Kim (2021). Frame Restructuration: The Making of an Alternative Business Incubator amid Detroit’s Crisis

Suntae Kim – Boston College, Carroll School of Management, Management and Organization Department

Melanie Prengler – University of Virginia, Darden School of Business                     
Karthik Rapaka – Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam School of Management           

Article link:

Karthik: Prof. Kim, we understand that you did your PhD at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and this paper particularly focuses on a context within the Detroit region. In the paper, you mention your daily travels between Ann Arbor and Detroit for data collection. As a start, it would be helpful for the readers to understand the beginnings of this paper and how it all got initiated.

Suntae: It started in the year 2012 – it’s been a long time [before it got published in ASQ in 2021]. So, I was looking for a field site for my dissertation research. I was very much interested in being in a place where alternative organizing is around. Organizations that are focused not just on financial bottom lines but also trying to pursue other values like social and environmental bottom lines. I just wanted to be in a place where those organizations are born. We could call it the “emergence of social enterprises” to use a more popular term. You can call it whatever you want, but that’s what I had a vague idea about it. Actually, it was the departmental retreat in May 2012, and the Management and Organization department at the University of Michigan did a retreat at this incubator in Detroit. I went there and the place is lovely. I highly recommend you visit there. So, I was enamored by the place, the people, and the presentation of the founder of the organization was also really compelling. So, right after the retreat, I approached Jane Dutton, who was the host for the retreat. I asked her, “Please introduce me to this place as I want to do something here.” That’s how it started. A month later, my engagement started. I still remember that interview that I had with the founder of that organization – which was very deep, and it was very personal. We checked for our shared commitments to this topic, the problems, and then I was allowed to get access [to the context]. So, after that, I was there for almost three years.

Karthik: That’s great. Obviously, over a period of time, you had multiple visits and your access to the field and understanding of the context was strengthened. But we are curious to understand as to how the review process at ASQ shaped your insights and the findings. Can you please share about that aspect?

Suntae: Yes, the review process was definitely valuable. I can say that there were at least two very important phases in the review process.

In the first phase, it was more about the findings, making them clearer, and clarifying the story by looking again at what’s going on in the data. My findings were based on my dissertation. Everybody assumes that dissertation [work] is perfect, but it’s not the case for many people, surprisingly! So, even after completing my dissertation, in order to turn it into a journal article format, it had to go through some process. For me, I think it happened during the early stage of the review process, thanks to the ASQ reviewers. All of them were really, really helpful, including the editor. For the first R&R, they helped me clarify the story, cutting down all the less important stuff and amplifying the core aspects. That was the first phase. Not sure if Reviewer 3 is reading this, but I still remember how extremely helpful Reviewer 3 was in terms of asking me a lot of questions that guided me to really uncover important patterns in the data. So, really, the reviewers were writing the paper together with me. So, after first round of the review, we were pretty happy with the findings.

The second phase was really about the framing. Now, it was almost like a collective effort to figure out to what knowledge this set of findings contributes the most. My editor called it “a process of art”. It’s not even a craft, but it’s an art, and that was an extremely difficult process. I’m pretty sure you guys are also having some issues with that, and I think that’s the case, especially for qualitative inductive research, that’s the hardest part. In that process, the reviewers once again pushed me to focus on “crisis” and the last round of review was focused on theoretical framing. It took some time for me to craft a theoretical level story to which my findings can contribute the most. That process was really a process of thinking outside of my context. Through, in the early stage of the review process, I was deep in the findings whereas the later stage of the review process was forcing me out of that context. By doing so, I was able to think about the broader implications of the findings. I don’t know if this is relevant to the review process, but it was important for me at that point in time. I was actually watching an HBO documentary of Chernobyl. If you look at the first episode of that documentary, you see the people who are in the middle of crisis when the nuclear power plant exploded. It was an unthinkable situation where they were really scrambling to make sense of the situation and seeing that process helped me understand what was going on in my data. That was closely aligned with what the reviewers were looking for and they were pushing me towards theorizing around crisis. So, these two major inputs helped me understand and craft the right theoretical framing for the findings.

Melanie: For the young scholars who might be reading this and those who want to submit to ASQ, can you share some of your takeaways from the review process and from writing for ASQ? How is it different from or similar to writing for other outlets?

Suntae: It is a really good question. This is what other people have already said, and this is something that I heard from many other people. ASQ really cares about theoretical contribution. Especially for qualitative inductive research, it’s giving people a different way of thinking and different kinds of lens that didn’t exist before. If you look through such a lens, you get to see the world in a different way. I don’t know if this metaphor resonates with the listeners but that’s what I think ASQ is good at and that’s something ASQ is really looking for. This is what differentiates ASQ from other outlets. There are a lot of studies in ASQ on unique or weird contexts with strange settings because in those settings, we get to see, and we get to develop this different or alternative lens through which to understand the world. I think that’s one big differentiator for ASQ.

