Management controls, their limitations, and the nature of social constraint: the implications for corporate governance practice Draft (M. Phil/Ph. D) research proposal by Peter Carroll University of Greenwich, Business School Paper presented at the Management Control Association workshop at The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales, Friday 27th February 2009 Draft research proposal (approval by University’s research committee to be obtained) Please do not quote without permission. Comments welcome to the author at [email protected] ac. uk Abstract
A series of corporate collapses over the last two decades has generated consider-able debate and a strengthening of corporate governance requirements.
But throughout the belief has been maintained that reliance can be place on the effectiveness of systems of internal(/management) control. The proposed research seeks to critically review the foundations of this doctrine through a theoretical and empirical review of management controls, their limitations, and the nature of social constraint. A critical realist methodology is adopted within which current debates in ocial theory about the relationship between human agency and social structure within the process of structuration will be examined, including issues concerning the nature of social constraint and emergence within social phenomena, and areas of possible empirical disagreement highlighted.
An extensive research design combined with primarily a qualitative approach is proposed and multiple case studies of recent corporate collapses, together with a major corporate accident, will be undertaken using histographic methods.
The empirical work seeks analytic rather statistical generalizations and proposed methods are outlined for safeguarding the validity and reliability of the findings. The on-going, iterative and uncertain nature of research is recognized and a high-level management, baseline plan incorporating both elements of both fixed and flexible design put forward. Introduction Research focus and problems: A series of corporate collapses has occurred over the last 20 years or so, which have given rise to considerable debate about corporate governance and an increased focus upon the effectiveness of internal controls and risk management.
Yet despite numerous changes in corporate governance requirements and a tightening-up of regulations to a point where there are concerns about the costs and administrative burdens of these regulations, such corporate scandals continue unabated. Past scandals have generally been treated, especially by officialdom, as relatively isolated incidents of audit and/or regulatory failure, however, the current global financial crisis suggests that there may be broader system-wide problems.
Many of the principles, concepts and models that underlie corporate governance discourse and practice have remained largely unchanged, and unchallenged, throughout this period. The idea that reliance upon systems of internal (/management) control by directors, managers, auditors and, indirectly, other stakeholders has remained a central tenet through-out. The research, which will be both theoretical and empirical, seeks to establish: • what basis is there for placing reliance upon management/internal controls within organizations; and the extent of any such reliance? A broad structurationist social theory will be adopted, which recognizes the interdependence of structure and agency in explaining the production of social structures; whilst starting from a position of agnosticism on the question of the nature of the relationship between these two elements. Within this framework, management controls will be viewed in relation to the nature of social constraint and as human activity/social systems.
The research will focus on the current debate within social theory surrounding structuration theory and in particular: • Whether social structures once generated through human enactment can become causally efficacious in their own right? Including management controls as part of the social structure of organizations. • Or are management controls never anything more than a contingent accomplishment within the ‘dialect of control’ in which both parties always have some resources (and rules) at their disposal to influence outcomes? And, whatever its basis, the extent (including limitations) to which reliance can be placed upon management controls? Aims & objectives The research seeks to make a contribution to: • corporate governance debate and audit practice in relation to the doctrine of reliance upon systems of internal control; • our understanding of management controls as human activity/social systems and the role of social constraint; • social theory especially relations between human agency and social structure, and emergence within social reality; and at a methodological level, by developing a critical realist approach to the study of management controls. Literature review It seems highly likely that such corporate collapses involved significant breakdowns in control within these organizations, but there is no systematic study of them from a management control theory perspective. The corporate governance doctrine of reliance upon internal/management controls has remained extensively unchanged during this period and it is now an established feature of regulatory practice.
