THE FIT PROJECT

 

Overview

The Fit Project began in 1998 as a joint research project between myself and Philip Marsh, the Director of Human Resources at The Open University. We were interested in understanding employment dynamics in The Open University, especially its extraordinarily low staff turnover rates and the strength of its culture. The Open University has always been known internally and externally for its social mission of helping people who missed out on education first time around and its attraction of employees who shared these values. Its prominent position on British television throughout the 1970s and 1980s reinforced these impressions. As a result, we thought the ideas surrounding person-organisation fit would help us understand the culture better and, in turn, be an interesting way of understanding the construct of person-organisation fit better as well. In particular, there were theoretical arguments suggesting that 'high fit' environments would be deleterious to organisations due to factors such as 'cloning', reduced creativity, and ossification. We wanted to explore these matters to see 'high fit' did indeed lead to these things.

We were able to gain seedcorn funding of £40,000, shared equally from The Open University Business School and the Human Resources Division, to recruit a part-time Research Fellow. Dr. John Moss-Jones was hired and he conducted 66 in-depth interviews employing cognitive mapping techniques with members of staff at The Open University to explore what 'fit to the university' meant to them.

 

Phase One

In the first stage of the project, the project’s first Research Fellow, Dr. John Moss-Jones (right), conducted 66 in-depth interviews using the techniques of storytelling and cognitive mapping to form an understanding of employees’ sense of fit. His method involved asking people to describe the factors influencing their fit to the university and encouraging them to enrich their explanations. The participants included a borad cross-section of the university ranging from the Vice-Chancellor and Pro Vice-Chancellors through academic and administrative staff down to more humble people. People were chosen randomly, with a few particular people added to the mix to give coverage. John's qualitative data revealed a complex web of factors influencing people’s perceptions of fit that has been portrayed as a taxonomy in our papers. In addition, the analysis of the data suggested that positive levels of fit were largely tacitly-held whereas people who rated themselves as a misfit were very conscious of their sense of fit and the misfit had negative effects on their behaviour. Despite these positive outcomes that we were able to build upon, perhaps our most important finding was that the notion of 'high levels of fit' is something of a misnomer. Whilst it is a possible to use statistical methods to allocate a fit score to people, when talking to people about their fit, the idea of a high level (or a low level) of fit seems meaningless. Fit is more complex, more multidimensional, and it has elements of fit and misfit. This is why we abandoned the idea of exploring the impact of 'high levels of fit' on an organisation and instead chose to capture the richness of the construct.

 

Phase Two

John's work was an interesting exploration of the topic and the emergence of his taxonomy coincided with advances suggesting that fit is a useful framework with which to understand the psychological temperature of an organisation. Accordingly, in the second stage of the project we decided to create a questionnaire from our taxonomy that we could use to capture people’s sense of fit across a broad spectrum of fits and that we could use as a survey instrument. The idea was to build a questionnaire that would have both academic rigour and could be proven to be practical in organisational situations. To do this work, we hired the project's second Research Fellow. This time the appointment was a full-time one and Dr. Nathalie van Meurs joined us to do the work. This was an insanely busy time for the project with multiple studies going off in all directions. Nevertheless, we made a lot of progress and we were successful in developing a fit tool that became the core element upon which the university's annual staff survey. We ran this three times giving us tremendous longitudinal data with 3000 employees completing the survey every year.

 

Phase Three

Whereas in phase two we had looked at the fit and misfit of current employees, in phase three we wanted to look at predicting the future fit of new employees. This, we argued, would lead, from the organisation's perspective, to more satisfied, more committed employees who were likely to stay longer and from the employees' perspective as finding a place to work that matched their values, needs, and desires. It would seem to be a win-win. However, from a research perspective, assessing future fit is hugely problematic compared to the assessment of current fit. With current fit, you can ask someone, "How well do you fit?" but asking potential employees, "How well do you think you'll fit?" is fraught with problems. They do not know the organisaiton they are joining, everything they experience during recruitment and selection is 'managed', and their own need for work clouds their judgements. To get around this problem, indirect measures of fit are required. These take a measurement from the individual and compare it to something about the organisation. Based on our earlier work, we believed we had worked out how to do this and we recruited the project's third research fellow, Dr. Julian Edwards, to take the lead on the project. Sadly, although we were making excellent progress, momentum was lost when I left The Open University. But it is a project I hope to revive soon.

