Saturday, 30 April 2011

Revising and writing papers

Phew! I just uploaded a conference paper "Cycles of Engagement", due in today!

Revising my work for the viva started with
  1. reviewing generic viva questions,
  2. then the more specific ones that came up in the mock viva.
  3. A third approach is to write a paper for a conference, and that's been the focus of my work over the last couple of weeks.
Of course, this conference paper for the Management Consulting Division biennial conference has got my supervisors' names on it, and deservedly so. After speaking with someone from the MCD at the Academy of Management conference last August, I was encouraged to present at the PhD consortium, but once I approached the MCD they suggested I presented a paper at the full conference. I wrote a proposal, and they accepted it, to my surprise and delight. But I shouldn't be so surprised, because now at the end of my PhD, I know what I have to say, so perhaps I wrote a sensible and interesting proposal.

After the mock viva, my supervisors offered to help me to write this paper, and I'm glad they did, because, in the last few weeks, I've learned a lot from the way they write. One supervisor addressed the challenge of how to put all the richness and detail that makes a PhD study what it is - into just 8000 words, restructuring the original paper I wrote; the other has greatly improved the flow of the argument. Whenever am I going to learn to write like this!

Why write a paper before your viva? Because it:
  • helps you to identify the key points of your thesis,
  • makes you reread parts of your thesis,
  • helps you spot typos and mistakes before the examiner points them out to you
If the conference were before my viva, I'd also have practised speaking the points I'm learning by heart for the viva. But the viva is in May (probably) and the conference is in June. Look here for the paper if you want to read it because it's a good summary of my work.

I'll welcome constructive feedback, so do contact me through this web form.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Advanced academic media training workshop

As a practice for my viva, and future activities, I registered on the OU's advanced academic media training workshop, having taken the initial workshop over a year ago here. I'd realised at the Bottom Line studio that a one-minute piece to camera with all the lights focussed on you is almost parallalisingly scary so I needed to improve. If you're logged on to the OU system, you can read about the training here.

In the morning we covered a two-minute interview with questions we'd anticipated and given the interviewer beforehand. Then we spoke "down the line". This means that you have a tiny earpiece, face the camera and respond to the questions you hear in your earpiece in an otherwise empty studio. The advantage of this set up is that if a news channel wants an Open University expert quickly, the OU expert can immediately work in this studio to answer questions from someone in another part of the UK, or Europe or anywhere in the world, without having to be in their studio.

Then we went out in the fresh spring air to produce our pieces to camera en situ. Mine was in a car park, and why a car park? Because I was talking about engagement, and some of the best engagement happens in unexpected places like car parks. It was only a one minute piece, and I'm prepared it, and learned it by heart, so took only three takes.
  1. The first got chucked because I said 'good morning' and shouldn't, but it gave me time to learn to take a couple of steps before talking
  2. The second got chucked because the last line was lame
  3. When I get the link for the best take, I'll post it on this blog.
We also took the opportunity to put together a piece for an OU mathematics openings course where one of us explained what maths could do for understanding patterns in the world, like those in fern leaves, and the fun of learning together (I became a film extra).

After lunch, we practised auto cues, discovering its disadvantages and the consequence need to 'perform' , act up a bit and to read quickly. Then we planned a story board for a piece of media with a running order and shooting script. This was discussion and a bit theoretical but gave me ideas for something to do in my new research job, (the one I started part-time, temporary last week,) and the advice from our excellent trainer, Janet Summer, improved and extended our conception of how to tackle such a media piece. Also look out for:

Monday, 18 April 2011

Justifying my methodology

What's the relationship of realism to positivism and interpretivism?
thus asked my mock examiner. So I went back to reread Tsoukas (1994) on realist perspectives and have again sunk in the mire of methodological approaches, perspectives, philosophies and epistemologies.

