Corporate Field Researchers Share Tricks of the Trade

In a panel discussion, several professors shared practical findings and tricks-of-the-trade from recent field research. Among the discoveries: how to prompt employees to get a flu shot.
by Carmen Nobel

The term "academic research" can conjure images of scientists conducting experiments in a basement laboratory, or of tweed-clad professors poring through old theories to develop new ones. But let's not forget about field research, which happens beyond university campuses, out in the so-called real world.

Among economic scholars, field research often takes place within the walls of corporations, non-profits, small businesses, or government entities. Ideally, these organizations eventually can apply the findings of the research to improve operations within their own workforces. But a successful field study requires a lot of ingenuity and trust from both the academics and the field participants.

"Doing Empirical Research in, with, and through Companies" was the topic of a lively session last week at the annual Harvard Business School Faculty Research Symposium. Held each May, the event provides the opportunity for a few faculty members to share recent work with an audience of doctoral students, staff members, and other professors.

In a panel discussion, several professors shared the practical findings of recent field research—along with tricks-of-the-trade for field researchers.

Forming A Research Partnership

Teresa Amabile discussed a comprehensive field study in which her research team collected confidential, personal work diaries from 238 white-collar employees at seven disparate companies. The key finding: When it comes to igniting creativity and satisfaction among employees, the single most important factor is a sense of making progress on meaningful work. A related finding: If people are in a good mood on any given day, they'll be more creative. But they'll also be just as creative the next day, regardless of their next-day mood.

At the symposium, Amabile explained her rationale for taking her research to the field. "I didn't believe and still don't believe that I could address these questions outside of a company context," she said. "Where else could I track creativity in the wild?"

Leslie Perlow, who moderated the panel, shared her admiration for Amabile's project, starting with the data generation. "She managed to convince people to tell her how they were doing every day," said Perlow, the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership.

Amabile explained the importance of approaching field study participants as collaborators. "If you're planning on doing intense research with individual employees, try to make them partners in the research," she said. (HBS professor Nava Ashraf discussed this idea of co-producing knowledge in the Working Knowledge article, Climbing Down from the Ivory Tower.)

Developing Executive Trust

Eugene Soltes shared research showing how certain investors spend a lot of time in private meetings with corporate executives—and how this gives the investors an unfair advantage, in spite of Federal regulations that are supposed to level the investment playing field. In short, private meetings with CEOs apparently led to smarter trades, according to the findings of a study by Soltes, an assistant professor at HBS, and David Solomon, a professor at the USC Marshall School of Business.

To conduct the research, the duo obtained investor meeting records from a mid-cap company traded on the New York Stock Exchange, under the condition that they would not reveal the firm's identity in their paper. This required a tremendous amount of good faith on the part of the company, which was crucial for the study.

"It's really about developing a relationship," said Soltes, whose research also has included corresponding with Stephen Richards, the former global head of Computer Associates, while Richards was doing time in prison for securities fraud. (The correspondence led to the case study A Letter From Prison.)

Listening To The Field

Ethan Bernstein discussed the field research that led to an intriguing conclusion: In a curious phenomenon dubbed the Transparency Paradox, he found that watching your employees less closely at work might yield more transparency at your organization. "In a world obsessed with transparency, I'm becoming increasingly obsessed with how it is and isn't productive," said Bernstein, an assistant professor.

In the summers of 2008 and 2009, while he was still a doctoral candidate at HBS, Bernstein hired a team of Chinese-born Harvard undergraduates to embed themselves among factory workers on the manufacturing floor of a huge global contractor in Southern China. Bernstein's research, which won awards from both the Academy of Management's Organization and Management Theory Division and Organizational Behavior Division, was largely guided by the information that the factory workers shared with the embedded students.

"You listen to the field when it speaks to you," Bernstein said.

Encouraging Employees To Receive Flu Shots

The CDC estimates that from the 1976-1977 season to the 2006-2007 flu season, annual flu-associated deaths in the United States ranged from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000. In spite of those sobering statistics, a lot of people decline to get a flu shot—even when their company offers free shots to employees on-site.

A few years ago, a team of researchers tackled that problem with field research. At the symposium, one of the researchers, John Beshears, described study, in which more than 3,000 employees of a Midwestern utility firm received e-mailed flu-shot reminder e-mails. The catch: Some of them received a standard reminder, with information about when and where the shots would be offered, while others received an additional prompt—suggesting that the employees write down the date and time they planned to get a shot.

Of those who received the simple prompt, 37.1 obtained a flu shot at the firm's on-site clinic—an increase of 4.2 percentage points over those who received a standard, no-prompt reminder.

Beshears held the research as case in point that field research can be mutually beneficial to the field of academia and the field study participant.

"There's a [perception] that there's a tradeoff between serving the needs of the organizations and doing rigorous research," Beshears said. "But the organization you're working with doesn't know the answer, either. You really are helping organizations if you give them rigorous tests to run their business."

Note to readers: If you think your company might benefit from participating in a corporate field study, please visit The Research Exchange, where members of the Harvard Business School faculty have listed several studies in search of a site.

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    Corporate field studies can relate to a variety of topics/fields connected with the activities the corporates are engaged in. These could also be on subjects of general interest for the good of the society as a whole. Results achieved and thoughts percolated could be made use of advantageously by all and sundry.
    There may not be any pre-set methods and these would naturally evolve based on the ingenuity and skill of the researcher.
    No amount of research is an exercise in futility. This is something very useful as reflected through the examples reported for indicative purposes.
    A useful description.