The research challenge

The research challenge

Last week I did my first Higher Degree Research Colloquium at the Deakin Graduate School of Business and Law.

A colloquium is an academic meeting or seminar at which researchers present their work to be critiqued by other academics.  Like all “tribes” the academic community has its own language, traditions and expectations, and a research colloquium embodies many of these in how it is conducted and how people behave.

The day itself was a very well-run and fairly disciplined affair with each student presenting for 30 minutes including 10 minutes of questions.  Some put together very detailed slides of statistics relating to their work and, as one would expect from a PhD group, each of us were living and breathing the work that we are doing so there was a good deal of passion and an enormous depth of knowledge.

For me this was the first time I have actually presented my research within a formal academic context, and it was timely and valuable in terms of having to construct a clear, coherent, well articulated and accessible overview of my thinking. Despite having had many conversations over many years with colleagues and supervisors this was all about positioning, and behind held up for critique from others.  And they each approached every topic from within the paradigm of their own disciplines, thus giving feedback from a breadth of perspectives.

Within the academic world research is about bringing forth new knowledge, and it is as much about staking claim to your ideas as anything else.  Within the knowledge environment this is about publishing, and being prepared to both learn from, and broadly share, new insights in an open and transparent way.

So, what new knowledge is contained in what I intend to do?

“If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” (Isaac Newton)

As with most insights they come from building on what others have done before, and making the “hidden connections” between ideas, disciplines and concepts.  My work has always been situated within the interstice between and across disciplines, and has been about seeing connections.  I began my presentation by bringing together the work of three key thinkers:

  • Alvin Toffler and his understanding of communications and the psyche
  • Clay Shirky and his link between technical change and society, and
  • Genevieve Bell and her perspective on the personality of “data “.

Taken together, these three cover the socio-technological and cultural changes which are so challenging at present, and which are both requiring and enabling the requisite organisational responses.

The basic title of the research context is:

  • Governance, trust, transparency and technology; the emergence of the digital brand

with the key research problem being

  • How does the digital brand make explicit the relationship between governance and trust within organisational value networks?

From this there follow a number of overarching Research Questions:

  1. What is a digital brand?
  2. Why should organisations develop their “digital brand”? What are the benefits and advantages?
  3. What is required for an organisation to develop a digital brand? What are the key stakeholder expectations of such a digital brand within the organisational value network? How do these link to both trust and transparency?
  4. What are the implications and outcomes of developing a digital brand for organisational form, governance and key processes?

I have written about the digital brand in previous posts, and as my research is evolving so is my thinking about the digital brand itself.  What is important, however, is that the digital brand is not the focus of this research, it is merely an enabler.

The focus is on organisational change and governance, and the intended outcome is to develop a model which can assist in the proactive management of the organisation, the outcome of which is the brand and how it is perceived.

The questions and feedback from the Colloquium itself centred around three key topics, the first of which was “brand”.

A number of marketing academics challenged my use of the word “brand”.  I totally acknowledge that the concept of a “digital brand” is not new, and there is an ocean of research into brand within the marketing and organisational space.  What I believe is new is that many are struggling to come to grips with the concept of a “brand” which is no longer containable, malleable, and unidirectional.  A digital brand results from a multi-directional conversation with, and among, key stakeholders within the value network.  Within the Web 2.0 world it is they, through their actions and activities (including their written conversations and Facebook “likes”) that can determine how others perceive both it and what it represents, and from there whether or not to trust it, on all levels.

As my supervisor and I pondered the use of the term “brand” I consider a number of other words to use – identity, profile, footprint.  The very emotions which were stimulated by my use of the word “brand” are testimony to why I feel it is the most appropriate word.  For me “identity” is primarily about “who I am”, which can be manifest, to an extent, by how others see me.  As Goffman said

“The philosophy of self is the defining of the essential qualities that make a person distinct from all others … (and) … full information on this is rarely available.”

If we consider the Johari Window then there will always be that which is seen and that which is not, to a certain extent whatever is shown is “dramatic effect”.

Both “profile” and “footprint” seem too passive, whereas “brand” relates to activity, to the process, and to the external representation that is stamped on the world as a result of that identity expressed in actions and words.  For me “brand” has a strength and an intent that neither “footprint” nor “profile” have, and in a traditional sense, it is much more controllable than “identity”.

This is precisely what is changing in the digital world, because as more information becomes available, and data more transparent, then “brand” and “identity” are in many ways beginning to merge.  The outcome?  Being authentic becomes crucial in order to survive.

The second question related to the analysis of data.  Much qualitative research utilises tools such as Leximancer and other word-count and sentiment analysis types of tools.  I was asked how to deal with potential for volatility within a social media conversation, and how to assess what is collected without the spikes that inevitably arise within conversations.  For this I refer to an interesting piece discussing the differences between sentiment analysis and semantic analysis.  There has been a lot of hype around sentiment analysis, and my focus will be to use semantic tools such as OpenCalais to analyse the data that I collect.

A piece worth reading is this by Paul Dunay and he refers to Networked Insights report on the difference between the two.  (For any researchers interested there are numerous papers worth referring to and one in particular by Crowston et al.)

The third question related to the potential outcome of the research being a dashboard or equivalent that could be used for management purposes.  I was heartened by this question as it indicated that at least some of the audience had understood what I am trying to do.  In many ways this research link in with our current ARC in terms of “Sustainability Reporting”, but my focus is on the new organisational practices which need to emerge to help proactively manage an entity, based on the information obtained through the digital brand.

Reading around the topic a number of others are also doing very interesting work.  On the concept of Sustainable Leadership there is Macquarie University Professor Gayle Avery, and a model that I saw many years ago based on the work of Des McGowan and commercialised by InSync.

There is no doubt this is a growing field of interest, and my hope is that my own contribution will not just add to the rhetoric but hopefully be something that actually helps to change through execution.  I will keep you posted.