Participant observation


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Participant observation

  1. 1. The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at,2 Participant observation in logistics research Experiences from an RFID148 implementation study ˚ Henrik Palsson Division of Packaging Logistics, Department of Design Sciences, Lund University, Lund, Sweden Abstract Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to describe the advantages, challenges and uncertainties of collecting and analyzing data using participant observation in logistics research. Design/methodology/approach – Experiences from a participant observation study of an interorganizational radio frequency identification (RFID) implementation in an international environment are presented and reflected on. The RFID implementation included complex interactions between three leading companies. Findings – The results appear to support an increased use of participant observation in qualitative logistics research, particularly when investigating interorganizational aspects. The analysis highlights values, general limitations and challenges of using participant observation in logistics. The paper illustrates that using participant observation results in significant and detailed findings, which would be difficult to achieve with other methods. Suggestions on how to take advantage of the method’s benefits and overcome methodological challenges are provided. Research limitations/implications – Future research may address experiences from other studies regarding how to analyze and report data from a participant observation study. It may also clarify the role the method is given in case studies and extend the analysis of epistemological aspects conducted in this paper. Practical implications – This paper may inspire logistics researchers to consider participant observation, either as sole method or as part of a multi-methodical case study, in order to make use of its benefits and thus broaden the dimensions of logistics research. Originality/value – A broad literature review indicates that participant observation studies are rather uncommon in logistics research. This paper thus highlights the potential of using this method in logistics research, particularly when investigating the overlooked, but essential, interorganizational aspects of logistics and SCM. Keywords Quality, Research, Participative management, Logistics data processing Paper type Research paper Introduction When writing a paper considering a participant observation study on a radio frequency identification (RFID) implementation project, the author was going through leading journals within the field of logistics to gain inspiration from other participantInternational Journal of Physical observation studies. Surprisingly, only a limited number of logistics studies usingDistribution & Logistics Management participant observation were found. In addition, examination by Mentzer and KahnVol. 37 No. 2, 2007pp. 148-163 (1995) and by Sachan and Datta (2005) confirmed the author’s suspicion thatq Emerald Group Publishing Limited0960-0035 participant observation studies within logistics are rare. In the comprehensive analysisDOI 10.1108/09600030710734857 by Mentzer and Kahn, participant observation is not even a category. Perhaps, it is
  2. 2. included as a part in some of the case studies reviewed, but only about 3 percent of the Participantarticles published in the Journal of Business Logistics 1978-1995 were case studies. observation inSachan and Datta (2005, p. 666) pointed out that existing reviews show that directobservation methods are rather unpopular and that “researchers are mainly using logistics researchpeoples (sic) perception (survey and interview) or artificial methods (simulation andmathematical modeling) for research in the discipline.” To further examine this issue, the author conducted a general search in our internal 149library navigator, which contains most of the logistics journals relevant to this areaand a considerable number of conference proceedings. A search for participantobservation or ethnographic studies in logistics or supply chain management resultedin only a handful of matches. This apparent lack of participant observation research isconfirmed in a review of case study research (Seuring, 2006). Only five of 68 casestudies employed participant observation in any way. Thus, it would not beexaggerating to say that participant observation is a rarely used method in logisticsresearch. ¨ However, Sachan and Datta, as well as Naslund (2002), clearly state that logisticsneeds more qualitative research. Sachan and Datta (2005, p. 669) point out the needfor movement toward direct observation via case, action, and field studies, as ¨“the methods are accessible, their legitimacy is proven, and the need is great.” Naslundemphasizes the need for more ethnographic studies and action research. This paper is thus designed to strike a blow for an increased use of participantobservation in logistics research. Therefore, a study on RFID implementation usingthis method is offered to illustrate the potential of the method in logistics. The purpose of this paper is to describe the advantages, challenges, anduncertainties of collecting and analyzing data using participant observation in logisticsresearch. Experiences from the interorganizational