Achieving Rigour and Relevance in Information Systems Studies: Using grounded theory to investigate organizational cases

By Walter D Fernández, Ph.D. and Hans Lehmann, Ph.D.


This paper builds on the belief that rigorous
Information Systems (IS) research can help practitioners to
better understand and to adapt to emerging situations.
Contrary to the view seeing rigour and relevance as a
dichotomy, it is maintained that IS researchers have a third
choice; namely, to be both relevant and rigorous. The
paper proposes ways in which IS research can contribute to
easing the practitioners’ burden of adapting to changes by
providing timely, relevant, and rigorous research. It is
argued that synergy between relevance and rigour is
possible and that classic grounded theory methodology in
combination with case-based data provides a good
framework for rigorous and relevant research of emerging
phenomena in information systems.


Information technology (IT) practitioners work in a
frantic business world, facing new and complex socio-
technical arrangements. New technologies enable
companies and people to interact in ways which were
simply nonexistent just a few years ago. Practitioners’
knowledge, mainly gained through previous experiences, is
often an imperfect tool as the changing environment
challenges previous assumptions or common wisdom.
These practitioners need relevant IS research that can
guide their sense making and their actions. In this context,
Information Systems(IS) research has been accused,
rightly or wrongly, of being irrelevant to practitioners.

Therefore, it is not surprising to find that the topic of
rigour and relevance is an ongoing concern in the IS
research community (Benbasat & Zmud, 1999; Fernández,
Lehmann, & Underwood, 2002; Gray, 2001; Lee, 1999;
Nissen, Klein, & Hirschheim, 1991; Robey & Markus, 1998;
Senn, 1998). Recent evidence of this concern include the
March 2001 edition of the Communications of the
Association for Information Systems, dealing with IS
research relevance in response to a very “hot” discussion
between members of the ISWorld community (Kock et al.,
2001), and the full-house attendance at a panel debate on
this topic during the premier conference in the information
systems field, ICIS 2001 (2001).

While many researchers perceive rigour and relevance
as opposite paradigms, Stokes (1997) argued that the
quest for fundamental understanding and the
considerations for practical use can be attained
simultaneously. To achieve this dual and simultaneous
goal, Robey and Markus (1998) proposed the adoption of
three research models: (a) applied theory, where existing
theoretical models are used to study real and relevant
problems from the practitioners’ world; (b) evaluation
, where researchers evaluate a particular
intervention against a set criteria based on objectives and
consequences; and (c), policy research, where alternative
solutions are evaluated against a set of criteria usually
including cost, efficacy, or practicability; where the main
objective of policy research is to understand the policy-
making process. While these three research models are
suitable for rigorous and relevant studies, an important
research model has been neglected, as we argue next.

Adding to Robey and Markus’ work, we propose a
fourth methodological alternative: grounded theory building
, where the emerging theory helps explain, in
conceptual terms, what is going on in the substantive field
of research. As mentioned earlier, this alternative is of
particular importance when the focus is on emerging socio-
technical IS phenomena because it avoids the risk of
transferring incorrect theoretical assumptions to emerging
phenomena. When dealing with emergent sociotechnical
organisations, it could be argued that by adopting Robey
and Markus’ model of applied theory we could be forcing
preconception into the emerging phenomena, this
preconception could potentially render the study irrelevant
to the practitioner as it may fail to address the concerns of
the people involved. In other words, the use of such
preconceived theoretical models to study real and relevant
problems from the practitioners’ world does not necessarily
result in relevant research. Furthermore, two risks must
be mentioned:

· forcing the optic of existing theoretical models into the
research of new problems will only produce relevant
research if the model selected a priori both fits with
what is going on in the substantive field and addresses
the emerging concerns. This is the risk of producing
irrelevant research products (from the practitioner’s

· given that forcing is possible, since we can use many
optics to analyse a particular problem, preconception
can stop researchers from finding the most important
concepts at play from the perspective of the people
involved. This is the risk of minimising the “relevance”
outcome for the research project (from the
practitioner’s viewpoint).

