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Jamie Lawrence

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Interview: Kristiina Mäkelä, Associate Professor, Aalto University

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Kristiina Mäkelä is an associate professor of International Business at Aalto University. She has published on HRM and knowledge-related topics in a number of international journals and was awarded the European Doctoral Programmes Association in Management and Business Administration (EDAMBA) 2008 prize for the best doctoral dissertation in Europe.

Kristiina’s latest research focused on evaluations of HR departments and how these evaluations differ based on the geographic location of the evaluator.

It compared evaluations made by unit general managers based in the same location as the HR department being evaluated with those made by evaluators based off-site in the corporate HR department.

Evaluations made locally were on average higher, due to several factors.

The first was social pressure created by geographic proximity. Evaluators were inclined to evaluate more positively in the knowledge they would have future interactions with those they were evaluating.

The second was the use of first-hand experience as a metric – this increased the mental space taken up by the subject of the evaluation and made it seem more pertinent, leading to a more positive outcome. This concept is known as ‘share of mind.’

In contrast, the off-site evaluators had to make do with intermittent/infrequent interactions, as opposed to the daily interactions of the on-site evaluators, and this influenced how they evaluated the HR department.

“Evaluators based off-site don’t actually see what’s happening day-to-day, so they build their viewpoint based on what they see in meetings and infrequent communications. This makes them more likely to compare the department’s performance with that of other departments.”

In contrast, the on-site evaluators made judgements after placing the experiences they had in the context of their own past experiences.

“The target of the evaluation is the same, but they aren’t evaluating the same thing. The local evaluator is making judgements on experience while the off-site evaluator is making comparative judgements based on communicated information. They expect – and see – different things.”

What can we take from this research? Because on-site evaluators have regular interactions with those being evaluated, and because first-hand experience occupies more of the mind than communicated information, they tend to evaluate more highly across the board.

That’s not to say the on-site evaluation is objective or ‘better’. It’s still coloured by previous experience (which the current experiences are compared to). In both situations the personality of the evaluator is important.

But geographic proximity remains a crucial factor.

These findings are applicable to other situations where geographic and mental remoteness are inherent to the evaluating relationship. The obvious example is remote working – since this is becoming much more prominent, we need to understand how remoteness can influence the dynamic of the employer-employee relationship.

“I think the mechanisms based on how you evaluate depend on what you see and this is generalisable to flexible working. If you’re home-based or not in the office the entire time then communicating what you do is extremely important.

“Many remote workers focus on the job, and don’t focus on the communication – those who do less work and communicate more often may actually be evaluated more positively by managers.”

A good example of this is your standard project worker.

“They might be working through the night, but if people don’t see that, their perception of the worker’s effort is likely to be negative. As human beings we exaggerate our own contribution because we see everything that goes into our own contributions, but we don’t see stress/thinking/sweat of others, especially if they are geographically remote.”

Since remote working is becoming the norm, does this mean the future workplace will be defined by a lack of trust in the contributions of others?

It doesn’t have to be, says Kristiina.

“There are other ways of seeing rather than the physical – you can see the fruits of someone’s labour by collaborative means, such as internal social networks. You still have the experience of spending time together even if it’s in the virtual space.

“As human beings we need to shift our mindsets as evaluators (we ALL evaluate our colleagues). We need to reimagine how we see contributions, so it’s not just the things we see that we use to make judgements.

“For example, we could look to evaluate output rather than how many hours are spent on a project – this is essentially results-based rather than effort-based. A lot of organisations are driving this but I’m not sure if there’s been a corresponding shift in mindset.”

In both situations – remote working and evaluations of HR departments – both workers and organisations must become adept at impression management, or making sure that things they want to get across are not lost in translation.

If something that needs to be seen is not seen, it doesn’t exist, unless it is communicated clearly.

Everything that Kristiina researches is linked to one area – people dynamics. A previous paper focuses on inter-personal and inter-unit trust, something that is becoming much more important as organisations become more dispersed.

“In this research we found that boundaries exist within organisations, particularly in large complex multinationals, where people work across vast geographic and cultural distances, and also across different functions. Basically there are loads of internal silos.

“In many of these organisations, subsidiaries think the worst of other units or functions because they just can’t understand the different perspective.

“To break down silos, organisations must focus on helping people understand how other people view problems.”

But how exactly do we do this? According to Kristiina, the key lies in the similarity hypothesis.

“You need to build similarity to build trust and encourage others to see things from a different point of view. HR’s role is to build on existing similarities to overcome obstacles such as linguistic barriers. If you have people who share the same mother tongue, but who work in different departments, connecting these people can be a good way to foster links between the departments.”

In terms of the benefits of building similarity, a major one is knowledge-sharing – seen by a lot of businesses as the key to future competitiveness. Knowledge-sharing springs from interpersonal similarity.

“People who are similar are naturally more inclined to communicate and interact. Knowledge sharing is a natural by-product of interaction.”

This is all driven by organisational clustering, or the self-organising nature of those with similarities, for example women in a male-dominated engineering company ‘banding together.’ The attraction is immediate and natural.

This raises an extraordinary possibility: the place of HR in engineering people dynamics, exploiting the natural self-organising properties of similar people as a way to promote innovation and knowledge-sharing infrastructure.

“This is about understanding who your employees are, what they’re interested in and what they can do. There are lots of silos in large organisations – and these are huge problems – but you can create linkages based on naturally-occurring interpersonal similarities.

“A good example is leadership development. Instead of choosing participants based on personal performance – the traditional metric of succession planning – you can strategically place people from different units into the same training program.”

In this way, their participation in the program becomes a similarity, and they are able to build bonds – once they become leaders of separate units, the relationship is already there to drive collaboration and innovation. The potential for benefits to the bottom line are massive.

According to Kristiina, this hasn’t happened historically because HR has been – and still is – primarily concerned with the needs of the individual.

“Thanks to modern technologies there’s been a trend towards more collaboration in society and a lot of innovation is taking place around these kinds of mechanisms. Yet we HR professionals tend to be living in the individual-based paradigm rather than thinking about social architecture and social capital. There’s no department better placed to engineer this in the organisation than the HR department.”

It’s a good future for HR – as social architects building powerful chains of connected individuals to maximise productivity and knowledge-sharing.

Details of the research mentioned in this article:

  • Mäkelä, Kristiina; Björkman, Ingmar (Aalto University); Ehrnrooth, Mats (Hanken School of Economics); Smale, Adam (University of Vaasa) & Sumelius, Jennie (Hanken School of Economics): “Explaining stakeholder evaluations of HRM capabilities in MNC subsidiaries”. Journal of International Business Studies. 44 (8): 813–832.
  • Mäkelä, Kristiina; Andersson, Ulf (Copenhagen Business School) & Seppälä, Tomi (Aalto University) (2012): “Interpersonal similarity and knowledge sharing within multinational organizations”. International Business Review, 21(3): 439-451. 
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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

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