Traditional Textbooks Are Boring!

I can count on one hand the number of textbooks that I made it all of the way through in my undergraduate studies. Actually, scratch that. You don’t need hands to count that high – I’m not sure I made it all the way through any of them. And I was a motivated student who eventually became an academic.

If my undergraduate self could not sustain enough motivation to struggle through business textbooks, that doesn’t bode well for the average student. Indeed, this plays out in my experience, I often find that a good number of students routinely don’t read the textbook. But really, is it that surprising? Does reading a text-and-pictures traditional textbook sound like fun to you?

“The graphic novel format is a powerful, yet underutilized, tool for business and professional communication.”

At the same time, we need our students to come to class prepared. Whatever preparatory materials we assign needs to provide a foundation of knowledge that we can build from in class. We know that traditional textbooks do that. Do we dare deviate from what we know works?

Graphic Novels in Business Education

In our 2013 article Graphic Presentation: An Empirical Examination of the Graphic Novel Approach to Communicate Business Concepts, Jeremy Short, Brandon Randolph-Seng, and I explore whether graphic novels might provide a viable alternative to boring text-and-pictures textbooks. Graphic novels are book-length narratives that tell their story through sequential art (Eisner, 2008). While the uninitiated sometimes associate graphic novels with the Sunday comic strips, graphic novels are routinely used to convey serious material. For instance, Art Spiegelman used the graphic novel format in Maus, a story about the Holocaust presented through the eyes of mice. Similarly, Jacobson and Colón created a graphic novel version of the 9/11 Commission report.

To ascertain whether the graphic novel format may be a viable alternative, in our paper we compared the motivational and learning outcomes of students exposed to material in a traditional textbook versus graphic novel format. Students overwhelmingly (82%) preferred the graphic novel format to traditional textbooks. In terms of performance, students exposed to course contents in graphic novel format performed better at verbatim recognition tasks. Students exposed to graphic novel materials scored slightly lower on recall and transfer tasks; however, this difference was not statistically significant.

Together these findings paint an important picture regarding the potential role of graphic novels in business education. I would argue that recall and transfer is likely more important in business education than verbatim recognition. That is, I would rather my students be able to apply the concepts they learn than to articulate exactly how the materials were presented in the text. So while graphic novels may outperform on verbatim recognition, where it matters more (recall and transfer) there does not seem to be a significant advantage. However, the real story to me is in the motivation. With students indicating a strong preference for the graphic novel format, perhaps we can get more students to actually read the course materials. If so, it doesn’t matter that the learning outcomes do not differ significantly between the two formats. If a student isn’t opening the textbook to read it, it doesn’t matter how good the educational content is… they’re not getting exposed to it.

I applaud academia’s push toward open-source textbooks and electronic delivery. These innovations are valuable, and whatever we can do to reduce the cost of education to our students without sacrificing quality is worth exploring. However, we do ourselves a disservice by not taking the next step to evaluate whether the current format is the most effective way of presenting the material as well. It may be time to take alternative formats more seriously, and graphic novels seem worth exploring further.

Take Your Text Analysis up a Level

Organizational research is complicated and the levels of analysis we are interested in is no small contributor to this complexity. In one room at our annual Academy of Management meeting you could find one scholar looking at the within-individual cognitive processes of individuals at work and another comparing the influence of institutional-level processes on firm strategy. 

This diversity of interests enriches our field and the human/social origins of many of our constructs creates myriad opportunities for cross-pollination across levels. However, application of constructs across can introduce both theoretical and methodological challenges. For instance, management researchers famously debated the appropriate level of measurement and analysis of the organizational climate construct (i.e., Glick, 1985; James, Joyce, & Slocum, 1988; Glick, 1988).

There are well-established guidelines regarding how to use survey methods to elevate constructs’ level of measurement (i.e., Chen, Mathieu, & Bliese, 2005). However, survey response rates in organizational research can make rigorous applications of these methods difficult, causing researchers to turn to other techniques for organizational-level measurement. Computer-aided text analysis (CATA) is particularly attractive for measuring organizational-level constructs given the regular publication and availability of organizational texts. However, research in this area lacked guidelines for how to elevate constructs’ level of measurement.

Elevate Level of Analysis Using CATA

In our 2013 article, Using Computer-Aided Text Analysis to Elevate Constructs: An Illustration Using Psychological Capital, Jeremy Short, G. Tyge Payne, and I set out to adapt best practices from survey research to demonstrate how to elevate level of analysis using CATA while guarding against common theoretical and methodological concerns arising from doing so. We identify 19 steps in 5 phases that CATA researchers should follow.

