Answers to Exercises in the Book
1.1 Thinking about the role of research
Group – In class, discuss the role of research in relation to the job of academics, compared to the role of research in relation to the job of practitioners.
In most universities academics on research contracts are required to produce research as part of their conditions of employment. In the 1960s, when management was seen as an applied discipline, emphasis was placed on the applied end of the research continuum. However, as a consequence of the rise of management and business departments within traditional universities, the kind of research conducted by research-active staff became more focussed on achieving academic rather than empirical impact. The ability to conduct ‘rigorous research’ became increasingly seen as being synonymous with the publication of articles in leading journals – the higher the impact factors the better. Evaluated in this way, research appeared as both a means and an end in itself. More recently, the pendulum has begun to swing back as the contribution research makes to management practice has become an important criterion for the allocation of research funding. Academics conducting research are asked to demonstrate how their research may help to address societal challenges, such as the UK’s relatively low productivity. Assessments of ‘research impact’ require the researcher to show how their research has led to change in policy areas or practice. Such change may occur as a result of the dissemination of research outcomes but also from engagement with practitioners. Some academic researchers manage to inspire both fellow academics (e.g. with new theories) and practitioners (e.g. with new solutions). However, it can be difficult to achieve both with the same research.
When compared to academic research, practitioner research often appears less theory-driven and more problem-oriented. It tends to aim at improving business and professional practice within a particular organisation rather than across a certain type of organisations or entire industries. This is not to say that practitioner research is less useful or does not have to be rigorous. Like academic research, the quality of practitioner research does not only depend on asking the right questions but also on using the appropriate methods in a research process that is both systematic and rigorous. With the rise of the so-called Big Data agenda, the work of practitioner researchers in management and business research has changed in insignificant ways. Today business analytics is seen as one of many bridges between academic and practitioner research. Collaborative research between academics and practitioners opens up new avenues for bringing into dialogue research conducted in both realms. Therefore, the methods introduced in this volume can be of great to use to both academic and practitioner researchers.
1.2 Proposal writing
Group – What are the functions of each of the elements of an academic research proposal? (Why do we need an introduction? What is the literature review for? Why is it important to highlight limitations? etc.)
It has been said that a good research proposal should contain all the information needed for a similarly qualified individual to conduct the research themselves. The function of a research proposal therefore is to spell out the focus, and the steps that need to be taken to evaluate and deliver a given research project.
It is usual for a research proposal to begin with the title of the study. This should be intelligible and if possible eye-catching so that an informed reader will want to know more.
What usually follows next is a brief overview of the study, indicating its focus and perhaps briefly, the manner of exploration and importance. Sir George Bernard Shaw has been quoted as once saying in a letter to his grandson, ‘I’m sorry that this letter is so long – I didn’t have time to write a shorter one’. The point here is that boiling an introduction down to its essence is no easy task. Chief executives of large companies practice what has been called ‘an elevator pitch’, this is the message they want to convey about an aspect of their company or what they are trying to achieve for their organisation quickly and concisely as if to a complete stranger – in the time that it would take an elevator to ascend six or seven floors. Clarity then is what the researcher is trying to achieve, for themselves and the reader.
What might then follow are four or five aims – certainly no more than this. The first aim usually relates to the focus of the study. For example, ‘this study examines the effectiveness of performance related pay’. A second aim might involve an investigation of previous research. A third aim might then relate to how this study would ideally be designed, the methods that would be adopted and the analysis that would be conducted on data collected. Another aim could relate to how the findings would be located within the existing literature indicating what literatures the researcher hopes to add to or extend or what gaps in knowledge might be filled. A final aim might speculate on how the knowledge produced would be translated into practice and who the stakeholders for this knowledge would be. There is no specific requirement to focus this aim on users – but management as we have indicated is an applied discipline and the improvement of management practice ought to be an outcome of management research.
Once the aims are established, proposals usually offer a literature review section on the current state of knowledge in relation to one or more pertinent fields or disciplines that relate to the focus of the research. References are usually provided within this overview. In academic research it would be normal to include key seminal papers which indicate that the student has a good grasp of the important current debates. Literature reviews are written in a way that they identify research gaps and controversies that call for the kind of research the author of the proposal proposes to undertake. The literature review also has the function of informing the subsequent section on the conceptual framework and the more specific research questions.
Then would follow a methods section which outlines how the proposed research will be conducted. This section should be precise enough so that the reader can evaluate if the envisaged research design makes sense and enables the researcher to conduct the proposed research in the best possible way. It is therefore important for the researcher to include information on things like sample sizes or the number of case studies, the number of respondents the individual would be expecting to question and how access would be achieved. It may also touch upon ethical issues. Methods sections should cover both data collection and methods for data analysis that are well aligned with the research questions and objectives, the research setting and conceptual framework.
