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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)

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.

Preliminary Literature Review

Well it has been over one month since I submitted a blog entry!  Main reason was sending my mac to the iStyle service centre after it unexpectedly died.  While still not in my possession, I did however manage to get hold of the iweb site file enabling me to make a post today.  So, what’s been happening this past month?

 

First, I have settled down a lot and feel much more comfortable with the new pace and flow.  I worked studiously on the research methods assignment – for me an analysis of Case Study and Ethnography in Identity Research.  Input from my new advisor was both timely and significant, and in the end I feel that a most useful conclusion was reached.  I’ll share with you this here!

 

“… a case study research design is appealing.   The literature offers many benefits to the novice researcher including help in placing a boundary around the research; methodological rigour; guidance in theory building; and what constitutes acceptable quality and presentation.  Moreover, case study grants the researcher some freedom to embrace the relative strengths of ethnographic genres such as partial, self, or auto ethnography.  Lastly, the disbenefits to the novice researcher that come from multi- or mixed- method approaches has not gone unnoticed.  The epistemological, validity, and generalisation concerns, combined with the advanced researcher skill required to successfully perform case study work is an intimidating prospect, yet with support, planning, and skill building an achievable one.”

 

After sending this essay in for grading I prepared an overall roadmap on the MRes component – the image for today’s blog entry.

 

Since December 2010, I have been reading voraciously albeit not that efficiently on the subject of Identity in preparation for writing a preliminary literature review.  I’ll admit it initially looked like a niche sub-field, but I’ll suggest now it looks as big as other in organisational studies.

 

As I tried to explore how I might turn this reading into writing – I again called on my supervisor for advice.  In project management in particular, how does one perform a review of practically speaking non existent literature?  The suggestion duly followed was to read contemporary literature and identify the relevant issues presently facing project management, and only then see how identity research might be applicable to solving these sorts of issues.

 

This advice fitted nicely and since then I have used a couple of methods i.e. the venn diagram, and cognitive mapping to help me come to a detail set of questions the literature review will help me answer including:

  • Why research Project Management?
  • What are the contemporary issues in Project Management?
  • Who are the principal scholars in Project Management?
  • Why research Identity in Organisations?
  • Why use the Identity and Discourse Lens in Project Management?
  • What are the principle identity concepts, and who are the principal scholars?
  • What are the discursive theories and who are the principal scholars?
  • What are the most relevant identity and discursive theories to this research project?
  • What are the key areas of debate in Identity Studies and Project Management?
  • Where is the existing knowledge thin and subject to challenge?
  • Where are there gaps in the literature?
  • What are the main conclusions from previous Identity research?
  • What have been the main research questions in the past?

 

The next step I found myself searching and downloading many articles to add to my growing collection that came up from the searches.  My identity collection was now being supplemented by Project Management articles and one immediate finding was that project management a sub-field of management studies is not well represented in the top category journals.

 

Since I’ve worked in the field of Project Management for more than 20 years, up until now I’ve maintained an intuitive set of assumptions to even come up with the idea that identity research could be helpful in addressing project management issues – but no idea why or if anyone else would agree.

 

I’m smiling today as I can say that my initial view has been validated.  Principle issues facing Project Management are:

  1. its under-researched and under-theorized, and not represented in top academic journals
  2. the high failure rates (accepted success being a fiercely contested concept) are being contributed to through a modernist, technicist, scientific, and rational discourse
  3. social and behavioural perspectives are under-researched
  4. projects due to their contingency are inherently difficult to research
  5. the inherent ‘fluid’ organisation creates tension with the ‘solid’ project
  6. the fast and growing uptake of project management as a profession in organisations means its time for critical studies and a time for maturing this sub-field of management.

 

While not all the above can be addressed equally nor fully by my proposed research, I am at least going to attempt to:

  • add to the research literature (1);
  • challenge the modern discourse by looking at social and behavioural aspects through the identity lens (2,3);
  • perform ‘thick description’ research through case study – called for in both Identity and Project Management research (4);
  • explore the discourse in and around projects (5); and
  • attempt at least to maintain a critical and interpretive perspective throughout (6).

 

Frankly, while little writing has eventuated so far, my reaching this initial point where the practitioner form of knowing matches academic thinking is most rewarding.

 

Given, this positive start – I’ll now move during the next 4 available weekends (of 6 possible) to consolidate my reading and current state of Identity literature.   On a side note, I’m very much looking forward to meeting my supervisor in April, and getting the very necessary feedback on my progress and plans.  Like any project – looking at the whole can be extremely daunting, but when you break it down into what will be albeit non-linear chunks of work – it does reduce the cognitive load!

 

To finish up I would like to get some comments on the value of blogging!  Can anyone tell me why I should continue maintaining this blog as I have survived over one month without it!  Should it go or should it stay?

 

I’ll welcome all comments on the matter.

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 http://web.me.com/kiwicito/Site/My_Blog/Entries/2010/7/19_Becoming_a_Researcher.html) 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,

 

Methodology

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.

 

Writing

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,

 

Philosophy

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.

 

Methodology

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.  

 

Writing

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: http://web.me.com/kiwicito/Site/MBA_Project.html

 

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.