First Look

November 7, 2006

Amy Edmondson and collaborator James R. Detert continue their research on the motivations and conditions of why individuals speak up (or don't) at work. A new working paper available for download suggests that "fear of speaking up, even with pro-organizational suggestions, is pervasive and, for many, a source of intense negative affect." (Here is a related article on HBS Working Knowledge.) Also this week, there's a new book co-edited by Professor Emeritus J. Ronald Fox exploring the difficulties in managing large projects, a Harvard Business Review article by Walter Friedman celebrating old-time sales techniques, and a book chapter from Siobhan O'Mahony titled "Developing Community Software in a Commodity World."
— Sean Silverthorne

Working Papers

Everyday Failures in Organizational Learning: Explaining the High Threshold for Speaking Up at Work


This article examines how people working in organizational hierarchies wrestle with the challenge of upward voice. To understand how individuals think about speaking up at work, we first undertook in-depth exploratory research in a knowledge-intensive multinational corporation in which employee input was considered crucial. Qualitative data collected in 190 interviews with employees from all levels and functions suggest that fear of speaking up, even with pro-organizational suggestions, is pervasive and, for many, a source of intense negative affect. A second study used scenarios about speaking up to deepen and extend these findings. Quantitative and qualitative survey data were collected from 71 individuals in MBA and Executive MBA programs who had worked in a range of organizational settings. Overall, our analyses demonstrate that influences on the decision to speak up include both stable and situation-specific factors, such that conceptualizing improvement-oriented voice as an event-level phenomenon may advance theory on this important workplace behavior. Findings also suggest a profoundly asymmetrical relation between the intrapersonal motivations for and against speaking up, leading to a novel theoretical explanation for the prevalence of silence.

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Cases & Course Materials




Challenges in Managing Large Projects


This book addresses several questions relating to the management of multi-billion dollar engineering development and construction projects. In what ways are the challenges of managing large, complex projects different from the challenges of managing other large industrial activities? How is it possible to evaluate the reasonableness of manager's performance on large projects where traditional outcome methods don't seem to apply? Performing the research to answer these questions led to the publication of this book. It is based on project records and interviews exploring the experiences of men and women who have managed, and executed more than 20 large projects with respect to planning, cost estimating, contracting, implementation, project control, and evaluation managerial performance.

Too Hot to Handle? How to Manage Relationship Conflict


Conventional wisdom, together with the weight of published management advice, recommends that management teams engage task conflict but avoid relationship conflict. Implicit in this advice is the premise that it is indeed possible to separate the task and relationship aspects of a business conflict. This article argues that this separation is not always possible and suggests an alternative approach. First, when teams discuss what we call "hot topics," substantive disagreements (task conflict) tend to trigger negative attributions about others' motives or abilities (a key element of relationship conflict). When this happens, most managers feel that they face two undesirable options: Express their true thoughts and alienate their peers or suppress them, avoiding genuine discussion. Most choose the latter. Yet, when interpersonal attributions are suppressed, they tend to leak into the business conversation anyway, such as in the form of implied accusations or aggravated tones of voice. These dynamics are virtually inevitable, even when managers try hard to avoid them. We introduce the distinction between hot and cool topics to help clarify when avoiding discussion of relationship conflict in management teams is feasible, and when it's not. Second, drawing from intervention research, we argue that management teams facing hot topics can learn to handle relationship conflicts productively, despite the heightened emotions and interpersonal tensions involved. We describe three practices—manage self, manage conversations, and manage relationships—that help management teams engage hot topics and the relationship conflicts they engender. We conclude that management teams can build resilience through experience with these practices.

Die Zunkunft der Vergangenheit: Deutscher Kapitalismus aus der Sicht von Rhein und Ruhr [The Future of the Past: German Capitalism from the Viewpoint of the Rhine and Ruhr]


The article examines how a group of leading Düsseldorf businessmen during the first wave of globalization prior to 1914 helped to leverage the artistic legacy of a quiet, royal residential city to transform it into the administrative, cultural, and corporate capital of the Ruhr, Germany's industrial heartland of smoke, coal, and steel. Art became a source of competitiveness. Through creative cooperative efforts, which we could call cluster activities today, they formed an alliance with the local artistic community to create a series of exhibitions that attracted millions of visitors, putting Düsseldorf on the map. At mid-century, the "Düsseldorf School" was famous for its landscape paintings that influenced many Americans; one of its most famous painters, Emanuel Leutze, painted the famous "Washington Crossing the Delaware" in Düsseldorf. The article narrates how by means of various cooperative efforts growing out of a sense of paternal social engagement, which we would today call corporate social responsibility, local business improved infrastructure, formed some of the most important industrial lobbies in Germany (and the world), engaged in social politics, and harnessed the local artistic community to beautify their products and transform their advertising to combat the (then) widespread perception of the 'cheap and shoddiness' of German products. A series of major exhibitions helped give 'made in Germany' a sheen of quality rather than shoddiness.

