Two University of Scranton Professors’ Collaborative Research Focuses on Quality and Continuous Improvement

Nov 29, 2016

We often have this misconception of academic research as a solitary occupation, for the lone wolf, huddled alone among stacks of papers in the shadows of the office.

But if you were to tell that to Rose Sebastianelli, Ph.D., and Nabil Tamimi, Ph.D., you’ll likely be on the receiving end of a polite chuckle and a thick folder filled with the numerous studies the two University of Scranton operations and information management professors have co-authored.

“We probably worked on our first project together around 1995,” said Dr. Sebastianelli.

Fast forward to the cusp of 2017, and she and Dr. Tamimi are collaborating on two studies that continue the threading of a theme that runs through the bulk of their research – showing how businesses and organizations should seek to continuously improve and to do so by encouraging an emphasis on quality, standards of excellence and social responsibility, for example. 

Key concepts and buzz words on this subject are commonly used in Forbes, the Wall Street Journal and other business publications – total quality management, six sigma, lean, e-quality, and so on. In short, consider it quality with a capital “Q,” the never-ending pursuit of excellence and continuous improvement by establishing and maintaining quality standards for your business and organization. Customers expect high-quality experiences and products whether that be an economy car from the production line or an online course in a master’s degree program (the latter being a topic explored in one of the professors’ studies).

“The quality movement gained momentum in the early 1990s,” said Dr. Sebastianelli, who holds a Ph.D. in management science from Pennsylvania State University. “Now after a couple of decades, this is the way business is being done. And nearly all of our research can be linked back to quality.”

For example, in one study proposed to begin in the spring, they will be assessing how perspectives on quality may have changed over the years. They also plan to explore linkages between quality and ethics: can quality be defined and fostered through corporate codes of conduct? Do companies consider quality to be an ethical imperative? Think corporate social responsibility (CSR). Additionally, if an emphasis on quality (improving customer experience, product longevity, workforce morale, for example) is ethically codified within an organization, will that help them to better overcome organizational barriers to continuous improvement?

In a study currently underway, they will explore a similar theme – the link between CSR and financial performance: that is, whether CSR is economically worthwhile; whether it “pays to be good” or “pays to be green.”

“Justifying CSR in economic terms is a persuasive argument (even to those who believe the firm’s basic goal is to enhance shareholder value), that the firm should contribute more broadly to the well-being of society,” Dr. Sebastianelli and Dr. Tamimi noted. Preliminary results from this line of  inquiry were presented at the national meeting of INFORMS (The Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences) recently held in Nashville. 

Of course, the word “quality” itself is, admittedly, quite nebulous: How does one measure quality, and is a term of such breadth even measurable? One opinion of the quality of a lawnmower may differ significantly from that of another. And that’s been the challenge of their research: defining and measuring quality and doing so in an assortment of contexts. In that vein, they attempt to solve that seemingly nebulous challenge through precise methodology. They have gone so far as defining and measuring if codified quality standards, such as companies attaining environmental best practices certification, for example, will boost stock market valuations.

In that 2015 study, “Improving the quality of environmental management: impact on shareholder value,” which won Outstanding Paper in the 2016 Emerald Literati Awards for Excellence, they investigated whether acquiring an environmental performance certification called ISO 14000 – their quality factor – increased the stock market values of a select portfolio of publicly traded companies. The result: ISO 14000 certification was a strategy that paid off for both investors and the companies. Quality, corporate social responsibility, ethical conduct, profit/revenue and market valuations are often interlinked — and in surprising ways.

“The study shows that it pays to be green from a strategic long-term investment strategy,” said Dr. Tamimi, who holds a Ph.D. in operations management-management science from Temple University and an MBA in operations management from Scranton.

“It’s the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit,” Dr. Sebastianelli added.

These and other intertwined concepts that are threaded throughout their research are rooted in a shared intellectual heritage. Early in their careers, the professors were separately introduced to the teachings and writings of W. Edwards Deming, author of the widely acclaimed Out of the Crisis. In his 14 principles of management, Deming laid the philosophic and practical foundation of quality and continuous improvement. Out of the Crisis argues that the long-term success of a company will only be accomplished through constant, continuous quality improvement. Deming’s tenets of total quality management are applied at a much more granular level by Dr. Sebastianelli and Dr. Tamimi in their numerous studies, as well as by colleagues in the field.

Dr. Tamimi based his Ph.D. dissertation on Deming’s work, taking his broad principles and developing actual operational measures for each principle. He described him as the “father of quality management” and a significant influence on their research to this day.

“I got to see him in person before he passed away,” Dr. Sebastianelli said. “At the age of 90, he was delivering one of his seminars to thousands of executives. He really believed in his message – that it is necessary to pursue continuous improvement. It never ends.”

And that search for finding and measuring continuous improvement and quality never ends for these two driven University professors. Just last year, for example, they co-authored a paper published in the Journal of Education for Business that assessed how students perceive the quality, or value, of an online MBA program. Specifically, they measured “how six factors related to content and student interaction affect the students’ perceptions of learning, satisfaction, and quality.” Interestingly, in the paper, “Factors Affecting Perceived Learning, Satisfaction, and Quality in the Online MBA: A Structural Equation Modeling Approach,” they found that “professor–student interaction, while a significant predictor of student satisfaction, does not have a significant effect on perceived quality. Instead, we find that perceived quality depends on student–student interaction and mentoring–support.”

This year, they published a study that evaluated how consumers perceive and evaluate e-tailer quality. E-tailer is a shortened variant of electronic retailer. Examples include Amazon and eBay. Like many of their other studies, this study offers practical knowledge that can be utilized by online retailers to “develop more effective, targeted strategies for enhancing the quality of their websites and increasing customer loyalty,” according to the study, “How e-tailing attributes affect perceived quality: the potential impact of customer demographics and online behaviors.”

 “I hope in the future, the environment, sustainability and corporate social responsibility, will be ingrained into the way business is done, much like quality has been,” Dr. Sebastianelli said. “Consumers are savvier and more cognizant about these issues, ultimately thinking about the greater good. There are many factors that influence the bottom line.”

Rose Sebastianelli, Ph.D.

Nabil Tamimi, Ph.D.

Back to Top