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Research Field Study Brings New Sharing Apps to UC Merced Employees

June 14, 2019

The practice of sharing our possessions is something that most of us learned in childhood. Now, UC Merced Professor Anita Bhappu is expanding that idea to the workplace through a research study focused on collaborative consumption.

Launched in April, the Sharing Tribes Field Study uses two new mobile apps to build a sharing community of UC Merced staff and faculty who borrow and lend goods, as well as volunteer and receive services. The Share@Home app is for personal needs — borrowing a lawnmower, for example — while the Share@Work app is for professional needs such as borrowing a portable projector for a meeting. The goal is to connect employees so that they can consume more sustainably by buying less and saving money while also meeting new people at work.

Bhappu, who joined the UC Merced faculty in 2017, has a rich history of university teaching and served as program chair of retailing and consumer sciences at the University of Arizona. She also worked as a product development engineer for Procter & Gamble before joining UC Merced’s School of Engineering.

Bhappu became interested in the concept of collaborative consumption and digital platforms of the “sharing economy” while teaching at the University of Arizona. She saw UC Merced as the perfect place to pursue her research on organization-sponsored sharing platforms to increase employee engagement and sustainability.

Often, she explained, a person’s status is tied up in acquiring and consuming goods.

“But that is often unsustainable or creates a lack of sustainability,” Bhappu said. “You’re constantly worrying about your spending and debt. Our whole economic system is set up to promote consumption, but today individuals and the planet are struggling because of this.”

Bhappu decided to research collaborative consumption in the workplace, where coworkers might feel more comfortable sharing with each other, and also use it to build camaraderie. She wanted to test her hypotheses using digital platform technology, but could not find anything available on the market.

So Bhappu launched a company, Sharing Tribes LLC, to build the two apps now used in the research. Her background in management and organizational behavior, as well as her accumulated insights about why people don’t share, were useful in designing this new technology.

Bhappu’s research team is just beginning to sift through the first month of data from the year-long field study. When compared to a more controlled research experiment, a field study allows researchers to consider human behavior in more “noisy” conditions.

“I don’t need to know that it works in the perfect world; I need to know that it works in the real world,” she said. “It’s about changing people’s behavior as they navigate their everyday lives as consumers and employees,” said Bhappu.

Hopeful that the idea of collaborative consumption will engage employees, Bhappu aims to encourage more sustainable living in workplace communities.

“Right now, we’re trying to understand what draws people to register for the apps and what motivates them to share with coworkers,” she said.