The Lectern


Steve Kelman

Lectern

By Steve Kelman

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Management theory and practice


My latest monthly column for FCW reports on academic research by Boaz Shamir of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Adam Grant of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania regarding  the question of whether government managers can improve the performance of their employees by themselves talking about the mission, values, and public purpose of their organizations. Regular readers of my column – may I take this occasion to urge blog readers to check the icon marked “Columns” on the left side of any page you open of the FCW website towards the beginning of each month to check for my newest column? – may have noticed that increasingly I have been using the column to present academic research relevant to public managers.

Some, perhaps many, practitioners are suspicious of scholarly work, including (maybe especially) scholarly work on organizations. Some of this, frankly, is simply anti-professor prejudice, no more attractive than other kinds of prejudice. Some are quick to dismiss academics as impractical, and to throw around phrases like, “This may look fine in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice.” Many are quick to accept the findings of academic research only when the findings correspond with their personal experiences in the workplace – and then are quick to denounce the findings as “obvious.”

In my view, practitioners who take this stance are cutting themselves off from sources of insight that could help them do a better job managing.

One thing academics are trained to do is to design empirical research that has the potential to shed light on practical problems in a disciplined way. Anecdotes and personal experiences are fine, but relying on them runs the really strong risk of relying on information that may be atypical, may be biased by preconceptions that lead us to interpret our personal experiences in line with those preconceptions, and may be confounded by other factors that we don’t account for in drawing conclusions from our experiences. By contrast, good academic research has a large enough sample size to allow drawing conclusions from the data and takes account of (“controls for” in academic jargon) other factors that may affect results, either through using statistical techniques such as regression analysis or through experimental research designs that create random selection and thus aren’t biased by confounding factors. In short, one thing academic research brings to the table is a greater ability to feel some degree of confidence about the conclusions the research presents. (Of course, academic findings can be controversial because scholars dispute about, for example, whether confounding factors were appropriately accounted for, what the direction of causation is – is a happy workforce more productive, or is there some common underlying psychological condition producing both happiness and productivity? – and whether lab results apply to situations, or populations, outside the laboratory.

There are of course theories some scholars produce that are not borne out by reality – the origin of the saw, “this works in theory, but not in practice.” Nonetheless, I would dispute the saw – if the theory doesn’t work in practice, it’s not a good theory, so it doesn’t work in theory. Good theories about reality need, at least as a general matter, to work in reality. It is also true that some scholars are obsessed with questions of little practical significance. But others are obsessed with questions of great practical significance. These scholars embrace the statement of one of the founders of modern social psychology, Kurt Lewin: “There is nothing as practical as a good theory.” Good scholarship has a nice mixture of a theory with practical implications and a rigorous empirical test of the theory. Practitioners should be happy to learn about what such scholars have to say, and this is what I am trying to share in these columns.

Posted on Apr 06, 2012 at 7:27 PM0 comments


One more round of Singapore observations

1) In both Chinese and Indian cultures -- and perhaps elsewhere in Asia, though I’m not sure -- whiter shades of skin are, interestingly, highly valued for women. (For guys, darker skin has a somewhat macho image and thus less of an issue.) It is quite amazing to see the ads on the streets, and in department store windows, everywhere in Singapore for skin lightening treatments, which are available from pretty much all the major international cosmetics brands, from Lancome to Estee Lauder to the Japanese Shiseido. I even saw an ad for some contest being promoted by a big local department store chain among the different whitening products about which produces the greatest whitening effect – “may the fairest win” the contest announces.

2) Another interesting feature of Singaporean society (and again of a number of other Asian countries) is the increasing use of full-time household help – without circumlocution called “maids” – among professional and managerial families. This has spread rapidly in recent decades with the growth in wealth. “Thirty years ago,” reads a recent article in The Straits Times, “unless your family had a street named after an ancestor, few Singaporeans had servants.” Today it is one in six households. Most of the maids come from the poorer countries of the region, such as The Philippines and Indonesia. The government recently issued a regulation requiring that these maids, most of whom currently are on call seven days a week, be granted a day off (or extra pay for working seven days).

