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Just Do It!

Why is blogging important?  This is the question I’ve found myself asking on many occasion.   While driving home yesterday the question again came up and it hit me.  Blogging is not primarily for the author but for others…  When one looks at the accelerating possibilities of sharing, it becomes obvious – don’t only consume but produce and share in the spirit the technology offers.  The amount of times I’ve checked into #phdchat and consumed useful resources even on a taxi ride home, see these examples:

So what can I share?  Well, it has been a busy first quarter 2012 with my MRes dissertation submission, an advanced quantitative methods class, an interdisciplinary research class,  and knowledge exchange via submitting a paper to BAM2012, and presenting a paper at 6th Making Projects Critical Workshop (MPC6) hosted this year by the Manchester Business School.

My being very new to the university system, I have to say that I’ve found this knowledge exchange phase in the research cycle really interesting.  As @JeffreyKeefer has mentioned in his own research – the doctoral journey can be seen as as set of liminal experiences, as ‘aha’ moments, as identity construction, and sometimes as a rite of passage if you like.  Attending the MPC6 I had exactly these types of moments.

Image

At the opening of MPC6, after listening to Dr Davide Nicolini (keynote speaker) I felt a sense of unease that my research foundations in narrative might not be as stable as I first thought.  In particular how exploring micro-practices and objects rather than what people say, can highlight some interesting perspectives.  This should not be of a great surprise though as a friend of mine is a Vygotsky and Activity Theory fan – but this was the first time I’d seen it come up elsewhere.  That said, I still believe narrative inquiry is a wonderful resource but perhaps can be strengthened by looking at other objects too.

During the workshop, I got to see the depth and breadth of the attendees and their research; to see what’s hot; and to meet people I had previously read and referenced in my own work.   Notably for me, there was a sense in which I felt experienced scholars/researchers also struggle with the significance of their research, what it might mean in the bigger picture, is it appealing to others, and is it getting support from one’s peers?  This experience is helpful to the novice researchers – me included.

I did experience a scary ‘elephant in the room’ moment when the realization surfaced that when a researcher takes some empirical data, he/she can probably explain what one sees in any multiple of theoretical frames.  So what is science here?  Is the identity frame better or worse than the cultural frame, or the political frame or another frame for describing and explaining our world?  This list can go on and on – and to be honest this insight was a rather troubling moment.  What’s the point – might be asked about here…  A friend, highlighted the process of building social capital and identity construction, in other words building up currency and exchange value in the academic market place.  Something about this is bothering, but will require more thought.

At the closing keynote, I also experienced a ‘reminder’ from Dr Damian O’Doherty whose creative ethnographic study took me back to my own MBA project.  To the fact that I’m drawn to the creative end of academic expression of research through stories…. Absolutely loved his presentation.  Now while I’m mostly content with my own research there was a sense in which I’d somehow compromised my passion for conformance to the ‘acceptable’.  On the plus side, I coined and used the term ‘damaged identity’, and I got a feeling from feedback and nods during the presentation that my research was well received.

In the end I felt totally at home amongst some wonderful people who were researching in the same ‘critical space’ around the project construct.   There were two other presentations in identity (where my research is located) so that was particularly neat.   What I didn’t make use of, and I will at future events – is to listen more carefully for criticism and future ideas.  I noticed other presenters got their notebooks out when their peers were speaking and sharing.  I was told that workshops can be better than conferences as they appear more intimate.  I agree with that.

In sum, there good reasons for you to get your research out there.  From my own experience, thanks to the MPC6 organisers, speakers, and participants – I certainly feel more confident, I have made some new friends, met some top scholars in my field, and I now feel part of something.  Research that just sits out there unread on a shelf somewhere has got to be a real shame.  Don’t be afraid.  Take risks and get your research out there.  I’m already thinking about where to take my PhD research proposal so I can contribute and participate in MPC7 in 18 months!

To tie this back to blogging – my view is that this medium can be another ‘kind of’ community and knowledge share….although the risks are different!!!  A chance to put yourself out there, to not only consume but to contribute, and to participate actively in our academic fields.

PS. The gentleman in the photo opening the conference – Dr Damian Hodgson, Senior Lecturer, Manchester Business School.

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Maintaining Flexibile Images of Projects

January 25, 2012 1 comment

I’ve been reading a book that reflects much of my own preoccupations about the overly prescriptive, universal, rational, linear and technical discipline of project management.  This book is called  Images of Project by Mark Winter and Tony Szczepanek written in 2009.

