Baristas help Corban professor earn his Ph.D.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

When looking at what employees know about a task or a job, most research has been conducted from a third-person point of view.

However, Corban Associate Professor of Business Eric Straw, Ph.D., understood that more needed to be studied about how new employees comprehend their own knowledge and its application in the workplace. In July, he was awarded his doctorate degree from Nova Southeastern University based on his research titled “Construction of a Conceptualization of Personal Knowledge within a Knowledge Management Perspective using Grounded Theory Methodology.”

Straw’s doctoral dissertation focused on first-person epistemology, a branch of philosophy focused on the theory of knowledge. His research was centered on new baristas at Salem, Ore. area coffee shops and how they personally comprehended the various components of their job as they learned it.

“A good example of this is your decision to pass a car,” Straw said. “You may not be verbalizing that you will be able to pass safely, but you are living out this knowledge. Intuitively, the norm is that you aren’t going to pass unless you think you can do it.”

He chose to study baristas because of their steep learning curve, the short time frame to learn the job and the many components that factor into successfully doing it well. This includes the mechanics of making a coffee drink to the social interaction with customers while doing so.

“It includes all forms of knowledge and not just passing a test,” Straw said. His study of baristas can translate to any situation where someone needs to have an all-encompassing knowledge of what they are doing, whether learning to drive a stick shift or a newly blind person learning to use a walking cane.

What he discovered during the course of 37 interviews with 14 new baristas is that there are several key indicators of personal knowledge. On one end, is not knowing how to do a job and being overwhelmed. This included employees questioning themselves, seeking help and micro-thinking (thinking about each individual detail of a task). On the opposite end was knowing and confidence, which includes remembering, multitasking and efficiency.

“When I asked how they knew their job or task, baristas in that knowing category would say ‘I just know,’” Straw said. “Their responses to situations became automatic.” However, he noted people can fall between categories where they have the confidence that they know something, but in reality, don’t or know a task, but lack the confidence to do it.

Straw’s research is available for free and he hopes it can be used to help employers understand and adapt their training processes to maximize efficiency and productivity. He also hopes other researchers can build on the foundation of his work.

Straw can be contacted at 503-589-8179 or at

  • Corban Associate Professor of Business Eric Straw earned his Ph.D. through Nova Southeastern University.

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