Assistant Professor of Management
Pop quiz: Which employee is going to work harder, and smarter, for a company? A) One who’s treated like a member of a team or B) One who’s treated like a piece of office equipment?
If the answer seems obvious, you’re seeing exactly what Jake Messersmith hopes his research can show business owners and managers – a good place to start building the bottom line is by building up employees.
“A company is not just some abstract entity, it’s a collection of people,” Messersmith said. In numerous studies over the past few years, Messersmith has explored the complex relationships between human resource management and business outcomes. His published articles quantify those relationships, showing with hard data that how people are treated in the workplace really does matter.
An assistant professor of management since 2010, Messersmith’s publications include seven articles in the last two years. A 2011 article, titled “Managing Human Resources to Achieve New Firm Growth: A Stewardship Perspective,” was honored by the Stevens Institute of Technology with an award for excellence in research. Two of his articles have appeared in the Journal of Applied Psychology, including a study on pay dispersion that was also selected for the Academy of Management annual proceedings.
In 2011, Messersmith’s work earned him a Faculty Research Award for Untenured Faculty from the College of Business and Technology.
The majority of Messersmith’s work looks at high performance work systems, which are a type of human resource management. These systems include strategies such as incentive-based compensation, detailed training opportunities, and programs for employee recruitment and retention. He said corporate America has focused on high performance work systems since the mid-1990s. The idea is that by helping employees succeed, the business succeeds.
His interest in human resource management grew from the nearly two years he spent as an analyst at Accenture in Overland Park, Kan. Accenture is a consulting firm, working with client companies to address problems within their organizations or improve on company strengths. Working on a variety of projects, and observing a variety of management styles, made him curious about what gives some firms an edge over others.
“I grew interested in how organizations function, and how they don’t function,” he said.
He further refined his focus when he realized how little research had been done into entrepreneurial, or new, firms. Most studies have traditionally focused on larger, established companies.
“The young, growth-oriented firm is really the engine of growth for the economy,” Messersmith said, responsible for creating many new jobs. Concern over the recent economic recession has sparked increased interest in entrepreneurs among policy-makers and academics alike, while today’s fast-paced technology and global marketplace makes it easier than ever before for entrepreneurs to succeed.
“These (new firms) are intriguing to me, because they are the type of businesses that are going to continue to help our country grow,” he said. While many studies had already shown that high-performance work systems benefit established companies, he wanted to find out what affect the systems had on new firms.
Through a survey of technology-oriented new firms, Messersmith was able to show that the affect was similar. From job-specific training to flex-time and telecommuting opportunities, the strategies associated with high performance work systems yielded “higher levels of sales growth, product innovation and organizational innovation.”
After detailing the results in a 2010 article for Human Resources Management, Messersmith looked at the survey data on managerial philosophy. His 2011 article on the “stewardship perspective” shows entrepreneurs that even if they do not have the resources needed to implement high performance work system strategies, they can still increase sales growth and reduce turnover simply by looking at employees as partners, rather than just workers. That philosophy, or “stewardship perspective,” creates many of the same responses among workers as the more formal incentive programs.
The combination of a “stewardship perspective” with the practices of high performance work systems are key, especially for firms with a strong entrepreneurial bent, as Messersmith showed in a 2011 article for the International Small Business Journal. That study looked at companies with an entrepreneurial orientation, or in other words, a corporate philosophy that emphasizes innovation and risk-taking. While an entrepreneurial attitude will not necessarily translate into increased sales, the study showed, firms had a better chance if they managed their human resources well.
Always, the focus of Messersmith’s research is on the human element. He has also used data from a survey of government workers in Wales to study not only how high performance work systems affect workers, but what factors contribute to that affect. In a 2011 article for the Journal of Applied Psychology, Messersmith showed a link between the strategies of high performance work systems and employee attitudes, such as job satisfaction and commitment to the organization. In other words, the article cautions, businesses cannot simply put programs in place and expect to see the results they want. They must pay attention to how employees receive, and perceive, those programs.
In his current research, Messersmith is again looking at the effect of high performance work systems on new firms. What he is interested in now is the balance all firms must strike between exploitation and exploration. That is, how much of the firm’s resources should go toward playing it safe, exploiting growth opportunities, and how much should be risked in exploring innovations?
Messersmith is working with data collected from Midwestern high-tech companies, and said he is seeing a strong link between ambidexterity and the use of high-performance work systems.
He is also working on a follow-up to his study on entrepreneurial orientation, looking up the same firms he surveyed four years ago. He wants to see how many have survived, and whether their approach to human resource management had any affect on the outcome.
It is not a new approach to management that Messersmith’s research advocates. What the data show over and over again, he said, supports what successful companies and successful managers already know – policies work best when they encourage workers rather than punish them, support workers rather than constrain them.
Through his research, Dr. Messersmith provides managers and business owners with hard evidence that what is good for employees is very good for business.
“It is common sense, for the most part,” he said “It’s just not commonly applied.”