Split identities: reflections on an autoethnography project

Our latest PhD assignment is to find a paper dealing with autoethnography that is relevant to our research interests and then write an analytical review of it. The clear logic is that seeing someone else do autoethnography in a way that was good enough to be published is very helpful to us as we build towards our own autoethnography research project at the end of this module. It also gave us a chance to practice doing a literature search, a focus of our study at this stage.
So I looked for autoethnography papers dealing with technology capability in relation to business careers. Then anything in relation to business or other management careers, but without success (if anyone knows of a paper I missed, please let me know!) Autoethnography is a fairly new area and perhaps one that doesn’t appeal much to management practitioners, who are not generally given to this depth of reflection,at least while in post. It is not very surprising that most autoethnography has been written by academics, and I did turn up a very interesting paper dealing with the careers of two late-entry business school academics.
The paper (Learmonth & Humphreys, 2012) uses the novel Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde as a framework to explore the “split personality” of academics as, on the one hand, disinterested pursuers of knowledge and on the other of professionals looking to enhance their career like any other. By writing accounts of an academic conference from those two different perspectives, they explore the split and challenge whether there is really a split at all. In truth, like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the two may be so intertwined as to be impossible to separate.
I am not intending here to review the paper in full, but reflect on my personal take-aways from it.
Firstly, a conscious innovation of the paper is using literature as a theoretical framework rather than a more conventional academic approach. As the authors note, it would be more conventional to use Derrida or Foucault to explore academic identity, but autoethnography is a methodology that encourages unconventional approaches and they wanted to see if it was possible. I think they have succeeded and my mind started boggling with possibilities for my project. Could I analyse concepts of identity and selfhood with the lyrics of Twenty One Pilots? Perhaps use the novels of William Gibson to frame our feelings about technology? Or perceptions of people who work with technology using The IT Crowd? Consider this exchange from the very first episode between the two members of the IT department:
Moss: You had a job?
Roy[coyly] Girl on 5th.
Moss: Did you hit it off?
Roy: Define ‘hit it off’.
Moss: Did she continue talking to you after you’d fixed her computer?
Roy: No. And while I was working, she rested a cup on my back.

Plenty of scope here to explore what we really think of digital capability, surely. I’ll see how brave I feel later on.

Secondly, the paper offers a good example of how to “actually do” an autoethnograpy project. It seems to be the sort of thing that could sprawl out of control, so focusing on a particular episode would keep it manageable. The process of multiple reflection on one event is one I have used before, and more generally applying a different interpretation to the same situation seems a promising way forward.   

Thirdly, and again linked to method, it is clear that the authors started off the project with very general research questions, which developed and changed as the project progressed. It seems at the start it was almost an experiment – let’s see what can be done – but by the end they had fairly clear conclusions about academic identity and the value of autoethnography for exploring it. In qualitative research, the questions do not always need to be precisely pinned down at the beginning. 

Fourth, the sort of dichotomy highlighted is one that many of us can identify with – I certainly can. I work for a for-profit education provider so we walk the line between being a business and being an education provider. Ultimately of course, we will only be a long-term successful business if we deliver good education so these can be reconciled, but many of the assumptions in education generally are not based on maximising profitability. One could argue of course, and many do, that in an era of fee-paying students universities have a very similar split. But it is not how many of us tend to think about education. 

Finally, as someone who has moved from finance into education, and is now doing a doctorate, I was intrigued by the way both authors had reinvented themselves as academics, and been successful in their new careers, but then found they hadn’t necessarily got away from everything they disliked about their earlier careers. As noted in a previous blog post, I made a conscious decision around 2008 to reinvent myself as someone who was “digitally capable”, which was a change from how I had generally been before. But my motives for doing so were mixed from the start – I thought it was genuinely an interesting field, I wanted to keep pace with my children, and I also thought it would be a good career development strategy. It has proved interesting, and has helped with my children but at times it has been a challenge to translate it into my career. Why that has been the case could just be my research question for my project. 

