As of yesterday, there was two weeks until the dissertation has to be handed in and the MBA comes to a close. Epic pause. Moment of reflection. That 14th December 2011 date shall be etched in my memory along with a few others I’ve accumulated over the course of my life. It’s been 3.5 years of dedication, herculean effort and sacrifice (temporal and financial), the only reason it doesn’t feel that bad is because the experience has been fantastic.
Last Time On…
I must admit, the intention was to talk about the dissertation more, but it’s never happened. I’ve been blogging my MBA experiences on Fandomlife.net for some time and chose to keep it there rather than break the flow. In truth, my blog rate has gone down as various life pressures have kicked in, along with the dissertation itself, meaning the dissertation phase has been the least chronicled of my MBA journey. A pity.
Last time, I was still in the process of completing the research proposal as the final paper for the research methods module. The goal was to make that the proposal for my actual dissertation and thus save significant time, as a good draft of 60-75% of my literature review would be done as well as my research methods. The major progression since then is I got a distinction for my research methods assignment, which was a good indication I was building things on a sound platform.
Since then, the dissertation has began apace.
An Early Kick in the Teeth
Around the time I was transitioning from research methods to the actual dissertation I was the senior IT leader within an organisation. It was the type of role I enjoy, I liked the organisation, was excited about enabling long-term change (demanding both organisational and IT) and it also meant I could utilise an action research model and apply the dissertation directly to my work. I always wanted to take a practical, not highly theoretical, ivory tower approach, so this was a good thing.
Regrettably, the option of undertaking the research as an involved researcher wasn’t to be. It was a hard blow at the beginning of a process I was looking forward to.
All clouds have a silver lining. After some jigging of perceptions, re-alignment of approaches and discussion of options I decided the core idea was still perfectly sound, it just needed to be approached from the perspective of a qualitative study with multiple cases. In all honesty? The dissertation is vastly improved as a result of this initial set back. It works much better with multiple case studies and perspectives from multiple IT leaders. I’m not sure the potential mark would have been so high with the original approach.
The setback was a dissertation bonus in hindsight.
So, What’s It All About?
The research is about ‘Enterprise Architecture as Strategy’ which, more specifically is about IT Governance, Enterprise Architecture and IT Portfolio Management practices and their ability to deliver in a more dynamic environment, when emergent strategy is more prevalent and agility is the order of the day.
Not going to bother anyone with the whole literature review, but the key frameworks being used in the research can be found in IT Governance by Weill & Ross and Enterprise Architecture as Strategy Ross, Weill and Robertson.
The idea is, these works are outcomes of research into large, global, multi-national enterprises. They also tend to focus on practices that were critical to maturity. The research I’m doing is in small, medium and large organisations (50 – 2,500 staff), that are multi-disciplinary, and the focus is on maturity of practices, how and why they where adopted and the challenges in doing so, as well theorising on an approach to how organisations can mature these practices.
That probably serves as a brief summary.
The Research Journey
I always thought the dissertation would be an amazing experience or my own personal hell. It was never going to be something in the middle. I’ll admit to dreading it. As it got closer I dreaded it even more. When I learned what other people were doing it got even worse. It was all a bit too academic fo me. The reason for this is quite simple. I’ve taken a practical approach to the MBA using it as a filter to push my wide experiences through to make them even better. I wasn’t in it for pure ‘research’.
Thankfully, I’ve really enjoyed it. This is because I found studies, frameworks and ideas I liked and which spoke to me and my experience. It gave me a vision of what I could do that fit into my approach to life, people and ideas.
The literature review and research approach was largely complete as a result of the research methods paper. Despite this, it’s been improved over the course of the journey. One thing you take away from the process is it’s very circular. Very, very circular. Have to say, despite the argument it’s the most ‘academic’ part of the process, I really enjoyed the literature review and research approach. I liked it because it involved a lot of design thinking and collating ‘just enough tools’ to enhance the process. It’s about exploring ideas, synthesising concepts to create something bigger than their parts, weaving a narrative through the research to tell a story and how that fits in with engaging research questions. It involves vision, imagination and ideas and was significantly removed from the dry process I thought it would be.
