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A Road Less Travelled: Exploratory Practice-Driven Theory Development Opportunities in IS Project Management

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This paper reports on a high potential and under-utilised approach to developing theory to improve IS project performance, a significant and persistent problem for the IS discipline. It presents a multi-disciplinary approach to exploratory research, which is oriented towards solving problems in practice by developing new theory or adapting extant theory to a new milieu. This research approach is based on 'looking for a gap in practice and finding the theory in the gap'. It presents examples from a program of research that has provided a number of theories to improve IS project management performance. It shows that the IS field may require multiple theories to support the management of projects rather than a single theory of project management.
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A Road Less Travelled: Exploratory
Practice-Driven Theory Development
Opportunities in IS Project Management
Peter Reynolds
Australian Graduate School of Management,
University of New South Wales
email: peter.reynolds@agsm.edu.au
Philip Yetton
Australian Graduate School of Management,
University of New South Wales
email: phily@agsm.edu.au
Abstract
This paper reports on a high potential and under-utilised approach to
developing theory to improve IS project performance, a significant and
persistent problem for the IS discipline. It presents a multi-disciplinary
approach to exploratory research, which is oriented towards solving
problems in practice by developing new theory or adapting extant
theory to a new milieu. This research approach is based on ‘looking for
a gap in practice and finding the theory in the gap’. It presents examples
from a program of research that has provided a number of theories to
improve IS project management performance. It shows that the IS field
may require multiple theories to support the management of projects
rather than a single theory of project management.
Introduction
This paper focuses on a high potential and under-utilised research approach to
improve, through the development and application of new theory, IS project
management performance. The development of theory to improve IS project
management performance presents a major challenge to the IS discipline since
IS project management has limited explicit theory (Shenhar, 1998; Williams,
2005) and delivers poor performance in practice with slow learning over time
(Johnson et al., 2001; Standish Group, 2003, 2004).
This paper highlights the potential of ‘exploratory practice-driven research’,
which builds on Kilduff’s (2006) comments about the opportunities for deriving
211
influential theories from the observation of real-life phenomena, and uses March’s
(1991) concepts of learning and knowledge creation.
Examples of solving problems in practice with new theory development are
presented from an ongoing research program to improve IS project management.
The research uses a multi-disciplinary research approach based on ‘looking for
a gap in practice’ and ‘finding the theory in the gap’. It shows that the IS field
may require multiple theories to improve IS project management performance,
rather than a single theory of IS project management.
The goal is to formalise a rigorous research approach, illustrated with examples,
on which future research can build. We do not contend that exploratory
practice-driven theory development is the only approach to improve IS project
management performance. Rather, we highlight the research opportunities and
describe an approach to improve performance.
The remainder of this paper is organised into four sections. First, we examine
the available approaches to developing theory to improve IS project management,
and describe the focus of this research. Next, we describe the research approach
and theory development process. Following this, we present a number of
examples and discuss the strengths and challenges of this approach when applied
to IS project management. Finally, we present our conclusions.
Theory development motivated by practice
Nothing is so practical as a good theory (Lewin, 1945)
Theories make sense of the observable world and can provide significant
breakthroughs in the way that problems are conceptualised and addressed
(Chalmers, 1999). Good theory advances knowledge in a scientific discipline,
guiding research towards critical questions. Good project theory would also be
practical, improving the professionalism of management (Van de Ven, 1989).
This section presents the case for exploratory practice-led theory development
to improve IS project management performance. We begin by outlining the poor
state of IS project management performance and the limited theory that currently
underpins it. We then provide a typology of research approaches, noting the
limited efforts to develop practice-driven theory. Finally, we discuss the benefits
of this practice-driven approach with a specific focus on IS project management
theory development.
IS project management performance
It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out
nor more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to handle than to
initiate a new order of things (Machiavelli, 1513)
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Information Systems Foundations
This research adopts the commonly accepted definition of a project as ‘a temporary
undertaking to create a unique product’ (PMI, 2000). The undertaking is
temporary because it has defined start and end dates, and it is unique because
its purpose is to fulfil a specific requirement. Its performance is typically measured
on four dimensions: time, cost, quality and functionality (Kerzner, 1998;
Schwalbe, 2002; Turner, 1993).