Thus, this paper aims at researchers simultaneously
pursuing rigour and relevance in studies of emerging IS
phenomena, usually in response to dual academic and
industry objectives (Fernández & Underwood, 2001). By
aligning these objectives, researchers can engage in ‘mode
2’ research (Gibbons, Limoges, Schwartzman, Scott, &
Trow, 1994); that is, achieving synergy between academy
and practice by producing relevant theories that can
advance the academic knowledge and, at the same time,
can be applied in practice.

The concept of achieving synergy is both important and
practical; it facilitates the research and offers the potential
to produce a more significant and valuable research
product. Our experience shows that IS researchers
preoccupied with rigorous, relevant, timely, and realistic
studies of emerging phenomena will benefit from greater
interaction between industry and academia. This
interaction is important because it provides “appropriate
research topics, funding, and more importantly access to
data for research” (Kohli, 2001:2). Access to rich sources
of empirical data allows the observation of complex
organizational environments where many important
variables are at play. These variables are often difficult or
impossible to replicate in experimental research—e.g.,
commercial arrangements, disparity of stakeholders’
objectives, politics, culture, inter and intra-organisational
issues, etc.

Obtaining access to rich data sources can be difficult,
time consuming and frustrating. However, the relevance of
the research to the industry can help achieve access to rich
data and higher cooperation from the participants.
Evidence from our own research suggests that the
participants’ perceptions of relevance (or benefit) can
contribute to the scientific value by:

· Allowing access to research sites, events, historical data
and actors that are critical to our understanding of the

· Providing more open accounts and wider access to what
is really going on in the field (i.e., e-mails, documents,
access to meetings, workshops, negotiations, etc.).

Methodological rigour can then be applied to richer
data resulting in academically sound research that is useful
to professional practice. One extra problem often
influences the researcher’s probability to achieving access:
organisations and people are often afraid of being
described in a “bad light” or “loosing face”. This certainly is
a particular problem with description-rich qualitative
studies; however, this problem is solved by
conceptualisation. Conceptualisation of what is going on in
our substantive area of research results in an abstraction
(theory) that is useful and grounded on empirical evidence
yet divorced from actors, organisations and time. Thus
individuals and organisations do not need to fear
identification and potential negative effects on their

To discuss how grounded theory building studies can
contribute to the IS field, this paper:

· addresses the issue of studying emerging phenomena
to produce relevant and rigorous conceptualisations,
· describes a rigorous research approach for these

· shows how this approach can produce relevant research
and indicates the particular demands and risks of taking
this path, and

· concludes by suggesting a particular research agenda
and approach.

Studying Emerging Phenomena

One of the challenges in studying ‘relevant’ topics is
that what is perceived as relevant from the practitioner’s
perspective is often related to emerging phenomena. Such
topics are usually new; with little or no prior theoretical
studies and/or frameworks on which to base research
questions and approaches.

While existing theories may be applicable to new
phenomena, almost by definition, emerging phenomena
lack theories grounded on empirical data obtained from real
participants in the substantive field of the phenomena. For
example, reviews of international information systems (IIS)
applications in the literature tend to agree that past
research into IIS is sparse, sporadic and diffuse (Lehmann,
2001). These characteristics can also be observed in the
study of emerging socio-technical IS project structures like
metateams or virtual teams (Fernández, 2003; Fernández
& Underwood, 2003).

Obtaining a good appreciation of temporal processes is
a critical requirement when researching new organizational
phenomena (Van de Ven & Poole, 1989). To achieve this,
researchers must (a) place the research in its social and
historical context including people as active builders of their
own physical and social reality (Orlikowski & Baroudi,
1991) and (b) seek to generate empirically valid theory by
systematically exploring the new phenomena and its
players in non-simulated environments aiming “to discover
what is going on, rather than assuming what should go on”
(Glaser, 1978:159). The discovery aspect of this type of
research is a critical success factor for its relevance.

