Monday, September 26, 2022

How Important Are Face-to-Face Interactions for Innovation?


Much has been written about the impact of remote work on collaboration and innovation in the workplace. Yet, few rigorous studies have attempted to document the actual impact on innovation. Now comes a fascinating new paper from David Atkin, M. Keith Chen & Anton Popov.  They used an enormous amount of smartphone geolocation data to track face-to-face interactions.   Their research sample includes over 51,000 employees in Silicon Valley in 2016 and 2017 (pre-pandemic).   Here's an excerpt from their paper:

Our rich data on interactions allow us to open the black box of knowledge spillovers and isolate a particular channel: face-to-face meetings. To do so, we first link worker interactions—measured by the probability that a worker from one establishment “meets” a worker of another establishment by being in the same place at the same time with patent citations between their employers, an observable proxy for knowledge flows. 

To calculate these meeting probabilities, we combine smartphone geolocation data with maps of building rooftops for all patenting firms in Silicon Valley, assigning workers to establishments based on where they spend a large fraction of their waking hours. To assign firm-level citations to establishments, we scrape citation data from recent patent applications and use the inventors’ hometowns coupled with the housing locations of workers to probabilistically assign citations across multi-establishment firms. The resulting dataset of establishment-to-establishment worker meetings and citations reveals a strong positive relationship between face-to-face interactions and knowledge flows, even after conditioning on rich controls for the physical distance between establishments.

Note the final sentence.  Face-to-face interactions enhanced knowledge flows. They documented a strong positive effect of face-to-face interactions on patent citations.  Here's more from the authors:

Implementing this approach, we find that face-to-face meetings significantly increase citations between establishments, with the strength of the effect twice the impact of physical distance on citations. Eliminating a quarter of face-to-face meetings in Silicon Valley would reduce the number of citations by approximately 8 percent..." 

Naturally, some will argue that we have learned how to collaborate remotely during the pandemic, and have we have mastered a batch of technologies that promote virtual collaboration.   Certainly, we have  become much more effective at communicating and collaborating with others spread across remote geographic locations.  Yet, remember that this study documents many informal, serendipitous face-to-face interactions among employees.   Those interactions are much harder to replicate virtually.   While many leaders are concerned about losing employees if they try to mandate a return to the office, they do have to consider this study's implications regarding remote work and innovation.  Hopefully, more researech will follow, enabling us to gain a deeper understanding of the value of face-to-face interaction in the new product and new process development process. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

How Employees Perceive Those Who Undercommunicate vs. Overcommunicate

Some leaders communicate early, often, and quite effectively.   Others overshare.  They send out a constant stream of messages, perhaps risking information overload for their organization members.  Finally, perhaps most often, we find that leaders undercommunicate.  They fail to offer transparency, and they fail to keep employees abreast of the latest developments at the firm.   Scholars Francis Flynn and Chelsea Lide conducted a great new study to examine the perceptions of employees in the cases of overcommunication vs. undercommunication.   They found that employees clearly prefer more communication to less, even if the risk of information overload exists.   Unsurprisingly, the scholars find that most leaders believe that they are communicating sufficiently, when in fact, they are not.  Here's more on the specific perceptions employees have and their implications for leaders, from Stanford Leadership Insights: 

Flynn and Lide’s research shows that employees’ preference for too many versus too few messages stems from the perception that even if an overcommunicating leader can’t communicate the ideal amount, at least they mean well. Overcommunicators “may be given the benefit of the doubt by their employees, who might view them as trying to meet their needs, even if they are not necessarily succeeding,” Lide says. Making an effort can give the impression of empathy, whereas undercommunicators are “not really seen as trying at all. Instead, they tend to be seen as really missing the mark in terms of meeting the needs of their employees.”

Flynn says that these results contrast with prior research that found that information overload hurts employee performance. “Overcommunication may be seen as annoying and a nuisance, but it’s not seen as a damning flaw for a leader, partly because a leader’s overcommunication is seen as an attempt to benefit you, even if it is misguided, as opposed to an attempt to undermine you or simply ignore you.”

