African-American, Hispanic-American, and Native-American
Information Systems Doctoral Students Association Conference,
sponsored by KPMG Peat Marwick Foundation
December 13, 1997 - Atlanta, Georgia
Researching and Networking
panel presentation by Allen S. Lee:
Three Stories about
How to Do Research
[Note: the following is the text
of the remarks prepared by Allen Lee for his panel presentation.
The remarks are purposely intended to be colloquial. The
intended audience for the remarks consists of PhD students and
It has been 20 years since I
started in my own PhD program and 15 years since I graduated
with the PhD degree.
In that amount of time, I have learned a lot about
research – what research is, what it isn’t, how to do research,
how not to do it – and I’ve learned these lessons sometimes from
making mistakes, sometimes from dumb luck, sometimes from advice
from really good people, and sometimes even from my own hard
I would like to share these lessons with all of you, so
that perhaps you can learn quickly from my experience instead of
having to re-invent the wheel for yourselves.
At the same time, I know that sometimes these lessons
really don’t make sense unless you learn them and experience
them for yourself – but even if that’s the case, my three
stories should still serve the purpose of making sure, in the
future, that you’ll know that you aren’t alone, and that you
have a network of colleagues that you can turn to for support.
My three stories are: “The
Substantive-Intellectual Side of Research versus the
Community Side of Research”; “Hard Work versus Getting
Rewarded for Hard Work”; and “Applying the Porter Model to
Create a Competitive Research Strategy.”
My first story: the
Substantive-Intellectual Side of Research versus the
Community Side of Research
I do an awful lot of traveling,
where I give talks at conferences and at university research
In one recent seminar that I gave at a university, I had
a chance to speak with one of the untenured, assistant
professors there, who was obviously quite bright and, because
I’m friends with the person who was his dissertation advisor, I
know that he’s more than competent on the substantive and
intellectual side of how to do research – things like
experimental design, multiple research methods, what a
researchable question is, and so forth.
In this story, I’ll change a few facts and embellish some
others to disguise the person, and to emphasize my points.
Mark is an assistant professor of
MIS at a university where there are no senior MIS professors to
give him guidance or mentoring, but luckily for him, there are
senior professors in other areas who support him and they are
really trying to help him out in his research.
So, in a one-on-one conversation with Mark, I asked him what
research he’s working on now.
He told me that he’s working with Sam, a strategy
professor who is tenured, on a joint research project where they
are looking at electronic commerce and family-run businesses.
I asked Mark what theory or theoretical perspective they
are using in the paper. Mark said “actor-anticipation theory.” I had never heard of “actor-anticipation theory” before, so I
asked him some questions about it.
Mark said he found “actor-anticipation theory” in the
research literature in psychology, and that there were some
published articles in MIS that used it in the early 1980’s.
Then I asked Mark some questions
and I made some comments that I always make in this sort of
My first comment was, “When you
and Sam finish writing up research that uses this theory that
is, for all intensive purposes, really unknown right now in the
MIS research community, and you send it to an MIS journal – then
the editor will have to find some MIS reviewers who are
qualified to evaluate your manuscript.
Who do you think the editor would send your manuscript to?
Who do you think the editor would already know that’s
qualified to review MIS research that uses this
‘actor-anticipation theory,’ which is really unknown in our MIS
field right now? In
fact, can you give me the names of some MIS researchers
who you think are qualified to review research that uses this
theory?” Mark didn’t have an answer for me, but I could tell
that he was thinking.
My second comment was, “There is
already a growing MIS literature in electronic commerce, where
scholars in our very own MIS research community are developing
theories and explanations in your chosen topic area of
And in this growing body of MIS research on electronic
commerce, there are apparently some things that MIS researchers
can explain well, but other things that they cannot
explain well at all.
Do you at least have a hunch as to what it is that our current
MIS research doesn’t explain well, but that your proposed new
theory would?” Mark
said that he hadn’t thought about it. I said, “If you don’t at least have a hunch, now, as to what
it is that the current MIS research doesn’t explain well and
that your own research could explain better, then I would dare
say that you wouldn’t be making a contribution to the work of
our MIS research community at all.”
My third comment was that, “I
believe that, on the substantive and intellectual side of how
you and Sam, your senior-level colleague, are going about in
doing your research, is just fine: your experimental design is
good, you are using valid and reliable measures, you have a
random sample, and so forth. But right now, I’m not just talking about the substantive and intellectual side of your
addition, I’m talking about the community side of
your research. The theory and findings that you’re presenting
won’t have some sort of independent existence unto themselves,
but your theory and findings will have to make sense to members
of your audience on their own terms – and this audience is made
up of members of our MIS research community.
Will your theory and findings be relevant to the research
that they are already doing?
Or will they see your theory and findings as if you were
speaking a completely foreign language to them?
Are you making it hard for them to understand and
appreciate your research, or are you going to take where they
are now as the your starting point so as to accommodate
them? In other
words, I’m not talking about the substantive and intellectual
merits of your research; I’m talking about how well your
research will fit certain social and political
requirements of our research community.”
Of course, when I was saying
these things to Mark, I was really talking about my own
As some of you know, I am one among a handful of people
here in North America who have been proponents of qualitative
research in MIS, which means that I have spent a lot of time and
energy trying to introduce very new things to North American MIS
research – and these things have been so new and foreign to my
audience that, very often, my audience has often thought that
I’ve been speaking a foreign language.
The moral of the story, of course, is not that I
should have avoided introducing something new and innovative to
MIS research – not at all.
Instead, the moral of the story is that, if I had a
chance to do it all over again, I still would – but I would have
paid an equal amount of attention to thinking about how I could
present my research to my audience so that, from the start, they
would have heard me speaking their language and they
would have seen, right from the start, how my research is
directly relevant to and contributes to theirs.
