Huizenga Graduate Students

The Journal of Applied Management and Entrepreneurship

A Collaborative Management Training Intervention:
A Pilot Study for Small to Medium Enterprises

Dana V. Tesone, University of Central Florida


Executive Summary

A business educator performed a management training intervention in collaboration with members of the human resource management office of a medium sized luxury resort. The intent was to demonstrate a single example of the synergistic outcomes associated with practitioner and academic professional collaborations within small-to-medium enterprises (SME). The results show that blended quantitative and qualitative techniques were appropriate for a single incident of organizational development (OD) diagnostics and interventions within a service-intensive organization. The conclusion presents a technique that may be replicated within other enterprises.


Introduction

Small to medium sized enterprises (SME) occasionally seek to engage in collaborations with academics and consultants to perform management interventions. In many cases these organizations lack the supportive infrastructure associated with larger corporate entities. These larger firms often use corporate trainers, human resource practitioners and organizational development specialists to assist with training and development within the enterprise. The focus of this paper is placed on practices that may be implemented by all of these individuals during organizational interventions. It is intended as a model of the use of blended research techniques that may be implemented by practitioners to measure and prove the value of benefits of management training. It is not the intent of the article to present a contribution to the empirical literature based on limitations discussed in later sections.

The article presents the findings from an organization development (OD) training intervention study conducted within a luxury resort located in the United States. The purpose of the article is to report on a successful process of collaboration between managers of a service enterprise and university researchers. The study employed both traditional and action research models. The article begins with a brief discussion of workplace training. Next, it progresses to a description of action research from historical and practical perspectives. The author then provides an overview of OD training interventions related to service operations. Next, the article articulates the nature of the specific intervention performed as part of the study. Finally, the author presents suggestions for practical applications of action research methods that may be used by researchers, managers and consultants to perform organizational development diagnostics and interventions within organizations.

In the interest of brevity, the article provides focus on a single training intervention. This is not to suggest that the training aspect is more important than other forms of OD interventions. It is fully recognized that a wide range of interventions are associated with OD as a discipline.

Training and Performance

Managing worker performance is a focus of managers in both large and small organizations. Performance management is the means for attaining continual improvement and survival in the current global economy. Professional managers continuously engage in diagnostics and interventions aimed at improving productivity measures within organizations. One study suggests that annual investments in workplace training are estimated at over two percent of an organization's total payroll expenditures (Van Buren & Erskine, 2002). Despite perceived economic ebbs and tides over recent years, one source found the average amount of money spent by organizations on training increased by approximately 10 percent from 2000 to 2001 (Van Buren & Erskine, 2002). It was reported that approximately $57 billion was spent on training in the United States alone in 2001 (Phillips, 2002; Van Buren & Erskine, 2002).

It has been anecdotally observed that training and continuous improvements of worker knowledge and skills have persisted as being viewed as important functions within competitive organizations in more recent times. The competitive advantage of organizations is contingent upon the competencies of employees; suggesting that continuous human capital development initiatives will strengthen the performance of organizations (Fitz-enz, 2000; Luthans, 1998). The skills of staff members are developed in the workplace as a way for an organization to gain this competitive advantage. One longstanding contention suggests that organizational 'wealth' might be expressed in terms of the level of development and the effective utilization of human energies, skills, and knowledge for useful purposes (Harbison, 1973).

It is common knowledge that hotels and restaurants are labor intensive service enterprises. This is true for small, medium, as well as large organizations in this industry. Employee turnover levels at rates beyond those experienced within other industries have been reported to be acceptable among many hospitality managers (Prewitt, 2000). Employee turnover rates increase the recruitment, selection, and productivity expenses of these enterprises (Hinkin & Tracey, 2000). In the interest of containing these expenses, it seems reasonable for hotel and restaurant managers to engage in diagnostics and interventions aimed at training, development and productivity improvement. OD practitioners sometimes encourage participation in these interventions through the implementation of action research techniques. Action research techniques may be used by human resource managers and corporate trainers to measure learning outcomes and to prove the benefits associated with employee development to an organization (Mujtaba, 2007).

