Is the domain of your PhD really that important?

picture-1I recently read an article which got me thinking about the domain my research is situated in. My PhD is a PhD in Information Science. It roots its knowledge and methods in information science to ensure that at the end of the three years of study (and the all-important viva), I have a comprehensive understanding of my PhD topic from the information science perspective. My PhD topic focuses primarily on workplace learning and innovation. I am exploring how innovative work behaviours can be learned on both the individual and collective levels. I am exploring this to identify determinants of successful workplace learning and develop a set of practical recommendations (or develop framework) on requirements to be able to learn to innovate. My research focuses mainly on organisational characteristics and how organisational may be able to set parameters to support learning in the workplace. I had considered looking at this from the perspective of the individual but I slowly realised that this would be a HUGE topic to study and studying individual characteristics of people would mean my research was more of a Psychology PhD than an Information Science PhD. That is something me (and my research supervisors) did not want. For me this was quite hard to accept as my academic and employment background was in Psychology. However, I soon started to realise how important my previous study and experience were to my own research and how well my experiences fitted into a PhD in Information Science indeed.

I then began to realise that my previous career aspirations and academic study towards this (my undergraduate and masters BPS accredited degrees) were shattered by choosing to Information Science over Psychology. Bye bye accreditation!

It was just after New Year when I came across this article by Jeske & Stamov Roßnagel (2016) posted on LinkedIn and it took my eye straight away. It took my eye because it explores drivers for informal learning at work and this is something my PhD is focusing on too. I was pleased to be able to read this article as it got me thinking about my own research and the methods I will be using. It also got me wondering about the different perspectives research can take, and more importantly perspectives looking into concepts relating to my own PhD research too.

So in the article, the authors identify a number of factors that may influence informal learning in the workplace. Significance of such factors were tested using a cross-sectional survey and quantitative analysis of the survey answers. Results indicated that characteristics of individuals influenced the development of informal learning in the workplace. However, there was one result that surprised me when I read it: organisational characteristics had no influence on informal learning in the workplace (in the data collected by the authors). This surprised me as this is also one area of my research which I am exploring in detail and other articles have found the opposite results. The article made me consider whether I am doing the right thing or not but also made me think why the results of that article may differ from what I had expected myself. The results also got me thinking about the methods the authors used in comparison to my research and the domain of research the article lies compared to mine, which then helped me write the blog post you are reading now.

I am going to talk about a few things that came to mind when I read the article in terms of how some research could be similar to mine, and how my research could differ from others. I really enjoyed reading the article in depth and it definitely has a place in my thesis write up given that it has sparked some questions in my mind I did not think about happen. I explain these considerations below (note: these are not specific comments about the article I read, these are just aspects I need to consider in my own research, thoughts sparked by reading the article above).

Approach to research

The approach to research is really important, but I don’t mean the philosophical approach as such. Yes, we all know the philosophical approach is important and helps to set the grounds for the methodological choice, but the differences between top-down and bottom-up approaches came to mind for me. I am fully aware that the top-down and bottom-up approaches are types of deductive and inductive reasoning so they are technically philosophical approaches. But it is the differences between the two in research are differences I need to consider in order to answer the research questions I propose. So in simple terms:

  • A top-down approach takes a complex concept and breaks it down into smaller components to help understand what makes up each component;
  • A bottom-up approach helps to piece together the simpler components to gain an overall picture of what is happening. The final outcome can be seen when all the individual parts are explored and put together.

So the difference between the two can be quite major, and this difference can help shape how the research is carried out. For example, if I had a specific set (or large framework) of influencers on learning that I wanted to explore them as a whole, I could use the top-down approach. This would help me break down the larger component (framework) and see how these related to learning to innovate. However, this is not what I am going at all. I will be using a bottom-up approach to my research as I believe that learning to innovate starts with the individual. I am therefore going to explore smaller parts of the puzzle in detail and piece these together to gain an overall picture of how people learn to innovate. In a nutshell, I will be seeing what smaller components contribute to learning to innovate and then building these together in a framework of recommendations. However, part of my research does involve the top-down approach. My secondary data analysis uses a combination of both approaches. This is because: (1) I have the factors which could contribute to the development of innovation in the dataset which is the top-down approach but (2) exploring the dataset is using the bottom up approach to piece together which variables contribute to the development of innovation and which ones do not. A similar example is that by Frenz and Ietto‐Gillies (2007) who use the UK Innovation Survey data to answer their research questions.

