Presenting to peers

 

By my own admission, I have made a disappointing start to blogging about my research reflections. I think this has been a combination of being overwhelmed by the start of my data collection, trying to meet writing deadlines I have established myself, and (inevitably for the winter) a bout of ill-health. Probably the kind of thing a New Year Resolution should be expected to fix. We'll see ...

I'm reproducing here a portion of the text presented to my peers at a doctoral seminar at the end of last semester. It attracted some really interesting feedback, which has given me plenty to think about in between mince pies.

 

I am a netnographer. I begin by acknowledging that because (1) as a methodology which has been developed over the last twenty years it warrants some explanation, and (2) because the explanation I provide casts an epistemological light on my research position.

Netnography emerges within a landscape of digital research methods as a way of exploring the Internet as a source rather than a resource, privileging the natively digital over the digitised, and grounding it in an offline experience, to help communities of learning - like this one - embrace it within their episteme. Netnography is a specific set of online ethnographic procedures. Robert Kozinets the leading scholar describes netnography as seeking to find a ‘human voice’ within the digital noise, and writing about the experience. That’s what I aim to do.

As a netnographer I make five broad commitments, beginning with putting participant observation at the centre of the research. I will take web data as my starting point, and describe what I experience, and subsequently may be able to abstract that to a level at which it is possible to theorise. The ethical commitment to ‘do no harm’ is central to this process of participant observation, connecting with digital beings who are, in the very same context, and at the very same time, also human beings; and whilst being a dedicated digital method, it absolutely relies on human intelligence to guide, shape, and fashion it. In netnography, participant-observation is combined within their episteme. Netnography is a specific set of online ethnographic procedures. Robert Kozinets the leading scholar describes netnography as seeking to find a ‘human voice’ within the digital noise, and writing about the experience. That’s what I aim to do.

As a netnographer I make five broad commitments, beginning with putting participant observation at the centre of the research. I will take web data as my starting point, and describe what I experience, and subsequently may be able to abstract that to a level at which it is possible to theorise. The ethical commitment to ‘do no harm’ is central to this process of participant observation, connecting with digital beings who are, in the very same context, and at the very same time, also human beings; and whilst being a dedicated digital method, it absolutely relies on human intelligence to guide, shape, and fashion it. In netnography, participant-observation is combined  our knowledge of culture and society. Additionally, the digital research methods landscape develops understanding of culture and society with the Internet, rather than culture and society and the Internet.

I want to move on to link this discussion of method to an understanding of the conceptual framework, which I can preface like this: I plan to address a clear gap in the literature pertaining to ‘surprise’ in the context of ‘alternative’ organizations, joining the debate that problematises mainstream conceptualisations of the organization (as a noun) and what it is to organize (as a verb), as well as recognising the heuristic challenge of the word, ‘alternative’.

As a phenomenon, ‘surprise’ is something that organizations are generally keen to avoid.  This is because it challenges fundamental assumptions made in the mainstream organizational discourse; assumptions which put us at risk of overestimating the ability of organizations to control and command people, activities, and wider environments.

The specific definition of ‘surprise’ that I take forward comes from the sensemaking literature, where Meryl Reis Louis describes surprise as a “discrepant event ”, one which triggers the need for explanation, or post-diction. You can see surprise represented here in the middle of my slide; a core conceptual area. My review of the literature places it at the heart of a tension between the ‘unknowable’ and the ‘unknown’. The leading sensemaking scholar, Karl Weick, talks about organizations as dealing with repetition and routine, and he and others suggest that ‘surprise’ is a result of a failure of attention, as well as a failure of interpretation, or a failure of intelligence.

I ask the question, what if ‘surprise’ need not be viewed as failure? Complexity theory suggests that ‘surprise’ is inevitable because it is part of the natural order of things and cannot be avoided, eliminated, or controlled. If we view organizations through a lens of complex adaptive systems, then the futility of a preoccupation with ‘surprise’ is brought into clearer focus. For better or for worse, emergent, surprising, creative behaviour is a real possibility, which can manifest itself as either innovation or error. Are we so convinced by our perspective on ‘surprise’ that we will continue to privilege the avoidance of error over the opportunity of innovation?

