Archive for November, 2010

Postcard from Berlin

November 29, 2010

I had a brief visit to Berlin at the end of last week, to take part in a conference about experiential learning.  Having blogged about Pecha Kucha last year, this was the first time that I’d actually been asked to deliver one of these fast-paced, 20 slides of 20 seconds each, presentations.  Pecha Kucha goes against my own preferred style of using PowerPoint for presentations, which is to keep the number of slides down, to talk for some time on each slide, and where possible to invite discussion from the audience.  But it’s an interesting discipline, and surprisingly effective: if you have 20 seconds to talk over a slide relating to the aptitudes typically characterised as left brained and right brained, you don’t have time to digress into a discussion of the seminal papers from the literature on management learning which discuss rational and intuitive approaches.  And you don’t have to keep an eye open for somebody else who is timekeeping, as is usually the case with conferences.

Germans use the word ostalgie to refer to the process of remembering the former East Germany.  It’s associated for example with the wonderful 2003 film Good Bye Lenin.  The conference venue was strong on ostalgie, having been originally constructed for the East German national council in 1964 but now converted into a business school.  Among the building’s original features were stained glass windows depicting heroic workers, a tiled frieze with similar decorations in the large auditorium where the presentations took place, and, most strangely, part of the former Berlin Palace built into the frontage, complete with rather grumpy-looking statues holding up the lintel above the main entrance.

Stained glass

Otherwise, ostalgie was hard to find, at least in the centre of Berlin.  Coming in from the airport, I took a train to Friedrichstrasse, where the station, now a busy commuter hub, had been the frontier stop until 1989.  Further down Friedrichstrasse is the site of Checkpoint Charlie.  But within the central area there is no tangible difference now between the former eastern and western parts of the city, little trace of where the wall ran, and plenty of extremely expensive-looking shops in the eastern portion, which at the time of reunification would have been the less prosperous side of the city.

To survey or not

November 18, 2010

Erlend’s comment on my earlier post on interviews prompted some thoughts, particularly along the lines that it would be worth adding a companion blog post discussing some similar issues around surveys, to go with my post a few days ago about interviews.

To reiterate, my fundamental view of the use of surveys, for student dissertations in particular, is quite similar to my view of interviews.  As with interview data, survey data can be fraught with bias: it can be influenced dramatically by the choice of questions, and can tell you what the subject wants you to hear, rather than what the subject is really thinking or doing.  Worse, there is a danger of survey data being completely false – for instance if people fill in the same survey several times, or if they fill it in with false information.  However in the context of an undergraduate dissertation particularly, a survey can be a quick and effective way of gathering some primary data, and if you acknowledge the problems with survey data and recognise the limitations, the survey results can be useful in giving your work a distinctive and original slant.

With surveys there is a particular paradox.  It is very easy to set up a simple survey and to send it out over the Internet.  Surveymonkey is perhaps the best known product but there are many other, including Qualtrics, which we have recently started using at Cass Business School.  It’s available to Cass students and I have had exceptionally good feedback from people who have used it in their dissertations.  However questionnaire design and sampling  are highly technical areas into which professionals, such as market researchers, put a lot of effort and it isn’t realistic for a student spending a few months on their dissertation to do the same.  So the sort of survey that you’re likely to use as a dissertation student will fall a long way short of the standards typically associated with the professionals.

However this isn’t a reason to adopt any really sloppy practice when you carry out surveys.  So word your questions carefully, and make sure they don’t obviously lead people in one direction of another.  Make it clear what is being done with the data that you collect, and offer to share any results (anonymously) with people who fill in your survey.  Define any obscure terms that you use.  Make sure that the survey wording is right for your audience – you would phrase questions differently according to whether you were surveying a group of professional web developers or surveying a group of people who were reluctant to use the Internet at all.  Think about what you want to find out from the survey, and make sure that your questions reflect these (if you have say 4 or 5 categories of information, make sure you have questions which cover each of these). 

As a sanity check I would also recommend you to look at chapter 9 of Business Research Methods by Bryman and Bell (Oxford, 2007) which discusses issues around the use of self-completed questionnaires.

And I would suggest that you can draw three completely different conclusions from the above.  You have to choose which one is right for your work.

Conclusion 1 would be that surveys are best avoided in a dissertation – that you won’t really get a useful sample and that if you want to get data from real people, you are best off using different methods such as interviews or focus groups.

Conclusion 2 would be that surveys are useful, but that the data should be treated more as though you’d been carrying out a large asynchronous electronic focus group than anything else – that you have a rather amorphous and unstructured group of people who might give you some interesting ideas, but you should be cautious in drawing any conclusions

Conclusion 3 would be that surveys are useful but that the results should still be treated with extreme caution.

Hoxton stories

November 18, 2010

Earlier this month there was considerable publicity surrounding David Cameron’s plan to encourage high-technology businesses to develop in east London, particularly in the area around Hoxton.