Thus, researchers concerned with discovery must be
able to conceptualise what is going on in their field of
interest, and to do that they must allow themselves to
become immersed in data and to follow a rigorous
approach in the constant search for patterns, similitude and
contradictions. In these cases, (a) selecting an appropriate
research method to deal with the issue of lack of extant
theories is a critical success factor in this type of research
and (b) offers a proven way to constantly compare the data
to discover useful and important patterns and concepts.
The next section of this paper presents a rigorous research
approach that effectively deals with studies of emerging

Rigour: Assembling the Research Approach

IS researchers facing a lack of applied research in their
field need to employ research methods that do not rely on
prior theoretical foundations. It seems prudent to derive
the methodology by using the focus and nature of the
research as a guide. There are three fundamental
characteristics of research undertakings concerned with
emergent IS issues:

· Information Systems are hybrids of human, social and
technical research objects (Kroenke, 1992).

· The research objects are usually the interaction of
technology, organisations, groups, and individuals; they
do not always lend themselves to quantitative
measurement and often require a qualitative mode of

· Because the research themes are new, researching
them will involve building new theory rather than
deductively extending existing ones.

Qualitative research methods have become accepted in
IS research (Walsham, 1995) and have been in use in the
social sciences for some sixty years. Grounded theory,
with its close relationship between data coding and
analysing, was new and revolutionary in 1967. However,
by the mid-1990s a number of its principles had been
assimilated into mainstream qualitative research
methodology, such as in the data analysis steps suggested
by Lofland et al. (1995), Miles et al. (1994) and Carney,
(1990). Grounded theory, in the meantime, had developed
into two main variants, namely

1. the original process and sequence of phases as
exemplified by Glaser et al. (1967) and further
augmented by Glaser (1978); this is labelled ‘Glaser’ in
the following discussion;

2. the methodology as outlined by Strauss (1987) and
then prescribed in procedural detail by Strauss &
Corbin, (1990); this is labelled ‘Strauss’.

In the table below, the two mainstream methodologies
are set out in comparison with the steps in both schools of
Grounded theory methodology.

Table 1. Comparison of data analysis steps and phases. Italics
denote a method’s proprietary nomenclature
[please see PDF version for all tables]

Lofland & Lofland’s is the least prescriptive method
outlined. It follows a traditional, positivist paradigm by
starting with a pre-defined hypothetical position, anchored
in a social science framework germane to the research area
and object.

Miles & Huberman’s ‘ladder of analytical abstraction’ is
somewhat similar in structure to the logic of the Glaser
version of grounded theory. The significant difference is,
however, that there is no element of theoretical sampling
continually to steer the investigation along a route of
increasing conceptual and theoretical density. Furthermore,
although some leeway for adapting categories to the data
is provided for, theirs is fundamentally a non-iterative
research design, more suitable for well-defined studies in
the incremental tradition of Kuhn’s normal science.

Strauss’s procedural method compendium is the most
elaborate and also the most prescriptive process of the
designs under comparison. It seems to have developed
into a set of “exceedingly complex processes” (Lofland et
al. 1995, p192), trying to do two things at once. For one, it
tries to preserve the richness of application and the elegant
simplicity of procedure inherent in the ‘Glaser’ version of
grounded theory methodology; at the same time, it
attempts to avoid its reliance on the researcher’s
conceptualising skills and theoretical sensitivity – by
replacing it with a deeply structured process, trying to have
a clear rule for every eventuality.

The original ‘Glaser’ framework seems to be the most
suitable methodology for the study of Information Systems
because it does not require a preceding theory (as Lofland
& Lofland’s), it is extensible (which is difficult in Miles &
Huberman’s methodology) and because it provides more
freedom of interpretation than Strauss’s multi-step analysis

The shortcomings of the ‘Strauss’ process for the study
of IS in organisations are manifold:

(a) It has been specifically designed for predominantly
‘homocentric’ research settings, i.e. with specific
emphasis on humant-o-human interaction 1 . This is,
however, only one of the research objects in IS
research, which also spans technology, social, and
organisational objects.

