Constructing a logic of inquiry into project managers' practice
an illustated example
Eamonn O'Laocha, PhD
The focus of this paper is on the creation of a logic of inquiry used to conduct research into the role of IT project managers in an organizational setting. We examine ways of knowing in terms of the specific philosophical basis used by researchers in their approach to examining the sociopolitical organizational context of project management practitioners (Chia 2013). We introduce a novel, empirically focused research approach to the exploration and examination of the situated construction of the professional project manager role and practice. Our approach locates the ontological and epistemological positions taken by the researcher, that of phenomenological social construction in the manner propounded by Merleau-Ponty (1962). We extend Giddens' structuration theory (ST) (1984) through the use of carefully selected elements from the work of Bourdieu (1977, 1980) and Polanyi (1967). We demonstrate the manner in which our approach was made empirically operational in conducting a multi-instance case study within an IT organizational setting by illustrating the conceptual elements used to underpin the logic of inquiry; describing the use made of these elements in engaging with the empirical data; and summarizing the findings of the research that are associated with our approach and its use in context. We conclude with a statement on the use of our approach as a helpful ontology-in-situ for practice based research. We advocate the use of research specific logics of inquiry that take seriously the particularity of research contexts (Flyvbjerg 2001) and that make explicit the stance taken by researchers in the conduct of practice based research investigations. Our research builds on the themes of the rethinking project management agenda in focusing on research that is about, in, and for project management practice (Sauer & Reich, 2009; Winter Smith, Cooke-Davies, & Cicmil, 2006).
Keywords: logic of inquiry; structuration theory; tacit knowing; practice; ontology in-situ
This paper engages with ways of knowing in the context of project management research. We describe the construction of a logic of inquiry focused on researching the actuality of project managers' practice, a practice that engages in management across 'pre-defined' space and time. Our purpose is to illustrate the possibility of engaging in research into practice that takes seriously the challenge of developing new knowledge in a manner that explicitly locates the philosophical grounding of the research approach, in its ontological basis and its epistemological stance, while engaging in the experiential flow of organizational activity (Chia, 2013; Cicmil & Hodgson, 2006; Muller Sankaran, & Drouin, 2013).
We argue that the approach we have taken addresses the criteria of philosophical transparency and methodological rigor; however, we do not argue that ours is the only manner in which to engage in research into the practices of project managers. Further, we eschew the possibility of defining any universal approach as a best practice approach into the research of complex practice domains, (Flyvbjerg, 2001; Giddens, 1984; Chia, 2013). We describe our approach as a context specific logic of inquiry that emphasizes the particularity of the social relations and materials of IT project managers' practice in a given temporal setting.
The approach we have outlined below is the result of intensive and extensive empirical investigation into the organizational identity and practice of information systems (IS) project managers in which our logic of inquiry has been developed, refined, and tested as an ontology- in-situ. In this paper we describe the logic of inquiry used and restrict our commentary on the research findings to those examples that best illustrate the value of the approach taken. A more detailed description of our research and its findings is described elsewhere (O Laocha, 2014).
The paper is organized as follows: In the next section we highlight generic project practice related issues and the multiple dimensions of IS projects that feature are characteristic of, and problematic to IS projects. In the section that follows, we provide a brief overview of Giddens' (1984) structuration theory (ST) and highlight some of the features that make it attractive as an approach to the theorizing on IS project managers' practice by conceptually accommodating the characteristic elements of IS project management practice. Our next section examines obstacles to the deployment of ST in field-based research activities. We continue by proposing extensions to ST that make these obstacles tractable, and illustrate each extension to the theory with a description of 1) field-based uses of the extension and 2) highlighted research findings we attribute to the use of the extensions. In the final sections, we compare our extensions to ST in relation to other developments of ST developed for empirically based research. We conclude with statements on the value of a generic approach to the development of researcher and context sensitive ontologies-in-situ as beneficial to the development of empirically based theory development for project management practice.
Project Management Practice
The Role of Professional Associations
Professional project management associations, such as the Project Management Institute, have successfully influenced the shaping of project practice through setting out the standards and expected competence base for project managers across various fields, including IS (Blomquist & Soderholm, 2002; Rivard & Dupre, 2009). The professional associations espouse a generic, process-based, linear, and normative view of project management practice that emphasizes process efficiency and optimization-focused tools and techniques (Besner & Hobbs, 2008; Urli & Urli, 2000). The academic community has expressed concern about the value of such mechanistic approaches to the achievement of successful project outcomes, and has questioned the philosophical foundations and conceptual robustness of the project management field as seen through the lens of normative professional practice models (Lundin & Soderholm, 1995; Packendorff, 1995; Pollack, 2007; Soderlund, 2004).
The strictures of project management, as promoted by the professional associations have been accused of being disconnected from the realities of information systems development (ISD) project realities, and as such, are of little practical value. The rootedness of professional association models of practice in industrial models and approaches of the mid- to late twentieth century is seen as testimony to their unsuitability in the context of contemporary organizational structures and newer more dynamic and complex industrial sectors, such as IT.
The Situated Nature of Project Success Criteria
One area of particular contention in the project literature is that of project success criteria, where the traditional focus on time, cost and quality are seen to be of lesser concern than other more social and contingent factors (Atkinson, 1999). It is argued that IS project success criteria and not abstract and universal but are more likely to differ locally, given divergent stakeholder perspectives that include project importance, project type, team-client relationship, and an organization's performance management system (Bryde, 2005).