For instance, FRC’s Combined Code (2008) requires boards to conduct a review of the organization’s internal controls, at least annually, and report to shareholders that they have done so, though somewhat surprisingly, as a result of the perceived sensitivities surrounding the issue, they are not obliged to report on the outcome of the review. The annual accounts do, however, have to contain a description of the main feature of the company’s internal control and risk management systems
At professional and practitioner levels, such reliance is based upon a unitary, rationalist model of organisations which is largely taken for granted and treated as conventional wisdom. Limitations of internal controls are recognised within a concept of reasonable assurance but are seen as largely the product of human fragility and resource constraints. In studying this issue I will draw upon three distinction areas of literature which are interrelated to differing degrees: Corporate collapses and shortcomings and failures in accounting and audit practice, and within those professions. • Risk management and regulation, including internal controls, especially in relation to the causes of major industrial/corporate accidents. • Recent debates within social theory concerning the relationship between social structure and human agency, and structuration theory generally. Corporate collapses and accounting/audit failure:
Much of the current academic literature concerning corporate collapses is written from a corporate governance and/or financial accounting/external audit perspective. It can be grouped into three main phases. Initially, in the early nineties, concern centred on the use of creative accounting techniques and the failure of auditors to provide early warnings of pending difficulties that these organizations faced. Mitchell, Puxty, Sikka and Wilmott (1991 & 1993) were particularly vocal exponents of these concerns.
Auditors had a crucial role as the ‘police force of capitalism’: they are “supposed to be the watchdogs, [who] should safeguard investors … They don’t”, Mitchell et al claimed (1991: 7). They pointed to numerous company collapses, some involving fraud, where recent annual accounts gave no indication of pending failure and had been ‘signed-off’ by the auditors as providing a ‘true and fair view’. Such cases were in danger of bringing the accountancy/audit profession into disrepute.
Whilst the increasing use of certain creative accounting techniques, some of which were technical feasible, was coming to be seen as ‘socially’ unacceptable by many. Auditors, as ‘patrollers of this indistinct and shifting frontier’ (Colwyn-Jones: 1995) are responsible for ensuring that accounting guidelines are followed and that companies do not stray into grey areas between acceptable and unacceptable practice. This did not appear to be happening.
Also auditors are supposed to be independent; to be appointed by and safeguard the interests of the company’s shareholders. In practice, they are usually nominated by the directors of the company, whose selection is frequently ‘rubber-stamped’ at the AGM. The audit market is dominated by a small number of large accountancy firms, a significant proportion of whose incomes, Mitchell et al claim, comes from other management and consultancy services which are often ‘sold on back of’ audit.
They were concerned that the independence of the ‘big firms’ may be compromised by their commercial dependence on the income from these more profitable consultancy services, etc. Though some significant reforms followed including clearer and stronger guidance on certain creative accounting techniques; rotation of audit partners has become recognized best practice; the role of audit committees has been considerably strengthened; and safeguards put into place on the provision of consultancy and other management services to audit clients.
There are still a number of outstanding concerns. More importantly, as Michael Power (1994 &1997) has pointed out, despite these well publicised public concerns, there has been an ‘audit explosion’ since 1990’s. An explosion of it, not simply as a form of practice, though that has happened, but of audit as an idea. There is now a whole plethora of different audits, many in areas which once would have been unthinkable: quality assurance, environmental management, social responsibility, marketing, medicine and clinical practice, and throughout education, etc.
According to Power, we live in an Audit Society in which the fact of audit is more important than the how. As long as audits have taken place it does not matter that their results are obscured by allegedly professional technicalities which render their real meaning largely impenetrable to ordinary people. Organizations have increasingly adopted management control systems that make certain, often arms-length, styles of regulation and control possible. As a result the effectiveness of audit practices is both demanded and presupposed by such systems.
Not only has audit never been more powerful and influential, but it has become invulnerable to its own failure. Systemic audit failure has become an impossibility: “Particular audits may fail but the system as such cannot. ” (Power 1997: ) This is a result of the ‘essential obscurity of auditing’ i. e. its epistemic foundation – the relation between its wealth of technical procedures and the production of assurance – is essentially obscure. Ultimately it requires the judgements of auditors, as “experts”, to be taken on trust.
