About a month and a half ago, I went to a workshop just outside of Santa Barbara. The workshop was for ATLAS.ti, the software I use to code data from the qualitative research I conduct. It was a great workshop, and I highly recommend it - in fact, if I could take it again, I would. That’s how good it was.
But one of my absolute favorite moments had nothing to do with the software. Nick Woolf, the instructor, was discussing the difference between quantitative and qualitative research. I’m someone who has done quantitative work, from working on statistical analysis in SPSS to doing social network analysis in R but became decidedly more captivated by qualitative research, and ethnography in particular. So my ears perked up. How would he define them? Would he “take sides”?
Nope. He presented the two in a completely fantastic, straightforward manner that delighted me. Quantitative research, particularly statistics, uses what are called univocal concepts or factual codes. These are unambiguous and exact, pre-defined and pre-established. We know the concepts we’re researching, but we want to measure them. Qualitative research, on the other hand, is about trying to form those concepts. We’re not trying to measure them because they don’t yet exist. We want to learn about ideas, to form these definitions that are much more ambiguous, at least when we begin.
Ethnography or ethnographic is a type of qualitative research - there are many! - in which we want to understand the ways in which people form those concepts. The point is, in a general sense, to understand human behavior in its natural setting, like where people live or where they go to school. But it’s more than that. Ethnography is about getting the “insider” view of a culture or a cultural phenomena.
You can probably see how this is interesting from an academic standpoint but it’s also useful for businesses. Think of it this way. Imagine you’re a big clothing company. You want to know who buys your clothing, how often they make purchases, what they buy, and who they’re with when they buy it. You could definitely do some quantitative research on that. But what if you wanted to approach if from a qualitative perspective, or even do an ethnography of shopping - or an ethnography of how people respond to brands like yours? You might be able to access behaviors, attitudes, perceptions and other phenomena that would be tough to tease out from quantitative data: Why different types of people make different types of shopping decisions; how emotional experiences influence shopping experiences in positive and negative ways; and how their shopping experiences will differ when a friend joins and when a sister joins, or vice versa.
In order to do that the researcher (or researchers) must provide a detailed and in-depth description of the experience using a number of methods, which includes data collection through participant observation, in-depth interviews, surveys, and institutional data. We often do something that’s called “triangulation of data,” which is exactly what it sounds like: It allows you to confirm what your data tells you by providing more than two points for verification.
So what was I interested in, back in 2007, when I started my dissertation research? A few things. I was interested in how people experience significant organizational change. I was particularly interested in the ways in which they navigate such a change, especially when the organizational change revolves around the introduction of a new technology. How do people learn about the new technology? How do they deal with conflict and problems? How do they resolve issues and make sense of the changes? Focusing on electronic health records and the healthcare industry - which is itself experiencing some fairly monumental changes - meant I could look at how individuals experienced cultural and professional changes too.
I was introduced to an organization in Northern California that had recently formed - another major organizational change - and would be implementing an EHR system within the next year to year and a half. At the time, the two-year-old organization was a network of smaller medical groups, most of which had previously been private practices or newly-formed groups of clinicians who had worked in solo practices or in other small groups. The organization had the same structure it has today: two “halves,” a for-profit medical group and a not-for-profit foundation that provided management services and support. I can’t reveal the location of my research, so I created pseudonyms. In my research, I call the medical group is “Transitions Medical Group” (TMG) and the foundation “Concerned Physicians Foundation” (CPF). As a whole, the organization is affiliated with a larger regional medical group called “Jumbo Medical.”
When I began my research, there were 18 medical offices. I chose six to focus on - three OB/GYN offices, two primary care offices, and one neurology office - although I would eventually conduct some observations and/or collect surveys at 15 of the sites. In total over a period of 18 months, I conducted nearly 400 hours of participant observation and a total of 49 interviews (34 clinician, 10 support staff, 5 administrator/executive). I also collected institutional data and conducted two surveys, both before and after the implementation. I conducted my research using a modified grounded theory approach. This means that I did not go in with a hypothesis that I wanted to try and support. Instead, I started with the data and let it hopefully lead me toward an explanation of the phenomena at hand. As I collected data, I coded it (using ATLAS.ti), and as I coded the data I grouped the codes into concepts and then categories.
What categories did I find? Collectives, battlegrounds, and silos - oh my! Organizational culture is more important than you realize.