First Look

March 11, 2008

“Too often, workers are evaluated based on results and not based on the quality of the decision” behind the results, write HBS professor Max Bazerman and colleagues. “Given that most consequential business decisions involve some uncertainty, the upshot is that organizations wind up rewarding luck rather than wisdom.” What to do? As they explain in their working paper available for download, “No Harm, No Foul: The Outcome Bias in Ethical Judgments,” research on decision making contains practical implications for organizations and managers. Also this week, in a new book Noel Maurer and coauthors tackle Mexico's history with authoritarian government as a lens for understanding the country's current economic and political challenges. Other publications look at investor sentiment vis-à-vis return on stocks; microfinance institutions and their goals; and legal issues in private equity deals.
— Martha Lagace

Working Papers

Testing Strategy with Multiple Performance Measures Evidence from a Balanced Scorecard at Store24


We analyze balanced scorecard data from a convenience store chain, Store24, during the implementation of an innovative, but ultimately unsuccessful strategy. Quarterly strategic reviews, based in part on the firm's balanced scorecard, led executives at Store24 to identify problems with, and eventually abandon, this strategy over a two- year period. We find that formal statistical tests of the hypotheses underlying the firm's balanced scorecard and strategy map reveal problems with the strategy on a timelier basis. We also test alternative hypotheses to those underlying the firm's formal strategy map and scorecard that are consistent with concerns expressed by some of Store24's top executives during the initial stages of implementing the new strategy. Our analysis demonstrates that this firm's balanced scorecard contained useful and timely information for distinguishing between these alternatives. These results provide some of the first field-based evidence on the potential for a firm's balanced scorecard to provide useful information for detecting problems in its strategy.

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No Harm, No Foul: The Outcome Bias in Ethical Judgments


Two studies investigated the influence of outcome information on ethical judgment. Participants read a series of vignettes describing ethically-questionable behaviors. We manipulated whether those behaviors were followed by a negative or positive consequence. As hypothesized, participants judged behavior as less ethical when it was followed by a negative consequence. In addition, they judged the behavior as more blameworthy and to be punished more harshly. Participants' ethical judgments mediated their judgments of both blame and punishment. The results of the second experiment showed again that participants rated behavior as less ethical when it led to undesirable consequences, even if they saw that behavior as acceptable before they knew its consequences. Implications for both research and practice are discussed.

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Cases & Course Materials

Microfinance International Corporation: No, Not Another Microfinance Case

Harvard Business School Case 808-104

CEO and founder Atsumasa Tochisako (52) sat in his Washington D.C. headquarters, looking with pride at the copy of a press release that would announce the latest in a broadening line of financial services that Washington D.C.-based Microfinance International Corporation (MFIC) had been providing for two years to a growing number of "unbanked" Hispanic nationals in the United States and their home countries.

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Partners in Health: The PACT Project

Harvard Business School Case 608-065

Partners in Health (PIH) is a Boston-based, not-for-profit that provides health care to people in some of the poorest regions of the world, including Haiti, Malawi, Rwanda, and Peru. In 1998, PIH established a program (PACT) in Boston to bring care to AIDS and TB patients who were not well served by existing care delivery systems. Describes PIH's programs in the developing world and the way in which lessons learned in these countries informed the design and management of PACT. Examines the balance between customized and standardized approaches to care and challenges students to examine their preconceived notions of the social role of a health care delivery organization. Dr. Heidi Behforouz, PACT's director, must decide whether a service design honed in developing countries can be rolled out more broadly in one the world's richest nations.

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Peabody Simpson at the Crossroads

Harvard Business School Case 503-112

Three managing directors at Peabody Simpson had just returned from a firm-wide recruiting event at Columbia University, which they had covered together, as all were alumni. They were commiserating about having to submit revised forecasts to their division heads by the end of the week. Alec Hastings, head of Global Institutional Securities, wanted an update on year-to-date expense. They sat at their favorite watering hole and discussed the challenge of cutting $600 million out of the operating budget.

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South Dakota Wheat Growers

Harvard Business School Case 508-034

As a farmer-owned cooperative, South Dakota Wheat Growers (SDWG) serves the needs of its 3,600 active farmer-members by supplying farm inputs and organizing the marketing and transportation of grain produced in the co-op's service territory. For almost 80 years, the majority of grain was shipped out of the area by rail to markets in the East and the Pacific Northwest. However, the recent expansion in ethanol production is changing the pattern of grain flow along with stimulating the local farm economy. SDWG's management and producer board must decide how to continue to meet the needs of their producer-owners under the new conditions.

