Jack Rockart, 82; cofounded IT research center at MIT
Curious about how best to use technology in the workplace, Jack Rockart and a handful of other academics started MIT’s Center for Information Systems Research, which was dedicated to studying what was then a new field.
“People around the world credit Jack with helping to professionalize IT management,” Jeanne W. Ross, director and principal research scientist at the center at the Sloan School of Management, wrote in an e-mail.
When the center was established decades ago, she noted, businesses typically left information technology matters in the hands of an IT director whose responsibilities often centered on ensuring computers were in working order.
In an interview, Ross said Dr. Rockart and his colleagues “took this fledgling field and they actually created an academic discipline, and Jack was really pivotal in this.”
Dr. Rockart, who also was a consultant for management information systems, died of complications from pneumonia Feb. 3 in Tufts Medical Center, an institution on whose board he had served. He was 82, lived in Weston, and also had a residence in New London, N.H.
As companies throughout the world began creating a position of chief information officer, Dr. Rockart and his colleagues met with many who filled those jobs to help them better understand their role.
“Getting technology and people and process all in line was a challenge, and Jack recognized this very early,” Ross said.
He traveled the world, interviewing executives about how their companies used technology, and he looked for patterns that emerged from their answers.
Dr. Rockart’s kind demeanor often helped him get the candid answers he was looking for, former colleagues and family said.
“He got to know who people were and what they were about, and he was very positive and optimistic when folks met him,” said his son Scott of Chapel Hill, N.C.
Though he helped pioneer a field of emerging technology, Dr. Rockart, who also taught courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was fond of using a slide projector long after many others had switched to digital presentation formats. He also added levity to serious classroom discussions with his well-timed jokes.
“I think he was a very energetic teacher and really cared about whether the students were getting it and what their ideas were,” said his daughter Liesl of Cambridge, who added that her father always “really wanted a lot of class participation.”
When Dr. Rockart spoke with others, “you had the sense he was talking about something very important,” Scott said. “You always knew there was real depth to his thinking.”
Born in New York City, John F. Rockart grew up in the suburb of Scarsdale.
He graduated from Princeton University with a bachelor’s degree and served in the Navy before receiving a master’s from Harvard Business School.
He worked for a while at IBM, where he met Elise Feldmann. They married in 1961 and their fondness for traveling the world took them to Kenya, where they lived from 1962 to 1964. Their family said the couple considered their time in Africa, when he was a Ford Foundation fellow and she helped start a school, to be one of the highlights of their more than 50 years together.
After returning to the United States, Dr. Rockart graduated from MIT with a doctorate in management in 1968, and he began teaching at the Sloan School.
The Computer Press Association named his 1988 book “Executive Support Systems: The Emergence of Top Management Computer Use” the nonfiction book of the year. He also wrote many scholarly articles over the years for publications including the Harvard Business Review.
He served as director of the Center for Information Systems Research from 1976 to 2000 and then stayed on for about two more years before officially retiring.
Near the end of his tenure, Dr. Rockart was named the George and Sandra Schussel distinguished senior lecturer of information technology, and in 2003 he received a LEO Award for his contributions to the field of information systems.
“His research identified the key responsibilities of IT leaders — and the reasons why organizations needed leaders to fill those responsibilities,” Ross wrote in her e-mail. “His best known research addresses two key concepts: critical success factors and line leadership. Jack is considered the father of critical success factors thinking, which is essential to effective investment in information technology.”
Over the years, Dr. Rockart also served on many corporate boards.
“He was the voice who continued to remind the organization how important quality is,” said Saul Weingart, the chief medical officer at Tuft’s Medical Center.
Dr. Rockart, Weingart said, encouraged board members to feel safe offering critiques of the medical center, so that improvements could be made as needed.
“He didn’t second-guess the medicine, but he asked hard questions to make sure we were thinking it through,” Weingart said, adding that Dr. Rockart was a key proponent of transparency when it came to the board’s activities.
In addition to his wife, daughter, and son, Dr. Rockart leaves three granddaughters.
A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday in First Parish Church in Weston.
Dr. Rockart’s work did not always involve corporations. In 1974, he helped run workshops for the Metropolitan Cultural Alliance to help those in Boston’s arts community better manage their endeavors.
“We’ll be giving them solid, tried and true business basics,” Dr. Rockart told the Globe in 1974,adding that “there is a significant trend on the part of professionals in the arts to learn the basic tools of the management trade, as well as the art.”
In a tribute to him on the Center for Information Systems Research ’s website, many wrote that he helped them ask key questions about how technology can address their needs.
“He really helped people articulate that in a way that made technology a more graceful fit, as opposed to banging technology into the organization and saying, ‘Good luck,’ ” Ross said. “To this day it’s still a challenge.”