Added to these inter-subjective criteria is the intentionality of managers, the affordances of technology, and the context of power and culture that form part of a multi-voiced narrative described as sense-making devices that evolve, change, and influence behavior. These elements associated with IS project success are considered to be socio-political in nature and accessible through symbolic action, themes, plots, and stories that emphasize the importance of IS project managers' role, legitimacy, and power in the definition and delivery of perceived project success (Fincham, 2002; Nandhakumar, Rossi, & Talvinen, 2005).
Recent research has focused on the nature of IS projects in situations where project activity definitions coalesce on a dynamic and emergent perspective in organizational life. IS projects are characterized as multi-dimensional and inherently complex with the dynamic interplay of the individual, the technological, and the organization fundamentally important (Benbya & McKelvey, 2006; Levina 2005). Although technological aspects of IS projects may be more apparent, the organizational aspects of IS projects are cited as having the more significant impact on project management activities and perceived project success (Levina, 2005; Xia & Lee, 2004).
This characterization of complexity and uncertainty in the ISD domain has been one element in the long standing concerns with traditional linear approaches to ISD activities and has spurred multiple reviews and the development of ISD methodologies (Berger & Benyon-Davies, 2008; Davis & Bershoff, 1988). Non-sequential approaches to ISD are seen as practice-based responses that better fit the ambiguity and complexity of software development, from the uncertainty and volatility of user requirements, to technological interdependence and organizational and inter-organizational complexity (Davis & Bershoff, 1988; Molokken-Ostvold & Jorgensen 2005; Nandhakumar & Avison 1999).
This view resonates with the proposal that the adoption of a complementary way of thinking and talking about IS projects should include complex systems concepts such as non-linearity, emergence, unpredictability, and self-organization that characterize IS project activities (Remington & Pollack, 2007).
The temporary nature of projects is seen in contrast to the assumed persistence of the ongoing operations in which time is perceived as eternal. The planned forming and dissolution of projects, it can be argued, is the central defining feature of the project as an organizing form (Lundin & Soderholm, 1995; Soderlund, 2013). This temporal characterization of projects, in their task driven and time constrained purposefulness has led to a focus on the management of time as a key element in project management processes, tools, and techniques (PMI, 2008).
The importance of time as a social construct and as a key factor in organizational structuring is an area highlighted by organizational scholars in which elements such as regularity, pace, and rhythm are proposed as having an impact on IS project management practice (Brown & Eisenhardt, 1997; Butler, 1995; Orlikowski & Yates, 2002; Soderlund, 2013). Others have remarked on the nature of time—and its use and construction in terms of physical and social interaction, constraint, and power (Nandhakumar, 2002)—and as an element of importance in the relationships between technology, time-space, and social structures in the context of IS research (Sahay & Walsham 1997).
Boundary Activities and Boundary Objects
IS project practices can be described as activities that are enacted through the sharing of explicit objects across boundaries, such as project plans and risk registers, and through the use of various social repertoires of 'adding to, ignoring, or challenging' to these objects (Levina, 2005). These practices of social boundary-spanning and the use of boundary objects as sense- making devices resonate with work of Carlile and others (Boland & Tenkasi, 1995; Carlile 2002, 2004; Lindgren, Andersson, & Henfridsson 2008; Merali, 2002, 2006), and are particularly relevant for the project manager's practice that is situated at the nexus of organizational, sociopolitical , technological complexity and temporal activity. Boundary objects can be seen as sense-making objects that span time and space, and that are central to the coordination, cross boundary activities of IS project managers.
Whilst ISD conceptualizations have co-evolved to match contextual complexity, to some extent, project management approaches to IS projects have lagged or been static. The generic nature of prescribed project management practice and the expectation that its application will be efficacious, without regard to specific domain or field contexts, puts it in conflict with observations of practice and statements of theory in the IS domain. The prescribed normative approaches to project management do not incorporate the phenomenological elements of IS projects, identified above, in their construction of practice or in their underpinning theory (Chia, 2013).
Problematic in the context of IS projects is the context-independent assumptions of prescribed project management practice that do not attend adequately to organizationally situated, dynamic, boundary dwelling practices. Given this, the likely problematic organizational role of IS project managers and the construction of the project manager's self-concept is a matter of some interest in IS projects, and is likely to be of interest in any context in which temporal considerations, boundary spanning activities and organizational complexity are at play.
In the next section we show how structuration theory (ST) provides the basis for developing the requisite theoretical constructs to explore IS project managers' practice.
Why Structuration Theory?
The central theme in ST is the ordering of social practices across space and time. The central elements of the theory include 1) the human actor as knowledgeable agent; 2) social structures as rules and resources that are recursively referenced by the agent in the production of practice; 3) duality of agents and structures in which structures are internalized by the agent; and 4) the primacy of integration processes through which social relations are stretched across space and time.
ST is very well suited to the exploration of given instances of agentic practice in diverse settings and shared contexts, and maps well onto the complex social practice of professional IS project managers. IS project managers are expected to knowledgeably utilize rules and resources in the temporary organizing of diverse stakeholders within the context of ongoing organizational operations. The stretching of practice over both space and time, central elements in the practice of IS project managers, are described as key elements in ST's processes of social integration and system integration.