This web site has a nice diagram of the overlap between the three approaches or perspectives or ontologies.
  • Realism overlaps positivism in that it accepts social structures have independent existences. "Like positivism, realism accepts social structures have some form of independent existence that is experienced as ‘external' to individuals. These structures act upon us - pressurising and constraining our behaviour."
  • Realism overlaps interpretivism in that what we regard as real is significant. "Like interpretivism, realism accepts that what we regard as real is highly significant. E.g. if I believe myself to be middle class, while every indicator of social class holds I am working class, this will have important consequences for my behaviour."
For my research on engagement,
social phenomena exist whether or not people are aware of them so engagement can be taken as a real phenomenon even if people are not aware of it. It still exists and affects their actions.

Critical realism is an epistemological (not a research or sociological) perspective that responds to critisism of the positivist perspective. "It's a response", says Mingers, "to the difficulty of maintaining a realist position in the face of criticisms" (page 380). My erudite supervisor tells me that
'the "critical" label comes from the associated idea that such "real" phenomena can however only be known through using conceptual frameworks, so our knowledge of these real phenomena is always provisional, or subject to challenge when new concepts come along. So knowledge of this real social world has to be held "critically".'
Critical realism is "a way of resolving or dissolving" issues around positivism and extreme constructivist positions {Mingers, 2004: 374}.


Mingers, J. 2004. Real-Izing Information Systems: Critical Realism as an Underpinning Philosophy for Information Systems. Information and Organization, 14(2): 87-103.
Tsoukas, H. 1994. What Is Management? An Outline of a Metatheory. British Journal of Management, 5(4): 289.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Where does my PhD sit?

At this year's 2011 conference of the UK Association for Information Systems, the keynote speaker, David Wainwright of Northumbria University, presented a lecture on the PhD Odyssey: Information Systems, Adventure and Adversity by comparing the PhD journey with that of Odysseus, full of troubles, trials and tribulations, an apt analogy. One of the Odysseus' distractions was Circe, a villaneous and bewitching goddess who turned Odysseus' men into swine. Wainwright's argument was that a PhD student can be betwitched by the focus of the PhD. He presented a diagram, which from my notes I sketch here, where the implication seems to be that your PhD focus might be in any one of these blobs. It's an interesting diagram because it incorporates so much of the overlap between areas relevant to information systems, the central three being
  1. Digital Media
  2. Information Systems
  3. Computing
My initial reaction was that my research sits in the business management blob, but perhaps it actually sits in the interaction between management practitioners and computing practitioners, because although I start from the use and adaptation of IS for organisations, what I'm really interested in is the relationship of people in different organisations on the same project, and such people include management practitioners and computing practitioners, often the computing practitioners being external. So my focus isn't in a blob, but in the interaction between blogs.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

I acknowledge

The journey to achieve a PhD is a marathon. Decades ago, I set myself this target and many people have helped me on the long way with practical and emotional encouragement.

The most recent support came from my two supervisors. They encouraged, berated and trained me through exciting and intellectual conversations. I enjoyed their realistic, enthusiastic support and their complementary approaches so that my research developed in ways I’d never have guessed.

I thank our erst-while director of research students for accepting my original na├»ve proposal for the Masters in Research Methods and then allowing me to continue onto the doctorate. What faith the man has! I thank our erst-while project assistant Shelagh for her practical help. I thank my fellow OUBS students for our coffee-time seminars where discussion has ranged from soccer to supervision, from cricket to critical realism. They’ve helped me get alternative angles on progress and research. I thank also Minh, LizT and other unseen commentators on this PhD blog for their electronic encouragement.

A big thank you goes to my anonymous participants for providing that all-important access to their organisations, for giving me their time to provide insights to their experiences of IT projects.

I set aside my domestic duties (not so sadly) to complete this research, so I thank Cherry for cleaning round me while I typed, my lovely husband for doing all the cooking and shopping the last few months, my brothers, my brother-in-law, and my son for reading and feeding back on earlier drafts of this thesis. I thank my late husband too – we used to talk about IT project management and the public sector client. To him I owe the original idea for the research.

Later, after the viva, you can borrow my thesis from the OUBS or OU library, or download from the ORO - assuming I pass.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Why is it important to focus on the public sector?