Managing Innovation in Small Worlds


Innovation is typically a group effort, but how exactly do researchers collaborate with one another to innovate? To answer this question, the authors compiled a dataset identifying all coauthorship relationships of U.S. patent inventors from 1975 through 1999. That dataset revealed that the social network of innovators is a "small world," with various clusters of people interconnected by different "gatekeepers," individuals who bridge one group with another. Historically, engineers and scientists tended to work within local clusters of collaboration that were isolated within a company. Recently, though, people have become increasingly mobile, changing jobs with greater frequency, and these formerly isolated clusters have begun to interconnect into larger networks through which information flows more freely between companies. Such environments provide both strategic opportunity and potential threat: They can increase creativity within a company, but they also aid in the diffusion of creative knowledge to other firms through personnel and knowledge transfer. The trick, then, is to manage innovation in ways that exploit the opportunities while minimizing the risks.

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Give Me That Old-Time Motivation


People remember the salesman, but rarely is the sales manager recognized in the history books. Still, some old-time sales leadership techniques may hold the key to present-day success.

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Competitiveness in Developing Economies: The Role of Clusters and Cross-Cutting Policies


Competitiveness is high up on the policy agenda for countries around the world and at all stages of development. But while there is little disagreement that countries need to "upgrade their competitiveness"—even more so as the level of globalization is increasing—there are many different views on what competitiveness actually is and which policies should be employed to improve it. In addition, there is a serious argument of whether the competitiveness framework applies equally to advanced as to developing economies and how these differences in terms of economic development affect appropriate policy choices. In particular, questions arise as to the role of cluster initiatives, an instrument that has become more widely used in many countries in recent years, in a developing economy context.

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A Portfolio Approach to Sales


Vendors that match specific sales capabilities to opportunities and provide thoughtful support can maximize their return over the long term. Those that use a four-pronged portfolio approach are likely to do better than their peers.

Developing Community Software in a Commodity World


With the NASDAQ having lost 70 percent of its value, the giddy, optimistic belief in perpetual growth that accompanied the economic boom of the 1990s had fizzled by 2002. Yet the advances in information and communication technology, management and production techniques, and global integration that spurred the "New Economy" of the 1990s had triggered profound and lasting changes. Frontiers of Capital brings together ethnographies exploring how cultural practices and social relations have been altered by the radical economic and technological innovations of the New Economy. The contributors, most of whom are anthropologists, investigate changes in the practices and interactions of futures traders, Chinese entrepreneurs, residents of French housing projects, women working on Wall Street, cable television programmers, and others. Some contributors highlight how expedited flows of information allow business professionals to develop new knowledge practices. They analyze dynamics ranging from the decision-making processes of the Federal Reserve Board to the legal maneuvering necessary to buttress a nascent Japanese market in over-the-counter derivatives. Others focus on the social consequences of globalization and new modes of communication, evaluating the introduction of new information technologies into African communities and the collaborative practices of open-source computer programmers. Together the essays suggest that social relations, rather than becoming less relevant in the high-tech age, have become more important than ever. This finding dovetails with the thinking of many corporations, which increasingly employ anthropologists to study and explain the "local" cultural practices of their own workers and consumers. Frontiers of Capital signals the wide-ranging role of anthropology in explaining the social and cultural contours of the New Economy.

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The Microeconomic Foundations of Prosperity: Findings from the Business Competitiveness Index


The World Economic Forum continues its tradition of excellence with the 28th edition of the annual publication, The Global Competitiveness Report, featuring the latest indicators drawn from the Executive Opinion Survey, which captures the perceptions of over 11,000 business leaders worldwide. The Report provides the most comprehensive assessment of over 120 developed and emerging economies. Produced in collaboration with a distinguished group of international scholars and a global network of around 120 leading national research institutes and business organizations, the Report presents individual detailed country profiles highlighting the competitive strengths and weaknesses of each economy as well as an extensive section of data tables containing country rankings for over 160 indicators. The Report also showcases the latest thinking and research on issues of immediate relevance for business leaders and policymakers. The forthcoming Report is expected to include thought-provoking contributions from leading thinkers in the area of competitiveness and the factors that are critical for creating a sound business environment.

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