Learmonth, M., & Humphreys, M. (2012). Autoethnography and academic identity: glimpsing business school doppelgängers. Organization, 19(1), 99-117. doi:10.1177/1350508411398056

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On being “good with technology” – success, suspicion and fear

Note: This blog post is adapted from an exercise using the research tool of autoethnography – using stories to make sense of our experience and contribute to scholarly discussions.

I have always had some interest in technology but it wasn’t all that strong until 2008, not long after I moved into education. I had an epiphany, particularly triggered by the astonishing growth in social media. I realised that 1) something big was happening and it would have significant impact on our world, including how we do education, and 2) if I wanted to understand my children, then aged 8 and 6, I would have to understand the technologies they would soon be using. In January 2009, I delivered the first of many talks I would give about emerging trends in technology and their impact. In effect, I was starting to build my personal brand as someone who knew about technology (personal branding is a big interest of mine).

Over ten years on, I can see it wasn’t a bad career strategy. I have moved through various roles and am still regarded as someone who knows about technology. And the bit about the world changing is now obvious to everyone. The accounting institutes are revising their qualifications to take account of digital technology and there is lots of talk throughout the profession about the importance of technology.

And yet something isn’t quite right. Facility with technology does not always match talk about it. It still seems to be ok among professionals to say, half-embarrassed, half-defiant, “I’m not that good with technology.” If technology is so critical then why isn’t it a priority for them to enhance their own skills?

There is an uneasy ambivalence that is also reflected in popular culture. The (hilarious) British sitcom The IT Crowd depicts techie types as clever but barely functional socially. Dramas such as Sense8 & Person of Interest depict hackers as a breed of superhero, able at will to access and alter any information, though still not great socially. We laugh at the nerds, but we fear them too.

So maybe I am respected for being “good with technology”, but there is some amusement, suspicion and maybe even fear mixed in there as well.

I think this story can be related to the literature about professional identity and careers. There is one paper I am familiar with (Maclean et al, 2012), which links reflexive practice to the formation of elite careers, and the same authors have also studied stories managers tell as a way of making sense of their careers and legitimising their success (Maclean et al, 2011). The work of JISC and others on digital literacy also touches on identity (JISC, 2014). I am not aware if anyone has linked these and specifically studied technology skills as an element of professional identity, whether it matters and what impact it has, but over the next few weeks I shall be trying to find out and maybe see if I can contribute something to it.


Maclean, M., Harvey, C. & Chia, R., (2012) “Reflexive Practice and the Making of Elite Business Careers”, Management Learning, 43(4) 385–404.

Maclean, M., Harvey, C. & Chia, R., (2011) “Sensemaking, storytelling and the legitimization of elite business careers”, Human Relations 65(1) 17–40.

JISC (2014), Developing Digital Literacies [online]. Available at https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/developing-digital-literacies (accessed 2 February 2019).

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Illustrating ontology and epistemology with religion

One of the issues raised in our PhD cohort discussions is grasping the key concepts of ontology and epistemology. Our readings so far on the topic are agreed on the need to understand our ontological and epistemological assumptions in order to develop a coherent research project (Cohen et al, 2011, Grix, 2010). Examples are often helpful in this sort of exercise, so I am offering this illustration in case it helps anyone.

As any readers of my other blog will know, my first degree was in theology, a subject which has fascinated me ever since, so this has been my “point of entry” to understanding the philosophical ideas. I also think it may be easier to illustrate these ideas from theology than from some other disciplines. I will add a big caveat that this is a very brief, (over-)simplifying summary as regards theological positions, and there are lots of nuances I am not capturing here. But here goes with the attempt.

In general, the orthodox or conservative believer has a foundationalist ontology – they think a God “really exists” in a way that is objectively true whatever anyone believes about it. They add to this a positivist epistemology – it is possible to know things about this God that are “true”, even if such knowledge will always be incomplete or imperfect, and of course the sources of knowledge are subject to constant debate.

Perhaps surprisingly, these assumptions are shared by the more vehement atheists. They think it is meaningful to say that God “doesn’t exist”, in a way that is objectively true and, subject to the fact that you cannot definitively prove a negative, it is possible to more or less be certain of this.

