Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Why Firms Hire Their Employees' Friends

It is well-documented in the literature on labour markets that personal connections, friendships, and other types of networks matter a lot for finding a job. For example, applicants with friends in the recruiting organisation are more likely to get a job offer.

This may be perfectly rational for the recruiting firm; the friends of the candidate in the organization can be a great source of information about the applicant. As a result, the firm can be more assured of the job qualities of the person. Put differently, the candidate will pose less of a risk – in terms of potentially turning out to be a hiring mistake – if he or she has friends in the firm who have provided inside information. Therefore, employers may be more eager to hire new people who already have friends in the firm.

But professor Adina Sterling from Washington University suspected there might be another reason why job applicants with friends in the firm might be more attractive to an employer than those without. For quite a few jobs – especially if it concerns newly recruited MBA students – applicants will simultaneously apply for multiple jobs and then pick the most attractive offer they receive. And this can be very costly for a firm: the recruitment procedure can be very expensive, with multiple rounds of interviews and tests, but the time the candidate “sits on an offer” before eventually rejecting it may also precisely be the time that the numbers 2 and 3 on the list also secure and accept offers elsewhere. Therefore, understandably, firms are eager to limit the number of rejections they receive from candidates to whom they offered the job, and if they get rejected they want it to happen asap.

And Adina, who did a lot of interviews among employers, theorized that prospective employers would figure that candidates who already have friends in the firm might be more likely to accept an offer or, if they do reject it, do so soon. That is because the internal friendships might make them more attractive as an employee but also because the candidate has a reputation to protect with his or her friends, and feel an obligation towards them and the firm.
But that’s a nice theory and thought, but how on earth can you examine that? Because how could you statistically separate the two effects of 1) employers gain information about a candidate from his or her friends, and 2) the friends might make the candidate more likely to accept an offer?
To solve this problem, Adina chose a clever research setting. She looked at a 158 MBA and law students who had just completed an internship with a company, and then examined whether having friends in that company made them more likely to receive an offer from that firm. This was a clever setting because reason number 1 (gaining information about the candidate through his friends) no longer plays a role here; the employer already knows the candidate very well due to his recently completed internship! Hence, whatever effect is left could be attributed to reason number 2.
Adina indeed found that having friends in the company made it more likely that the applicant received an offer. Overall, her findings indicate that reason number 2 (friends make it more likely that the candidate will accept) is also an important consideration for prospective employers.
Paper to be presented at the “Sumantra Ghoshal Conference for Managerially Relevant Research” at the London Business School
Friendships and Strategic Behavior in Labor Markets, Adina Sterling (Washington University)
Paper summary published with the author’s permission.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Caste and Ethnicity still matter for Business in India

Ample research has shown that informal connections between people have a substantial influence on economic life, in terms who deals with whom and how well they perform. We call this “social embeddedness”, meaning that we are all embedded to different degrees in various networks of people, which influences our behaviour and success. One dimension which in a business context has received a lot of research is whether people have a joint educational background, particularly whether they are alumni from the same academic institution.

Guoli Chen, Ravee Chittoor and Bala Vissa thought that this embeddedness research that is focused on educational background could perhaps be especially valid in a Western context (where most of the research has taken place) but that in a different context, such as India, different types of affiliations might also play an important role. Specifically, they wanted to focus on the role of caste (i.e. people being of the same or different castes) and language (in terms of people sharing the same regional dialect).

Research setting: Equity analysts in India
To examine these different dimensions of inter-personal networks, they focused on a particular set of people and relationships, namely equity analysts. Firms listed on the stock exchange will often be followed and evaluated by analysts, as employed by banks, who make buy and sell recommendations to the public regarding the company’s stock.

Perhaps the most important task of such an equity analyst is to forecast – as accurately as possible – the future earnings of the firm. However, to make an accurate forecast, an analyst often has to at least partly rely on information received directly from the company; not seldom in the form of personal conversations with the Chief Executive. And Guoli, Ravee and Bala suspected that when the analyst happened to share the same background with the company’s CEO it would be much easier for him or her to get access to the CEO and his company information; making his earnings forecasts more accurate.

