Business School Research that Might Surprise You: Part 1

I’ve been teaching in university business programs and doing research for more than 20 years, and obviously I enjoy my work or I wouldn’t still be doing it. But I’m always annoyed by misconceptions about the kind of research that goes on in business schools.

A lot of people think business school research is only trying to find better ways for managers to exploit their employees, and/or to reinforce the hierarchical capitalist system. There’s also a common misconception – one that’s often mindlessly spouted by academics in other disciplines – that researchers in business schools just have to ask and their corporate masters will hand over tons of money to support their work. I know I’m not the only person who wishes this were true so they didn’t have to spend so much time writing grant applications. In reality, business school researchers struggle just as much as researchers in any other discipline to get funding for their work.

In this post and its sequel, I’m going to highlight some research from business schools that goes against these misconceptions, either in the choice of research subjects or in the research questions that were investigated – and which, as far as I know, wasn’t funded by any corporation. I don’t present these as examples of the type of research that generally comes out of business schools – I will admit that these articles stand out simply because they are different. But I’m presenting them to show that, yes, there are progressive, critical researchers in business schools. And in my opinion they have some pretty interesting things to say.

Engaging in Personal Business on the Job

This article, by Caroline D’Abate and Erik Eddy, not only acknowledges that people goof off on the job, but tries to identify exactly what kind of non-work activities people get up to during their work hours. It also attempts to figure out the cost of these other activities to organizations.

The authors frame their investigation around presenteeism, which is the idea that people can physically be at work, but not be mentally present or productive. Usually presenteeism is described as a medical-related problem, e.g. people showing presenteeism are people who are sick but who come into work anyway. D’Abate and Eddy suggest that presenteeism also includes people who are well but who are doing things other than their assigned work tasks. That’s presenteeism because although they aren’t sick, they also are at work but not really working.

You might wonder how a researcher gets people to describe exactly how they waste time at work. D’Abate and Eddy used a Web-based survey, which gave the respondents more anonymity. They ended up with data from 115 respondents who worked in offices in nine-to-five type jobs.

Maybe not surprisingly, given the way the data were collected, the most common non-work activity was sending and receiving e-mail not related to work. Leisure-related non-work activities, like reading websites for fun, were more common than home-related non-work activities, like paying bills. The respondents estimated that they spent about 6.5 hours every work week on these activities. Based on the respondents’ self-reported salaries, each employer lost about $9,000 US a year for all the time when people weren’t working but were being paid to work.

However, the respondents didn’t feel that their non-work activities made them any less productive or committed to their work. The only negative effect appeared to be that the more non-work activities they engaged in, the more they procrastinated at work. The authors suggest that the procrastination might be a reason for employers to crack down on goofing off at work, but also suggest that employers being heavy-handed about non-work activity might have more negative effects than positive ones.

This guy wore himself out sending too many personal emails at work. (Credit:

Identity affirmation through `signature style’: A study of toy car designers

Geeks who design toys all day long are not typical workers, but they are a very popular kind of employee right now: creative workers. A lot of organizations who think that “creativity = innovation = $$$” not only want to hire creative workers, but want to know how to manage creative workers. This study, by Kimberly Elsbach, looks at an aspect of creative work that isn’t often discussed – how creative work may or may not conflict with the demands of a commercial, profit-driven workplace. The question she tried to answer was how employees manage to maintain their creative identities in a corporate setting, where they have to produce commercial commodities that will be sold as part of a brand with a strong market identity. In other words, the creative workers have to produce something that fits with what the company does and is known for, but they still want to be creative and feel creative.

Elsbach interviewed and observed 10 toy car designers at a company she called “CoolCars” (the statistics in the article suggest that it might be this company), in addition to analyzing the actual products they worked on. She found that it was extremely important to the designers to maintain a personal creative identity that was “independent” and “idealistic” – they did not want to be seen as corporate, and they wanted to do the things that attracted them to creative work in the first place. The main way they achieved this was through developing a signature style in their work, which wasn’t necessarily apparent to the casual toy buyer or to the organization, but which was recognizable to other designers and to toy car collectors.

The affirmation of their distinctive work by people outside the organization was really important to the designers, and helped them maintain a professional “identity”, even in a corporate setting that restricted what they could do. So organizations who want to make creative workers happy could support them to develop distinctive individual identities, however they define that for themselves, and can try to build on the support those workers get for their work from outside the organization – not just look at how their work is received inside the organization.

In my second post on this topic, I’ll be talking about two research papers from the recent Administrative Sciences Association of Canada conference.

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