Archive for January, 2011

Rome was not built in a day

My musings this week unveils a struggle I have begun to deal with in regards to my identity as a researcher.  My natural ‘get on with the job’ spirit seems to be getting in the way of the natural pace of academic research i.e. its gradual, reflective, its takes years not months (it seems is the mantra) for contribution to knowledge to occur.  I’m being asked to slow down and take my time…. not easy for me.


My research area is focused on how program and project managers might take their understanding of the identity lens to bring about more successful outcomes within and between organisations.  It seems to becoming clearer to me that an initial study is required to find out ‘what are the identity processes at play?’ and ‘do program managers understand the identity processes available to them?’    As a practitioner, I will admit I don’t know the answers to either of these questions – yet I can see a time when I will.


One thing that I do know for now, is that I am beginning to understand the Identity Theories ‘out there’ a little better (not crystal clear but concepts are emerging).  It has many forms whether it is: external or public (reputation or impression management), internal and private (organizational, group or individual); entitative or an emergent process; whether it is a whole self; or conflicted and fragmented by our multiple roles; whether it is collective, dominated or imposed by an organization, profession or role and social constructionism; or existential and individualistic; or most probably a dialectic amongst all these perspectives.


Frankly speaking, while I am finding Identity studies very interesting although I am not finding anything directly and obviously usable yet…. Is this me being a functionalist in pragmatist clothing?  I hope not.  Is there anything wrong with wanting to do research that starts from a critical and interpretivist paradigm, yet finishes up with new additions to theory that managers can use?  It seems logical enough to me to want to ask the question – now we understand what the identity lens might be – what practical difference can it make in our lives?


Five days a week I am a practicing professional – a program manager. Two days a week; and as many nights as my energy allows I am a practicing post graduate student doing his MRes and aspiring to a PhD!


In all areas, I find that once you have worked on a new discourse, a new language – then it can start to impose itself on you, kind of like being assimilated by the Borg (Star Trek).  Becoming a researcher, becoming more critical and investigative, and being socialized ‘part-time’ into the academic institution is not without its effect.  It can feel like I have a split personality at times; at other times it feels like they actually support each other i.e. 1. seeing and doing professional practice; 2. reading theory and research; 3. performing a faculty role as guide on the side and local counselor, or 4. Mixing them all up together.


For example: this week I have been looking at what might be required for an outsourcing and transformation programme.  My first stop was the literature.  What are people saying in 2011 about IT outsourcing; and what are they saying about ERP implementations; and how can I use what I have learned?  Truth is, some of the literature has helped me frame my approach and prepare a solid foundation to move forward with advising the client.


I will also say it is only because I am being socialized into academia that access to the literature is now open for me to use.  This is for two reasons: 1. Practically, as a student, researcher, and adjunct faculty I now have access to these publications. 2. Yet much more importantly, I’m building up a vocabulary and interest in certain academic traits: philosophy; paradigms; methodology; methods.  This results in the literature informing my thinking.  I must admit, I sometimes send the odd article to a fellow practitioner; but as I write this I’m questioning whether I should.  I’ve given access – but perhaps not thought about the ability to navigate complex academic language to find the jewels that might exist within!


So the natural question remains – who am I?  Am I a professional, am I a student, a researcher, or an academic, or am I some kind of hybrid?  What are the consequences, and how do I manage this transformation?


We all seem to “naturally enough” adopt many roles in our lives: a son, a father, a husband, a friend, a colleague, a manager, and an employee.  But this emerging identity as professional and academic seem to be conflicting roles: practice verse theory; fast verse slow; practical tendency verse rigour and deep thinking.


Ultimately I’m not sure how to approach this challenge.  Am I uncomfortable because of these conflicts, or is it because it is shaking up who I am?  Identity has private and internal perspectives therefore there are consequences internally and externally whether I like it or not!  For example: how do my professional colleagues view me, and allow me to be; how to my academic colleagues (students and supervisors) view me, and allow me to be; and in these relations to these impositions – what do I accept and reject?  I might be seeing these complex forces in play, but what tools do I have to navigate?  After all my reading, I’m sorry to say – I just don’t know yet.


My long standing personal philosophy comes from Existentialist roots through the now passed Professor Robert Soloman, who via his education taught me about existentialism…likes of Kikergard, Nietzsche, Camus and Satre.  From this position, I believe in personal agency, passion, responsibility, and authenticity.  Yet, agency has its limits, and authenticity can be viewed as a rejection of the herd mentality and the socially constructed realities.  The consequences of structure via organisations and society cannot be ignored from sometimes painful empirical experience.  I might want to be something and move along a certain trajectory only to find serious sometimes immovable obstacles that come from tradition, gender, race, religion, experience, and other more variable situational and institutional factors.