Friday, September 02, 2022

Failing to Prepare for a CEO Succession

Source:  CNBC

Yesterday, Starbucks announced the hiring of a new CEO -  Laxman Narasimhan.  His former organization's stock (Reckitt Benckiser) dropped by 5% upon release of the news, suggesting investors believe its a significant loss for that firm.

As most readers know, former CEO Howard Schultz had to step in as interim leader of Starbucks several months ago, after the departure of Kevin Johnson.   The move represented Schultz's second return to the firm after his long tenure as CEO. On two occasions, Schultz had to step in when the firm was underperforming, and in both cases, it appeared that Starbucks did not have a successor ready to take over.  Why was Starbucks not prepared for these two transitions?  Moreover, given the problems Schultz has unearthed and encountered during his few months as interim CEO, one wonders if the Board didn't act quickly enough to move on from Kevin Johnson.  

These changes at Starbucks came to mind when I thought about a recent paper published by qresearchers David Larcker, Brian Tayan, and Edward Watts. They found that, "many companies are slow to terminate underperforming bosses, get caught flat-footed when a CEO suddenly departs, and often fail to appoint a viable or permanent successor."  Here's an excerpt from the Stanford Insights article profiling this research:

Succession planning is a taboo subject that tends to be neglected in many companies, Larcker says. One reason is that directors may feel awkward about broaching the subject with CEOs, as it suggests dissatisfaction with their performance. “It’s like coming home from school with a bad report card and explaining it to your parents,” Larcker says. “It’s not a fun thing to do.” And personal ties can make directors go easier on the CEO.

One of the most striking findings unearthed by the paper was that 4 out of 10 CEOs retain their jobs despite five years of worst-in-class performance based on return on assets.  Larcker puts this down to risk aversion. A CEO search can be time-consuming and expensive, and the stakes are high. One study estimates the cost of appointing the wrong leader at more than $100 billion. Bad picks can cause stock price drops along with stalled momentum, lost customer goodwill, and diminished trust within the organization. “There’s a reluctance to do it,” Larcker says.

Friday, August 26, 2022

The "Quiet Quitting" Debate

Source: The Street

Several weeks ago, Lindsay Ellis and Angela Wang wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal on the "quiet quitting" phenomenon in the workplace.   Here's an excerpt:

Zaid Khan, a 24-year-old engineer in New York, posted a quiet quitting video that has racked up three million views in two weeks. In his viral TikTok, Mr. Khan explained the concept this way: “You’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond. You’re no longer subscribing to the hustle-culture mentality that work has to be your life,” he said. Mr. Khan says he and many of his peers reject the idea that productivity trumps all; they don’t see the payoff.

Naturally, the concept of quiet quitting has sparked a ferocious debate about work ethic, employee engagement, and organizational culture. Today, Kathryn Dill and Angela Wang wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal about the "backlash" against the quiet quitting movement. They present several people pushing back:
  • Arianna Huffington: “Quiet quitting isn’t just about quitting on a job, it’s a step toward quitting on life."
  • Kevin O'Leary: “You have to go beyond because you want to. That’s how you achieve success."
  • Amy Mosher: “It’s not about the quiet quitters. It’s about everybody else and the unfairness that occurs there."
For me, the discussion certainly creates a fair amount of concern.  I do worry about work ethic among a segment of the workforce.  I'm someone who loves my work and has always tried to go above and beyond for my students and my institution.  I would have a very hard time even contemplating quiet quitting.  However, I do understand why some employees have disengaged.  Moreover, I think the quiet quitting phenomenon should cause business leaders to seriously rethink four key issues.  They have to address these organizational weaknesses if they want to prevent people from disengaging in this manner:
  1.  Why are people disengaged? Is it really because they are overworked and trying to dial back their workload, or is it because you have not provided them meaningful, purposeful work and some voice in the organization?  Would they work much harder if they were passionate about a project or believed that their work could have a substantial impact on customers and other constituents of the organization?  The job here is to rethink the roles people have and the way that work gets done.  
  2. How are we measuring performance and providing feedback?  Is it possible for someone to coast unnoticed?  If so, that's deeply problematic.  Managers need to have a firm grasp on the way that work gets done, as well as how the workload is shared (equally or unequally) among their team members.  Providing feedback often is critical, but so is listening to hear people's concerns about their role and the organization's processes and systems.  
  3. Are we investing appropriately in developing our people?  How can we improve their skills and capabilities?  Workers will invest in their organizations if the leaders demonstrate a willingness to invest in them.  Yes, you might invest in their training and development and then they might leave.  The investment is worth the risk.   They will disengage or perhaps leave anyway if they are not growing and developing on the job.  
  4. Have our highest performers developed a perception of unfairness about how the workload is shared?   Perceptions of fairness have a substantial impact on organizational commitment and buy-in.  You will lose your best people if they think others are not carrying their fair share of the workload.  

