Monday, 31 May 2010

Employee engagement

Engaged employees are members of a workforce who
"behave as if they owned the business. They know what they have to do to make it a success. They know what other employees need to do to make it a success, and offer help and support when it’s needed. They never say ‘that’s not my responsibility’. And they always go the extra mile."
See Peter Burton.

Employee engagement literature is about workforces, and Human Resources literature and psychology influences it.

But, I'm not looking at workforces, although I do look at team achievement in a project context, so there's some overlap. The performance I'm interested in, is what comes through relationships between people on projects, rather than engagement with their work.
John Naughton refers to Dan Pink's lecture, which suggests that to motivate people you need:
  • autonomy
  • mastery
  • purpose
I can see these being more relevant to employee engagement than Saks (2006) vigor, dedication and absorption. Saks' variables are what he's chosen to measure to measure engagement, but they could also be the causes of engagement or the results of engagement.

Autonomy - For engagement you want self direction, like Google's 20% time, where the employees get to work on what they want to work on. One day of autonomy produces more than bags of money. Julian Birkinshaw{Birkinshaw, 2009 #1562} reported something similar in Combine Harvesting

Mastery - that's what open source software comes from (like Skype and Firefox) - free work where people are producing software for nothing because they can, because they've mastered the skills.

Purpose is what I think I hear my participants tell me makes them engage with each other, because they have a common purpose.

So autonomy, mastery and purpose might be useful to a wider concept of engagement, engagement between customers and clients, employees and management, students and teachers.

Saks, A. M. 2006. Antecedents and Consequences of Employee Engagement. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 21(7): 600-619.
Birkinshaw, J. & Crainer, S. 2009. Combine harvesting. Business Strategy Review, 20(4): 20-23 #1562

Friday, 28 May 2010

Employee engagement

I attended an event about employee engagement that AIM research together with the Chartered management Institute and Institute of Business Consulting organised. See

Employee engagement and communication from the boardroom to the shop floor and back, is half relevant to my research because it's about a specific aspect of engagement - that between employees and managers.

The panel experiences were interesting and from incredibly good presenters, the sort that speak, rather than read their PowerPoint bullet points to you.

Speakers were:
  • Robin Field-Smith, who was an army Deputy Director and a police Inspector
  • David McLeod, who is a Non Executive Director of the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Justice he is also an academic
  • John Bigos, the Managing Director who transformed Duck Tours. Today the business is turning over in excess of £1 million and attracting over 100,000 passengers a year.
  • Stephen Martin, the undercover boss
McLeod pointed out that it used to be that when a manager said, "Jump!" an employee asked only, "How high?" whereas now, the new, younger employee asks, "Why?" He says there's a paradigm shift that means people now have different values, and expect a different culture, and so management must adapt to this because it's no longer a command and control environment. He also compared two levels:
  • transactional - the old way
  • transformational- a way of doing business that requires a mindset that starts with respect and value. I understand that - engagement requires respect and valuing each others' values.
John Bigos had lessons about people all pulling together. Imagine that rope with a team of people tugging in the same direction, away from whatever problem they faced. Although he was a comparatively inexperienced speaker who would benefit from a speakers club like Toastmasters, he had content to his speech that inspired emulation if you were a business owner, and a wish to try his Duck tours, just to see how his employees would react to you.

But it's Stephen Martin I envy. What a superb opportunity for research! From what he said, and the way he presented it, he and his company benefited lots. It was the contact with workers on the ground that he prized. I'd like some other bosses to have that prize. Our Vice Chancellor, Martin Bean here at the OU can't do that with our associate lecturers though, because the ALs work at home, out of sight, at all times, like Sundays and bank holidays, the same times that the OU students study. I guess our VC doesn't work Sundays and bank holidays, and he's very recognisable, so couldn't go undercover.

My ramblings have gone from the academic interest in employee engagement to a personal interest in my teaching experiences with the OU. May be my research will be relevant beyond academic interest in employee engagement to a wider understanding of engagement.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Public sector IT cuts

Our new government plans to cut consultancy and IT in the public sector. I hope they know what they're doing because if the Management Consultancy Association is right here about clients getting £6 value for every £1 spent on consultancy, then the government is on its way to losing a lot of value.

The IT industry too questions the sense in cutting IT - see here.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Personality tests

A blog reader wrote to me on motivation and mentioned the Myers-Briggs psychometric test that highlights an individual's preferences. I'm doing qualitative not quantitative research but having BM data on my interviewees and perhaps linking it to their likelihood of engaging would be interesting, though I can’t know that my case study gatekeepers would have let me do that.

In my first case study, a quiet software developer was an introvert whereas the visionary consultant was an extrovert. Their differences would be complementary so how could the MB predict engagement?

If the viva examiner asks me what I’d have done different, I might suggest MB.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Systems thinking

A possible reason for IT systems failing, suggests Neil McBride in Computing, is that people don't take a holistic approach to thinking about an organisation. He argues here that thinking systemically
"involves taking into account the complex social mechanisms, the dense networks of interactions, the dangerous and unknown emergent effects. It involves being open to changing one’s way of thinking, listening before advising, being adaptable."
Indeed, it does, but as a reply on the article comments, schools teach reductionism. Reducing complex situations to simple models makes it easier for us to get our heads round the messes, which may be why such models are taught in universities, and especially on MBAs. But when you try to bring in systems thinking, few people know what you're on about, and some people explicitly discard it. Even my supervisor expressed dislike of systems theory.

So how can you bring in systems thinking without explicitly sharing the theory?