I will now take stab at labeling (by categories, group membership, and roles) who I am not!  I am not solely: a program or project manager; an academic; a researcher; a student; an employee, a manager, a leader; a husband, a father, a son, a whatever other family category; a white male; a Kiwi; a coach; a chess player; a golfer; a philosopher; a 41 year old; an expatriate; a human being!  I am not solely any of these, yet I’m not all of them at the same time either.  Perhaps I should just settle on the fact that I am an emerging project that will never be finished.  Or perhaps, I should question that very nature and usefulness of this question in the first place.


Instead of who am I – perhaps the better question is what do I want to do?  Move from some entitative description of ‘being’ to an emergent description of ‘becoming’ and ‘doing’?  Does it make any practical difference in my life to try and label myself, or even be concerned with who I think I am, and others think I am?  I think not, nevertheless it certainly feels of practical and emancipatory use to at least know the nature of my reality.  That my private self and public self seeks congruence, and that individualistic views will come up against realities ‘out there’.  It is also of practical use that skills, disciplines, competence and experience are permeable in between these personal roles, groups and categories – albeit not always socially acceptable.


It is possible I move between an over-identification and under-identification in my various roles, past, present and future.  What I don’t know however, is how to find this equilibrium – to remain firm under foot.  Kind of brings me back to my Coaching experience – who am I, where am I going, what is my purpose, and how will I get there?


All said and done, if there is one thing I am taking away from this week’s experience – I have to take my time becoming an academic level researcher – like building a city – it can’t be rushed.  The limited hours, the other commitments, the time to conceptualize new ways of thinking, the planning, the skill building, the reading, and the academic institution and traditions all prevent rushing the becoming a researcher.  Perhaps, it is because this is the way things really are….and should  be?


So my existential agency has its limits (or does it – as I still maintain the choice on how to respond to this challenge!).  One thing is for certain, my usual total immersion and over-identification strategy I have used ALL my life is going to have to be modified.  The following quote from a researcher describing the learning process – it is like ‘peeling away the layers of arrogance’.  I can relate to that.  Humbling and scary at the same time.  Maybe it can help one discover who one really is…but probably not!  So, for all the part-time post graduate students or academics out there (notice the identity categorisation) –

  • How are/did you deal with these questions of your identity?
  • Are you losing yourself?
  • Are you being re-moulded?
  • How are you changing?
  • How do you balance conflicting roles?
  • What strategies and tools are you using (or did you use) to keep it all in proportion?

I would love to hear from you and share experiences.


Categories: Identity, Uncategorized

Ten lessons from my MBA Project

It’s blog time – that moment when I put fingers to the keyboard and reflect on my research journey.  An insight that has been re-emerging (as I wrote a blog entry on this topic previously is that the MRes part of the PhD is all about becoming a researcher, and is not dominated by the topic of interest.  I suppose this should be obvious, but if you have the end in mind – then a contribution to knowledge in an area of interest, then research journey can look quite different.  I can explain this by saying that right now, I am learning much more about research itself.  Research philosophy, methodology, and method is omnipresent, rather than it being about organizational identity in the project environment.  I can see this shifting over-time, but it is not the current centre of my universe.


When I look back on my MBA, the emphasis was about learning the language of business, and the crown jewel was assembling a dissertation that involved doing some research in an area of interest to business.   But the emphasis was business first, and research second and I realize now that the dissertation could only have reached a sufficient quality that matched ones research skill level.


In my research project I did an auto-ethnographical study, and my being a bit narcissistic I loved that.  I had little access to negotiate, accept for some interviews I conducted, and the internal access question of how much I was willing to confess to myself, and therefore to others through my writing!


Now, the picture looks different with Research Philosophy and Method classes under my belt.  So today I take a look back on this research and offer a blog sized critique, extracting the extant lessons for me.  First the positives,



Under advisement from my advisor, I did maintain a clear separation of the coaching experience, and any literature review, or research during the coaching.  This enabled the experience to be genuine and not interfered with by concepts or others experiences.


Data Collection

I used multi-method (interview and auto-ethnography) not that I really appreciated the significance at the time.  I recorded and transcribed all the coaching transcripts – a great source of data to analyze, and I used my actions list between the coaching sessions as another source of data to see progress in-between sessions.  Lesson 1: Real life events are excellent sources of insight.