Based on these definitions, IS project performance to date has been poor. Table
1 reports the findings from a series of longitudinal surveys conducted by the
Standish Group since 1994. So-called ‘challenged’ projects are defined as being
over budget, over schedule, or under specification. It should be noted, however,
that these measures are against ex ante estimates of project time, cost, quality
and functionality, which are affected by other dimensions including the
socio—technical complexities involved with major projects and the human
ability to produce accurate predictions (Kahneman et al., 1982). The research
program on which we draw in this paper is broad, including studies into IT
planning and IT investment processes and the way in which project managers
effectively decompose, structure and sequence project and business outcomes.
Project Outcomes
Year ChallengedFailedSucceeded
53%31%16%1994
33%40%27%1996
46%28%26%1998
49%23%28%2000
51%15%34%2003
53%18%29%2004
Table 1: IS project performance (Johnson et al., 2001; Standish Group, 2003,
2004)
The data in Table 1 show that there is a large disparity between achieved and
projected performance, and that learning has been slow. This is consistent with
other research on IS project success. For example, Field (1997) finds that about
40% of projects are cancelled before completion, and Ambler (1999) reports that
some practitioners claim that, for large scale, mission-critical software projects,
the failure rate has been as high as 85%.
IS project management theory
Much of the accumulation of practical knowledge in IS project management has
been driven by practitioners, who have amassed their collective knowledge of
‘successful’ practices into Bodies of Knowledge (BOK) such as the US-based
Project Management Institute’s (PMI) Project Management Body of Knowledge
(PMBOK) (PMI, 2000). However, these bodies of knowledge lack a strong explicit
theoretical base. In addition, there is often little formal evidence of the success
of the espoused practices.
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A Road Less Travelled
In an analysis of the implicit theory underpinning these bodies of professional
knowledge, Williams (2005) identifies three meta-theoretical assumptions that
characterise the dominant discourse in current project management. Table 2
presents these assumptions.
Koskela and Howell (2002) review the theories that underpin project management
as espoused in the PMBOK and that are frequently applied in practice. They
show that the espoused practice rests on three theories of management:
management as planning, the dispatch model of execution and the thermostat
model of control. They conclude that these implicit and narrow theories are of
limited value and explanatory power. They also note that they have already
been superseded in the original management field from which they were
imported.
In summary, practice dominates IS project management, with weak underpinning
theory that could be developed, extended and enriched to improve project
performance.
AuthorsDescriptionAssumption
Lundin (1995)
Packendorff (1996)
Project management presents itself as
self-evidently correct (and, therefore,
presumably an explicit espoused
strategy is not essential), providing a
normative set of techniques.
Project Management is rational
and normative
Johnson and Duberley (2000)Reality is ‘out there’ and the ‘facts’ of
a situation are observable. Further, the
observer is independent of the fact
under observation and can stand back
and observe the ‘real’ world
objectively.
The ontological stance is
positivist
Remington and Crawford (2004)
Soderlund (2001)
Koskela and Howell (2002)
Project management decomposes the
total work effort into smaller chunks
of work with sequential dependencies
— giving rise to the standard
decomposition models; work
breakdown structures and project
networks, for example.
Further, project management assumes
that tasks are independent (apart from
sequence and resource relationships),
tasks are discrete and bounded,
uncertainty as to requirements and
tasks is low, all work is captured by
top-down decomposition of the total
transformation, and requirements exist
at the outset and can be decomposed
along with the work.
Project management is
particularly concerned with
managing scope
Table 2: Assumptions underpinning the dominant discourse in current project
management (adapted from Williams, 2005).
A focus on exploratory practice-driven research
Kilduff (2006) argues that ‘the route to good theory leads not through gaps in
the literature but through an engagement with problems in the real-world that
you find personally interesting’. He reiterates the observation of Hambrick (2005)
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Information Systems Foundations
that influential theories derive from the observation of real-life phenomena, not
from ‘scholars struggling to find holes in the literature’.
When motivated by a hole in the literature, researchers generally start with a
problem within an existing theory, extend or refine it in some way, and apply
it to a specific context (Kuhn, 1996). The nature of this learning and knowledge
creation is ‘exploitation’ of the existing theory (March, 1991), including processes
captured by terms such as refinement, choice, production, efficiency, selection,
implementation and execution. Alternatively, researchers can address a gap in
theory by starting with a new theory and testing it in a specific context. The
nature of this learning and knowledge creation is ‘exploration’, including
processes such as search, variation, risk taking, experimentation, play, flexibility,
discovery, and innovation.
