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Immerse yourself in the data: An interview with Denny Gioia

Denny Gioia

Robert and Judith Klein Professor of Management and  Chair of the Department of Management and Organization in the Smeal College of Business at Pennsylvania State

Denny came to visit HEC as a guest of GEPS (our local strategy-as-practice research group) and of course, I jumped at the opportunity to interview him for our blog.  Denny told me that when he started his career in academia, he too had undertook a similar process of interviewing established academics so as to learn from their experience, so he was quite willing to oblige me in this case. He was in such demand during his visit at HEC – everybody wanted to talk to him! – the only time slot I was able to get that was longer than half an hour was over breakfast one morning.  So I took him to this hip place I knew downtown. Mistake!  Not only did they only serve fancy breakfast paninis when Denny much preferred pancakes, the place was so loud we could hardly hear ourselves talk.  (Lesson to you researchers out there:  if you have to do a planned interview in a public space, you may want to check out the noise level first!) Anyways, thank God for Denny’s pleasant disposition and my Olympus LS-10 digital recorder (that captures great sound even in the noisiest of places), else the whole thing might have turned into a fiasco. We talked all through breakfast, and even continued chatting in the taxi on the way back to HEC. Trailing beside Denny recorder in hand, I felt like some CNN reporter trying to catch a few words from a presidential candidate rushing to his next appointment. Very cool. Why don’t we start with how you choose your topics? 

You know, in one way that’s not the easiest question to answer.  I follow my nose.  I’ll work on whatever I think is interesting. Having said that, my universe of topics of interest has become surprisingly narrow. And that’s partly because of my success with working on one topic. I mean, if you look at my history, I have a Renaissance man model. I even wrote an autobiographical chapter and that’s the name I chose for it, A Renaissance Self.  Because if you look at the arc of my career, I’ve been interested in a lot of different things.  I started out with an interest in cognitive processes and that led me into the attribution literature.  So I did a number of studies on attribution processes. That led me into the schema literature, which led me into the symbolism literature, which led me into the sense-making literature.  And that produced the discovery of sense-giving 20 years ago. And that literature led me into the identity and image literature. And for the last 15 or 20 years, I’ve been doing almost exclusively identity work, at least that’s what many people know me for.

What do you mean by Renaissance man?

Well, Renaissance is a French word, of course, used for reasons that are not clear to me to describe the re-emergence of enlightenment that began in Italy. I used it because my own observation about myself is that I was constantly reinventing myself, by means of my kid-in-a-candy-store orientation. “What have you got?  I’m interested.”  And everything was interesting to me in my young career.  So I’d study whatever looked interesting and I just went from one topic to another – I’d dabble in it for awhile, and then I’d think, “Okay, I’ve said what I need to say on this, let’s find the next big thing.”  This being said, my general frame for myself was cognition, but of course, that’s a pretty big playing field.  But one of my intrinsic interests is understanding how people understand.  So that’s why I was interested in cognitive processes.  That’s why, when I started to work on attribution, I just thought this is it, this is the grand theory in the field of organizational behaviour:  “How do people attribute cause, rightly or wrongly?”

So lately you’ve been mostly focused on identity…

Well I think identity is fascinating and I love the multi-level metaphor.  And that’s one of the interesting questions: “Is it just a metaphor?” What are we talking about when we talk about identity?  Everybody knows what personal identity is. What does that mean when you get to the organizational level? What does that look like and what does that mean when you get to the field level or to the societal level and so forth?  So I’ve been playing with that a little bit.  But I’m also interested in stuff like, “How is identity related to knowledge formation, or organizational learning? Or networks?  And part of this is a competency trap.  I mean, I’m at a stage in my career where I don’t have to be influenced, but I’m influenced to keep following this because now I’m known for identity work and I’m known for sense-making and sense-giving work.  But I’m pretty fine with that, because if it’s a trap, it’s a trap of my own making. I’m the one who decided to continue playing in these domains.

How many projects do you work on typically at any one time?