While I welcome the initiative, I’m sceptical about the silicon valley comparison, partly for the reasons set out in this piece from Computer Weekly , partly because the real potential of this area is to create some sort of synergy between the creative and artistic cluster that already exists in this area, and an emerging cluster of technology businesses.  The result could be very interesting indeed, but it won’t be a direct competitor to silicon valley.

Meanwhile one group of people who are planning a new venture in Hoxton (they’ve found an empty shop and are fitting it out) remains firmly in the creative camp, and is devoted to setting up a Ministry of Stories – with support from the author Nick Hornby who is promoting it on his website at

Nick Hornby has a (creditable) track record of support for charitable organisations, particularly through his patronage of the TreeHouse specialist school that his son attends, and in a clever nod to somebody else who does business around Hoxton, he’s being compared to Jamie Oliver in some of the press coverage.

So will there be any synergy between the Ministry of Stories and the area’s emerging high technology cluster?  Given that storytelling within businesses has some value as a way of cultivating knowledge, I’d recommend that any entrepreneurs wishing to set up businesses in the area could do worse than drop in at the Ministry of Stories on the way

Happiness through an iPhone app

November 18, 2010

Not – I should add – an iPhone app which puports to deliver happiness but one which sets out to measure it as part of the Mappiness research project based at LSE.  As I write this, the hedonimeters for both London and for the UK as a whole are running a bit higher than the average, suggesting a surge of optimism among the community of users.

Of course an important limitation of this approach is that it doesn’t even purport to test happiness among the population as a whole.  All the participants are people who have an iPhone, who are interested enough in the project to download the app, and who are sufficiently committed that they provide data.  But the project could prove a useful way of establishing the validity of the approach, so that if you were interested in measuring the happiness of a particular group of people you could issue them with phone apps and also arrange some incentive for them to respond.

Happiness remains a rather nebulous concept however – I am reminded of Michael Frayn’s novel a landing on the sun which satirises the workings of the civil service, and the legacy of a past attempt to understand the nature of happiness.

Thanksgiving in OcadoLand

November 15, 2010

Americans celebrate Thanksgiving in late November, and I was intrigued to see that when logging in to the (British) online supermarket Ocado at the weekend I saw a ‘Thanksgiving’ category along with a much bigger ‘Christmas’ category.  I’m also slightly intigued to see that (from my household’s list of favourites) green beans and celery come into this category – I hadn’t realised that these might be components in the traditional American Thanksgiving meal

Windows in the future

November 15, 2010

Charles Arthur in the Guardian has an interesting piece marking the 25th anniversary of Windows  . I’m struck, as with so many pieces on the Guardian’s site, by the vehemence of some of the views expressed among the comments, and the absolute conviction that some of the commenters have that Windows, or Microsoft, or personal computers will disappear before long!  Personally I tend to go along with the commenter who wants  a big clunky keyboard and a mouse, but would observe that (1) this makes me feel old, (2) this is a personal preference, not a philosophical viewpoint, and (3) this is partly a matter of conditioning, as I’ve been using Microsoft/Intel-based computers for practically all of my working career – which also makes me feel old.

Nevertheless, I’m sure that there will be a move away from PCs as we know them, and whatver devices take over will be available with chunky keyboards, mice, and probably taskbars with start buttons in the corner for familiarity.  However I couldn’t possibly predict what this would mean for Microsoft.  Many of the commenters tacitly assume that Microsoft won’t adapt because they are so closely tied up with operating systems and office software.  But the same logic applied to Apple a few years ago would have failed to predict Apple’s diversification into the music and phone businesses.

To interview or not

November 11, 2010

David Silverman is a professor emeritus at Goldsmiths, University of London, and author of a number of warks on Qualitative Research, including the snappily, and accurately, titled A Very Short, Fairly Interesting, Reasonably Cheap Book about Qualitative Research (Sage, 2007).  Because his work is accessible yet scholarly, and because many of my dissertation students choose topics with a qualitative emphasis, I often recommend that they read some of this work.

In its introduction, the short, interesting, and cheap book does warn that it’s also opinionated, and the most striking opinions expressed there are about the shortcomings of interviews as a source of original data.  To precis a rather complex subject in a few words, the argument is that interview results tend to reflect the choice of topics and questions, so can say more about the interviewer than the interviewee, and also that interviewees tell us what they’d like to tell the outside world, which may not reflect what they are really doing or thinking.  If you are studying the behaviour of a group of people (such as a team working together in a business) you will get a more accurate picture of the dynamics among the group by observing conversations, or even by intercepting emails between the people, than by carrying out interviews.

You can read the relevant section on a blog at and  watch David Silverman give a succinct account of his concerns about interviews, and some thoughts about what constitutes naturally occuring data, on YouTube at .  As an aside there is a lot of material on research methods on YouTube.

