There was no lecture diary in this course 'Developing Theories in IS Discipline?' (First day I reflected on this post) Regardless I wanted to reflect on what I learned in the last two days of the course. For myself as well as probably for others who would have wanted to be there, but couldn't because of conferences etc. Firstly I would say, the topic of developing theories is not an easy one. I would say it's about as hard has it gets for a researcher. And if you can do it well, you can not only pay the bills for the rest of your life, but also make you 'a star' in your field, bringing lots of positive attention towards you. So those are two really good reasons to come up with your own theory. The work is hard, but the rewards are grand.
On this course, in 1,5 days, we tackled the topic of Theory Creation in an agile way - the reading list was looong (28 papers) and we also fitted a two part practical theory creation session/exercise. I could have spent a whole week on this topic and I would have extended the practical parts saying: now take this hammer, and look at your theory from this perspective, now take this hammer and look at it from another etc. The hammers being the classic papers for evaluation, which we did cover. But there is also a different value in doing this kind of course in a fast-lane. It means that people can fit it to their schedules. It makes people really focus, which might not be the case for 5-day-courses.
Regardless, I have learned immensely this week. Not only about theory creation, but about our discipline, Information Systems has been evolving over time and of course the kind of competences which I should have being a researcher in this field. So I thought I'd share some of the reflections which I have been discovering:
IS as Discipline
- Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) (Davis et al, 1989; Venkatesh et al., 2003)
- Delone & McLean IS Success Model (Delone & McLean 1992, 2002, 2003)
However it has been argued that particularly TAM is utilizing meta theories from other disciplines (such as the Theory of Planned Behavior and the Theory of Reasoned Action) which would point towards IS not having native theories. However, there are constructs in both theories very specific just for IS, which in the discourse is the counter argument - so I guess based on this what I learned was that one of the most crucial parts of theory creation is the question: How far you need to go from the original/meta theory(ies) behind your own... Make sure it's far enough. However, the world is evolving and many of the theories used in let's say, disciplines which claim to be well established like management or economics, have taken parts of theories from 'older' fields such as psychology or history. So the key competence here is to understand, what is specific for our field and why the meta theories on their own just don't work.
These two theories are not by far the only native theories we have... I guess this week I've learned something about the pride of belonging to the IS research field. Those wanting to reflect on this, I would suggest to read Straub's 2012 Editorial on Does MIS have Native Theories? in MISQ.
How to build the theories in practice?
In the course we looked at many possibilities on how to do it. Many methods, many criteria, many checklists, many hammers. You can choose various starting points for theory creation and you can proceed with many methods, there is not just one tunnel, which of course is the challenge. In the practical workshop my group proceeded like this:
1. We tried to narrow the problem and decide on the research question, also trying to think what would be interesting. However, we had 45 minutes for this exercise, which meant that we didn't really have time to reflect too much on our decisions. Luckily I was working with very competent and resourceful people, so we advanced quite quickly...
RESULT: Research question: "What factors predict dissertation acceptance in 4 years?"
2. Secondly we decided to take an inductive approach and did a quick interview round on what each of us thought were the keys for their success in our phd studies. Based on this 'grounded theory' style approach, some constructs were immediately rising and we were grouping them and thinking on what could effect what (what would our hypothesizes be).
RESULT: Constructs like "Data Access", "Topic Choise", "Researcher's characteristics", and "Formal support available"
3. We contemplated the issue of whether to do a process model or a variance model. But ended up deciding on the latter, as it was time management vise more feasible. What is the difference between these two approaches? The main difference is that process model has a sequence, a timeline of some sort. So then we drew a very simplified model presentation of our theory, where these constructs would be affecting the doctoral study success.
RESULT: Theorethical framework
(c) Clements, Heiskala, Nykänen, Pirhonen, Salminen & Tiilikainen
4. Then we started thinking of theoretical backgrounds for each construct, the measurability and practice. We were just about to reflect on related theories in related disciplines when we ran out time. The next steps should have been to go to literature and look for solid reasoning for each constructs and then of course testing the correlations, looking for causality.
RESULT: Some justification for our model
On the second day, we presented and gave feedback also to our peers. Learning from the others' thinking process was for me the biggest lesson of this part. It's fascinating to listen to peers who have had slightly different background. I also learned a lot more about reviewing, how to give critique with various styles. I would say that based on the characteristics of different scholars, they have different strong-points. In a seminar like this, one can identify 'what might mine be' and 'how I can contribute to a peer-relationship/joined paper writing'?
Hammers and Building Blocks
Another level of this course was the reading. We all needed to do 2 summaries, one powerpoint and also contribute into a few more papers discussion. So overall, I'm sure all read at least 5-6 papers of the 28 very intensively and browsed through the others. I am calling these papers the hammers and the building blocks. These terms point to the review process: If you are the reviewer of a theory paper, you might use Weber 2012 as your hammer. If you are the author, you might use Gregor 2006 to defend your approach when reviewers' ask for revisions.
One list, which I would like to raise is from a very recent editorial of MISQ by Rivard (2014):
Checklist for theory creation
Based on this and reflecting what I learned this week, I made my own list..
Kati's 10-points check-list of theory creation learned on this course:
1. Tension/Motivation - what is it? Why this problem? It's not enough to say "no one has done it, so I'm doing it." That's not good enough. Why is this INTERESTING? Are you trying to explain and/or predict? Before you even begin, read Gregor 2006 at least three times. Reflect on the type of theory you would like to invent.
2. Take a particular perspective, reflect on whether it is too broad, again, is it interesting enough? Narrow down. If you are doing IS theory - what's the topic's relationship to IS?