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Mexico Since 1980


This book addresses two questions that are crucial to understanding Mexico's current economic and political challenges. Why did the opening up of the economy to foreign trade and investment not result in sustained economic growth? Why has electoral democracy not produced rule of law? The answer to those questions lies in the ways in which Mexico's long history with authoritarian government shaped its judicial, taxation, and property rights institutions. These institutions, the authors argue, cannot be reformed with the stroke of a pen. Moreover, they represent powerful constraints on the ability of the Mexican government to fund welfare-enhancing reforms, on the ability of firms and households to write contracts, and on the ability of citizens to enforce their basic rights.

How Does Investor Sentiment Affect the Cross Section of Returns


Broad waves of investor sentiment should have larger impacts on securities that are more difficult to value and to arbitrage. Consistent with this intuition, we find that when an index of investor sentiment takes low values, small, young, high volatility, unprofitable, non-dividend-paying, extreme growth, and distressed stocks earn relatively higher subsequent returns. When sentiment is high, the aforementioned categories of stocks earn relatively lower subsequent returns.

In Microfinance, Clients Must Come First


In the debate over whether microfinance works, few microfinance institutions articulate what, exactly, their ultimate goals are and how, exactly, they will achieve them. The authors cut through the confusion by mapping a clear theory of change for microfinance. If the goal of microfinance is to alleviate poverty, they say, then MFIs should focus on helping their clients build successful enterprises, rather than on making more and bigger loans.

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Thinking About Technology: Applying a Cognitive Lens to Technical Change


We apply a cognitive lens to understanding technology trajectories across the life cycle by developing a co-evolutionary model of technological frames and technology. Applying that model to each stage of the technology life cycle, we identify conditions under which a cognitive lens might change the expected technological outcome predicted by purely economic or organizational models. We also show that interactions of producers, users and institutions shape the development of collective frames around the meaning of new technologies. We thus deepen our understanding of sources of variation in the era of ferment, conditions under which a dominant design may be achieved, the underlying architecture of the era of incremental change and the dynamics associated with discontinuities.

Testing a Purportedly More Learnable Auction Mechanism


We describe an auction mechanism in the class of Groves mechanisms that has received attention in the computer science literature because of its theoretical property of being more "learnable" than the standard second price auction mechanism. We bring this mechanism, which we refer to as the "clamped second price auction mechanism," into the laboratory to determine whether it helps human subjects learn to play their optimal strategy faster than the standard second price auction mechanism. Contrary to earlier results within computer science using simulated reinforcement learning agents, we find that both in settings where subjects are given complete information about auction payoff rules and in settings where they are given no information about auction payoff rules, subjects converge on playing their optimal strategy significantly faster in sequential auctions conducted with a standard second price auction mechanism than with a clamped second price auction mechanism. We conclude that while it is important for mechanism designers to think more about creating learnable mechanisms, the clamped second price auction mechanism in fact produces slower learning in human subjects than the standard second price auction mechanism. Our results also serve to highlight differences in behavior between simulated agents and human bidders that mechanism designers should take into account before placing too much faith in simulations to test the performance of mechanisms intended for human use.

Go-Shop Provisions in Private Equity Deals: Evidence and Implications


Go-shop provisions have changed the way in which private equity firms execute public-company buyouts. While there has been considerable practitioner commentary on go-shops in the three years since they first appeared, this paper presents the first systematic empirical evidence on this new deal-making technology. Contrary to the claims of prior commentators, I find that (1) go-shops yield more search in aggregate (pre- and post-signing) than the traditional no-shop route; (2) pure go-shop deals, in which there is no pre-signing canvass of the marketplace, yield a higher bidder 17% of the time; and (3) target shareholders receive approximately 5% higher returns through the pure go-shop process relative to the no-shop route. I also find no post-signing competition in go-shop management buyouts (MBOs), consistent with practitioner wisdom that MBOs give incumbent managers a significant advantage over other potential buyers. Taken as a whole, these findings suggest that the Delaware courts should generally permit go-shops as a means of satisfying a sell-side board's Revlon duties, but should pay close attention to their precise structure, particularly in the context of go-shop MBOs.