I would argue that mainstream organizational theories and models are not simply descriptions of a setting, but powerful ‘engines’ which can profoundly transform the contexts they describe. The language of mainstream organizations represents a sophisticated and well-developed performation and paradigmatic certainty focused on avoiding ‘surprise’.

I don’t set out in my research to make a case for complexity theory, but I do seek to engage with it as a source of alternativism, with the intention of understanding ‘surprise’ from a new perspective, and challenging some of those organizational norms that are easy to internalise as truths.

In respect of mounting a serious challenge to mainstream organizational norms, it would be fair to say the idea of the ‘alternative’ organization is generally a little slow out of the blocks. The term ‘alternative organization’ was first used by social scientists in the 1960s, but the ‘alternative’ still seems locked in a binary battle with the mainstream. Is one good, and the other bad? Is such a choice especially useful?

Alternativism has been inspired by anarchism, syndicalism, the ecological movement, the co-operative movement, feminism, libertarian communism, self-help groups, and works of literary fiction. It isn’t always easy to decide what is ‘alternative’; doing so would just reflect my own theoretical ideas, and close down potentially fruitful debates, but Martin Parker tries to articulate ‘alternative’ characteristics in terms of of greater autonomy, solidarity, and responsibility; whilst Frederic Laloux, identifies self-management, wholeness, and evolutionary purpose. These ideas seem to play around with equilibrium of individual and organization, of power and authority, of responsibility and purpose. I simply think of ‘alternative’ organizations simply as being open to a wider range of choices than their mainstream counterparts, although it would be important to point out that many suffer from a disarming engagement with dogma of their own.

And so to identify the setting for my own research; an organization whose purpose is to engage with alternativism, across multiple designs, and supportive of many forms. Furthermore, it is ‘alternative’ in its own design;  it has no physical form, it is a community of people who come together online to communicate and cooperate around a shared set of values and goals. They make ‘alternative’ choices about how they organize, how this identifies their organization, and what impact this has on the organization equilibrium.

This setting makes some specific demands on me as a researcher. I cannot visit its building, and talk to its people; instead, like a good netnographer, and hopefully drawing you full circle to understand something of the rationale for my methodological choices, I follow the medium, using their methods. I read articles they publish on their website, and and the comments made by others in response. I read their posts on the forum, and sometimes contribute my own questions to clarify my understanding. I keep abreast of their interactions on different social media platforms. My identity is openly disclosed; they know who I am, as I know who they are. Just like being there in real life. Only this is also real life. Through participant observation, I am able evaluate the organization’s health and wealth, its life and its priorities, in much the same way we might from looking at the physical health of another organization’s building, its financial statements, its products and services, and its strategic objectives. Later, through one-on-one interviews, I will ground this online experience, and share in stories offering ‘alternative’ perspectives of ‘surprise’.

Humanist netnography (which is one of four positions open to netnographers) encourages me to deploy any technologies possible, but to humanise them, using video, music, sound, art, performance, and dance, because it is insistent that I make knowledge accessible to a wider social audience. You will be able to recognise that this has implications for my research output. It also means I must commit to manual coding, keeping the data as close to me as possible; promoting an honest and positive understanding of the current world.

So, taking a narrative approach to communicating my findings resonates with the lofty ambitions of humanist-branded netnography. Polyphony is often used describe complex and sometimes combative layered tellings of the same event, but my understanding of it from the perspective of a professional musician is of polyphony as one of the highest forms of artistic expression possible. Telling individual stories about organizational surprises collected from one-on-one interviews, based around themes which have emerged from participant observation, and contextualising them within and without the organization, will make demands on me as a storyteller to incorporate all this information within the conceptual framework of a study, and create a re-telling or re-memorying of these narrations of surprising alternative organizations.

And finally, the idea that iteration is at the heart of this research cannot be overestimated. I am sure that you will all have experiences of the stages of development and consciousness that you and your research travel through. For me, I expect negotiating equilibrium between dualist and sometimes seemingly entirely incompatible elements will be a theme which runs throughout my research. My hope is that at some point I can settle on something like a zoetrope, to represent the many different iterations of my research, and communicate an image of surprising alternative organizations which is dynamic and stable, if only temporarily or contextually.

Look. I’m aware I’ve tried to cover a lot of ground in this presentation. At a later date, I hope to be able to report back on my grand ideas, evidenced in collected data, and when I do, I hope you won’t feel I strayed too far from my constellatory path.