The Lectern


Steve Kelman

Lectern

By Steve Kelman

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The devil, the details and contract terms

I promised in my blog earlier this week, the one about research on cooperation among colleagues, to write about another interesting presentation we heard from a candidate for an assistant professor job in management: Eileen Chou of Kellogg Business School at Northwestern.

Chou's presentation -- with the cutesy title "The devil is in the details" -- presents some experiments challenging the common view that contracts with more specific contract terms are better than those with less specific ones. Some of the experiments were done in the lab, and others involved recruiting people for a job on the website mTurk. (The site is usually used to recruit real people for jobs they do at home, and has become an increasingly popular tool for academics who wish to study psychological phenomena.)
 
Chou looks at the effect the specificity of contract terms has on the performance of the person who has signed the contract. The contracts she considers are employment contracts, and she looks at them from the perspective of the employee. In the experiments, she manipulates some of the terms of the contracts to make them more or less specific.

So, for example, in one experiment the two versions are "we will check the responses of 25 percent of the employees" vs. "we might check some employee responses." In another, the alternatives are a group that meets “two days a week (on weekdays)" vs. "a bi-weekly focus group." In a third, participants will speak "for two to three minutes" vs. "for a couple of minutes."
 
What she found is that the less specific contracts increased employee persistence, creativity and organizational commitment compared with the more specific ones. Chou argues that this occurred because the less specific contracts increased employee intrinsic motivation, which research has shown is related to a person's feelings of competence and autonomy. She suggests that lack of detail may be interpreted as a vote of confidence in the employee's competence, and that fewer constraints, and incentives that may not be well specified, promotes a feeling of autonomy.
 
These experiments touch on age-old issues in government contracting and in how to promote good contractor performance. In some sense, these results are more consistent with the "trust/cooperation" view of how to organize contracting than with the "adversarial/monitoring" view.

Of course, it's a real stretch to go from these results to definite conclusions about government contracting. First, it should be noted that all the specific terms involved either inputs or monitoring -- the experiments did not include performance demands ("do your best" vs. "keep the system up and running 99.5 percent of the time"). Second, the experiments looked at effects of specificity on the behavior of individual employees in one-on-one contracts, and it is unclear whether or to what extent these findings would apply to employees if the contract is between a government agency and a service provider.
 
Nonetheless, it is an interesting contribution to debates on government contracting from an unlikely source.

Posted on Jan 20, 2012 at 7:27 PM8 comments


Is cooperation natural?

This is the season for "job talks," a ritual at research-oriented universities where faculty members hear presentations from the best of the newly minted PhDs who have applied for jobs as new assistant professors, and then choose which to hire. The hopefuls discuss their dissertations during these meetings, so in today's blog and on Thursday, I will report on the research of two young scholars applying for jobs at Harvard Business School and at the Harvard Kennedy School.
 
Dave Rand -- whose PhD is in mathematical biology from Harvard, but who is nonetheless on the job market to work on game theory, negotiations, and such -- presented a line of research directed at the question: Is it natural for people to cooperate with others?
 
He did a series of lab experiments involving a kind of cooperation game that is often studied in the lab. The basic structure of the game is that if a person behaves in a cooperative way and the other person in the game cooperates also, then both players gain -- but if you act selfishly and the other person cooperates, you are even better off. That creates an incentive for each party to act selfishly, hoping the other will cooperate, but if both act selfishly, both suffer.
 
What Rand wanted to investigate was the relationship between how quickly people make a decision how to behave and whether they choose to cooperate or to act selfishly. His idea was that if fast decisions are more likely to be cooperative, then cooperation is natural, while if fast decisions are more likely to be selfish, then trying to take advantage of others is natural.
 
Since many people erroneously believe that most social science research simply establishes the obvious, I will say that before I heard the results of the experiments, I didn't have a prediction. Readers may wish to venture a prediction (and think about how confident you are about your prediction) before reading the next paragraph.
 

Ready?   
 

  
OK, so what Rand found was that people who decided faster were more likely to cooperate than those who decided more slowly. He then went on to review records from earlier research by other scholars using this game where decision speed was noted (though not used for research purposes), and found the same thing. He then tried a different method: He randomly divided up the group into three smaller groups, each with different instructions. One group was to decide in fewer than 10 seconds, another in exactly 10 seconds and the third in 10 or more seconds, with no upper limit. He found the same results. This seems like some handy information for somebody managing people -- or indeed for any of us -- to know.
 
So here's the next question:  Will he get the job?  The answer is TBD.

Posted on Jan 17, 2012 at 7:27 PM3 comments


Message to Facebook: Knock off the changes.

Alice Lipowicz has an article at FCW.com about increased privacy risks posed by "Timeline," the new way Facebook is formatting people's Facebook pages.

Timeline is currently available as an option but will be automatic for all Facebook users soon. Apparently, somehow the new Timeline feature will make it easier for people to see your list of other Facebook friends, compared to the current formatting, even if you want to hide your friends to some or all other people.
 
I will confess that I was extremely confused by Alice's explanation and didn't really understand why the new formatting will create these problems. But maybe my confusion illustrates the problem with the new changes -- the second mandatory change in Facebook page formats in just the last year.
 
Facebook has become more and more complicated to use. You need to be careful about all these requests to participate in innocuous applications because signing up for the app means making all your personal information available to the company providing the app. Facebook doesn't exactly go out of its way to inform people of that. Now there is this issue Alice points out that I personally found confusing and nontransparent as well.
 
Second, the Timeline formatting adds changes that are unclear and don't seem to add any value. Somehow, posts and messages are now divided up (in Timeline) to a left and right-hand side of your Facebook page, but the distinction between what goes on each side is unclear. Indeed, I have seen a number of status updates from Facebook friends about this left hand/right hand distinction, urging Facebook friends to go through various hoops so that everything appears on one side of the page or the other.
 
I remember a long time ago -- I am dating myself because this involves land lines -- we introduced some new telephone systems at the Kennedy School, and got an email telling us about a training session for using the new system. I told my assistant, "I don't want a telephone that I need a training session to use." Now, at some point the advantages of a new system are so great that people are ready and willing to train themselves to make use of the new features (think about people self-training to use their new iPhones). But the Facebook changes to me don't fall in that category. Facebook, please just let us enjoy the system, and stop forcing these unnecessary changes on us all the time!
 
A number of the reader comments on Alice's post had the message: "another reason not to participate in Facebook." That reaction is too bad, because I continue to find Facebook a really useful and fun medium. But the Facebook churn is giving change a bad name. This is "flavor of the month" at its worst.

Posted on Jan 12, 2012 at 7:27 PM2 comments


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