RFID implementation study in aninternational environment are presented and reflected on. The paper also brieflydiscusses whether existing epistemological settings in logistics support or areobstacles for participant observation. The outline of the paper is the following. It begins with a review of participantobservation and positioning of the method compared to other qualitative methods.Then the interorganizational RFID implementation study is summarized, with a focuson methodological aspects. Thereafter, the study is reflected on. Subsequently,participant observation in logistics is discussed from a more general perspective, butwith connections to the study carried out. Finally, future research is suggested.Participant observationCharacteristics of participant observationDifferent authors seem to include various aspects when they address participantobservation. Some literature (Jackson, 1983; Park, 1999) regards it as a rather broadresearch strategy, including observations, interviews, and sampling from documents.These authors almost place it on a par with ethnography, while other literature(Merriam, 1994; Yin, 2003) has a narrower view of it. Yin considers it as more of a datacollection technique which can be used within case studies. Merriam, on the other hand,regards it as a method and he claims it to be one of the most important methods in casestudies. Bryman (2002) also considers it to be a method, while he addressesethnography as a wider term. In logistics research, Yin’s approach of regarding
  3. 3. IJPDLM participant observation as a data collection technique, often as a part of a case study,37,2 appears to be common. However, participant observation as the main research method in logistics is also available (Ellram, 1996), which is the view adopted in this paper. Participant observation is defined by Bryman (2002). He states that a participant observer is engaged in a group for a considerable period of time. The behavior of the group is explored by observing conversations within the group150 and with the researcher. Bryman also points out that it is common that participant observation also incorporates supplementary interviews and written material. To distinguish participant observation from other qualitative methods, it is compared to five related methods. Ethnography may refer to either a method or a ¨ philosophical paradigm (Naslund, 2002). This method is close to participant observation, but it is often more culturally focused (Bryman, 2002). Participatory action research has similarities to participant observation, as a group is investigated over a period of time. It does, however, significantly differ from this method on the point that “some of the people in the organization or community under study participate actively with the professional researcher throughout the research process” (Foote Whyte, 1991, p. 20). Case studies may be defined as an investigation of “a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context” (Yin, 2003, p. 13) or as the study of the complexity and nature of a specific case (Stake in Bryman, 2002). A case may, for instance, be a program, an event, a process, an institution, or a social group (Creswell, 1994). According to Ragin and Becker (Ragin, 1992, p. 225) it is “a way station in the process of producing empirical social evidence.” In a case study this evidence may be produced from data collected by using various methods, both qualitative and quantitative ones (Ellram, 1996); hence, participant observation may be one of them. Accordingly, case study research may have overlapping parts with participant observation, for instance, collecting empirical evidence from a contemporary phenomenon, interviewing, and observation. Participant observation as viewed in this paper, however, is more distinct, focusing on spending time in a studied group, and if interviews are used, they are complementary or less formal. This means that interviews are mainly conducted for unobservable parts of the studied phenomenon, while a case study may use them as the main method. Interview studies are a stand-alone method. Compared to participant observation, one basic and essential difference is that participant observation mainly results in first-hand data from a contemporary phenomenon, while interviews result in data interpreted by the respondent from a historical event. A thorough comparison is provided by Bryman (2002). Participant observation offers better opportunities to reveal tacit knowledge and unexpected behavior and is thus able to adapt to changed situations. It also has advantages in being able to uncover hidden activities and highlight contextual sensitivity. Interview studies, on the other hand, are better at explaining certain types of emotions and underlying causes for some actions, for example, why a person has become a vegetarian. Participant observations are suitable for in-depth longitudinal studies of a limited period of time, but for practical reasons interview studies are more suitable for long, longitudinal investigations and historical events. Another practical advantage of interviews is that they often require considerably less time. Interview studies also offer a wider scope of the study as they may include people from various parts of an organization, while participant observation is often limited to a small part of an organization.