Five phases:

  1. Definition of construct and development of deductive word lists
  2. Specification of the theoretical nature of the elevated construct
  3. Selection of appropriate texts and finalization of word lists
  4. Assessment of psychometric properties
  5. Examination of construct relationships


See the full table here

Key Considerations

In the first phase, you need to specify the definition and dimensionality of the construct at both the original and destination levels of analysis. These provide the basis for the development of initial deductive word lists for the CATA measures.

In the second phase, you need to provide the theoretical backing for the nature and existence of the higher-level construct. This involves not only accounting for the processes by which the higher-level construct emerges, but specifying the ways in which the elevated construct is similar to/differs from the original construct. This is key, because the conceptualization of the construct drives methodological decisions you will make in your content analysis.

In the third phase, you will use the theory developed in the first two phases to identify and collect a sample of appropriate texts with which to finalize and validate the measure. For instance, if measuring a construct at the organizational level, you will ideally collect a sample of texts reflecting organizational-level phenomena and contributed to by multiple individuals in the organization (e.g., Shareholder letters, 10-K filings, etc).


In the final two phases, you should put your measure through a battery of validation and psychometric assessments to ascertain the measurement qualities of the elevated construct. Many of these tests should be done to validate all new measures, regardless of their origin. However, a distinguishing characteristic here is that you want to compare your findings to the theory you specified regarding the elevation of the construct. Should there be close ties to findings of the lower-level construct, or is the elevated construct likely to be fairly different?

Organizational Psychological Capital

To demonstrate this process, our study elevated positive psychological capital to the organizational level. At the individual level, organizational behavior research defines psychological capital as being “an individual’s positive psychological state of development” (Luthans, Youssef, & Avolio, 2007: 3) and reflects the shared variance among an individuals optimism, hope, confidence, and resilience. Scholars in this literature have posited that this construct may also manifest at the organizational level, reflecting the positive psychological resources of the organization and may be a potential source of competitive advantage (e.g., Luthans, Luthans, & Luthans, 2004). 

Our study created CATA measures for Organizational Psychological Capital. Using a sample of shareholder letters from S&P 500 companies, we examined how CEOs use language associated with organizational psychological capital in communications with shareholders. In-line with Luthans, Luthans, and Luthans’ (2004) assertion, we found preliminary evidence that organizational psychological capital may be an organizational resource leading to improved firm performance.

The primary contribution of this study is methodological. However, given the well-documented benefits of positive psychology for individuals (e.g., Avey et al., 2011) and our finding that positive psychological firm resources may influence firm-level outcomes, there may be a valuable managerial implication as well. Firms that find ways to instill in their employees the optimism, hope, resilience, and confidence that engender psychological capital may benefit not only from a healthier, happier, and more productive employee base, but also (and likely by consequence) may find positive performance outcomes for the firm as well.

Why can’t all firms just be publicly traded?

“Measuring the performance of private firms has long been a challenge for management researchers.”

I cannot tell you the number of times I have asked myself this question in conducting organizational research. I do not really care that firm equities are publicly traded per sé, but it is frustrating trying to get good data on privately held businesses, making research difficult.

The reporting requirements (or lack thereof) of privately held businesses is a boon to these businesses. Freed from the administrative overhead of quarterly and annual reports, private businesses have the opportunity to focus directly on delighting customers with the products and services they desire. However, for researchers, it means a drought of data on a large and important chunk of the world economy.

Time to get creative. If we cannot get objective performance data, perhaps we can conduct a content analysis of firm goals to get valuable information regarding these privately held companies? This is what we set out to ascertain in our article Assessing Espoused Goals in Private Family Firms Using Content Analysis, published in Family Business Review.

This methods-forward piece is of particular interest for family business scholars for whom the privately held business challenge cuts two ways. First, like all privately held businesses, private family businesses do not have the burden of regular reporting requirements, making data collection difficult. Second, family businesses often have two categories of firm goals: utilitarian goals (those associated with the economic or business identity of the firm), and normative goals (those associated with the family identity of the firm). Accordingly, even if the researcher collected surveys from the firms, it may be less obvious how to appropriately ask about the performance of the firm as our traditional financial performance instruments often capture only the utilitarian goals.

By conducting a content analysis of firm goals in organizational texts such as firm websites and press releases, scholars can develop a deeper understanding of what aspects of firm performance are salient to the organizations in their sample. This is potentially theoretically interesting in-and-of itself because these goals play a central role in organizational strategy setting and behavior. It also serves the practical research purpose of directing researchers to the aspects of firm performance they should consider if, say, collecting surveys from these firms.

Our illustrative findings demonstrate the diversity of firm goals in privately held family firms with utilitarian goals spanning financial, operational, and product development aims and normative goals spanning quality of work life, corporate citizenship, and job security aims. We also find that firms in our sample either tended to espouse high levels of normative or utilitarian goals, but rarely both – highlighting well the challenge family firms have in balancing the often competing goals associated with their normative and utilitarian identities.