After conducting thousands of studies that cover hundreds of issues related to productivity and the workforce, one thing is clear: there is no single organizational element that is correlated with high performance. Rather, there are five.

For decades, the research team at the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) has studied what separates high-performing organizations from their lower-performing counterparts. The results of that research have consistently shown that companies that excel in the following five domains are typically high performers:

  • Strategy
  • Leadership
  • Talent
  • Culture
  • Market

In December, i4cp set out to clarify the differences between high-performing and low-performing organizations across these domains, and to determine whether certain issues or traits have increased in importance in the current economic climate. The results were interesting, if not startling. The gap between higher-performing and lower-performing organizations has widened considerably from previous studies. Based on a scale from 1 to 7, high-performance organizations scored an average of 6.03 across these domains, compared with 2.88 for low performers.

Download a white paper on the five domains of high-performance organizations, or read on for more information.

"High-performance organizations all seem to recognize that, while excelling in these five areas is critical, these domains need to work together as an integrated system," said Kevin Oakes, CEO of i4cp. "The culture should be focused on the customer and reflective of the organization's talent, which in turn feeds off the leadership, who need to be aligned with the strategy, etc. If one domain is ignored or inefficient, the system breaks down. This five-domain system also contains many important sub-domains - our members would recognize them as knowledge centers -that are just as critical to explore."

Specifically the new study found the following in each domain:

1. Strategy
High-performance organizations outscored low performers by 6.14 compared with 2.58 in the critical area of Strategy. In looking at specific areas of strength vs. weakness, it's clear that an organization's strategic approach is vitally important to high performance. The common wisdom of "walk the talk" is an indispensable ingredient in high-performance organizations. If an executive says one thing and then does another, employees draw a variety of conclusions, most of them destructive to the organization.

Executives in high-performance organizations avoid these problems by ensuring that employees are clear about the strategic plan and the company's approach to business, and by ensuring that managers behave consistently. The study shows that the single most widely cited strategic practice among high-performance organizations was, "My organization's philosophy statement is consistent with its strategy." And the strategic practice in which high performers outstrip low performers the most is "Organization-wide performance measures match the organization's strategy," followed by "Organization's strategic plan is clear and well thought out."

2. Leadership
In Leadership, the gap between high-performance and low-performance organizations was 5.96 compared with 2.47. The study found that one of the most widely agreed-on leadership-related strategies is ensuring that "Everyone is clear about the organization's performance expectations." Another important factor associated with high performance is "Making sure employees believe that their behavior affects the organization." Leaders can't do their jobs alone. They must be able to convince others of just how important their own behaviors are to the success of the whole organization.

A third factor that was strongly associated with performance was the idea that "Management promotes the person who has the best skills and knowledge to do the job." Performance tends to be higher in organizations where promotions are based on talent and merit rather than on other factors, such as organizational politics.

3. Talent
With high-performance organizations scoring 5.82 in Talent, compared with 2.73 for low performers, the gap between the two is certainly wide. High-performance organizations know that effective Talent Management moves beyond a focus on HR practices, processes and systems, to a strategic approach that is linked to business outcomes. This begins with stepping outside of HR and looking at the organization from an outside-in perspective. This entails identifying the business model components and areas that drive value, and determining what the organization needs. It enables organizations to take a holistic approach to treating employees as individuals, while managing and making decisions based on data-driven information, all of which benefit the organization as a whole.

4. Culture
The difference between high and low performers in the all-important Culture category is 5.99 compared with 2.94. Being seen as a "good place to work" is a solid indicator that an organization is a high performer in this domain. Not only is this characteristic the most widely cited by high-performance organizations, it's also the biggest differentiator from low performers. High-performance organizations are also well aware of external factors - such as customers, markets and competitors - and they are ready to take on new challenges. Another element of culture that's relatively strongly correlated with high performance is a commitment to innovation and internal fostering of creativity.

5. Market
High-performance organizations scored very high in market or customer focus (6.23) vs. lower performers (3.69). The research shows that high performance is associated with a strong emphasis on customer service, including vigorous efforts to serve customers better than anyone else in the industry. High performance is linked with the use of "Customer information as the most important factor related to developing new products and services." High-performance companies are usually organized internally around what's best for the customer, and their strategy is based on customer data.

"The study reaffirms i4cp's focus on its 44 ongoing research projects, and our discoveries to date on high-performance organizations," Oakes commented. "Throughout 2010, i4cp will be launching new iterations of its most important studies - on such topics as leadership agility, customer-focused workforces and strategy execution and alignment - to see which tactics, strategies and practices high-performance organizations are using in this economic climate."

The High-Performance Organization Survey was conducted by i4cp in December 2009. The full results of the survey are available exclusively to i4cp corporate members.