How Bell Labs Creates Star Performers
Every organization has both star performers as well as average performers. An organization that is pleased with average results tends to be satisfied with average performers. Nevertheless, an organization that expects excellent achievements always cultivates star performers. Many studies apparently have demonstrated that star performers do not necessarily have higher cognitive or technical intelligence in comparison to their counterparts. In fact, star performers are differentiated from average performers through their emotional intelligence (EI) levels. According to the case, organizations develop star performers through transforming how professionals work rather that the installation of new equipments such as computers. Such strategies enable companies to leverage their employees’ intellectual capital. Managers in this case claim that top performers have higher intellectual quotient (IQs) in that they are competent in solving problems while also being guided by a gigantic will to win yet average performers are deficient of the natural traits essential such tasks.
However, empirical investigations indicate that there is no variance between the internal abilities of average and star performers. In reality, their differences are based on the strategic manner in which top performers conduct their jobs. Although it is impossible for an individual to be hired by Bell Labs without having a high reasoning abilities and technical competence, such cognitive skills are not a guarantee for being a successful or a start performer (Caplan & Kelley, 1993). Rather, star performance is determined by the particular work strategies employed by the employees including being initiative as well as networking. Organizations that encourage such strategies help their individual professionals to improve their performance and pass such benefits to their co-workers. In this case, Bell Labs managers discovered that hiring the brightest and most competent computer scientists and engineers was not sufficient. Moreover, academic talent cannot be considered a proper determinant of employees’ productivity in their jobs. At Bell Labs, individual productivity was based on a professional’s ability in channeling his creativity, insight and expertise towards working with other professionals. Furthermore, this applied even among the smartest or best knowledge workers. High productivity of employees, therefore, is based on an individual’s style of work and motivation. For this reason, training programs in organizations should aim to help workers or professionals discover weaknesses and strengths within their individual working styles.
Organizational managers should similarly work towards enabling employees develop better strategies for mental information storage and establishing priorities. Further, it is essential to note that worker motivation is also an essential component in boosting an employee’s productivity or in creating star performers. Workers that lack motivation to improve cannot benefit even from a training program aimed at boosting their performance. Some employees may be de-motivated by the feeling that their excellent ideas and productivity are not adequately rewarded. An organization that has resentful and unproductive employees therefore should work towards addressing organizational issues, which may help in boosting motivation among their employees. Such may include revising their staff rewarding system and addressing employees’ needs individually. In our case, the majority of Bell Labs engineers demonstrated great eagerness to receive tips for improving their productivity through the training program (Caplan & Kelley, 1993). The individuals were aware that their success would be determined by high level of performance. Through the training, however, they would receive essential tips for boosting their performance since the training stressed on developing their personal work strategies that consequently resulted in improved individual productivity. In this case, senior managers in organizations should always focus on people (human resources) when addressing productivity improvement regardless of the profession or area of expertise.
Building Star Performers in Organizations
Most organizations categorize their employees into three groups comprising of star, moderate and substandard performers. In the Bell Lab case, the computer programmers demonstrated that star performers performed well in comparison to average or moderate performers by a ratio of eight is to one (Caplan & Kelley, 1993). To develop more star performers, an organization should devote in developing the employees. Furthermore, it is critical to note that the difference between a moderate and star performer is rarely based on internal abilities. Citing from the Bell Lab case, it is evident that no single employee would be hired without being smart, yet a considerable number of the professionals ended up with average performances. The variation in the performance levels was discovered to lie on the approach each employee used in his/her job.
Engineers at Bell Labs worked in teams just as is the case in many other leading corporations (Caplan & Kelley, 1993). Moreover, no single person is competent in all knowledge, insight or background essential in completing a complex project. Within such an environment, an individual’s effectiveness has less to do with his/her individual knowledge and more to do with the ability in sharing knowledge as well as expertise with the other team members. Additionally, it involves more of the ability in absorbing and applying the expertise and knowledge of other people. For this reason, having the expertise and knowledge is not sufficient but rather, how they are used or applied. Work place star performers similarly should know where to obtain support, expertise and cooperation required in carrying out their tasks or jobs. Indeed, they should recognize the appropriate locations within which their expertise and knowledge could bear team results. Based on this assessment, this discussion will focus on how organizations can develop star performers to increase the employees’ productivity while also improving the companies’ bottom line. The assessment will be based on Bell Labs case findings, identifying the work strategies, which characterize star performers.