Well I think of myself as fairly limited in comparison to some of my colleagues because the kind of work I do is extraordinarily labour-intensive. Lead times are very long, investment in any given study is just beyond the pale.  I mean people are surprised to hear that I’ve been doing interpretive studies that take five years to finish and I’ll get one publication out of it.  There are just not too many ways to cut the data without some reviewer saying you’re milking this.  Whereas when people go out and spend six months assembling some archives or data sets, they can identify three or four different independent variables in the data and publish three papers out of one data set that took them less than a year to get.  My studies on the other hand are longitudinal, they take months to years to do and months to years to analyse.  Every qualitative study seems to go through an extra-long review, so the lead time publication is longer than a quant study.  So I’m pretty limited.  The honest answer to your question is I published two identity studies in ASQ in 2010, I think one of them had a five-year lead time, the other was four.  On the other hand, the AMR paper from 2011 didn’t even take a year.  It was like, “Here’s a good idea, let’s go read a bunch of stuff and write something…”

How should a junior scholar manage his or her time to ensure that they get enough stuff out to meet requirements for tenure?

Well there’s no easy answer to that.  Some places are like a mill. And that’s its own kind of trap.  They have a very active senior faculty, people who are very well known in the field, people who are focused almost entirely on research and publishing.  And so they end up high in the rankings.  Now the problem with that is if you’re high in the rankings, you’ve got to stay high in the rankings.  So it’s always, “What have you done for me lately?”  I’d just say, “Stay out of that game.  It’s a fascinating game but it’s a game that leads to people who are publishing for the sake of publishing.”  And there are people who are very good at playing that game, but then when you start to impose stronger criteria, criteria like, does anybody care?  And the way we measure that these days is by citation counts.  Then you get a very different picture, because there are some people out there who have very high publishing numbers but very low citation numbers. When I started in this field, the only thing people wanted to know was, “What are you publishing?”  And then it became, “Are you publishing enough stuff?” And from there it went to “Are you publishing in the A-journals?”  And then it became, “Are you publishing in journals in ways that other people cite your work in their work?”  And that is out of your control unless you’re quite, shall I say, prescient about it:  identify what’s a hot topic, what do people like and have been publishing about.  That’s what a lot of people don’t know. Even in the A-journals, the citation rate for any given article is embarrassingly low. I mean, we take the brightest people in the world, we send them through an extraordinary sacrificial training period – five years to get a PhD – teach them how to do this, and then we think it’s good if 50 other scholars cite their work.  Now if we talk in terms of efficiency and effectiveness with the use of human resources, what’s this about?  We’re wasting people. I mean, I think publishing is hard even for me.  And that’s simply a way of saying, “Once you’ve learned how to do it, it should be easy.”  But for me, battles with reviewers and editors are a constant.  Part of it is because it’s qualitative research.  How do we have confidence that you know what you’re asserting?  How can you generalize this? It’s just a debate/contest that is repeated over and over again.

Why don’t you tell me a little bit about that process?  You’ve gathered all these great data – how do you look at it and think about it and get started on writing a paper? How do you do that?

This is where the magic angle is.  I have developed a very systematic method.  Many people look at the method that I use and they say, “One of the reasons it worked is because it’s so rigorous.” And other people in the field, ethnographers, have said, “You’re ruining it for the rest of us.  You’re forcing us to do rigorous qualitative research.”  And part of me says, “Guilty as charged” and another part of me says, “No, not really.” This is the part that most people don’t get: my approach is really set up as a system for asking yourself, “What do you know with confidence and how does the reader know that you know?”  So I insist on what I call a data strategy. Show me how those codes, concepts, themes and dimensions relate to each other.  Another question is, “Where do those codes and concepts come from?”

Do you start with a theoretical framework?