Action Research

Social scientist Kurt Lewin is credited with departing from earlier research practices by engaging subjects of change initiatives to encourage them to understand and participate in intervention processes; a research approach in which the subjects were active, hence the term, action research (Forrester, 2000). The later theoretical work of Douglas McGregor spawned numerous action research experiments in the area of participative management which eventually evolved into employee empowerment studies that continue to this day (Forrester, 2000). One report suggests four elements as being associated with action research processes to include: (1) research in action, as opposed to research about action, (2) participatory, (3) concurrent information acquired during the action, and (4) a sequence of events toward problem solving outcomes (Coughlan, 2004). While practitioners may choose to learn about interventions through the exclusive use of action research, academics might tend to lean toward quasi-experimental models to measure outcomes. This awareness seems to argue in favor of collaborative initiatives between researchers and practitioners.

One argument describes action research as being focused upon knowledge in action, which is in contrast to positivist science with a goal of creating universal knowledge (Susman & Evered, 1978). For this reason business schools may recognize the action research method as a pragmatic approach to solving operational problems in organizations (Coughlan & Coughlan, 2002). Hence, one limitation of action research is that the findings are restricted to performing interventions within a single organization (Susman & Evered, 1978). However, the action research umbrella has expanded over the years to include other methods, such as action learning, appreciative inquiry, and ethnomethodology used to study various aspects of workplace interventions (Parker & Roffey, 1997; Williams, 2004). It does seem as though action research is an appropriate method for organization development and other management interventions in organizations. This may pose particular implications for hospitality organizations, which are service providers and as such, each experience with a guest (customer) is unique and dynamic. In order to affect change in a hospitality organization, managers and employees must be involved in the intervention in order to create a learning environment that allows the changes to be adopted. OD practitioners who specialize in this industry are acutely aware of this service-oriented environment, which is also applicable to other service enterprises. It has been asserted that action research has proven its value as both a method for implementation and the development of theoretical insight (Altrichter, Memmis, McTaggard and Zuber-Skerritt, 2002). Some contend that action research is a process that simplifies social change, while reinforcing community and individual quality of life (Pedlar, 1995, as cited in Shaw, 2000).

Organization Development

OD practitioners use action research methods as strategies to diagnose organizational problems and conduct interventions aimed at systemic change to provide organizational renewal (Pattanayak, 2002). A number of hospitality enterprise OD interventions have been reported in the literature. One study took place in the U.K. hospitality industry to provide an intervention aimed at developing enhanced work-life balance initiatives with a focus on women managers (Doherty, 2004). Another study implemented action research processes to identify and rectify guest service levels for a Colorado resort (Thomas, 2002). Other reports provide focus on OD interventions in small-to-medium enterprises in lodging, foodservice and tourism (Agathe, Moore, & Macbeth, 2004; Anckar & Walden, 2001; Sparrow, 1999; Waser & Johns, 2003). All of the studies presented in this section have included the acquisition of knowledge used to diagnose and perform interventions to solve organizational problems.

The Training Aspect of Organization Development

Many OD interventions include some form of collaborative learning (action learning) and skills development (Bray, 2002). Proactive firms include training and development for skills and knowledge acquisition within the strategic direction of the organization in order to support the mission of the enterprise. These collaborative learning and training events are consistent with an OD approach to conducting management diagnostics and interventions in organizations (Delaney & Huselid, 1996).

In order to justify the continuation of training programs in some business settings, it is important to specify how training initiatives will benefit the organization (Phillips, 1996). Training needs to be coupled with business strategies and demonstrably contribute to the bottom-line results. It is critical that professionals link training with business outcomes and organizational objectives in order to ensure that stakeholders will support training (Bassi, Cheney, & Van Buren, 1997). One of the top trends affecting workplace training is the increased pressure from shareholders placed on trainers for producing short-term profits. Consequently, there is greater pressure on training departments to show a return on investment for the training programs they deliver (Van Buren & Erskine, 2000).

Determining which type of training produces the greatest results for the various performance-based outcomes is important when analyzing training effectiveness. When evaluating training, an organization must look at the efficient use of resources, such as the cost of training, the cost of facilities used, the cost of materials needed, the cost of time away from performing actual job responsibilities, and the benefits that occur as a result of the use of those resources. The comparison of the costs and benefits of different training programs determines the utility of the training. In order to ascertain the value of training, the effectiveness of training programs currently used in an organization needs to be evaluated, along with evaluating the ways to improve upon these programs (Brinkerhoff, Brethower, Hluchyi, & Nowakowski, 1983). Aspects associated with action research, OD, training and the evaluation of the utility costs/benefits were foundational aspects for the study reported in the article.