ST is essentially 1) Interpretive – in that social reality is posited as a social construction enacted by knowledgeable social agents 2) Hermeneutic – in that the agent engages in an ongoing interpretation of transformational rules in the pursuit of action, and 3) Doubly Hermeneutic – in that the knowledgeable agent's reflexivity can include a reflexivity on self and of changes in the context of action, including newly acquired perspectives, in the monitoring and commission of ongoing social acts.
ST can thus be seen to use social constructionist ontology and a hermeneutic epistemology in which the agent's knowledgeability is central to the accomplishment of purposeful social activity, in our case, the practice of IS project managers.
The central elements of ST accommodate the need to address the agency of IS project managers in constructing and describing their reality, and appreciates the significance of IS project managers' mindful engagement in complex decision making in their professional duties. It also accommodates the possibility of IS project manager driven adaptability, flexibility, and transformative capacities in dynamic and emergent IS projects; as such, it can be argued that ST makes a commitment to an ontology of 'becoming' (Chia, 2013).
Giddens' theory of self is based on an interpretation and development of the psychoanalytical constructs proposed by Freud and later further developed by Erikson (Erikson, 1963; Stones, 2005). However, in contrast to both Freud and Erikson, Giddens defines an elemental ontology of self in which a knowledge of self replaces the ontologically separated id, ego, and superego of the psycho-analytical model (Giddens, 1984). The self, described by Giddens, is a historically informed ongoing construct in dynamic appreciation of itself in the 'situation' of being. Giddens summarizes his theory of self in a three level stratification model of the agent categorized as 1) Discursive consciousness – the basis of rationalization 2) Practical consciousness – the basis of reflexive monitoring, and 3)The unconscious – the basis of motivation (Giddens, 1984).
Agents' motivations are characterized as a drive for the achievement and/or maintenance of ontological security and the avoidance of anxiety, as appreciated by the agent, through these three levels of consciousness. By examining the activities engaged in by IS project managers, and exploring the motivations for action declared by the IS project managers a greater understanding of the practice and situated role of the IS project manager can be discerned.
Structure is described by Giddens as sets of rules and resources (sets of transformation relations) organized as properties of social systems. These properties are referenced recursively, by the agent, and exist out of time and space as abstractions. Social structure is seen as being internal to the agent, having been internalized by the individual through experience. In the case of organizational project managers, these can be seen as the social, professional, and organizational rules and resources that can be accessed by the project manager in his or her purposeful action.
These rules and resources are categorized as:
Signification: Persistence in social practices through the ordering of understanding symbolically, and in the modes of discourse practiced by agents. The IS project's communication practices in relation to the multiplicity of stakeholders with divergent needs, professional purpose, and domain specific language can be recognized in the signification domain.
Domination: Draws on 1) resource authorization – transformative capacity of generating command over persons or actors, and 2) resource allocation — generating command over objects, goods, or material phenomenon. This category resonates with the interplay of the authorization of project work (the domain of the IS project manager) in relation to the allocation of resources (the domain of the functional manager), and the interplay between the two in attempts to achieve at times common, and at other times, conflicting objectives.
Legitimation: Establishing normative social practices and employing sanctions through which these norms may be regulated and enforced. The organizational and historical context of IS project practice and the normative expectations of the diverse organizational roles as they temporarily collaborate can be located within the domain of legitimation. This domain is of particular interest given the temporariness of the IS projects in the context of the ongoing persistence of organizational operations and the multiple norms of behavior associated with divergent temporarily collaborating individuals, groups, and organizations (Engwall, 2002).
These domain elements of structure, conceptualized as rules and resources, can also be seen as the available 'power' that projects managers can access in their attempts to achieve their social, organizational, and personal objectives (Jenkins, 2009).
The Interplay of Agency and Structure
Inherent in the agent's practice are elements of both the acknowledged and unacknowledged conditions on which she acts and the intended and unintended consequences of her actions. These unacknowledged conditions and unintended consequences are a result of:
- The unknown unconscious – hidden from the agent and others by the 'bar of repression' and the seat of motivation for individual action.
- The tacit knowing of the practical consciousness – internalized repertoires of acting or 'getting on', habitually engaged in by the agent and the bounded knowledgeability of the agent with regard to the context in which practice occurs (Giddens, 1984). Those rules and resources of the organizational context in which the project manager is situated that have become habitual so as to be unrecognized and unquestioned.
- The discursive knowledge of projects that acknowledges the as yet unknown elements of project activities and outcomes, such as user requirements and complex technical solution possibilities.
While Giddens posits these uncertainties as manifest in all social action, they describe a mechanism for understanding the specific issues of uncertainty that are characteristic of IS and other projects. The acknowledging of unknown conditions of action is an appropriate description of what is described as the messy front end of projects in which there is partial knowledge of project requirements and approach (Standish Group, 1995; Winter, 2006).