Figure 1: Theory development research typology.
When motivated by the observation of practice, the problem is practice-driven,
framed by the phenomena rather than by a well defined research model (Zmud,
1998). By not adopting a well-defined research model ex ante, this approach
acknowledges that the research team does not know, a priori, the solution or
the theory to be developed. Practice-led research that uses existing theories to
codify best practice is exploitative. This includes research that seeks to improve
project performance by developing more methodologies, better execution and
stronger governance. Alternatively, and the focus of this paper, the research
can be exploratory, looking to solve problems by drawing on new theories,
frequently borrowed from other research domains. Integrating the two categories
of theory development motivation (Kilduff, 2006) and learning and knowledge
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A Road Less Travelled
creation (March, 1991), Figure 1 presents a framework with exploratory
practice-driven research located in the bottom right-hand quadrant.
Progress typically involves a mix of research approaches from all of the quadrants
in Figure 1. Kuhn (1996) outlines the importance of the existing paradigm for
conducting ‘normal science’, with punctuated changes to the status quo involving
‘paradigm changes’. March (1991) contends that maintaining an appropriate
balance between exploration and exploitation efforts is necessary for system
survival and prosperity. This paper argues that the research in the bottom right
hand quadrant holds great potential for unlocking the intransigent problems of
IS project management performance, and that the current literature under-utilises
it.
A road less travelled
Exploratory practice-driven research provides an environment for researchers
and practitioners to collaborate, with the objective of solving a specific problem
in practice and developing new theory, thus producing research that is both
rigorous and relevant. In contrast to the usual debate around binary choices of
rigor/relevance or theory/practice, this approach is simultaneously pursuing
good science, which leads to new understanding, and practical solutions to
critical problems. This is also known as Pasteur’s quadrant (Mason, 2001).
In our view, exploratory practice-driven research is a high-potential approach
to developing theory in the IS project management context where:
Existing theory is inadequate or is of limited applicability;
Trial and error learning has produced limited performance improvements;
Identification of alternative theories is problematic;
The source of the problem is unlikely to be close to its presenting symptoms;
and
Multiple theories are required to explain behaviour.
Practice-led research has an established acceptance and use within the IS
discipline and various research designs are available to conduct this style of
research, including case study and action research. Techniques to tackle the
theory building process are rooted in the classic grounded theory paradigm from
Glaser and Strauss (1967) and subsequent developments and debates — see
Glaser (1992) and Strauss and Corbin (1997) . A notable application of grounded
theory is Eisenhardt (1989), which provides an accessible framework for building
theory based on case study research.
However, exploratory practice-driven research has not been extensively utilised
in IS project management research. Nor are there clearly articulated steps to
follow for theory development to derive theory from gaps in its practice. Instead,
IS project management research has generally focused on holes in the existing
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Information Systems Foundations
literature, with researchers exploiting the limited existing theory to develop
factor and process models (Markus and Robey, 1988; Robey and Newman, 1996;
Sauer, 1999). As contexts appear where these do not hold, researchers introduce
contingencies (Shenhar, 1998, 2001) and the various Bodies of Knowledge expand
in detail and coverage. For example, as early as 1997, there were over 1,000
methodologies in use by the IS community (Fitzgerald, 1998).
Exploratory research intended to displace the existing dated theory has been
limited, with a few notable exceptions such as the application of Adaptive Control
Theory (Alleman, 2002) and a growing body of literature on the application,
often using simulation techniques, of Complex Systems (Benbya and McKelvey,
2006; Morris, 2002; Williams, 2005). Exploratory practice-led research is all but
absent in the IS project management literature.
Research approach
A model system or controller can only model or control something to
the extent that it has sufficient internal variety to represent it. (Law of
Requisite Variety or Ashby’s Law1 )
Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. (Albert
Einstein)
In support of the view that exploratory practice-driven research is high potential
and under-utilised, this paper reports on a seven-year research program to
improve IS project management. The researchers have conducted a series of
engagements with practitioners to improve practice through the development
of new theory. Each of the research studies draws on a different theoretical
framework and generates different insights while building on the earlier
engagements to improve project performance. The different frameworks provide
the necessary variety, in Ashby’s terms, to model and control improvements in
project performance.
