Organizational ethnography: How to gain access
This post is intended to provide concrete tips for researchers looking to gain initial access to an organization, particularly for those doing fieldwork or qualitative interviews (but perhaps the suggestions will apply for survey research, as well). It extends Katherine Chen’s earlier post on gaining access to organizations.
If you have experience in this area, I hope you will contribute suggestions. I imagine that corporations will be of most interest to readers, but of course there can be challenges to accessing non-profits such as universities and the government, so please chime in if you have insights to contribute.
Here’s my experience: To successfully gain access to a multinational corporation to do an ethnography, I identified appropriate companies to study and then took the following steps:
- Network with anyone that had connections to the companies. This actually didn’t get me anywhere.
- Work to access multiple companies at one time. This was time-consuming but worthwhile because it took 6+ months to get into the company I studied, from my first efforts to reach out to a company to the day I was in the door.
- Prepare a research proposal document that looks like a business proposal. It includes my research objectives, what I would need from the company, potential “deliverables,” and my credentials. I researched business proposals to look at how they are formatted. My proposal was about 5 pages long, with lots of white space and just a few bullets on most pages. I put my university’s logo on the bottom of every page. I packaged it in a glossy folder from my university, along with my business card and a letter from my dissertation chair, on university letterhead, attesting to my abilities and trustworthiness. I attached a brief cover letter to the front. If you can demonstrate any connections to a business school, I imagine that would help
- Identify the right person in the organization, send them my proposal, and follow up. It may take a phone call or two to identify the right person because contact information often isn’t online.
Ultimately, two of the four companies I approached agreed to let me in, and I ended up studying one of them, “Starr Corporation.” I got lucky—around the time I approached the company, the director of diversity management was planning to do an internal evaluation of the company’s diversity programs, but the department’s budget was limited. She saw me as potentially fulfilling that role, and she saw my proposal as serious and professional.
After Starr said yes, we negotiated:
1. A letter, approved by their legal department, outlining the company’s anonymity and guidelines for my access. My university IRB provided no assistance whatsoever at this stage, which I thought was outrageous. I ended up consulting a lawyer I knew to look over the letter (I strongly recommend doing that), and I got someone in the university’s patents office to review it, as well… I gave the company the option of being anonymous, and they wanted that. The company added a sentence stating that I would not be paid to do my research. I didn’t anticipate this, but in retrospect it is not surprising at all.
2. An understanding that I would produce a final internal report (i.e. Powerpoint presentation) on the company’s diversity programs.
Once I was in the door, my status was analogous to a consultant. I got an ID, an identity and password, my own cubicle with a computer and, crucially, access to the company’s intranet, including its computer program for scheduling interviews. I had a point of contact within the diversity department who identified appropriate events for me to attend and individuals to interview.
How did you gain access?
Also, do you have suggestions of books or articles on gaining access to organizations? I only am familiar with general discussions of this topic. I particularly like Gaining Access: A Practical and Theoretical Guide for Qualitative Researchers, which is what the title suggests.