The unintended consequences of action relates to the uncertainty of action inherent in IS projects' uniqueness and their emergent characteristics. This uncertainty of the consequences of action is a marked characteristic of IS projects, and is a much cited element of concern in the development of information systems (Atkinson, 1999; Austin & Devin, 2009; Berger & Benyon- Davies, 2008; Lyytinen & Newman, 2008; Nandhakumar et al., 2005). Not only are the conditions and consequences of action of individual actors to some extent both unknown and unknowable, so too are the actions of IS project team members and associated organizational players as they engage in their own practice in relation to the project. This interactive uncertainty adds to the complex and emergent nature of the IS project that is often exacerbated by unique and dynamically emergent technological IS project requirements.
Practice across Space and Time
It is through an exploration and analysis of ST's integration processes that an understanding can best be reached on the processes by which socio-organizational structures are (reproduced by knowledgeable agents in the context of situated activity across time and space.
These integration processes are differentiated by the manner in which inter-agent reciprocity occurs and are described as 1) Social integration – reciprocity between actors in contexts of copresence, and 2) System integration – reciprocity between actors or collectives across space and time (Giddens, 1984).
The strong focus on the sharing of information and knowledge is a powerful force in the production of social acts across space-time and resonates with the practice of IS projects. The sharing of information and the coordination and direction of others' actions through time, within a given time-frame, and across space, given disparate and geographically dispersed project team members, and is a central element in both the ST framework and in the professional requirements of IS project managers (PMI, 2008).
ST engages with the notion of time and temporality through the use of:
- Integration – the processes of social and system integration
- Historicity – the accrual of agent's organizational knowledgeability in and over time
- Time space distanciation – through the use of symbolic means of interaction across both space and time, as can be seen through the use of emails, shared documents and virtual project team interaction (Giddens, 1984)
This conceptual prominence given to the temporal resonates strongly with the nature of IS project work across boundaries of space and time, and of the importance of project time and its management in the practice of IS project managers.
Empirical Issues with Structuration Theory
It has been stated that the abstract nature of ST is not amenable to use in empirical research and that strategies as to its use have been shaped by the purpose to which they have been put (Browne, 1993; Jones & Karsten 2008; Pozzenbon & Pinsonneault 2005). These purposes are described as being grounded in particular elements of the theory—such as the duality of structure, time and space, or agents' knowledgeability—that reflect the specific research questions being addressed by researchers (Jones & Karsten, 2008).
Giddens has not proposed the use of ST as an empirical methodological frame. Indeed, he argues against such a treatment and recommends its use as a sensitizing device (Giddens, 1984, p. 326). The use of ST as a sensitizing device allows us to construct the specific social ontology we wish to explore in a coherent and cohesive manner that incorporates knowledgeable, socially situated, and emergent human interaction in diverse and specific settings—in our case research into IS project managers' practice. The abstract nature of ST leads it to be cast as an 'ontology-in-general', in which the contextual considerations of given research instances are excluded. Further development of ST is required in order to render it usable for given instance of research activity and in order for it to become an ontology-in-situ, a contextually specific and sensitive approach to the phenomena being examined (Stones, 2005). The development of a ST derived ontology-in-situ is what we have described as a context specific logic of inquiry.
The development of empirically focused treatments of ST is well established (Jones & Karsten, 2008; Poole, 2009; Pozzenbon & Pinsonneault, 2005) and there have been some noted applications of ST in field research, particularly in the field of IS (Pozzenbon & Pinsonneault, 2005). However, a definitive treatment of ST for IS research has not been developed (Jones & Karsten, 2008), nor indeed does it seem appropriate to the conceptual nature of the theory that one should be developed (Giddens, 1984, p. 326). The differences in context and the specificity of the research questions being asked can be seen as the basis on which the empirical operationalizing of the theory might be considered (Pozzenbon & Pinsonneault, 2005). However, other challenges in the use of ST in IS research remain (Jones & Karsten, 2008). Some of these exist in, and are intrinsic to, elements of Giddens's conceptualization of ST.
We have identified four main challenges identified with the use of ST as a conceptual framework for the purposes of empirical research into the practice of IS project managers as follows: 1) the problematic definition of the self, 2) the disentangling of structural effects from agentic actions, 3) the accommodation of the material as an explicit element in the examination of practice, and 4) the treatment of time as an integral element of practice.
Whereas it is neither necessary nor has it been advised by Giddens (1984) to take ST in toto as a basis for empirical research (Jones & Karsten, 2008, 2009), we argue here that it is both possible and desirable to engage in an empirically appropriate treatment of ST without compromising its fundamental nature and underlying ontological and epistemological precepts, such as the definition of structure as implicated by and instantiated by the agent in her practice (Jones & Karsten, 2008, 2009).These issues and our approach to their resolution in developing our logic of inquiry are discussed below.
Developing a Logic of Inquiry
Gaining Access to the Why, What, and How of Agents' Practice
Giddens spends considerable effort in elaborating a theory of the self, based on and building from the psychoanalytical writings of Freud and Eriksson (Giddens, 1984; Stones, 2005). The elemental nature of the self and the unconscious is emphasized by Giddens utilizing a 'stunted' formulation of Erikson's (1963) development stages, with some dilution of the psychoanalytical basis of their construction.
Giddens' theory of self is that of historical (self) construction, in which the self is implicated in its own ongoing production and re-production through the motivation of the basic security system. Giddens argues that of the three levels of knowledgeability/consciousness only two (practical and discursive) are accessible to the agent and/or to others.
