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Macro, Meso, Micro:  New Technologies and Organizational Performance

Matt Barney

 At the end of the 20th century, the world was enamored with the hope that the latest technologies would solve our worst problemsand make everyone rich. Now, in the aftermath of the dot bomb collapse, it might seem quaint to ask what role technologies can play in managing across organizational levels. But technology has been improving our science and practice for many years. Assessment technologies have exploited advances in information processing power (e.g., item response theory used for the GRE); education has created everything from eLearning to videotapes, and scanners have improved our ability to quickly tabulate test scores. All of these predated the recent irrational exuberance of technology (and the stock market), and I believe there are still places where technology can assist our field.

This issue Ill touch on some new technological advances that can help manage people toward organizational goals. Theyre not a panacea, but they provide some new solutions to old problems.

Job Analysis Wizard

In 1997, Ken Pearlman, Scott Harkey and I created and patented a technology to make job analysis really fast (Barney, Harkey, & Pearlman, 2000). Having done job analyses manually for some time, we were frustrated that they were slow and difficult to share across geographical borders. The Job Analysis Wizard automated many mundane tasks of studying work and workers by using Web-based surveys, taxonomies, and archives of previous work. The system also archives products such as training, instruments, and disability accommodations according to the taxonomic structure so that others in dispersed locations could reuse them as they needed. Similarly, the system is useful for scenario planning used in considering HR systems in merger, acquisition, and business strategy development.

As we built the system, we were worried, How would we ever be able to keep the taxonomy organized as new dimensions (e.g., new programming languages) were invented that are job relevant? To solve this, we reused job analytic data and fuzzy logic to have the system suggest to the psychologist what other dimensions are most similar to the new one, to help keep the system tidy. In short, the system can complete a job analysis, using subjects worldwide, in just a few dayssignificantly faster and cheaper than traditional methods, while ensuring that professional standards are met. It is still the only system that Im aware of, including famous HRIS systems like PeopleSoft, that allow for micro- and macro-summaries of science-based analyses of work and workers.

Organizational Theory Software

Im really impressed with the work of Kathleen Carley, Ray Levitt, and colleagues, who have innovated new ways of modeling organizational designs and resources as a way to improve the likelihood of organizational goal attainment (e.g., Carley, & Prietula, 1994; Carley, Prietula, & Lin 1998; Kunz, Levitt, & Jin, 1998; Kunz, Rivero, & Levitt, 2000). Using their software (e.g., www.vite.com), you can specify micro-level properties of human resources, meso-level process flows and reporting structures, macro-level goals, and then simulate the flow of work. Based on the results, you can examine work loading across employees, processes, and identify bottlenecks and risk factors. Proponents claim that these tools allow you to analyze the best way to design your organization and allocate your people to tasks. This approach is said to have resulted in significant reductions in project cycle time and cost (Samuelson, 2000).

I foresee these types of tools becoming standard in the I-O psychologists toolkit, as are assessments of g and personality. They can help us translate organizational-level goals into meso-level processes and specific micro-level HR considerations in a way that nothing else can. In short, they can frame the amount and type of our traditional interventions that organizations need to realize their strategic goals.

Mobile Training Mastery

Recently, Ive developed a system that incorporates balanced scorecard measures to (a) prioritize interventions (e.g., calculate return on investment); (b) automate job analysis with outcome-centric scales; and (c) reuse assessment data to improve training transfer (Barney, 2001a). The system improves individual-level learning by automatically giving additional follow-up coaching and assessments after a formal class is over by reinforcing content areas that the student struggled with (e.g., failed on an eLearning module test). Using Motorola pagers or cell phones (shameless plug for my employer here), it measures and delivers instruction during the employees normal work routine after the class is over. This is a significant benefit in situations where there is a significant delay between the time of instruction and the application of new skills. For example, in Motorolas semiconductor factories, technicians may learn their annual preventative maintenance skills about 11 months before they actually use them. This system can be set up to deliver follow-up assessments and content to ensure mastery of these rarely performed maintenance tasks right before they must be performed.

