Article: Action research for HR

Strategic HR

Action research for HR

For too long have we relied on 'fads, fashions, and folderol' expensively packaged by consultants or on borrowed behavioral science research to guide HR innovation. How can we acquire the ART of building knowledge?
Action research for HR

Soon after I started working (and for a couple of decades thereafter) the only journals that lined the shelves of my cabin were the ‘’Journal of Applied Psychology’’ and ‘’Personnel Psychology’’ – supplemented, a few years down the road, with the ‘’Administrative Science Quarterly’’. They provided an endless stream of ideas for launching pioneering initiatives and a salutary check against leaping on to the bandwagon of the latest fad doing the rounds1 or the less sane ideas coming from my own imagination. All three journals (and many others besides) continue to be gold standards for the latest international research in the behavioral sciences and organizational behavior. 

Counterintuitive as it may appear, these seemingly theoretical compendia of recent research in the behavioral sciences are of immense practical use (as Lewin pointed out, there is nothing so practical as a good theory2) in taking decisions based on sound knowledge and evidence. "Evidence-based management … derives principles from research evidence and translates them into practices that solve organizational problems."3 This is easier said than done because, as Denise Rousseau put it, "research findings don’t appear to have transferred well to the workplace. Instead of a scientific understanding of human behavior and organizations, managers, including those with MBAs, continue to rely largely on personal experience, to the exclusion of more systematic knowledge. Alternatively, managers follow bad advice from business books or consultants based on weak evidence. Because Jack Welch or McKinsey says it, that doesn’t make it true."3 Just in case HR practitioners think they don’t need to update themselves, there is enough research showing how outdated are the beliefs to which HR managers cling.4&5 Among the costs of this blinkered neglect of current theory and research can be counted the "persistent use of practices known to be largely ineffective (e.g., downsizing … [and] high ratios of the executive to rank-and-file employee compensation."3 Regular readers may recall that criticisms of both the practices pilloried by Rousseau have found a place in these columns.6&7

There is no doubt the best international journals of research in the behavioral sciences (unfortunately, few of them are published in India) can put us on the path to evidence-based management and the design of state-of-the-art programs and processes. For us in India, however, they can provide only part of the understanding we need about what’s happening in the foundational disciplines on which HR is based. This column deals with why such sterling publications leave a gap and what we can (indeed, must) do to bridge it.

Tying research to reality 

Human nature is, in many respects, the same the world over, and the kind of journals mentioned in the opening sentence of this column provide us invaluable and ongoing insights into its functioning within organizations. Yet, there are three important reasons why even a wider range of such readings cannot provide all of the founded intellectual sustenance we need to keep ourselves on a sound scientific track and avoid professional obsolescence. 

The first reason for supplementing the rarified view academic research provides us with insights of our own is not limited only to India. Donald Schon captures this challenge well. "In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp. On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solution through the use of research-based theory and technique. In the swampy lowlands, problems are messy and confusing and incapable of technical solutions. The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large, however great their technical interest may be, while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern. The practitioner is confronted with a choice. Shall he remain on the high ground where he can solve relatively unimportant problems according to his standards of rigor, or shall he descend to the swamp of important problems where he cannot be rigorous in any way he knows how to describe?"8 My strong belief is that we need both kinds of knowledge accretion. While we need to be adequately conversant with the latest academic research, as practitioners we too need to add to the body of generally accessible learning in the behavioral sciences. To do so, it doesn’t suffice to solve problems as and when they crop up but to consciously design and record our interventions with an element of scientific rigor and documentation that can aid in dissemination and integration with the body of theory that already exists.