This constitution of the self is problematic in that the unconscious knowledgeability of the agent is both instrumental to motivation, and inaccessible to the agent or to those who observe the agent (Giddens, 1984, p.7), as such, its empirical manifestation and identification remains challenging. The instrumentality and motivation of project managers in their project based activities are seen as fundamentally important elements of practice, as it is the why of practice. Serious consideration of these elements of practice must be included in a logic of inquiry that wishes to engage comprehensively with IS project management practice phenomena.
The gestalt perspective, in which the external and internal are constructs emanating from the perceptual consciousness, is discussed in detail by Merleau-Ponty (1962) and developed and utilized by Polanyi (1967) in a manner that allows for its empirical treatment. Concepts of proximal (attending from), and distal (attending to) are introduced by Polanyi (1967) as categories that allow observers and actors to analyze the constituent elements of practice as constructed from individual motivation, professional judgment, and organizational considerations to the accomplishment of action, i.e. the why, what, and how of practice. The methodological application of these concepts—proximal and distal—helps differentiate the means and ends at play in practice, through the reflexivity of the agent and through the rationalization invoked by the agent in the justification of practice action.
The distal terms (attending to) relate to the re-production of social structure, by agents, for the purposes of 1) ontological security, 2) as a means of getting on with social activities, and 3) as the projected outcomes of action. These three purposes can be seen as the desired ends of social action and constitute the why and the what of practice action. Examining the patterns of the ends to which action is directed and the means—the proximal elements—that are used in the accomplishment of these actions, gives us the how of practice, an empirically usable and analytically helpful approach to research in project management practice. The proximal element of practice actions can be accessed through the examination of the underlying resources used by project managers in achieving their objectives (Jenkins, 2009). In this manner, both the means and the ends of agentic action become visible and separable. This approach allows the researcher to examine what project managers do, why they do so, and how they do so.
This approach, while not resolving the issue of gaining access to the unconscious, offers an approach to examining IS project managers' motivations, purposes, and the mechanisms in use by them while engaged in practice, and while engaged in discourse on practice.
Use in research practice
We conducted 38 interviews with project managers, 18 of which were semi-structured conversations about practice, and 22 of which were focused conversations while project managers were engaged in practice, utilizing project documents to assist in the focusing the interviews. We constructed tacit knowing maps of the proximal terms (the means used) and the distal terms (the ends to which they were used) by the project managers in their multiple project based actions and interactions.
Findings from this use
We found a distinct pattern of difference in the tacit knowing maps of the means and ends that related to discourses about practice and the maps that related to discourses in practice. The maps of discourses about practice showed a professional focus in what was discussed; a concern for professional identity in why it was discussed; and the use of standard terminology and criteria from A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) in how it was discussed. Whereas, the tacit knowing maps of practice based activities showed an organizational focus in what was practiced; a concern for organizational survival and utility in why it was practiced; and the use of organizational specific terminology, criteria, and sociopolitical awareness in how it was practiced. This demonstrated a contingent socio-political configuration of practice that served organizational and personal purposes, and that were markedly different between the practice of discourse about practice and the practice of project activities. This highlighted the non-representative nature of discourse about practice and the actuality of practice, not as a purposeful deception, but rather as a distinct practice, in and of itself, with specific and separate means and ends.
Separating the 'Must do' from the 'Can do'
Archer (1995) contends that the elision of agency and structure (in theories such as ST) produce a central conflation of two distinct entities (agency and structure), and in place of resolving the conceptual differences between them have succeeded in dissolving the differences between them (Archer, 1995). This contention highlights the challenge for the researcher in the potential inseparability of structure and agency in empirical studies of social phenomena. When does our observation or our participation in an act directly relate to the agent's will and when does it relate to structural constraints and enablers if both are inseparable in the manifestation of the act?
In a like manner to the treatment of the self, the tacit knowing concepts of attending from the particulars of an entity to its entirety (Polanyi, 1967) are used as a mechanism through which structure and agent can be dis-entangled. In any given social act the proximal terms (attending from) may consist of 1) Agent knowledge and resourcefulness (the agentic element of social action), and 2) Acknowledged and unacknowledged conditions of action (structural elements of social action).
The distal terms (attending to) likewise may relate to agents' (re)production of social structure for the purposes of 1) ontological security, 2) as a means of getting on with social activities, and 3) as the projected outcomes of action speaks to the motivation of IS project managers in the commission of project based activities, as mentioned above.
In situated instances of the production of these relations, the proximal and distal constructs can be used to map and disentangle the agent from the structure through an exploration of the particulars in use, by the agent, in attending to social action. These can be seen as reproduced relations between actors, organized as regular social practices engage the agents' facilities of communication, power, and sanction (Giddens, 1984).
By identifying the mechanisms in use by agents in attending from particulars (the conditions of action) to given projected social outcomes (the consequences of action), the structural and agentic elements of social reproduction become discernible, one from the other, through the reflexive facilities of the IS project managers.
From an IS project managers' practice perspective, an examination of the intended outcome of IS project managers' activities can allow access to a consideration of the acknowledged and unacknowledged conditions of those actions, and the possibilities of transformative project manager action. This treatment of ST with a focus of the tacit knowing (Polanyi, 1967), or practical consciousness (Giddens, 1984), resonates with both the IS project managers' context and the fundamental elements of ST.