Power’s position comes dangerously close to assuming foundationalism. By default, it implies that there should be a ‘sure foundation for our knowledge’ of organizations’ accounts which should mirror nature as a faithful representation of how the world is i. e. the everyday operational realities of those organizations. More generally, it can be asked whether the “Audit Society” is a unique form from a sociological perspective? Or are its characteristics related to the nature of the modern world?
The collapses of Enron and WorldCom in 2001 and 2002 gave rise to another wave of debate. Of particular interest, in the present context, is an article by Unerman & O’Dywer (2004) which draws upon Giddens’s work on dependence on expert systems within modernity. They argue that the unprecedented large scale accounting/audit failures involved in these collapses and their impact on the lives of many people has led to a withdrawal of trust by ordinary people (i. e. non-experts) in these expert systems.
Reliance upon these expert systems is an essential element in the functioning of investment markets (i. e. not only stocks and shares but pensions, endowment/assurance policies, savings, etc. ). These systems which act as ‘symbolic tokens’ are, they argue, an essential mechanism in disembedding and transporting value across time and space, so enabling the redistribution and accumulation of wealth within modern society. Any substantial loss of trust in them threatens the continued momentum of free market capitalism as well as trust in the notion of expertise more generally.
The escalating regulatory response to these scandals sought to stem the increasing erosion of non-expert trust in these systems which, if left unchecked, could lead to major, unpredictable changes in investment markets that would undermine the interests of regulators, politicians, professionals and wider capitalist ones. They recognise that ‘several other important research issues’ remain. Crucially, especially in the current financial crisis, is the relationship between reflexive modernity and radical doubt. The so-called Credit Crunch has, in an important sense, exposed the myth of the Audit Society once and for all.
Audit failure can no longer be individualized, passed-off as shortcomings of specific individuals and/or organizations in particular circumstances. There has clearly been an across the board failure, internationally, in risk management and control, financial reporting and auditing, and regulation within the banking industry and financial services generally. Giddens (1990) argues that the chronic revision of social life in the light of new knowledge and information is a key characteristic of reflexive modernity. Modernity is essentially a post-traditional order which, by its very nature, is highly dynamic.
It is the product of the transformation of time and space, coupled with the disembedding mechanisms, which through institutionalized reflexivity propels social life away from the hold of pre-established ideas and practices. This reflexivity, that has become constitutive of the modern world, is itself the product of the Enlightenment. But through the chronic questioning and reversibility of knowledge that the latter engenders, the very certainty of knowledge on which it was based is undermined. Such is the double-edged nature of reflexive modernity. This undermining of the certainty of knowledge can potentially lead to radical doubt.
However there is no room for such radical doubt within everyday life given the extent to which we are dependent upon expert systems in the modern world. For such radical doubt is existentially troubling and would render normal everyday life intolerable and virtually impossible by undermining our sense of ontological security and trust in underlying expert systems. He argues that people usually ‘bracketed-out’ such profound doubts so that, in practice, the underlying problems do not have to be confronted. As a result they are left and can intensify and deteriorate.
Many of the key concepts underlying the corporate governance debate are treat as received notions or conventional wisdoms that are largely taken for granted and left unquestioned within the ‘conventional accounting paradigm’ (Puxty: 1993). Troublesome uncertainties and doubts about accounting/audit as expert systems are ‘bracketed-out’ by an ‘illusion of managerial control’ (Dermer & Lucas: 1986). The self replicating cycle of the ‘Audit Society’ however can be broken by confronting these existentially troubling uncertainties and challenging them by developing more adequate, empirically based theoretical models of management controls.
Risk management and control: In recent years, the relationship between controls and risk management has also become a key concern within corporate governance. Power (2007) argues that there has been an explosion of risk discourse and of related practices. Organizations have re-envisioned their processes around the idea of risk. Internal controls and governance have been re-invented in terms of capabilities for effective risk management embodied in a multiplicity of standards and guidelines which provide legitimised templates for organizations to represent and account for themselves as well controlled and governed.