  4. 4. Focus groups represent a certain type of interview where several respondents Participantdiscuss questions asked by the researcher. Consequently, the comparisons between observation ininterview studies and participant observation are, to a large extent, also valid for focusgroups. However, there are some characteristics which put focus groups in another logistics researchposition than interviews compared to participant observation. In accordance withparticipant observation, focus groups result in large amounts of data which may bechallenging to analyze. Compared to interviews, focus groups offer slightly less 151control, but not to the extent that is typical in participant observation. Whileparticipant observation reveals the first-hand data of a phenomenon, Bryman (2002)states that a focus group may come to consensus when an issue is being discussed.A risk of this course of action is that people in a group stop thinking critically. Anotherrisk put forward by Bryman is that group effects may limit the results of a focus group,as some participants may be loud and some very quiet. These risks are considered tobe less apparent in participant observation because the researcher studies the group inits natural context.Four phasesFour phases (preparation, data collection, analysis, and writing) which could beidentified in ethnographic studies are also valid to some extent in participantobservation studies. They are referred to below. The preparation phase includes, similar to other research methods, research design.An essential element is gaining access to the objects to be investigated. This often includesseeking the permission of gatekeepers and the support of sponsors. However, access is notonly a question of physical presence or absence (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1995, p. 55).Private boundaries may, for example, be difficult to break through, as they “may bepoliced by gatekeepers” (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1995, p. 63). Further, in the field relations it is essential to gain the trust of the group beingresearched. Thus, Hammersley and Atkinson (1995) observe that it may be necessaryto dress similarly to the group and to clearly explain the intentions of the study. Theyalso recommend a researcher not to become too involved in a group if it preventshim/her from gaining access to other groups. After preparation, the data collection phase may begin. Various authors offerpractical advice on how to ensure accurate and trustworthy information. Glaser (1996),for instance, claims that it is essential to: . Schedule strategically – be flexible, take advantage of “snowballing” (one respondent may suggest and facilitate access to other respondents). . Adjust the interview request to the situation – for example, taking advantage of time in between events to conduct short interviews. . Obtain multiple perspectives. . Establish trust and gain access. . Reveal your purpose, suppress your opinion – be clear, but do not reveal your opinions on different issues. . Do not overlook detail in the rush of activity – it is impossible to know beforehand which details are critical in the investigation. . Be a pack rat – it is impossible to know beforehand what is important.
  5. 5. IJPDLM Jackson (1983), on the other hand, identified six challenges:37,2 (1) Problems of data handling – for example, sorting very comprehensive information. (2) Significant time gap between the occurrence of an event and its being recorded as data.152 (3) Lengthy delay between research and writing. (4) Problems of systematic analysis and convincing presentation of infinite amounts of data. (5) Too heavy reliance on informants involves the dangers of an elite bias. (6) Ethical and moral questions. Atkinson et al. (2001) put emphasis on field notes. They state that field notes may be either jotted down or merely mental. The jotted notes may work as reminders for certain situations or may be the initial steps of the writing process. Mental notes are to be conducted while the researcher is observing in detail, with the aim of writing or participating in ongoing events in order to gain experience of certain situations or processes. The phase of analysis and reflection in participant observation studies is typically ongoing throughout the investigation. Hammersley and Atkinson (1995, p. 210) offer some advice on how to conduct the analysis in ethnography, which is useful in participant observation too; “The first step in the process of analysis is, of course, a careful reading of the corpus of data, in order to become thoroughly familiar with it.” They point out that the aim of the first step is to identify patterns, seek relationships across the whole data or see whether anything stands out. They further explain that concepts may also be observed. The initial analysis is expected to generate fairly trivial concepts which, further on in the analysis, become more abstract. A more in-depth analysis strategy, suggested by Hammersley and Atkinson (1995, p. 216), is constant comparison (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). Another strategy they propose is typology development, where “an initial set of categories differentiating a particular range of phenomena can be developed into a systematic typology.” Irrespective of the strategy chosen, the interpretations in the study depend on several aspects: . Social context. Since, the participant observer interacts in a social context, the audience “to which the actions or accounts being used as data were directed” (p. 220) should be considered, as this may affect what is being said. It should be taken into account that the people being studied may have something to gain by not telling the truth. The audience may be the researcher, for instance, in interviews and some observation situations. . Time. What is said and done depends on time, i.e. what has already occurred is relevant to decisions and actions. . Personnel. Actions and perspectives of people depend on their identity and their social relationships. For example, the position a person holds in a company determines which information is accessible to them. . Respondent validation. The respondent may have more knowledge than the researcher, but the respondent’s knowledge may be false or there may be a motive behind an incorrect description or a misinterpretation. If the investigation