Use in research practice
In our interviews, workshop observations, and practice observations, we constructed tacit knowing maps of the proximal (the means used) and distal terms (the ends to which they attended) being used by the project managers in their interactions with other project actors across boundaries. Robust challenge to what means were not used, as well as those that were, allowed for a construction of the real (unacknowledged and acknowledged) purposes of project management practice decisions and actions, and to an uncovering of some of the mechanisms of structural power that were manifested in the recurring social relations these interactions indicated.
Findings from this use
We found that the attribution of cause cited in discourses about practice, in relation to practice failure focused on organizational actor ignorance or self-interest and project management powerlessness (project managers must do focus). These maps suggested a picture of project managers suffering from low visibility, inferior status, and lack of power in imposing their professionalism on the projects they managed within the organizational context. When engaged in observation of and focused conversation in practice, complicity of project managers in the coconstruction of relations between themselves and powerful organizational actors was found ( project managers can do focus). In these interactions it seemed apparent that being professionally weak was seen to be organizationally strong. It was also found that there were some consequences of action that were both intended and unintended, that for reasons of getting on within the organization were steadfastly unacknowledged publicly, such as been the organizational “fall guy” for project failure. The existence of these consequences did however persist in the practical consciousness of the project managers and, though unspoken, remained acknowledged and considered in practice.
The Materiality of Practice
The conception of social structure, as virtual transformative sets of rules and resources of ST, does not adequately address the materiality of resources in use by agents in the conduct of practice (Sewell 1992). Given the importance of materially based boundary objects in IS project management (project plans, IS infrastructure schemas etc.), the stuff of system integration, it is important that a logic of inquiry used should incorporate materiality as an important element in the full ontological range of the research context.
The widespread use of documentation and IS artifacts constituted material elements in the practice of IS project managers. Drawing on the inclusion of materiality as an important integrating element in social practice (Orlikowski, 2007), and recognizing the boundary spanning nature of project management practice (Carlile, 2002), the concept of boundary object was seen as a useful addition to the resources available for use by the agent in the (re)production of social/organizational acts. This was seen as important in relation to the role of these objects with regard to their social and system integration potential, the central coordination activities of the IS project managers. The inclusion of documentary materials and IS artifacts added the further advantage of gaining access to material traces of agents' action. As such, they acted as an anchor to agent reflexivity in the moment and as a spur to agent rationalization in conversations about practice, after the fact (Hodder, 2003).
The use of boundary objects as sense-making and sense-taking devices (Boland & Tenkasi, 1995), and their use by IS project managers while engaged in boundary spanning activities (Levina, 2005) emphasized the importance of considering the impact of materiality on the practice of IS project managers. Use was made of IS project management material as media through which system interaction could be extended and social action engaged in (Giddens, 1984, p. 332). As such, the retention of the conceptual placing of the material in the time-space integration processes of ST is congruent both with philosophical underpinnings of the theory and the research context.
Use in research practice
We reviewed a large number of organizational and project specific documents (192 email threads, 29 project status reports, and 90 project specific documents relating to 49 projects). We reviewed and discussed some of these with the project managers individually, in interviews, and collectively in workshops. We specifically focused on the informational elements that constituted the construction of these documents (the presence or absence of risk registers, schedules, scope statements etc.) and the practice that underpinned the information that formed the content (project scope planning etc.).
Findings from this use
We found a widespread pattern of boundary object creation that relied almost exclusively on the input of others and that illustrated an absence of project management planning activity, such as scope, schedule, and cost planning. These documents, as boundary objects and material traces of practice, assisted us in focusing discussion with the project managers on the actuality of their practice, and on the conditions and outcomes of their practice in the specific organizational context in which they were situated. In most cases the project managers engaged in these sense taking activities, that is the passive non-questioning acceptance of information from others, recognized that by doing so they reinforced a construction of their organizational identity as administrative as opposed to managerial in nature, and of their practice as that of coordinators as opposed to managers.
The Nature of Project Time
The proposed use of time, by Giddens, as an element of action through which social practices are stretched remains a potent concept, and its identification with the structural power of domination in system integration is of clear interest to research in which the production and reproduction of social acts across space and time are a central element. However, the definition in use by Giddens does not afford empirically useful access to the temporal in a manner that assists in its description or interpretation in the context of IS project managers' practice (Emirbayer & Mische, 1998). In what way is time used to integrate social acts in instances of integration? How might these be manifest? What might we observe and how interpret them?
A detailed treatment of the temporal is examined by Bourdieu in his analysis of the disconnect between calendar time and practice time (Bourdieu, 1977, 1980). This disconnect between the “distributing guide marks along a continuous line” and “incommensurable islands of duration” (Bourdieu, 1977, p. 105) can be seen as analogous to the challenges faced by IS project managers in the planning and management of linear project schedules while engaging in complex emergent interactions with IS project stakeholders. In particular, the manner in which time is constructed resonates strongly with IS and organizational scholars' discussions on time and temporariness (Nandhakuma,r 2002; Orlikowski & Yates, 2002; Soderlund, 2013). This treatment of time takes seriously the concept of temporal structuring proposed by Orlikowski and Yates (2002) in which time is implicated in and affected by agents' practice. Time in this regard is constituted as both 'Event time'—qualitative and socially defined by organizational members, and 'Clock time'—quantitative and measurable (Nandhakumar & Jones, 2001; Orlikowski & Yates 2002).
