Research reflections #1 – a tale of two organisations

No comparison, just reflections!

On Thursday 17th I was in London for a few different reasons. One was to go visit a potential organisation I was hoping would become one of the workplace settings/groups for the research I outlined here. But whilst I was speaking at a seminar gig, the opportunity also arose to ask an entirely different organisation to consider getting involved. The differing experiences were frankly astonishing. So I thought I’d ponder them out openly here.

Ok, so first things first, this isn’t any direct, evaluative comparison. I’m not comparing apples with apples. Nor is it in any way judgemental. One visit was carefully planned, following a series of gentle emails to and fro, and a little patience waiting for the right people to become available to talk to: having learnt the hard way in the past, let’s call these ‘organisational gatekeepers’. The other was an entirely fortuitous opportunity: being the in the right position (physically and also perhaps reputationally, having just delivered a seminar presentation about people, workplace change and readiness) to ask the question.

But we can go deeper than that, and explore the similarities and differences. Let’s call these situations [the plan] and [the opportunity]. [The plan] is a coworking collective. [The opportunity] is an organisation in the property industry. It’s not really important to identify them any more than that here.

I sensed urgency from both. People’s time was clearly a valuable commodity not to be wasted. I also sensed the desire for straightforwardness. Personally, ‘academic’ is an ambivalent label. I am proud and honoured (it is a priviledge hard won, after all) yet also painfully aware of the risks of hubris and detachment. So when [the opportunity] gently challenged my difficult academic language, I was momentarily wrongfooted. I thought I was being refreshingly direct! We discussed back and forth for a while, folding and unfolding our arms almost in unison (the networking mirror dance, anyone?!) as we queried, clarified, and requeried to gain better understanding. Ultimately we agreed that I would send further, more complete, information so that the right gatekeepers could consider and make a decision. So what word are you thinking right now? I’m thinking ‘caution’.

[The plan], on the other hand, began by listening patiently and thoughtfully to my explanation for a few minutes. Having practiced my pitch on [the opportunity] it probably flowed a bit more smoothly. The discussion became more balanced. Ideas were shared, and two surprising things happened. Firstly, the ‘yes, we’re in’ was so, well implicit, that I had to double check! Secondly, my research approach became subject to a subtle reshaping to better support [the plan’s] collaborative, open source culture and desire for information to inform and improve. I was invited to speak with another gatekeeper, who appeared (I was rolling with the experience by now) to be the final ‘yes’ I needed. This was an even sharper exchange. I think I got about three minutes into my spiel before several pointedly direct questions about resource commitment, timing and ‘what’s in it for us?’ resulted in both the ‘yes’ I needed  followed by one last, energetic introduction to the right person to help me with the logistics. Oh, and by the way would I write them a blog about it, as part of the ‘what’s in it for us’ commitment? So what word are you thinking this time? I’m thinking ‘action’.

I’m not making a point about the right way to do things here, by the way. But I was very surprised about how unfamiliar [the plan] felt – and how alive it was with opportunity. [The opportunity] was what I expected it to be be like, reminiscent of the organisation I am currently part of; an organisation which talks endlessly of needing to behave more like [the plan], after it has taken a proposal paper about it to the requisite committees for consultation. At what point do we stop challenging (not the same as whinging, incidentally) and become part of the institutional behaviour?

Anyway, to cut a long story short, it doesn’t matter how academically robust and/or theoretically fascinating your research idea is. Can you clearly, convincingly articulate, in five minutes (or preferably less):

  • What you want to do
  • Why it is important
  • How, when, where, and with whom
  • What the organisation and/or participant individuals are going to get out of it
  • Specifically, what the resource commitment is likely to be

and appear approachable, credible, understanding and passionate about what you are seeking to do?

To cut a long story even shorter:

  • [The opportunity] was all about plans
  • [The plan] was all about opportunities

So what are you all about, and what do you need to do differently to ensure that is absolutely who you are?

 

This is not just workspace research…

‘Simple camera icon’ by Srami8 (2012)

Blimey. What a cracking week. Not only have we had four different Facilities Management (FM) student groups at Sheffield Hallam at once (ever used the analogy that FM is all about juggling?!) but Wednesday was the milestone I’ve been working towards pretty much solidly since March. I got double green-lighted to commence the research phase of my doctoral studies. Ka-boom! Chuffed? Excited? Just a little bit. Sometimes I absolutely love what I get to do for a living…

Ready to explore what we think we know about workspace?

So this is where it gets exciting, because now I’m looking for people to get involved in something which should be really fascinating. Especially given all the people/place discussions triggered by the recent CIPD/BIFM collaboration announcement. Not that I shop at Marks & Sparks, but this not just workspace research. Piqued you interest? Splendid. Read on…

What’s it all about?

What I want to do has its methodological roots in anthropology and sociology, rather than the environmental psychology-esque studies typical of FM and workspace research. I am interested, as openly and as broadly as I can be, in what ‘matters’ when it comes to people and their workspace. That’s it. The method I’m planning to use is called ‘participant-led photography’. Deceptively simple? You bet.