Liberal theology can be be anti-foundationalist, much less certain that we can be sure what “existence” really means in this space. The great liberal theologian Paul Tillich described the idea of the existence of God as “half-mythological, half-blasphemous”, preferring to consider God as “the Ground of Being”, or just “Being”, so the question of existence is meaningless. This usually goes along with an intepretivist epistemology, which starts with our experience of the numinous, or the sacred, and seeks to develop our thought from there. Sources of knowledge such as the tradition are to be taken seriously, but not uncritically.

These assumptions might be shared by an avowed agnostic, who believes that we simply cannot know the answers to these questions, maybe not even usefully discuss them.

It is possible to envisage other combinations. Some other strands of liberal theology have a foundationalist ontology – there really is a God – and an interpretivist epistemology – but it isn’t possibly to know a great deal about this God, at least not with any great confidence. I can’t picture what an anti-foundationalist ontology and positivist epistemology would look like, but maybe it’s possible.

Incidentally, the concern with ontology in theology, as I understand it, tends to be a Western thing. The Buddhist tradition, for example, in general is unconcerned with ontology, seeing epistemology and questions of practice and behaviour as far more important.

The research paradigm of critical theory is has its parallels in liberation theology, feminist theology and the like. As documented in my theological blog (and for full disclosure) my own position is more postmodern, in particular the strand referred to as radical, or more precisely, deconstructive theology. This sees the role of theology as exposing the problems of existence rather than answering them.

It’s an illustration that certainly helps me, and maybe I will be in a position to refine it as my studies progress.

Cohen, L. et al (2011), Research Methods in Education, 7th ed., Routledge: London
Grix, J. (2010), The Foundations of Research, 2nd ed., Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke

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Starting a PhD – reflection on research philosophy

It’s been an exciting couple of weeks as I have got under way with a PhD in E-Research & Technology-Enhanced Learning at Lancaster University. This means, among other things, that the Learningshrew blog is back in business, and I will use it to share thoughts and writing that may be of wider interest.

In the first week, we have been looking at research philosophies and methods, and considering our past research experience and our own philosophy. In particular, has our approach been positivist, generally dealing with data and facts considered objective, or interpretivist, more focused on subjective experience and using tools such as case studies and language analysis.

This is the first time I have properly studied research methods, so I’m now trying to “retrofit” previous projects into this framework. If I take some of my recent, small-scale “research”:

·        In my MA, I mostly ended up looking at the discourse around learning technology and how this influenced certain practices being adopted (interpretivist). That said, the piece of research that got most external interest (by far) was applying my accounting background to how e-learning changes cost structures, which I guess was positivist in nature. The key point was how institutions might respond to changes in costs.

·        A few years ago I led the development of an MSc for accountants which explicitly used social constructionism as the basis for studying finance and accounting. I thought this was a very useful way of thinking about it. Social constructionism isn’t mentioned in this text but I guess would be an interpretive approach.

·        At one point I was planning a PhD analysing finance education which would use postmodern approaches to analyse education around banking and finance. I was convinced, and still am, that postmodern concepts such as sign value and deconstruction are much more useful for understanding modern finance than the common very quantitative approaches.

So I suppose I have used different approaches in the past and, in line with the mixed methods philosophy, I can see that different approaches can have value in different contexts. But overall I am more of an interpretivist than a positivist. I don’t think the social world is “knowable as it really is”, although we often kid ourselves that it is. Finance is a good example of a discipline that sometimes claims to express “truth”, when actually it is a fiction we collectively create to help understand certain phenomena, and completely depends on certain common assumptions. There is an old investor saying that is relevant here – “profit is not a fact, it is an opinion”.

However, as any readers of my other blog will already know, the paradigm I currently feel most comfortable with for studying social science is postmodernism. Over the last few years, I have become a fan of Jacques Derrida, and his friend and disciple John Caputo, and a few others of that type. I think it should be increasingly obvious that institutions are contingent and fragile, and approaches that destabilise meaning and expose issues are more useful than those which deny these issues. There has been some research using postmodern concepts to study finance, but not much, and nothing on finance education, to my knowledge, which seems like a gap.