They tested this suspicion on a sample of 141 Indian firms, followed by a total of 296 equity analysts, between 2001-2010. First of all, they found clear evidence that equity analysts that are alumni of the same academic institution as the company’s CEO were indeed able to make much more accurate forecasts. But, in addition, the same was true for analysts who shared the same background in terms of caste, and in terms of regional language.  In fact, the effects were roughly the same size, meaning that these old historical patterns (around caste and language) were just as important in India as the more contemporary ones (i.e. university affiliation).

They then examined the conditions under which these different types of informal ties mattered more or less or whether such ties were indeed always beneficial. They found that older CEOs – who could be expected to be influenced more heavily by traditional patterns – were more susceptible to issues of caste and language than younger CEOs. They were less influenced by joint academic affiliation. Hence, although these old historical patterns matter a lot in India; they matter less for younger people, who are relatively more susceptible to joint academic affiliation.

In addition, they found evidence that these informal relationships were particularly beneficial if it concerned a truly Indian firm (part of a traditional business group). In contrast, such informal ties hurted more than they helped, when the firm in question was an Indian subsidiary of a Western multinational corporation.

Overall, what Guoli, Ravee and Bala’s research shows is that, in a country like India, old historical social structures still matter a lot in the world of business, especially when it concerns firms that are part of a traditional business group. The effect of language (which is analogous to ethnicity) was particularly potent. These effects may begin to matter a bit less for younger people (i.e. since they were especially strong for older CEOs) but they still wield considerable influence on economic life.

Paper presented at the “Sumantra Ghoshal Conference for Managerially Relevant Research” at the London Business School.
Which old boy network matters? Basis of social affiliation and the accuracy of equity analysts’ earnings forecast of Indian firms. Guoli Chen (INSEAD), Ravee Chittoor (Indian School of Business), Bala Vissa (INSEAD)
This paper summary is published with permission from the authors.


Saturday, 1 June 2013

Antiquated & to be Annihilated? Is an On-line Revolution Brewing in Business Education?

We hear more and more talk about how the traditional model of business schools will be annihilated by the disruptive innovation of on-line education, so-called MOOCs (massive open on-line courses). An increasing number of voices can be heard to proclaim that business schools with their lectures and study groups are doomed, antiquated, overpriced, and that people who doubt that are just in denial and one day will wake up finding themselves obsolete and plain wrong.

And, arguably, case studies on the effects of disruptive innovation conducted in industries ranging from airlines and newspapers to photography and steel mills, have shown that often the established players in the market are initially in denial, slow to react, suffering from hubris and, eventually, face crisis and extinction.

Yet, when it comes to on-line education, and its potentially disruptive influence on higher education, including business schools, I doubt that on-line education will replace face-to-face lectures and study groups.

The arguments that people use to proclaim that traditional business schools will be replaced by on-line education include the notions that it is much cheaper, can be more easily accessed by a much wider audience, and customers (students) can access the materials wherever and whenever they want.

And this just reminds me of the printing press.

Oral lectures have been around since the times of Socrates and Plato. I am sure when the printing press was invented and became more widespread and accessible, an increasing number of voices could be heard to proclaim that such lectures and schools were going to be replaced by books. That is because books are much cheaper, can be more easily accessed by a much wider audience, and students can access them wherever and whenever they want. But they did not replace face-to-face lectures and study groups.

And that is because books and on-line educational resources offer something very different than the traditional lectures and school community. They are complements rather than substitutes. Of course the arrival of the printing press quite substantially changed schools and education; business schools without books would be very different than they are today. Hence, it would be naïve to think that on-line resources are not going to alter traditional business school education; they will and they should. Business schools better think hard how they are going to integrate on-line education into their courses and curricula.

But this means that it offers opportunities rather than a threat. And research on the effects of disruptive innovation – for example in newspapers – has also shown that established players who treat the arrival of a new technology as an opportunity, rather than as direct substitute, are the ones that are most likely to survive and prosper.

Freek Vermeulen is an Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the London Business School. In 2012, BestOnlineUniversities elected him number 1 in their global list of “top 100 web-savvy professors”. You can find him on-line at and at @Freek_Vermeulen. He regularly blogs for Forbes, the Harvard Business Review and The Ghoshal Blog.