How’s it going to work?

I’m looking to engage with ideally two UK-based organisational settings. One might have its own workspace (or workspaces), with the majority of people all working for one main employer. The other might have more of a co-working setup, where different people from different employers all co-locate within a collective workspace. From these two settings I’m looking for a small number of volunteers. Maybe about ten from each. I’m after both ‘providers’ and ‘users’ of these workspaces. By providers I mean some from this list: landlord, owner, architect, designer, FM or senior management. By user, I mean folks who work there regularly in the workspace provided for them.

When I’ve got my two organisational settings selected and participants recruited, I’m going to come and meet everyone for a short initial briefing. This is where it hopefully gets really fun and interesting. Because I’m going to invite each participant to gather a small collection of photos using their own camera-phones, about, quite literally, anything they feel ‘matters’ to them about their relationship with their workspace. The great thing about photos is that they can’t be right or wrong. Participants can be as creative (or conservative) as they like. It isn’t about ‘good’ photos, whatever ‘good’ actually means. I hope this becomes an interesting, enjoyable experience. Am I going to see pictures about work stuff, or other things entirely? Am I going to see pictures inside buildings or beyond? I have no idea. It’s completely out of my hands.

Wow. That’s workspace research? Tell me more…

The participants are going to have a few weeks to gather their ‘photo-sets’ before they ping them over to me for printing. Next, I’ll come back to site and meet them again, one at a time, for a short conversation (probably 45 minutes or so) about the photos: “Why did you take this one? What’s significant about it? What’s going on in this photo?” and so on. The conversations might well go wherever, because they are led by the participant photographs. It should be fascinating.

These conversations will need to be recorded because after that I’m going to analyse them to ‘make sense’ of what the conversations tell me about the participants and their relationship with their workspace. Confidential recording of information like this is standard practice for doctoral studies: rest assured, ‘research ethics’ is serious business for university research like this. Protecting participants so they feel comfortable to talk openly is paramount. The analysis will take a few weeks, after which the plan is to either come back to each participant with a summary of their key points: “This is how I would summarise the key points from our conversation – would you like to amend or add anything…?” or, if there is more complicated stuff to talk about, perhaps come back to site for one final round of conversations with some folk.

When is this happening?

This information, or data, will become the basis of my entire doctorate, which I (rather ambitiously) hope to be well on the way with by late 2015. So I’m on a serious timescale, and the research phase I have outlined above needs to happen during the latter half of 2014.

How much effort will volunteers need to put in?

In ‘real’ terms, it simply involves each participant attending the initial short briefing session, taking the time to gather the photos, ping them to me, meet with me on site to talk about them, then either answer a clarification email or phone chat, or perhaps meet one more time. In total? Maybe 3 hours or so over 5 months, depending on how much fun they start having with the photo-project bit!

What about organisational commitment?

For the organisations involved, it means granting me access to their sites to undertake the research as conveniently and effectively as possible. It means allowing participants to sensibly take camera-phone photos which might be of/in the workplace. We will discuss ‘responsible photography’ at the initial participant briefing, covering data protection, ownership and permission, and having other people in shot etc: this is massively important. It means allowing participants the time and flexibility to engage with me. It means, most fundamentally, trusting me to undertake the research ethically, carefully, and conscientiously. My mantra as researcher is always ‘do no harm’. I’m happy to discuss this at any point. Hopefully this all sounds far more fascinating than onerous, but obviously everyone will have their own opinion.

Why this approach?

Well, after 16 years firstly doing operational FM and managing workspaces, then latterly teaching and researching in the field, I suspect that if we ask typical questions about the people/place relationship, we probably get typical answers. But if we can find ways to allow new information to emerge, we might be surprised and enlightened by what we discover. I’m really excited to be contributing to this fascinating and perennially challenging topic in an innovative way.

Right. We might be up for this. What’s in it for us?

Research like this has to be a bit of give and take. Through this approach I will learn a huge amount about a small number if particular perspectives. These probably won’t therefore be totally representative of the organisations or topic overall, but I’d be really surprised if there wasn’t hugely valuable learning in there to help inform the people/place relationship in the specific organisational settings involved. So, I will happily report and discuss summarised findings with both the volunteers and organisations involved, fully respecting the confidentiality of participants at all times. Moreover, by entering this extended period of work with me, you get my FM/workspace knowledge, experience and enthusiasm for the duration of the research to boot. You never know, this could be the start of something beautiful…

Brilliant. How do I get my organisation involved?

I’m keen to get started as soon as I can. Tweet me @ianellison or email me at i.ellison@shu.ac.uk. Don’t forget, I need both ‘providers’ and users of workspace as my participants. Also, crucially, please think about the ‘organisational gatekeepers’ – the people who will need to say yes to this before we can crack on. This might be you directly, or it might be a small group of folk.

Remember. This isn’t your usual workspace research. I’m trying to innovate and push the boundaries. If your organisation already believes it has all the answers, maybe this isn’t for you.