Research on training has shown that transfer climate is a key predictor of training transfer (e.g., Rouiller & Goldstein, 1993). This system supports transfer climate in a way no other technology can. As the system assesses student performance, it gives behavioral feedback and terminal objective performance assessments to supervisors and coworkers so that they eliminate barriers and can coach the learner to ensure transfer. In this way, the system manages organizationally defined gaps across large numbers of individuals and their supervisors. Before this invention, it would have taken a tremendous manual effort to try to do this for large numbers of supervisors and learners distributed around the world.

Skinner Box for the Information Age

Lastly, Ill share with you a technology that might sound like something out of Star Trek. Since the time I was an undergrad in entry-level psychology classes, Ive been thinking about the problem of demand characteristics in psychological studies. The concern is that while subjects know theyre being studied, they might change the way they would act normally. This is frequently cited as a threat to internal validity and ultimately to external validity as well.

To solve this problem, I invented a system that can assess physical behavior unobtrusively (Barney, 2001b). Just like the burglar alarms that are triggered inadvertently, it uses a pattern of interrupted lasers to assess behavior in three dimensions over time. Combined with a playback device, this could allow you to record Tiger Woodss golf stroke and play it back using a virtual reality headset. At the same time, the system could be used to measure behavior patterns without the awareness of the subject.

Obviously, there are important ethical considerations in the use of this technology, but I think its a good example of the range of possibilities for using technology to solve traditional problems in I-O psychology. For situations where physical performance can be highly damaging such as aviation safety and nuclear security, these technologies may be especially helpful in improving employee and organization performance and safetykey meso- and macro-organizational goals.

Final Thoughts

These are just a few examples of how technology can be used for enhancing the I-O psychologists ability to manage interventions across organizational levels of analysis. Technology isnt always the best solution. There are many examples of where it wont be able to take over I-O tasks, such as executive coaching, anytime soon. Technology is constantly improving and providing us with options that werent previously available. We need to be careful and creative to use technology to solve our science and practice problems and not employ it for its own sake.

As always, I look forward to your comments, feedback, and ideas on Macro, Meso Micro. Please write to me at matt.barney@motorola.com


   Barney, M. F. (2001a). Wireless system for improving employee performance toward strategic business goals. Patent Pending. Assignee: Motorola.
   Barney, M. F. (2001b). Three dimensional object boundary and motion determination device and method of operation thereof. (United States Patent # 6,301,549B1). Assignee: Lucent Technologies.
   Barney, M. F., Harkey, S. T., & Pearlman, K. (2000). System and method for analyzing work requirements and linking human resource products to jobs (United States Patent # 6,070,143). Assignee: Lucent Technologies.
Carley, K. M. & Prietula, M. J. (1994). Computational Organization Theory. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
   Carley, K. M., Prietula, M. J. & Lin, Z. (1998). Design versus cognition: The interaction of agent cognition and organizational design on organizational performance. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 1(3). [On-line]. Available: http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/1/3/4.html
   Kunz, J. C., Levitt, R. E., Jin, Y. (1998). The virtual design team: A computational simulation model of project organizations. Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery (CACM) 41(11), November, 8491.
   Kunz, J. C., Rivero, C. E., & Levitt, R. E. (2000). Simulating work processes and organizations to engineer strategic projects. Proceedings of the ETCE/OMAE2000 Joint Conference: Energy for the New Millennium, February 1417, New Orleans, LA, 17.
   Rouiller & Goldstein (1993). The relationship between organizational transfer climate and positive transfer of training. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 4 (4), 377390.
   Samuelson, D. A. (2000). Designing organizations: CMOT launches success on a solid, scientific foundation. OR/MS Today, 27(6). [On-line] Available: http://www.lionhrtpub.com/


Please note that there was an error in the October 2001 issue of TIP concerning Matt Barneys column Macro, Meso, Micro: Human Capital. The symbol was not superscripted, so the following companies should read HC BRidge, HCAM, and ProOrbis, LLC. Please accept our apology for any confusion this may have caused.


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