms that have been particularly successful in responding to major technological shifts. Her previous work highlighted the importance of simultaneously understanding the strategic barriers to change (“We won’t make any money.”) and the organizational barriers as well (“And we won’t be able to get it done anyway.”); of managing overload so that a firm does not become “stuck”; and of learning to communicate with courage and integrity in order to maintain and grow the “relational contracts” that are fundamental to success. Her current research, including work with two large oil companies interested in investing in alternative energy, suggests that these findings are highly relevant to building a low-carbon economy.