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Moving on quickly then to PhD proposal

I’ve no idea whether this blog will make any sense today, but I just feel the need to write a couple of things down…

My MRes dissertation (aka pilot study), on the effects of project life on project manager identity is now complete, and in its final packaging before sending to the external examiner.  I’ve started some knowledge exchange in terms of one conference and another workshop in April.  For some reason though, I’ve found that there is a strong desire to move on to my PhD proposal, especially after making the following few realizations (in no particular order).

1. My MRes was great, and an interesting and rewarding research experience.  However, I felt near the end somewhat dissatisfied with the ‘shakey’ and bland case study methods in identity research, particularly around any tie back to ontological and epistemological foundations.  Something lacked a little here without trying to undermine it too much.  I think it is good research, just Master level research.  This I want/need to correct during my transition to new PhD.

2. Identity research from the organisational theorists’ perspectives has also left me a little unsatisfied.  In fact, I’ll agree with Mats Alvesson that there is a considerable myopathy within identity’s philosophical paradigms.  I would prefer to be more holistic in my PhD identity research so I’ve been looking for alternatives.  That’s when I stumbled across Paul Ricoeur.

3. Paul Ricoeur offers a considerable depth for me as a researcher.  From the hermeneutic cycle which I do like as a method to increasing understanding – like reflexive practice, and not claiming any certainty etc.  It also fits with my beliefs around the social construction of human reality.  Next his work on time and narrative, and most important to my research – his conception of narrative identity.

I’m now reading about his structured approach to narrative interpretation through Mimesis.  Mimesis 1, the pre-configuration of narratives events, Mimesis 2, configuration using employment, and Mimesis 3 – a hermeneutic I suppose in the reconfiguration with the addition of the researcher’s/readers own meaning.  I can sense this fits quite well with Wittgenstein’s language games.  I see to that there will be alternatives…  Now, I don’t proclaim to have a great depth of understanding yet, but there is a sense in which this all feels like a safe and exciting place to start my journey.  If anyone has any PhDs, Masters or even articles on Ricoeurian Hermeneutic analysis I’d be most grateful for a heads up on where to find these.

4. Finally, on one hand, I’ve narrowed my interest to specifically the effects of “project success and failure” and on the other hand, widened my interest to the notion of professional manager identity i.e. not necessarily certified project manager.  Ricoeur’s narrative identity looks like a new way of conceptualizing what happens to peoples plots after project success/failure, and I think it will fit well with managers who will need to tell me their stories either by interview, or through text (say a book, blog, autobiography etc)  Narrative identity looks to allow things that seemed lacking in other theories such as allowing the combining of history and fiction; the past, present and future (temporal aspects);  the implicit and explicit; the concordance and discordance; etc.  I currently though to be fair – I do not really understand yet what is on offer and what is not.

I have some reservations on Ricoeur, particularly as he had such a strong evaluative, ethical, moral, and christian side to his works which rubs me up the wrong way a bit.  I’ve always preferred existentialist philosophers better such as Nietzsche or Jen Paul Satre and the aesthetic life.  But at least, another favorite of mine – Heidegger is foundational to Ricoeur.  Nevertheless, reservations aside, I think I’m on my way – and the sense-breaking has begun again as I try to understand his writings and read others writings of him.  When I just thought I understood what identity is… it is once again taken away from me.  How exciting!!!!

Some progress at last.

You know sometimes the weeks just pass you by and you wonder just what have I achieved?  These past two months have felt like that but I studiously have kept chipping away at what seems a terribly large task – doing my MRes dissertation on route to starting the PhD full next year.

After collecting data during June and July, analyzing data August and September, October has been a month where I stopped opening NVivo so much, and began to write again.  In that time, I pulled out all my papers to read and my first iteration of the Lit. Review from April to have another go at getting a Lit. Review chapter out.  Pleasingly, a couple things occurred. 1. My actually having spent time doing research I had unconsciously become more informed about the subject, and my re-reading key articles a whole set of ideas seemed to connect in my brain!  2. This increased understanding seemed to both help me critique my earlier work in April, and speed ahead in writing a more focused second iteration.