Examining the IS project management challenge early in the research program,
the researchers concluded that there were at least three explanations for the
failure to develop effective theories through which to manage large and complex
IS project performance:
Either the research community has failed to identify the right factors or
processes, or factor and process models are insufficient by themselves;
Project performance is subject to high contextual complexity and multiple
contingencies; and
Researchers have looked in the wrong places, wearing the wrong glasses.
1 The larger the variety of actions available to a control system, the larger the variety of
perturbations it is able to compensate for. Ashby, R. 1958, 'Requisite variety and its implications
for the control of complex systems', Cybernetica, vol.1, no. 2, pp. 1-17.
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A Road Less Travelled
All three explanations suggest the challenge needs reframing, reinforcing
the search for new theory.
ReferencesDescriptionStepObjective
Pettigrew (1990)Access to multiple
frameworks
Form a multi-disciplinary
team
Engagement
Role in practice, direct
observation, participant
observation
Immerse researchers in
practice
Benbasat and Zmud (1999)What is the unusual
behaviour?
A prepared mind
‘The problem of the problem’
Choose the ‘gap in practice’Looking for the gap
in practicea
Klein and Myers (1999)What is done:Articulate the problem
What is problematic?
Specific characteristics of
that world
Limits of the domain
Weber (2003)Consider the strengths and
limitations of the
meta-theoretical assumptions
that have either explicitly or
implicitly been adopted
What are the strengths and
limitations of their implicit
assumptions?
What embedded assumptions
in the world might be relaxed
(testing assumptions)?
Understand the ontological
and epistemological
underpinnings
Finding the theory in
that gap
Whetten (1989)Look at data in the gap to
signal which things will be
useful to point us towards
the theories
Examine perspectives from
other fields
Form the evoked set of
theories
• Propinquity
• Adjacencies
Deep and surface
structure
Which theories shed light on
the gap or are dispensable?
Can multiple theories
integrate?
Develop a combination
and/or permutation of
theories
Weber (2003)The explanation of the
hypothesised laws:
Develop an account of the
phenomena
Account
• Constructs
• Interactions
• States
Lawful transitions
Table 3: Theory development approach.
a The choice and articulation of the phenomena often occur concurrently rather than as discrete
sequenced event. Weber, R. 2003, 'Editor's comments: Theoretically speaking', MIS Quarterly, vol.
27, no. 3, pp. iii-xii.
Table 3 presents the research approach. The approach is iterative within each
step and adopts Burrell and Morgan’s (1979) functionalist paradigm, which views
218
Information Systems Foundations
social science as objective and ordered, reflecting the researchers’ positivistic
orientation.
Engagement
Practice-driven research involves a collaborative effort between a research team
and the sponsors of the research effort (Zmud, 1998). This research program
consists of a series of engagements with organisations, from both the public and
private sectors, undertaking a program of IS-based business change. Engagements
extended over a period of three to five years and involved deep immersion of
the research team in the organisations followed by periods of reflection and
theory development.
Engagements were conducted within various research frameworks, including
single-case, multi-case, and longitudinal case studies (Yin, 2003); grounded
theory (Eisenhardt, 1989; Strauss and Corbin, 1997) and action research
(Baskerville and Pries-Heje, 1999; Susman et and Evered, 1978) .
The engagements provided theory-driven frameworks and recommendations.
Researcher participation has ranged from direct observation in executive steering
committees to participant observer (Jorgenson, 1989; McCall and Simons, 1969)
undertaking project roles as well as being part of the research team. The extent
of participant observation provided a unique perspective of operations across
the organisations and extensive access to the research subjects. Understanding
increases by being there as part of the project control system.
Formal data collection protocols applied to three primary forms of data. First,
semi-structured interviews with individual informants were recorded, transcribed
and validated. Second, direct observation augmented, compared and corroborated
evidence in meetings, reviews and informal gatherings. Third, documents
provided information on data gathered from interviews. These documents
included strategic plans and business plans, proposals, reviews, policy and
procedure manuals, release plans, project plans and specifications, reports,
letters, minutes, memoranda and media clippings. Together, these multiple
sources of data enabled triangulation of evidence (Carson et al., 2001).