An increasing ‘risk management of everything’ and rise of hyper-internal control in which attention is focused on managing secondary (reputational) risks of not being seen to comply with regulations and controls rather than underlying primary risks that the latter seek to address (Power:2004). Though these now appear to have imploded into a ‘risk management of nothing’ in which the promises of enterprise-wide risk management may have created their own form of short-sightedness (Power: 2008).
A related risk management literature on major industrial/corporate accidents, especially in high technology, high reliability organisations, suggests that such incidents have often been pre-dated by long ‘incubation periods’ and/or near-miss type events (Turner & Pidgeon: 1997). They were, in retrospect at least, ‘accidents waiting to happen’ exhibiting common patterns of failure to process information appropriately: unusual events and uncertainties are transformed into, or ignored as, risks according to organizational norms and routines (Vaughan: 2005).
Reason (1997) argues that they have multiple causes involving many people and events at different levels within organisations for which no particular person(s) or event is sufficient cause. They involve latent conditions, which may be present for many years, combining with local circumstances and active failures to allow multi-layered controls to be ‘penetrated’. Whilst Hutter and Power (2005) argue that how organisations experience the limits of their own capacity to organise in the face of uncertainty is as important as how they deal with external shocks and disturbances.
Existing ways of making sense of events within organizations, which focus attention in certain directions, may be challenged by encounters with risk, setting off a range of reactions including (re-)normalising deviance and/or the (re-)presentation of certain (unwanted) events in certain ways. More recently, Hutter and her colleagues at CARR argue that the current crisis may only be understandable in terms of an ‘incubation period’ stretching back at least two decades that has been system-wide (Hutter, Lodge, Miller & Power: 2008). Theoretical and conceptual framework – structuration theory and beyond:
Recent debates within social theory concerning the relationship between social structure and human agency, and structuration theory generally provides a theoretical framework which can cast light on some of the key issues raised by above. John Parker (2000) distinguishes between two ways in which the term structuration has been used: • the process involved in producing structures i. e. interdependence of structure and agency in explaining the production of social structures; and • duality or identity of structure and agency as proposed, for example, by Anthony Giddens.
Few dispute that social reality is produced by human agents operating in pre-existing structural contexts but they differ on how structure and agency are related i. e. duality vs. dualism Giddens argues that people reproduce, and can transform, systems: not the other way around, i. e. systems lack the capabilities of agency. Systems reproduction presupposes social reproduction. For him human agency (i. e. ability to make a difference or ‘act otherwise’) is the basis of all power. Power relations are never exclusively one-way, all participants however lowly can exercise some power by their very nature as human beings.
He terms this the ‘dialectic of control’. Also all social interaction has a normative dimension in which, notionally at least, the rights of one person are matched by an implied obligation upon another. But this link can be ‘factually broken’ if an obligation is not acknowledged or honoured by the other, and no effective sanction can be brought to bear upon them. In this way the realisation of normative claims, including management controls, is a contingent accomplishment within the ‘dialect of control’ in which both parties always have some resources (and rules) at their disposal to influence outcomes.
From this perspective, control, like safety, can be seen as a ‘dynamic non-event’ (Karl Weick – quoted in Reason: 1997) because literally nothing happens. That is, safety is merely the absence of accidents and, similarly, control, the absence of wrongdoing and error. In this sense, it is ‘deceptive and misleading because dynamic inputs create stable outcomes’, or rather the appearance of stable outcomes. Reliance upon controls would, therefore, have to be based as much on the organizational and social processes and practices that underlie its reproduction as any systemic properties that the management control system might have.