Monday, August 22, 2022

Becoming Vigilant & Detecting Early Warning Signs

Source: Flaticon

Wharton decision-making experts George Day and Paul Schoemaker have identified four strategies for becoming vigilant leaders who can detect early warning signs effectively.  They recognize that the best companies overcome tunnel vision, avoid complacency, and scan the environment successfully to identify opportunities and threats.  Here are their four strategies:

1. Assemble a diverse team of independent thinkers: "One way to scope is by assembling a diverse team of independent thinkers from both inside and outside the company who can, as one of our clients phrased it, 'tap into the organization’s paranoia' and invite everyone to voice hunches, concerns, doubts, or intuitions that would otherwise remain dormant."

2.  Ask questions that acknowledge the limits of existing knowledge:  Effective leaders admit what they personally don't know and where key gaps exist in the organization's expertise.  Day and Schoemaker advocate asking three types of questions: learning from the past, interrogating the present, and anticipating the future.  They write, 

One method for learning from the past is to use past successes to create watching and listening outposts in other markets by asking, “Who there has a consistent record of seeing sooner and acting faster?” and “What is their secret?” Many companies interrogate the present by monitoring blogs, social media sites, and chat rooms for signs of brewing trouble with customers, with an eye toward timely remedial action. Vigilant organizations pay special attention to customers’ evolving behaviors and needs. One way to do this is by studying “edge cases” that could suggest opportunities or threats. (In engineering, the term edge is used to describe situations that purposefully push the limits.) To prepare for what’s ahead, leaders can develop different scenarios that reflect how today’s uncertainties might play out in years to come. To stimulate scenario planning, leaders should pose guiding questions about the future such as “What surprises could really hurt us (or help us)?” and “What might be some future surprises as big as those that we saw in recent decades?”

3.  Use active environmental scanning techniques:  By that, the scholars mean that you should develop hypotheses and then use scanning to try to test those hypotheses.

4.  Employ the wisdom of crowds to choose which signals to amplify and clarify:  Scanning can identify many opportunities and threats.  The challenge, then, is to determine which issues on which to focus attention more closely.  One way to choose is to employ the wisdom of crowds - let a broader group of people voice their opinions as to which issues warrant further scrutiny. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Should Disney Divest ESPN?

Dan Loeb, (Source: CNBC)

News reports this week indicate that activist investor Dan Loeb has written a letter to Disney's leadership team, calling on the firm to make a series of strategic changes. Specifically, Loeb recommended a divestiture of ESPN. He also recommended that Disney accelerate the planned acquisition of Comcast's 33% stake in Hulu, and then for Disney to integrate Hulu into its Disney+ streaming service.  Disney's leadership has rebuffed Loeb's attempts to push for change.  

The ESPN recommendation certainly has triggered a lively debate.  Students will find this question an interesting one that goes directly to the heart of many core corporate strategy concepts. On the one hand, ESPN has been a cash cow for Disney for years. According to CNBC, "Disney is making more money from cable subscribers than any other company solely because of ESPN. ESPN and sister network ESPN2 charge nearly $10 per month combined, while Disney requires pay TV providers to include ESPN as part of their most popular cable packages."  Moreover, ESPN+ has become an important part of Disney's efforts to offering streaming options for customers.  ESPN+ has had limited content to date, but perhaps, Disney will eventually offer customers an opportunity to stream all Disney and ESPN content in a true over-the-top option for those wishing to cut the cord.   