Why has it taken 2 years to find me I do not know.  My recent research into project manager identity did highlight causes for concern in the tendency of myopic thinking by project managers from standards from national and international professional project management associations.   I’m a project manager practitioner and a projects researcher myself.  Both PMI PMP and OGC Prince 2 certified, I have a MBA, and nearing the end of my MRes on route to PhD!  My preoccupation has always been that one size does not fit all in the project world – and have struggled with narrow thinking of project management offices who are TRYING to improve project capability and performance.  PMI I think try to encourage flexible thinking, but many organizations take a extreme standardization route – making project method a law – that in the end may contribute to project failure.

In this book, these core conceptions of the project are truly tested.  I found Winter and Szczepanek were able to articulate what had been only my intuition before – and not put into words.  Their premise  is that knowledge and theory guides experience and practice which in turn loops around to inform/yeild more knowledge and theory.  This is not new of course, but they highlight that if you start with a certain image about a project that this image automatically (perhaps unconsciously) guides subsequent action i.e. if you see a project as something with charter/scope/schedule/critical path/budget/deliverables etc. (often a typical view of the project) then this is the framework you will use to manage the project.  But, some projects the scope is not certain – you may not even know what the problem is yet.  Critical path analysis may be unhelpful as a more social/political and iterative mode of operation is best.  Sometimes there may be a intervention, or management of an organizational change required.  In each of these cases using a different image, and therefore a different framework (or overlapping frameworks) will be better placed to achieve the outcomes desired.

Of course, this will be a bit of a stretch for project managers – as they have been largely trained and certified in the core conception, process and skills in a project.  Yet, I am confident that it is a stretch that is possible for project managers.  Even professional associations are adapting e.g. you can see this in PMI’s agile method, or adding stakeholder management/engagement to their standards…. but unfortunately it does not help a great deal your emphasis is misplaced from the first place.

The book might be criticized for being a little repetitive at times but I can see this only helping to get the point across.  For me they were already singing to the converted, and have just given me examples of both situations and appropriate frameworks that can be used in my own projects.  You will get this benefit too.  I thoroughly recommend that any serious programme or project manager buy this book.  It is a bit pricey, but in my humble opinion will be a very good investment, and give you some new ways of understanding, and constructing projects.  I would go so far to say this book should become ‘core’ text on all project management education programmes.

After all, projects are socially constructed realities with very real effects on ours, and societies wellbeing.

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…

Interviews come to an end…

Two months has now nearly passed since I began data collection through interviews with project managers, really – how time flies.  I’ll have to admit it has been exhausting.  Arranging interviews, preparing for a interview, transport to and from interview location, performing the 90-180 minute interview, sending a thank you note, filing the notes taken and ethics signature, transcribing the recording, gathering and building sampling information e.g. duration, demographics – and then the cycle begins again.

Panic attack!  At one stage a few weeks back, I got a bit worried that my questions/themes that I had designed might not be getting even close to answering my research questions and that I should have been more disciplined and performed a pilot (thinking of @jeffreyKeefer’s recent blog posts).

Yet when I retraced my thinking I calmed down – let me put it this way, if an structured interview questionnaire is set at 0 – semi-structured at 50 and unstructured at 100, my interview design is at about 75-80!  This re-affirming my strategy of using loosely structured questions/themes to maximize my chance of creative and active interviewing removed the panic. At the end of the day how would I have piloted a conversation?

Can you imagine after completing the majority of interviews only to “think” you had no data?????    What I did do though was at the half-way point was refine my questions, introduce some new ones, and drop others, but all linked to the themes in question.

Sampling: has been interesting.  My original population for the case study included 23 project managers, of which 16 responded, however, as I went through the interviews 5 further opportunities arose from within the interviews (as either snowballing and/or theoretical sampling) to interview “extras” who might have unique perspectives, or had either left the  case study group or the company.  These opportunities did turn out some really interesting insights and often counter-claims to the other project managers – so I’m looking forward to when the analysis begins.  I think there is another important point here.  When my chance for observation was declined – I wondered about case study methodological triangulation!!!!  I still have documentary analysis (bi-angulation!!) so it seemed important to get some different perspectives from management and not just the project managers themselves….could I call this theoretical triangulation Yin, 2003.  Not sure.