Friday, 14 May 2010


People need a place to engage, so they have some place in common to talk and share knowledge. Nonaka has a term 'Ba', which is more than a place but can be physical or virtual and is also a time.
"The process of transferring one's ideas or images directly to colleagues or subordinates means to share personal knowledge and create a common place—or ba."
I think it's a wonderful concept because it is so close to what I understand by engaging with each other. Engaging transfers knowledge and creates a space.

Nonaka, I. & Konno, N. 1998. The Concept Of "Ba": Building a Foundation for Knowledge Creation. California Management Review, 40: 40-54.
Nonaka, I., Toyama, R., & Konno, N. 2000. Seci, Ba and Leadership: A Unified Model of Dynamic Knowledge Creation. Long Range Planning, 33: 5-34.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Organisational memories

Procurement can start good relationships but engagement needs to be continually worked at. In one of my case studies, the initial procurement was set up years earlier, but by 2007 people were not working together. The replacement senior management had to overcome adversarial tensions in order to create new relationships. Those tensions had been so strong that participants still remembered them over a year later. Bad memories take time to overcome {*}, and engagement takes time and has to be worked at continually.

*Citing whom? Do organisations have memories and do they matter? In central government, civil service senior managers move frequently so don't they lose organisational memory? Probably. Few remember the IT debacles of the 1980s, like Camelot. See Tony Collin's Computer Weekly Blog.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Producing a draft

A couple of months ago I agreed with my supervisors that I'd get them a draft thesis to read by the end of June. I just cannot see that happening. Now I'm still writing the cross case analysis, sifting, sorting data, trying to find what I've found, if anything, and if it answers my research question or, perhaps if it answers something else, then what research question is it answering?

If I don't know that yet, then how can I possibly write a complete draft by early July?

Saturday, 8 May 2010

PhD day reflection

Participants at our round table included full and part time students, three academics, a South African, a Chinese, a Belorussian, and a Canadian. I don't know the other three nationalities. They all came with different research experiences and interests: human resource management, e-learning, ERP systems, Chinese investment, disconfirming communication, women managers and ICT.

My South African colleague strongly advised me that I needed to use the knowledge transfer literature, like Szulanski but I'm not so sure. Yes, knowledge gets transferred during a process of engagement, but knowledge isn't my focus. Does engagement alter the quality of the knowledge transfer? Probably yes, but my question is how people engage, not about the quality of the knowledge transfer. So that literature helps address a different question. And that was an interesting discussion.

The Canadian's research has a psychological element to it, so I'm not surprised she asked me about the affective factors of my research. (Pause and think, "'Affective', what does that mean?" Ah! emotion"). Yes, I'm aware of Saks work on employee engagement, requiring dedication, absorption and vigor, but I'm not looking at employee engagement with work, but at engaged relationships between people, which is a broader understanding of engagement, and has not been well researched. Nevertheless, I see the links and she and I could probably have useful further discussion.

She and I will be at the AOM conference in Canada in August so maybe we'll meet again.

Saks, A. M. 2006. Antecedents and Consequences of Employee Engagement. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 21(7): 600-619.
Szulanski, G., Cappetta, R., & Jensen, R. J. 2004. When and How Trustworthiness Matters: Knowledge Transfer and the Moderating Effect of Causal Ambiguity, Organization Science, Vol. 15: 600-613: INFORMS: Institute for Operations Research.
Szulanski, G. & Jensen, R. J. 2006. Presumptive Adaptation and the Effectiveness of Knowledge Transfer, Strategic Management Journal, Vol. 27: 937-957: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. / Business.

Friday, 7 May 2010

PhD day

Another round table day - my fourth, the third at which I have to present, and my last - next year I must be out of here! Some fourth year students didn't come, arguing they are writing up, which is more important than talking about their research with people who have no idea what they're on about.
"Take it with a pinch of salt,"
advised supervisor #1.

And it was much nicer than previous year's experience. See 2009 and 2008.

By nicer, I mean the round table experience was more pleasant, less depressing, and I didn't need as much salt to keep my cool - (mixing metaphors). The academics were pleasantly constructive, but also I was lucky to have students at my table who were really interested, experienced and confident enough to ask questions and suggest literature. I think we had more of a discussion than previous years. I hope my fellow students thought so too. That sounds like a criticism of previous years' students, but I wonder if it was because this year I was at a table with people I hadn't met recently, or never met before. When you chat every week over coffee, you don't need to ask questions at a round-table session, but if you hardly ever meet, then you've more information to share.

There were more part-time students there than in previous years, which is good, because we don't get to meet them much. Their research is as interesting as the full-timers' but we don't know more than what is on their web pages, and if they don't write something there, you have only the topic title. See OUBS research students.

These get togethers allow sharing information. For example, a presenting student said something about using a survey, and someone else pointed out that the ESRC provides a survey bank of questionnaires, which presenting student hadn't known about.

I was somewhat startled that a part-time student said she knew my name and wanted to meet me. Her supervisor had told her to read my blog and what was the link? Wow! Thank you to her supervisor. Thank you to all my readers who share what I write. Some people find the blog from the OUBS research students web pages, which is where I've got a link. Those pages also have links that allow you to send private messages, if you want to contact OUBS research students.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Phd research day

The OUBS students have their annual research day this week, at which we have a couple of eminent speakers:
  • Professor Gerald Hastings Director of the Institute for Social Marketing and the Centre for Tobacco Control Research Open University Business School and Stirling Management School
    ‘Speaking truth to power: The relationship between policy and academic research’
  • Professor Tony Watson, Professor of Organizational Behaviour, Nottingham University Business School
    ‘Organisation and management research: getting to grips with the reality of how the social world works’
Looking forward to it.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010


It's a struggle to write the cross case analysis. All I have are lists in tables, some categories and sub-categories. What does it all mean? What findings do I have? It's all common sense. So what?