3. What is already known of this topic? Do your reading.
4. Select your research approach: After which take 20 papers that use the same approach as you, study them and then write your paper - learn by examples
Specifically I would like to mention that the tactics on doing 'Grounded theory method -> Process theory' is at least something to look at. I understand that this is not a method for all, but if you know how to do it well, it could be a winner. Personally for me, the peer and supervisor support in my department exists for this, so I'll definitely look into it. Both Sarker and Siponen have widely used this approach, if you want to look at some of their papers as examples.
5. Select your constructs well (why this one, why not another?) Have the 'wow' factor - why is this interesting? What is new? Are they coming from the data? Are they coming from literature?6. Answer the question: What is your meta theory? Look at related theories so you can explain why not this one, why this one
7. Define your constructs very clearly! Discuss your boundaries!8. Is it variance or is it process? if latter, also think of the sequence
Later in the course we had a small reflection on the paradox - are these two completely different after all...
9. Label your theory well - Have some sex appeal! Style is important, but if you are using dramatic words, then you also need to deliver. Marketing itself is not enough, there needs to be the substance to back it up. I have colleagues who feel that the conservative approach is much safer route to publishing success, but personally I find this approach just as acceptable as long as you argument well. And well, I guess I'd rather jump than to play it safe - that's just a personality issue. I guess the question becomes: If you did solid work and no one ever read it - are you successful? I think science is a community for discourse and we can only evolve through the feedback that we get from others. This is my argument for creating something that sticks out rather something that makes people fall asleep. Labels do matter and readers do matter. Part of making science is to make your contribution fit the body of existing knowledge and to be continued through someone else's work in the future. For this, I feel that scientist's moral obligation is to share and market one's own work. It's not enough that you know that you've done it. And in this game, labels do matter.
10. And finally: Read like Crazy: (at least these on top of your topic literature, and this would be my suggestion of order based on this course)
1. Gregor 2006 (Nature of Theory) Absolute must.
2. Rivard 2014 (Ions of Theory Constuction)
3. Weber 2012 (Evaluating and Developing Theories in the IS Discipline)
4. Sutton & Staw 1995 (What theory is not?)
5. Weick 1995 (What theory is not, theorizing is)
6. Bacharach 1989 (Organizational theories: Some criteria for evaluation)
7. Smith & Hitt 2005 (Learning how to develop theories from the masters)
If you are doing case study:
- Eisenhardt & Graebner 2007 (Theory Building from Cases: Opportunities and Challenges)
if you are doing design science:
- Gregor & Jones 2007 (Anatomy of a Design Theory)
if you are doing a process model:
- Sarker & Sahay 2003 (Understanding Virtual Team Development: An Interpretive study)
- Pentland 1999 (Building Process Theory with Narrative: From description to explanation)
And finally I would read:
Van Maanen 1995 (Style as Theory) - which might have become the paper which had the most effect on me in these two days. I don't know if Sarker assigned this paper to me on purpose or not, but in any case, I am glad he did. It's an extremely abstract, philosophical and difficult paper, but what it does is amazing. It says: We should be able to break the rules in order to be able to look at things from new - outside the box perspectives; as long as we can still communicate with the science community, it's the right way.
Personal researcher's confidence
Finally, I can say that I learned about myself as a researcher. One could say that I have a bad self-esteem as a researcher. Often I feel like I don't have what it takes. Not after these days though. That's what I bring home from the course, maybe more valuable than any reading list.
And even with the fear of embarrassing our wonderful lecturer, I just can't shut up on how much effect his courses over the years have had on my personal researcher competence development. I'm sorry - part of being a Finn is to say things straight up. And the great thing about Finns is that if a Finn says something, they mean what they say. You don't have to wonder if it's true or not. Looking at the faces on this course, discussing the issues with my peers, I know that I am not alone with this kind of feedback.
What Sarker does is gives you confidence, to take the next steps. He works through the researcher's identity, which is extremely personal and motivating. He talks of his own struggles. He talks of his own identity development. I looked at him going through the room of 30 students in breaks, many of which had just come to hear him speak, actually remembering names of people who he has met *once* before two years ago...
It's the little things like he'll say to you "Do you remember..." but then stops himself to say "of course you don't", to make sure that the researcher in question does not feel embarrassed, but empowered. He will carry everyone in the class on the levels that they need, and that I think that is exceptional. He doesn't only give good feedback, but has a kind of Socrates style approach of allowing you to come up with the ideas yourself by assisting the thought process. This way the student will feel a much deeper connection to the ideas and is much more likely to be able to utilize them in the future. Purely looking at the way he gives guidance and support, one can learn so so much. I admit, I might be a little bit excited (not in a creepy way) about Sarker. And yes, it's also true that some styles appeal to some people more than others. I can say that Sarker's style is clearly my cup of tea. How often do you have 2 hours available right next to Kamppi and you choose to do *homework* instead of going shopping... Just a question.
And finally Henri, you are right - this is my subjective, not objective opinion. But what's wrong with looking at research / pedagogical styles in a personal level? It doesn't make it any less valuable, on the contrary, it might have much deeper effects on one's identity development.
And Finally2(I know this is wayy too long summary): If you made it through this whole essay - congratulate yourself! For phd students, If you haven't yet gone to hear Suprateek Sarker speak, there's opportunities available almost every year in Finland, as he's a visiting professor in Aalto University, make sure you won't miss them. You won't regret it. In Finland, we are incredibly lucky. We've got all these high quality speakers visiting us. In my own department I also feel I am lucky, because there's great opportunities to get feedback from world class scholars as well as a great group of peers. I feel very privileged. If you are a PhD student lost in your own topic, feeling lonely and lacking confidence - look around you. There's great support available closer than you think.
Thank you for Professor Sarker for his wonderful lecture, thank you all the peers for the lively discussions and specifically for my group - I would do theory with you guys anytime!