(b) Strauss’ strict rules for open, axial and selective coding
were designed for research where the individual is the
main unit of analysis and the individual interview or
observation the predominant ‘slice-of-data’. It is
questionable whether they could be adapted for an
investigation where the unit of analysis are cases about
information systems in enterprises, i.e. multi-person,
multi-layered (and eventually multi-organisational)
settings with a strong content of inanimate technology;

(c) Strauss et al.’s (1990, p99) ‘paradigm’ for constructing
and linking categories is too restrictive for the openended
research that information systems require. It
forces the categories and their properties into a
uniform, pre-defined causal structure. The relationship
between facts is, however, a central element of the
research questions about the use of information
technology in organisations and its nature needs to be
left to emerge from the investigation. The narrowness
of the ‘paradigm’ could thus preclude the correlative,
‘covariant’ relationships between facts expected in
(multiple) cases of organisational IS;

(d) Moreover, Strauss’s ‘paradigm’ is fully contained in the
first of 18 ‘coding families’ set out by Glaser (1978,
p74-82) to illustrate some possible frameworks 2 for
‘theoretical’ coding (which furthermore encompasses
the ‘axial’ coding in the Strauss terminology);

(e) Similarly, Strauss a priori forces a ‘process’ nature onto
the underlying concepts (Strauss & Corbin, 1990,
p143ff). This may or may not be justified, but in any
case should be left to emerge from the data 3 .

A further deciding shortcoming of the ‘Strauss’
procedure was the blanket refutation it received from
Glaser (1992). His main argument is that it is “an over-
codification of the basic grounded theory method”,
resulting in “conceptual fracturing… forcing preconceived
notions on data”, which, in the end merely produce “full
conceptual descriptions”, but not theories which are
grounded in data.

The Grounded Theory Method

While case study methods have become far more
widely accepted in IS research over the last decade,
grounded theory research is still a distinct minority method
for IS research. The method was born in the early sixties
(Glaser, 1964; Glaser & Strauss, 1965). Since first
introduced, as a general methodology for theory building,
the constant comparative analysis method has been a key
concept in the development and understanding of grounded
theory. Constant comparison “makes probable the
achievement of a complex theory that correspond closely to
the data since the constant comparison forces the analyst
to consider diversity in the data”. (Glaser & Strauss, 1967,
pp.113-114) Diversity is achieved by rigorous comparison
between incidents and properties of a category, trying to
observe as many underlying uniformities and diversities as
possible. Furthermore, constant comparison “especially
facilitates the generation of theories of process, sequence,
and change pertaining to organizations, positions, and
social interaction”. (p.114) These theories are relevant to
both IS researchers and organisations dealing with the
processes under investigation.

It is critical to note that the constant comparative
analysis method is used to rigorously produce
conceptualisation not full description. Conceptualisation
allows practitioners to easily re-apply and adapt the
discovered concepts to their particular circumstances, thus
making the research product simpler and more
, an aim also suggested by Robey and Markus

The classic grounded theory method was first
described by Glaser and Strauss (1967) and subsequently
extended by Glaser (1978; 1998; 2001). The procedures,
intended to be used as a methodological ‘package’, are
extensively articulated in Glaser’s works and summarized in
Glaser & Holton (2004). When applied as intended, the
result is a substantive theory, which is applicable to the
particular area of empirical enquiry from where it emerged.
Classified as ‘middle-range’ theories; between ‘minor
working hypotheses’ and ‘grand-theories’, they carry
inherent relevance only within the environment concerned,
but can be readily enhanced, extended and/or modified.

Building Grounded Theories of Information Systems
in Organizations

According to Eisenhardt (1989:546-547),
theory building studies using case-based
data have three major strengths:

1. Theory building from case data is likely to produce
novel theory because “creative insight often arises from
juxtaposition of contradictory or paradoxical evidence”.
The process of reconciling these accounts forces the
analyst to a new gestalt, unfreezing thinking and
producing “theory with less researcher bias than theory
built from incremental studies or armchair, axiomatic

2. The emergent theory “is likely to be testable with
constructs that can be readily measured and
hypotheses that can be proven false.” Due to the close
connection between theory and data it is likely that the
theory can be further tested and expanded by
subsequent studies.

