Qualitative in Every Sense of the Word

Matthew CB Lyle of the College of Business at the University of Colorado talks about the origins of the paper “Engaging with the past: Discerning meaning in organizational imprints” that he and co-authors Ian J. Walsh of Bentley University and Bogdan Prokopovych of the University of Massachusetts Amherst saw published in the journal Strategic Organization.

Qualitative research – in its purest form – involves collecting and analyzing data led almost entirely by discoveries in the field. Of course, as any intro qualitative class will cover, we all have some knowledge that in some way colors our data analysis despite our best efforts. As one scholar (name and interest removed for anonymity) once told me, “that’s the spirit of qualitative research…of course I keep finding [insert theory here] every time I do it…so there’s that…”

However, the study that became “Engaging with the Past: Discerning Meaning in Organizational Imprints” was – entirely by circumstance, probably the most qualitative study I (Matt) will have ever conducted. The reason is simple: I didn’t know anything when I started.

Matthew CB Lyle, left, Ian J. Walsh and Bogdan Prokopovych.

In the summer of 2015, a few months before I began my PhD program, my adviser (Ian) drew my attention to a promising field site – a home healthcare agency – that he described as having both a quirky way of doing things and, perhaps most importantly, an invitation for us to come by and conduct interviews. Knowing nothing aside from a scanning of John Creswell’s (2013) chapters on qualitative methods, myself and Bogdan set out to Fusion Nursing.

The interviews were eye-opening, as I learned “on the job” how to engage with employees and strike the right (or, in my case, as close to right as I could get) balance between professional and casual. I learned more than I could have in any doctoral seminar, and for that – and their willingness to share their lives with me – I owe everyone at Fusion an incredible debt of gratitude. If it would have been appropriate to use their true names in our manuscript I would have, but instead have done the next best thing by naming our two key informants – Sarah and Zach – after our (Matt and Ian’s) spouses. We each owe them quite a bit as well.

Then came the analysis. Two years into my first faculty appointment I have a reasonably well-formed knowledge of my subject area (i.e., the reciprocal influence of rhetorical history and organizational identity), but at this stage I knew nothing. I started with some books on culture, discovering identity in the process, and eventually happening upon a review of the imprinting literature. Here the story of our story really began. Through multiple iterations – including writing the paper as an imprinting story, submitting it as a history story, then changing it back to an imprinting story at the behest of our associate editor – we arrived at our current version.

I will always be incredibly proud of this work. It was, until recently, my longest-running project. It began with me having never sat in a doctoral seminar and ended with me in a faculty position, and I’ll always be thankful for my genuinely qualitative experience at Fusion.       

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Matthew Lyle

Matthew Lyle is an Assistant Professor of Management for the College of Business at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. His research interests are organizational memory, organizational history, organizational/professional identity, and strategic human capital.

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