The Study

The study engaged junior-to-middle level managers (assistant managers, sous chefs, work unit managers and department managers) who were employed at a medium sized luxury resort property owned by a small corporation. The sample consisted of 41 managers at the property who volunteered to participate in a 10 week/10-module off-the-shelf supervisory skills training program. The intervention was requested by a human resource director who determined that a supervisory skills learning gap existed among the management staff. The director hypothesized that improved supervision skills would result in more confident managers with improved proficiencies in supervising the work of others. It was the contention of the director that these skills would contribute to later enhancements in the area of employee relations and productivity of the property. However, the scope of the study from the researcher's standpoint was merely to deliver the program content and to measure changes in the knowledge of supervisory skills over the time of the training intervention.

Prior to the start of the study, the corporation had acquired copies of a management skills survey pencil-and-paper test consisting of 25 questions that were developed by an industrial psychologist. The collateral accompanying the testing instrument documented the validity and reliability of the instrument as a measure of supervisory skills knowledge; as demonstrated through a reported normative distribution representing a number of nations to include the United States. According to the collateral, a number of tests were administered to samples of practicing managers across a range of industries to rate knowledge of supervisory skills on a 100-point scale. It reported successive levels of scores among respondents that were correlated with progressive training and experiential levels. The collateral further indicated that the range of correlated scores were consistent among groups over a five-year testing period as a demonstration of instrument reliability. The researcher hypothesized that trainee scores after training would be comparable to the scores achieved by practicing managers possessing supervisory experience and formal training.

The researcher administered the instrument as a pre-test to the participants prior to the commencement of the first training session. Ten one-hour training sessions ensued. Each module covered a specific supervision domain. At the end of each module, participants would complete a 25 question test specific to the topic of discussion. The instrument used for pre and post-tests was a comprehensive test based on all the modules. The topic domains were: communication, complaints and grievances, counseling and discipline, employee motivation, training, building teams, career development, service management, performance management systems and leadership skills. The process included activities in which participants would share experiences concerning the skills learned in the prior module, discuss the content of the new module and conclude with experiential scenarios concerning the new material. The group met once per week for 10 consecutive weeks. The instrument was administered as a post-test on the 11th week of the intervention. Pre-test and post-test scores were gathered for the 41 managers enrolled in the training program. Using a paired t test, the results indicated that the managers' scores on the pre-test were significantly different from the scores on the post-test (t=-11.08; p=0.0001), see Table 1.

Table 1: Pre-test and Post-test Scores
Paired t Test and Descriptive Statistics

  Pre-test Post-test
Mean 68.39 78.80
Standard Deviation 7.145 7.058
Sample Size 41 41
t=11.008; df=40; p=0.0001

While the differences between pre-test and post-test scores were indicators of supervisory knowledge possessed by the managers, the researcher wanted to measure business outcomes associated with the intervention. Since the intervention was commissioned by the human resource director, the business outcomes used for measurement were frequency and nature of employee complaints about supervision and employee satisfaction levels among hourly and management workers. It was believed by the director that there were distinct links between satisfaction and productivity of the work unit. These data were tracked for participants of the intervention as well as those managers who did not take part in the training program. Those managers who did not participate in the intervention constituted the control group for the study (Campbell & Stanley, 1966). Noted differences indicated fewer complaints and higher levels of employee satisfaction from work units managed by participants in the training program relative to those managers who had not engaged in the training program. The human resource director reported that the incident levels of complaints had been reduced by 30 percent and satisfaction perceptions had increased among those workers employed with the work units of the trained managers The client human resource director indicated that there was a favorable return on the training investment through utility cost; although the specific dollar figures were considered to be proprietary and were not shared with the researcher.

This presented a dilemma for the researcher in that quantitative data would have been required to measure the intervention from a quasi-experimental perspective. It has been anecdotally noted that business clients, such as human resource directors lack the desire to accurately measure causal relationships between intervention treatments and outcomes. These individuals are paid to produce results, not to conduct research, which is why they hire researchers. This research limitation encouraged the researcher to adopt qualitative action research techniques to better understand the impact of knowledge and skill levels on the part of managers who had completed the training.

The human resource director permitted the researcher to conduct voluntary one-hour meetings with property managers over a four week period on a pro bono basis. Managers were encouraged to discuss prevalent supervisory problem situations with the researcher during these informal meetings. All of the managers from the training program attended the meetings, as well as a number of those who had not been trained. The researcher observed interactions among participants during the open forum discussions.

