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Learning by doing…

Do you find find the brain a wonderful thing!  As a research student one can flounder about with a flood of conflicting concepts coming in and out of your consciousness and be in this constant state of confusion!  But every now and then these concepts just seem to fit into place and you get one of those ah ha moments.  For me when these neurons connect, more often than not, it happens after learning by doing or learning by association rather than reading alone.  I love to read, and sometimes things click, but when doing something well outside your normal mode of doing – learning just seems the faster option.

Here are two recent examples, first learning by association:

1. I had heard the term ‘research strategy’ banded about quite a lot recently, but I could not really seem to grasp its importance when compared to research- design, philosophy, methodology, and methods.

The penny dropped for me during a class in Glasgow when I ‘associated’ strategy in research terms to strategy in business terms.  Strategy in business can be viewed as a deliberate hierarchical process or as an emergent bottom up process, or both in determining what to do.  The outcome by following a strategy top down development processes in business is that you end up with a capital S strategy i.e. the what, the vision, mission, and objectives.  Following a bottom up development process you end up with the small s strategies on ‘how’ to move from the ‘as is’ situation to the ‘to be’ situation.

For research Strategy (big S) could be thought of as research aims, questions and objectives to solve a problem just as a business looks at a vision, mission and objectives to solve a problem or go in a new direction i.e. defining the ‘to be’.

Equally, the research strategy (small s) could be thought of as philosophical/methodological position, and design, as to how to achieve the research aims and objectives.  Methods form part of this also as the research strategies are used to achieve the overall research Strategy!  Confused yet?

In business there is often a natural tension between the external environment and the preference to have this prescribed top-down rational Strategy; up against the internal environment and the preference for issue based emergent bottom up strategies.  Could this be a similar pressure to have a complete research strategy that guides the whole research verse the emergent research strategy that messily evolves as we learn to be researchers and solve unexpected problems as we go along?  It seems to fit for me.

More importantly perhaps, as in business it is my view is that it is not necessary to side with either camp i.e. it can be both and probably will be both.  This realization leaves me with the understanding that yes, with my supervisors support the research problem is developed, and a deliberate research Strategy can be put in place, AND, with methodological learning and unexpected events, this will be supplemented with research strategies to get closer to answering those  important research questions!

In the end – what ever the direction – it is all about the what, where, and the how.  To use a project management phrase – a research strategy might be best thought of as big S strategy and little s strategies that are being progressively elaborated until you reach your destination.

2. The second example leaning by doing comes from a practical observation method exercise at the same class. I had read voraciously about observation from both case study and ethnographic perspectives, and initially thought this would take the primary stage in my research project, in particular to see if people do as people say they do, and to make the most of being a project manager practitioner exploring practice!  Nevertheless, I’m kind of surprised to say that after the actual experience of observing, recording observations, and analyzing my observations it will likely now be relegated to take a supporting role.  But why is this?

Some pertinent points came out immediately of the exercise.

  1. How can I see what people “think” in regards to their self-identity albeit I may be able to see the signs such as material items, or behaviors? I think unlike an observation exercise say in a coffee shop where you can see processes and people interfacing with people, objects and systems – mostly project managers and participants interface in a different manner e.g. meetings, coffee runs, and email.  I think that too much might be hidden from the observers eyes in this type of research.
  2. I’m required as a working project manager that I must deliver first and my priority must be here rather than to any note taking, or observations must be relegated to my free time.  Thinking that I can take detailed notes while simultaneously working might be quite unrealistic.
  3. While observation offers the potential of a ‘deep’ account, this training exercise proved to me that even with 6 researchers we were unable to uncover a ‘full’ picture anyhow.  So how deep is deep becomes the question?
  4. This exercise also entailed my using NVivo for the first time – and I’m going to have to give it a thumbs up!  It easily enabled me to transcribe my recorded notes, and read, re-read the transcript to extract insights from the experience.  While I only touched the surface on the software’s capabilities it quickly earned a place on my research team.


So these past few weeks many things have become clearer and my mind has made some wonderful connections.  I also have to thank my new supervisor – our conversations are helping also – but perhaps even conversing is an active form that accelerates learning!!


In the next blog I might just share with you my research Strategy and strategies!


Love to hear what you think of this slippery term…

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