Methods used to explore research questions

The approach then relates to the next thing I thought about… the methods used to explore research questions. So if a researcher was using the top-down approach, they may know then variables they wish to explore. Therefore, something like a quantitative survey (as in Jeske & Stamov Roßnagel, 2016) may be more appropriate to address the research questions as the researcher has an idea of the components that make up the larger picture, and wish to explore these in more detail. For my research however, I don’t know what components contribute to workplace learning and I don’t know what should. I am therefore using a bottom-up approach to build a picture of this and my research methods need to reflect this decision. I will be using a case study design where I will be interviewing employees of organisations (see King, 2008; Harbi, Anderson & Amamou, 2014; Mavin & Roth, 2015; Sykes & Dean, 2013, for examples). The interviews will be semi-structured butpicture-2 will allow for a lot of elaboration by the participants I talk to. I want my interviewees to talk about factors they feel contribute to their own learning so that I can see how individuals differ. I want to understand contributions to the development of workplace learning so the subjectivity of answers and differences between individuals and organisations will hopefully shine from the results I get. I can’t be restrictive on variables at the beginning as I have no idea about specific contributions to workplace learning (in the vast amount of literature I have read – there is far too much to discuss). However, once I gain an understanding of the relationships involved, I can then explore specific contribution relationships further and explore these quantitatively if I wish.

Different literature domains (perspectives on research)

So after I had thought about the different types of methods, I then began to wonder what happens about the literature domain? What happens when research questions are explored form multiple perspectives? Do they yield the same results or do they not?

The answer to this question is that we simply just don’t know everything. Every piece of research is situated within its own domain, so if research questions are explored from one perspective, a different perspective may approach the research differently and results may differ. This can be seen if I compare the article I read with my own research. Just because the researchers found no significant relationships quantitatively in this area does not mean I won’t too. I am using different methods to explore similar questions so the results I get could be completely different to research using methods not my own. The article helped me to understand the difference in approaches and methods and how these are important when considering research domains overall. My research is a prefect example of this as it could overlap with so many research domains, all explained below.

(1) The Educational perspective – this perspective focuses a lot on how people learn in the educational setting. My research could be situated here as people taking part in vocational education and training (such as those in Fuller & Unwin, 2003), or transitioning from education to employment may wish to build skills in innovation. However, my research is not situated in the Educational domain as my research does not focus on how people learn educationally. It focuses solely on the workplace so how people transfer knowledge form the classroom to the workplace is somewhat irrelevant in my case. The educational perspective may use methods such as observations, experiments and also tasks to test learning in the workplace.

(2)  The Psychological perspective focuses a lot on individual learning and how people learn themselves. It often forgets about the collective levels of learning and knowledge acquisition, looking predominantly on individual characteristics as influencers to learning. As explained above, this idea was rejected a while back but parts of my research could be situated here if I find that individual characteristics may be important for learning in the workplace. The psychological perspective uses a variety of qualitative and quantitative methods (surveys, case studies, observations and so on) depending on the approach used and the research questions to be addressed. Examples of research using the psychological perspective include Axtell, Holman and Wall (2006), Battistelli, Montani and Odoardi (2013) and Holman, Totterdell, Axtell, Stride, and Port (2012).

(3)  The Human Resource Management perspective is one of the most closely related perspectives to my research. Firstly there are many concepts researched from both the HRM or business perspective and the information science perspective (such as knowledge sharing: see Cabrera, Collins, & Salgado, 2006). However, this is rarely researched from multiple perspectives. So for example, learning in the workplace can be researched from this perspective as then formalised systems in the workplace can be put in place to support development of learning. Although this is very similar to my PhD domain, I am not looking to change the business world or theory in this domain. I am, however, looking to see how productivity and competitive advantage in organisations could be maximised through learning and how the effectiveness of employees are at the heart of such development. This is where the overlap between HRM and my research lies, even though I often don’t want to admit the similarities (e.g. Chan, Shaffer, & Snape, 2004; Crouse, Doyle & Young, 2011; Felstead, Gaille, Green & Zhou, 2010; De Vos, De Hauw & Willemse, 2015). The list is endless!

(4)  The Work and Employment perspective – this perspective looks at the benefits of research for employment purposes. So although I will be (partly) exploring training and building innovation skills, this is not the only part of my research. Instead of focusing on employability, I am looking on how individual and learn to innovate and how this can then influence the organisation on the collective level. Regardless of employability the benefits will be to both individual and organisation and not just supporting the individual to get a job. You can see an example of the employment perspective in McAdam and McCreedy (2000) and Canny (2002) who all use the work and employment perspectives.

(5)  The Organisational studies perspective – this perspective links partly with my research as my research explores how the individual can influence the collective in terms of processes that occur in the organisation like knowledge acquisition and sharing. This could be done through processes of collaboration and social relations that occur at work. However, organisaional studies in itself uses various approaches depending on what the research is looking into and whether it explores the organisation as a whole or individuals employed there. So I technically could be doing a PhD in organisational studies but the domain is too broad (in terms of organisational processes, behaviours, management and other topics covered within organisational studies) and I would struggle to differentiate and justify methods according to the research questions I want to address.

And finally, we have the Information Science perspective. The information science perspective (see Bawden & Robinson, 2012) differs from the perspectives explained above as my research will use the perspective to:

  • Study the use and application of knowledge in the workplace to facilitate learning
  • Study information behaviours and how people use information to support learning
  • Study interactions between people, information and behaviour and how this can influence learning in the workplace

… and this is what makes this perspective quite unique! More importantly, this is what makes my PhD quite unique. My PhD will make contributions to the information science field both practically and theoretically by applying a theoretical framework not used before in such a multidisciplinary research project on workplace learning and innovation. It will use a multi-method approach (both qualitative and quantitative methods) to triangulate data in exploring the relationship between workplace learning and the development of innovative work behaviours. It will also on the Social Informatics side of information science (see Smutney, 2015).