One key observation was that managers were presenting both problems and solutions to challenges experienced in their work units. This pattern suggested a synthesis of the redirected questioning technique employed by the researcher during the training program. The participants told stories about problem solving successes and failures within their work units. There was evidence that the managers had developed an informal support group to assist each other with solutions to supervisory problems. There was further evidence that trained managers were sharing knowledge with peers who had not engaged in the training program. In short, the evidence suggested that the managers had evolved into a cohesive group of individuals who were contributing to each others' development in the area of supervisory skills. There was a shift in their thinking that led the managers to collectively perpetuate their own management development. They clearly made a choice to become a self-managed team of peer managers.

Limitations Associated with Performing Field Research

It has been noted that hotel corporations are reluctant to report proprietary information to any party due to the fear of competitors accessing the data to increase their standing in the competitive landscape (von Friedrichs, Grangsjo and Gummesson, 2006). Strieffer (2006) reported that many consulting contracts reduce the access to proprietary information, which reduces the academic freedom of the researcher. Another study suggested a lack of manager cooperation with researchers, as the managers are skeptical of sharing information with outsiders (Birch and Pooley, 1995). Caldwell (2005) cited that the use of action research in field studies permits the participants to set the intervention agenda. Generalizations from this technique are not likely to occur since each application is project based and is difficult to replicate (Peters and Robinson, 1984, as cited in Roberts, 1993). Action research is suited for specific types of organizational problems to promote practical scenarios and the development of competency among participants (Altrichter et al, (2002). Finally, field research conducted within SMEs results in small sample sizes that preclude empirical contributions to the academic literature. However, the techniques are useful for the client firm.

Conclusion

Statistical significance has merit in academic settings, while action research is more attuned to intervention processes, as opposed to matching probabilities of correlation. The changes in performance measures in the study show that there was a significant statistical difference in supervisory skills knowledge testing, indicating a low probability that test score improvements were based on some factor outside the training intervention. There were also immeasurable, yet salient and positive organizational outcomes as a result of training used with the group of managers.

The action research component of the study permitted the determination that there were positive changes in business outcomes that would not have occurred without the training as shown by the results pertaining to the control groups of managers in each setting. The purpose of action research is to determine the concrete changes that occur because of an action taken. In action research, it is more important to determine the implications for the practice of diagnostics and interventions within organizations than to determine the statistical probabilities for correlation of data. For these reasons, OD practitioners employ action research techniques when conducting training and other types of interventions within organizations.

Implications for Practitioners

The evidence from the literature and the study seems to support the use of action research methods among OD practitioners and more specifically, those engaged in training interventions. However, it may be argued that all professional managers are in the business of conducting management diagnostics and interventions as part of problem solving and decision-making activities. This is particularly true in the area of employee training programs where it is commonly known that a final crucial step is the reinforcement of new learning by managers within specific work units. Hence, it seems logical that all management practitioners should be somewhat familiar with the methods associated with action research. If this is true, the question would arise as to how managers could receive such training.

One source for managerial action research training may reside within existing business schools. A number of current academics could be considered to be management interventionists. This is particularly true among career change academics with years of experience conducting management interventions, as was the case with the researcher noted in the study. Business management students would certainly benefit from this type of training as part of classroom learning. Other sources for action research and OD learning programs might include professional associations and training corporations. Larger organizations may possess in-house resources to provide such training for existing and newly hired managers. Regardless of the learning source, it would be beneficial for managers to combine skills in the areas of action research, OD and training.

Training is a component of all organizations worldwide, and it is not expected to diminish in importance in the foreseeable future. The need for improving the human capital of service organizations will continue to be strong in years to come. In order for organizations to continue to be competitive in the global economy, training will continue to be used; but more importantly, it will need to be used more effectively and evaluated for the contribution that it is providing to organizations.

Corporate trainers, human resource practitioners and OD interventionists from within an organization have a distinct advantage over outsiders due to the availability of proprietary information. SME enterprises often do not possess these corporate resources. Consultants are called into these organizations to perform interventions. They should expect certain limitations regarding access to information. Also, these individuals would do well to remember that they were hired to enact organizational change in a precise and simplified manner. Blended research approaches often produced desired results for a firm. This paper provides a case study of one successful approach that may be implemented by others who engage in management diagnostics and interventions.

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About the Author

Dana V. Tesone, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor with the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida where he teaches management and technology courses. His background includes administrative and executive positions with academic institutions and corporate organizations, including VP of Human Resources at a leading resort corporation in South Florida. Tesone is currently conducting research in the areas of leadership, management and technology.