World thought leaders in High Performance

Scientific articles


Since the publication of the seminal work ‘In Search of Excellence’ (Peters and Waterman, 1982) organizations have been interested in becoming a high performance organization (HPO). This interest became even fiercer after the phenomenal success of the books ‘Built to Last’ (Collins and Porras, 1994) and ‘Good to Great’ (Collins, 2001), the increasing globalization and accompanying intense competition, and the economic recessions (caused by the IT bubble bursting at the beginning of this century, and the financial scandals at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. Managers were looking for techniques to strengthen their organization in a way that it could not only cope with these developments and threats, but could also quickly take advantage of opportunities and thus grow and thrive. The academic and especially the practitioner fields reacted on this ‘thirst for high performance knowledge’ with a plethora of books and articles on the topic of HPOs. These publications each came with their own description of an HPO, such as an HPO: achieves growth rates that are higher than those of the peer group over a prolonged period of time (Collins and Porras, 1997; Wiersma, 2001; Barchiesi and La Bella, 2014; Barnett, 2014); shows the ability to react and adapt to changes quickly (Quinn et al., 2000; Weick and Sutcliffe, 2001); shows a long-term orientation (Miller and Breton-Miller, 2005; Light, 2005); has integrated management processes (i.e. strategy, structure, processes and people are aligned throughout the organization) (Kirkman et al., 1999; O’Reilly and Pfeffer, 2000); and has great working conditions and development opportunities for the workforce (Kling, 1995; Lawler et al., 1998; Underwood, 2004). As researchers approach the topic of HPO from different backgrounds and angles and with different goals, it comes as no surprise that there is no univocal definition of the HPO. However, if such a definition is not available then the construct of the HPO cannot be operationalized in measures with which an organization can be properly measured and subsequently transformed into an HPO. This is unfortunate because HPOs in today’s fierce competitive world are considered to be ‘guiding lights’ as they are the example of how to manage and operate an organization in such a way that it creates the most added value for their stakeholders. It is also unfortunate because the lack of definition and proper measurement means that organizations can be ‘mislead’ in their efforts to become HPO by following ideas, so-called best practices and advices which turn out to be ineffective and sometimes even damaging. This is illustrated by the fact that we have seen organizations that, although they were designated to be HPOs in the well-known books ‘In Search of Excellence’ (Peters and Waterman, 1982) and ‘Good to Great’ (Collins, 2001), fail in the mid ort even short term: many of these organizations ran into serious economic trouble shortly after publication of the books they were profiled in and some did not even survive (Kirkby, 2005). Subsequently, researchers have shown that the criteria the authors of these books used to define and measure the HPO and on the basis of which they designated organizations to be high performing were not adequate and accurate (Niendorf and Beck, 2008; Resnick and Smunt, 2008; Raynor et al., 2009). Therefore, in this article – based on a review of the HPO literature – we attempt to answer the following research question: How can an HPO be defined and measured? We do not focus on the high performance individual or high performance team, our scope is strictly the organization. With the answer on our research question we aim to fill the current gap in the definition and measurement literature on HPOs and thus hope to move the research into HPOs forward.

The remainder of this article is structured as follows. In the next section we describe our research approach, i.e. the literature review, and the results of this review. We then synthesize our findings into a proposal how to define and measure an HPO. The article ends with a conclusion, limitations of the research and future research opportunities.

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Marco Schreurs

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