The research background included organisational psychology, philosophy,
political science, marketing, systems design and engineering. Some of the
researchers have held senior positions in industry. This diverse set of theoretical
and practical backgrounds enabled open dialogue and simultaneous engagement
in robust debate with senior managers and between the researchers.
Looking for the ‘gap in practice’
Weber (2003) describes the choice and articulation of the phenomena to be
explained or predicted via theory as the two most critical tasks undertaken by
researchers.
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A Road Less Travelled
When undertaking exploratory practice-driven research there are two
characteristics that help to identify a gap in practice. The first is the absence of
practice predicted by current theory. The second is observing practice that is
inconsistent with current theory. Together, they strongly suggest that current
theory is inappropriate as a basis from which to resolve the problem. Studying
such events, which, for some reason, have behaved differently from what
established knowledge would prescribe, is consistent with support for in-depth
research in a single organisation (Sauer et al., 1997).
The identification of practice-driven research problems requires a prepared
mind. Otherwise, the researcher simply treats departures from expectations as
errors whereas the research team must be sensitive to such departures and assess
them against their different theoretical backgrounds to identify unexpected
insights. To do this, problem statements must be clearly articulated. Weick
(1989) highlights that:
… the problem statements that drive the theorising process are more
complex than they appear to be. Not only do they contain an anomaly
to be explained, but they also contain a set of assumptions that can be
confirmed or disconfirmed.
They require a description of what is problematic, the specific characteristics
of and assumptions about the context, and identifications of limits to the domain.
A final challenge in practice-driven research is that the sponsors must also agree
on the problem, with the sponsors often subject to stringent time requirements.
Finding the ‘theory in the gap’
There is an extensive literature on what constitutes good theory but limited
guidance on good theorising or how to develop good theory. Developing new
theory to account for practice ‘commonly involves borrowing a perspective from
other fields, which encourages altering our metaphors and gestalts in ways that
challenge the underlying rationales supporting accepted theories’ (Whetten,
1989).
A useful place to start is to develop an understanding of the ontological and
epistemological underpinnings and look at what researchers have taken for
granted. It is then possible to challenge or relax the most accepted propositions
in the current theory and to explore alternative explanations of the phenomena.
To do the latter (that is, fit an alternative theory to the problem), researchers
look for a theory, or theories, that simultaneously define the gap and account
for the features in the gap.
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Information Systems Foundations
Developing an account of the phenomenon
Good guidelines are available for developing a theoretical account of a
phenomenon. See, for example, Weber (2003) and Weick (1989). Weber (2003)
describes this step as the explanation of the laws that are hypothesised, including
their constructs, interactions, states and lawful transitions.
Research progress and discussion
So far, we have argued the case for exploratory practice-driven research and
outlined the approach used in a program of research to improve project
management. This section provides examples of the theory developed using this
approach and discusses three key findings of the research. Specifically:
the need for multiple theories;
the value of multidisciplinary thinking; and
the challenge of sustaining the focus on theory development.
Examples of exploratory practice-driven research
Table 4 describes four engagements, in which an observed gap in practice drove
theory development. Two engagements describe situations characterised by an
absence of practice predicted by current theory. The other two describe situations
where the observed practice was inconsistent with current theory.
Bannerman (2004) provides a capability-based explanation of IS project
management performance outcomes, as an alternative to the traditional factor
and process view. It presents a theory of performance as the contested outcome
of drivers for success (learning) and drivers for failure (liability of newness).
Vlasic and Yetton (2004) provide a time-based explanation of how the variance
of tasks on a project generates a cumulative variance in project performance.
Drawing on the Total Quality Management literature, they present a theoretical
framework to explain poor performance driven by the relationship between task
inter-dependence and task variance.
Thorogood and Yetton (2005) provide an explanation of how the currently
dominant IT investment model, Net Present Value (NPV), drives the bundling
of project delivery. The authors propose an alternative Real Options-based model
to unbundle IT investment decisions, with the IT infrastructure investment as
the premium paid by an organisation to execute a portfolio of business project
options. The business units then assess each optional business project over time,
resulting in decisions to execute, delay or discard.