I have been struggling with the reductionism required in writing a Findings chapter, and I still have much work to do in this area.  The fact is that I seem like many to have way too much material, and I have had that feeling of trying to report everything that I have found with appropriate evidences.  As the weeks go by, I have found that writing without word constraints followed by moving to write something else creates some sort of space where I can be a bit more ruthless.  Still more work to do here though.

The methods chapter thankfully I leveraged much from the earlier essays, and my journal of actual research choices and facts along the way.  Again, like the Lit. Review I can see more clearly what to keep and what to drop.  Even today, I went through my papers I had set aside with notes in the margins – and further refined the theory aligned to my research actions.

Last week, however, I’ll admit to a real bout of shock, perhaps trepidation as I realized that since Alvesson and Willmott’s original 2002 seminal article on Identity Regulation, that scholars have certainly written a lot more about the subject, and after careful reading I though – “shit, much of what I see in my findings has been already said”.  Thankfully, the MRes is not that kind of dissertation like the PhD will be, but given some responses to my tweet on the subject there was some really good comments, one in particular from @NSRiazat who says new knowledge comes from ‘how you weave the story’, and this comment combined with my good friend Paul that I was approaching the discussion chapter with a negative frame of mind – woke me up to the fact that yes – I can do this!

Not that it is the requirement of the MRes but I will make the claim that I’m ‘creating’ something worthwhile, in two ways: 1. I’m extending Alvesson and Willmott’s model to include some aspects found in my research not in their paper, and in some case supported by others work, and 2. that this new model is the first time I have seen these broadly discussed areas in one place.

Additionally, after revising my aims that underpin the research – I can also see both practical implications for project managers and managerial implications for organizations who may make use of identity regulation in a positive way.

So all in all, I’m chuffed – and ready to start the Discussion Chapter now.  I can see light at the end of this first tunnel in order to think more deeply about how my PhD will take my initial work further – AND – that I will in time need to step my game up to another level, the recent realization that professional academics really make it hard for PhD students to create new knowledge as they are so seasoned and bloody good at it!  But, it can be done, of course.

This will be my fastest blog ever – 15 mins from start to finish… it was all just sitting in my head to posted.

I’d love to hear from others who have had similar experiences during their research…

Plea for help!

My blog today – from my new blog site (after I spent much of Saturday transferring over the content from iWeb is a plea for help on my MRes dissertation project from the research community #phdchat.  Yesterday, I posed a question on #phdchat that got a lot of responses: what do you call participant-observation that is based from memory – and is it a valid data collection method?  Let me explain.

Recently, I lost my primary case site where I was going to do a case study with 6 day participant-observation, interviews * 2 with 3 program managers, and documentary analysis of project management methodologies, PMO charters etc.  My plan B (now Plan A) was to move the case site to a location where I have worked before.  My change to the data collection is to interview circa 15 project managers with unstructured in-depth interviews on identity, and continue with documentary analysis (no change here).

What has changed significantly is that the 5-6 days of observing project managers is impractical as I can’t observe 15 managers except in the general sense, and I can’t get close to the action due to their primary work being all over place, and I would only get to see them at temporary desks sending emails…at best.  So I got to thinking about the years I had worked there, and the events, presentations, and meetings etc.  I did get to observe most of these project managers in action in some form or another.   The key is point us that I never made any notes.

So what I’m thinking is to go back through emails, presentations, critical events (there were some) with most of the project managers I’m interviewing and construct accounts from my perspective.  The idea is still the same in that I want to see how ‘what people say’, verse ‘what I SAW them do’, and the documentary evidence converges or contradicts in order to same some thing useful and, valid – kind of like a retrospective diary.

Is this a valid data collection method?  If I was interviewing someone it could be called narrative history or oral history perhaps – but I’m writing it.  Alternatively, I could call it auto-ethnography – however, here I am not the subject.  Is there something called auto-narrative history hehehe?

I believe it is participant-observation – just an odd form of it.  I could use say Spradley’s framework (1980, p78) to make it somewhat systematic!

SPACE ACTORS ACTIVITIES OBJECTS ACTS EVENTS TIME GOALS FEELINGS

What would you call it?  Or is my thinking here just nonsense???  Help me find a way to use what I think could be useful data for compare/contrasting purposes.  And, most importantly, be my heroes and share some references of research projects or articles that have implemented the same strategy legitimately.  I will need some backing I would think to get this past the external examiner!

PS. I hope this blog works ok!  It is the first time I’m using WordPress.