This produced a big discussion in the media, with voices pro and con. The maids are brought in on visas that do not allow them to become permanent residents or citizens of Singapore. Incidentally, just yesterday [March 28] a Hong Kong court ruled that a provision in Hong Kong law that does not allow foreign maids to become permanent residents after seven years residency (unlike other foreign workers who live in Hong Kong for seven years) was legal. A recent survey of Singaporean maids, however, showed that they put having a day off as only seventh of 10 listed priorities – the highest was getting the opportunity to attend training classes in English, cooking, or hairdressing.

3) Actually, close to one-third of Singapore residents are foreigners, mostly unskilled workers on limited-term contracts, along with foreigners with more-skilled jobs, for whom it is much easier to become a permanent resident. Interestingly, hostility to foreign unskilled workers was a big issue in the May 2011 elections, where the government had its poorest electoral showing ever – though, in general, multi-ethnic Singapore, with its mix of Chinese, Malays, and Indians, shows an amazing level of intergroup harmony. The country has strict laws against publishing racial slurs, and there have been two stories in the last week in the media about young people punished for racially insensitive Facebook posts. There was also a fascinating story recently about Korean university grads seeking to get skilled jobs in Singapore – as a way to improve  their English-language skills.

4) US universities maintain their great allure in Asia, and many US universities, often ones that are virtually unknown at home, actively recruit here. Recently an organization called Linden International Recruitment Tours co-sponsored with the US Embassy a “U.S. University Fair,” where Singaporeans could meet with representatives from Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Vermont, and the University of Minnesota – but also from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Hult International Business School, and Savannah College of Art and Design.

Posted on Mar 29, 2012 at 7:27 PM2 comments


One professor's adventures in the Singapore food scene

Some observations on the food scene in Singapore:

1) Singapore is of course the original home of “street food,” based in so-called “hawker centers” that are everywhere around the city. (I knew that “street food” had arrived when I was in Stockholm last year and saw a restaurant called “Singapore” in a fancy location downtown, with a sign indicating they served “street food.”) Hawkers have been around for a long time in Singapore, but they underwent an official rebirth into so-called “hawker centers” when the government set aside space, at low rent, in the government-owned housing developments that dominate the city, for hawkers in just about every residential community on the island. These serve low-priced (usually $6 or less) meals of various kinds of noodles, dumplings, soups, satays, etc. The government’s involvement in this, and the effort to channel chaos into some kind of order (though the hawker centers are pretty lively and even boisterous) is very typically Singaporean.

2) A kind person at a Harvard Club of Singapore dinner gave me some good advice – which I hadn’t known before, and which blog readers who interact with Chinese people in an eating setting may find useful – about chopstick etiquette. I was holding chopsticks in my hand and, in-between using them to take some food, gesticulating (mildly) with that hand. This turns out to be impolite. You should not move your chopsticks around with your hands or point with them. Put them down while you are gesticulating or don’t gesticulate.

3) The version of Chinese food served in Singapore restaurants has adapted to Western ways in one important respect – the frequent presence, at least in Chinese restaurants serving a lot of Western customers, of a Western-style dessert course. Traditional Chinese cuisine doesn’t really include dessert, although fruit is typically served at the end of a meal. Chinese people don’t make the same distinction Westerners do between sweet dishes and other foods. People who have eaten in a dim sum restaurant in an American Chinatown may have noticed that Chinese customers order, for example, dumplings with sweet bean taste as just another course of their meal, eaten in between spinach with garlic and spicy pork wontons. There does not seem to be a Chinese equivalent of every mother’s American phrase, “No dessert before you’ve finished your dinner.” However, in many Singapore Chinese restaurants, there is a mouth-watering page of desserts, generally pancakes or dumplings filled with different kinds of sweet pastes or sweetened dried fruits.

4) American fast food is big in Singapore, which boasts some chains – such as California Pizza Kitchen, Dunkin Donuts, and Popeye’s – not seen that much elsewhere in Asia. Starbucks outlets are everywhere, some of them open around the clock. However, the menu balance is very different from the US. Not surprisingly given the tropical climate, there is a big emphasis on cold drinks. However, even the hot coffee offerings have a different emphasis. Starbucks standard US offerings are reduced to a one pathetic line on the menu called “café Americano,” under a hot coffee section of the menu called “expressos.”

Posted on Mar 27, 2012 at 7:27 PM1 comments


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