Such organizational processes could allow bad practices to become accepted and risky behaviours normalized so that would-be accidents/control breakdowns can lurk within organizations waiting to happen (i. e. incubation theory). Post-structurationists writers, such as, Bhaskar (1989), Archer (1995 & 2001) and Mouzelis (1991 & 1995) reject the notion of duality of structure and agency. That is, whilst they reject the ontological separation of the individual and society, structure and agency which are seen as necessarily related ontologically, i. e. no people, no society’ as Archer puts it; they argue that structure and agency are analytically distinct, so enabling the relationship between them to be study (i. e. analytical dualism). They believe that social structures have emergent properties. Social systems are more than descriptive regularities that ultimately only exist in their ‘instantiation’ or as memory traces. Rather once they have passed a certain developmental threshold, they can acquire constraining or conditioning properties. They can exercise their own generative/causal, but not self-producing, powers i. e. hey always remain activity-dependent. In this context, realists accept a causal as well as a perceptual criterion for the ascription of reality i. e. the capacity of a posited entity to bring about changes within the external world (e. g. magnetic or gravitational fields satisfy this criterion but not that of perceivability) (Bhaskar: 1989). Finally Stones (2005) seeks to address such criticisms of structuration theory by incorporating the concepts of position-practices and external structures into a quadripartite analytical framework and synthesize them into a reinforced version of the theory.
He terms this approach strong structuration theory. The debate surrounding structuration theory raises a crucial issue for current corporate governance practice: whether social structures once generated through human enactment can become causally efficacious in their own right? And, if not, how can reliance be placed upon management/internal control systems? This puts questions about the nature of social constraint at the centre of the debate concerning the nature and limitations of management controls.
Giddens argues that ‘structure is always both enabling and constraining’ by virtue of the duality between structure and agency. Whilst recognizing other forms of constraint, for him structural constraint ‘places limits upon the feasible range of options open to an actor in given circumstances’. Even where it reduces the range of options to just one, it does not reduce the person’s ability to ‘act otherwise’. Human agency is the sole causal or generative force operative in such a situation.
But many protested that surely someone who has only one option has no options, and that it cannot sensibly be said that they ‘could have done otherwise’! As Thompson (1989) argues, the range of options available to individuals and groups is differentially distributed and circumscribed by the social structure that they help to reproduce and transform by their actions. The differing degrees of freedom and constraint entailed by the social structure shows that “while structure and agency are not antinomies, nevertheless they are not as complementary and mutually supporting as Giddens would have us believe. (1989: 74) In this way, social structure can be seen as causally efficacious in its own right, with the power to act back upon human agency that is involved in its enactment (i. e. meeting the causal criterion). Methodological approach: A qualified critical realist approach will be adopted drawing, in particularly, upon Bhaskar’s transcendental realist philosophy of science and his critical naturalism in relation to the social sciences without necessarily adopting his theory of explanatory critiques (Archer et al. :1998; Bhaskar: 1989).
Whilst fully endorsing the ‘value-impregnated’ or value-laden nature of many social phenomena, and that social science always carries within it the potential to be critical of existing social practices, the logical distinction between facts and values is upheld, as they are aspects of differing modes of discourse, together with a more Weberian approach towards the pursuit of objectivity within the social sciences. Realism is based upon the belief that we can only make sense of scientific practice – what practising scientist do – on the assumption that such practices are about something that exists independently of our knowledge of it.
It distinguishes between what Bhaskar refers to as the intransitive and transitive dimensions of science. That is, between the objects that scientists study – the natural and social worlds that exist independently – and their theories and discourses about them that are the media and resources of science, respectively. Science is a form of human practice that is always socially situated and subject to historical change, which aims to produce knowledge about objects, relations and processes, etc. that exist and act independently of our knowledge of them.
Its products – ‘currently accepted scientific knowledge’ – are always provisional and subject to revision or rejection in the light of future experience. In contrast to positivists’ view of causation as merely invariant conjunction, realists propose a generative theory. Explanation involves identifying the underlying causal mechanisms and structures, their powers, properties and relationships; how they work; and whether they are activated, or blocked, and under what conditions. It presupposes ontological depth rather than the flat ontology of positivism.