Melanie: Thank you, and I’m going to go back to the paper a little bit as well. You mentioned that your role in relationship to Green (incubator) evolved over the course of the project. You started as a court reporter, and it became eventually like a therapist and a mapmaker. Can you take us through some of the challenges and benefits of each role that you played and how you transitioned from one to another over the course of the project?

Suntae: That’s a very good question. I remember when I first started the project, being an international student, I never thought that I would be able to do qualitative research, because English is not my first language. I was still very nervous about this, even though I was fascinated by this context. I wasn’t mentally prepared. I always had to muster a lot of courage in the morning, when I was going to the field. Some days, I dreaded getting out of the car and entering the door because it felt difficult. I don’t know why, but maybe I think some of the international students would share that feeling.

As I was spending a lot of time in that context, I got to know a lot of people there and I got to share their commitment. I really loved what they were trying to do. These are the entrepreneurs trying to revitalize the city through creating new businesses that are building on indigenous resources in Detroit and not trying to get investments from elsewhere, or not trying to borrow money from rich people. But they’re trying to build on what’s available, what’s existing in Detroit and trying to repurpose that. They really had genuine commitment and whenever they would talk about these business ideas, I still remember, their eyes would light up. They were so excited, and this excitement was really contagious, and I got to share that, and I became really excited about their ideas. These are entrepreneurs and they always have these constant ups and downs and fluctuations. When you’re excited with these ideas, you share their emotion. And when they go down or when they were having difficulties, we had these sessions where we were discussing these difficulties together. They were sharing their problems and we cried together sometimes. We shared  joy and pain over the next two three years. On good days, they shared their excitement and their achievements. On bad days, they shared their frustration, their anger and sometimes, I was a shoulder for them to cry on. So, that was the process. I got deeply and emotionally attached to the people and the place.

I still remember, in the beginning of the process, I dreaded getting out of my car [going to field visits] and at the end of the process, I dreaded leaving the place because, it was around the time when I was on the job market. Job market was terrible – it’s a stressful, draining process. But whenever I was drained from that process, I went back to this site and whenever I saw this door that I dreaded walking through, I felt invigorated. It felt like discovering the purpose of my research. So, that was a dramatic contrast as I look back. But yeah, I think it’s just the beauty of doing field research.

Melanie: Absolutely. Listening to that, it sounds like you became the different roles that you described as you become gradually more and more embedded in the context. I was wondering if you could also share how those different roles shaped the data collection and analysis process. What was it like to do this as a court reporter – kind of more from the outside, and then, as you became more embedded, how did that shape how you understood them?

Suntae: That’s a really good question too. Your questions really made me think of the things that I’ve never thought of. From the beginning, the type of data [I collected] was essentially the same because I was doing participant observations. As my advisor didn’t have experience in qualitative research, he had a very strong emphasis on “not lying or getting as comprehensive data as possible” and being solidly grounded in data. That’s the imprint from my advisor Jerry Davis that I really appreciate. So, my approach to data collection remained pretty much the same from the beginning to the end. When I was not allowed to record, I was trying to capture every speech, every turn of speech during the meeting. I tried to paraphrase if I cannot get the verbatim. So, that’s why they call me “court reporter” as I was really typing all the time like a machine. So, the information that I was able to get from participant observations didn’t change too much, but along the way, my interpretation of that data got deeper and richer because I had much more contextual information and knowledge about the place and the people in their business. The interviews definitely changed.  The initial interviews with these people were much more formal and similar across different individuals. But it’s ethnography and ethnographic interviews are supposed to change over time, as you develop relationships [with the informants]. So, in the later stage, I was asking a lot of different questions across different people and because I was asking different questions, I was getting different information. So, in terms of interviews, as they are so much dependent upon the relationship, the quality of the relationship that you build with these people, it changed a lot.

Karthik: Thank you for sharing the value and the difficulties of being so deeply immersed into the context. In your paper, I read this whole process model of innovation amidst crises. When you were coming up with that model, there could have been some initial hunches you might have felt in the field. I am curious to understand some of those initial hunches and observations in the field that made you make the creative leap that qualitative scholars typically demonstrate within their bag of tricks and construct the three junctures that you mentioned within that process of innovation.

Suntae: This is the most difficult question so far. I don’t know how to answer that question as it really requires deep reflection about that process. The initial hunches were definitely around metaphor. My informants were using a lot of “living organism” metaphor to understand their situation. They used it a lot and what was clear at the data level was the fact that they were developing a whole new way of incubating a business that seemed almost nonsensical to outsiders. They kept using this living organism metaphor to both justify and even develop this new practice. So, that was the findings or insights or pattern at the data and findings level. What my reviewers and editor helped me with so much was to kind of do this leap from the data level to the theory level. So, for that process, as I mentioned earlier, getting out of that context helped me a lot.