Real Options provides the IT investment decision framework but not ‘how’ to
unbundle projects. Reynolds (2006) addresses IS project complexity and
uncertainty, and argues that modularity can unbundle projects to reduce the
technical and organisational complexity of IS-based business transformations.
221
A Road Less Travelled
Commonwealth BankCommonwealth
Securities
South Australian
Water
NSW Roads and
Traffic Authority
Engagement
Building a New Bank:
Service Excellence
Everyday
CommSec:
Australia’s leading
on-line Stockbroker
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— The Water's
Magic!
Further Down The
Open Road
Case
2003 — 20061994 — 20012002 — 20031989 — 2001Timing
Direct observation,
participant
observation, action
research
Post event
description, partial
direct observation
Direct observation,
participant
observation
Post event
description, partial
direct observation
Researcher role
Project, organisationProject, subsidiaryProject, departmentProject, organisationLevel of analysis
Observed practice
inconsistent with
current theory
Observed practice
inconsistent with
current theory
Absence of practice
predicted by current
theory
Absence of practice
predicted by current
theory
Gap in practice
Nature
Description Observed unbundling
of a project to
reduce technical and
organisational
interdependencies
between project
components
Observed investment
in technology
platform first and
then the
development of a
portfolio of business
applications to
respond to market
and technology
changes
Observed large
variance at
component level of
four projects despite
the same
organisational
context
Observed apparent
failure to develop
IS-based
competencies over
time (absence of
learning)
Project is optimised
for time and cost (as
per PERT/ GERT/
GANTT)
New application and
business processes
justify infrastructure
changes
The application of a
standard
methodology in the
same context will
drive predictable
project performance
Over time, learning
will improve
capabilities and the
ability to repeat a
similar task
Practices current
theory would predict
Traditional PM
techniques drive
technical and
organisational
inter-dependencies,
which increases
complexity and
reduces project
performance
Reframing of
projects using real
options to unbundle
IT infrastructure as
the option and a
portfolio of business
projects
Task
interdependence and
task variance drive
project performance
New technical and
organisational
conditions reset IS
learning and
capabilities
The theory in the
gap
Insight
Complex SystemsReal OptionsTotal Quality
Management
RBV, Liability of
Newness
Theoretical base
Uncertainty,
Complexity
Investment models
and governance
Task
inter-dependence
Task Variance
Core capabilitiesConstructs
Reynolds et. al.
(2005); Reynolds
(2006)
Thorogood and
Yetton (2004a,
2004b, 2005)
Vlasic and Yetton
(2004); Thorogood
et al. (2004)
Bannerman (2004)Account
Table 4: Application of exploratory practice-driven research.
Multiple theories
Table 4 presents multiple theories, each of which addresses a gap in practice
with new theory, drawing from different reference disciplines. This range of
theories has been used to provide insight into problems in IS project management
performance and to develop new theory that can be applied to make sense of,
predict or prescribe practice in IS project management.
If only a single theory were required to fill the IS project management gap, the
contention is that it would be easy to develop. Academics and practitioners
together would have rapidly applied the theory to solve the identified problem.
222
Information Systems Foundations
Instead, this research shows that the IS field requires multiple theories to support
the management of projects, rather than a single theory of project management.
Multi-disciplinary thinking
The ability to draw on multi-disciplinary thinking as described above has three
major benefits. First, it enables easy access to alternative theoretical frameworks.
Second, it provides access to a wide-range of research methods. Third, it supports
deep immersion in the problem, generating strong engagement with practitioners.
The diverse theoretical backgrounds of the researchers supported the search for
alternative theoretical frameworks and their initial evaluations. For example,
from production engineering, the project critical path was treated as analogous
to one run down a production line. The findings from Total Quality Management
concerning variance-driven scheduling performance were then evaluated and
integrated into the program. Similarly, Real Options Pricing was imported from
investment theory to restructure the IS investment decision, with strong
implications for both governance and the structure of the project and with both
impacting directly on project performance. Looking in different places and
through different lenses identified novel and powerful success factors.
A wide range of research methods can be applied. The selection of each is
dependent on the research context and has included predominantly qualitative
methods such as grounded theory, action research and interpretive case studies.
