No business is perfect. From top-down management to lopsided raises, maintaining a successful business strategy comes with many challenges. The “perfect” organization might seem like a fairytale, but can it be a reality?
In-Sue Oh, Charles E. Beury Professor of human resource management at the Fox School, found a recipe for a just-right workplace environment.
Oh bases his research on the concept of a High-Performance Work System (HPWS). He describes this as “a configuration of coherent practices designed to enhance employees’ ability, motivation and participation.” The alignment of the three, the theory argues, promotes a productive and efficient workplace.
What Oh discovered is the connection between the HPWS and a company’s entry mode, or how quickly—or not so quickly—a business advances on new ideas. The three different modes are first-mover, fence-sitter and fast follower. Of these three, Oh found that companies who are fast followers have the most success when implementing the qualities of an HPWS.
“By taking a more incremental approach to knowledge development, fast followers reverse engineer first-movers’ new products, survey their new customers and assimilate their technical and market knowledge to develop superior imitative products,” explains Oh.
Even though many first-movers are, as the name implies, the first to take the lead on a new avenue, fast followers are typically the ones that end up on top by analyzing how the new branch of a particular industry works.
“For example, although it is now the most widely used online search engine, Google was not the first online search engine. Yahoo! and Infoseek were available before Google,” says Oh. “However, Google, as a fast follower, was able to quickly reverse engineer the first-movers’ search engines and make theirs function more efficiently.”
Oh found that when a business adopts a fast follower format, it also needs to carefully align the ability, motivation and participation components of its HPWS. His 2019 co-authored paper “The Goldilocks Effect of Strategic Human Resource Management?” is published in the Academy of Management Journal.
“An internally aligned HPWS can ensure that employees are capable, motivated and empowered at the same time by implementing various human resource practices in a consistent manner. Otherwise, their efforts will have little impact on the attainment of organizational goals,” says Oh. “It is similar to working hard but in the wrong direction or being empowered without having sufficient job-relevant skills.”
With a fast follower method, not only are employees kept motivated and excited, but the business is making great strides towards its defined goals. In the first-mover or fence-sitter businesses, however, employees can end up feeling stuck or unaccomplished.
Oh explained that he found an analogy between his research and the Brothers Grimm story of the Three Bears. In the fairytale, Goldilocks chooses the bowl of porridge that is ‘not too hot, not too cold, but just right.’
“The main finding of our study is similar: the effectiveness of an HPWS is most positive when a firm adopts a moderate level of product innovation strategy,” Oh says. “The market entry timing mode of a fast follower is not too risky like the first-mover, but not too conservative like the fence-sitter.” Oh advises that, for the maximum effectiveness of an HPWS, HR departments implement all three components in an internally consistent manner—that is, employees are capable, motivated and empowered at the same time.
“Perfect” might be an impossibility. But with Oh’s research, managers can find a smart balance between innovation and investment in human resource management tactics and business strategy. By capturing the excitement of first-movers and the accomplishments of fence-sitters, fast followers can foster a high-performing work system that is just right.