In other words, the community side of research is no less
important than the substantive and intellectual side of
My second story: Hard Work versus
Getting Rewarded for Hard Work
I have some colleagues who
believe that if you work hard, you will be rewarded.
Well, I have seen many people work harder than I have, and they
do research better than I do – but despite this, some of them
still get turned down for tenure. Well, hard work should be rewarded, but it is not
necessarily true that hard work is rewarded. Doing good teaching and research is important, but it’s not
enough. The reward
for hard work is not automatic.
When I was an assistant professor
at Northeastern University, and I was worried about how to get
rewarded for the work I was doing, I got some good advice from
another assistant professor that I’ll never forget.
He said: “A good inside strategy is to have a good outside
strategy.” He and I
both had doubts about whether or not our hard work in teaching
and research at Northeastern would pay off by our someday
getting tenure there.
He said that if we became valuable to the outside – if other
universities were to come to value us, especially for our
research publications, and if Northeastern knew, at tenure time,
that other schools would want to hire us – then we would be
valuable to the inside, too.
In other words, being valuable to the outside makes you
valuable to the inside.
I took my friend’s advice to
I did my best to present at a conference at least once a
year – whether I presented a research paper or sat on a panel. And whenever I did present, I prepared like hell to make sure
that my presentation would be good.
I realized that every time I spoke in front of a group –
like at ICIS, the Academy of Management, DSI, and so forth –
every conference presentation I was doing was really the
equivalent of a job interview. After all, I realized that, some day, it would be entirely
possible that I would be contacting someone in that audience for
a job; or someone in that audience, with a job to fill, would be
contacting me. For
me, every presentation at a conference or as an invited guest at
a university research seminar – I treated every such
presentation as if it were a job interview, where I had to
And of course, this was part of my plan of making myself
valuable to the outside, so that I would be valuable to the
inside – so that, eventually, I would get tenure.
And, as an aside, I also learned
that, for this strategy, it did not make that much of a
difference as to whether I was presenting a research paper or
sitting on a panel.
After all, 20 minutes of “face time” in front an audience
is still 20 minutes of “face time” – whether it’s a paper
presentation or a panel discussion.
This is important because, as I quickly learned, it’s a
lot easier to put together a panel proposal than to write up a
research paper if I wanted to present at a conference.
Over the years, I found that my
presenting at conferences really paid off.
I found that there were some senior level researchers who were
genuinely interested in what I had to say.
And guess what – they opened up doors for me.
They asked me to give research seminars at their own
asked me to be a member of panels that they were organizing for
this or that conference.
And most important of all, they started to ask me to review
manuscripts for them, and as a form of networking, let me say
that reviewing manuscripts can be extremely effective.
When I had my first opportunities
to review for top journals like MIS Quarterly and ISR,
at first I asked myself, why I should do this?
It takes a lot of time, and because it’s a blind review,
I’ll never get any credit from the author.
However, I realized that even though the blindness of the
review meant that my identify would never be known to the author
-- still, my identity was fully known to the associate editor
and the senior editor.
So, when I started writing up reviews for major journals,
I wrote up the reviews not just for the author as my audience,
but also as a way for me to impress the associate editor and the
senior editor who, I realized, were also a real part of my
audience; and it was important for me to show the associate
editor and the senior editor what I really knew about research.
So I came to see every invitation to review a manuscript
not as an imposition on my time, but as a fortuitous opportunity
to impress this or that influential editor.
And in time, I found that I was asked to be an associate
editor myself, and then a senior editor, for MIS Quarterly.
Mind you, this strategy of
networking to make ourselves valuable to the outside can work,
only if we really have something to show to the outside.
There is no substitute for hard work.
But remember – hard work is not enough; hard work is not
automatically rewarded; doing the hard work is only half the
job; the other half is networking to make sure that our hard
work is recognized and rewarded.
My third story: Applying the Porter
Model to Create a Competitive Research Strategy
I told this story last year at
the doctoral consortium, but I like it so much that I’ll tell it
The Porter model of competitive strategy is good for
analyzing a company’s business strategy: how competitive is the
industry? …how easily can another firm enter the industry? …what
relationship does the company have with its suppliers? …and with
its customers? …and finally, what substitute products might
there be to threaten the company’s product?
Well, research strategy is analogous to business
strategy: how much competition is there in your particular
research specialty? …what relationship do you, the researcher,
have with your research suppliers (which would be things like
funding sources, access to the right coursework, and access to
field sites)? …what relationship do you, the researcher, have
with your research customers (who would be people such as your
dissertation committee, your tenure committee, the reviewers at
a journal, and journal editors)? …and finally, what substitute
research studies might there be to threaten your study?
In other words, just as it’s not enough for a company to
manufacture a good product, the company must also formulate and
follow through with a business strategy – well, it’s the same
for us researchers: it’s not enough for a researcher to work
hard and do good research, the researcher must also formulate
and follow through with a research strategy.
To wrap up my part of this panel,
let me say that just about everything that I’ve just talked
about – I learned after
I got my PhD. Of course, this is the sort of thing that I should
have learned during my PhD.
That’s what doctoral education is supposed to be about.
As a PhD student, I should have learned…
…that there is also the community
side of research, not just the substantive-intellectual side of
…that doing hard work, alone, just
…and that researchers need a
research strategy, in exactly the same way that businesses need
a business strategy.
Hopefully, because I’m sharing
these lessons with you, you won’t have to stumble along as
assistant professors and re-invent the wheel by re-learning
these for yourselves.
At the same time, I know that sometimes lessons, like the
ones I’ve told you, really don’t make sense unless you learn
them and experience them for yourself – but even if that’s the
case, at this point, you’ll know that you aren’t alone, and that
you have a network of colleagues that you can turn to for