  6. 6. may be interpreted as critical or negative, respondent validation may also be Participant problematic. observation in . Triangulation. Checking findings with different sources. logistics researchAnother way of analyzing data in a participant observation study is to use codingtechniques from grounded theory. Strauss and Corbin (1998) emphasize the need tocarefully scrutinize data. Accordingly, they describe how to break down data with 153extensive coding procedures. They also promote the writing of memos and notes togain analytical distance from data. An essential part of any analysis is how data are interpreted. Alvesson and ¨Skoldberg (1994, p. 12) put the emphasis on reflection, which they define as“interpretation of an interpretation.” This means that reflection aims to criticallyevaluate interpretations of empirical material conducted by a researcher. Thus, theconnection between interpreted data, for example, models, and reality in data may bestrengthened. Finally, the phase of writing may be divided into two parts; writing field notesand writing the finished texts. This phase is more extensive in ethnographic studiesand thus only briefly mentioned here. Atkinson et al. (2001) point out that writing fieldnotes often is a first analytic step. It may facilitate new insights into the research areaand give rise to new ideas. In the final text in a participant observation study, the fieldnotes are reported together with other empirical data, for example, interviews.Participant observation in the RFID implementation studyA brief overview of RFID technology in logisticsBefore highlighting methodological issues of the participant observation studyconducted, RFID technology in logistics, its potential advantages and challenges arebriefly presented. Without visual contact RFID technology captures data from anobject. In a typical RFID system, a reader transmits and registers radio waves whichare modified by a tag (antenna) applied to an object. The potential of using RFID technology in logistics has attracted a great deal ofattention recently (Sheffi, 2004). Current literature has, to a great extent, focused on thepotential opportunities this technology offers in logistics. Potential advantagesreported are reduced labor hours (Jones et al., 2004; McFarlane and Sheffi, 2003), less ¨ ¨spoilage (Karkkainen, 2003), and a reduction in shrinkage in the supply chain (Joneset al., 2004; Rutner et al., 2004). Other potential advantages identified are increasedprocess efficiency (Angeles, 2005; Rutner et al., 2004), improved sales due to reducedout-of-stock situations (Jones et al., 2004; Prater et al., 2005), improved track and traceopportunities (Angeles, 2005; Jones et al., 2004), improved accuracy of product control(Angeles, 2005; Rutner et al., 2004), and improved inventory management in vendor ˚ ¨managed inventory settings (Smaros and Holmstrom, 2000). Two generic types of logistics systems using RFID exist. First, RFID may beimplemented in a closed loop, which means that the same RFID tag is used over and overagain in a closed loop. Since, the tag is used many times, its purchase price is relativelyunimportant. Consequently, rather expensive high-performing tags may be used in suchloops. Second, RFID may be implemented in an open system, for example, in a supplychain. In this context, several challenges arise. There are technological challenges(McFarlane and Sheffi, 2003); the tags are disposable and must be inexpensive. Thus, it is
  7. 7. IJPDLM challenging to produce tags which are inexpensive but still reliable and durable.37,2 In addition, implementation in a supply chain should also consider the technological requirements of several actors; the RFID system chosen should work for all actors involved. Furthermore, this interorganizational character of RFID implementation in a supply chain results in other challenges. Interorganizational barriers are associated with cost/benefit sharing, collaboration, information sharing, and technology transfer issues154 ˚ (Palsson, 2006). Nonetheless, RFID initiatives are currently being mandated by large retailers, for example, Wal-Mart, Tesco, and Metro. Therefore, their top suppliers are more or less required to implement RFID technology to be used in the supply chain. Overall description of the RFID implementation study To substantiate the methodological analysis, a brief description of the RFID study conducted is offered. The description reveals social context and personnel aspects which influenced the interpretations of the study. The investigation examined an interorganizational implementation project of RFID technology in disposable secondary packaging; the project was mandated by a large retailer. The study focused on interorganizational supply chain relationships and emphasized the implications of an RFID implementation project. It highlighted the interactions of a project group consisting of representatives from a packaging supplier, a food manufacturer, and a technology provider. The unit of analysis was thus the packaging company with the focus on its interactions with the participants in a working group aiming at implementing RFID tags in disposable secondary packaging. This case was chosen because it represents a leading packaging supplier and a leading food manufacturer with high levels of technological development. Both companies aim to be at the forefront of new technological concepts and tools in their industry. The nature of the companies involved varied somewhat. Those investigated at the packaging company were head office representatives. This company is ranked as one of the top companies in Europe regarding sales and market shares. The packaging company’s customer who was involved in the study was a very large food manufacturer. Representatives were located at the head office. The representatives of the third company in the study, the technology provider, were part of the company’s European subsidiary. This company is much smaller than the other companies. The relationship in the working group was interorganizational, which added complexity to the study. As the relationship was interorganizational, power was identified as impacting the collaboration substantially, both in terms of coercive and reward power (French and Raven, 1958). It was possible to initiate the project due to the power wielded by both the retailer and the food manufacturer. The main reason for the packaging supplier to enter the project was fear of reprisals, but while participating in the project the company also realized the potential of RFID technology for added business opportunities. The complexity of the study was also affected by four essential links between the collaborating parties. The links expressed mutuality (Dubois and Gadde, 2000). There were activity links between the companies both operationally and strategically, resource ties in terms of shared resources in testing and conducting the project, continuous interaction in a working group and, finally, economic links regarding implementation costs. Another complexity enhancer was the fact that the