3. The “resultant theory is likely to be empirically valid.”
This is so because a level of validation is performed
implicitly by constant comparison from the start of the
process. “This closeness can lead to an intimate sense
of things” that “often produces theory which closely
mirrors reality”.

Whilst theory developed from case study is particularly
appropriate in research of IS innovation phenomena, the
researcher must exercise care to ensure that some of the
canons of case study research do not distort true
emergence for theory generation. (Glaser, 1998:40-42)
For example, Yin (1994:28) states that “theory
development prior to the collection of any case study data
is an essential step in doing case studies.” This statement
contravenes a key tenet of grounded theory but – reflects
perfectly the traditional stance of case study research –
which has sometimes been interpreted as a controlled, field
experiment. (Lee, 1989b) It has traditionally followed the
positivist, natural science model of hypotheses formulation
from overarching theory and their subsequent verification
or falsification in controlled studies. (Yin, 1989) The
grounded theory perspective, on the other hand, also
“reflects a naturalistic approach to ethnography and
interpretation, stressing … observations, openended
interviewing, the sensitizing use of concepts and a
grounded (i.e. inductive) approach to theorising which can
be both substantive and formal”. (Denzin, 1994)

Despite differences in Weltanschauung, however, the
grounded theory method as described above, can be
designed to match closely the requirements of case study
practice, as set out by Yin (1994) or Walsham (1993). This
suggests that grounded theory can be used as an
overarching methodology that accepts data from case
studies as key building blocks but is not limited, or
governed in any way, by traditional case study

A good example of the use of grounded theory with
cases is a study of an Information Technology project in a
multinational enterprise (Lehmann, 2002) where open
coding showed that the categories influencing the systems’
development and implementation were the attitudes,
beliefs and requirements of the relevant business people
involved, characterized by the history and nature of the
firm. Juxtaposed were the skills and attitudes of the IS
people and their background, in a configuration of relations
akin to a Force-Field in Lewin’s (1952) terms. Theoretical
coding of the case story built from both sides’ individual
texts led to the discovery of ‘derivative’ categories, which
further explained the relations. Two groups of concepts
(named Utility and Control) and constructs (Power Play and
Capability) emerged. One had to do with the fact that the
business people could not see that the proposed system
would have any practical utility in operational terms. They
therefore suspected that the IS people used the system as
a deception to impose greater control from the corporate
centre. Lacking in business understanding and international
know-how (facets of Capability), the IS people reacted to
this resistance with political Power Play – which further
deepened the business side’s suspicions.

The nascent theory of the previous example had thus
two focal points. Firstly, the resistance to the imposed
introduction of a new international Information System
seems to depend on its ‘net-utility’ over any control
component, i.e. the less utility/the more control, the
stronger the antagonistic tendencies and tensions in the
force-field between business and the Information System.
Secondly, the IS people’s substituting inability with politics
led to a cyclically degenerative causeandeffectloop
(Weick,1979). At this point, the theory may be written up
in the form of a hierarchical set of theorems or propositions
for each relevant and significant focal point/area of the
theory. This will point to areas of weak empirical support
and therefore direct the researcher to further theoretical
sampling. In the case of the multinational IS example,
more cases were then needed to add data about factors in
successful projects and, to extend the substantive area,
firms of different size and nature were preferable.

Relevance: A By-product of the Grounded
Theory Method

Qualitative research methods have become accepted in
IS research (Walsham,1995), have been in use in the social
sciences for some sixty years. Grounded theory, in
particular, allows researchers to deal effectively with the
important issues of bias and preconceptions, providing a
systematic approach that takes into consideration extant
theory but it is not driven by it. Triangulation is embedded
in the methodology (Glaser, 1978, 1998); it values
professional experience (Glaser, 1998; Urquhart, 2001); it
can efficiently study emerging phenomena (Lehmann,
2001; Urquhart, 2001; Van de Ven & Poole, 1989); and, it
helps IT practitioners to better understand their own
environment (Glaser, 1998; Martin & Turner, 1986). In
other words, the researcher can produce theory-building
studies “which are useful, relevant and up-to-date”
(Partington, 2000).

