Friday, September 9, 2016
1. Research Methods As An Area of Study
As a student of Business Research Methods, you will be wearing two hats. One hat or role is that of a student who wishes to pass exams in this area, so you will need to learn enough about research methods to write an assignment of appropriate standard and/or to pass the examination. This is your academic role, and this means we must look at research methods from an academic point of view. All academic work, as you already know, must take account of published literature (textbooks, journal articles, professional articles, relevant website information, company literature etc). So we will be looking at research methods literature, in order that you can use it to help you understand the chapters, and use the literature in your assessment. You may continue your studies and do further academic work at a higher level; again you will need to use research methods ideas and theories from the literature directly in that study.
There is another hat, that of manager, research consultant or practitioner, for which this blog aims to prepare you. Sometimes, your academic assignments may require you to step into the role of consultant. So sometimes in this blog, you will need to imagine yourself in the role of manager or consultant, needing to answer questions in real-time, carry out research to answer vital questions for the business you are in.
Most of you reading this blog may not wind up as researchers in an organization or even have the title of “researcher”, but in fact, as a manager or a professional in an organization, you will be expected to operate in a logical and scientific manner. Most of the research that is being done in an organization is not in the Research and Development department. In fact, it’s done throughout the organization.
As an accredited professional in an organization, particularly one with a university or graduate education, you will be expected to work with sound research-oriented skills. In most organizations, the responsibility for thinking in a systematic and logical manner is everyone’s responsibility, rather than being concentrated in just one function of the business or just being “management’s responsibility”.
Take a moment to think through the differences between these researches roles, between your academic hat and your business hat.
2. Research methods versus research methodology
Many authors use these terms interchangeably, but there is a correct way of using them. As students of “Research Methods”, we must know the difference. What is it? Textbooks treat this in varying ways but research “methods” usually refers to specific activities designed to generate data (e.g. questionnaires, interviews, focus groups, observation) and research “methodology” is more about your attitude to and your understanding of research and the strategy or approach you choose to answer research questions. This article will start with a good look at research methodology, and then will go on to look at research methods.
If you have ever used the phrase “research shows that…” in an assignment or conversation, you will not be doing this again! Understanding Research Methods helps us to be specific about the research we discuss, and to make sure that research comes from a valid source and was collected and analysed appropriately. Many surveys are conducted everyday throughout the world to prove a particular point, to support an ideological argument, or just to sound authoritative. We hear them and see them in the news media all the time. Some of this “research” is a “vox pop” where someone, often a journalist, has asked a few people in the street their view of a Government policy, or a product or service, or a current crisis. This is quite different from the kind of business research we are discussing on this chapter.
In business, and for academic research, the questions we ask must be valid and fair, relating directly to our need for information, in other words our research must have a clear objective purpose, and we are not collecting information for its own sake.
We must also collect that information (data) in a fair and systematic way. For example, we should think about who we ask for information, and how they will understand our questions. If we cannot ask everyone involved, then we must be able to justify why we ask only a certain section of that population.
We must also analyse our data with great care in a systematic way. The rigour of our analysis will have a major effect on whether our research results are valid or not. If we are trying to determine which of a range of new technologies to investing, then it will be very important that we don’t skew our results towards a technology or application created by someone we know, or that we don’t miss out certain relevant technologies, as these in accuracies will lead to a poor investment decision.
4. What might be special about business research?
If we contrast research in business with, for example, research into chemistry, one particular issue is clear: business research is not a single pure academic discipline like chemistry. If we conduct research in the field of chemistry, we will certainly have to know a lot about chemical concepts, the laws of chemistry and the history of scientific development in chemistry as well as the context of current chemical research. There will be much to learn about the field before we could become successful researchers in that field, contributing to new knowledge.
However, in business the issues are not so narrowly focused. We will need to understand things about a range of stakeholders; for example, managers, staff, customers and owners, about business entities such as companies and partnerships and co-operatives, about economies and how they affect business operations, about products and services and how they vary over time, how they can be produced efficiently, about money and what regulates its availability, how it produces profit, and Governments and how their policy affects business operations, customers’ income and needs etc.
We can see that business is an umbrella term for many different things, and involves a number of different academic disciplines, such as mathematics, psychology, sociology, physics, economics, politics, history and language. So when we research into business or management, we will be drawing on a number of different disciplines and domains. Business research is multi-disciplinary.
Business research can also be conducted at different levels. We may want to find a way to predict when a particular product might move to the next stage of the product life cycle. This could involve a substantial piece of work involving customers, competitors and markets as well as product strategies for resource use, marketing and sales. We could try some trend analysis and aim to forecast future growth or decline in sales of our product against the competition, we could do some desk research into government policy affecting this market, we could interview experienced managers in the field to find out their subjective views about the product’s predicted life. This is a complex piece of research, since there are so many variables and stakeholders involved in influencing a product’s lifecycle.
