Innovative PhD dissertations at Harvard use ethnographic methods to understand organizational culture

Three innovative PhD dissertations have been published at the Harvard Business School’s Doctoral Program on Organizational Behavior that use ethnography and qualitative research to understand and map organizational culture:

Curtis K. Chan
Chan’s research (The Double-Edged Sword of Organizational Culture: The Production and Dissolution of Normative Control by an Ambiguous Expression) examines how organizational culture can be double-edged—that is, how a strategic, intentional use of an organizational cultural resource can have both intended and unintended effects. In a two-year ethnographic study of consultants at a strategy consultancy, incorporating interviews, participant observation, and archival analysis, he induces a process model that shows how the ambiguity of a cultural expression can allow it to be double-edged. He finds that an ambiguous expression can powerfully resonate with a broad swath of organizational members, but members can come to interpret the ambiguous expression in ways that diverge from what managers intended.
Given the proliferation of ambiguous expressions in organizational communications of their mission, culture, and identity — such as “impact,” “value,” or “innovation” — Chan’s research suggests that managers consider potential unintended consequences due to audiences’ divergent interpretations around the expression. His broader research agenda seeks to use field research to illuminate how people’s interpretations of their work and organizational contexts can relate to how meaningful they find their work and to patterns of workplace inequality.

Ryann Manning
Manning seeks to understand the organizational and contextual factors that shape shared understandings of right and wrong and influence both individual and collective behavior. She uses a combination of in-depth qualitative field research and visual and textual archival data to examine moral action at multiple levels of analysis. In one study, she examines how culture, space, and emotion shape moral decision making and action by nurses providing care to critically ill children in public pediatric hospital wards in Sierra Leone. In another, she examines how Sierra Leone’s global diaspora communities mobilized to respond to the unprecedented public health crisis caused by Ebola.

Ovul Sezer
Sezer’s research offers the first empirical investigations of three impression management tactics: humblebragging, or bragging masked by a complaint or humility; backhanded compliments, or praise that draws comparison with a negative standard, and namedropping, or the casual mentioning of social ties with high-status people. Using datasets from social media, job interviews, and diary studies, she documents the ubiquity of these strategies in real life across several domains.
In laboratory and field experiments, Sezer simultaneously examines the underlying motives for these self-presentation strategies and others’ perceptions of these strategies—allowing for an analysis of their efficacy—as assessed by the opinions targets hold of the would-be self-presenter. Her research contributes to the study of self-presentation by identifying and unpacking ubiquitous yet previously unexamined strategies, generating theory about the motives underlying self-presentation strategies, as well as social and behavioral consequences.

All three dissertations just won the prestigious the 2016 Wyss Award for Excellence in Doctoral Research. The Award is named in honor of Hansjörg Wyss (MBA 1965), who established the Hansjörg Wyss Endowment for Doctoral Education in 2004. The Wyss Endowment supports a broad range of efforts to strengthen the HBS Doctoral Programs, including fellowships and stipends for doctoral students, increased support for field research, new doctoral course development, teaching skills training, and the renovation of doctoral facilities on campus.