  8. 8. collaborating companies had varying goals for participating. Finally, complexity was Participantalso added by a need to share costs in the interorganizational collaboration. observation in However, besides being interorganizational, the study dealt with RFID technologywhich was an unproven technology interorganizationally. This made the complexity in logistics researchthe study even more evident. The investigation identified a number of characteristics of the relationship, andessential issues which needed to be considered in implementing RFID technology in a 155supply chain. It revealed a need for knowledge of both packaging and the RFIDtechnology. Moreover, it demonstrated the impact of power on the relationship in theinterorganizational RFID implementation project as well as reasons for uncertainty inthe implementation project. It was suggested that uncertainty could be reduced with aproactive approach, timely reporting, assigning clear roles, and early agreement of costsharing. The study also identified a lack of and a need for both a common goal and acost-sharing strategy. An agreed common goal appeared to improve project efficiency.PreparationThe preparation phase included two main elements; designing the study and gainingaccess. Participant observation was selected as the main research method for severalreasons. It made it possible to study a contemporary phenomenon and thus gainotherwise inaccessible information (Yin, 2003) as well as to receive firsthand, detailedinformation about the phenomenon. It also facilitated a holistic interpretation of thesituation. The research design further included elements such as definitions of periodof time, purpose and scope of the study, and key people and organizations in the study.Gaining access needed particular attention. For initial skepticism to be overcome fourcomponents were identified as helpful. First, the author had initial contact with one ofthe organizations to be investigated. Thus, it was decided to first come to an agreementwith this organization to use its staff as sponsors later on. This proved to be importantas the sponsors had a key role in convincing the most skeptical project group members.Second, a thorough description of the background of the author led to both a betterworking relationship and helped convince the investigated group that the author couldcontribute to the implementation process. Third, once the purpose of the study wasclearly revealed, it was easier for it to be accepted. Finally, making clear that the authorwould contribute to the progress of the implementation also facilitated the projectgroup’s acceptance of a researcher as a member.The process of data collection and data analysisParticipant observation was the main element of a single case study on implementationof RFID technology in a German retail supply chain (Figure 1). The participantobservation was mainly conducted in a working group and in an experiment. Participant observation Case Figure 1. Working group Interviews study Methods used in the Experiment Study visit interorganizational RFID implementation study
  9. 9. IJPDLM The phase of data collection began when an interorganizational project regarding37,2 implementation of RFID technology in the supply chain (Figure 2) was started. The main part of the project was an active working group, consisting of six permanent members, including the author, originating from the packaging supplier, the food manufacturer, the technology provider, and academia. Temporary members were represented as knowledge resources when needed. The working group had an156 international character as the permanent members represented three nationalities and the temporary members another two. The role of the author was mainly to document and observe the progress of the project and secondarily to participate in discussions and some project tasks. The overall goal of the implementation project was somewhat unclear. Given the complexity of the study, this is unsurprising. However, the goal was interpreted by the working group as making an RFID system work on secondary packaging, i.e. all secondary packages should be labeled individually with RFID tags and all tags should be read simultaneously on several places in the supply chain. Thus, in order to further evaluate the new technology, the working group identified two vaguely defined tasks. First, a working, robust RFID system should be chosen, including both technological choices such as RFID tags, positioning of tags on packages, readers, effects, etc. and logistical effects such as supply chain design, efficiency improvement, reading locations, etc. Second, a financial evaluation of introducing RFID technology was needed. The working group existed for approximately six months. After a kick-off in September 2005 the group operated on a regular basis until February 2006. The closing of the working group was rather turbulent and abrupt as one of the project leaders left the packaging company due to downsizing. This led to a hiatus in the project. One type of knowledge resource used in the project was study visits at companies with knowledge of RFID technology. This facilitated the working group’s understanding of the technological requirements and limitations of RFID technology. It also served as inspiration in the process of considering future opportunities