The use of time as an element in the exercise of power (Bourdieu 1977, 1980; Nandhakumar & Jones, 2001; Orlikowski & Yates, 2002), in both system and social integration can also be further enriched, from an empirical analysis perspective, through the use of terms such as tempo and rhythm.
Bourdieu's conceptualization supports the use of time as coming into play with regard to social structure, as opposed to being constitutive of social structure itself: “Time derives its efficacy from the state of the structure of the relations within which it comes into play” (Bourdieu, 1977, p.107).
The utilization by Bourdieu of concepts such as rhythm and tempo, and their importance in the constitution of practice can be adopted as elements of the social and system integration processes within ST.
This extension of the use of temporal elements inherent in ST's social and system interactions, through the exploration of the rhythmic sequencing of interaction amongst agents, and the identification of the power used by agents in setting the tempo of others' activities, helps in strengthening the analytical approach to understanding agents' contexts of action and interaction.
This strengthened temporal analysis is also of particular interest in the examination of IS project managers' practice in relation to the project managers' role and identity, the organizational processes in place, and the relational power afforded the project manager role relative to that of others with regard to temporal control in projects (Bourdieu, 1977; Grabher, 2002).
Use in research practice
We reviewed the schedule and sequence of activities engaged in by the project managers and observed their practice, with particular focus on the project planning phase. We took note of who initiated, directed, and terminated interactions across boundaries (the rhythm of interaction). We also observed and had conversations with project managers with regard to their management of both project time and the time available to them for project management activities (the tempo of action), and their impressions of the temporal conditions that affected this tempo (the rhythm of interaction).
Findings from this use
We found a consistent pattern of the IS project managers working to the beat of project and organizational actors who a) had engaged earlier in the project process, b) had ownership of organizational resources necessary for project activities, and c) had assumed authority to authorize action (the authority domain of the project manager). The efficacy of the project managers was found to be compromised by their weakened power in the management of the temporal (event time) elements of project practice, and this greatly affected their ability to manage the duration and deadline (clock time) elements of the project, thus weakening them further both professionally and organizationally.
The development of an empirically focused treatment of ST has been achieved by complementing and supplementing the concepts proposed by Giddens' in a manner that retains the social constructivist nature of the model, while incorporating elements of complementary socially based theories that solidify its use in empirical IS project management practice research. In doing so, we have remained true to both the ontological and epistemological bases of Giddens' ST and made available a congruent, comprehensive and consolidated empirical working of a general and abstract theory.
The theory of tacit knowing (Polanyi, 1967) is used to assist in the identification of IS project managers' intentions and motivations and in the separation of agent and structure in the knowledgeable ongoing practice of agents through an exploration of conditions and consequences of action.
The materiality of practice is addressed through the use of materials as resources and media through which social processes are referenced and enacted in and across space and time and through the utilization of theory related to boundaries, their associated objects, and practices (Boland & Tenkasi, 1995; Carlile, 2002).
The treatment of time is addressed by using elements of Bourdieu's treatment of time (1977, 1980), such as rhythm and tempo, while acknowledging the integrating nature of 'Event time' and 'Clock time' (Nandhakumar & Jones, 2001; Orlikowski & Yates, 2002; Soderlund, 2013), as resources implicated in the social/organizational structuration process. Taken together these elements constitute a treatment of ST that extend its utility in empirical research into the practice of IS project managers in complex organizational settings—the creation of an ontology-in-situ that is a logic of inquiry.
Other Approaches to Extending ST and Why We Did Not Adopt Them
In addressing the issues of the materiality of practice, in the use of ST in IS research, DeSanctis and Scott-Poole (1994) developed adaptive structuration theory (AST). AST promotes a use of structuration in which social structures are joined, as a category that constrains and enables agents' actions, by technological structures (DeSanctis and Scott-Poole 1994; Poole 2009). In doing so, DeSanctis and Scott-Poole (1994) use a reified conception of structures that exist and persist outside of human memory but that are instantiated by human agents through interaction with technological structures (Jones & Karsten, 2005). This is accomplished through the use of a definition of technology as possessing affordances (Hutchby, 2001), as spirit with social structuring potential on human behavior while existing independently of those human agents (DeSanctis & Scott-Poole, 1994).
This externalizing of structure within technology is accompanied by a description of the role assigned the researcher in understanding the 'spirit' of the technology being used. This proposition affords the researcher a privileged position in the understanding and analysis of the technology's spirit by combining and analyzing evidence triangulated from multiple sources (DeSanctis & Scott-Poole, 1994, p. 126). Such an 'objective observer view' is clearly rejected by other practice theory scholars who argue that such an approach centers the interpretation of the researcher and privileges her voice at the expense of those engaged in the practice being examined (Bourdieu, 1980, pp.27–28).
While the analytical advantage of the use of such a treatment for empirical research is compelling in that it assists in the disentangling of structure from agency and gives significance to the material elements of practice, it is also a jarring conceptual departure from the ontological basis one of the central elements of ST, that of the virtual existence of structure within the memory traces of agents (Giddens, 1984; Jones & Karsten, 2008).
Orlikowski (2007) has proposed an understanding of the material in practice that acknowledges the constitutive nature of material on human practice and of that human practice on a material agency, stating that “all practices are always and everywhere socio-material, and that this sociomateriality is constitutive, shaping the contours and possibilities of everyday organizing” (Orlikowski, 2007, p. 1444).
