It is with great pleasure that I can write that earlier this month I submitted the final assignment of my MBA, the dissertation. Pressing the ‘Submit’ button represented not only the completion of my Project & Dissertation, but also the end of my MBA studies – and despite having thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and acquired a wealth of knowledge, it felt wonderful to draw it to a close after 38 months of studying. All that is left now is to wait for my dissertation to be graded, following which I should be able to graduate and formally conclude my MBA in July this year.
Until then, however, I will continue sharing my experience of the P&D; my last post described my plan for the P&D, and I will now explain how I approached the first stage, the literature review.
The Literature Review
I admit that this wasn’t something I was looking forward to – the task of finding and reviewing 50-100 documents seemed quite daunting. However, the book I referred to in my last post provided some useful guidance which made the whole process a lot easier, and resulted in me splitting it into four different stages: Search, Review, Analyse and Write.
I started the literature review process by searching for articles using the Warwick University Library website. This contains a full catalogue of books, eBooks, papers, journals, and other documentary sources, which can either be accessed online, or viewed physically from the University Library; despite being a distance-learning student, I was still able to gain access to printed materials using the postal loan service, which proved invaluable on a number of occasions.
One of the initial challenges is figuring out where to start – a search for “strategic alliances” identified 84,683 different articles! However, I quickly found that by bringing together different phrases that were aligned with my research objectives, I was able to view a more focused set of results. I also narrowed down the results using the filters built into the search tool (eg. timeframe = last 10 years, subject area = strategic alliances), and also undertook a manual filtering exercise where I excluded documents that were clearly not relevant based on their title. This didn’t take long – after 6-7 searches I had identified over 70 documents, and found that subsequent searches were increasingly showing the same documents.
Once you have found the various literature sources, it’s important to find a way to store them. There is an ‘add to bag’ option within the library search application, but I didn’t feel this would give me sufficient ability to manage the different sources properly moving forward. As such, I decided to create a spreadsheet, recording the title, year, and any initial thoughts for each source – although this was more time-consuming than just adding to a bag, it was really helpful during the analysis and writing up stages. I also stored copy of each document in Evernote (see here to find out how) – although this was a time-consuming activity, it made writing the dissertation far easier.
After collating all the documents I reviewed them in varying levels of depth – some I read end-to-end (especially the shorter HBR articles), annotating them using Evernote; others I just skimmed the introduction, conclusion and any sections that appeared particularly relevant. The objective of this stage was to determine the focus of each document, as well as understanding which of them would actually be relevant, useful and applicable to the research. A useful tip that I read was to write one or two sentences for each source that summarises the key message/focus areas; again this was very useful in future stages.
As part of this stage I also recorded which of the research objectives each document was relevant to in my previous spreadsheet, which made writing the literature review much easier as I could just filter the sources by this column.
The next stage of the literature review was to review the relevant documents identified in the Review stage, capturing specifically relevant comments, conclusions, explanations, theories, models, and other artefacts that can be used to explain, justify, or potentially challenge my research findings. This step became more of an ongoing process that started before I planned my research, and continued right through to writing the literature review; however, this might be a reflection of the methodology that I pursued (Grounded Theory) rather than being appropriate for all dissertations.
Initially I used a table similar to the Review stage where I noted specific comments that I thought might be useful when writing the dissertation. The format I used for this table was:
- Research Objective – I used a code for each of these as well as for different aspects of the research objective (eg. 1a, 2c, 3d, 3e); this allowed me to filter the results when writing the literature review
- Source – the name of the original document
- Insight – what was written about the research objective (could be a quote, the name of a model, or a description of what the author was discussing)
- Page – where in the source was this written
Although I found this useful, it became very time-consuming, so I decided to use this approach for only the key texts about my research objectives, and then for the rest I reverted to recording annotations and comments on the documents themselves. However, this is not to say that the approach won’t work for others I suspect this depends on personal preferences, time available, and the nature of the research topic being studied.
The final stage of the literature review is to actually write it for the dissertation. Given the preparation I had undertaken in previous stages, I found this relatively straightforward to undertake – although that’s not to suggest it was easy. However, there were some key things that helped me whilst writing:
- I had a number of clearly defined research objectives, and during the previous stages had assigned every source to one or more objectives. When it came to writing a section about that objective, a quick filter on the tables quickly provided a more focused list of content to base my review on.
- Whilst reviewing the content I highlighted in a specific colour any quotations that I felt were particularly relevant. A quick skim through a source looking for that colour then helped me find quotations that would support the literature review discussion.
- Separating out the research objectives into categories and subcategories not only helped me to structure the literature review, but also made it much easier to know where to bring in specific sources. For example, three specific papers focussed on knowledge leakage, and so when writing about that topic I could instantly locate previous research and insights.
Although these four stages may appear to be a lot of work, and possibly an arduous approach, I found they allowed me to capture everything in a manner that made writing the literature review relatively straightforward. This approach also helped me become very aware of the different sources and authors, so when I wanted to discuss a point in the literature review, I often knew exactly which document to refer to without needing to review lots of articles.
So that’s the literature review; the next stage of the P&D is typically defining a research methodology and undertaking the research, which I will discuss in my next post.