It has also encouraged the research team, in other areas, to draw on quantitative
methods such as structural equation modelling to allow simultaneous fitting of
the data to the model and of the model to the problem.
Deep immersion in practice, with a multi-disciplinary team, supported a rich
dialogue with practitioners. The managers involved in the projects evaluated
all insights and this provided an early test against practice. Managers would
know whether a proposal had already been tried and failed elsewhere in their
industry. It also provided a guard against developing unnecessarily complex
explanations, responding to Einstein’s call to keep it simple, or as simple as
possible. All this illustrates how, within this research approach, there is a natural
tension between the need to develop richer theory while, at the same time,
maintaining simplicity to explain and guide practice.
Challenges
Following the exploratory practice-driven approach described in this paper
requires researchers to address three major challenges:
avoid early closure;
extend knowledge in practice; and
ensure that the application of insights from other fields is used to develop
new theory.
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A Road Less Travelled
The first major challenge requires that researchers remain both problem-focused
and theory-focused, even when deeply immersed in practice. Without this
discipline, it is easy to become solution-bound. The danger is that the practical
problem is solved but the researchers do not generate new theory.
The second major challenge is to improve performance in practice and not just
to reflect what is already known. The danger is that the researchers may explain
only what is already known in practice. Lee (1999) states that ‘with few
exceptions, none of much significance, the scientists who turned to [practical
needs] for their problems succeeded merely in validating and explaining, not
improving, techniques developed earlier and without the aid of science’. This
is almost certainly true for mature disciplines and practices. However, in
immature areas with poor performance, such as IS project management, this is
less of an issue. In addition, the approach of applying multi-disciplinary thinking
allows new skills to be applied to practical problems.
The third major challenge is to ensure that the application of insights and models
from other fields brings about new theory. To make a theoretical contribution,
it is not sufficient to apply a theory from one field to a new context and to show
that it works as expected. Whetten (1989) explains that the ‘common element
in advancing theory development by applying it in new settings is the need for
a theoretical feedback loop. Theorists need to learn something about the theory
itself as a result of working with it under different conditions. That is, new
applications should improve the tool, not merely reaffirm its utility’.
The application of the approach in this paper addresses this by providing deep
immersion to evaluate both data and theory. It allows the simultaneous fitting
of data to the theory and fitting of the model to the data. In this way, theory is
adjusted to reflect the empirical data and, at the same time, it is tested against
that data.
Finally, the approach presented above is oriented around the developing of new
theory using insights and existing theory from other fields. This, in itself, does
not address calls for new theory in the ‘core of IS’. Some, including Weber (2003),
would argue that the IS discipline relies too much on theories borrowed or
adapted from other disciplines. Instead the unique IS theory now becomes the
integration of these theories, perhaps to the extent that others will want to
borrow it.
Conclusions
Existing theory underpinning IS project management practice is weak, with
much of the academic literature focusing on exploitation of the limited existing
theory rather than exploration of new theory. In contrast, we argue in this paper
that ‘exploratory practice-driven research’ is a high potential and under-utilised
approach to address this challenge, where a multi-disciplinary team of researchers
224
Information Systems Foundations
work with practitioners to solve significant problems while developing new
theory. An approach is presented that focuses on ‘looking for a gap in practice
and finding the theory in the gap’. Four examples are presented.
A key finding of this paper is that there are likely to be multiple theories that
support the management of IS projects as opposed to a single theory of IS project
management. We have not attempted to identify and resolve the different gaps
in practice and theory required to fill these gaps. Rather, we have presented a
preliminary view based on our background and research program. While many
theories can be borrowed from other fields and further developed, the unique
challenge for the IS discipline becomes the need to provide an integration of
these theories for its own purposes.
Finally, we have provided an approach that may prove fruitful for other areas
of IS research where there is both a large and persistent gap in practice, and
existing theory is weak and inadequate. In particular, this approach is powerful
when there may be multiple problems, multiple theories required, it is not
obvious where new theories may come from, and the problems are not close to
their presenting symptoms.
Acknowledgements
The authors wish to acknowledge Dr Paul Bannerman, Dr Alan Thorogood, and
Dr Anthony Vlasic for their critical role in this research and their feedback and
perspectives provided during the development of this paper. In addition, the
authors acknowledge the feedback and suggestions made by the two anonymous
reviewers.
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