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The Big Question is 'So What?'

The "so what" questions that researchers ask took on great significance for Baylor graduate student Ester Gonzalez. The former vocational education teacher and graduate of Our Lady of the Lake University had just gotten her master's at Baylor when the opportunity arose to pursue a PhD.

A non-traditional student and mother of four, Gonzalez jumped at the chance. She was fuzzy on the significance of research at the time; she knew only that it was important. Now, after a research assistantship, she has several answers to "so what?".

As part of a research team that included professors Dorothy Leidner and Hope Koch, Gonzalez investigated the effects of a large insurance and banking provider's social networking system to find out whether it helped the bank retain information technology employees. The short answer: Yes.

"It helped because it is a socializing type of network," Gonzalez said. "It creates relationships with employees even before they start. For example, they give future employees other contacts in the bank that came from the same university. This creates a network of contacts for them. They get a feeling of belonging, a sense of community. Those are possible factors for retention."

Gonzalez, a PhD candidate in Information Systems, worked on the project last summer and through early 2010. Once the two professors helped start the project, she steered the investigation into specific ways the Nexus social networking system helped USAA Bank in San Antonio.

The trio chose USAA because Koch had been working with the institution in its college recruiting efforts for many years. She was able to schedule interviews and a site visit. Leidner provided guidance at the start, other times as needed, and again toward the end. The group met weekly at first, and talked regularly. When Gonzalez and Koch met with obstacles in the data, they turned the problems over to Leidner, who provided analysis insights. "It was a very collaborative effort between the three of us," Gonzalez said.

Koch, who plans to model undergraduate research after this project, saw Gonzalez transform. "When she started, she saw this as her summer project. By the time it was over, we were partners. She would come to us and say, 'OK, you need to do this and this.' She was doing more reading, so she was informing us. This elevates the student's idea of herself."

A big boost to the project, says Leidner, the Ferguson Professor of Information Systems, was obtaining data quickly." A lot of things came together right when they needed to. Getting good data is one of the biggest restraints in research." Also, she said, the topic was innovative enough to produce new information. The amount of work was enormous, she said, "But it was a very good learning experience for Ester. You learn best doing it yourself. She gained much more from this than taking five or six classes. She got a lot of exposure to the whole side of academic research."

The project resulted in a paper titled "The Role of an Enterprise 2.0 System in Integrating Generation Y IT New Hires Into the Workforce," and it is under submission to a journal. The team is preparing another paper for a conference. Writing a paper was an ambitious undertaking for a graduate student at the end of her first year, Leidner added. "It's a very good outcome for a student research project," she said.

Gonzalez now has a clear idea about how to conduct rigorous research. "That was the fuzzy part-what does it take to a get a project done so that it has that validity?" A vocational education teacher for seven years at Southwest Texas Junior College in Uvalde, she hopes to use her training to help young people prepare themselves for the future. "Not only for my children, but others," she said.

Ester Gonzalez
Baylor University