The following article is an excerpt of the highlights of the Organizational Frontline Research 2017 Symposium. You can find more reflections about the event in the following PDF. The winners of the OFR 2017 Scholarship are listed here.

OFR-2017 Co-Chair Tom Brown, Oklahoma State University

One of the exciting things about organizational frontlines research is that our subject matter is dynamic. This point was made quite eloquently by Gary Bridge (Snow Creek Advisors), Doug Herman (Walt Disney Company), and Sherry Sanger (Penske) at the OFR Symposium. Each offered their perspectives on the evolving nature of frontline interactions and interfaces. In particular, each of them described how technology is rapidly changing the nature of the organizational frontline for the companies they help manage or with which they consult.  Gordon Wyner (Marketing Science Institute) also joined us throughout the event. Each of these individuals made important contributions and provided valuable input, not only by presenting their own thoughts, but by commenting on the projects presented by OFR researchers.

I encourage all frontline researchers (1) to look to industry for real problems that affect frontline workers, their customers, and the interfaces that connect them; (2) to continue conducting rigorous research (much like that presented during the Symposium); and (3) to complete the circle by offering meaningful suggestions for adaptations to current industry practices. Only then can the promise of organizational frontline research be fulfilled.

Q&A:  Tom Brown, Oklahoma State University and Gary Bridge, Snow Creek Advisors

Tom:    You recently took the time to read through the last four years’ worth of several of the major scholarly journals in marketing.  How much of what you read would be useful to business decision-makers?

Gary:   My guess is that about 10% to a maximum of 15% of the journal articles I scanned could, with further development, be relevant to anything that business decision-makers care about today. Firms care about the ability to improve efficiency (cost or speed) and effectiveness (quality), because those drive their primary goals – revenues and profits.

Tom:    Let me push back a little here. Although I agree that the ultimate goal of marketing scholarship should be to have a positive influence on the marketplace, many of the tools you have noted have utility for theory development and testing, don’t they?

Gary:   As an academic grandchild of Kurt Lewin (via Harold Kelley, Alex Bavelas, Morton Deutsch), I subscribe to Lewin’s thought that “nothing is quite so practical as a good theory”—I am steeped in appreciation for the function of theory in progress.  But as a practitioner who measures and values outcomes in terms of effectiveness and efficiency, I am struck by how much effort goes into buttressing favorite theories without ever having to apply those theories to produce real world changes.

Many, if not most, academic theories seem to follow a predictable trajectory; the inventors, who typically invent a new vocabulary too, use their graduate students and fellow travelers to accrete small studies that invariably support their theory, which grows more and more delimited, dense, and self-referential. Some academic notoriety is gained, and then the theory fades from conversation, only to be replaced by a new theory. The reason is obvious: no one achieves academic acclaim by proving someone else’s theory; you have to make a “seminal contribution to human knowledge” [as my diploma said].

My tentative premise is that understanding “why,” which is the utility of theory, is important; but:

(1) One can make a lot of progress without knowing precisely why something works.  Look, for instance, at progress in machine learning, which is entirely atheoretical – you let the algorithms find the pattern instead of theorizing.

(2) Much of what passes for theory building today is actually academic gamesmanship, where publication pages and citations are the currency of the discipline and buy academic status and rewards… there really is no serious intention of making a difference in the real world.

Tom:    I find your comments on our discipline’s theory work to be biting—and spot on. I’m afraid that unless we realign our research to address more relevant issues there really won’t be much societal support for academic research in business in a few years.

Gary:   My view is that marketing practice is making huge progress in the real world while theory builders are toiling to explain “why” what works works. Theorists have to accept the obligation to eventually address real world outcomes that people care about deeply. Without that final linkage to reality, theory building is an impotent, time and resource wasting activity, which distracts from real progress.

I hope my comments are not viewed as mean spirited, because that is the opposite of my intention. I love learning and research, which have rewarded me intellectually and materially. And, I love equally the feeling of making a difference in something that someone cares about (which in the enterprise world means they will pay for it or fund it). It seems to me that the time is right for a new way in marketing that (a) builds on what has proven to be productive in the real world over time, and (b) embraces new analytic methods, which are fueled by oceans of data (and more to come, as we learn how to automate the analysis of unstructured data)

OFR-2017 Co-Chair Todd Arnold, Oklahoma State University

It was a rather abrupt change of pace when Daniel Korschun began his talk on day two of the Symposium which was pointedly titled, “Politics on the Frontlines: Effects on Relationships between Frontline Employees and Customers.” Daniel presented convincing evidence that politics do, indeed, have a place when examining the organizational frontlines, and that as uncomfortable as the conversation might sometimes be, we have a duty as frontline researchers to tackle such delicate issues in an objective manner.

Dating back to my days as a doctoral student, I can remember hearing from at least one faculty member that studying issues that resonate too closely with deeply held beliefs can be a tricky business.  When there is still so much we don’t know about how relationship marketing affects performance, why worry about more “touchy” topics?  Still, I think politics, and other potentially sensitive topics, should be investigated by marketing (and frontline) academicians.

And the influence of politics at the frontline is not the only area that is ripe for investigation. Continued investigation into such topics as how accents, employee appearance, or status influence interactions at the frontline is important for business understanding.

From my perspective, research questions related to sensitive topics are critical for frontline researchers, and I was happy to see Daniel introduce such a topic as politics to the audience. My hope is that we can integrate more such work in future OFR Symposia, and that we are able to lead the way in demonstrating the relevance of such work not only to academia, but to our industry partners, as well.

Mary Jo Bitner, Arizona State University

The OFR Symposium in Orlando, February 2017, was a landmark event in my view.  A strong sense of community, research relevance, and potential were “in the air.”  It reminded me, and I believe others who have been around a while, of the days in the 1980s when service research was just forming as a legitimate and important domain.  Then, as now at this event, there was tremendous enthusiasm and motivation to build and advance relevant knowledge.

As someone who has worked my whole career in “organizational frontlines” within service contexts, the new developments related to OFR are very gratifying and also very motivating.  I was a frontlines service researcher before there was even a name for service research, let alone frontlines research.  At that time, many questioned the need for a distinctive focus on service research and large numbers were convinced it would be a fad.  Fast forward to the current day and “everything is service.”

My research started with a focus on dyadic employee-customer interactions and servicescapes and moved into customer-employee interactions and self-service technologies.  All of this work is clearly OFR research.  Many, like me, have discovered we have always been OFR researchers – we just didn’t know it!

The current issue of the Journal of Service Research, February 2017, is a whole issue of the journal dedicated to Organizational Frontlines Research co-guest-edited by Jagdip Singh, Tom Brown, Michael Brady, and Todd Arnold.  This is the same dedicated team that has spearheaded the OFR conferences.  As the editor of JSR, I have much admiration for this team and what they are doing to advance this important research domain.  The special issue was shared at the conference in Orlando and I hope that it, together with the conferences, becomes a springboard for ideas, collaborations, and impactful research.

One of the best things about the OFR conference in Orlando was the bringing together of people from diverse research areas (sales, service, technology, human resources, operations, information systems) around a common theme.  I loved the breath of presentations and topics that were covered. We can all learn from each other and enhance each other’s understanding. The community is very open and collaborative.  Research partnerships are forming, and there is great promise for important new research that is both relevant and rigorous. Another important element of the OFR conference was the active presence of business practitioners who added so much to the meeting in providing their incredible interpretations, questions, and insights.  I hope and trust that this important business-academic collaboration and sharing can continue as OFR develops further.  It is key to making the work relevant and valuable.