By Michelle Rafter
Jun. 1, 2010
This is the story of the research paper and the pepperoni pizza. Fifteen years ago, Eric Darr did his doctoral dissertation on what was then the relatively new field of knowledge management, studying how workers at Domino’s put pepperoni on pizzas and slid hot pies into pizza boxes for delivery.
Trivial though it may seem, by observing how employees at the chain’s southwest Pennsylvania franchises shared a new way to keep pieces of pepperoni from sliding together when a pan pizza went into the oven, Darr was able to determine the conditions under which knowledge is most efficiently transferred inside service institutions.
Darr’s research earned him a doctorate at Carnegie Mellon University and was written up in the academic journal Management Science. It was also one of the first published investigations into organizational learning, one reason textbook publisher Sage Publications is including it in a $1,000, four-volume anthology of breakthrough management research from the past two decades. The anthology, Innovation and Knowledge Management, is due out this month.
Domino’s has long since changed its pizza recipe, and Darr has gone from conducting research and teaching at universities to having a role in running one: He is executive vice president and provost at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania.
But the revelations at the heart of his 15-year-old pizza paper are still relevant, especially today when companies face losing baby-boomer employees to retirement—the very employees who could take their accumulated wisdom about the best way to do their jobs with them if companies don’t take steps to capture that knowledge.
In his paper, “The Acquisition, Transfer and Depreciation of Knowledge in Service Organizations: Productivity in Franchises,” Darr studied 36 Domino’s pizza outlets for 18 months, observing that employees at one store figured out that spreading pepperoni in spokes rather than all over a pan pizza kept toppings from sliding toward the middle of the pie during baking. That helped them turn out pies faster. Darr found that this and other tips for improving production shared within one or more stores owned by the same franchisee decreased short-term production costs despite high employee turnover.
The paper helped kick off a wave of interest in organizational management that has since led to the publication of hundreds of papers on the field.
Just as Domino’s discovered, companies faced with high turnover—whether because of retiring workers or from other causes—should do everything they can to make sure employees’ accumulated knowledge is embedded in workplace policies and procedures so it doesn’t leave when they do.
“If Joe worked there 20 years and he says it should be done that way for four reasons, look at those reasons,” Darr says. “Capture the procedure as well as the rationale behind it.”
Darr also urges companies to form networks to stay connected with key employees after they retire to continue tapping into their expertise.
“I’ve been doing work in this area for two decades and I know it’s really hard to pull out of someone’s head everything they know,” he says. “As an organization, you aren’t going to be able to do that. So to the extent that you can hang on to that person’s head even after retirement, that’s a good thing.”
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