Imagine having all Disney cable channel content, all ESPN cable channel content, and all Disney/Hulu streaming content available directly to customers who don't want to purchase cable.  Disney has been reluctant to make this type of aggressive move, in part because the firm continues to generate a ton of cash from fees secured through cable TV subscriptions.  Moreover, Disney would anger cable television partners greatly if it circumvented them completely and went directly to customers.  Still, as more and more people cut the cord, the calculus there may change, and Disney may pursue a complete over-the-top solution for customers.  

On the other hand, in corporate strategy, we typically argue that multiple businesses should only be owned and operated under one roof if they pass two tests:  the better-off test and the ownership test.  The better-off test asks whether significant economies of scope exist, such that ESPN has a stronger competitive advantage because it is owned by Disney.   Loeb argues that it is not obvious ESPN has a more powerful advantage because it is part of the Disney corporate family.  For example, in his letter, he writes, "“ESPN would have greater flexibility to pursue business initiatives that may be more difficult as part of Disney, such as sports betting."  Moreover, the synergies between ESPN and other parts of Disney do exist, but they are not nearly as substantial as, for example, the synergies between the theme parks and the movie studio.  

The ownership test asks whether the corporate parent needs to own a particular subsidiary to actually achieve key benefits of collaboration.  Could another organizational arrangement (ranging from market contracts through strategic alliances or joint ventures) be more efficient and effective than full ownership?  Here too Loeb argues that ESPN may not pass the ownership test.  He writes, "We believe that most arrangements between the two companies can be replicated contractually, in the way eBay spun PayPal while continuing to utilize the product to process payments.”  In other words, ESPN could still work with Disney and its portfolio of companies without being fully owned by the corporate parent.   This argument reminds me of one criticism back when Disney purchased ABC in the mid-1990s.  Some analysts pointed out that Disney already collaborated closely with ABC on events such as the Disney Sunday night movie of the week on ABC (which Michael Eisner would introduce).  The analysts then argued that Disney could pursue more of those types of partnerships and collaborations without having to spend billions to acquire ABC. 

The debate will be fascinating to watch.  The key point here is that Disney should not necessarily own ESPN simply because the subsidiary is profitable.  It also should not necessarily divest ESPN simply because cord-cutting is reducing subscribers at the sports network.  The longer strategic view should be driving this decision with a focus on these two critical corporate strategy tests.  

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Rationalizing a Splurge: Not Just An Individual Decision-Making Error

Source: Tripadvisor

University of Chicago Professor Abigail Sussman has conducted some interesting research on how and why individuals tend to rationalize splurging.  She has studied this behavior in both the context of financial decisions and eating/dieting behavior.  Sussman finds that people tend to view decisions in isolation, and they view a particular consumption decision as a special one-time event.  Oh, it's a wedding, and it's a special celebration... so I can splurge on the giant piece of wedding cake.  Or, I have an event to attend, so it's ok to splurge on a nice new suit.  Examining events in isolation, as one-time events, enables us to deviate from disciplined decision making.  

People don't tend to look at categories of decisions.  For instance, there most likely are a series of opportunities to splurge on various delicious food and spoil our diet.  The wedding cake is not likely the only chance to splurge.  We have to stop looking at decisions in isolation, according to Sussman. 

The same logic holds for business decisions, in my view.  Company leaders sometimes can perceive opportunities or threats as one-time special events, and thereby justify an investment that might otherwise seem inadvisable.  For example, executives might convince themselves that this acquisition opportunity is unique, and that they simply can't let it pass them by.   They have to overpay, or they will never have a similar chance in the future.  Of course, the opportunity often is not that unique, and overpaying often leads to disaster.  Exercising some discipline and restraint is essential in these situations.  Ask yourself: Is this situation as unique as we are portraying it?