Learning by Hiring: The Challenge of Teaching Entrenched Incumbents - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #614

Learning by Hiring: The Challenge of Teaching Entrenched Incumbents

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New scientists can bring new knowledge and expertise to a research team and improve the output and results of the team. However, companies need to beware of long-tenured incumbents who won’t take kindly to the arrival of these upstarts. Nor will they be welcomed into a non-collaborative environment.


When research-based companies hire new scientists to join their research teams, they are looking for two benefits. The first benefit involves output: what the new scientist can produce. This direct, individual benefit is accompanied by more indirect, organizational benefits — for example, the new scientist might boost the productivity of other colleagues through new knowledge, or by motivating them to exert more effort and improve performance.

Using data from 94 academic departments active in chemical engineering research, a team of researchers demonstrate that such additional organizational benefits do occur. However, the study also shows that these additional beneficial effects from new hires depend in large part on the social dynamics between the new scientists and incumbent scientists.

One of the variables uncovered by the research is the role of tenure. New scientists have less of an impact on the performance of incumbent scientists who have been in the organization for a long period. Intuitively, this makes sense. Entrenched scientists who, assumedly, have a long history of success do not feel that they have anything to learn from newcomers — no matter how knowledgeable or confident those newcomers might be.

Another variable is the diversity of research expertise in the department. In departments with less diverse expertise, there is more of a chance of overlap in knowledge and research interests between newcomers and the scientists already in the department.

Finally, a culture or environment of collaboration is key to expanding organizational knowledge through new hires. Knowledge transfer is easier when colleagues trust each other — and look to help each other. 


One way to expand the organizational knowledge base is to bring in experienced people with new skills and expertise. This research shows, however, that some organizations are more “primed” to benefit from “learning by hiring” than other organizations. If the research professionals in your company are strong collaborators and have a less diversified base of knowledge, new hires can have a significant impact on their new peers.

This research has an important lesson for managing research-intensive organizations: learning by hiring is not a one-shot deal. If your organization does not have a practice of continuously or at least periodically bringing in new blood, the scientists or researchers in place are not likely to welcome newcomers with new ideas.

In fact, these organizations probably also suffer from a lack of collaboration among the scientists already in place. In this case, improving the team’s performance might begin with changing the environment before bringing in new people.

Research-intensive organizations succeed by renewing their research capabilities. To make this happen, organizations must have a clear, comprehensive strategy (as opposed to counting on occasional bursts of new hiring) for knowledge renewal that begins with a culture of collaboration.



Learning by Hiring: The Effects of Scientists’ Inbound Mobility on Research Performance in Academia. Kremena Slavova, Andrea Fosfuri & Julio O. De Castro. Organization Science (January-February 2016). 

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Idea conceived

February 20, 2016

Idea posted

Jul 2016
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