All the strategies identified in the case can be instilled into employees or workers via an effective training system or program. Such programs are critical in developing employees to become better performers and increase their productivity subsequently. The strategies identified essential for building star performers included taking initiative, networking, teamwork effectiveness, self-management, followership, perspective, leadership, show-and-tell and finally organizational savvy (Caplan & Kelley, 1993).
Strategies for Building Star Performers
In this strategy, an employee becomes a star performer by accepting responsibility beyond the stipulated job. Such an individual volunteers for additional tasks or activities not stated in the job description while also promoting new ideas. Such a person accepts roles beyond the individual responsibilities and duties. Star performers tend to be extremely result-oriented. Such traits make them increasingly respectable and valuable persons in their companies. Consistently, star performers are usually ready for higher authority positions and roles in future thereby becoming highly indispensable. At Bell Labs, engineers must have the ability of taking initiative immediately after joining the company (Caplan & Kelley, 1993). In this company, the strategy is considered critical especially because a technical environment is very competitive such that an employee cannot survive otherwise. Nevertheless, this strategy is considered increasingly elusive such that it cannot be quantified. Organizations that aspire to boost the productivity of their workers for star performances must prioritize the ‘taking initiative’ strategy. For effective results, the organizational managers should ensure the strategy is well detailed in relation to what it entails such as the expected behaviors and actions from the workers.
Networking requires employees to have immediate and direct access to their colleagues that have technical expertise in a certain area while also sharing own knowledge with the people in need of it. In this strategy, employees respect the value of the co-workers and superiors. The individuals utilize this value in the best way possible to increase their productivity level. Star performers, thus, develop a habit of creating and sustaining networks of high quality relationships in their job. Consequently, such individuals at the end accomplish more than their counterparts (Caplan & Kelley, 1993).
Through this strategy, employees are able to regulate their own work commitments, performance levels, time and career growth. Star performers tend to develop an entrepreneurial mentality in that they become increasingly self-responsible, highly independent and self-starters. Rather than waiting to be directed by organizational managers or waiting things to happen, star performers make things happen because they are self-driven individuals. In fact, they manage their own lives at the workplace and consider themselves self-employed. The individuals constantly make efforts in maneuvering through hardships through complying with a company’s work ethics, performance levels, time management and career growth (Caplan & Kelley, 1993).
Star performers through this strategy assume joint roles in relation to coordinating efforts, work activities and achieving shared goals with co-workers. When people or employees work collaboratively by assuming a joint responsibility through working in groups/teams, work and tasks are completed in a satisfying manner. This involves coordinating efforts and achieving shared goals with the other people within the company. Star performances involve relationships such that all of an employee’s great achievements go hand-in-hand with great relationships with suitable people thereby developing symbiotic relationships by helping one another. For this reason, star performers in efforts to be the best relate with other people that have the intellect and willingness to always perform their best (Caplan & Kelley, 1993).
The strategy involves formulating, stating and developing a consensus in regards to common goals while also working towards their accomplishment. Star performers are also leaders besides being self-managers. In addition to providing direction during tough times to his/her followers, the individual similarly devotes in preparing and developing future leaders. Star performers similarly understand clearly that each organizational activity undertaken does not always culminate into success or accomplishment (Caplan & Kelley, 1993).
Star performers are self-determined to take the lead and be the best in everything regardless of the situation. For this reason, the pursuit for excellence is unique and deep in whichever field they are placed (Caplan & Kelley, 1993). The individuals work wholeheartedly for excellence in all tasks entrusted to them while also developing any of their identified skill. Since such persons work ceaselessly in daily basis, the commitment ultimately makes them star performers.
In this strategy, star performers consider their assignments in a larger context while also taking a wider viewpoint of a manager, customer and work team. In this case, the individuals tend to relate their roles with the overall organizational mission. A comparison between star and average performers illustrates that the former exhibit total control of tasks through training or learning every detail essential in completing a given assignment in a better way than their counterparts. Consequently, this earns the individuals excellent rewards due to excellent performances (Caplan & Kelley, 1993).
This is a strategy where employees are required to carry out a presentation of their ideas persuasively in an oral or written form. Star performers present their ideas excellently because they believe in knowledge sharing rather than knowledge storage. Indeed, their clarity of action, thoughts and deliverables are remarkable. Such individuals often seem to do all things in the right way whenever they are doing their presentations. Star performers are reputable individuals in matters of dependability and speed, always presenting a sense of urgency (Caplan & Kelley, 1993).