of RFID technology. Another knowledge resource utilized was that of experiments conducted at the technology provider’s. Together with the technology manager, the author carried out technology tests of RFID technology. The goal was to reach a high read-rate for RFID tags in packaging. Each transportation package on a pallet had a unique RFID tag, and as the pallet was pulled between two readers all tags should be read. To obtain a 100 percent accurate read rate we had to find a good combination of type (brand) and position of tag, as well as type, frequency, and effect of readers. Data were thus collected using participant observation in three general types of environments. In these environments the level of participation/observation varied (Figure 3). During the working group meetings the focus of the researcher was Knowledge resources Packaging Food Retailer supplier manufacturerFigure 2.Actors involved in the TechnologyRFID project provider
  10. 10. primarily to observe, and secondarily to participate. The observation regarded Participantdocumentation and interpretation of the project progress reported and discussions observation incarried out in the meetings. To fully make use of these events the author complementedthe observations with informal interviews or discussions with the participants. logistics researchThe second type of environment for data collection was that of experiments. Here, thesituation required the author to take a fairly active role due to lack of resources in thefield of RFID knowledge. The RFID testing was carried out by the technology manager 157at the technology provider’s and the author. The final environment for data collectionwas that of study visits. Since, the overall aim of the whole working group was toobserve, the observer role of the author was quite natural. To gather even more data,semistructured interviews were conducted. Thus, it was possible to obtain reflectionsfrom both working group members and external interested parties. The phase of analysis was to some extent ongoing throughout the investigation.The aspects which would influence data interpretation were applied in various degrees.Most data were written in documents and were continuously interpreted and analyzed.The information was analyzed through coding, inspired by grounded theory (Glaserand Strauss, 1967; Strauss and Corbin, 1998). The information was structured andanalyzed both chronologically, to take the time aspect into account, and according tocontent. To emphasize the need for variation and width in the interpretations, ¨interpretative reflection (Alvesson and Skoldberg, 1994) was applied in the analysis.Conducting a reflexive analysis required a careful, detailed use of, and reflection on, theempirical material involved (Thomsson, 2002). Thus, the interpretations werecompared to theories and the author’s prior understanding of the subject. It was alsopossible to take into account the aspects of social context and personnel. Respondentvalidation was only considered to a limited extent, because the study was slightlynegative and hence this aspect is judged to be problematic. Instead, another reflectionwas applied using triangulation, i.e. one part of the empirical material wasstrengthened in other parts of the empirical material.Reflections on the study – pragmatic issuesReflections on pragmatic issues from the RFID implementation study are presentedhere to illustrate the real effects of the methodological choice. This illustrationfacilitates a concrete evaluation of the advantages, challenges, and uncertainties ofparticipant observation in logistics. Thus, the methodological aspects of participantobservation in logistics investigated are firmly tied to empirical data on a pragmaticlevel. The reflections are mainly directed at the phases where the current studyidentified the main challenges, which were in data collection and analysis. Thesephases are not explicitly pointed out in this reflection as they interacted throughoutmost of the study. Working Study visit group Experiment Figure 3. meeting Role of the researcher in different parts of the research Observation Participation
  11. 11. IJPDLM Methodological pros in the RFID implementation study37,2 A critical issue in participant observation is gaining access. Access to the working group was difficult to obtain, but once gained new opportunities arose. It provided opportunities to gather information from busy people through informal interviews. The relationship between the working group members also gave insight into sensitive occurrences behind the scenes. For example, it was found that internally at the158 packaging supplier’s, nobody was really interested in the project. Once this had been realized, its effect on the project could be observed. A lack of goals, for instance, was recognized and investigated further. Another occurrence behind the scenes which would have been tricky to identify without observation was how the cost-sharing strategy was carried out by one of the companies in the project. By consistently ignoring the issue of cost sharing, one of the participating companies postponed this issue. On occasions, when the matter was brought up, the company hushed it up. By gaining access to a group, participant observation can give insight into otherwise inaccessible firsthand information. In the RFID study, it was found that the participant organizations in the working group had different goals. As a result, this diversity and its effect were studied and analyzed. Detailed firsthand information regarding a minor conflict which arose regarding cost sharing was also accessed. By participating and observing it was possible to directly discover several areas of uncertainty in the project. Part of the uncertainty, for example, unstructured experiments, an ad hoc approach, and vague responsibilities, would not have been recognized through using another method. Comprehensive amounts of data may improve the quality of a study. Here, an in-depth understanding of the implementation process was offered, as the method facilitated detailed data collection. Interesting information was, for example, gained by the author studying mail correspondence in the working group, discussions, and working group meetings. This information