Also, as I mentioned about me [watching] HBO documentary video of Chernobyl tragedy, it was also a time when we were getting into the pandemic, and I was finalizing this data. So, I was really going through an unfolding [COVID-19 pandemic] crisis and trying to figure out what’s going on and what should we do – which can be resonant with everybody, including both of you and the readers. Those vicarious or direct experiences of the crisis helped me articulate the meanings of the pattern that I was seeing from my data and from this incubator. Maybe I am missing more important processes, but at least a part of the process of making the leap from data to theory is actually getting away from data and getting away from literature. Sometimes literature can be stifling for your imagination and so you may try to make sense of your data through your daily experiences or try to see what’s happening in your data in completely different domains of life. Doing that kind of mental exercise of transferring your findings to very different contexts seems to be very helpful for you as you try to make that [creative] leap. At least for inductive qualitative research, I can say this, but I don’t know if this could be applied to more quantitative, deductive research, though.

Karthik: Great, thank you for explaining that. As you already shared, we are all part of a global crisis situation. If you were to reflect on the key findings of this paper regarding frame restructuration and then apply to all of us individuals in the midst of a new crisis, what would be one or two things that you feel can aid our adaptation process?

Suntae: I can answer this question in two ways. One, I’m actually doing an extension study – new research that extends the findings from this paper to our current context. So, I’m still currently working on a paper within the context of South Korea. It is study of a process of innovation based on South Korean government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in the early stage of pandemic. In this study, I was able to see a similar pattern from South Korean data, and something else of course. So, I’m actually working on that. So, it’s a little bit of advertisement for the upcoming paper. But, secondly, I think it’s really important to acknowledge our shared experience. I’m pretty sure we all share this experience when we were getting into this pandemic. It was incomprehensible because it’s a crisis that that never happened, at least in our contemporary memory. So, figuring out or even crafting the story of what is going on is really important, and in order to do that, you have to be very cognizant of what you are doing. Sometimes, we act without thinking where we just respond to the urgent demands of the crisis without having a clear understanding of what’s going on in the situation. So, it’s kind of reverse – that’s the whole idea of enactment by Karl Weick [1988]. Action actually leads to cognition and it’s not cognition that leads to action.

So, especially in the times of crisis, when you are so obsessed with coming up with the most rational action based on your existing frame, that can actually kill you and that can actually lead you to failures. That was what had happened during this pandemic crisis. A lot of countries followed existing ways of dealing with the virus and infectious disease and they failed because this crisis, this virus was very different from the previous virus that we had before. So, for an effective response, we had to come up with a new frame, we have to come up with new understanding. But those new understandings actually come from your action and making sense of your action. When you make pragmatic responses to the situation, some of them will miserably fail but some of them will save you. You have to understand those, pay attention to those successful actions, and come up with explanations to make sense of why those actions were successful. Through that process, your new frame or new understanding of the situation emerges. So, I would say that’s one of the important things, and for this newer paper, what I’m discovering is that sharing that frame with and by everyone in the system is very important as well. If everybody comes up with very different frames, or if there’s a fragmentation of the frame, it can also lead to very disastrous situations.

Given that we’re living in very fragmented world, especially in this country [USA], people have very different frames, and these things are very contradictory to each other which leads to political polarization leading to people hating each other. That’s tragic and that’s really bad for crisis response.

Karthik: I think this is fascinating just to understand your journey, right from the beginning, the process of evolution of your published paper in ASQ, and the further extension of your salient findings around frame restructuration, towards the pertinent global crisis that we’re all facing. On behalf of Melanie, myself, and the rest of the readers of ASQ Student Blog, thanks a lot for your time and sharing your insights.

Suntae: Thank you so much for this opportunity.

Interviewer bios:

Melanie Prengler is an incoming Assistant Professor in the Leadership and Organizational Behavior area at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. Prior to joining Darden, she received her Ph.D. in Business Administration from Texas A&M University. Melanie researches how both majority and minority group members engage in efforts to reduce systemic discrimination within and via their organizations (e.g., allyship and anti-racism). She also studies the future of work through the lens of employee autonomy (e.g., digital nomads).

Karthik Rapaka is a 3rd-year PhD candidate in the Organizations area at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, in the Netherlands. His research is focused on understanding how nascent-stage social entrepreneurs engage with mission-driven organizing in resource-constrained, low-income, and low-literate contexts. Prior to his ongoing PhD studies, Karthik has worked for 12 years playing numerous organizational leadership, management consulting, and research support roles at Indian School of Business, Teach For India, and Deloitte Consulting LLP USA. He holds his BS (Honors) and MS degrees in engineering from Rutgers – the state university of New Jersey and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign respectively.

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