The ‘hybrid’ nature of IS as the research object,
however, makes it essential that any selected theory
building methodology can be adapted to the specific
demands of IS research. Denzin et al. (1994) point out
that different qualitative methodologies are based on – and
constructed from – different research paradigms and
perspectives. These need to ‘fit’ the research object and,
in IS research, its technical and social/organisational
environment for the chosen method to be effective.

The aspects of the study of organisational information
systems, however, do not align themselves conveniently
behind one dominant research paradigm. Guba et al.
(1994) analyse the constituent elements of the main
paradigm positions in qualitative research 4 with a specific
focus on practical research method issues. Using this as a
framework, the table below shows the positions of
grounded theory research with respect to selected issues
and paradigm elements with relevance for the study of IS
in organizations.

Table 2. Profile of paradigmatic positions (after Guba et al. 1994) 5
Spectrum of Paradigm Positions [please see PDF version for all tables]

The summary shows that the paradigmatic make-up of
the grounded theory methodology with a strong orientation
towards both a post-positivist and constructivist stance in
Guba et al. (1994) terms. However, it is well anchored in
traditional positivism because of the – at least initial – clear
separation of observer and research object. On the other
hand, the equally clear and continuing quest for ‘insights’
from which the theory will be crafted introduces a strong
element of ‘critical theory’. In the broader scoped
nomenclature of Orlikowski et al. (1991), the research
paradigm profile most appropriate for the grounded theory
study of IS cases would be interpretivist in its ontological
and methodological position, but with a strongly positivist

Whereas Glaser (2001) elegantly bypasses the
argument by stating that by covering all paradigms
grounded theory should be viewed as “paradigmatically
neutral”, there is substantial discussion in the literature as
to whether different paradigms can be accommodated
within one study, or if they are ‘opposed by necessity’
(Myers, 1997). Guba et al. (1994) support the dichotomy
view and mention specifically that “proponents of [critical
theory and constructivism] join in affirming the basic
incommensurability of [positivist and nonpositivist]
paradigms … [which] are believed to be essentially

On the other hand, there is material support in the
literature for multi-paradigmatic approaches to qualitative
research. First of all, there is a clear precedent in IS
research: Lee (1991) had shown that an integration of
positivist and interpretivist paradigms in one study is a
practical possibility. Denzin et al. (1994), too, maintain
that qualitative research eo ipso is characterised by
“separate and multiple uses and meanings of [its]
methods”. They assert that there is “common acceptance
of a multiplism of qualitative research methods. In a
statement on qualitative methodology Nelson et al. (1992)
observe that “qualitative research is interdisciplinary,
trans-disciplinary and sometimes counter-disciplinary … it
is many things at the same time. It is multi-paradigmatic in
focus. Its practitioners are sensitive to the value of the
multi-method approach”. Finally, Guba et al. (1994) point
to a possible avenue for reconciliation among conflicting
paradigms by applying different research approaches to
individual sets of research objects: “…one might wish to
resolve the problem [of finding the right paradigm]
differently in considering the physical versus the human
realms”. Using epistemology as an example, they suggest
it may be preferable to select one paradigm befitting the
set of inanimate objects and another one for the study of
conscious research. The dual nature of information
systems as technology/human hybrids would then justify
the use grounded theory as a methodology that unites two
seemingly juxtaposed ontological paradigms in one

The more significant aspect of grounded theory’s broad
paradigm coverage, however, is the fact that this makes it
optimally suitable for the investigation of all the divergent
elements that constitute organisational IS, i.e. technical,
social and individual units of analysis. This, in turn,
inherently assures the highest possible degree of relevance
of the resultant findings and theories for IS researchers –
which then directly translates into usefulness for

Relevance to the practitioner’s concern, however,
requires also that the research method generates
conceptual accounts that are meaningful for them. With
grounded theory methodology, the researcher “can
contribute a great deal by providing the [person] in the
know with substantive theory” (Glaser, 1978:12). By doing
this, the researcher avoids stating the obvious to the
expert; providing categories based on many indicators and
showing ideas based on patterns. These conceptual ideas
allow practitioners to transcend the limits of their own
experience, adapting and applying the substantive theory
to other situations. According to Glaser (1978:13-14),
this provides the expert with six breakthroughs:

1. The ability to anticipate additional consequences,
conditions and strategies of an act besides what is
empirically known to him or her.