Star performers employ this strategy to steer through competing organizational interests in promoting cooperation, addressing conflicts and completing tasks. Through this strategy, star performers have great abilities in navigating through uncertainties extremely well through overcoming and tackling all barriers they encounter on their way towards excellence. The individuals have exceptional abilities that allow them to adjust appropriately in any situation since their focus is primary on performance in comparison to average performers that concentrate on impressing the management (Caplan & Kelley, 1993). Star performers believe in strategy development, strategy description and strategy execution to acquire the expected outcomes for a company. For this reason, the individuals employ their expertise, insight and creativity in working with other experts and professionals.
Star Performers at Bell Labs
Although both star and average performers held similar perceptions regarding the strategies that can make them perform excellently, they differed in matters of ranking the strategies and in describing the strategies. For instance, star performers rated taking initiative, technical abilities plus other cognitive abilities as key competencies while organizational savvy and show-and-tell were ranked low on matters of importance (Caplan & Kelley, 1993). On the contrary, average performers ranked organizational savvy and show-and-tell at the middle. In addition, star performers stressed more on performers while middle performers stressed on impressing the managers. The two groups of performers also described initiative differently. For example, one of the average performers described taking initiative as organizing and gathering materials like software tools and documents to facilitate a project they were starting with his team.
A different average performer described this strategy as writing a memorandum to the seniors concerning a software bug. However, star performers considered such as routine activities and that initiative involved more than what average performers described. In matters of networking, there were substantial differences between star and average performers. Average performers demonstrated that they considered networking essential only after facing an obstacle, when they would seek the assistance of another person. On the other hand star performers developed networks of supporters in advance so that they could contact such persons immediately when required. Some average performers similarly lacked perspective. The individuals understood the roles of their particular jobs yet they could not link such roles to the company’s overall mission. Moreover, they lacked skills in relating with the views of managers, customers or their team members (Caplan & Kelley, 1993).
Based on this analysis, it can be concluded that individual productivity is based on an individual’s ability in channeling his/her creativity, expertise and insight in collaboratively working with fellow professionals. An excellent organizational training program would help in cultivating star performance because it will stress on proper employee behavior and mechanical skills. Furthermore, star performers develop from training or educational programs that tailor towards the individual job and individual company (Caplan & Kelley, 1993). Most modern organizations tend to be satisfied with training programs offering expertise and knowledge while overlooking training processes that teach employees on applying what they learn. Organizations should know that they can teach people to carry out mechanical tasks associated with their business but they cannot train employees to pursue excellence. Companies can transform this attitude through constant efforts, which are appealing to organizational spirit and the individual’s self interest.
According to the Bell Lab case, modern companies must keep developing new services and products to meet the consistently changing consumer needs (Caplan & Kelley, 1993). However, maintaining this competitive pace requires organizational managers to enhance the efficiency/productivity of their knowledge experts or professionals, which is one key way of developing star performers. Staff development (SD), therefore, involves the programs and activities that enable employees learn concerning their roles and develop the needed skills as well as the necessary competencies to accomplish organizational goals and purposes. Such initiatives also allow employees to personally grow and be professionally prepared for advancement. SD practices play a dual purpose considering that they involve the development of both the organization and the individual employees. Successful staff development requires both goals to be attained in that the two must support each other (mutually supportive).
Organizations committed towards SD must be creative and flexible when developing SD plans. Such plans have to be active, potent and intentional such that a plan intended for individual growth needs to reflect the prevailing professional and personal status in relation to attributes required to conduct the assigned duties (Yoon et al, 2001). Similarly, there is need to have a plan intended for organizational improvement. In this case, the plan should incorporate both the organizational and individual needs. Staff development primarily aims at improving organizational and staff effectiveness. The process influences the interpretations of relationships with co-workers, job requirements and perspectives linked to training methods. SD takes place within a social environment and stresses on teamwork that is built upon a collaboration platform. Staff development involves a continuous process that is anchored on daily tasks to make it visible across all personnel functions. Nevertheless, SD must recognize the differences in growth and maturity of individuals because some employees could be long-serving employees while others could be starting their professional careers.
Staff development, therefore, involves a process of increasing and improving staff capabilities through enabling the individuals to access training and educational opportunities at the workplace. This is done through activities organized externally or by observing other people perform the job. Such development help in building and maintaining staff morale and attracts highly competent staffs into an organization. SD should further support employees’ creativity, which promotes innovation. Bell Labs was failing in this respect in that managers tended to overlook employees that developed new ideas or that helped co-workers solve certain critical problems when rating star performers (Caplan & Kelley, 1993). Such actions can reduce the employees’ morale and motivation while also degrading their innovative capabilities.