Transcribing & early coding:  In the early transcripts I refrained from any coding whatsoever, but as I progressed I did start to code some times as I went along, nevertheless the data largely remains as from the interviews.

One thing I have been doing that might be quite controversial is HOW I have been doing the transcripts…so its time to come clean.

  • English was in most cases a second language for the participants.  While they use English the majority of the time within the case study site for their work, some grammatical corrections were made.
  • Given the analysis will be themed coding and discourse analysis, most of the stutters, pauses, ums and arhhs have been taken out as I have deemed these not to substantially related to my research questions.
  • Given the loosely structured nature of the interviews, there were some occasions that the interviewee and I drifted off topic.  On these occasions these drifts off topic have been left out of the transcripts and replaced with a symbol at least to show where these are.
  • My own question phrasings or ramblings were mostly shortened but care taken so that the meaning not changed, all mmmms, yes, how so etc… were largely removed.
This data collection has felt like a marathon at times, and in total I estimate that there will be 160,000 words from the 21 transcribed interviews.  The good news is I can see data analysis of these transcripts and documentary analysis beginning soon.  Which will represent for me an important milestone that calls for me to move-away from my subjects as interviewees and colleagues and put that academic hat back on – and start theorizing!
So what questions do I have for my fellow researchers and bloggers out there:
  1. Is losing the observation data a big issue for this case study’s validity and quality claims?
  2. Do you think my transcription technique is acceptable and justified?
  3. Any tips during this transition?  Coding looks like it will take a while, but discourse analysis and documentary analysis also looks like a big task.
  4. And finally, should I re-engage with the literature soon?  I was thinking of doing this later once some themes start to emerge – from a practical and coherence perspective.
Last but not least – a big thank you to the courageous project managers who took part in the interviews – without you there is no data!  I hope to be able to do it justice.
Look forward to hearing from you!  Happy researching!!!!!

Interview reflections

My musing today is about my experience so far using interviews as a data collection method.  The whole process of conversing and listening to fellow project managers has been a learning and enjoyable experience, and every single interview has left a signature or unique impression on me.

I’ve purposefully been an active interviewer to maximise my connections a) as a project manager/researcher interviewing project managers, and b) the shared company events and contexts, but what are the lessons to date?

  1. Interview schedules are a quite a time costly exercise – contacting interviewees, arranging time/place, handling re-arrangements if they no-show or change, and the follow ups before and after the interview all takes time.  I found a simple excel spreadsheet and outlook calendar helped.
  2. I offered the choice of interview location to each interviewee, hopefully they chose a place where they would feel comfortable to talk.  Abu Dhabi’s coffee shops have been popular, however, the recordings from these locations have been hard to transcribe at times – due to not being able to control the noise levels from babies screaming, music rocking, or grinding or cleaning the coffee machines!  I prefer the interviewee comfort over trying to enforce quiet locations.
  3. Interviews require quite a lot of energy and intensity.  Considering my interviews have ranged from 90-150mins in duration, I can handle no more than 2 per day – on top of my day job, plus the commute.  Being attentive, active listening and controlling my terrible tendency to interrupt is energy intensive.  One per day might be optimal for part-time researchers.
  4. Frustratingly in four out of 14 interviews, one of the recording devices (iPhone) has not work for some reason.  Having a back up recording device (Livescribe Pen) has saved my bacon.  Anyone who know how’s to convert a livescribe pencast file into mp3 so I can transcribe the backup files in NVivo – please email me!
  5. Technique: well, I’m slowly getting better……I think.  When I went through my first few interviews the number of times the interviewee and I were speaking at the same time was appalling. Embarrassing in fact!  Nonetheless, the lesson perhaps is that you can benefit from trying to transcribe the interviews as soon after the interview so that these kind of reflections on your technique can positively influence future interviews.  I have however, refrained from actually formally beginning any systematic data analysis but discourses and patterns naturally pop out.
  6. Question phrasing:  I’m noticing that some of the early phrasing of questions got blank stares and required too much explanation on my part.  Since then, I’ve tried to find simpler and more appropriate ways to phrase the question – done gradually AND at roughly the midway point in my interview schedule.
  7. Trust/Safety can be a big factor to getting good data or not.  I’ve have one particularly bad interview where I was accused of steering the interviewee to talk about something that they were not happy to talk about.  What was interesting was how their body language went defensive and closed – actually it was only at the end that this person opened up again with about 5mins to spare!  This has thankfully not been a pattern i.e. 1/14 cases.  Most actually found the interview to be really useful for them and some actually told me at the end what they got out of it.  I will admit however, that having insider knowledge does mean I’m steering a bit….but that’s got more to do with a pattern emerging from previous interviews not any pre-concieved judgment on my part, but equally perhaps hard to separate.
There is one last point ringing in my head.  Once I was described as demonstrating journalist tendencies rather than an academic ones – mainly I think from my passion and rhetoric, my comfort in taking on a political agenda, and previous seemily lack of interest in academic theory development.
Now given my interview style (choice) I find myself wondering how different research interviews and journalist interviews really are?  What has changed in me, is my understanding in the need for adding to the academic conversation, my agreement that we need rigour  research (in whatever style appropriate for the ontological / epistemological genre).
Nevertheless – in the interview – I simply feel that making the most of the connections, the relationships, the history is beneficial rather than taking a passive academic interviewer stance.  For me, its about getting to the ‘real’ interesting data underneath the veneers people and organisatons maintain.  I’m simply happy to do whatever it takes to get great data – then create the social/intellectual distance during the formal analysis phase!
What do you think?  Love to hear from you!