Data Analysis

While I might have lacked scientific rigour, I was pushed by my advisor to do a second order analysis – and too be honest I was not sure what that was at the time.  From this second order analysis, a model of my personal experience did emerge.  Returning to viewing the literature in light of my findings, and extracting other models previously published, then comparing and contrasting these was most productive.  One contribution I feel from the project was the idea that the coachee ‘unconsciously assimilates’ the skills of coaching from the coach.  As I went back into the literature it was here I discovered a link between coaching with adult learning theories, a particularly cool outcome.  Lesson 2: Research is iterative.



This for me was the most enjoyable part of the project, and not at all in the spirit of writing perfect English grammar either, but instead from the creativity, empowerment, and digging back into my memory bank to write the non-fiction vignettes that I used as a rhetorical tool for taking the reader through my story.  What worked really well was sharing often my writing and getting feedback!Lesson 3: Always get feedback on writing from others.  Now the negatives,



My understanding of my philosophical position was non existent.  I picked the phenomenon under study – executive coaching, a coachee perspective, and thinking that a pure way of getting an insider view, and therefore auto-ethnography was selected right of the bat!


My method therefore, implicitly came under the umbrella of an interpretivist framework.  Looking back now, it would have been interesting to review the data again, however, under a social constructivist paradigm.  Under this paradigm, one will be able to extract how the coach and the coachee co-construct narrative and see the processual nature of the coaching experience.  Interviewing the coach would have been a useful addition to support this philosophy. Lesson 4: Make your ontological and epistemological position explicit, and think though all the options.



I made a judgment error here by not following the advice of my advisor.  I had early on been influenced by a friend that for research to be credible must have multiple voices.  I was after a distinction level project so as a sort of risk aversion, I chose to run semi-structured interviews to support the auto-ethnography.  With a word limit of 16000 words for the dissertation, this clearly was a serious compromise, and one I would be careful to repeat in future.  Lesson 5: Follow your supervisor’s advice!


Data Collection

The semi-structure interviews were poorly run, I never felt that I really connected with interviewees (they were all bar one – over the phone), and I never understood until now the unique power relations between interviewer and interviewee, and therefore did not account for it.


Perhaps through lack of experience, I also added questions near the end that formed a primary part two of the questionnaire on tools.  I sent these via email to gain the missing data and in hindsight was a bit sloppy.  This might reflect the messy iterative nature of data collection and analysis…


Overall, I will admit I really lacked (and still do) skill in this area.  If interviews become a part of future research (and I think they will) then I need some practice and skill building.  Lesson 6: Work on your interview skills, and run a pilot that includes analysis to see how it fares, or perhaps even better consider the use of multi stage interviewing – e.g. one before any analysis and one afterwards where you can legitimately add questions relating to emerging ideas, and co-construct/validate the narrative.  I think in this way the participant can become a researcher, a collaborator, especially in light of the interpretation of their own story.


Operationally, one final, criticism relates to my lack of control on interview data.  I carefully recorded the interview scripts, and took notes throughout.  As I neared the end of my analysis (thankfully) I accidentally deleted my interview transcripts from the audio recording device without back up.  This meant I needed to rely on my hand written notes, and analysis completed to date.  Out of embarrassment I never let this error out of the bag! Lesson 7: Keep back ups of your data!


One serious criticism, in both interviews, and my being a researcher – I failed to maintain a researchers diary where I could record, review, reflect, modify my approach.  At one stage my advisor said… “that is not the way it happened” – when I sent subsequent drafts of my dissertation, and I had innocently got caught in the trap of rewriting history in a sequence that perhaps sounded more interesting, or logical.   Lesson 8: Keep a research diary and be reflexive.  This blog is in part helping me be true to the PhD researchers experience, but I know that once I start designing and executing the next research project, this will not be enough.


Data Analysis

This is probably my biggest criticism – a vagueness on how the analysis was actually executed.  Recently after reviewing 169 organisational identity studies – I must say that many share this vagueness – but it could also be short word counts for publishing articles.


Simply put, I was never explicit on how the findings emerged from the auto-ethnographic data.  This is what I wrote in my paper:


“From the personal data store of my own experience I carefully reviewed transcripts, journals and field notes to check relevance and indication of changing behaviours or thought patterns, looking at dialogues, volume and tone…. With different coloured highlighters I coded themes from coaching sessions, insights, key actions, overall value, energy levels, moods, and my confidence levels.  This analysis resulted in the creation of the coaching journey map to piece together a holistic overview of my coaching journey. Next I recorded my experience in story through a process of careful event selection and creative non-fiction writing..”


Later I wrote:


“Once all interviews were completed, I then listened to the recorded interview transcripts, and analysed others’ experiences in conjunction with my own experiences, looking through for commonalities and differences in the use of words, phrases and intellectual or emotional connection. I reviewed self data and participant data to discover which of “tools” were most instrumental in achieving change within the coaching journey. I identified these as “keys” that appear to function by unlocking the doors to change within individuals.”