Alternatively, we may want to find out how sales have changed over a period of five years. This will involve “fact finding”, and may be simple to collect from financial statements, and be expressed in a clear charts showing sales figures over time. Easy. But what if there were major changes to products or services during that time? Or a move of premises which caused a slump in sales during a short period? Or a re-branding exercise? We would have to decide what depth or what level to use for our research, and for this we would need to know its purpose.
You might be thinking that this sounds a bit complicated. After all, not every manager or employee has studied business research methods, yet they still have to make decisions affecting the business on the basis of what they find out. Fair point. Millions of business decisions are made daily across the world without detailed research. What we are trying to do by studying Business Research Methods is to give you the choice to do the research systematically and rigorously. That way, your decisions will improve, and you won’t be tempted to go with the first option, which may not be the best one.
Does this mean a lot of theory? Not necessarily a lot, but some will be helpful, in order to interpret the “facts” that we find. Usually business research will be conducted to achieve a practical outcome, and that practical outcome will be best understood in a context. A theoretical context, for example industrial sociology, or economics, may help us to analyse a situation more effectively and critically. It may even help us to challenge or move that theory forward. While this book is not about critical thinking skills, it should be clear to you that that is a fundamental skill to learn in your studies. It does not mean being “critical” in a negative sense. It means asking searching questions to challenge the assumptions people make, looking not just for what is said but also for what is not said and considering the reasoning behind conclusions drawn. For a good presentation further expanding on critical thinking, watch the following video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oefmPtsV_w4
5. Modes of knowledge
One way of thinking about the knowledge that is created through business research is provided by Gibbons et al (1994). These researchers talked about “Mode 1 knowledge”as that which is created by academics for an academic intellectual purpose, to further and add to what is known. This has to do with basic research and tends to be built on the foundations of what was known before, just as in any academic essay, you must discuss what is known (published) before you start to do your own research or consider how that knowledge might be further discussed or developed. Who wants Mode 1 knowledge? Usually other academics. An example of Mode 1 business knowledge could be: the concept of economies of scale.
The researchers distinguish this from “Mode 2 knowledge”, which is practical applied knowledge and comes from collaborating with practitioners or policy makers, for example managers in organizations. Who wants Mode 2 knowledge? People making business decisions or developing policy as well as academics interested in applied research. This kind of knowledge is much more dependent on an understanding of context because it is essentially “real world” knowledge. It is no use knowing that generally there are economies of scale if your business has overstretched itself by investing in a larger factory and profit has reduced as a result. An example of relevant Mode 2 knowledge here would be: how to calculate depreciation on capital investment with a particular country’s accounting standards and how this might be used in conjunction with business strategy objectives for expansion.
Huff and Huff (2001) also suggest a third mode of knowledge, “Mode 3 knowledge”. This is knowledge, which is neither produced specifically for academic purposes nor for direct application to practical need, but for understanding the bigger picture in relation to society’s survival and the “common good”. An example of Mode 3 knowledge might be: the impact of capitalism on developing countries in the African continent. This kind of information does not have specific immediate practical value (and would not find a business sponsor), and it may not result from academic enquiry, yet it could be of profound importance to international economic and social policy and business organizations in Africa.
Have a look on the web, use Google Scholar or another academic database or search engine, to find an example of business research and then classify it in to Mode 1, 2 or 3 knowledge.
Most work in business organizations, in whatever sector or ownership will require research activities. We have already discussed the idea that business research in the context of this course is likely to involve some theory or concept as well as purely practical questions such as “how does the product range compare in terms of contribution to profit?” Or “which method of training has produced more output – coaching or a group training course?”
Both these questions have potential for theory application as well as simple numerical survey, but some research problems are more obviously underpinned by theoretical ideas. For example, those which seek to generalize or to compare one organization with another: “what are the most effective ways of introducing a new employee to the organization?” Or “how do marketing strategies differ in the aerospace industry?”
When choosing an area for research, we usually start either with a broad area of management, which particularly interests us. E.g. marketing or operations management, or we start with a very practical question like those in the last paragraph, which need answers to help with managerial decision-making.
Reining from this point to a researchable question or objective is not easy. We need to do a number of things:
Narrow down the study topic to one which we are both interested in and have the time to investigate thoroughly
Choose a topic context where we can find some access to practitioners if possible; either a direct connection with an organization or professional body, or a context which is well documented either on the web or in the literature
Identify relevant theory or domains of knowledge around the question for reading and background understanding.
• Write and re-write the question or working title, checking thoroughly the implications of each phrase or word to check assumptions and ensure we really mean what we write. This is often best done with other people to help us check assumptions and see the topic more clearly.
• Use the published literature and discussion with others to help us narrow down firmly to an angle or gap in the business literature, which will be worthwhile to explore.
• Identify the possible outcomes from this research topic, both theoretical and practical. If they are not clear, can we refine the topic so that they become clear? (For example, ask yourself the question, if I find an answer, then what use is it?)
Recommended additional reading:
Research Methods for Business Students, 6th ed. (Saunders, M., Lewis P. & Thornhill, A. 2012) Chapters 1 & 2