I do not start with a theoretical framework because that’s instantly putting the blinders on. I start with a research question. I don’t believe in fishing expeditions, however. I don’t just go in and start talking to managers, “Hey, what’s going on in your world?” For example, I published a piece in 1996 with Jim Thomas, on identity, image and issue interpretation. What we were studying was strategic management in a university. When we started that study, everybody assumed that executives thought of issues in terms of either threats or opportunities. We didn’t want to make that assumption in our context. So we pointedly did not ask questions that alluded to threats and opportunities. And you know what? The executives never used those terms. They classified issues in terms of whether they were “strategic” or “political” (whether it had to do with the long-term interests of the university or whether they had to smooth some feathers to get something done). Well that doesn’t sound very much like threats and opportunities, does it? Nonetheless, at the end of the study, we asked one of the informants if he could think in terms of threats and opportunities. And he basically said to us, “Look, if you want me to think in those terms, I’ll play your little game, I can do it.  But that’s not the way I think of what’s going on here. Why would you want impose that categorization scheme on me?” So to me it’s more important to focus on the research question.  The research question has to be in a form that helps you make sense of your experience without colouring that interpretation of experience. But, no, I don’t go into a project with an a priori theoretical framework.  Now if informants come back to me and start talking in terms of, “Well it matters about how we learn around here or how we adapt from one period to the next, or how we know and share knowledge amongst people that need the knowledge” – well, now they’re steering me towards the theoretical domains that I need to understand to understand their experience. I’m essentially a Hermeneutic researcher. Hermeneutic comes from the Greek mythology character, “Hermes,” who was the messenger of the gods. I report messages from the informants, so I see myself as kind of a glorified reporter.  I listen to them talking to me and then I say, “Okay, the way I understand what you’re telling me is the following, is that about right?”  And then I go and report their understandings. So to me, the answer to the question, “Where do the codes come from?” is, “They come from you.” They come from the informer. And where do the themes come from?  Those come from me. I’m the dispassionate guy outside your experience and I go, ‘Okay, this all seems to be related to this or that theme – a theme that has theoretical relevance. This one doesn’t fit so good. So when you ask me how I do this, part of my answer is, “Very systematically.”  The other part of my answer is, “I believe in magic.” I’m can magically see patterns in data.  I immerse myself in the data.  I read these interviews repeatedly. I read different interviews from the same informant. I read interviews from the same time period. I read interviews across time periods and by means of this immersion, I see patterns emerge.  Not magic, really, but sometimes it feels that way to me.

Do you do this all yourself?

Well I used to. Now I’m a research manager and I am trying to educate PhD students to use a systematic approach to coding and analysis.  And I keep telling them, don’t just copy my procedures. Put your own twist on it, which they find hard to do because they have to keep coming to me and I keep getting in their face and going, “Where’s the data structure?” If you don’t have a data structure, you don’t know what you’re doing; you’re just making it up. “No data structure, know nothing,” that’s my phrase for it. Too many researchers say, “Oh! I know because I was there.” I had the biggest battles with some of my doctoral students who use this argument. But my response is, “Not good enough!” I-know-because-I-was-there is not a compelling rationale for academic research. As a reviewer, I read that stuff all the time and the assertions are often insightful, but they’re not necessarily convincing. You’ve got to demonstrate to me how you went from data to theory. If you can’t demonstrate to me what the links are, then you really don’t know. I get into head-butting contests all the time with qualitative researchers, who are brilliant, no question about it.  Part of me is jealous because they can go into a field and go, “Insight! I get it!” But they can’t demonstrate it with data. I don’t consider myself a brilliant person, but I have a way of understanding, a way of uncovering phenomena in a qualitatively systematic way.  And that’s why I take grounded theory literally; when they say the discovery of grounded theory, that’s what I’m doing.  I’m discovering the theory that the informants are using to understand their experience.  That’s why I call myself a glorified reporter.  I’m not making stuff up. I’m showing that it’s right there in the data. What I mean by saying that magic happens is that when I’m really engaged with the data, then I’ll see what concepts are emerging, how one category relates to another, what theme’s playing out here, etc.

Can you describe a moment like that? 

It happens in a lot of ways.  I mean I’d like to tell you the most frequent occurrence is that flash of insight and creativity …

 In the shower!

Yeah, yeah, and I get some of that.  I mean I do find that I get fresher ideas if I get away from the work for a while, which is not easy for me to do anymore because I have so many responsibilities.  Because I’ve got the kind of brain that’s working on a problem all the time passively, if I get away from the work thing, then I’ll discover that the ideas will just start tumbling out.  I pay attention to those and I carry around my own digital recorder. So that’s one answer. But the truth of the matter is that ideas come out in conversations with my doctoral students, with my colleagues. Therefore, if you really want something distinctive for your project, the secret, one of the reasons I think people find my papers readable and academic, is you start with a story.  I’ll go, “Come here, let me tell you a story and you’re going to like the story I’m going to tell you. And when you read the story, you’re going to love something in it.”  Then we talk about it. And my little secret is that I record it.

You mean your conversations?