2. The ability to expand the description and meaning of
incidents, placing them in greater scope and
transcending his or her experience.

3. As fewer concepts based in a multitude of incidents can
be integrated in a theory, this makes the concepts
easier to remember than incidents, increasing the
expert’s capacity to know.

4. The new theoretical knowledge allows the expert to
expand his capacity to deal with new, more complex
situations. This is done by progressive transference of
conceptual knowledge to new situations, broadening the
expert power by allowing faster organization of the
unknown by using the ideational tools provided by the
substantive theory.

5. The theory can emancipate experts from the restriction
of their specific expertise, freeing them from the status
quo. Theory allows experts to become more open to
change as they begin to see the change process and
how their ideas can be modified to handle new knowledge
and new situations.

6. Seeing the empirical knowledge in a theoretical light
allows experts to capitalize on the theory. The theory
becomes part of the experts’ common sense,
sharpening his or her judgement by making visible the
many variations in strategies, conditions and

Relevance for the grounded theorist means bringing
tangible benefits to the experts. As Glaser said, when the
field experts can understand and use a sociological theory
by themselves “then our theories have earned their way.
Much of the popularity of grounded theory to sociologists
and layman alike is that it deals with what is actually going
on, not what ought to go on”. (Glaser, 1978:14) The
authors experienced a high level of participant cooperation
while conducting grounded theory studies. We attribute
this partly to:

1. the open nature of the interviews — while having a
substantive focus in mind, the interviewers followed the
accounts of the participant rather than a predetermined
set of questions.

2. our focus on experiences as perceived by the actors
doing our best to avoid (a) judgemental attitudes and
(b) trying to influence the conversation to follow our
knowledge of the topic.

3. the methodology forcing us to act as very active
listeners — constantly asking ourselves “what is going
on here” and “what is the important concept behind the
participant’s account.”

More importantly, we provided practitioners with
opportunities to articulate their thoughts about the issues
they considered important. This articulation allowed them
to reflect on particular events, gaining further
understanding of past actions and acquiring new insights.
Because they perceived our interviews as positive events,
their attitude towards the research was more generous,
resulting in better data acquisition. For example, at times
participants invited us to “have a chat” and all we have to
do then was to listen to their articulations of the relevant
problems they were dealing with at the time, and to take
good notes afterwards. As a result, we were intellectually
stimulated by our interaction with rich data, by the positive
attitude of the participants towards to the research, and by
a sense of contributing with our work to a wider audience.

Demands of Grounded Theory

Every methodology poses particular demands and
grounded theory is not an exception. The authors concur
with the advice provided by Glaser (1978; 1998) that the
grounded theorist must:

1. tolerate confusion — there is no need to know a priori
and no need to force the data;

2. tolerate regression — the researcher might get briefly
‘lost’ before finding his or her way;

3. trust emerging data without worrying about
justification — the data will provide the justification if the
researcher adheres to the rigour of the method;

4. have someone to talk to — grounded theory demands
moments of isolation to get deep in data analysis and
moments of consultation and discussion;

5. be open to emerging evidence that may change the
way the researcher thought about the subject matter,
and to act on the new evidence;

6. be able conceptualise to derive theory from the data;

7. be creative—devising new ways of obtaining and
handling data, combining the approach of others, or
using a tested approach in a different way.

