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Managing management research

Options:     Print Version - Managing management research, part 1 Print view

Planning research – a guide for MBAs and executive development

Adapted by the authors from: Managing Management Research, K Howard and J Peters, MCB University Press Limited, 1990

Once a topic has been decided, it is tempting to go straight into the information gathering phase to get the project underway. However, the old advice about examination technique applies very strongly indeed to management research – before launching into the answer, take a little time to plan the approach. A few days, or even a few hours, spent on putting together a really good plan will pay enormous dividends.

A good plan is one which, however revised, is broadly adhered to and leads to a successful conclusion. This is a crucial point – a plan which is made simply to pay lip service to the idea of making a plan and is then ignored can be worse than no plan at all.

Efficient project work demands a schedule in which activities are given starting and finishing dates and, where appropriate, resource requirements should be indicated.

The major purposes of such planning are to:

a) clarify the aims and objectives of the researcher;
b) define the activities required to attain these aims and the order in which they take place;
c) identify various critical points or 'milestones' in the research at which progress can be reviewed and the research plan reassessed;
d) produce estimates of times at which the various milestones will be reached so that progress can be clearly measured;
e) ensure that effective use is made of key resources;
f) define priorities once the research is underway;
g) serve as a guide for increasing the likelihood of successful completion on time.

If this list seems over-elaborate the reader should remember that the fewer the resources of time and money the greater the need for careful planning, and that in any research project the key resource is always the student's own time. Furthermore, planning is most necessary where the activities involved are non-routine so that possible difficulties can be anticipated.

Objectives

The objectives of a project should have been clearly identified at the outset, and included in topic selection. It is, however, worth restating objectives when planning, simply to remain focused on the reasons for the research, and the outputs required.
Try to set down as clearly and concisely as possible:

  • a one or two-line summary of the research to be undertaken;
  • the expected outputs, quantified as precisely as possible
  • any other benefits to the organization;
  • any benefits to the researcher;
  • any benefits to other people
  • a brief summary of the methodology to be used, and why.

These objectives, possibly revised as the research progresses, are the basis of the work to be undertaken.

Contents of a project plan

  • Description of general problem area in addition to the specific problem
  • Expected contribution to "the body of knowledge"
  • Depending on level of study; may need to be thorough and properly referenced
  • Methodology described in some detail
  • Start and completion dates, and key milestones
  • Provisional chapter headings

Time

A key resource in management research is time. For part-time programmes such as the Executive MBA or other executive development programmes, students will mostly be managers with a full-time job as well. It is an unusual organization which permits day-to-day responsibility to be unloaded whilst a project is being undertaken. Efficient time management is, therefore, essential. Indeed, some organizations see the benefits of improved time management, which should come from undertaking in-post management research, as an important output of the learning process.

The answer is not usually to move to a 12-hour working day, abandon weekends and forget about holidays. If a manager already conforms to these work tendencies, he or she will inevitably undertake research work in the same way, despite any advice to the contrary. However, those who are able to delegate, manage their time well, and wish to maintain a relationship with family and friends – take heart. The answer, as is so often the case, is to work "smarter, not harder".

Delegation is very important, and a research project is an ideal time to start to encourage subordinates who are ready for more responsibility. It would be interesting to determine the effect on assistants and subordinates of their bosses embarking on a significant management research project; in many cases, a quite dramatic step forward in career development is the outcome. Managers should therefore consider delegating work as an altruistic as well as a selfish act.

An increased workload is an ideal time to examine how a typical day or week is spent. Internal correspondence, travelling time, telephone calls, unscheduled appointments and so on are all major consumers of working time. Possibly some of those could be eliminated.

There are a host of books and articles on time management, and a few on the related art of delegation. It may be worth reading one or two as part of the planning process.

Many manager-students are likely to be involved in action research of one kind or another, where the research work and resultant findings become part of a manager's job. In this case, the workplace will be a laboratory for some of the ideas to be tested.

This calls for another type of delegation; one which involves others in certain parts of the research process. For example, if a project is to enter a new market with an existing product, there may be a need to involve the market research department, the sales manager and the product manager, as well as customer service and after-sales staff. They will all, to an extent, be playing an important part in your research, and so should be "managed" appropriately. The enthusiasm and assistance of these other staff, who provide temporary research assistance, can be highly important in making a project a success, and saving considerable time and effort.

Account must be taken of the contribution of others to your research programme – particularly if a qualification is in prospect. Regardless of the purpose for which the work is being done, full credit and acknowledgement must be given to those who have made significant inputs. Joint or shared research, properly chronicled, is acceptable in traditional academic settings, but what must be made clear is the nature and extent of the work completed by the separate parties. If nothing else, you should take the trouble to thank by name in the "acknowledgements" section those who have helped in your research project.

Scheduling

It is a critical part of the planning process to identify the milestones of a research project, and put dates on them. Once identified, and scheduled, they should be adhered to religiously, unless revised for a good reason. If there is slippage, this is invariably to the detriment of the whole project – the analysis suffers, the presentation is not done as effectively as it could be, the implementation of findings is delayed or abandoned. Dropping a stage when you feel more could be added to it, because deadlines demand it, may require great self-discipline. It is, however, usually the right thing to do in a time-limited programme.

