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The Minnesota Timberwolves' Latrell Sprewell, left, and the Los Angeles Lakers' Devean George battle for possession in the first quarter of Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals in Los Angeles, May 27, 2004. (KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/The Associated Press)
The Minnesota Timberwolves' Latrell Sprewell, left, and the Los Angeles Lakers' Devean George battle for possession in the first quarter of Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals in Los Angeles, May 27, 2004. (KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/The Associated Press)

Business Education

What the NBA can teach you in your career Add to ...

Beyond teaching and consulting, business-school faculty also conduct research that seeks answers to practical and philosophical business questions. Here is a selection of research from Canadian business schools that ranges from management to marketing questions, and involves issues such as developing employable skills, fair trade and sexism.

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Learning new skills

Throwing your energy at new tasks at work can be both frustrating and rewarding. On one hand, you are strengthening your skills and becoming more well-rounded; on the other hand, bosses might think you’re slacking off from your normal duties.

New research out of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, though, suggests this isn’t a zero-sum game. Using performance statistics from more than 700 NBA players over 24 seasons, Maria Rotundo and her colleagues found that pro basketball players who spent time honing new skills – while letting others slip on the court – were more likely to play the following season.

The robust NBA data indicates that honing a variety of skills over time demonstrates your adaptability in the workplace, and means you’re more likely to stay there.

Performance in the athletic world is so meticulously measured – and athletes’ value is so heavily scrutinized based on these measurements – that researchers have long used athletics’ robust pool of data for workplace studies, Dr. Rotundo says.

“There are enough parallels that you can study management concepts through ideas in the sports world,” she said in an interview.

Her study, published in the journal Human Performance with co-authors from the universities of Minnesota, Lethbridge and Guelph, used NBA player data from 1980 through 2004. The researchers broke down field goals, free throws, points, assists, steals blocks and rebounds into three factors, called “score,” “quick” and “tough.”

The researchers then looked at how these factors moved over time. A player was considered to “refocus” their skill if one factor grew while another one shrunk over a given season.

The results? The 10 per cent of players who successfully refocused – say, from scoring prowess to speed – were more likely to stay in the league the next season. The study suggests that taking time to strengthen one’s skill on the less focused-on tasks keeps them employable.

The implications, Dr. Rotundo says, can be applied to any career with a juggling act. Stockbrokers, for instance, must maintain client portfolios while trying to bring new business to their firms. A front-line cashier has to find the right balance between speedy checkouts and friendly service.

For managers, it means making sure measurements of employee performance take into account all of the facets of their job – and making sure that someone who’s appearing to slack off isn’t just training themselves to become better in their work.

The positives of refocusing appear only if the employee is actually successful. Some players who tried to refocus didn’t get better. Where are they now? “Washed out,” Prof. Rotundo says.

Ethical decisions

Consumers’ appetite for fair trade and other ethical products may be lauded as a social movement, but it’s heavily buoyed by the marketing industry.

The formula has always been simple: Demonstrate the producer’s need for more reasonable conditions and compensation, and ethically minded consumers will buy in. Show that coffee-bean farmers need a living wage or that textile workers need better ventilation, and you’ve cornered the marketplace.

But that may not be the whole picture. A team led by Kate White, an associate marketing professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, has found that the producers’ needs should be coupled with the message that a purchase will legitimately have an impact on the problem.

“If you don’t combine the communication of need with the suggestion that injustice is going to be resolved, it’s going to have the opposite effect” of convincing consumers to buy the product, Dr. White says.

Her study, published in the Journal of Marketing, frames ethical product marketing using the “just world theory,” a belief system which holds that people receive the rewards and punishment they deserve. Under this theory, consumers should be more motivated to buy “ethical” products that demonstrate that producers are fairly compensated from the monies collected.

In a series of studies, Dr. White and her colleagues had participants read stories about coffee and tea producers, with various need and compensation details changed to assess how they would react.

Participants were less likely to want to buy products that demonstrated producers’ high need if it wasn’t explicitly communicated that buying it would directly benefit the producers. If participants in the study were convinced that buying a product actually would undo injustices, they were more likely to buy it.

Another significant finding is that if the product being purchased is an indulgence rather than a necessity, consumers tend to feel a heightened sense of privilege, and are more likely to consider fair-trade or ethical options. In this case, the more frivolous nature of the purchase “highlights the contrast” between the consumer’s privilege and producer’s need, Dr. White says.

Gender and the workplace

What happens when you put together an organizational behavioural professor who loves travel with an airline veteran who has a PhD? More than two decades’ worth of gender discrimination studies on the airline industry.

Jean Helms Mills worked for Air Canada for 17 years before earning her PhD. Today she is a management professor at the Sobey School of Business at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, where her husband, Albert Mills, is the director of the doctoral program.

Since 1990, the pair have studied airlines including British Airways, Pan American Airways and, more recently, Air Canada in a 2011 Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences paper. Over time, they have revealed how the still somewhat male-dominated industry opens up to different cultures of discrimination – and that there’s no cure-all to make the workplace more equitable for all sexes.

“Discrimination is universal, but the form it takes isn’t,” Dr. Albert Mills says.

One 2002 study, for instance, found that during Air Canada’s Trans-Canada Airlines days, women “were mostly thought of and portrayed as idealized, sexualized objects, which were considered dispensable.”

When women joined British Airways as flight attendants in 1947, Dr. Mills says, the corporation stressed that men and women would be equal. But within 15 years, women had begun to be perceived as sexualized objects. Even when the company transformed itself in the 1980s, trying to be more customer focused, there was even more emphasis on women as sex objects, he says.

Women are treated more often as equals in today’s airline industry, the authors say. “You’re seeing more women in middle-lower management levels over the last 20 years,” Dr. Jean Helms Mills says. But some professions – think pilots – have a long way to go for both men and women to truly have equal opportunity.

The studies illustrate the need for organizations to regularly assess their corporate culture for practices that create a gender imbalance.

Dr. Albert Mills suggests striving for policies and cultures “so that the men and women in the organization can find a point where they can reflect on what’s going on, and what’s developing, and look at the outcome – not just of the bottom line but for the people who work there.”

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