In the next section, the researcher would usually articulate the significance of the proposed research along with its limitations. This is often followed by a project schedule and timeline, and an overview of resource or training requirements. This last section is important for the reader to be able to evaluate the feasibility the study and its expected contribution in relation to its costs. The last section of an academic proposal is the list of references. Sometimes there is also an appendix with supporting information and documents.
Group – In pairs, or on your own, draw up a list of the similarities and differences between writing proposals for business and research. Take notes and develop a visual illustration, table or figure that illustrates these differences.
This question is one about where emphasis is placed in different kinds of research. If the emphasis is more of an academic one then the research will focus more on contributing to an existing literature. Therefore, a literature review for an academic project is likely to be more detailed than for a piece of practitioner research. A big prize for academics is to develop, improve or establish a new theory which helps others explain the world around them. For this to happen academics must have a fairly comprehensive overview of the existing literature on the subject(s) they are exploring. Contributions to knowledge can also come from methodological innovations. Academic proposals sometimes emphasise aspects of this so as to indicate the rigour or novelty of the methodology to be adopted.
When writing proposals for business, the emphasis is more on what the research will do for an organisation in a particular context of practice. Therefore, the appraisal of the situation or setting is key. This is not to say, that the literature is not important, but researchers often only need to address literatures that are particularly useful for their purpose. All objectives require justification with a view to the expected benefits of the proposed activities for the organisations involved. Rather than an abstract and introduction consultants offer an offer a summary which explains why this study is important and what benefits and value will ensue from its conduct.
Academic research proposals often give heavy emphasis to a justification of the methodology to be adopted. Sometimes this goes into the detail of its philosophical stance, the methodological implications that derive from this and the methods to be used. This is presented so as to indicate rigour. In contrast, a business proposal focuses on the content of the research and the processes that will be adopted – both in the context of what is possible within the constraints of time cost and resources that will be required. In business proposal the methods are often split into two sections – one outlining the proposed research activities, and another detailing how the impact or success of certain activities or interventions will be evaluated.
Academics focus on the significance of their study (in relation to a literature) and set out the limitations (something business reports don’t always emphasise). They also tend to address ethical issues. Ethical issues as of no less importance to practitioner research but these are not foregrounded in quite the same way. A clearly articulated work plan and assessment of the resources required tend to be important elements of both research and business proposals.
Individual – Tony Morgan argues that good proposals are built on empathy. He highlights the importance of understanding your audience. In practice, this can sometimes be difficult to achieve. Have a look at the scenarios outlined below. Make a list of activities you can pursue to find out more about the respective audience of a proposal:
- You are a new business consultant and you are asked to write a proposal for a consultancy for a small fast food chain you know relatively little about. They are interested in ways to enhance their online order and delivery service.
All business improvement begins with as good an understanding as you can get into what the benefits you can offer to your customer (often in comparison to the competition). When there are many competitors to choose from – and fast food would fit into this – superior online ordering and delivery could be a key success factor. This requires a consultant to conduct some research.
One approach might be a focus on understanding just what the customer needs are and also what exactly are the deficiencies with the current arrangements in order to ascertain ideally what they would like. This might take the form of a survey or some in-depth qualitative interviews. Choice of sample would be important here as it would need to individuals who actually buy this kind of food in the way proposed. Sometimes it can also be helpful the visit the business as a costumer and to talk to other customers to get a feel for what they are looking for (importance of empathy) but also where the ‘pain points’ are when it comes to their order and delivery service. An analysis of reviews on the internet could complement such research and provide useful insights into the challenges and strengths of the business. Secondly, it is also important to examine the website of the business and to interview both members of its management and costumer-facing employees. Their experience of the business, of strength and weaknesses and of how order and delivery could be improved may differ. It can also be helpful to ask oneself why the business has requested consultancy services at this time, and who is likely to support or reject change in the way orders and deliveries are organized.
Once the researcher has come to a better understanding of the business and of the main problems (real or perceived) that make the leadership of the business search for a new solution, the researcher is in a much better position to actually do that: search and identify an appropriate solution. This would require some desk research how other businesses do their online ordering and delivery. It is important to be careful here about the ethics – looking at businesses in a different sector or part of the country might help to overcome this. Again, it can be really helpful to make an effort to imagine oneself as a costumer when evaluating the benefits and limitations of different order and delivery systems.
Finally, the third component might involve an investigation and comparison of different proprietary on-line and delivery systems that are available. Consideration could then be given to which would best deliver those benefits that the customers had indicated and an assessment of any trade-offs (cost or otherwise) could be made. Again, an emphatic approach may help to decide if an existing system could be adapted or if the development of a new system may provide some competitive edge. At all times it is important to bear in mind that the ultimate objective of your work is to identify and ‘sell’ a solution to the management of the fast food chain.
- You plan a research project on women leadership in the IT industry. As part of your research you would like to observe team meetings but you need to establish field access.