But I’m really looking forward to seeing if any of this changes over the next few years.

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Manipulating emotions – the trouble with Facebook

It has not been a good few weeks for Facebook. The company has finally agreed to supply Congress with information about political advertisements bought during the US presidential campaign, apparently with Russian money and promoting inauthentic links and stories. Facebook’s weak response has been noted and castigated as a threat to democracy. But the issues go much deeper than this story, or indeed allegations of fake news and the creation of echo chambers and, I believe, the key clues lie in two academic papers. The first, with the descriptive title, “What Makes Online Content Viral?” analysed all articles published in the New York Times over a three-month period to understand the characteristics of articles shared more often than others. Controlling for as many factors as they can think of, their main conclusion is clear:

“While more awe-inspiring (a positive emotion) content is more viral and sadness-inducing (a negative emotion) content is less viral, some negative emotions are positively associated with virality. More anxiety- and anger-inducing stories are both more likely to make the most e-mailed list….Consistent with our theorizing, content that evokes high-arousal emotions (i.e. awe, anger and anxiety), regardless of their valence, is more viral.”

This conclusion should not come as a surprise to anyone who has spent time on social media, but it is useful to have the data. Social media companies have a vested interest in us spending as much time as possible using their tools and encourage us to post material that will be liked and shared. And the way to achieve this is simple – evoke awe, anger, anxiety or something similar. The rest will follow. The logical conclusion of this is that the most popular material on social media is the most emotive – considerations such as whether the material is useful or factually correct come a long way behind. This has always been known to journalists, of course, but social media lacks even the most cursory standards of fact-checking and material can be shared at a speed impossible in the pre-internet age. To use the Silicon Valley terminology, the fact that social media, particularly Facebook, is usually swamped with emotive and misleading material is a feature not a bug.

The second paper is even more scary but with a title that is only mildly sinister, “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks”. To a certain type of psychologist, Facebook represents a wonderful laboratory for testing theories, and the test here is whether people who read sad or happy posts (identified by the use of certain keywords) are more likely to then produce sad or happy posts themselves (again identified through keywords). How do you test this? You take nearly 700,000 Facebook users and manipulate the newsfeed algorithms (Facebook’s top secret way of determining the order in which posts are seen) for two groups – one “sad”, one “happy” – and keep a group unchanged as a control. None of these people, of course, were aware of the experiment, which led to accusations that it breached ethical guidelines. But what is even more scary than Facebook’s willingness to experiment on its users without their knowledge is that it worked. Their summary diagram tells the story:

Screenshot 2017-09-24 at 16.43.13

So there is a small but clearly measurable impact on the emotional state of Facebook users resulting from manipulation of their newsfeed algorithm. Or put this another way – we now have a company, a corporation remember, committed to maximising profits for their shareholders – with the capability to measurably influence the emotional state of over two billion people, without any of them actually being aware of it. If that doesn’t scare you, I’m not sure you have been paying attention.

The truth is, we have created a monster. The question now is whether it can be reined in before it becomes too powerful to deal with. The most hopeful signs so far have come from the European Commission, with Margrethe Vestager, the formidable Commissioner for Competition, one of the few officials willing to take on technology companies, including Facebook for making misleading statements relating to their acquisition of WhatsApp. But what will really make a difference is whether we, the general public, continue to invest our time, energy and attention in support of the company. A great deal may well depend on this.


Berger, J. & Milkman, K. (2012) “What Makes Online Content Viral?”, Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. XLIX (April), 192-205.

Kramer, A., Guillory, J. & Hancock, J. (2014) “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 111, no. 24, 8788-8790.