My MRes Research Design

With defending my research at a recent research colloquium, I seem to have reached some sort of saturation point i.e. I think it is time to start the actual research!  Its time to get on with it, well at least get the ethics approval negotiate access with my case study site.

Today for the first time, I’m going to share my research strategy publicly, and would love to hear from people via #phdchat on twitter, via email michael.cowen@strah.ac.uk  or via blog comments.

So here goes people!

The working title of the research is –

“Manufacturing Identities?”:an exploration of project manager identity practices

 

Research Problem: Project Management’s predominantly ‘hard’ discourse is reducing its potential, and there is an emerging concern of this discourse and the project based organisation on project participant’s identities.

The aim of this research therefore is to:

  • Explore how identity practices such as Identity Regulation and Identity Work are employed within projects, project management, and by project managers.
  • To build research skills and gain research experience.
  • Add to Identity Literature, no specific project manager identity research found –  i.e. a “small gap” identified in the Literature.
  • Add to the Project Management Literature – “using new ideas and theories from Identity theories”

Initial Research questions i’m posing are in what ways do Project Management discourse, role, and projects shape their identity? (My interest in Identity Work), and in what ways are identity practices used by project managers use to get the project team to deliver? (My interest in Identity Regulation) and how are these practices received from project managers’ perspectives? (Again my interest in Identity Work)

Approach to Ontology, Epistemology and Methodology etc!

Ontology: Social Constructionist as identity work/regulation located within this tradition and I believe projects can be considered a socially constructed reality.

Epistemology: Interpretivist “…to aid us in gaining access to the conceptual world in which our subjects live so that we can, in some extended sense of the term, converse with them.”  Clifford Geertz (1973: 24), Yanow’s Masterclass SBS 2010.  In essence I want to give voice to the Project Managers and their ‘stories’

Methodology: Single Site Case Study and Partial Ethnography

I think the case study option offers many benefits to the novice researcher although the disbenefits to the novice researcher that come from multi-method or mixed method approaches has not gone unnoticed.  The benefits:

  • help in placing a research boundary
  • protocol for methodological rigours
  • guidance in theory building
  • help in what constitutes acceptable quality
  • grants the researcher some freedom to embrace the relative strengths of ethnographic genres such as partial, self, or auto ethnography.

Methods: Qualitative Multi-Method design  

Interviews supported by participant observation, and documentary analysis.  These are a natural fit in Case Study research, I can hear their story, see them in action, and read their written accounts.  This will aid the establishing of context and the compare and contrast during analysis.

Case Boundary will be a single company with in-depth studies of 3 project managers, across 3 different project typologies manufacturing, services, and IT.

Unit of Analysis: Role of Project ManagersI would have liked to do participants also, yet this is only an exploratory pilot study at the MRes stage.

 

Data Collection:

Step 1: Informal Meet and Greet [No recording]

Step 2: Walking the floor – “Building trust” [note taking, post]

Step 3: “Get initial case data”

Observation of Project Team Meetings (3-6)

Obtain Project Meeting Documentation

Informal 30 Min Post Meeting Conversation [note taking]

Unstructured ‘Project Manager’ Story [recorded]

Step 4: Initial Analysis & Design of Semi-structured interview

Step 5: Perform Semi-structured interview [recorded]

Data Analysis:

This is less developed but I’m thinking about doing a combined “Grounded” and “Framework” analysis i.e. try them both an see what emerges from the data on its own, and looking at an established identity lens.

Ethics:

  •     Identity research – sensitive by nature
  •     Informed Consent: Interviews, Observation & Document
  •     Transcript confirmation
  •     Reflexivity: private diary, outside of work time
  •     Confidentiality – Yet to be agreed with company
  •     All Data to be held on password protected, encrypted disk
  •     Researcher and participant safety

Quality:

While qualitative validity can be contestable e.g. “criteriology” debates, the principle in this research is to attempt for high quality through –

  •     Purposive sample i.e. 3 contrasting projects
  •     Case Study Framework including: triangulation, chain of evidence
  •     Transcript recorded verbatim and to be approved by project manager
  •     Rigorous data management using Nvivo
  •     Extended (semi) engagement in the field (as much as a working PM will allow)
  •     Researcher diary to be maintained
  •     Grounded analysis is being considered against Framework
  •     Secondary researcher to check coding and categories
  •     Transferability to other contexts via “thick” descriptions”?
  •     Hope of research that contains “project” managerial usefulness

My research plan – High level milestones:

  • Negotiate Access May-June
  • Submit Proposal and Ethics Documentation – end of June
  • Data Collection – July, August, September1. Some analysis (6 days observation, 6 interviews, and documentation)  
  • Data Analysis – October, November, December
  • Secondary Literature Review – “Ongoing”/January
  • Write Up – January, February, March
  • Submit April/May.