Reality is stratified including the possibility of emergence, especially the emergent nature of social phenomena which can never be reduced wholly to biological and physiological ones. They have an interpretative or hermeneutic dimension, and are intrinsically meaningful in that they always involve actors’ understanding of one another’s actions and the situation. Such meanings are, at least in part, constitutive of actions; they cannot be simply measured or counted, they also have to be understood. Realism and audit assurance
Unless management controls exist in some sense it is unclear how reliance can be placed upon them, i. e. there needs to be some kind of ‘objective’ basis upon which to place it. Drawing upon Mautz and Sharaf (1961), often implicitly, it is frequently argued within the profession that internal controls can only reduce the probability of irregularities and wrong-doing, they can never eliminate their possibility entirely. In making this distinction, they argued that an important similarity between the methods of science and those of auditing is the degree to which both are based on probability theory.
But such a view of science is clearly based on a positivist view of causation and, as a basis for internal audit assurance, falls foul of the problem of induction i. e. no finite number of observations, however large, can ever logically entail a universal conclusion. Equally, interpretivist/relativist views of management control systems, in their strongest form at least, as mere social constructs without any independent existence equally fail to provide a sound basis for such an assurance.
Some form of realist concept of management control systems is called for, though it needs to avoid the twin dangers often associated with objectivists’ concepts of social structure: reification and the ‘over-socialized’ concept of man. Reification is the mistaken assumption that the products of human endeavour, including both material objects and social arrangements, are somehow the work of non-human entities, such as, the Gods or mystical forces.
Within social theory such ideas have led to the view that social systems have in some way a ‘life of their own’ separate from humans beings and their activities. Whilst Wrong (1961) coined the phrase the ‘over-socialized’ concept of man arguing that although all humans become ‘social’ animals (i. e. competent social actors) through the process of socialization, they are never totally socialized or become ‘cultural dopes’ (Garfinkel: 1967). Research strategy & design:
As critical realism seeks to provide an alternative to both main traditions within social science – positivism and interpretivism – it is not tied to any particular research approach. Rather it argues that there is no one universal method that is always right. Both quantitative and qualitative approaches, fixed and flexible designs (Robson: 2002), have their own uses and, in the right circumstances, may be usefully combined. Following Sayer (1992), realists often distinguish between intensive and extensive research designs.
Extensive research searches for regularities in the belief that large numbers of repeated observations indicate significant relations by showing how extensive certain phenomena and patterns are. Whilst intensive research is primarily concerned with what makes things happen in specific cases, seeking to trace the main causal/generative relationships and interpret meanings, studying their qualitative nature rather than their numeric values. Each has it its own purposes, strengths and weaknesses which are largely complementary so that they can be combined, to varying degrees.
Realists reject a ‘cookbook approach’ in which research methods can be prescribed in advance without any knowledge of the subject. Choice of method depends on nature of the object of study and what one wants to learn. The proposed research aims to examine events that are by their very nature exceptional – i. e. corporate collapses and associated control breakdowns – to gain an understanding of the underlying generative mechanisms. And to improve our knowledge of how management controls operate within organizations, and the nature and extent of their limitations.
I therefore need to examine the processes involved and relationships between actions, events, etc. within particular situations that gave rise to these control breakdowns including any underlying generative mechanisms or structures, and their powers and properties. The value of Giddens’s structuration theory as a ‘sensitising device’ for guiding empirical research has been recognized for many years and has made a ‘small but distinctive contribution’ to management accounting research (Baxter & Chua: 2003).
More recently, Stone’s strong structuration theory, which seeks to provide more concrete guidance to researchers, whilst addressing Giddens critics, has been successfully applied (Coad & Herbert:2009; Jack; 2005; Jack & Kholeif:2007) Drawing upon this work, and bringing it together with the research map proposed by Layder (1993), I have initially developed a provisional data collection/analysis matrix (see appendix A) which it is planned to pilot shortly.