So to answer my initial question of ‘Is the domain of your PhD really that important?’… The answer is yes it is! The domain of research will help shape your approach and methods, but also help you justify why you are actually doing and why. I am not saying that domains of research cannot overlap, that would be wrong.

My literature originates from many domains

My research has a lot of crossover with HRM and organisational studies which I acknowledge but it roots its foundations in information science as that is the degree I hope to gain in two years’ time. I completely understand that multi-disciplinary work is very important as it demonstrates the ability to combine approaches and methods. However, it can also help to work out what is right or wrong for your research and help you justify your choices accordingly… and also see how other researchers approach questions you aim to explore! Many researchers have already adopted a multi-method approach to address issues with methodology. You’ve just got to look at articles such as De Vos, De Hauw & Willemse (2015), Giannopoulou, Gryszkiewkz & Barlatier (2014), Pattinson and Preece (2014) and Scott and Bruce (2016) for examples.



Axtell, C., Holman, D. and Wall, T.D. (2006). Promoting innovation: A change study. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 79(3) 509-516.

Battistelli, A., Montani, F., & Odoardi, C. (2013). The impact of feedback from job and task autonomy in the relationship between dispositional resistance to change and innovative work behaviour. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 22(1), 26–41.

Bawden, D., & Robinson, L. (2012). Introduction to Information Science. London: Facet Publishing.

Cabrera, A., Collins, W. C., & Salgado, J. F. (2006). Determinants of individual engagement in knowledge sharing. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 17(2), 245–264.

Chan, L. L. M., Shaffer, M. A., & Snape, E. (2004). In search of sustained competitive advantage: the impact of organizational culture, competitive strategy and human resource management practices on firm performance. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 15(1), 17–35.

Crouse, P., Doyle, W., & Young, J. D. (2011). Workplace learning strategies, barriers, facilitators and outcomes: A qualitative study among human resource management practitioners. Human Resource Development International, 14(1), 39–55.

De Vos, A., De Hauw, S., & Willemse, I. (2015). An integrative model for competency development in organizations: the Flemish case. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 26(20), 2543-2568.

Felstead, A., Gaille, D., Green, F., & Zhou. (2010). Employee involvement, the quality of training and the learning environment: an individual level analysis. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 21(10), 1667-1688.

Frenz, M., & Ietto‐Gillies, G. (2007). Does Multinationality Affect the Propensity to Innovate? An Analysis of the Third UK Community Innovation Survey. International Review of Applied Economics, 21(1), 99-117, DOI: 10.1080/02692170601035033

Fuller, A., & Unwin, L. (2003). Fostering workplace learning: looking through the lens of apprenticeship. European Educational Research Journal, 2(1), 41 – 55.

Giannopoulou, E., Gryszkiewicz, L., & Barlatier, P.-J. (2014). Creativity for service innovation: a practice-based perspective. Managing Service Quality, 24(1), 23–44.

Harbi, S. El, Anderson, A. R., & Amamou, M. (2014). Innovation culture in small Tunisian ICT firms.  Journal of Small Business and Enterprise Development, 21(2008), 132–151.

Holman, H., Totterdell, P., Axtell, C., Stride, C., & Port, R. (2012). Job Design and the Employee Innovation Process: The Mediating Role of Learning Strategies. Journal of Business and Psychology, 27(2), 177-191).

Jeske, D., & Stamov Roßnagel, C. (2016). Understanding What Drives Informal Learning at Work: An Application of the Resource-Based View. International Journal of Management, Knowledge and Learning, 5(2), 145-165.

King, N. (2008) Redesign: enhancing informal learning at American Express. Training and Development in Australia, 35(5), 9-10.

Mavin, T. J., & Roth, W.-M. (2015). Optimizing a workplace learning pattern. A case study from aviation. Journal of Workplace Learning, 27, 112–127.

McAdam, R., & McCreedy, S. (2000). A Critique of Knowledge Management: Using a Social Constructivist model. New Technology, Work and Employment, 15(2), 155-168.

Pattinson, S., & Preece, D. (2014). Communities of practice, knowledge acquisition and innovation: A case study of science-based SMEs. Journal of Knowledge Management, 18(1), 107–120.

Scott, S. G., & Bruce, R. A. (2016). Determinants of Innovative Behavior : A Path Model of Individual Innovation in the Workplace. The Academy of Management Journal, 37(3), 580–607.

Smutney, Z. (2015). Social informatics as a concept: Widening the discourse. Journal of Information Science, 41, 1-30.

Sykes, C., & Dean, B. A. (2013). Studies in Continuing Education A practice-based approach to student reflection in the workplace during a Work-Integrated Learning placement. Studies in Continuing Education, 35(2), 179–192.