Kelman: The face-to-face experience

Employees who can put a face to their customers far outperform those who never met one.

I recently attended the annual meeting of the Academy of Management, an association of university-based academics who study organizations. About 8,000 management professors from around the world attended the meeting to hear experts present the latest scholarly research on a variety of management-related issues.

The vast majority of Academy of Management members teach at business schools, and their work pertains to organizations or business firms. The academy’s leaders are starting to realize that the largest U.S. organizations — government agencies — receive little of their attention.

So the theme of this year’s conference was “Knowledge, Action and the Public Concern.” The organization’s keynote practitioner executive — usually a corporate honcho — was Joel Klein, chancellor of New York City public schools, who spoke about management reform in public education.

At various sessions, I heard a good deal of research that is highly relevant to thinking about government management. Perhaps the most interesting was an experiment conducted by Adam Grant, a newly minted Ph.D. at the University of Michigan Business School.

Grant studied a group of paid fund-raisers who solicit money via telephone for a university. The money mostly supports undergraduate scholarships. A randomly selected subset of the fund-raisers had an opportunity to meet an undergraduate student whose education the donations had funded.

That meeting lasted only five minutes, during which time the fund-raiser was free to ask questions to get to know the student. After the student left, the supervisor told the fund-raiser, “Remember this when you’re on the phone. This is someone you’re supporting.”

Results of this modest intervention were remarkable. One month later, average funds raised by callers who had had an interaction with a scholarship recipient increased almost 300 percent, while funds raised by the control group without the intervention were unchanged. Simply receiving letters from student beneficiaries, absent a personal meeting, did not affect the fund-raisers’ success.

After his presentation, I told Grant that his experiment reminded me of something Ed Elgart, the dynamic procurement chief at the Army’s Communications-Electronics Command, told me about a way he motivates employees. Once a year, he invites them and their families to a dinner, and they hear from soldiers who use equipment that the contracting people buy.

Elgart intuitively recognized the power of the approach Grant had demonstrated in a controlled experiment.

Grant’s experiment obviously has enormous implications for improving government performance. Government may not be able to offer big bucks, but it can offer lots of people who benefit from employees’ efforts. Managers need to find a way for their employees to meet some of those people.

In my next column, I’ll discuss other research I heard at the Academy of Management that government managers should know about.

Meanwhile, I hereby publicly announce that I hope we can persuade Grant to escape the clutches of business school and devote his career to helping the public sector perform better.

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

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