Following the literature review which I described in my last blog post, the typical next step on an MBA project is the research stage. This was the stage that I was most looking forward to, as it allowed me to engage in the topic in a real-life environment, and capture new insights above those I had read about in the literature review.
Although I already had a view on the approach I intended to take for my research, I reviewed the book Research Methods for Business Students first; this not only shaped my research plan, but also helped me appreciate the reasons why this approach was most suitable, as well as some of the limitations. It quickly became apparent that planning academic research is about much more than just deciding whether you want to undertake interviews, surveys, observation, etc., with many other factors to consider first.
Preparing for your Research
One of the first aspects to consider is the Research Philosophy, which could be one of Positivism, Realism, Interpretivism and Pragmatism. Following a brief review of these, it became clear that I was pursuing an interpretivist philosophy for my research. Although I don’t feel this impacted significantly on how I undertook my research, reading about these philosophies brought an awareness of the different perspectives that research can take, and helped me appreciate how complex the field of research is.
Following this, I looked into the Research Approach. This appeared to be more relevant to planning my research, as it describes the overall intent of undertaking the research:
- Deductive – this type of research involves proving or disproving a specific hypothesis
- Inductive – this is more of an exploratory approach to research, where the hypothesis is expected to ‘emerge’ from the research findings
- Abductive – this is a combination of the above two approaches; inductive research is undertaken to identify a hypothesis, and then deductive research is taken to prove/disprove it
Although I originally wanted to pursue an abductive research approach, following discussions with my supervisor I decided to use an inductive research approach, as I would not have had time to undertake two separate research exercises.
Next I considered the Research Methodology – was I intending to undertake quantitative research based on statistical or mathematical data, or qualitative research based on words, images and other less-structured data (I appreciate this is a somewhat simplified view of the two!). The majority of my research was likely to be qualitative (as I was planning to use interviews to capture participants’ viewpoints) but there was also likely to be a quantitative aspect as I intended to capture some information in specific categories, and then apply a mathematical comparison of the output. My key observation from this, however, was that the choice of qualitative or quantitative does not necessarily need to be made when planning research, and in my case developing my research plan changed the balance slightly.
Finally there is the Research Design:
- Exploratory research – used to explore a topic and capture new insights
- Descriptive research – used to understand what happened or is happening
- Explanatory research – used to explain what happened or is happening
I opted to pursue an exploratory research design, as the objective of my research was to plan for a future scenario, as opposed to evaluating a past situation.
Many different strategies can be used for undertaking research, including:
- archival research,
- case studies,
- action research,
- grounded theory research,
- narrative inquiry
Initially my intention was to pursue a case study approach; however, after further investigation I realised this involved focused on explaining a past or current event, rather than preparing for a future one (which was the objective of my dissertation). This led me to look into action research, but this relies on the research resulting in changes to the topics being studied, which would not be possible in my “advisory” P&D. I finally decided to use a grounded theory research strategy, which involves developing new theories based on findings from my research.
Although the choice of research strategy may appear academic, I would strongly suggest that anyone undertaking a P&D considers this towards the start of their project – there is a wealth of information on each of these strategies that will not only help design the research appropriately, but also maximise the insights captured from it. I personally found a lot of value in reading about them, especially when I had decided on the strategy I wanted to pursue.
Data Collection Methodology
The final aspect to planning research (although ironically the one that most people think of first) is what method to collect data using. There are three key data collection methods for primary research:
- Interviews & Focus groups
- Questionnaires & Surveys
I decided to use semi-structured interviews for my research as they would allow me to explore the topic in-depth with the research participants, and also provide an environment where I could capture new learnings about a topic, rather than limiting the research to my current understanding of the topic. Here are some tips for anyone else considering using interviews for their research:
- Getting a good sample is critical – I was lucky as I had a very supportive sponsor who helped facilitate access to a large and appropriate range of interviewees, but this is definitely something that should be considered early as gaining access can take some time.
- Use the right tools – I purchased a Sony Dictaphone just for this research, which was a very worthwhile investment as the interview recordings were extremely clear and easy to review and write-up.
- Plan your interview, but be flexible – I spent a lot of time preparing interview themes, questions and discussion points, all of which were valuable for less forthcoming interviewees. However, some of the most insightful interviews were those where the interviewees strayed from the initial themes slightly, and exposed thoughts and observations that provided a more rounded view of my research topic.
- Be conscious of the time to write-up the results – full transcribing of interviews can take 3-6x the length of the interviews (so 15 x 45-minute interviews would require 30-60 hours!). However, depending on the purpose of the research full transcribing may not be necessary; I used a coding approach to reduce this to about 2x the duration (see the textbooks on Grounded Theory for more information on this).
As you can probably tell from the above, planning research is far more involved than just choosing a way to collect data, and I recommend the above points are all given at least some thought prior to starting research (not least because it will help when writing the ‘research methodology’ section of your dissertation). I would also recommend either investing in or loaning two books – the first would be a broad business research book the explains the above in more detail (such as the one I mentioned in a previous blog post); the second would be a book specific to your choice of research strategy (eg. grounded theory), as this will help ensure that your approach to data collection will allow you to analyse the results quickly, and in a way that maximises the value you get from your findings.
Overall I found the research stage of my P&D really interesting, and it gave me a fantastic opportunity to engage with some senior individuals at my employer and discuss a very interesting topic (and if there are any reading this – thank you very much for your time, every interview was extremely valuable). The next step of my P&D was to analyse the results and write the dissertation, which will be the subject of my next blog post.