Thursday, 24 May 2012

“Can’t Believe It” (we deny research findings that defy our beliefs)

So, I have been running a little experiment on twitter. Oh well, it doesn’t really deserve the term “experiment” – at least in an academic vocabulary – because there certainly are no treatment effects or control groups. It does deserve the term “little” though, because there are only four observations.

My experiment was to post a few recent findings from academic research that some might find mildly controversial or – as it turns out – offending. These four hair raising findings were 1) selling junk food in schools does not lead to increased obesity, 2) family-friendly workplace practices do not improve firm performance (although they do not decrease them either), 3) girls take longer to heal from concussions, 4) firms headed up by CEOs with broader faces show higher profitability.

Only mildly controversial I’d say, and only to some. I was just curious to see what reactions it would trigger. Because I have noticed in the past that people seem inclined to dismiss academic evidence if they don’t like the results. If the results are in line with their own beliefs and preconceptions, its methods and validity are much less likely to be called stupid.  

Selling junk food in schools does not lead to increased obesity is the finding of a very careful study by professors Jennifer Van Hook and Claire Altman. It provides strong evidence that selling junk food in schools does not lead to more fat kids. One can then speculate why this is – and their explanation that children’s food patterns and dietary preferences get established well before adolescence may be a plausible one – but you can’t deny their facts. Yet, it did lead to “clever” reactions such as “says more about academic research than junk food, I fear...”, by people who clearly hadn’t actually read the study.

Family-friendly workplace practices do not improve firm performance is another finding that is not welcomed by all. This large and competent study, by professors Nick Bloom, Toby Kretschmer and John van Reenen, was actually read by some, be it clearly without a proper understanding of its methodology (which, indeed, it being an academic paper, is hard to fully appreciate without proper research methodology training). It led to reactions that the study was “in fact, wrong”, made “no sense”, or even that it really showed the opposite; these silly professors just didn’t realise it.

Girls take longer to heal from concussions is the empirical fact established by Professor Tracey Covassin and colleagues.. Of course there is no denying that girls and boys are physiologically different (one cursory look at my sister in the bathtub already taught me that at an early age), but the aforementioned finding still led to swift denials such as “speculation”!

That firms headed up by CEOs with broader faces achieve higher profitability – a careful (and, in my view, quite intriguing) empirical find by my colleague Margaret Ormiston and colleagues – triggered reactions such as “sometimes a study tells you more about the interests of the researcher, than about the object of the study” and “total nonsense”. 

So I have to conclude from my little (academically invalid) mini-experiment that some people are inclined to dismiss results from research if they do not like them – and even without reading the research or without the skills to properly understand it. In contrast, other, nicer findings that I had posted in the past, which people did want to believe, never led to outcries of bad methodology and mentally retarded academics and, in fact, were often eagerly retweeted.

We all look for confirmation of our pre-existing beliefs and don’t like it much if these comfortable convictions are challenged. I have little doubt that this also heavily influences the type of research that companies conduct, condone, publish and pay attention to. Even if the findings are nicer than we preconceived (e.g. the availability of junk food does not make kids consume more of it), we prefer to stick to our old beliefs. And I guess that’s simply human; people’s convictions don’t change easily.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Let’s face it: in most industries, firms pretty much do the same thing

In the field of strategy, we always make a big thing out of differentiation: we tell firms that they have to do something different in the market place, and offer customers a unique value proposition. Ideas around product differentiation, value innovation, and whole Blue Oceans are devoted to it. But we also can’t deny that in many industries – if not most industries – firms more or less do the same thing.

Whether you take supermarkets, investment banks, airlines, or auditors, what you get as a customer is highly similar across firms.

1. Ability to execute: What may be the case, is that despite doing pretty much the same thing, following the same strategy, there can be substantial differences between the firms in terms of their profitability. The reason can lie in execution: some firms have obtained capabilities that enable them to implement and hence profit from the strategy better than others. For example, Sainsbury’s supermarkets really aren’t all that different from Tesco’s, offering the same products at pretty much the same price in pretty much the same shape and fashion in highly identical shops with similarly tempting routes and a till at the end. But for many years, Tesco had a superior ability to organise the logistics and processes behind their supermarkets, raking up substantially higher profits in the process.

2. Shake-out: As a consequence of such capability differences – although it can be a surprisingly slow process – due to their homogeneous goods, we may see firms start to compete on price, margins decline to zero, and the least efficient firms are pushed out of the market. And one can hear a sigh of relief amongst economists: “our theory works” (not that we particularly care about the world of practice, let alone be inclined to adapt our theory to it, but it is more comforting this way).

3. A surprisingly common anomaly? But it also can’t be denied that there are industries in which firms offer pretty much the same thing, have highly similar capabilities, are not any different in their execution, and still maintain ridiculously high margins for a sustained period of time. And why is that? For example, as a customer, when you hire one of the Big Four accounting firms (PwC, Ernst & Young, KPMG, Deloitte), you really get the same stuff. They are organised pretty much the same way, they have the same type of people and cultures, and have highly similar processes in place. Yet, they also (still) make buckets of money, repeatedly turning and churning their partners into millionaires.

“But such markets shouldn’t exist!” we might cry out in despair. But they do. Even the Big Four themselves will admit – be it only in covert private conversations carefully shielding their mouths with their hands – that they are really not that different. And quite a few industries are like that. Is it a conspiracy, illegal collusion, or a business X file?

None of the above I am sure, or perhaps a bit of all of them… For one, industry norms seem to play a big role in much of it: unwritten (sometimes even unconscious), collective moral codes, sometimes even crossing the globe, in terms of how to behave and what to do when you want to be in this profession. Which includes the minimum price to charge for a surprisingly undifferentiated service.