Outcome/Interest:

The planned outcome of this research is to have explored project manager’s identity work and identity regulation in the project environment, perhaps introduce identity theory to project management practice through publishing an article in a PM Journal, and finally and most importantly to position my future PhD research.

This topic will be of interest specifically to those involved in organisational studies, and theorists from subfields such as management, project management, and identity studies, not to forget Project Management Practitioners.

So what do you think about the design – can it answer the research questions?  I’d love to hear your feedback!  Leave me a comment :o)

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…

Categories: Identity, Uncategorized Tags:

Insecurities and Progress

Sometimes when I write my blog there is only a couple of things that dominate my thinking, and I focus on those things.  Normally from the outside everything appears to be in order.  However, there are other times like today when I just seem inundated with confusing, contradicting, and worrying thoughts swirling around in my brain.  I have never written in one of these states before, but that ends today.

 

Sometimes (perhaps more often than I’ll admit) being a part-time PhD researcher is messy and full of insecurities.  In the spirit of this messiness, I will attempt in this blog to share with you a single brain dump of what’s going on.  It will be a disorganized but that’s the point.   Ok, so what’s on my mind today!

 

  1. How should I take feedback….and am I good enough?
  2. Getting the access/time to do the research, and how to gain access if coming from a critical perspective?
  3. What is critical realism?
  4. What is critical discourse but what do I mean by critical?

 

Taking Feedback

I had a feedback session on my preliminary lit. review chapter with a supervisor.  The feedback was not surprising and importantly it felt pretty spot on.  I had hoped for at least some positive spin or some recognition on where I had reached perhaps, but I knew deep down where I was at and where I needed to go next before this meeting.

 

Given this intuition, I will say that even if you ‘kind of’ know what’s coming, its still not easy to take.   Constructive or not it feels like an attack on one’s ego – and I find myself on occasion asking – am I good enough?  Sometimes, I really worry that there is not enough in the tank intellectually and emotionally.  I am learning not to do anything after feedback for at least 3-4 days and just reflect on what has been said.  Any reaction beforehand normally has a high emotional taint to it…. And not overly helpful.

 

The next thing on my mind today is the nagging worry that at some point I’m actually going to have to do some research.

Doing some research

As a part-time student with full-time job and family responsibilities, with a research project that is evolving into a set of research questions that warrant participant observation and a critical perspective – just how am I going to navigate all this?

  • Do I have to take some leave and sit on a project manager and his/her team?
  • Can I perform some form of self-/auto- ethnography and follow myself?
  • Will the project team not yet even identified be willing to sign informed consent?
  • Can I take a critical perspective when living in the context of the UAE and the middle east?
  • Why would anyone sign up for research that intends to take a critical emancipatory perspective?

 

And the doing research questions just keep piling up, and I’m currently at a loss as how to answer them.  I can hear people saying ‘well ask your supervisor’, but the truth is I’m trying to pluck up the courage to do this at our next scheduled meeting.

Critical Realism

One thing that is great is how the PhD process is proving to be structured around a gradual laddering process gradually adding new skills and gaining knowledge in your area of interest.  But half the time I do wonder if I can ever possibly know anything – it seems even Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (“I think therefore I am”) – is debatable!  Even the translation is debatable i.e. some say it is “I doubt therefore I am”.   Put simply, there is so much written, researched, conceptualized from a whole spectrum of philosophical paradigms that the ground no longer feels secure from anywhere I stand.

I thought I had found something in the philosophy of Pragmatism, but as many regard this as ontologically moot (I think, including my supervisor) – it looks like I’m going to have to at least explore Critical Realism (CR).  CR looks in some ways a lot like Pragmatism but with a few very contrasting ideas e.g. it takes ontology as very important; it has a bent towards the real/consequential effects of social systems and their agents i.e. understand the real cause of particular outcomes; and it is essentialist/dualist perspectives.  More reading!

