Abderrahim Nekkache

Examining the reconstruction of professional identity in the digitalisation of industrial research and development (R&D)

University of Manchester
PhD awarded May 2023

My PhD thesis was based on a single qualitative case study of the digitalisation of R&D within a large UK firm. It was co-funded by the University of Manchester, the Research and Development Management Association (RADMA), the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and the host organisation in which my fieldwork was based.

My research focused on industrial scientists such as chemists and biologists as a unit of analysis. Whereas these scientists routinely conducted most of their experiments manually, the firm’s digitalisation strategy introduced advanced laboratory robotics and data analytics tools, disrupting routine R&D work and requiring scientists to undergo identity reconstruction to embrace digitalisation. Data was collected from semi-structured interviews, site visits, and firm documents and analysed using grounded theory and narrative analysis techniques.

Based on the empirical research, new conceptual models have been built to shed light on how scientists who conducted their work manually (i.e., ‘analogue’ scientists) went on to construct two different social identities following the implementation of digital tools in their organisation. Through acquiring membership in new social groups and performing new roles, analogue scientists transitioned into ‘hybrid’ or ‘digital’ scientists. These two social identities were manifested through distinct role identities constructed through the interplay between specific identity work tactics performed by scientists and identity regulation strategies performed by managers and co-workers. In contrast to previous studies, this research argues that, when dealing with digitalisation, workers do not only exercise their agency for identity construction. Instead, such construction is also shaped by identity regulation, the firm’s commercial setting and the features of digital tools. In doing so, the thesis offers new empirical evidence on the mutual construction of professional identity and the materiality of digitalisation.

This thesis contributes to practice in a number of ways. It provides R&D managers with key insights into some of the main factors that lead scientists to resist digital tools, such as the steep learning curve and scepticism of the value of digitalisation. It also proposes strategies to address these factors to accelerate the adoption of digitalisation in the workplace. Further, the thesis suggests involving early adopters of digitalisation in driving its adoption in the company, as it proved that co-workers play a crucial role in helping and supporting their peers to embrace digital tools in their everyday work.

During the PhD programme, I had the chance to present my PhD research papers at renowned international conferences, including the R&D Management Conference, the European Group for Organizational Studies (EGOS) Colloquium, and the Academy of Management Annual Meeting (AoM). I have been also working on publishing these papers in highly-ranked academic journals in collaboration with my supervisors Professor Andrew James and Dr. Barbara Ribeiro. I also worked as a part-time teaching assistant for Alliance Manchester Business School where I was involved in teaching Foundations of Strategy and Innovation and Case Studies in Professional Management modules. I also delivered a research consultancy project for Envirolution in collaboration with five other researchers and Code-Switch Consultants as part of the University of Manchester’s Collaboration Lab’s Business Challenges programme. The project was funded by the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) and NPIF (National Productivity Investment Fund) Accelerating Business Collaboration scheme and aimed to raise awareness around the climate crisis. This project won the best project award.

After submitting my PhD, I have secured a job as a digital and cyber security specialist at a large multinational company in the energy sector in London. I have been building on my knowledge of R&D management to build innovative digital platforms and tools that strengthen cyber security measures, reduce cyber threats and risks within the firm and educate workers about safe cyber behaviours in the digital age.