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Why e-business changes the rules…for everything

Last week, the Financial Times reported a milestone in the growth of technology companies (paywall). For the first time ever, the five most valuable companies in the world were from this sector – Apple, Alphabet (owner of Google), Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook.  As a business educator who is also into technology, I find this fascinating. In particular, I am struck by the way these companies not only use new technology to deliver services, they have also invented new ways of making money out of them, in other words, new business models. As I will attempt to show in this blog post, these new business models have surprisingly big implications.


I had been using the idea of new business models in my teaching for a while before I came across a paper that added a whole new dimension to my understanding. According to  DaSilva & Trkman (2014), the term “business model” was first used in 1957, but featured in very few academic papers until the 1990s. Usage of the term started to grow significantly in 1999 and, with some blips, has grown ever since. The authors convincingly link this to the rise in digital technologies and e-business. In the days before the web, it was fairly obvious what businesses did – they produced goods and/or services which they then sold to customers. But the web enabled new types of businesses where it was much less obvious how they were creating and capturing value. This meant we had to start examining their business models. Some of them, such as pets.com, discussed in the paper, turned out not to have a workable business model at all. Others, such as Google, invented successful new ones and made vast profits in the process.


The authors also argue that, despite the popularity of the term, “business model”, it does not have an agreed, useful definition. But the fact that we are having this debate illustrates for me how fast the world of business has changed. The old rules simply do not apply any more. For example, the laws of supply and demand taught in every economics course are not relevant when it comes to digital goods – supply is, to all intents and purposes, unlimited and without cost. It does not cost Google anything much to deliver a search result or Facebook to supply you with a profile. That’s one reason why they don’t charge for them, instead making money by selling information about you to advertisers.


And this leads on to a second important characteristic of much e-business. Traditional economics generally assumes the existence of a number of competing providers. When businesses get too big, they become vulnerable to challenge by nimbler rivals. Where there are exceptions, “natural monopolies” such as telecoms or water, these are closely managed and regulated to ensure they do not abuse their power.


But the uncomfortable truth about e-business may be that natural monopolies are the norm, not the exception. There is no real benefit in using competing search engines when Google gives you the best results, no reason to be on a social network other than the one everyone else is using, no reason to use other online retailers if Amazon uses its scale and marketing savvy to deliver everything you need at low prices. This is not to say that e-business is a bad thing, just that it seems to be becoming clear that the rules of economics are changing. And history shows us that when the rules of economics change, everything else changes too.


This is not my original idea, of course – there are many others exploring this territory and publishing books on it. Two I have read recently are Jaron Lanier‘s Who Owns the Future?  and Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism. I enjoyed both of them, partly because they range so widely over technology, economics, politics, sociology and history. This holistic perspective is surely necessary to contemplate the scale of changes underway. Broadly, Lanier is something of a pessimist, believing that “Siren Server” businesses are sucking value from the economy. A different approach, based on micro-payments and clearer ownership of information, is possible but, in his view, most probably will not be implemented until the current system has collapsed. By contrast Mason is generally an optimist, believing that the growth in the “networked economy” and non-monetary exchange shows a path by which we may deal with the challenges of climate change and demographics.


But they, and others, agree on one point. The capitalist system that has, one way or another, brought increased prosperity and wellbeing to the world over the last 200 years or so is no longer fit for purpose, and has started to collapse. The financial crisis of 2008 was an obvious sign of this, as is our inability to recover from it by using the traditional tools of monetary policy. Politically, the signs of collapse can be seen in revolts against our ruling elite, such as the Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump. Such pains are to be expected if we are indeed starting to move towards a new type of economy. But if these writers are even partly right, and I think they are, then surely our most urgent task is working out what will replace our current system and, in small-scale experiments at first, starting to feel our way towards it. This, I suspect, will be humanity’s greatest challenge, and greatest opportunity, for many decades to come.


DaSilva, C. & Trkman, P. (2014), “Business Model: What It Is and What It Is Not”, Long Range Planning 47, 379–389

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Intervening: problems with values in finance

A few days ago, I attended a conference on the work of French sociologist Pierre Bordieu and its relevance for accounting. There were many things to take away but one of them was the fact that, in later life, Bordieu increasingly became an activist as well as an academic. In his 2003 work Firing Back: Against the Tyranny of the Market 2, he famously wrote:

“Those who have the good fortune to be able to devote their lives to the study of the social world cannot stand aside, neutral and indifferent, from the struggles in which the future of the world is at stake.”