While agreeing with the fundamental importance of the material in social practice, we argue that it is not necessary to afford agency to non-human elements of social systems in order to recognize their dynamic and important contribution to practice. What we have proposed is an approach to materiality in ST that addresses the needs of the phenomena being examined in a manner that is both conceptually congruent and empirically viable with the overall tenets of ST (Jones & Karsten, 2008, 2009). The approach we propose diverges from that of DeSanctis and Scott-Poole (1994), and Orlikowski (2007), in that materiality is not identified as a structural or constitutive element of practice, but rather as a resource, contingently used by the agent in social and systems integration processes. By taking this approach and by identifying materiality as media through which the integration processes of structuration occur, we have maintained the philosophical integrity of ST while accommodating the inclusion of material as an important and accessible element of research into practice.
Further to this our use of boundary objects in the examination of the material in practice further emphasizes this approach by positing the material as the media through which integration across space and time occurs within a shared multi-agent social system. The concepts utilized in the literature on boundary objects and boundary spanning practices help further in the manner in which power and time are manifest in the boundary spanning behavior of agents (Boland & Tenkasi, 1995; Carlile, 2002; Levina, 2005). We argue that our approach more appropriately locates the important elements of the material in practice and implicates them not in the structuring of the agent but in the inter-subjective, ongoing, and emergent structuring of practice of multiple socially engaged agents, through interaction processes.
Our treatment of time takes a similar approach and extends the importance of power in the use of time through an examination of the rhythm and tempo of inter agent exchanges through both social and system integration processes. The social and system integration processes occurring in and through time manifest the relational dynamic between agents in the context of their dispositions towards action and their awareness of the structural rules and resources available to them. Time is seen as a facilitating resource through which the structuration processes are achieved, as opposed to it being seen as a condition and an outcome of that process, as proposed by others (Orlikowski & Yates, 2002). In this way we have located temporality as a resource that can be contingently utilized by agents in the pursuit of their objectives (Jenkins, 2009).
Stones (2005) developed an in-depth model of ST that he has termed strong structuration theory (SST), in which the quadripartite nature of structuration is clearly described, defined, and justified (Stones, 2005). This adaptation of ST identifies its first element as “External Structure ... whose existence is autonomous from the agent-in-focus” (Stones 2005, p. 84). Given the reification of structure as external to the agent, we decided not to adopt this reworking of ST, but rather to develop extensions to the concepts ST that accommodate the requirements of specific research engaged in while maintaining philosophical alignment and congruence.
We have developed, used, and tested an approach to theorizing and conducting research into IS project managers' practice that takes seriously the complex, dynamic, and emergent conditions of IS project contexts, and allows for the examination of the multiple socially based phenomena associated with that practice (Muller et al., 2013; Chia, 2013).
We have addressed issues of disconnection between the complex, dynamic, emergent, and socially situated IS project context and the narrowly defined and contextual strictures of normative project management through the development of a logic of inquiry that explicitly identifies these issues in a comprehensive, cohesive, and congruent manner through the use of an extended treatment of ST.
We submit that our proposed approach addresses the multiple concerns raised with regard to the use of ST in an empirical context, in this case of IS project management practice, in a manner that is both consistent with the central underpinning philosophical elements of the theory, and that is useful to empirically based research into project managers' practice.
Our approach also allows (perhaps requires) the inclusion of researcher specific discourses and practices as elements in the shared and extended social setting of the research project. By doing so, we make visible the agentic and structural elements of the researcher's practice, including his motivations and the means and ends deployed by him in pursuit of his objectives.
In so doing we have responded to the call by others to develop research that adds to the “plurality of perspectives ... which give rise to different research methodologies” (Muller, et al. 2013, p. 31).
We have accomplished this through critical engagement with Giddens' ST in a manner that accommodates the specific circumstances and contextual elements of IS project management practice. We have re-located the problematic aspects of empirical research in ST using concepts borrowed from both the complementary Habitus theory of Bourdieu, and from epistemological writings of Polanyi (Bourdieu, 1977, 1980; Polanyi, 1967), both of which are philosophically congruent with the social constructionist nature of Giddens' structuration theory.
We believe that the approach we have developed and used in the examination of project managers' practice has also taken seriously the importance of power in the management of projects, and that it has allowed us to examine some of the mechanisms through which that power is enacted in the situated context of project managers (Clegg & Kreiner, 2013).
The IS project management context is dynamic and fluid (Chia 2013). We do not necessarily recommend our logic of inquiry as the approach to an examination of project managers' practice, we do however believe that the creation and justification of a logic of inquiry, by those who undertake this manner of research, is of benefit to widening and deepening the theoretical bases of the project management research field (Muller et al., 2013).
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Dr. Eamonn O'Laocha holds a PhD in business from Warwick Business School and is a certified Project Practitioner (PMP and Prince2 Practitioner). He has extensive project, bid, and program management experience in multiple industry sectors and has been actively involved in business across three continents for more than twenty years. Dr. O'Laocha's research background includes in-depth field based case studies into project management, and leading a large team of researchers on a major research project focused on innovation driven organizational capability transformation. He is actively engaged in research on projects, their management, and their governance. He is based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
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