Critical Discourse

One recent idea that has emerged in recent reading is the possible use of critical discourse analysis.  This has come from inside the overlapping areas of identity studies, discourse as a identity resource, project communication as discourse, and a need to take a critical perspective.   I don’t know if this is useful – but it seems like an important next step to go and find out if it will be useful.  Another rabbit hole?  This is anybody’s guess.  Given all this, I realized today that I am a bit confused about my critical perspective that I keep mentioning.  Project management literature calls for a critical perspective on itself as a practice, critical management studies call for the micro-emancipation of the subject, and critical studies in general might simply question critically what people say in interviews matches observation.  So which critical am I really talking about?  I’m not sure yet.

—-

So, as you can see there are more areas to investigate and questions that need to be answered – and plenty of insecurities and worries.  Some helpful advice, repeatedly said to me by a good friend (“thank you Rula, it is sticking”) to help deal with these issues is “the PhD is not about intelligence, its not about being clever or a knowledge contribution – but instead it is more about stamina and guts – its about whether you can go the distance!” (not a quote verbatim)

So there you have it – my messy brain dump for today – just for you (sorry).

I do want to add a little balance to my blog by saying that there is absolutely no doubt that with my first six ‘part-time’ months under my belt, that I know a hell a lot more than I did when I started.  While I feel I still know very little, I can see the signs that this PhD process is working.  I’m learning and I’m un-learning; I’m growing yet I’m being stripped down;  I’m making little progress in some areas but much progress in others; I feel engaged and other time lonely and demotivated; I love it at times and hate it at others!  Its fair to say that underneath all of these surface concerns I feel really positive about the future.

Love to hear from any others who share similar or dissimilar experiences.

Categories: Identity, Uncategorized

Mapping or Writing?

To map or to write?  Hmmmm… This is an interesting question when doing your literature review.  Well – Hart in his 2002 book ‘Doing a Literature Review’ recommends it!   While his other book on doing a literature search seems less useful with rapid technology changes, I think this one is a gem.  So good I have ordered my own copy rather than get it out from the library.

As you know – I have recently I entered the world of Identity and Project Management literature in order to see what is being said out there, and to try and evolve a research problem for my MRes.   I’ll admit that reading this book was timely.

Firstly, I started on project management – I searched and found (with some difficulty I might add) some interesting papers; followed by mapping out what the authors were saying and when they said it.  I then drew various arrows from box to box to connect the ideas, and as I started to shuffle them about some insights started to emerge that I wasn’t getting just from reading alone.  Ideas certainly emerged from the mapping process itself.

Secondly, I went to the identity studies side – well this was much more difficult as many more people have written much more about the topic from many philosophical perspectives.  Nevertheless, I continued to map out the seminal articles as I found them, and started to tease out the debates in academic thought.  Frankly, before no time the map became unmanageable.  I think due to the volume of the boxes I was actually starting to lose the thread.  Eventually I found a critical path and I noticed using colours was helping.  Note though that these maps were still separate!

I tried to lower the expectations on completing a lit. review chapter by mid april, but when I mentioned this to my supervisor I was told – I was told to stop mapping and start writing!

So I purchased Scrivener (thanks Jeffrey for the tip), and started to write topic by topic, subject by subject, yet informed from my mapping and my note taking during reading.

What is pretty cool using the Scrivener software is how the tree structure and the fragments can be moved around in Scrivener so your structure and content kind of evolves together.  The really really (yes I did put really in twice) weird thing was how the word count little by little just kept building up…. When you are writing in small fragments 250 words or so, it takes no time to accumulate :o)

Personally, I have found mapping to be pretty useful – to a point, and writing in Scrivener also productive.  So good bye to Microsoft word as a writing tool – its now relegated to formatting.

The only small complaint I have with scrivener is how to insert and manage references.  I use Mendeley, and I saw no option to embed references as you go…. that’s a bummer.  However, as I have had trouble writing in the past – I see it as a lesser of the two evils.

PS. Lit. Review Chapter with these tools emerged out of thin air and I submitted it early!  Why don’t you give them a go?

Hart, C., 2002. Doing a Literature Review, SAGE Publications.