The map which is put forward as a research resource seeks “to convey the ‘textured’ or interwoven nature of different levels and dimensions of social reality” (Layder:1993, p. 7) and so enables macro and micro levels of analysis to be linked. By combining the research map with the quadripartite model of structuration it is hoped that the resulting data matrix encompass both structuration and critical realist approaches. The matrix may however require refining in the light of future theoretical work. The overall aim and purposes of the proposed research suggest that intensive approach is called for.
It seeks analytic or theoretical (as opposed to statistical) generalization and is concerned with the generation of theoretical insights which help in understanding of other, similar cases or situations i. e. have ‘a sufficient degree of generality or universality to allow their projection to other contexts or situations’ (Sim:1998 – quoted in Robson:2002, p. 177). Yin (2009) argues that the frequent criticism of case studies that they provide a poor basis for generalization is based on a failure to distinguish clearly between the two forms of generalization (i. . analytic and statistical). Statistical generalization is concerned with drawing inferences about a population (or universe) on the basis of empirical data collected about a sample from that universe. Whereas analytic generalization is used to compare a previously developed theory against the empirical findings of one or more case studies. If two or more cases are shown to support the same theory, replication may be claimed. It is misleading to see cases as ‘sampling units’, they are not; rather multiple cases resemble multiple experiments, he claims.
A qualitative approach involving multiple case studies, both of corporate collapses and other, related major corporate incidents (e. g. accidents or disasters) is proposed. In this way, elements of triangulation and replication, both within the primary research area and across with related areas, will be built into the research design and should reduce the potential threat to the validity of any findings. Examining multiple cases will, hopefully, also add greater empirical depth to any ‘analytical generalizations’ reached.
Histographic methods will be used to examine reports of official investigations, related evidence statements and other records; contemporary news reports and commentary; articles and books; etc. on selected cases. (See appendix B for examples of possible cases and source documents, etc. ) Though this approach suffers from being based primarily on secondary data which has been collated and structured for other purposes, such material should be readily available, as it is already largely in the public domain or may be obtainable under Freedom of Information legislation.
It also avoids any legal and ethical difficulties involved in obtaining and presenting data which might not only be highly confidential but could involve fraud and other wrongdoing. Though it may be argued that much of the evidence given and upon which such official reports are based is likely to be largely self-serving, given the legal or regulatory nature of such investigation. However, this is always likely to be the case no matter what the context in which such information is obtained from individuals concerning events that are so high profile, controversial and subject to the ‘politics of blame allocation’.
At least, within such a research context, the statements and views of different individuals can be critically examined and weighed against each other, including in relations to other known facts and informed comment, in a form of intra-case triangulation, so that a reasoned view can be reached on their veracity. It is proposed to develop document/evidence evaluation sheets to capture and record this process. Such intensive, qualitative research makes greater demands on researchers who themselves need to be flexible.
It is commonly said that it involves the ‘researcher-as-instrument’. That rather than relying upon specialist tools and instruments, the quality of the study relies to a great extent upon the quality of the investigator. Robson (2002) argues that it is not a ‘soft option’ in that it can be done by anyone without preparation, knowledge of procedures and analytic skills. Though there are few set, routinized procedures that can be simply followed, this in practice can often make life much harder.
Ideally it requires well-trained and experienced researchers, though other aspects including personal qualities are important. it is generally recognized that many of these skills can be acquired from working people, as a professional, in any capacity. My professional background and many years of experience within internal audit, including the interpersonal and communication skills gained from dealing with other people in such a capacity, will hopefully prepare me for coping with these challenges in the research process.
In this context, the dangers of researcher bias need to be recognised. Self-reflexivity i. e. “an awareness of the ways in which the researcher as an individual with a particular social identity and background has an impact on the research process” (Robson: 2002, p. 172) is crucial. One cannot put aside one’s personal feelings and preconceptions unless one is aware of them. Robson, drawing upon the work of Ahern, has developed a checklist of potential areas of researcher bias that will be used as the basis of a self-assessed risk assessment that can be revisited throughout the project.
