September 2, 2011 1 comment

Who would have thought one could find real connection and support for researchers on twitter?  I certainly would not have guessed it.

Well, if you’re a post graduate student I thoroughly recommend you check out the twitter group #phdchat created by a group of UK researchers, in particular – Nasima Riazat aka @NSRiazat.  Here  you will find more than a thousand PhD-ers, MRes-ers,  MPhil-ers, DEd-ers, DPhil-ers, and other students/graduates who regularly post their tweets.

There are many beneficial ways of interacting with the community:

One way is simply the ad hoc following of peoples tweets and sharing your own tweets whenever you feel like it 24 hours per day!  I use the application called tweet deck that keeps me updated – but I do find it necessary to switch it off as twitter can be a real useful procrastination tool for researchers :o) There are loads of people posting their blog entries, sharing links to articles and other resources, and sometimes just sharing an emotion or two of joy or frustration.  If you have a question that you want to crowd source then try tweeting it – more often than not someone with more experience than you replies.  For example: I had some trouble with #NVivo – and I was knocked over when QSR support contacted me directly…after seeing one of my tweets.  Another member of the group  helped me out with a few other NVivo things, and as my own experience grows I find I’m doing the same for others.  On tools generally, there is loads of discussion on things like #papers2, #scrivener, #mendeley etc. that all take time to learn.

Another way to get some benefit is to join the weekly scheduled session at Wednesday 730pm-830pm BST… for me at 10:30pm UAE time.  Even though I’ve been following this community for months, I finally joined one of these regular sessions this past week and found it a lot of fun.  I was a bit overwhelmed but I did my best to follow the fast moving conversation threads.  I picked up some real gems including one conversation thread on the question of voice and representation – and in particular how others are navigating this conversation between literature, data, and themselves as the researcher/author.

There is also a wiki with various resources there that members can tap into.  Here is the link:  http://phdchat.pbworks.com/w/page/33280234/PhD-Chat 

I’d like to make it clear is that before #phdchat, as I took on my studies as an international part-time student – it would not be uncommon to feel a bit lonely or somewhat disconnected.  I now tap into the community almost daily, and thanks to #phdchat these feelings of isolation are now almost completely gone.   You can tweet, or read tweets at any time any place e.g like a couple of nights ago while I was waiting for Popeyes for my food order, or waiting for my son to come out from the service station, or I’ve even been known to tweet on the loo!  I have my own tag for this #TOT for tweet on toilet.

One final benefit I’ve noticed is that I feel much less of a need to be bothering my supervisor with adhoc questions or emails.  I’m not saying that #phdchat replaces your supervisor – of course not – but that I’m ok with a bit more space between meetings/emails etc.  In sum, the #phdchat community for me is a group of talented, interesting, intellectual, emotionally connected, and funny researchers who help each other through a journey that few understand.  I hope I’ve motivated you to at least take a look.  Introduce yourself – either anonymously as some do (I’m known as @kiwicito) or with your name.

We will look forward to welcoming you.  I’m 100% certain you will find #phdchat useful – and you’ll make some new friends guaranteed!

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!


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!!!!


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




Making Projects Critical

In my blog today I’m going to do the slightly uncommon thing (for me at least) and share a book that I feel particularly deserves to be read widely.  The 2006 book titled ‘Making Projects Critical’ is edited by Damian Hodgson and Svetlana Cicmil, with chapter contributions from Peter Morris, Monica Lindgren & Johann Packendorff, and Janice Thomas, amongst others.  The book is in three parts starting with philosophical and conceptual arguments, and moving to studies with an empirical element, and finally to inter-organisational projects essays.


In Making Projects Critical, Hodgson and Cicmil bring together an extensive set of project management academics to look at project management through a critical lens drawing on a range of theoretical perspectives.  As a practitioner, reading the book may have the effect of knocking you off balance e.g. what you have come to know as true and you might find out its not!  Given this strong destabilizing effect, I commend the authors for including Peter Morris a mainstream project management author who in the final chapter brings the balance back to the text.  It can be easy to become convinced that the critical perspective is the right one, resulting in that we do little to actually improve practice.  Morris, unashamedly regards himself as managerial and brings balance by not losing what project management is all about. Its about being more successful.  Side note: nevertheless defining success is a tricky subject in its own right!


I’ve been practicing project management in various forms for many years, I obtained both Prince2 and PMI certifications very late and was largely forced to do so as the market place demanded it.  Over the years, like some of the authors in the book, I have become a little concerned how particularly those new to project management – naively think that by rigidly adopting project management, their projects will be automatically successful.  The number of people that I am referring to here is not only the project managers, but sponsors, and project team participants too.


From the moment I opened this book, I was captivated by the provoking stance looking into the actual reality of project i.e. are they real in the realist sense?; the privileged position of project management knowledge and the project manager; and the effects of the project management discourse, theory and practice on project outcomes and the people that participate.  This whole idea of bringing the Critical Management Studies to project management is wonderful and timely, for hopefully, a maturing field.


The PMI knowledge base called PMBOK is regarded as a collection of various tools and techniques that help the project manager be successful – its ‘kind of’ prescriptive – but I must say that the earlier versions (at least) always talked about picking the right mix of tools that make sense for your project.  When you add a Project Management Office (PMO) of the sort that solely exists as a kind of process and standards police (note there are plenty of great PMOs as learning communities of excellence) – I wonder have we gone to far?  A good friend of mine who has been around the block a few times and PMI Certified, suggested “For me – project management artifacts are often only window dressing, done at the end of the month”, and window dressing for the PMO police!  For him, at the heart of project success is about people and relationships.   Now, I’m not so sure I’d go as far as my friend – as the charter, scope statement, schedule, budget, risk profile, and management plan etc. are very good ways of helping reduce uncertainties and increase your chances of project ‘success’.  But, I’ll admit there is a balance – and again the tricky question – what is success?


As Sydow points out in one chapter, and others danced around the idea that there is an urgent need for more practitioner reflexivity – that is iterative learning, questioning, testing, and modifying theory and practice.  While the book is probably not targeted at practitioners due to an academic writing style, I would still recommend practitioners to take the plunge and take a fresh look at how one both practices, the effects of practice, and the effects of now very strong communities of practice like PMI, APM, OGC etc.  A book like this aides reflexivity.  Sometimes as practitioners we might be a bit naïve at times, and perhaps it is time to look to collaborate with academics for new ways of looking at old problems.  Let’s face it – projects still fail, and all too often quite publicly.


I would argue that the overwhelming majority of project management texts ‘out there’ are functionalist, prescriptive recipe books to help companies and project managers feel safe – so I welcome this fresh look project management.  I suggest that more practitioners and researchers question the underlying assumptions implicit in our practice and our discourse.


Making Projects Critical is provocative and a thought provoking text which I believe is a must read, and for me at least, it opens a wealth of research opportunities.