facilitated an analysis of the relationship in the working group identifying, for example, what was lacking for an effective relationship to be assured. Furthermore, in-depth data also gave insight into power balance in the relationship. Hereby, follow-up interviews could be based on experiences which took the investigation further. Methodological cons in the RFID implementation study During the research process several challenges arose. In the following paragraphs these will be reflected on. As a consequence, of close cooperation, a risk of a lack of distance between the researcher and the researched group may appear. At best, this is a major advantage as “the true” picture is revealed. However, the current study also indicated that it is easy to adopt an internal perspective without critically examining taken-for-granted information and accepting it as fact. Put another way, a researcher may adopt the blindness to defects of the researched object and thus lack an outside perspective which often is claimed to result in fresh inputs. Being an active part in the process investigated, it may be difficult to set the boundaries between participating and observing. It was a balance to decide to what extent the researcher should affect the process and still not conduct action research. For instance, with the author being one of two participants in an experiment, where one crucial element was to brainstorm about how to solve problems, the line between
  12. 12. participant observation and action research was rather thin. This issue was dealt with Participantby actively discussing problems, but still letting the company representative come to observation inthe final decisions. However, the boundaries between participating and observing mustbe reflected on in every single case and the choice of boundary is of a subjective nature. logistics research It may be difficult to question the researched group’s behavior without affecting it.The researcher needs to scrutinize the researched group, but critical questions mightaffect the group’s forthcoming behavior. This might not necessarily be wrong, but 159needs to be taken into consideration when reporting the investigation. It was a delicateand tricky issue to analyze. Six pragmatic challenges, previously identified by Jackson (1983), are likely toappear in participant observation. In the RFID study, these challenges were tackled invarious ways. First, the extensive amount of data was sorted and analyzed with a greatdeal of effort and reflection. Second, to avoid the negative impact of a time gap betweenthe occurrence of the event and its being recorded as data, which might result in vitaldetails being omitted, the author tried to take detailed notes during the whole study.Third, to minimize the risk of the negative influence of a lengthy delay betweenresearch and writing, recording and analysis of data were carried out continuouslyduring the investigation. Furthermore, follow-up interviews were conducted afterparticipant observation. Fourth, the difficulties of analyzing infinite amounts of datawere overcome by systematic analysis using analysis techniques inspired by groundedtheory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967; Strauss and Corbin, 1998), for example, coding andcontinuous comparison. Fifth, to try to avoid bias from key informants, triangulationwas conducted. Thus, several data sources for similar events were sought, for instance,follow-up interviews of observed findings, or documents and observations whichprovided similar results. Finally, ethical challenges, such as, how to report disputes,lack of management support, and protect against intrusion on personal privacy, weredealt with by the author. He explained the intentions of the study to the observed groupand assured them that their anonymity was guaranteed in the report.Participation vs observationThe degree of participation, and consequently the effect of a researcher may vary indifferent parts of an investigation. This was relevant in the progress of the projectstudied. The study visits were thoroughly objective as they mainly comprisedobservation, while the experiment was fairly subjective because participation wasemphasized. The working group meetings were somewhere in between. The author’smain stance was to observe, but his role was also to contribute with knowledge whichmay have moved the project in certain directions. However, to be able to further reflect on the implication of degree ofparticipation/observation in the different data collection methods used in the project,the meaning of subjective and objective needs to be clarified. According to LongmanDictionary of Contemporary English (2005), “a statement, report, attitude, etc. that issubjective is influenced by personal opinion and can therefore be unfair.” Objective, onthe other hand, is “based on facts, or making a decision that is based on facts ratherthan on your feelings or beliefs.” This discrepancy between the characteristics of subjective and objective, which tosome extent is associated with participation and observation, did not lead to obviousdifficulties in the study but may have affected the outcome. Theoretically, the
  13. 13. IJPDLM researcher could have had a less active participative role in the experiment, but due to37,2 pragmatic reasons this was not feasible because the researcher was needed as a resource. Furthermore, the interaction between researcher and practitioner in the experiment was fruitful and accordingly the participatory approach probably improved the outcome. The interaction certainly increased the researcher’s understanding of the project.160 It was found that access could be divided into two types. First, in the preparation phase there was a rather formal basic access which means obtaining permission to conduct the study and then collect data. The second type is slightly more difficult to describe, but we can call it fresh access. It was more informal and needed to be maintained on a regular basis in the data collection phase. It may be assured by gaining trust and continuously showing contribution. In the working group the researcher was involved in discussions and tried to contribute with knowledge. Consequently, it was possible to ask questions, which also facilitated the