My research looks at engagement on public sector IT projects, so
Why is it important to focus on the public sector?
This might be a viva question and I can say that I justify this focus in the literature review (page 14) where I've written:
IT projects are important to the public sector because they are a key means of implementing government policy requiring often rapid changes to how the public sector department functions and provides services.
But maybe I've justified only the focus on IT projects, not on the public sector. The public sector makes policy and implements it through IT. Examples of failures of such implementation are:
  • Libra system for the magistrates courts
  • the National id scheme with an initial budget of £3 billion that went up to £5 billion.
  • in 2003 the government introduced two credits: Child Tax Credit and Working Tax credit. The Inland Revenue's IT supplier created a new IT system for processing the tax credits, a system that went live in April 2003 with problems that took ten weeks to solve. Volumes were higher than expected and the testing window had been cut. Both suppliers and IR senior managers had to account for the fiasco to a Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee.
Public Sector IT continues to be problematic. The day after I submitted my thesis, a Public Administration Select Committee was interviewing IT expert witnesses on good governance and the effective use of IT (pd report is here). Witnesses pointed out that IS is there to implement government policy and government business change.

Hence, I see a need to focus on the public sector.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

What do you mean by social capital?

I use Adler and Kwon's definition of social capital:
"the goodwill that is engendered by the fabric of social relations"
but Putnam who also identified bridging and bonding social capital, conceptualised it as
"arising from a stock of networks, norms and trust"
My research draws heavily on Nahapiet and Ghoshal's paper, which refers to Bourdieu's concept of social capital as the actual or potential resources that can be accessed through networks of relationships, and that potentiality is important in a situation like a project where participants haven't yet interactedl, and social capital has yet to be mobilised.

Although there isn't one agreed definition of it, social capital theory is relevant to explaining relationships so it's relevant to what I've been researching, but social capital theory doesn't go far enough in explaining ab initio relationships where people have not yet interacted and exchanged social capital. To explain such new relationships we need a theory that extends on the theory of social capital.


Adler, P. S. & Kwon, S.-W. 2002. Social Capital: Prospects for a New Concept. Academy of Management Review, 27(1): 17-40.
Nahapiet, J. & Ghoshal, S. 1998. Social Capital, Intellectual Capital, and the Organizational Advantage. Academy of Management Review, 23(2): 242-266.
Putnam, R. D. 2000. Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York ; London: Simon & Schuster.
Putnam. 1993. The Prosperous Community: Social Capital and Public Life. American Prospect, 13: 35-42.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Why is engagement important?

Engagement is important
  • to gain commitment
  • for influencing
  • for bonding
  • to lubricate the wheels of IT implementation
  • to align individual work with business strategy
  • for understanding
  • for feedback
  • for good communication.
and a common cause of government IT failure is lack of effective engagement with stakeholders.

I notice that the government has just had another Parliamentary Select Committee Enquiry on government IT: Good governance and effective IT. A hearing on 8th March is watchable here and the minutes of 15th March are here.

And that is since I handed in my thesis, less than a month ago.


OGC. 2002. Common Causes of Project Failure. London: Office of Government Commerce. http://www.ogc.gov.uk/documents/cp0015.pdf
Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology. 2003. Government IT Projects - Analysis of the Problem In POST (Ed.). http://www.parliament.uk/documents/post/pr200.pdf

Friday, 1 April 2011

What attracted you to this project?

I looked at the client-consultant relationship in the public sector because public sector clients were paying too much and not managing their suppliers. The evidence for this came from media and from a series of reports that the National Audit Office published in the mid 2000s. The evidence was that
  • IT projects were not being managed
  • consultants were not being managed.
I put the two together, identified an NAO report that said that engagement between clients and consultants was important to a project relationship {NAO, 2006}, but found no academic research to cast light on such engagement. So here was a project asking to be researched.

What piqued my original interest arose from my MBA research in the early 1990s when a consultancy firm asked me to research the market for selling their services in the NHS. I thought the NHS managers ought to know what they were paying for and how much they ought to pay.


NAO. 2006. Central Government's Use of Consultants: Building Client and Consultant Commitment, Vol. Supporting paper 1. London: HMSO.