Let’s turn next to the need to replicate, verify, extend or contradict research that has already been conducted elsewhere. Contradicting the proposition that all men are the same everywhere, Shakespeare wrote (though I am sure my readership is a little milder than the people to whom Macbeth addressed these lines):

Ay, in the catalog ye go for men,

As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,

Shoughs, water-rugs, and demi-wolves are clept

All by the name of dogs…

… And so of men.9

Evolutionary Psychology gives us several insights into why people in different parts of the world may have evolved with physiological differences that give them predisposing behavioral tendencies. In a previous column, I have referred to a possible reason we in India are collectivist in orientation but with a strong bias against out-groups.10 In the same piece I pointed out aspects of our historical and cultural heritage which makes us significantly different from employees in the West (from where much of the highest quality research in applied Psychology originates). For instance, our support and need for autocratic leaders, the challenges we face while working in teams and our over-reliance on jugaad (at the cost of process) all indicate that findings on any of these key organizational parameters cannot simply be transposed from, say, the US to India. We may not need to reinvent the wheel every time but we do need to be sure a suitable set is fitted securely to our aircraft before we try taking off on a flight of fancy.

Lastly, the pressure we in India experience to solve certain pressing problems may be very different from the priority more developed countries need to give to the same issues and, therefore, the extent of research resources they devote to these may be negligible. For instance, take the sense of rootless helplessness felt by millions of Indians who were in the process of making the rural-urban transition, in many cases, across state boundaries. Their vulnerability became heartbreakingly apparent when the lockdown response to the COVID-19 crisis prompted them to try reversing their transition to the city, which they had precariously navigated earlier. There is no comparable recent phenomenon on this scale researched anywhere else. Or take our well-documented albatross: caste.11 Is research on race in the US and Europe really a close enough fit for us to preclude researching the causes and cures of the biases that prevent Indian organizations from inducting, integrating, and elevating Dalits and tribals in the workforce?

An India-focused behavioral research movement

There is a huge unfulfilled need and vast scope for India-specific behavioral science research. Educational institutes for post-graduate study in the behavioral sciences and HR can and are playing a role in building such a corpus of learning. What they are adding to the reservoir of knowledge needed is, however, a trickle. Where else can we look to make the flow into a flood? In my opinion, unless those of us who are HR practitioners in the industry play an active role in generating research-based knowledge as we work, we will perennially continue to wear hand-me-down research clothes initially tailored for our Western professional counterparts. Every HR professional with an inquiring mind and an intellectual bent owes it to the larger HR community to set aside some time and resources to add to the body of scientifically established and practically useful knowledge that everyone can use. Easily stated but how is it to be done?

One way to get a behavioral science research movement going in the Indian industry is to encourage the formation of myriads of Action Research Teams (ARTs). ARTs would be the basic building blocks of an industry-wide movement for creating a constantly growing body of locally relevant behavioral research. While most ARTs would be housed within a corporate entity, not all its members need to be that organization’s employees. In fact, an ideal ART composition would be of Panchadhatu. Apart from a far-sighted leader, each team would have some energetic and fresh-thinking youngsters (either from new additions to the HR team or even students wanting industry exposure) balanced with more experienced HR practitioners who have not lost the urge to learn as well as to create knowledge. To bring perspectives from outside HR there would be team members from the rest of the organization – preferably representative of the population under study. Finally, the cooption of an academic keen to bridge the industry-institute divide would bring an invaluable degree of rigor in methodology as well as access to knowledge that has already been established, both in our country and abroad. The actual number of people in the team would, of course, depend on the size and urgency of the project.

ARTs would be embedded within HR departments which would naturally direct research in the directions relevant to their organizations’ business strategies and pioneering HR initiatives. Each completed ART project would, however, after stripping it of its confidential content, be made available for use by other researchers as well as teachers and practitioners. Exceptionally revealing and useful research should, of course, be rewarded by the firm. As we will see in the concluding section, the greater recognition would be bestowed by the HR community as a whole.

