Richard Déry, an undisciplined transdisciplinarian

September 18, 2013

Excerpt from HEC Montréal Mag, Spring 2013

by Jacinthe Tremblay


“Organizations should have two goals: to be viscerally efficient and profoundly human. I want to see both extremes,” says Richard Déry, Full Professor in the Department of Management and 2012 winner of the highest HEC Montréal recognition for excellence in teaching, the Jean Guertin Award. Here’s a portrait of a scholar who is himself “viscerally effective and profoundly human.”

Professor Déry grew up in Lower Rosemont, a working-class Montréal neighbourhood just a stone’s throw from the former Angus railway shops. At age 10, he wanted to be a mechanic and writer. While he has clearly failed to achieve the first of these ambitions – he has neither a car nor a driver’s licence – he has attained the second one eight times over to date, and in great style. For instance, his 2010 book Perspectives du management won him the School’s 2011 François-Albert Angers Award for the best textbook.

When it came time to choose what to study at university, he hesitated between engineering, architecture and administration, at HEC Montréal – where he ended up. During his BBA, he fell in love with management, and did his master’s at HEC Montréal and his PhD at Université Laval and Cambridge University, in England.

And so he became a management theoretician. But, as he wrote in the 1990s in the journal Gestion, he is “neither practitioner, scientist nor philosopher.” In his own words, he is “a fabulous transdisciplinary smuggler who, from his imaginary transdisciplinary place works feverishly at being undisciplined, while dreaming of a practical field to invent.” Speaking with HEC Montréal Mag, he added: “You have to be terribly disciplined to be undisciplined.” The theoretician’s lack of a discipline perfectly reflects the real world, he noted. “A manager has no profession.”


Questions, not truths

What he never expected, at age 10 or as a teen, was that HEC Montréal would become his professional “home.” Over the years, the academic institution has been “a forum for debates between colleagues, a place for questioning, not for truths,” he explains spiritedly. It is also his home because he loves teaching, so much so that he has never asked to be excused from his classroom duties, not even when he directed the School’s Department of Management from 1999 to 2003. His beloved students are the first to appreciate his dedication.

From 2001 to 2012, Professor Déry’s students, at all three levels, in 18 courses and 5 different programs, gave him an average rating of 3.89 (out of 4) for the quality of his teaching. He even received 24 perfect scores in a wide range of demanding courses, from Propédeutique en management to Économie et organisation de l’entreprise, Théorie de la décision and Épistémologie : science, organisation et société. In fact, he was the one mainly responsible for introducing the latter field, epistemology of management, into teaching at HEC Montréal.

And yet it still took some arm twisting to get him to apply for the Jean Guertin Award! “Contests and the media aren’t my cup of tea. I’m at home in the classroom, with my students,” he insisted as this interview got underway. When he had to buckle down and convince the jury that he deserved the award, he decided to draw up a financial statement-style list of achievements. “There’s nothing fancy about it – just a list of facts and figures,” he admits.

For the record, since starting teaching in 1981, he has created 2 BBA, 4 MSc and 1 PhD courses. In addition to his 8 books, he has written 3 continuing education tools, 8 textbooks and 3 virtual training tools, and has authored or co-authored 22 cases. So not a fancy list of accomplishments, perhaps, but a “viscerally effective” one.

On the other hand, the letters of commendation attached to his application are full of tributes to Professor Déry’s “profound humanity.” Although, once again, he had to have his arm twisted to ask for them … Needless to say, his colleagues and former students responded enthusiastically, unanimously praising his rigour, generosity, originality, passion and humour.

His former doctoral student Martin X. Noël, today Associate Professor at the Université du Québec en Outaouais, praised another aspect of Déry’s character, saying “For Richard, doing one’s PhD shouldn’t be torture or something you merely have to get through. […] As my thesis director, he showed ‘intellectual empathy’ by making an effort to imagine himself inside his students’ cognitive universe.”

Professor Noël closed his letter by saying, “Not only did Richard Déry succeed in getting me to accomplish what one is supposed to do as a student, i.e. to learn, but he did so in such a way that, even more importantly, he showed me how to learn to learn.” His former MSc student Isabelle Dostaler, today a Professor at the John Molson School of Business, wrote, “Thanks to our fascinating discussions and his lengthy comments in the margins of the essays we submitted to him, he taught us to read, think and write.”

Learning to learn, to read, to think, to write, to debate … And even more? “At the undergraduate level, I mostly teach management techniques; at the graduate level, theories; and at the post-graduate level, what underpins those theories,” he says.


Seeking disagreement

Professor Déry is also a master of the case method. “What I most like in a discussion is not finding a solution. It’s when people disagree,” he asserts. That’s because he thinks that the most important thing is to learn not to view disagreement as something to be avoided, but to see total agreement as a disaster. “When everyone agrees, it’s like a cult!” he says.

Of all the cases he has written, Decxx Mode is his favourite. It recounts the story of a Montréal firm that makes and distributes handbags, and finds itself in difficult straits. Its owner, who started out on the factory floor, has called in a young MBA for help, but the young man’s approach and suggested changes are discomfiting older workers. The temptation to make snap judgements and choose techniques over traditions is very strong.

“Nothing is ever that cut and dried. I want students to be able to see the situation from everyone’s point of view. I want them to realize that if they were in the shoes of the characters in a case like this, and in lots of other situations, they might do the same thing,” he explains.

Essentially, he considers empathy to be the most important of all human qualities. “I’m tremendously strict, but also human, when marking students’ papers. I may give a paper a C, but the human who wrote it always gets an A,” he says by way of example.  

However, the 2013-2014 cohort will have to do without his teaching because, starting July 1, Professor Déry will be leaving his professional “home” and his classroom for a year, when he starts his third sabbatical, 10 and 20 years to the day after his first two.

“I’m really old school. I plan to write a book recounting the history of management theories, right from the traditional ones to the postmodern age,” he confides. A prolific reader with a phenomenal memory, Professor Déry is bound to also enjoy having time to read, including at least a few cartoon books – he already owns some 3,000 of them. They’re sure to give him some thought-provoking new quotes for his lectures once he returns.

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