Trustworthiness of research findings is another key issue for flexible designed, qualitative research. Such research is often criticized, especially by experimentalists, for the absence of the standard means of assuring the reliability and validity of its findings. Robson (2002) argues that whilst the methods and techniques used in fixed design research are inappropriate, some ‘different procedures for ensuring trustworthiness’ in the differing conditions and circumstances of flexible research are clearly called for if aspirations of scientific status are to be maintained.
It is important that a properly structured and systematic approach is adopted and built into the research design, whilst recognising need for and maintaining overall flexibility. A comprehensive documentary or ‘audit’ trail will be maintained throughout the project. Key elements will include a document/evidence log or database listing every document or significant piece of evidence reviewed during each case study; document/evidence evaluation sheets; and data collection/analysis matrices for each study.
A system of cross-referencing will be developed and used to maintain a clear evidence trial between these documents. (Use of a suitable software tool, such as NUD*IST will be considered. ) The importance of maintaining the right balance between adequately documenting the research and unnecessarily diverting research effort with overly bureaucratized procedures is, however, fully recognized. The aim is to provide an adequate record of the research so that any other roperly trained and experienced researcher can see, follow and satisfactorily understand the work undertaken, and why; the documents and other evidenced examined and reviewed; any testing or analysis undertaken, and how; the basis of any findings or conclusions drawn and the reasons for identifying such findings or drawing such conclusions. It is not envisaged that such an experience researcher would necessarily agree with or endorse the findings and conclusions, only that they could see, and in that sense agree with, the basis upon which they have been arrived at.
The aim is intellectual transparency, not necessarily agreement given the contestable nature of some of the issues involved, as well as providing a clearly defined basis for potential critical appraisal including self-criticism. A quality assurance (QA) – i. e. producing products that are fit for the purpose of satisfying the stated requirements or needs – strategy and processes also have an important part to play. The completion of a post-graduate research thesis involves the production of a series of fairly clearly defined products, or deliverables, which go to make up the final thesis.
These provide ready-made opportunities for QA reviews, including various forms of both internal and external peer reviews, in addition to the on-going supervision of the research project. Such opportunities will be sought and welcomed within overall time constraints. Conclusion Research, like project and risk management, is an on-going, iterative and, hopefully, forward moving process involving both cyclical and linear aspects. Like a spiral snaking its way forward, sometimes in an irregular manner, it neither progresses in a straightforward, linear way, nor does it merely go around in circles without ever achieving anything.
Further research and its outcome are, by their very nature, uncertain. If we could predict with certainty precisely what was going to happen and with what results, there would be little point in doing the research. In many ways it is rather like sailing a yacht across the Atlantic, for example; we know that we will be blown off course at some point by the winds and the tides, and progress hindered or, if we’re lucky, aided by the weather and tidal conditions, but we don’t know where or when.
As Carter, Hancock, Morin and Robins (1994) argue our initial plan ‘for the voyage’ cannot lay down an exact route, at best it simply provide us with a baseline – an overall point of orientation – against which progress can be monitored and on-going adjustments made, as necessary, during the journey. In that way, and contrary to conventional wisdom, in an important sense, ‘the plan is what we are not going to do’! The proposed research reflects both these aspects and so needs to encompass elements of both fixed and flexible research design.
Key project management principles will be applied that provide a structured and systematic approach, whilst embracing the on-going, iterative and risky nature of the process by breaking it down into clearly defined stages. A high level, management plan (see appendix C) will be combined with detailed, work plans for each phase which will be developed prior to the end of the previous stage so any emerging issues, findings, etc. and overall progress can be addressed in framing the way forward.
Appendix A Initial data collection/analysis matrix: | | | |Internal structures | |Outcomes | | | |External structure | |Active agency/ agents’ |[N.
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