Staff development should incorporate an official orientation program, maintenance of expertise or professional skills, career development, coaching and personal development. The practice is highly beneficial in diverse ways. SD is advantageous because it promotes staff morale and increases employee retention. This is because an organizational cultural practice that promotes learning while also fostering education builds a positive, committed and motivated workforce. Furthermore, employees develop loyalty towards certain organizational practices because they feel the organization cares about their needs. SD similarly fosters organizational efficiency and job competency. Workers that have attained job-specific training tend to be more confident and productive in their work due to a continuous training practice. Further, staff development helps in boosting consumer satisfaction because it promotes a positive attitude, efficiency and improved employee skills (Yoon et al, 2001).
Free Revealing of Innovations by Some Innovators
Innovators have three key options in regards to their innovations, which can enable them reap diverse profits. Innovators can license the innovations to others, they can keep the innovation as a secret, generate a profit from the innovation through in-house use or the innovators can opt to freely reveal the innovation to other interested parties. When an innovator reveals the proprietary information freely it implies that the potential and existing IP rights associated with that information is voluntarily provided by the innovator for access for all interests parties such that the information turns into a public good (Hippel, 2005). Therefore, free information revealing by an innovator involves giving access to all interested parties without imposing ant direct payment. Processes, services and products developed by users normally become more useful to society once they diffuse to other people, who can similarly benefit from their application. Without the diffusion of such innovations, many users with similar needs are forced to invest into developing similar innovations. From a social perspective, this is poor utilization of resources.
However, many studies have shown that modified and new products developed often diffuse broadly. User innovators may voluntarily and openly reveal their developed innovations to enable others examine, modify and imitate with no payments made to innovators. When innovators freely reveal innovations, it implies that all the intellectual property (IP) rights associated with that innovation (e.g. proprietary information) is voluntarily availed by an innovator (Hippel, 2002). Consequently, all interested parties get equal access to the information thereby making it a public good. For instance, placing non-patented information within a site that is publicly accessible like a public website or a journal comprises free revealing. Free revealing does not imply that recipients essentially use obtain and use the revealed innovation/information for free. Recipients may, for instance, be required to provide a subscription fee to access information in a journal or cater for a visit to access information freely revealed in an innovation site. In other cases, people may be required to have other assets or complementary information to facilitate full understanding of the information revealed or to utilize it. Nonetheless, if an innovator or information owner does not generate any profit from the adopters the information is still considered freely revealed. Moreover, the economic effect in both situations is the same.
Free revealing can have diverse advantages on an innovator or a firm. Free revealing increases the reputation of a company and the managers, which helps in offsetting the operational profits reduction resulting from free revealing. The innovation is similarly specific to an innovator such that free-riders cannot benefit equally with the innovator. Similarly, the increased asset value due to the production or use of the innovation extends beyond losses linked with free revealing. Free revealing is also advantageous because so many people may have known the information before hand such that keeping it secret would add no value. Further, free revealing can boost the gains of an innovator through enlarging the innovated product’s overall market. The Bell Labs case also indicated the power of sharing information or expertise among professionals (Caplan & Kelley, 1993). The case indicated that no single engineer would have all the expertise/knowledge needed in completing his/her job.
An individual’s productivity in this company, therefore, depended on the ability of the professional to direct the individual expertise, insight and creativity in working with other professionals. This demonstrates the importance of free revealing that promotes collaboration in innovation for a professional/employee to become a star performer. Moreover, the collaboration allows the individual to develop further in his/her profession and boost individual productivity level. However, free revealing can similarly be disadvantageous. For instance, firms that use equipment can benefit from innovation revealing to equipment manufacturers. Nonetheless, this will make the firm to lose a comparative advantage, a loss that can extend beyond the offset the extra production cost reduced following the use of the new equipment. Free revealing can also make innovators to suffer losses due to the opportunity costs linked to failing to sell or license the innovation in addition to any other benefit generated by competitors free-riding on the innovation. In other words, the innovator loses a considerable level of competitive advantage (Hippel, 2005).
Voluntary and free revealing of innovations largely differs from some innovators efforts to safeguard/protect their innovations. Economists have for a long period considered this as the rational action to take, economically. Innovators seeking to safeguard their innovations, which they have established as their IP must develop some form of monopoly control on the innovation-based information. Practically, this can be carried out through efficiently hiding the information/innovation in the form of a ‘trade secret’ or through acquiring a proper legal protection by copyrights or patents. However, other people must not know the substitute information skirting such protections and willing to reveal. A particular innovator’s ability in protecting their innovation in the form of proprietary property will thus be based on all people holding such information and the decision of one having less to lose through freely revealing the information. If a single person holding the information or more expects to lose nothing or benefit from deciding to freely reveal the information, the secret then will possibly be revealed in spite of the efforts by other innovators to avoid the fate (Hippel, 2002).