researcher’s understanding. Additionally, the author found that active engagement in the project resulted in greater trust from the group and thus more access was gained. Discussion and conclusion The interorganizational RFID implementation study Even though relationships are commonly studied in logistics and that SCM has received increased attention, a recent study reveals that there are very few interorganizational studies and that “the current research has failed to look at that perspective of the SCM” (Sachan and Datta, 2005, p. 674). The RFID investigation discussed in this paper highlighted opportunities to conduct research on interorganizational settings with participant observation, and it proved to be beneficial. Accordingly, it indicated that this method was suitable to investigate this essential perspective of SCM. The fact that direct observation methods, such as, participant observation, appear to be rather uncommon in logistics research may contribute to the lack of interorganizational studies. Therefore, in order to fill the increased need for interorganizational research, in the form of, for example, SCM and collaboration, the author suggests that more logistics researchers would benefit from considering participant observation in their studies. The interorganizational RFID implementation offered an example of the value and challenges of participant observation in logistics. First, it demonstrated that access may be difficult to obtain, but when this has been achieved a whole new world of detailed information may be discovered. Second, it presented the opportunity for researchers to acquire an in-depth understanding of a studied phenomenon, which in this case was an interorganizational relationship in an implementation project. Third, the in-depth information gained served as a frame of reference, which facilitated reflection. Fourth, the study identified a challenge regarding how to avoid internal prejudices. The challenge is to be able to take a step back. Fifth, this challenge is connected to the previous point and considered a difficulty in setting boundaries between participating and observing. Sixth, it was also found that investigating the group without affecting it too much was a delicate balance to achieve. Finally, the paper identified a number of pragmatic challenges in data collection and handling which have been previously reported. Based on the RFID implementation study presented in this paper, a proposition is that more logistics research would benefit from participant observation with a slight
  14. 14. ¨influence from ethnography. This view supports Naslund (2002, p. 332), who puts Participantemphasis on the need for logistics researchers “to gain extreme relevance by spending observation inmore time in organizations . . . by ‘hanging out.’” Thus, the currently overlookedinterorganizational perspective in SCM would be more likely to be researched. logistics research The opportunities presented by participant observation are also found elsewhere.Ellram (1996, Table 3) highlighted the usefulness of this method in qualitativeresearch. She claimed that it could be used for research aiming to explore, explain, 161describe, or even predict. By “hanging out” in organizations, participant observationcombined with other methods could result in more thorough logistics studies. The dominance of the positivistic paradigm in logistics research (Mentzer and ¨Kahn, 1995; Naslund, 2002; Nilsson, 2005) may affect how participant observationresearch is valued in the logistics field. Considering paradigm, Easton (1995, p. 381)claims that in positivism “cases are only useful as exploratory devices,” but for a realistone case is enough as realists are “not generalizing to any population but to a realworld that has been discovered.” These quotes indicate two essential issues. First, itmight be challenging to generalize from a participant observation study in logistics.Second, it might be important to reason about epistemological standpoints whenmaking an analytical generalization in logistics. ¨ In addition, Naslund (2002, p. 332) points out that: . . . to some extent, ethnography is based on the rejection of positivism, and particularly the rejection of the view that (social) research should adopt scientific methods consisting of rigorous testing of hypotheses utilizing quantitative measurements.This comment is valid for participant observation too, as it bears similarities toethnography. Obviously, rejecting positivism or at least keeping an open mind to otherepistemological positions to make use of participant observation might be a majorchallenge, but previous studies appear to call for such a stance. Moreover, the quotealso indicates that the dominance of positivism plays down the value of participantobservation research. Therefore, the author suggests that it may be essential to discussand argue for the significance of results obtained with this method. Another issue toexamine further is epistemological obstacles for participant observation in logistics. In summary, this paper showed different views of participant observation intraditional logistics research (Ellram, 1996; Yin, 2003) and more socially focusedresearch (Atkinson et al., 2001; Hammersley and Atkinson, 1995). In addition, itpresented an overview of the characteristics of participant observation and comparedit with other qualitative methods. It also demonstrated the usefulness of participantobservation in logistics and particularly when investigating interorganizationalaspects. This usefulness was illustrated with an RFID implementation study, whichrevealed concrete methodological issues. The study also served as input to a moreoverall discussion of participant observation in logistics. Future research should reportexperiences from other participant observation studies regarding, for example,opportunities and obstacles, and to what extent a participant observation study shouldbe subjective and objective. It may also be directed at a deeper investigation of how toanalyze and report data from a participant observation study, and the role of thismethod in a case study. In addition, the brief analysis of epistemological aspects in thispaper needs to be extended.
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