He was specifically referring to sociologists, but I think the same is true of business educators and, most relevant to me, finance educators. Following the financial crisis, a writer in The Economist observed the following:

“Most of the people at the heart of the crisis— from Dick Fuld at Lehman Brothers to John Thain at Merrill Lynch to Andy Hornby at HBOS—had MBAs after their name . . . In recent years about 40% of the graduates of America’s best business schools ended up on Wall Street, where they assiduously applied the techniques that they had spent a small fortune learning. You cannot both claim that your mission is “to educate leaders who make a difference in the world”. . . and then wash your hands of your alumni when the difference they make is malign.” (Economist, September 24, 2009: on-line edition, quoted in Crossan et al, 2013)

Of course, business schools have always included at least some materials on ethics, and are even starting to consider character, as Crossan and her colleagues set out in their paper, but I do not think this goes far enough. There is a bigger issue that has bugged me more and more in my many years as a finance educator and I would express it like this:

The general assumption seems to be that finance is a technocratic, value-neutral discipline. It is taught the same way all over the world to people of widely different cultures and outlooks. Ethics in finance largely consist of reporting things correctly (sic), ensuring that controls are effective, rules are complied with and that managers discharge their responsibilities to their shareholders or stakeholders.

It does not take very much effort to deconstruct and undermine this view. Jacques Derrida argued that symbols (which include words and numbers) never have a fixed, neutral meaning. Meaning of symbols is always “deferred” into other symbols. In other words, meaning of any sort depends on a complex web of context. Financial numbers mean nothing in isolation, they can only be interpreted in a context, and that context will include values. It follows on from this that, like Bourdieu, Derrida insisted on an activist dimension to his project – “Deconstruction, I have insisted, is not neutral. It intervenes” (Positions).

To take one concrete example, the law in the UK requires directors to act in the best interests of shareholders, which is assumed to be maximising financial return. This is also the assumption behind corporate governance codes and the starting point for most financial analysis techniques. This point is further reinforced by the structure of an income statement, which culminates in the profit or loss attributable to shareholders, inherently conveying the idea that the only really important number is the return to providers of equity capital, as pointed out by Sikka (2015) and others.

It is clear that there is a value system hard-wired into the way we do finance and, to my mind, the best ever summary of that system was set out by the fictional financier Gordon Gekko in his famous speech from the 1987 film Wall Street. If by some chance you have never seen this speech, I highly recommend viewing it. It is an extraordinary piece of film:

Of course, it is obvious to us now that Gekko was spectacularly wrong in his prescription for the USA, and many of us would recoil from his description, but who can deny that his approach is the morality at work in our boardrooms and trading desks? If you have an hour available at some point, a contrary view can be found in this absorbing documentary where the entrepreneur Peter Jones interviews Mark & Mo Constantine, the owners of Lush, along with Chris Dawson, owner of discount store The Range.

Lush is a rare example of a business run to maximise social good rather just profit, although along the way the Constantines have created a spectacularly successful business too. They can do this because the business is privately owned – the reason Mark Constantine declares he would never sell the business is because a publicly-owned company could not operate like this. If he sold the company, it would be absorbed by the dominant paradigm and its values would not last long.

So if we are not happy with Mr Gekko’s approach, are there some alternative approaches which can inform our finance education and practice? I think there are, and will aim to explore these in my next blog post.

Crossan, M., Mazutis, D., Seijts, G. & Gandz, J., “Developing Leadership Character in Business Programs”, Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2013, 12 (2), 285–305. http://dx.doi.org/10.5465/amle.2011.0024A
Sikka, P. (2015) “The hand of accounting and accountancy firms in deepening income and wealth inequalities and the economic crisis: Some evidence”, Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 30, 46–62. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cpa.2013.02.003

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