The truth is, the ‘keys’ kind of just jumped out at me.  My method of coding was intuition based yet lacked reflexivity (see lesson 8), and questioning the coding was not undertaken.  I don’t explain the second order analysis either…. Not even sure how I missed this point.  My second order analysis was from ideas that emerged, and a need to demonstrate some sort of model or hypothesis.


Overall, I just get the sense that my data analysis was not scientific enough!  I don’t mean this from a positivist position.  What I mean by this comment is that even from the subjective and interpretivisit standpoint, one can and must bring rigour and transparency to data analysis.  I think it is ok that ideas just “pop out”, but at least one can track where and when it did so.  Lesson 9: research how qualitative data analysis can be performed, understand it, design it, and document it.  



I think within the writing part of the project, I remain confused and dissatisfied overall.  I read an amazing auto-ethnography by Carol Ronai – ‘On loving and hating my mentally retarded mother’ (accessible online) – and I had set my sights on something similar of that nature.  However, I was being asked to re-write my coaching experience so that it did not appear as a story or sequence, and instead to write it from a thematic perspective.


My initial goal to communicate via story on how a coaching experience unfolds and leave the interpretation of the included subjectivities up to the reader, this goal was either an incorrect thing to do in an MBA research project or it was misunderstood.  This requires future scrutiny.  Lesson 10: Understand the purpose and genre of your writing that will represent your research.

In sum, I have tried not to be overly critical on my Masters level research project, yet at the same time make an honest blog-sized appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of the attempt.  The conclusion reached within the research itself I still regard highly, as useful and informative, perhaps even explanatory, however, it could have been significantly stronger.  You can find the link to the project here:


Here are the lessons again, from my very first research attempt:

  1. Real life events are excellent sources of insight.
  2. Research is iterative.
  3. Always get feedback on writing from others.
  4. Make your ontological and epistemological position explicit, and well though through!
  5. Follow your supervisor’s advice!
  6. Work on your interview skills, and run a pilot that includes analysis to see how it fares, or perhaps even better consider the use of two stage interviewing.
  7. Keep back ups of your data.
  8. Keep a research diary and be reflexive.
  9. Research how qualitative data analysis can be performed, understand it, design it, and document it.
  10. Understand the purpose and genre of your writing that will represent your research.


One final admission, from my experience with a remotely located supervisor.  You need to be bold to admit when you don’t know what your supervisor means – I remember quite a few times I would read, then re-read emails to try and understand a point made – yet not go back and ask what seemed like a silly question!  So what is second order analysis then?


I hope you find these useful, and I would love to hear from you and similar lessons learned, or feedback on these ones.

Case Study and Ethnography compared

The purpose of my blog is and always has been as a personal record of my progress of becoming a researcher, and share that record to assist personal reflexivity.  In my first six months, and what can only be called a false start can be regarded as a useful period of learning and reflection.  Since then my progress has been steady, with research philosophy completed, research methods underway, a new topic chosen, and finally a new proposal submitted.  This hard work was rewarded this week with my place as part-time post graduate student confirmed by Strathclyde Business School.


One thing that surprises me in the academic world is the tremendous depth to the academic canon, within disciplines, sub-fields and subjects.  This is no different in the area of organisational identity study literature, nevertheless, this seems to be a mere shadow of the work done in research philosophies, methodology, and methods.


From my last blog entry I identified both case study and ethnography as two research methods that were commonly used in Identity studies.  Since then I have been attempting to compare and contrast these methods/methodologies and have come off a little shell shocked!  So much has been written about both approaches.  There are positivist slanted case studies in order to get closest to acceptable science, and emergent subjective alternatives. There are many flavours of ethnography from studying the exotic or the mundane, getting close to the action, or in the case of self-ethnography (not to be confused here with auto-ethnography) distancing oneself sufficiently from the action (Alvesson, 2003).


Case study and ethnography have many similarities, and can use common data collection methods such as observation, interviews, documents, and archival analysis (Tellis, 1997).  Data analysis, again seems to follow a similar pattern by generally using grounded theory or literature informed inductive methods to extract findings from the data, although Case Studies need not necessarily be bounded by this statement.  I have noticed that articles do seem much more likely to clearly outline data collection methods where the data analysis methods on the other hand often seem light in their description.


If I can posit the differences so far between case studies and ethnography, it would come down to politics, purpose, research period, the output and at a stretch where the researcher is positioned.