In the context of student dissertations, I think that these objections to interviews should be acknowledged.  But nevertheless interviews form a valuable tool and an effective way of gathering primary data, and my recommendation to students would be to mention the shortcomings of interviews in passing but, if they are appropriate, to use them nevertheless.

So why defend the value of interviews for dissertations?  To stress a point, I am talking about dissertations typically written by a final year undergraduate in business or management, or perhaps on an MSc in management: different circumstances apply to different courses.

At the undergraduate level it is difficult enough to gather any sort of primary data.  On occasions the availability of somebody to interview can be the key to a student’s ability to produce an analytical and reflective piece of work.

Particularly in business and management, a lot of research is ‘exploratory’ – as with case studies, the results should be treated with some caution.  For exploratory research it can even be counter-productive to be over-concerned about whether interview or survey results are representative of a population.  This is particularly true of areas of business or management that are changing rapidly: there is little value in surveying people about products which haven’t been invented yet (for instance 15 years ago few people would have expressed enthusiasm for a combined mobile phone and music player)

Sometimes interviews can provide privileged access to experts, and a student’s interpretation of an expert’s view can be very interesting and original

The ‘dead social scientist test’ mentioned in the methodspace blog should also be treated with some caution in the context of undergraduate dissertations.  One of the commonest criticisms that I hear levelled against dissertations, especially those that are competent but mediocre, is that the student’s voice didn’t come through, and that there’s no particular distinctive perspective discernible in the work.  Which could just mean that the student was over-zealous in ensuring neutrality of their data.

Of course in practice professional social scientists bring a whole range of views, experiences, and perspectives to their work, all of which contribute to their own distinctive approach, and they need to grapple with the tension between using these and avoiding bias.  But that for an undergraduate, and even a masters, dissertation there is little harm in erring somewhat on the side of demonstrating an individual perspective, provided that the work is based on real data and not just on hunches and conjecture.  And interviews form a clear, solid, and traceable way of acquiring authentic data.

Multi-channel marketing

November 9, 2010

Of course there are plenty of businesses in the automotive industry which would seek to profit from my current problems with an unreliable car.  One of them is Renault who have been running an advertising campaign across a range of media, both old and new.  My interest was piqued by prominent advertising on the sides of buses where I live, promoting a short film entitled the Megane Experiment which had been awarded just one star, out of five, by the Daily Mail.  I wonder if this is based on real demographic data, suggesting that people living close to route number 43 in London would look more favourably on a product if the Daily Mail didn’t like it.

However it turns out from that Renault, and their advertising agencies, might not be as expert in their use of new media as they’d like to think.  In any case the campaign, successful or not, is an interesting case study of how businesses can combine web 2 with other tools for marketing.

As it happens my first car was a Renault 5, which was smooth and comfortable to travel in.  But my joie de vivre associated with it did evaporate, along with much of the engine coolant, one morning when the radiator sprung a leak as I was driving through Shepherd’s Bush

Why I need vehicle telematics

November 8, 2010

One (rather expensive) chore that I dealt with last month was taking my car in for its annual service.  The second most frustrating thing about this was that the garage needed to keep the car for four days, most of that time waiting for parts.  A vehicle telematics system, which monitored the car’s systems and could communicate directly with the garage, would be really useful here: it could automatically order parts which were necessary and the garage could just ask me to bring the car in when the parts arrived.

The most frustrating thing is that since being serviced the car isn’t running as it should, but the symptoms (lots of roughness and vibration when it’s stationary with the engine running) only become apparent when it’s been going for about half an hour.  So a mechanic from the garage could drive it round for a few minutes and assume that nothing was wrong.  But some sort of telematics/monitoring system would be useful in establishing exactly what was going wrong

Andrew McAfee and the narcissists

November 8, 2010

Andrew McAfee is the creator of the term enterprise 2.0 and an influential thinker about how different generations use technology at work.  He has an interesting and provocative contribution to the Harvard Business Review’s blogs at

Reading McAfee’s post and the comments that it prompted, I am struck by quite how slippery some of the definitions are. McAfee clearly sees narcissism as a negative form of self-absorption stemming from a lack of confidence, rather analogous to the traditional assumption that playground bullies at school use aggressive behaviour to cover up a lack of confidence. But I’m also interested in the different forms that a self-centred perspective can take. There’s a world of difference between expecting to be able to tailor the technology you use at work, or the hours that you work, to your circumstances (as members of generation Y tend to do) and the sort of hubris that McAfee observes in some of his MBAs. Come to that, narcissists might share the trait of being self-centred with people who have Aspergers Syndrome, but the two conditions manifest themselves in very different ways.

And I have to say that the comments are very hard on the baby boomers, a category that I think includes Andrew McAfee although a quick look around the Internet doesn’t reveal any indication of his age. Not only is there the suggestion that the boomers, with their desire to change the world, had plenty of narcissistic tendencies of their own, but there are some possibly troubling posts from self-confessed narcissts in generation Y, who are eager to blame their own failings on their boomer parents.