Typically, project milestones might be:

  • Start
  • Finalize topic
  • Complete planning
  • Complete literature search
  • Complete live information gathering
  • Complete analysis, testing (and in some cases, implementation of findings)
  • Complete writing up

Inevitably there will be overlaps, but the planning phase will need to be completed before a new activity commences.

It is possible here to utilize the operations management technique of network analysis to plan and control scheduling. In most cases, a fairly simple network will suffice. This will highlight critical activities which will hold up other activities and delay overall project completion if not finished on time.

A simple network can generally be managed using an office wall planner. An example of a calendar of events for an action-based research project based around improvement of products returned as faulty by customers, might look like this:

  • 1 February: project agreed
  • 1-10 February: proposal and outline plan written, and list of expected benefits presented to client
  • 10-16 February: detailed workload plan formulated; schedule drawn up; resources detailed and agreed (against benefit statement)
  • 17-28 February: start literature search and review of research sources; visit business library; contact research associations and professional institutions for guidance
  • 1 March: start live information gathering phase; design questionnaire; write detailed interview plan; send out questionnaire; conduct interviews
  • 1 April: start writing report; begin with methodology, objectives and literature review
  • 1 May: finish literature search and start detailed analysis of findings from live surveys
  • 10 May: finish live information gathering
  • 1 June: finish analysis
  • 1 July: test-run for new procedure
  • 15 July: finish writing; incorporate any feedback from first stage of implementation
  • 1 August: distribute finished report to Board members; hand in bound copy of dissertation and executive summary to examining institution
  • 8 August: present at Board meeting
  • 1 December: update report and presentation on implementation and results to date, for further consideration by the Board.

In this example, there are some fairly obvious but nevertheless noteworthy points:

  1. Most of the activities overlap.
  2. The time allocated does not presume continual working. A ten-week period may actually contain only ten hours work, spread over the ten weeks. An estimate should be made of actual time necessary to complete an activity.
  3. There are some obviously "critical" activities; questionnaires cannot be sent until they have been designed and printed; analysis cannot begin until questionnaires have been returned.

Again, once a timetable has been set, it should only be changed by design rather than negligence. If slippage of "critical" activities is allowed to occur, the time can only be made up at the expense of another activity further down the line. And as anyone who has overrun an appointment at the beginning of a busy day will testify, delays tend to compound each other with the danger that the later activities may be almost completely squeezed out. If the final activity is the writing up of project findings for your Board of directors to an inviolable deadline, the only possible consequence is a deeply substandard presentation.

Expecting the unexpected

However complex a set of activities are they can always be scheduled. Software packages such as Microsoft Project can work out a critical path and network for the hundreds of interlinking activities which may be involved.

The one thing which will confound any schedule is uncertainty. The computer programme for a construction project will not be able to take account of a revolution or an earthquake; a research project network will not be able to anticipate an unexpected company takeover, or your boss leaving and a new one revising your project area halfway through.

There is really little more to be said on this apart from the need to expect unexpected events, and not be too surprised by surprises. If time available is reduced by a month half-way through the project, there is little to be done apart from rescheduling and revising the objectives – and carrying on.

It is worth setting aside a creative hour and noting down circumstances which might arise, and determining how they will affect the project if they do occur. It is always desirable to schedule the finishing date ahead of the actual deadline, to provide a buffer against the inevitable unplanned-for events.

Having said that, it would be detrimental to a six-month project to build in two months "insurance" time, rather than one or two weeks. If an "unexpected" event has more than a one-in-four chance of occurring, it is probably worth planning for. If below this probability level, it is sensible to plan contingency arrangements, but not in detail.

Resources

In addition to consideration of the proportion of your own time which can be made available it is an important part of the planning process to determine what other resources are required. These might include:

  • people, to help with research, to delegate day-today work to, to word-process the report, etc.
  • money, to finance travel, mailing of questionnaires, on-line searches, etc.
  • equipment, such as access to a photocopier to copy articles, a laptop or PC, and so on

At the planning stage a researcher should itemize every resource needed as exactly as possible, and ensure that they are available when required.

People and politics

Management research and its implementation about people as well as about the mechanics of research work. The political and territorial sensibilities of others in, and possibly outside, the organization must be taken into account. Political points might, for example, include:

  • If the study is focusing in part or even wholly on the area of operation of a colleague, a researcher can expect a measure of resistance or non-cooperation. This is simply because a research study, by its very nature, will recommend better ways to do things – and no-one enjoys their best efforts being taken apart and weaknesses exposed, however legitimately.
  • If the study crosses the ' 'hidden agenda'' of someone further up the hierarchy, problems will most probably arise.

Get started!

Finally, after extolling the virtues of having a plan, it is important to stress that the opposite problem, of over-planning, should be avoided. It is easy, if a researcher is unsure how to take the first step, to retreat into refining and elaborating plans.

Take the first step anyway, otherwise a kind of paralysis can ensue. A few days, or a week or two, leading to two or three pages of concrete steps and action points to be discussed with your supervisor will, in general, suffice.

Keep your plan to hand, refine it, change it if circumstances dictate, and above all, use it as a working document.