Would this not take away too much time from HR’s primary tasks of making people happier13 and of providing support to the business? In fact, it is precisely to carry out these goals that HR needs research-founded principles rather than anecdotally based or currently fashionable 'best' practices. If, along the way, we can make a lasting contribution to the quality of HR in the country should we grudge a small part of our working time contributing to mitigate the 'tragedy of the knowledge commons'?13 People of my generation were thrilled when we first read about the Hawthorne studies. Though the studies have taken a fair amount of beating since then14 there is no gainsaying the reputational advantage of carrying out and sharing research about people behaviors and processes. "Historically leading corporations such as Cadbury, IBM, and General Motors were actively engaged in research on company selection and training practices, employee motivation, and supervisory behavior. Their efforts contributed substantially to the early managerial practice evidence base. But few organizations today do their own managerial research or regularly collaborate with those who do; … the press for short-term results have reduced such collaborations to dispensable frills."3 These are the kind of pathbreaking traditions leading Indian corporates should revel in reviving.

A huge opportunity for associations of HR professionals

In recent years, leading HR bodies that have provided forums for the networking, development, and recognition of HR/ER professionals in India have been threatened by the emergence of younger, more agile and in several cases, more specialized competitors. In response, many of the lying-on-laurels bodies have started introspecting, innovating, and inventing themselves once again. As they create new agendas and action plans for the ’twenties, there is a platinum opportunity to place the encouragement of behavioral science research at the hub of their revival strategies.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting most of the research is to be carried out or even commissioned by these bodies. They can, however, have a four-fold catalyzing impact. To start with, they can periodically poll their members and announce research themes which are knowledge gaps crying to be filled in our current context or what we anticipate for the future. Secondly, HR associations can work with reputed institutes and practitioners (who have themselves carried out robust research) to conduct workshops for members on the basic principles of behavioral science research, experiment design, statistical methods as well as load allocation and team-working among (part-time) ART members. Perhaps the associations’ most important contribution can come from the recognition they bestow on top-notch and theme-relevant research. Such recognition should occupy center-stage in the awards these bodies hand out and go only to truly outstanding research that takes the understanding of people and the practice of knowledge-based HR in India a long step forward.15 Lastly, the associations can be repositories and clearing houses for research that members have carried out. This knowledge-base can be invaluable support for the HR community in general and, if detailed access is provided only to members, a hefty incentive to people to join and remain as members. 

Of course, the newer association kids on the block are also free to make research a cornerstone of their offerings. The professional bodies that best progress the cause of encouraging and facilitating high-quality research in the behavioral sciences among Indian corporates, will deserve to snatch the crown of professional association leadership. Here then, is an open challenge to all professional HR bodies in India. Which of them will best encourage the research that brings HR from India worldwide fame? 

Notes:

  1. Marvin Dunnette, Fads, fashions, and folderol in psychology, American Psychologist. 21(4):343–352, April 1966.
  2. Kurt Lewin, Field theory in social science: Selected theoretical papers, Harper & Row, 1951.
  3. Denise M Rousseau, Is there Such a thing as "Evidence-Based Management"?, Academy of Management Review, Vol. 31, No. 2, Published Online:1 Apr 2006.
  4. S L Rynes, A E Colbert, and K G Brown, HR professionals’ beliefs about effective human resource practices: correspondence between research and practice, Human Resource Management, 41: 2, 2002.
  5. T Timmerman, Misconceptions about HRM start early, Journal of Human Resources Education, 4: 1, 2010.
  6. Visty Banaji, People are not beans, 13 July 2016.
  7. Visty Banaji, But who will guard the guardians?, People Matters, 14 March 2018.
  8. Donald A Schon, Knowing-In-Action: The New Scholarship Requires a New Epistemology, Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, Volume 27, 1995 - Issue 6.
  9. William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 3 Scene 1.
  10. Visty Banaji, Music and management, People Matters, 5 February 2020.
  11. Visty Banaji, There is an Elephant in the Room- And the Blind Men of Indostan Can’t See it, People Matters, 26 September 2018.
  12. Visty Banaji, HR’s business should be happiness raising, People Matters, 24 September 2019.
  13. Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom (Editors), Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice, The MIT Press, 2011
  14. Steven D Levitt and John A List, Was There Really a Hawthorne Effect at the Hawthorne Plant? An Analysis of the Original Illumination Experiments, American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, Vol 3, January 2011.
  15. Visty Banaji, The (funny) business of HR awards, People Matters, 18 February 2020.
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Topics: Strategic HR

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