30 December 2012

Thesis chapter 3.3: Insider issues

I was a PhD student in Software Engineering while being employed by large company, Volvo Car Corporation, where I have worked for 9 years prior to the start of the PhD education. The company has a program for about 25 PhD students in various areas. The agreement between the company and the university states that 80% of my full-time employment should be spent towards obtaining a PhD while 20\% of my time still working in industrial projects.

There is also an expectation locally that the research should be relevant for the EESE department where I am employed. Synergy is expected between the industrial project and the conducted research, and at best the research results should be directly beneficial for the company.

Industrial PhD students are often expected to have dual roles and act as neutral or unbiased researchers by the scientific community, and act as practitioners in the area they are researching by the company where they are employed. Furthermore they have a personal goal of pursuing a research education. These factors drives both the focus of the research (e.g. the formulation of research questions) and affects how the research is conducted. It is not impossible to conduct research under these conditions but there are some concerns which are not relevant for a researcher employed by a university or similar. Börjesson is the only other industrial PhD student I have found mentioning the dual roles in her thesis.

The dual roles have been called different things by different authors; ``participant-observer'', ``insider'' (link, link and link) and ``native'', with the last article focuses on ``how complete members may undertake academic research in their own organizations while retaining the choice of remaining a member within a desired career path when the research is completed'', i.e. not going native for the purpose of research but being native before, during and after. But they all consider the role of a researcher being part of the group that is being researched, with the ``insider'' term mostly used in the context of action research. The insider issues relevant for this thesis are mostly related to qualitative research in general and case study research in particular.

I address the issues of the dual roles in this thesis based on four papers (link, link, link, and link). These papers describe some issues which are particular to a industrial PhD student which are not that relevant to a researcher employed by a university or similar institution.


A researcher funded by the industry may be questioned if there are some ulterior motives to performing the research or of the funding agency have any influence over the results, or what results are published or withheld. Extreme cases could be tobacco industry funding research about the dangers of smoking or oil industries funding research about climate change due to use of fossilised fuels.

The only mentioning of ethics I found specifically for software engineering research is Runeson & Höst , a general overview of science and ethics can be found by Rosenthal. Both of these focus on the ethics towards any persons being studied and not the ethical issue of having questionable motives for performing the research. In this research project the motives from the funding agencies, Volvo Car Corporation and VINNOVA, are clearly stated and it is difficult to imagine any ulterior motives beyond satisfying these goals.

All case studies in table follows the spirit of the Ethical Considerations by Runeson & Höst even if the exact implementation may differ to their examples (Case I was even conducted before the publication of this article).

In all case studies in table the participants were informed about my dual roles as participant and observer, and that my participation would lead to published research, such as this thesis, and to internal reports in respective company. The latter was possibly more sensitive, and perhaps restrained the answers since the interviewees' managers would be in the audience. However I feel that this only had a minor influence. This pre-information also included a brief overview of the research process.

Unfortunately the consent to participate was not written, just verbal (although recorded in some interviews when the equipment was working as planned), contrary to the guidelines by Runeson & Höst, and the pre-information was also only verbal.

The participants were anonymised as much as possible, but in those cases where I deemed it would be possible for another insider to determine who participated in the study they were informed of this prior to their participation.

In cases II, III and V the participants had the opportunity to review the transcribed data as it was captured before it was used or reported outside of the group participating in the study. One interviewee in case V declined to have the interview recorded, but note-taking was ok, which was obliged by me.

It may be more difficult for someone to decline to participate in a case study in a industrial company than in a general social setting, due to the fact that the observer may have management buy-in to perform the study. However my general impression is contrary, all interview participants saw the interviews as an opportunity for retrospection.

Volvo Cars has a process of reviewing articles by industrial PhD students before publishing. My experience is that this process becomes less strict the more experienced the student becomes in writing about sensitive company information.

Observer versus participant

Tellis defines this issue as ``participant-observation makes the researcher into an active participant in the events being studied''. This is not unique for the industrial PhD student, but it is almost unavoidable. At Volvo cars it is expected since the PhD program targets to ``reinforce a scientific approach within product development'', and PhD students are expected to participate in the activities of the company.

Tellis continues with ``the technique (of participant-observation) provides some unusual opportunities for collecting data, but could face some major problems as well. The researcher could well alter the course of events as part of the group, which may not be helpful to the study''. This is in essence what Yin says where he mentions four major problems for a participating observer:

The first problem is that a participant sometimes must assume roles that could be contrary to good scientific practice. For me as a participant in an engineering company this seem to be a small risk since there is a common view that good engineering is based on science. Therefore the claim that I am doing research is usually a valid rationale for a certain role or behaviour.

The second is that the observer may become a supporter of the unit or group studied. If this is a real concern for an industrial PhD student then there is a real problem with such a role doing research since it is expected of the PhD student to be a supporter of his or her company. I also don't think the rest of the scientific community would expect otherwise if it clearly stated when presenting the research as being made by an insider.

Third, the balance between participating and observing may be skewed. This is a real concern for both me and other PhD colleagues I have spoken to at my company.
I have not found any recipes to mitigate this risk, and have tried to judiciously balance this during the project.

The fourth problem Yin mentions is if the studied organisation is ``physically dispersed'', then it may be ``difficult to be at the right pace at the right time; either to participate in or to observe important events''. The last problem is not unique to researchers with dual roles, but is relevant for anybody doing observations. In such a large organisation as Volvo Cars it is impossible to always be ``at the right place at the right time'', but at least all in-house development is done at a single site, Torslanda, Göteborg, Sweden.

Brannick & Coghlan have a more multifaceted view of doing research as a native. They for example state that native researchers have automatic primary access, while secondary access to documents or people may be harder for a native researcher since the organisation may not distinguish between the roles of a researcher and a practitioner, with the practitioner having free access to certain information while still being restricted to other information on a need-to-know principle. I have not experienced this as a problem at all at Volvo Cars.

Brannick & Coghlan continue to discuss the preunderstanding that a native researcher may put him ``too close'' to the data, but concludes that the research challenges "do not invalidate any of the outlined research traditions" (Their article mentions positivism, interpretative/hermeneutic and critical realism/action research). I assume that ``too close'' means not being able to evaluate the data objectively, which may be risk also in this thesis.


There are a number of benefits of being a industrial PhD student as well. Without much elaboration some benefits I have experienced are:
  • Access - The industrial PhD student is by almost default an ``insider'', especially if he is already is working at the company before starting his studies, so primary access is granted by default.
  • Interpretation - The industrial PhD student has a superior possibility to use an interpretative approach to qualitative research.
  • Acceptance - Research results may have a better chance of being seen as ``true'' since the results are coming from one of their own. This is not the same as researcher suggestions are more acceptable to implement, but the argument that the researcher does not ``understand'' issues specific to the organisation is absent.

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