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.

Doing some data collection

During the planning I offered the interviewee the chance select the time and the place so he would feel comfortable to converse.  He chose to meet in a local mall after work!  I arrived early looking for a spot to set up.  Starbucks was way too noisy, so I popped into Costa 30 minutes before our agreed start.  Unfortunately, my interviewee was late and we begun about two hours after the planned start.

I created a map that linked the critical research question, theoretical questions, and translated interview questions.  I planned an unstructured interview but this map would help guide me if I got stuck.  As I waited with a iced coffee, I went through my questions and my plan.  I noticed that my questions appeared a bit dry so I took the time to modify….

My interviewee eventually arrived.  We sat down for the introductions, and I walked him through the participant information/informed consent form which we then both signed.

I was a bit nervous from a previous experience with recording equipment problems, so this time I doubled up with a livescribe recorder/pen, and my iphone with an external mic.  I asked interviewee to attach the mic to his shirt and we got started with an icebreaker – “So how did you get into project management?….” and we were underway!

What I liked –

I hardly needed to use the questions to guide the interview.  It was just like we were having a conversation.  I was conscious that I was in the role of researcher, nevertheless, as I’m also a Project Manager like my interviewee so there was a unique rapport.  I was navigating what Gill and Johnson describe this as the ‘precarious balance between insider and outsider’ (2010, p157).  My solace was in the idea that I should maximize what ethnomethodologists call ‘unique adequacy’ and move to create the necessary “distance” during the analysis!

On a few occasions the interviewee would use a word that was in some of my planned questions so I enjoyed being able to let the interview flow around the ideas that popped up naturally.  Even more cool – was when the interview went into unexpected places and I felt my own perspectives changing.  I could sense a co-construction of knowledge.

What I didn’t like –

Well at one stage we had the costa coffee grounder going and a screaming child in the background, and I was quite worried about the sound quality.  I was struggling to take notes on things like body language or other non verbals….but the notepad was useful as an object that the interviewee and I used to get ideas across.  I was frequently trying to unpick ideas, words, or statements made during the interview, mostly neutrally, but sometimes I could sense my bias/agenda coming through – and even worse leading the interview.  Perhaps this is a delicate balance.

If there was something that frustrated me a little – was that my interviewee preferred to talk about project managers in the general sense, rather than the self – made worse by the fact that I didn’t realize this for most of the interview.

There was one scare right at the end – I realized that I had not switched on the external micro-phone….ouch!  Fortunately, the internal mic on the phone still worked fine and livescribe worked a treat :o)

By the end of the interview I knew I had some really good material. In fact the material was sufficiently insightful to potentially influence the coming interviews.   Is this a good thing?  In a small way I can see if interviews continue to shed new ideas like this – is there a kind of abductive grounded analysis in progress even if I have not even transcribed a word?

It was almost 10pm, we said goodbyes and I thanked him.  The interview took 1hr 52mins, I was tired – but on my route home I still managed to record some reflections into my phone.  Today, I loaded the transcripts from both devices and its all good.  First interview ready for transcription.  There might be a researcher in me yet!

Six more interviews booked for next week!  Let’s go!!!!

Reference:

Gill, J. & Johnson, P., (2010), Research Methods for Managers 4th ed., SAGE Publications Ltd.