I chose a qualitative study not a quantitative one. This wasn’t just because the quantitative methods part of the MBA (despite being 2% off a distinction) was by far the hardest module for me, but because my brain doesn’t work that way. Surveys and crunching numbers would have created a personal hell. I was also lost as to what value it would add to me as an individual? I wanted to get out there and meet people. It was a risk, as apparently a lot of MBA students have trouble finding candidates for qualitative studies.
It took some time to synthesis my maturity frameworks into research questions, there was a lot of practices I needed to query. A big concern was ensuring the interviews had the necessary flow and, again, told a story. The interview is a drama and that drama had to be understandable and engaging. Even though the practices in the maturity frameworks weren’t theoretical, there was every chance some interview candidates would not be familiar with all the terms and ideas. It was creative and it involved lots of talking to myself and utilising my experience.
A major variable and point of minor stress was securing case interviews. This got more stressful when a contract down in Crawley meant I was at the other end of the country to my likely case candidates. Networking and a skill to persuade, meant I secured four cases, my ideal number. I was targeting six, but if they’d all come off I’d have had significant word count issues. Thankfully, I’d managed my time scales so aggressively I had time to spare and the candidates were able to see me on Fridays (when I wasn’t in Crawley). One candidate was interviewed on Skype due to being in Australia, that was done via a going back to my hotel room while on the contract. The interviews were a great experience. A learning exercise for both sides I think. I’ve always like the engagement part of my roles, and firmly believe IT is about people above all else, so this worked for me and if I got to do more of it I’d be happy.
The writing up of the individual cases and cross-case analysis would have been a trial, if not for the great results from the interviews. It did involve a lot of time alone alone in a hotel room on weekday evenings. The story in each one was fascinating. I’d got to the point of recognising great quotes in the interviews quite quickly, but it was surprising how dense the quality of information was. While a great amount of the credit for this is with the openness and self-reflection of the interview candidates (thanks, if you’re reading this), I’ll take a bit of credit myself with respect to the questions, their order, the interaction, my experience, etc.
The risk of having a lack of quality in the interviews out of the way put pressure on the conclusion. This is a hard task. It’s still being refined at this point. It’s 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. The key thing is to keep writing. Writing one draft is a stepping stone to another. The final version will be quite different to the first one, but just like individual and organisational learning is a key challenge identified in the dissertation, it’s a key part of completing the dissertation well. A learning journey and you have to take it. When the good concepts finally come out of the thinking, synthesising, framing and writing it’s a great feeling. Imaginative and creative again.
The Distinction Quest
When I started the MBA I never thought I’d come close to a distinction. It never remotely crossed my mind, not for a single moment. I thought that was something for veritable geniuses and the fact I was doing it without being ensconced full-time in the Business School probably mean it was very unlikely to happen (job, life pressures, less interaction with your cohort, etc).
As I continued the MBA process, dealt with the stresses caused by the financial crises on my life, pushed forward through the herculean effort, which I have enjoyed immensely, out of nowhere it occurred to at the last ‘roll of the dice’ a distinction may be possible. I’d got a distinction on the Strategic Supply Chain and IT-Enabled Business Transformation modules. I then clinched one on Research Methods. It call came down to my final Service Excellence module: I claimed distinction on that as well.
Amazingly, if I get a distinction on the dissertation I’ll have obtained a distinction for the MBA overall. I’m not sure I fully grasp this achievement, it often takes other people to make me appreciate it.
Now a distinction is possible, I want the overall distinction with a passion and getting a ‘with merit’ won’t be as exciting as it might have been in the past. The effort to get the distinction has been significant. The focus on quality candidates, admittedly, some of it luck. The focus on weaving a good narrative in the interviews. The completion of an early, good first draft so it can be refined, pondered, edited and squeezed for every ounce of value from every word and so the narrative through out is as punchy as possible. This has been enjoyable, as ideas come to the fore that weren’t their before.
Will it achieve the elusive distinction? I’ll never know until the mark is in. I am heavily within reach of one, which is the closest anyone can say ahead of it being marked. I’m in no way taking that as read.
I’m crossing my fingers and sweating it out on the page.