 

Other Research

In addition to these three main phases of our work, we were also home to a constellation of other fit studies, and some non-fit work as well. These include studies of misfit, fit and organisational performance, fit and expatriates, fit and homeworking, fit and trust, fit and creativity, fit and absence, fit and work/life balance, fit and knowledge transfer, fit and ethics, the nesting of organisational fit in regional and national cultures, people's experience of recruitment and selection, and somewhat bizarrely, the nature of bias in penalty shoot-outs in international football tournaments. A number of these studies were linked to people conducting PhD studies. For example, Dannie Talbot looked at the comparative nature of people's perceptions of fit and misfit, Patrick Nelson is looking at the connection between fit and organisational performance, and Brenda Hollyoak is looking at the nature of misfit.

 

Internal Consultancy

Although we were focused on organisational fit, and in particular on its practical application to strategic human resource management, arguably our most innovative contribution was to the HR function of the university. From the start of the project, we based the researchers in the HR department rather than in an academic faculty. All of our research fellows had PhDs and our research assistants and project officers had masters degrees in organisational or occupational psychology. The team varied from three to ten people at different stages of the project, but most of the time there were half a dozen of us with a rich conbination of research skills. Just through our presence, we found ourselves being drawn into HR issues and asked to help out with the design and execution of various studies, surveys, and evaluations.

In addition to running the staff survey, which was a core part of the project, we ran a survey of Associate Lecturers, conducted several new building occupation studies, analysed the nature of effective leadership in the university, evaluated many external and internal training offerings, and worked with the organisational development team to analyse tricky operational problems. Our presence had an interesting effect on the HR department. Where it had always been a reactive operation, just like in most organisations, our ability to analyse the internal environment helped give the department a proactive edge discovering issues before they became problems. This helped give the HR department 'a seat at the top table' and put the 'strategic' in strategic human resource management.

 

Global e-Conference on Fit

 One of the strange features of the Fit Project was that we were the only people in the UK actively reserching into the concept of organisational fit. A few other people used fit as an element in their research, but we were the only ones to make it the centrepiece. Although we were well funded and could get to international conferences, and we had many international visitors (such as Amy Kristof-Brown, Tony Wheeler, and Rein De Cooman) to the project, we were still quite isolated. I was also concerned that I had a singular take on organisational fit (I remain focused on perceived fit, which is certainly not mainstream fit research) and that this might be taking those working under me, especially my doctoral students, up a blind alley. As a result, I thought it was crucial to give my colleagues exposure to other voices and different perspectives. So was born the Global e-Conference on Fit.

The inspiration came from Nathalie, who ran a small online conference looking at cross-cultural issues. She invited speakers who contributed short papers, which were then discussed in online forums on the conference day. This worked exceptionally well, and I decided to develop the idea for an online conference on organisational fit. Setting up the conference platform was relatively straightforward, especially with the help of The Open University's computer experts, but the real effort went into attracting eminent keynote speakers and publicity. Over the four outings (so far), the keynote speakers have been Helena Cooper-Thomas (University of Auckland), Jeff Edwards (University of North Carolina), Tim Judge (University of Florida), Amy Kristof-Brown (University of Iowa), Ben Schneider (Valtera & University of Maryland), Cheri Ostroff (University of Maryland), Annelies Van Vianen (University of Amsterdam), John Kammeyer-Mueller (University of Florida), Anthony Wheeler (University of Rhode Island), and me.

The conferences would last two or three days and every year we have had more than 200 delegates. Papers were scheduled across the days so that there was a natural flow. We had full papers and a doctoral zone and almost every paper attracted a lot of considered discussion. Amongst the nice aspects of the conference are the fact that most participants were very well-informed on the subject, and that there was time to read, digest, and consider one's response. These discussions were captured providing a record, which was particularly useful for doctoral students.

Each year we tried to do something different. In the second year, we introduced a virtual world environment for the social elements of the conference; Fit Island, a desert island in Second Life. The social elements included virtual coffee breaks, meeting areas, a fireworks closing ceremony, and end of day discos (seriously). In a later conference, submissions were competitively considered for a book, which Amy Kristof-Brown and I edited, and which was published at the end of 2012. The fit conferences are not over, just suspended due to my recent adventures, and I hope to organise another one soon.

 

Published Outputs

Journal Articles

Edwards, J.A. and Billsberry, J. (2010) Testing a multidimensional theory of person-environment fit. Journal of Managerial Issues, 22 (4), 476-493.

Billsberry, J. and Birnik, A. (2010) Management as a contextual practice: The need to balance science, skills and practical wisdom. Organization Management Journal, 7 (2), 171-178.

Ambrosini, V., Billsberry, J. and Collier, N. (2009) Teaching soft issues in strategic management with films: Arguments and suggestions. International Journal of Management Education, 8 (1), 63-72.

van Ameijde, J.D.J., Nelson, P.C., Billsberry, J. and van Meurs, N. (2009) Improving leadership in higher education institutions: A distributed perspective. Higher Education, 58 (6), 763-779.

