Innovations in unobtrusive methods

Knight, A. P. (2018). Innovations in unobtrusive methods. In A. Bryman and D. A. Buchanan (Eds.), Unconventional Methodology in Organization and Management Research, pp. 64-83. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Abstract. Twenty years ago, engineer and computer scientist Rosalind Picard (1997, p.228) imagined a future in which ‘a financial analyst might combine his cell phone, pager, online stock reports, analysis software, and personal email agent into one computer that fits in a belt, watch and shirt pocket’.  Clearly the future is now.  An estimated 1.4 billion people owned a smartphone in 2013 – more than one fifth of the global population (Heggestuen, 2013).  By 2020, that proportion is expected to rise to approximately 70 percent (Ericsson, 2015).  And smartphones are just the tip of the iceberg, as a proliferation of internet-connected devices expands the linkages among humans, computers, and networks.  Consider just a few of the devices released recently.  Glasses developed by companies like Google and Snap enable users to capture and share multimedia content in real-time; wristbands like those developed by Fitbit, Apple, and Samsung facilitate fitness tracking, payments, and more.

The ubiquity of connected devices (Swan, 2012) – and the metrics that they unobtrusively capture – has led data to become increasingly central to the global economy.  Companies have integrated novel unobtrusive data streams into their business models and operations (e.g. Walker, 2012; Wilson, 2013).  These data streams can elucidate consumer preferences and responses to advertising, enhance human resource practices, and improve collaboration networks – to name just a few publicized applications.

Much like new data streams have enriched contemporary businesses, innovative unobtrusive methods hold great promise for researchers who study organizational functioning (Tonidandel et al., 2016).  The idea that researchers can benefit from using unobtrusive methods is certainly not new.  More than half a century ago, Webb and colleagues (1966) implored researchers in their classic book Unobtrusive Measures to use a more diverse set of data streams in their work, noting that, ‘Today the dominant mass of social science research is based upon interviews and questionnaires.  We lament this overdependence upon a single fallible method’ (pp.1-2).  Notwithstanding a steady drumbeat of pleas over the years for researchers to use unobtrusive methods (e.g. Hill et al., 2014; Webb and Weick, 1979), survey methods continue to dominate the literature, especially in organizational behaviour, and researchers still often rely on a single data source (Podsakoff et al., 2012; Scandura and Williams, 2000).

The purpose of this chapter is to describe a new suite of unobtrusive methods, such as the traces that people leave throughout the digital world as they search the Internet, post content on social media, and navigate an increasingly digitally-connected physical world.  These methods, which did not exist when Webb and colleagues published their book, make it easier and cheaper for researchers to use unobtrusive methods than ever before.  As a result, we social science researchers have fewer and fewer excuses for relying on a single source of data, obtrusively acquired, in empirical studies.