13 September 2022, 15 - 16.30 

Ethnographic action research: Learning about changing industry cultures from the ground up

John Paul Stephens.jpg

John Paul Stephens

Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University

In this talk, I will describe an ongoing multi-year, multi-site, action research ethnographic project. The large construction projects that my research team and I have studied since 2016 are the sites of intervention into cultural change by the project owners – a large hospital system investing in the teamwork it feels necessary to deliver high-quality buildings of the future. Through observation, interviewing and surveying, I have been privy to the various processes undertaken by these project owners as they try to re-shape the culture of the construction industry one project at a time. This is in reaction to historical industry norms of competitiveness and command-and-control that leave much of the global construction industry over budget and behind schedule. In addition to detailing my methods, I will also share a few of the discoveries that have emerged in the course of our work. First, we found that the project owner transferred cultural tools (values, frames, and concepts) from the healthcare system into their construction projects: “working as a team for the patient” was translated to “working as a team for the project”. Second, we found that effective cultural tool transfer can be confounded by a lack of control over social resources (e.g., decision-making power). Third, collaborative team meeting dynamics were useful not only for making task progress, but also for making attempts at cultural change more engaging to project participants. Fourth, especially where team meetings remained contentious, artifacts and aesthetics were key to gaining enough collective traction to move forward. Questions and suggestions for future directions are welcome as we embed into three simultaneous projects for the first time in the design phase.