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Good Science - Good Practice

Marcus W. Dickson
Wayne State University

Jamie Madigan
Ameren


This issue we also wanted to discuss a couple of articles that did an admirable job of theory building and addressing practical and prevalent issues through synthesizing research in related areas. Theory building is an important part of the scientific method, and one that can either be omitted in the case of business management fads or “shooting from the hip” solutions, or it can also be narrowed down to such a narrow and esoteric issue that it becomes relevant only to scholars working in a niche of a particular field. These two works, on the other hand, build scientific theories relevant to practical problems.

First is an article by Kurt Kraiger (2008) in SIOP’s Industrial and Organizational Psychology journal.  In this theoretical piece, the author takes a survey of past learning and development paradigms, noting that they can generally be classified into first-generation objectivist and second-generation cognitive constructionist approaches. The objectivist approaches to learning stem from industrial design and emphasize rote memorization and overlearning of precisely defined performance requirements. The underlying assumption is that there is some skill or knowledge deficiency in the worker and that it is the responsibility of the organization or its proxy to analyze that deficiency, design remedies, implement them, and evaluate their effectiveness. The training designer is the one to identify the tasks to be learned and to make it happen. The role of the student, by contrast, is treated largely as unimportant. This emphasis on the training designer and marginalization of the trainee’s role persists to the point where making sure that students actually show up is often written into training programs as the first step in instruction. Second-generation models of learning focus more on the role of the learner and less on the trainer. Learners are active participants and what they get out of training are opportunities to define new cognitive structures like skills and task-relevant knowledge. The role of the trainer is more related to facilitation.

Kraiger goes on to define a new, emergent model of learning he calls (perhaps predictably) a third-generation instructional model. These models owe more to the inherent social and cultural aspects of learning, and they are uniquely suited to capitalize on new social networking technologies to facilitate learning. Objective facts may be learned, but work requires more shared understanding of roles, criteria for success, authority, and other socially defined constructs. The model emphasizes not only shared understanding between teacher and student but between the students themselves. The idea isn’t just to hand over a textbook or Internet access to students and let them go at it. Instead, the role of the instructor as a facilitator and coach are clearly intact. But students who make better use of social interactions and learning exchanges in all directions are more likely not only to learn but also to translate that learning into better job performance.

A lot of the appeal of this concept lies in how it is able to capitalize on new information technology designed to exchange information in a social context without face-to-face interaction. Thinking about this approach to learning in the context of videoconferencing, distance learning, wikis, message boards, instant messaging, crowdsourcing, e-mail, online document collaboration, open source software, and other such technologies certainly gets my mind working on ways to both enhance training and create new contexts within which to study its effectiveness. Management science is sometimes faulted for lagging behind the technology curve, so it’s nice to see researchers getting out ahead of it and presenting a theory that’s current with a lot of business and educational practices.

The second article we discuss in this issue to engage in a bit of practical theory building appears in the recent Academy of Management Review. Christopher Barnes and John Hollenbeck (2009) examine the effects of sleep deprivation on teams and build a rational model that makes several predictions based on previous research about sleep deprivation and team performance factors. As they note, sleep deprivation is actually a very heavily researched area. It wouldn’t take you long to find a fist full of research examining the cognitive and physical functioning of sleep-deprived fighter pilots, medical residents, or undergraduate students. What Barnes and Hollenbeck say is missing from this body of research, however, is an examination of how teams operate when members are sleep deprived, as opposed to individuals.

Although the piece doesn’t endeavor to collect data or test specific hypotheses, the authors do make a litany of predictions based on their knowledge of team dynamics, types of teams, types of team tasks, and team composition. Sleep deprived teams that are heterogeneous in terms of skills and/or knowledge, for example, might perform differently than homogenous teams whose members can pick up the slack for each other. In addition, differences in authority and attitudes towards power distance can come into play, especially when the team leader is the one who is sleep deprived. This may be mediated, in turn, by perceptions of psychological safety and how dangerous it is to go against the wishes of team leaders, no matter how punch-drunk with sleep deprivation they may be.

All in all, the article is a great starting point for anyone looking for a research agenda and a reason to keep people awake for days on end. The practical applications of this kind of research are wide reaching and potentially life saving. If, for example, you were to assemble an emergency response team at an electric utility company whose job it was to deal with outages from a winter storm, you might use some of the findings of this research to construct your team. You might do things like build in redundant expertise, carefully arrange the power structure to minimize the effects of ill-conceived decisions, and tackle tasks that require creative problem solving first and straightforward decision making second. You might also build in systems that allow team members to safely challenge decisions (think airline piloting teams here) and rotate schedules to control sleep deprivation and limit its effects on the team when it is unavoidable.

