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Price of being critical

February 24, 2012 2 comments

Well it has been a strange week if I’m honest.  I came to Glasgow to to learn about multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary research.  Achieved.  However, I didn’t expect to come away with such a dark feeling on how difficult and even alienating research across disciplines appears to be. The advice quoting an important academic in the area is “Only do research across disciplines if you really have to!”   What is perhaps more important is that this approach of telling PhD students “the way it is” in such a critical fashion, they say – enables researchers to go in with their eyes wide open.

This got me thinking – why does this bother me?  Then I realized.  My own pilot research on identity in project management is too in this critical perhaps negative spirit.  Soon I’m going to present my findings at a practitioner conference with the idea of giving project managers the information in order to emancipate themselves…. To share with them some of the structure that shape their identities.  I believe this is in the spirit of Michael Foucault also.  Tell it the way it is and let the individual deal with it.

My problem here is that this just doesn’t feel too great.  Do I want people to walk away from one of my presentation feeling uneasy, taken advantage of, or disappointed in a system that they have dedicated their careers?  Is this the price to pay for doing critical research?  Most if not all presentations at practitioner conferences in particular have such a functional and above all positive message.  So what do I do?  Do I force some positive messages into my presentation, or do I take the Foucault option?

Love to hear from other critical researchers… how do you think I can come to terms with this?

Time to get on the plane back to the UAE!

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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!!!!

Emerging Data Analysis Strategy

Its been almost a month since my last post…what’s up I hear you ask.  I’ve not been a slacker – I can promise you.  Instead I’ve been working like a trojan on data analysis.  Every spare minute of the part-time student’s day has been spent on this phase of the MRes project, and like other phases it has been quite distinct with its own demands and quirks.

My deliberate strategy was to work in 3-4 linear steps as follows:

  1. Grounded Coding for all sources: interviews and documents
  2. Framework Analysis for all sources: Using Hodgson, Alvesson, Sveningsson, Willmott’s theoretical categories.
  3. Discourse Analysis for all sources
  4. Cognitive Mapping for theory building
Well, was I unrealistic or what?  To do all of this would take me a year or more!!  I have 21 interviews, 160,000 plus words, and many documents…so how I ever thought I could manage that level of detailed analysis I’ll never know. :o)    Instead, I find myself making some changes on the fly.  Here is the latest emerging data analysis strategy:
  1. This “grounded” coding step has not changed a great deal, and I have already established some 800+ codes.  I continue to iteratively group these and try to remove the ‘noise’ from the data as per the advice from my supervisor who has been checking in every few weeks on my progress.  A small change is my decision to compile short abstracts for each interview in the form of memos in order to build a picture of each individual’s identity – as project managers or not as I have found.
  2. The framework coding step will be executed not from the source data but instead from my 800 “grounded codes” and their groups with some direct source coding from time to time.  I’m not writing off the possibility of revisiting transcripts and documents again – but this should reduce the work and help me move to thinking more conceptually.
  3. Discourse Analysis will be only on the extracts of the “texts” I take from the sources to demonstrate the evidence.  I’ve just read Jan Blommaert’s book ‘Critical Discourse Analysis’ to try to help me – however, I will admit other than some guidelines to the importance of indexicality, context, voice, ideology, and identity, I’m still missing the ‘how’ I’m going to do this part.  To be fair, on route while doing step one, I have managed to at least extract some overall case study discourses of project managers, the PMO, and management.  Much still to do here, and I hope after reading James Gee’s book ‘An Introduction to Discourse Analysis’ the mist might clear here.
  4. Cognitive Mapping will remain the same – although during step 1/2 this has already started with some scribbles on an a3 sheet of paper.
So far the grounded coding has been taking around 4 hours per interview…so it feels to some extent that I’m moving through a funnel that over time is reducing my labour time but concomitantly increasing the thinking time and depth.  It is certainly not as linear process as I first predicted. Largely, I’m just surrendering myself to this whole process.  I am continuing to read or re-read the relevant literature on critical project management studies and identity work and regulation when I get time.
During this past month, sometimes I feel I have absolutely nothing for my efforts and I get quite scared as if I’m wandering around a wilderness without a compass, and at other times I feel like I’m on the edge of finding something very cool.  It’s  kind of like a pendulum I swing through.
All in all the analysis stage is so far a quite enjoyable phase.  Of course, I haven’t been writing for a couple of months since the data collection started – and maybe that will start again soon.
How have others found similar changes in their data analysis stage – or is this just me making things up as I go along?
All the best, Michael

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.