Yeah, I mean the scholarly conversations that are intended to develop a paper. I’ll tell you a quick little story. I was on sabbatical at Bocconi University in 2003 and of course, they want to pick the brains of whoever’s around.  So I read some people’s papers and I had conversations with them.  Every time I asked for a meeting to talk about ideas, I’d say, “Here’s the recorder, let’s talk.” So I record everything. I don’t listen to everything but when that recorder’s running, I’m making notes on the digital time. So I can go back and listen to that passage because magic happens in conversations.  I’ll say something or one of my co-authors will say something and I’ll go, “That goes in the paper. We’ll dress it up a little bit but that idea goes in the paper.” And I insist that they go back and listen to the conversation again because you know, conversation is difficult. Not a whole lot of us are really good at listening because as soon as what someone’s saying relates to this or that idea, you’re saying to yourself, “Okay, let me talk now!”  So you’re kind of listening to yourself and you want to sound astute or whatever.  I made that point to one of my doctoral students I’m working with right now, who made a presentation to the faculty.  I said, “You’re going to listen to this recording and you’re going to be embarrassed. What you’re going to discover is, you weren’t listening.  You were talking over people and even when they tried to raise the volume level, you raised yours.  Shut up!  Listen to people!”

Why don’t you tell me a little bit about your actual writing process. 

Well I have a place where I write.

Okay.  And that’s not at your office?

No. The rule around my office is, if you see Denny in the office you know he’s not working. Real work doesn’t happen there. When I go into the office everybody wants a piece of me. So you know, there’s work to be done, serious responsibilities to be executed, so I’m available to other people when I’m at the office.  My writing is strictly private and it’s kind of like I don’t know, the old metaphor about sausages.  Ever watched sausage being made?  It’s ugly.  And that’s the way I feel about writing.  Because I’ve had collaborators say, “Let’s sit down together and write.” “No, no, no, you don’t understand; I cannot write that way.”  I cannot write in real-time collaboratively. So I always write alone, I always write in a safe space in a very nice study that I designed to my own preference.  It looks out on my back yard and I spend a lot of time looking out the window. And I write by assembling pieces and passages that come from the interviews, the field notes, and the recordings of the collaborative conversations.

So non-linear?

Usually very non-linear. Except that I can be pretty ruthless when it comes to writing a section.  I’ll say to myself, “I’m not working on anything today but this section and if this section is two pages long and it takes me all day to do it, that’ll be declared a success.”  And to me writing is rewriting.  Every time I go in to work on a paper, I take it from the top.  So my introductions get revised 35 times, my discussions get revised two or three times.

When do you feel a paper is ready to start showing to people?

It varies.  Sometimes if I’m working on a really unusual thing I’ll show it to people early and I’ll go. “I’m sort of lost, can you help me get found here?”  Other times manuscripts are pretty polished. I don’t send out stuff for initial review unless I think it’s ready to go.  And most of my collaborators get pretty exasperated with me.  I work on it and I work on it and I work on it until it feels right.  And when I go back through it and I’m not changing very many words anymore, because I just change everything all the time, then it’s ready. I mean, if you look at me as a writer and you looked at the way I devote my time, you’d say he’s not a writer, he’s an editor.  I just revise, revise, revise. My identity is: I’m a writer!  So my job is to sit down and work with text.  And my job is to make that text compelling. Writing to me is rhetoric. Now people will say,”You’re more of an analyzer” because I have such a systematic way of organizing the data.  Yeah, maybe, but data are just a substance used metaphorically. None of that matters to the argument.  Now because I’m a grounded theorist, the argument often arises out of the data but once I have it, I’m going to ask myself, “How can I frame this in a way that not only reveals an answer to the research question but argues for the reconsideration of the literature?”  People too often focus on the methodology in my papers, but to me the method is boring.  The main thing that matters to me is getting the introduction right.  If you don’t have the reader hooked by the end of the introduction, you’re finished.  So I spend half my time on the introduction.

Ok.  So you’ve submitted your paper and you’ve received a response.  So what happens now? 

I always read the reviews right away. As soon as I get them.  I read the cover letter and I read the reviews.  You know, I’ve been doing this for long enough and I’m fortunate, most of the time, I’ll get some form of request for revisions.  I still get rejections, just to make sure you understand. And I still get mad about it. And I still take it personally because this is my identity.  I’m a writer, I’m a scholar and you people must all be idiots if you don’t see the wisdom in this paper. So yeah, I get rejections.  It takes me a while to get over a rejection or even a “high risk” revision. I do not take them well.  But then my brain immediately starts working on revising the paper, “Do they have a point?  Do I have a way of addressing this?”  And how am I going to revise the paper?  And I’ll just put all that in and let it stew for a while.  I’m really bad about getting back to revising rejected papers, however, so they can go on for a long time. Because if it’s a rejection, there’s no time frame. Now my rule is that I never respond to the editor in less than a week about what I’m going to do with the paper. Because even with revisions, I’m upset about a lot of things. Sometimes the reviewers will not get it and of course it’s taken me a long time to conclude that if they didn’t get it, it’s my fault. Other times they’re just wrong.  Or more importantly, they have a different orientation than I do.  And so the question becomes, “How am I going to deal with the issue where they’ve got one set of preferences for literatures to cite or statements to make and I have another?” And almost always I fold my arms figuratively and say, “This is my paper and unless you have a compelling rationale for why I should do it your way, we’re going to do it my way, thank you very much.  Now the question becomes, “How do we write the paper so that I can do it my way and satisfy their larger concerns? Sometimes the revisions look impossible and editors have code language for that, you know. And they seem to be overusing that code language these days.  Everybody seems to want to characterize revisions as high-risk and which gives them the licence to even reject a good revision.