We also believe that, in adopting grounded theory
methodology, the IS researcher has to confront two further

First, due to the minority status of grounded theory in
IS research, it is likely for IS researchers, specially Ph.D.
candidates, to experience what Melia (1996) described as
minus-mentoring — that is, learning from books, employing
grounded theory for the first time without the guidance of a
supervisor with practical knowledge of the methodology.
Minus-mentoring could result in methodologically unsound
studies (Glaser, 1998; Stern, 1994). For example, studies
claiming to be grounded theory when key tenets of the
methodology have been breached (one of the risks of using
grounded theory within a second, overarching,
methodology). However, ‘Minus mentees’ can reduce this
risk by (a) networking with researchers conversant with the
methodology, i.e., members of the Grounded Theory
Institute; (b) reading the wide grounded theory
bibliography, not just one book; (c) participating in
relevant discussion groups (i.e. IFIP WG8.2, the Grounded
Theory Institute, or the Grounded Theory mailing list; and
(d), attending seminars and trouble-shootingworkshops on
classic grounded theory.

Second, grounded theory seems to be easier to use
when the researcher is sensitive to the field under study.
However, the precise meaning of “being sensitive” is not
simple to explain, it may involve maturity, knowledge,
ability to decentre (seeing things from others’
perspectives), etc. The authors, for example, have
substantial experience as practitioners in the field of IS
project management. This was perceived as a distinct
advantage in eliciting information from participants in the
same field and in understanding some of the more subtle
issues in their respective studies. While we cannot provide
an easy answer to what sensitivity really involves, we
believe that without this sensitivity or ‘verstehen’ (Weber,
1968), the fitness of the method to the researcher will
need to be evaluated carefully and honestly in the light of
the seven requirements above.


Grounded theory provides the benefit of conceptual
reflection based on real life accounts without being
obscured by distracting descriptions. Practitioners with
frantic schedules often consider reflection a needed and yet
unaffordable luxury. Therefore, it is not surprising to see
that concepts presented in the form of theory appeal to IS
practitioners. The expert can relate immediately to the
theory and add examples from his or her own experience,
reflecting on its use and devising new ways to take
advantage of the substantive theory. When substantive
theories are operationalized by the experts, their regard for
the role of IS research in industry is likely to be enhanced;
and thus contributing to future research collaboration
between industry and academia.

In response to the renewed calls for relevance and the
continuous need for rigour in IS research, grounded theory
offers a valid alternative. We suggest that the application
of grounded theory to cases with a hybrid
social/technological focus can be constructed with a solid
philosophical foundation. Furthermore, designing
methodological processes can be done without violating the
underlying grounded theory principles.

We believe that the potential of the grounded theory
method for IS research is under-explored. More
importantly, we suggest that, when the demands of the
method are taken into account, grounded theory
methodology can help researchers investigating emerging
phenomena to simultaneously achieve rigour and relevance
and, by doing so, benefit both academic and industry


1 Strauss & Corbin’s (1990) delineate the objects of the qualitative
research they apply their version of Grounded Theory to as
“persons’ lives, stories, behaviour, organisational functioning,
social movements, or interactional relationships” (p.17).

2 Another set of frameworks are the relationships between ‘basic
social processes’ and ‘social structural units’, Glaser (1978, p109113)

3 This restriction would fatally limit the Strauss method’s use for the
‘fact’ finding part of the study. In contrast, the Glaser method
explicitly covers both ‘variance’ and ‘process’ constructs: “[it]
can…be used to generate static theories [and also]…facilitates the
generation of theories of process, sequence and change” (Glaser
& Strauss, 1967, p114).

4 The nomenclature and definitions of these paradigms in the
literature are often overlapping and sometimes similar terms
denote different definitions – for this reason the terms and
definitions used are specifically referenced to their source

5 Guba & Lincoln (1994) also compare the paradigm position with
respect to Goodness criteria, Values, Ethics Training,
Accommodation and Hegemony (of one paradigm over the
others). These have been left out in the table because they are not
relevant to its purpose, i.e. to select the research approach to be
taken for the study of organisational IS.


Walter D Fernández, PhD
Senior Lecturer, School of Accounting and Business
Information Systems
Co-Director, National Centre for Information Systems
Australian National University, Canberra, Australia

Hans Lehmann, PhD
Associate Professor, School of Information Management
Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand


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