Finally, an article by Daniel Skarlicki, Danielle van Jaarsveld, and David Walker in Journal of Applied Psychology (2008) was just too interesting to pass up without comment. Like sleep deprivation, there’s no lack of research recently on “the dark side” of organizational behavior. Specifically, many researchers have looked at how employees might express their displeasure, stress, or animosity in the form of counterproductive work behaviors. These researchers, however, looked at this kind of phenomenon from a slightly different angle and examined how certain individual differences affected how likely employees are to sabotage customers, not their employer. Ever wondered why your luggage is in Topeka when you’re getting off the plane in Chicago? This study might hold part of the answer.

Specifically, Skarlicki, van Jaarsveld, and Walker looked at how one’s moral identity predicted acts of sabotage. They looked at measures of both how important morality is to a sample of customer service representatives (symbolization), as well as how likely they were to act out on what they perceive as violations of those morals in other people (internalization). As you might expect, those who were high symbolization were more likely to commit sabotage against customers, but this relationship was moderated by internalization such that those high on that trait were less likely commit sabotage. It’s an interesting study that examines an issue critical to any service economy.

Segueing from personal morality towards corporate social responsibility (CSR), the current issue of Business Ethics: A European Review is a special issue focusing on CSR in SMEs (no, not subject matter experts, but small to medium enterprises). This is an issue that is both important—the editors of the special issue note that over 95% of all European companies have fewer than 250 employees, and in some industries, SMEs provide more than 80% of the jobs—but it is also underresearched. The editors, Mette Morsing and Francesco Perrini, suggest that one reason for the lack of research in the area is that many scholars, practitioners and politicians perceive SMEs as “little big companies”—in other words, because there has been a research focus on CSR in large multinational corporations (MNCs), there is really no need to consider SMEs because you just scale the MNC findings down to fit the SME context. Quoting some of the limited prior work on the topic, they note that:

“The small company is the dominant way of organizing,” and as scholars, practitioners and politicians endeavour to understand and promote corporate CSR engagement, we contend that an improved understanding of current CSR practices in SMEs has the potential of stimulating a high impact for the global economy and society as well as for the SMEs themselves. (Spence & Rutherfoord, 2003)

Within this issue are several articles that are worthwhile reading. One of my favorites is a case study, David Murillo and Josep M. Lozano, both of the Institute for Social Innovation at the ESADE Business School in Barcelona. They describe a Catalan project in which academics worked with small and medium-sized enterprises in a parallel stakeholder approach (as opposed to a model in which researchers come in with “the right way” to do it, or are subservient to all organizational demands as the researchers struggle to collect data). The goal was the creation of a network of organizations and tools to promote CSR regionally. Though it isn’t surprising that such issues as inclusion, representativeness, and legitimacy were identified as critical components for the success of the network, having a straightforward and frank analysis of how these topics mattered is really quite useful. The paper takes a public policy perspective, and tries to highlight the strengths and pitfalls of the variety of initiatives existing today to promote CSR. Unlike many CSR papers, this one actually reports on the material results, with a focus on how a consensus was created within the network, along with the tools for assessing CSR that were developed.

In a second case study, Kyla Fisher, Jessica Geenen, Marie Jurcevic, Katya McClintock, and Glynn Davis (2009) report on the efforts of Trident Exploration, a Canadian corporation, to implement asset-based community development (ABCD). “ABCD is a development approach that recognizes the strengths, gifts, talents, and resources of individuals and networks to mobilize and build on social and economic change” (p. 66). The article is a nice ethnography (How’s that for a change from what we usually read?) that includes analysis of corporate activities and strategy, along with interviews of staff and executives, and some survey data, as Trident attempted to implement this model. We also found it really helpful to have an explicit comparison of CSR issues that differ between larger corporations and SMEs, including differences in the who, the how, the why, and the what of CSR efforts.

One of the specific examples provided in the case study about implementing ABCD relates to the acquisition of mineral rights to a site, which is a process that is fraught with difficulties—you want to know that the site contains the minerals you are looking for but also have to address issues related to the surrounding community as well as any environmental issues. By putting together much more diverse site identification teams that sought out input from community leaders of all sorts, Trident was better able to streamline the mineral rights acquisition process and to build social capital both inside the organization and with the affected community at large. Trident can also show that the process has led to significant cost savings over “the old way of doing it.”