Achieving access for conducting research is always difficult but there are ways to improve your success. First, it will be helpful to review the literature on women in leadership roles. Women and management is of great current interest to academics but also professional bodies and the media – so your research could have a large audience. It should not be too difficult to identify individuals who have recently been profiled as leaders and to narrow this down to those in the IT field. Once done, a direct (and authentic) approach setting out what you would like to do might well gain you the access you require. Senior managers have often spent a great deal of time getting to the positions they have, so they won’t want to grant access to someone that they don’t know, who might come along and waste their time or even damage them. However, many leaders also want others to be able to achieve what they have achieved, so doing anything that helps and promotes this may well be of interest to them. In that sense their ‘audience’ and reason to be involved is likely to differ from yours. So it is important to put oneself in their shoes (i.e. be empathic) when considering how to best approach them.
The underlying message here may be to find ways to reassure them of confidentiality and of your ethical standards. A high-quality information sheet and consent form can help to convey serious scholarly intent. Another approach might be to use your own social networks to identify individuals who perform this kind of leadership role in the IT industry and use them to broker a contact. This has the advantage that you come ‘recommended’ so to speak and ‘risk’ to them from participating is consequently reduced. However, it can be quite daunting to be confronted with a request for observational research. While we do not want to mislead our research participants about our intentions, it is possible to pursue a more incremental approach where one conducts an interview and builds rapport before asking to observe team meetings.
A third approach could involve a blog post or an advert in an appropriate practitioner journal explaining the research and asking for volunteers to take part in the study, spelling out the benefits of their participation might also yield some success. Again, in order to decide where to place such advert or post, it is helpful to do some research on the experiences and networks of women working in IT, and on women leadership networks more generally. You need to know your audience – in this case your potential research participants. This audience differs from the academics that are evaluating your research proposal. Therefore, it is usually not helpful (and a sign of a lack of engagement and empathy) if you provide them all with the same proposal!
- You are asked to write a research proposal for a dissertation project on supply chain management in the apparel industry in China.
There are two approaches that first design of a study might take place when researching a topic like this – particularly in relation to a dissertation. One approach to adopt would-be to take a case approach, where the case is a single company selling apparel with supply chains in China. If this approach were adopted the student would need to identify a suitable company and then make approaches to interview the appropriate management personnel such as the design team, the production and operations managers, the buyers and merchandisers. Using a case design, the methodology would be a fairly inductive one, with the student finding out as much as they can and learning about the issues involved in supply chain management in the apparel industry – particularly in the context of China. As with any research, there would be an expectation for the student to read whatever literature they could find on the subject in order to inform the questions they ask and be able to give more structures to the answers they received.
Following some scandals in the apparel industry in China, it may be difficult to gain access. Such concerns should therefore be kept in mind when developing an engagement strategy and corresponding information sheets and contact emails. Again, as the audience of an information sheet and of an academic proposal differs, the documents should differ both in structure and content. In terms of a proposal, there would need to be some indication as to how the company case would be selected. Some reference to the current literature on supply chain management in the apparel industry, indicating an understanding of the issues involved. A section on methodology indicating what levels of management would need to be interviewed, whether visits overseas (to China) would be required and how the information would be marshalled into the final dissertation. References would also need to be included both on supply chain and on research methodology in relation to case study research. In contrast, an information sheet should explain the purpose of the research in clear terms and outline the role of research participants in the study. It should cover the benefits, risks and ethical challenges of the researcher from the perspective of the participant rather than the researcher. Again, an empathic approach can be helpful when designing information sheets, contact emails and consent forms. After all, these documents should encourage potential research participants to take part rather than making them feel overwhelmed or even threatened.
A second approach that might be considered could be a survey of companies in the clothing industry. Adopting a survey design would require a much more extensive literature review to take place than in the case study approach above. This is because the survey would require more detailed questions to be asked of individuals within the organisation being surveyed. Prior to any questionnaires being sent out it would probably be sensible to telephone the company to clarify that they do have supply chains in China as well as gain an understanding of exactly to whom the questionnaire should be sent. Questionnaires sent to a named person have much more likelihood of being returned. To improve the success rate still further, telephoning this individual in advance to warm them that a questionnaire is coming and reassure them as to its importance (even offer a précis of the findings) should also increase participation levels. This strategy is particularly helpful when the researcher combines background research with empathy: Who should be called or emailed about the survey? What time of the day may be convenient? How can one make it as easy as possible for participants to take part in the research? How can they be assured that the research is conducted in an ethical way?
In terms of the proposal, indication should be offered as to the key issues that emerge from the literature on supply chain management – particularly in relation to clothing and China, so as to give an indication as to the likely questions that will need to be answered. Indication should also be given as to how access will be gained, how many companies will be approached, how many people in the organisation will the questionnaire the addressed to and how the analysis will take place. As with the case study proposal a reference section would also be expected.
Note: Not all questions have answers, this is because some questions don't lend themselves to a clear correct answer - dicuss with you're tutor if you're not sure of your work on the questions not on this website.