Case Studies were most used in Identity Studies, and do seem more outward looking, and interested in the inquiry of ‘a phenomena’ with a bounded system called the case.  They can be descriptive or explanatory, or instrumental; multi or single site; multi or single case (Stake, 2005).


Purpose: and outward looking inquiry of ‘a phenomena’ within a bounded system

Politics: (seems can be used particularly to get funded research)

Research Period: Shorter observational periods than ethnography (contestable)

Output: Case report (reaching for a funded outcome as agreed in the beginning)

Research Position: close or far, but more often than not trying to maintain a certain neutrality.


Ethnography, on the other hand, can be described as inward looking, creating the ‘perfect spy’, and embedding the researcher in order to inquire to the unwritten/tacit laws that operate within a certain culture or organisation (Cohen, et al., 2003).  This being said, it does seem that there is much more acceptance to move away from the anthropological history of “exotic” inquiry towards the “mundane” of  organizational life (Rosen, 1991).


Purpose: inward looking, and extraction of the unknown rules within a culture

Politics: seems largely apolitical on the surface anyway, and may struggle to be considered a ratified research method and the juxtapostioned funding problems.

Research Period: Longer observational periods than case studies to become part of culture, but again this can be argued that organizational ethnographies are not any longer than the case study observation.

Output: A major difference must be here, where the ethnography has many examples of getting closer to a creative fiction that accurately depicts a non-fiction.

Research Position: close (even with self-ethnography), trying to ‘go native’ yet maintain reflectivity and reflexivity.


I am particularly like the safety that comes from the case study protocol, its acceptability even if it must come to grips with general qualitative research method criticisms.  I don’t like though the rigidity, some of the postivist undertones, and competing views of what is an effective case study.  It also makes me nervous to come to grips with multiple methods of both data collection and data analysis i.e. being skilled interviewer, statistician, or observer.  Following on, my trying to think through how to compare potential incommensurable data is also uncomfortable.


Thinking of case study I wonder IS organizational identity, or identity construction the phenomena under study?  


Ethnography seems wonderful with its creativity, its ‘suck it and see’ approach to what comes out of the study.  Equally it feels risky, unstable, and what if nothing significant emerges?  Funnily, I tried to maintain an ethnographic diary for two days last week documenting my observations during those days… I liked it, and quickly hated it at the same time.  How so?  Well, I liked the writing down my thoughts, reflections, and sometimes the a following sentence was modified due to reading what I just wrote!


As an example:

“I luke warmly said hello to a few people, and a little warmer to others.  They asked where had I been, had I been in Al Ain the whole time.  ‘What an insult’ – I thought – how little people really care.  No idea where I was I what I had done – equally, I had given up on them also, so perhaps I was [and previously] insulting them.


Reading this again now, a further recognition to the kind of narcissistic self centeredness of my comments…. Reflection on Reflection.  Albeit, still a fairly passive reflexivity but the insight may bring about change to future diary entries, and posting this on the web or discussing with my supervisor offers an active challenging alternative to my thinking and practice!


By day three (after some stressful long days) I found had no energy to write up my thoughts, or excuses crept in like no time because of a family outing, etc…  So my first attempt, only two days of diary entries, a few meeting notes and transcripts!   As I write this though, there are solutions, like perhaps using a podcast alternative to typing up – just press record and speak.


Thinking of ethnography I wonder – IS identity, or identity construction a valid focus of inquiry into an organizational culture?


So where am I at with these two research possibilities, can I innovate, or can I crisscross and walk around the research methods hypermarket with my trolly taking only the tools and techniques I like best, and that suit the nature and context of my research?  Truth – I have no idea.  Time to float that question of my new supervisor!!


Love to get your comments on whether I’m getting closer to understand the differences and similarities between these great research methods.


PS. I also want to really thank my wonderful wife Alexandra for putting up with me, and all my really cool friends out there – you know who you are: Rula, Richard, Ron, Deanya, Suba, Paul K, and Tony for all your fantastic support.


Without you I would not be where I am today – now registered, and on my way!



Alvesson, M., 2003. Methodology for close up studies – struggling with closeness and closure. Higher Education, 46, pp.167-193.


Stake, R.E., (2005). Qualitative Case Studies. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln, eds. The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research. pp. 443-466.


Tellis, W., (1997) Introduction to Case Study. The Qualitative Report, 3(2).


Yin, R. (1994). Case study research: Design and methods (2nd ed.). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publishing.


Rosen, M., (1991) Coming To Terms With the Field: Understanding and Doing Organizational Ethnography. Journal of Management Studies, 28(1), pp.1-24. Available at: http://doi.wileycom/10.1111/j.1467-6486.1991.tb00268.x.