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Piers Steel, a professor at the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary, has been studying procrastination for more than a decade. (Chris Bolin/Globe and Mail)
Piers Steel, a professor at the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary, has been studying procrastination for more than a decade. (Chris Bolin/Globe and Mail)

Phantom-phone phenomenon, and other business research Add to ...

Cracking the CrackBerry

DeGroote School of Business, McMaster University

Forget drugs, gambling or alcohol. What about mobile device addiction? Nick Bontis says the rationale is obvious for his research into this issue: "Everyone knows the 'CrackBerry' is now tethered to everybody's belt buckle." The issue, he says, is what this is doing to work/family balance and ultimately to overall productivity.

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His research survey asked participants to register agreement/disagreement with statements such as: When I am not checking my mobile e-mail I often feel agitated; and, I sometimes neglect important things because of my interest in my mobile.

What he's found indicates that Canadian office workers are on their devices virtually "all the time." He adds: "It was the first thing they touched when they got up in the morning, and the last thing they touched at night." This, he notes, "increases the user's anxiety level and it lasts into family life at night. Before it would have waited until the person got into their office."

It's also a problem for businesses. The study found that a person's commitment to an organization decreases as the expected use of mobile devices increases. Over time, the employee resents this, feeling "this is getting bad; it's not what I signed up for in how (mobile device use) is encroaching on my personal time." What they forget, he says, "is that every single device has an off button."

One of the study's surprising findings were that people feel vibrations from their mobile devices even when they're not on.

Dr. Bontis' study makes recommendations for employers such as black-out periods (6 p.m. to 6 a.m. and weekends); using the prioritization functions more with half designated as low priorities (FYI only); and using rule wizards to sort e-mails into subject folders.

I'll get to it in a minute

Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary

Dr. Piers Steel's research has been 11 years in the making but it's not because he's been procrastinating. In fact, procrastination is the very human behaviour he's been studying and he's considered an expert on the subject and its relation to productivity.

"Mainstream economic theories make no place for procrastination," he says. Yet he calls it "the defining challenge of our times," made worse by the modern work environment of multiple tasks and new technology.

Procrastination is an emotional response, says Dr. Steel. "People think 'I should do this' but then delay irrationally, putting off despite expecting to be worse off. Even when you know better, you don't always act in your own best interest."

And it's not in businesses' best interests, either, as it affects productivity.

But not everyone procrastinates to the same extent. One of his findings is that women tend to procrastinate slightly less than men, giving them what he calls a not-insignificant advantage in the workplace.

Dr. Steel's research extends into another productivity-related area: how to match people with jobs that suit them. "When people are in a job they're not suited for, their performance is poor."

He's developed a system called "synthetic validity," considered a major leap forward in directing people toward jobs at which they would excel, love doing and that are in demand.

Getting the right fit between an employee, job and company they work for has an impact on productivity. Dr. Steel posits that the difference between an average and a good employee match can be quantified as representing $5,000 annually. Multiplied by 13-million workers in Canada, this has a potential productivity gain of $65-billion a year, he says.

"Canada lags in productivity and this is one way we can catch up to and even surpass the U.S."

Soon, machines might give us insight into procrastination. Dr. Steel is starting to work on research involving MRI brain scans and procrastination.

Welcoming websites

Faculty of Business, Simon Fraser University

Dianne Cyr says her research into e-commerce and responses to website designs sits at the "perfect intersection of information technology, psychology and artistic design." Before her PhD studies in business, Professor Cyr was a psychologist and she's been an art collector for 20 years.

Her research has looked at cross-cultural and gender preferences in website design and what she terms "social presence" impact on website users - implying a psychological connection where the user perceives the website as personal, sociable, creating a human connection. She has found that social presence plays a greater role in women's likelihood to become loyal e-commerce customers.

Overall, Dr. Cyr's research indicates that there are distinct website design preferences for different groups - whether in different country locations or for men and women.

For instance, women tended to prefer websites with less clutter and fewer graphics. They tended to seek content to "engage them, whereas men were more utilitarian.

"Social presence is particularly related to women's enjoyment of websites and whether or not they would return to the site and use it in the future," she said.

"Website designers are advised to take these differences into account if they want to develop trusting, loyal and satisfied users."

To engage people from different cultures, website designers needed to take into account use of colour, icons and symbols and how content is presented.

Sky-high competition

Wilfrid Laurier University School Business

You might say that William Morrison's research has been up in the air. For several years he's studied various issues related to airports (parking, governance, regulatory policies) and air travel itself. Most recently he has focused on identifying what constitutes a low-cost carrier, and tracking the stages in low-cost airline business models as they evolve and begin to compete with higher-cost airlines.

Airlines fall into several categories, he says: full-service, lower-cost and truly low-cost. But it's not easy answering the question: What is low-cost? "There is not just one low-cost strategy, plus it's a very dynamic industry."

His research suggests that, over time, low-cost carriers may evolve toward their full-service competitors. He considers WestJet in Canada as an example of this evolution.

Dr. Morrison cites 3 C's that define air travel demand: convenience, comfort and connectivity.

Airlines shift into offering more services, such as baggage connections, more routes to more destinations, among others. As they do so, they begin to compete with different carriers.

He's studying the business models that define these evolutions. "Understanding the shifts in these and other components has implications for competition between airlines and their strategies for obtaining a competitive advantage," he says.

Operation wait times

Ivey School of Business, University of Western Ontario

Mehmet Begen wants to use mathematical models to help make the health-care field more efficient.

"My goal is to help the health care industry convert data into decisions and to improve decision-making."

He began his research in operations applications with a particular focus on health care during his employment and PhD studies at UBC. His methodology involves the application of analytics where actual data is collected and mathematical models are developed that are then used in decision-making.

"Analytics can be used in any industry," Dr. Begen says. "One of the biggest nowadays is health care. Where models can be of help is in such areas as patient scheduling, wait list management, allocation of resources and identifying bottlenecks."

For example, in scheduling surgeries the uncertain duration of operations may leave the operating room idle or lengthen wait times for subsequent surgeries. "Both outcomes are costly. With historical data and the use of analytics, these problems can be minimized with savings for allocation of more resources," Dr. Begen says.

Scheduling surgeries isn't the only area where the analytics model can be applied in health care. It could also determine capacity for managing waiting lists.

Dr. Begen sees his model used in what he calls "process optimization." Basically, it could follow a patient from the moment of diagnosis through various tests, surgeries, treatments and follow-ups. "You could then look at what would happen if we added one more radiologist, or nurse, how would that affect wait times, etc."

In the new era of performance-based funding, such as recently announced in British Columbia, this could have a profound effect on a hospital's bottom line.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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