Billsberry, J. (2009) The social construction of leadership education. Journal of Leadership Education, 8 (2), 1-9.

Billsberry, J. (2009) The embedded academic: A management academic discovers management. Transformative Dialogues: Teaching and Learning Journal, 2 (3), 1-9.

Billsberry, J. and Edwards, G. (2008) Toxic celluloid: Representations of bad leadership on film and implications for leadership development. Organisations and People, 15 (3), 104-110.

Billsberry, J. (2008) Management education as an emotional science. Organization Management Journal, 5 (3), 149-151.

Billsberry, J. and Gilbert, L.H. (2008) Using Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to teach different recruitment and selection paradigms. Journal of Management Education, 32 (2), 228-247.

Coldwell, D.A.L., Billsberry, J., van Meurs, N. and Marsh, P.J.G. (2008) The effects of person-organization ethical fit on employee attraction and retention: Towards a testable explanatory model. Journal of Business Ethics, 78 (4), 611-622.

Edwards, J. A., Webster, S., Van Laar, D. & Easton, S. (2008). Psychometric analysis of the UK Health and Safety Executive’s Management Standards work-related stress Indicator Tool. Work & Stress, 22 (2), 96-107.

Billsberry, J. (2007) Attracting for values: An empirical study of ASA’s attraction proposition. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 22 (2), 132-149.

Edwards, J. A., Guppy, A. & Cockerton, T. (2007). A longitudinal study exploring the relationships between occupational stressors, non-work stressors, and work performance. Work & Stress, 21 (2), 99-116.

Edwards, J. A., Cockerton, T. & Guppy, A. (2007). A Longitudinal Study Examining the Influence of Work & Non-Work Stressors Upon Well-Being: A Multi-Group Analysis. International Journal of Stress Management, 14 (3), 294-311.

Van Laar, D. L., Edwards, J. A. & Easton, S. (2007). The Work-Related Quality of Life scale for healthcare workers. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 60 (3), 325-333.

Billsberry, J. (2006) Towards a future where we select for fit. People and Organisations at Work, 13 (Autumn), 10-11.

Billsberry, J. and Marsh, P.J.G. (2006) Organisational research: The missing link in HR departments. Capacity, 5 (July), 2-3.

Billsberry, J., Ambrosini, V., Moss-Jones, J. and Marsh, P.J.G. (2005) Some suggestions for mapping organizational members’ sense of fit. Journal of Business and Psychology, 19, 4, 555-570.

Books

Kristof-Brown, A.L. and Billsberry, J. (2013; Eds.) Organizational Fit: Key Issues and New Directions. Chichester: Wiley.

Billsberry, J. (2009; Ed.) Discovering Leadership. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Billsberry, J. (2007) Experiencing Recruitment and Selection. Chichester: Wiley.

Book chapters

Billsberry, J., Talbot, D.L. and Ambrosini, V. (2013) Mapping fit: Maximizing idiographic and nomothetic benefits. In Kristof-Brown, A.L. and Billsberry, J. (Eds.) Organizational Fit: Key Issues and New Directions. Chichester: Wiley.

Searle, R.H. and Billsberry, J. (2011) The construction and destruction of trust during recruitment and selection. In Searle, R.H. and Skinner, D. (Eds.) Trust and HRM. Chichester: Edward Elgar.

Billsberry, J. (2009) Leadership: A contested construct. In Billsberry, J. (Ed.) Discovering Leadership, pp. 24-34. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Billsberry, J. (2009) A leadership curriculum. In Billsberry, J. (Ed.) Discovering Leadership, pp. 1-11. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Billsberry, J. and Nelson, P.C. (2008) The impact of individualism on the outcome of penalty shoot-outs in international football tournaments. In Reilly, T. and Korkusuz, F.  (Eds.) Science and Football VI, pp. 169-173. Oxford: Routledge.

van Ameijde, J.D.J., Nelson, P.C., Billsberry, J. and van Meurs, N. (2008) Distributed leadership in project teams. In Turnbull-James, K. and Collins, J. (Eds.) Leadership Perspectives: Knowledge into Action, pp. 223-237. London: Palgrave.

van Meurs, N. and Spencer-Oatey, H. (2006) Multidisciplinary perspectives on intercultural conflict: The ‘Bermuda Triangle’ of conflict, culture and communication. In H. Kotthoff and H. Spencer-Oatey (Eds.), Handbook of Applied Linguistics, Volume 7: Intercultural Communication. Mouton: de Gruyter Publishers.