Mostly, individuals and firms have information that could be useful to others seeking to imitate or copy a specific innovation. Primarily, this is because imitators and innovators rarely need access to particular versions of innovations. For example, engineers rarely wish to see a particular solution in the exact way it has been designed by competitors. Moreover, specific situations vary even amongst close market rivals such that solutions have to be adapted to the precise circumstances or each adopter. An engineer will mainly desire to derive the general outline and principles for possible improvement from the innovations of others and not the re-developed details. For instance, a system developer in a bank maybe tasked with enhancing the internal software used for online checking of customers’ credit. Generally, it may seem that the system developer would gain a lot by examining the system details used by other banks in handling similar tasks (Hippel, 2002). It could be true that the competing banks could be facing similar challenges in the market but could be unwilling to reveal useful innovations developed to tackle the challenges. Nevertheless, the situations faced and solutions held by such institutions cannot be simply imitated. Furthermore, there are multiple non-bank users linked to online systems of credit checking worldwide. Some may have innovations that they are willing to reveal information on the solutions they have used and some of such information could be useful to the system developer. The probability that the information sought by the system developer will freely be revealed by a certain firm or individual is further strengthened because the search will mostly extend beyond the particular application needed (online credit checking).
Therefore, it can be concluded that innovators that reveal their innovations freely generate a considerable number of benefits while also preventing some probable costs. Freely revealing enables innovators improve their innovations further especially due to suggested improvements from the people they share the information with. Free revealing also enables innovators to gain reputation due to new discoveries, sharing and cost-efficiency discoveries. Moreover, safeguarding innovation can be costly since it demands restricted access, enforcement of IP rights and security walls. In this case, preventing other interested parties from viewing or using the innovations can be substantially expensive in comparison to free revealing. However, incentives for freely revealing declines if the involved parties are competitors (Hippel, 2002).
Interpretive Barriers to Successful Product Innovation in Large Firms
Product innovation involves the entire process of generating a new product/service into a market. Some people perceive innovation as a creative generation of an idea or parts of a technological invention (Hippel, 2002). However, all steps of an innovation process require creativity. The majority of organizations can generate a new product successfully on occasional basis. Sustained product innovation triggers major organizational challenges, which cannot be managed through focusing on a single project management. Developing new products that are viable commercially requires market and technological possibilities be connected appropriately within the product’s design. Nevertheless, innovators within large companies tend to have persistent challenges and problems in the linkage process. This study, thus, examined such limitations by stressing on the shared methods (interpretive) people employ to male product innovation successful. For this reason, the empirical investigation analyzed the various interpretive obstacles towards successful innovation of a product in large firms. The investigation aimed to answer the following research question:
- What are the interpretive barriers towards successful product innovation within large firms?
The investigation employed the qualitative method, with interviews as the major data-gathering tool for primary data. The study employed the case study approach, primarily Bell Labs Company in New Jersey, USA. The participants comprised of 10employees (engineers) from this company, selected randomly. The sample comprised of both male and female employees in both the star and average performer categories.
Data Collection Design
The investigator prepared the questionnaires for the interviews, which had 5 open-ended questions each, to enable the respondents respond in detail rather than merely provide the ‘Yes/No’ responses.
After compiling the findings, the following two factors were found to be the key and most common interpretive barriers inhibiting the development of the technology market knowledge within big firms:
- Organizational product routines
- Departmental thought worlds
According to the respondents, the departmental thought worlds hinder innovators in synthesizing their expertise or knowledge. On the other hand, organizational routines were cited to worsen challenges or limitations associated with learning, which is increasingly critical in product innovation.
The findings imply that improving or enhancing innovation within big companies/firms requires the organizations to clearly tackle the interpretive barriers discovered in this study.
Caplan, J., & Kelley, R. (1993). How Bell Labs Creates Star Performers. Harvard Business Review, 1(1):128-139.
Hippel, E. (2002). Open Source Projects as Horizontal Innovation Networks-By and for Users. Journal of Industrial Economics, 1(1):1-26.
Hippel, E. (2005). Why Users often freely Reveal their Innovations. MIT Press, 1(1):78-91.
Yoon, S., Porter, A., Garet, M., & Birman, B. (2001). What Makes Professional Development Effective? American Educational Research Journal, 38(4):915-945.