A third paper, by Eva-Maria Hammann, Andre Habisch, and Harald Pechlaner (2009), focuses on research done with German entrepreneurial organizations. Here the focus was on specific management practices that affect different stakeholder groups (i.e., corporate social responsibility towards employees, customers, or the society in general). The authors found relationships between the implementation of various socially responsible management practices and real organizational outcomes (cost reductions and increase in profits), and provide a model by which they make sense of the data. We found it interesting that, despite the fact that the public face of many CSR programs focus on the societal impact (e.g., green initiatives), the results presented by Hammann and colleagues suggests that it is CSR towards employees and customers that has the greatest impact on organizational performance for SMEs, though CSR towards society does have an effect. They conclude by noting that values can create additional value.

To wrap up this issue, we thought we’d present a contrarian position for your edification and our own. The point of this column is, of course, to highlight research that simultaneously advances theory and that is of direct practical use in some way to practitioners. Clearly, this linkage between theory and practice, between academe and industry, is an issue for many in our Society. The recent survey and report by Rob Silzer as chair of the Professional Practice Committee, the current survey work being done under the aegis of the Education and Training Committee (Keep an eye out for this!), and the on-going discussion at every SIOP conference about the balance between practitioners’ concerns and academic researchers’ focus, tells us that this is an important issue. Catrina Alferoff and David Knights (2008), in the British Academy of Management, argue:

If knowledge in the physical sciences and engineering unfolds slowly and unevenly in the face of many disputes, disruptions, and setbacks… then how much more likely is this to be the case in the social sciences? Consequently there should be no expectations of one-to-one, direct causal chains between knowledge production and application, as some business school critics seemingly demand. (p. 125)

This paper examines, again in a more qualitative way, the development and mobilization of several networks between industry and the academy. In some cases, the networks were established to support the ongoing work of a research center: in some cases, to formalize informal relationships between firms and academic research settings; in some cases, to facilitate entrepreneurial efforts; and so on. They may have government or other funding, and they ostensibly serve the purposes of both the organizations (in that they have access to researchers who will work on problems of interest to the organizations) and academic researchers (in that they have access to organizational data in a way that they would likely not otherwise have). The paper examines the sustainability of the networks and the reasons for their success or failure.

We highlight this paper not so much for what it covers but because it raises in a provocative way the fundamental question we all wrestle with as I-O psychologists trained in research-oriented programs—what ought to be the connection between the work published in our journals and the work done for our employers and/or our clients? Alferoff and Knights suggest that the connection ought not be expected to be nearly as tight as some might hope. Clearly, we think the connection is a good thing—otherwise we wouldn’t do this column!  But ought it be expected?

Let us know your thoughts and comments on this issue, or to recommend articles, books, seminars, movies, cars (no, not cars) we could highlight in this column. Marcus can still be found at marcus.dickson@wayne.edu, and Jamie, as ever, is at jmadigan@ameren.com.

References

     Alferoff, C., & Knights, D. (2009). Making and mending your nets: Managing relevance, participation and uncertainty in academic–practitioner knowledge networks. British Journal of Management, 20, 125–142.
     Barnes, C. M., & Hollenbeck, J. R. (2009). Sleep deprivation and teams: Burning the midnight oil or playing with fire? Academy of Management Review, 34, 56–66.
     Fisher, K., Geenen, J., Jurcevic, M., McClintock, K., & Davis, G. (2009). Applying asset-based community development as a strategy for CSR: A Canadian perspective on a win–win for stakeholders and SMEs. Business Ethics: A European Review, 18, 66–82.
     Hammann, E.-M., Habisch, A., & Pechlaner, H. (2009). Values that create value: Socially responsible business practices in SMEs—Empirical evidence from German companies. Business Ethics: A European Review, 18, 37–51.
     Kraiger, K. (2008). Transforming our models of learning and development: Web-based instruction as enabler of third-generation instruction. Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 1, 454–467.
     Morsing, M., & Perrini, F. (2009). CSR in SMEs: Do SMEs matter for the CSR agenda? Business Ethics: A European Review, 18, 1–6.
     Skarlicki, D. P., van Jaarsveld, D. D., & Walker, D. D. (2008). Getting even for customer mistreatment: The role of moral identity in the relationship between customer interpersonal injustice and employee sabotage. Journal of Applied Psychology. 93, 1335–1347.
     Spence, L. J., & Rutherfoord, R. (2003). Small business and empirical perspectives in business ethics: Editorial. Journal of Business Ethics, 47(1), 1–5.