What are your thoughts about the politics of the review process?

Editors at the best journals are generally very good.  I mean they will say in no uncertain terms that they’re not going to invite a revision of the paper if that’s what they want to do.  But you need to also deal with more ambiguous reviews too. I mean, it’s not unusual for one reviewer to say, “I like this idea, let’s develop it,” and for another reviewer to say, “I hate this idea and I don’t want to see it go any further.” And third one will say, “I can’t make a judgment yet, let me see a major revision.”  Frequently with my papers, the editors will say, “Well, let’s give it a chance.” And I think it probably helps to be a well-published author, because you can cite a stream of work.  And I think there was some study in the past that clearly demonstrated that self-citation actually helps papers get published. But you’ve got to be judicious.  As a reviewer, when I see a string of eight citations, many of them in minor places, I go, “Oh! come on! A little less arrogance if you don’t mind.”

One last question, what would be your key recommendations for young scholars starting out?

Grow a thick skin. It’s an amazingly brutal business and junior people get rejected more often than not. I would say go through collegial review, it’s much more important for young scholars to do this than for me to do it.  I mean sometimes I’ll just bypass collegial reviews, just to get the paper out because any time you do it, it’s going to hold it up for months.  And when you ask them for a “friendly review,” ask them to do their worst.  Say, “If you were reviewing this paper, what would be your big concerns?”  They have to be forthright; you can’t sugar-coat it when people are not making original contributions. And I see this too often, unfortunately. All too often an author’s stance seems to be that if I can do a demonstration study, demonstrating for instance that institutional theory applies to international organisations as well as it does to American organisations, that’s a contribution.  No, it’s not.  That’s an affirmation, it’s not a contribution.

Anything else? Just remember that most writing is rewriting. You know, people think okay, “Once I’ve done all that huffing and puffing — that was hard work and I don’t want to do that kind of work anymore, I’m done.”  No you’re not. Rewrite it. You’ll probably find a more effective way to say whatever it is you’re trying to say.

Interviewed and edited by Charlotte Cloutier.


Corley, Kevin and Dennis A. Gioia (2004); Identity ambiguity and change in the wake of a corporate spin-off; Administrative Science Quarterly; 49; p. 173.

Corley, Kevin and Dennis A. (2011); Building theory about theory building:  What constitutes a theoretical contribution?; Academy of Management Review; 36 (1); p. 12.

Gioia, Dennis A. (1992); Pinto fires and personal ethics:  A script analysis of missed opportunities; Journal of Business Ethics; 11 (5,6); p. 379.

Gioia, Dennis A. (1998); From individual to organizational identity; In Identity in Organizations: Building Theory Through Conversations; D.A. Whetten and P.C. Godfrey (eds); p. 17-31; Thousand Oaks: CA; Sage.

Gioia, Dennis A., Kumar Chittipeddi (1991); Sensemaking and sensegiving in strategic change initiation; Strategic Management Journal; 12; p. 433.

Gioia, Dennis A., Kristin Price, Aimee Hamilton and James B. Thomas (2010); Forging an insider-outsider study of processes involved in the formation of organizational identity; Administrative Science Quarterly; 55 (1); p. 1.

Gioia, Dennis A., Majken Schultz and Kevin Corley (2000);  Organizational identity, image and adaptive instability; Academy of Management Review; 25 (1); p. 63.

Gioia, Dennis A. and James B. Thomas (1996); Identity, image and issue interpretation:  Sensemaking during strategic change in academia; Administrative Science Quarterly; 41; p. 370.

Gioia, Dennis A., James B. Thomas, Shawn M. Clark and Kumar Chittipeddi (1994); Symbolism and strategic change in academia:  The dynamics of sensemaking and influence; Organization Science; 5 (3); p. 363.


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