How to... conduct experiments

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  1. The experiment in management research
  2. Some design considerations
  3. Types of experiment

The experiment in management research

What is an experiment?

An experiment is a deliberate attempt to manipulate a situation, in order to test a hypothesis that a particular cause creates a particular effect, in other words that varying the input will affect the output.

A procedure adopted on the chance of its succeeding, for testing a hypothesis etc., or to demonstrate a known fact. Oxford Dictionary of English

In the scientific method, an experiment ...is a set of actions and observations, performed in the context of solving a particular problem or question, to support or falsify a hypothesis or research concerning phenomena. Wikipedia

The experiment is the cornerstone of the scientific, positivist approach to knowledge, and the basic method of the natural sciences. Much of what we know about the natural world we know through experiments.

The following are its key characteristics:

  • It is a structured and manipulated process, a deliberate imposition of a treatment.
  • It has a number of independent variables, as causes or inputs, and one dependent variable, or effect or output, with the goal being to see how changing the former affects the latter.
  • It needs to control other variables which might cause the observable changes in the dependent variable, so that you can isolate all possible reasons why the selected variable might behave that particular way.
  • It usually tests a hypothesis, derived from a particular theory.

"Basically, an experimental design requires several factors: a setting where the real world can be simulated, one or more independent variables that can be varied, and resultant effects on dependent variables which can be observed."

Jacob, F. and Ehret, M. (2006) "Self-protection vs opportunity seeking in business buying behavior: an experimental study", Journal of Business & Industrial Marketing, Vol. 21 No. 2

The experiment is a particularly useful method to explain change, to look at cause and effect, or to deduce a hypotheses from a theory. An important proviso is the ability to isolate the independent, or causal, variable from other causes of the particularly effect you are examining.

In a biological experiment, we can vary the effect of the light (the independent variable) on a plant, and so show how light affects plant growth. It is possible to grow the plant in laboratory conditions, from which other factors can be excluded.

The experiment in management research – drawbacks

Maylor and Blackmon (2005, pp. 202-3) point out how important it is, in drawing up a hypothesis, to ensure that the cause of A is B and not C or D. In order to do this, you need to isolate the causes, and examine each in turn. In a laboratory, you would set up experimental conditions for each factor, test each and assess its likely impact on the dependent variable.

In scientific experiments it is usually possible to create conditions that exclude other possible causes from the one you are examining – that is part of the function of a laboratory. Humans, however, operate as part of social organisms, which are inevitably more complex and difficult to categorize than natural organisms.

Imagine you are investigating the cause of absenteeism at work. You hypothesize that the cause is stress. Senior management, however, believe that its cause is inadequate supervision. How would you set up a measure for stress, or exclude other factors? How easy would it be to investigate stress, if management had other ideas? 

The above example illustrates three difficulties in the experimental method in management: the difficulty of measuring aspects of human behaviour, of disentangling causes, and the fact that many of the environments where you are likely to undertake field research may well be subject to other influences creating conditions which may be outside your control, and unsympathetic to your need to prove a particular hypothesis.

Furthermore, humans have the attribute of consciousness, which makes observation difficult; they may behave differently if they know they are being watched, for example they may adopt behaviours which they think are expected of them. The following quote from the famous sociologist Anthony Giddens is also applicable in the business and management area:

"An experiment can...be defined as an attempt, within artificial conditions established by an investigator, to test the influence of one or more variables upon others. Experiments are widely used in the natural sciences, but the scope for experimentation in sociology is limited. We can only bring small groups of individuals into a laboratory setting and in such experiments, people know they are being studied and may behave differently from normal". (Giddens, 1989)

The experiment in management research – advantages

Despite its drawbacks, experiments have been used in management research including some famous ones.

Harvard Business School professor Elton Mayo studied the productivity of workers in the Hawthorne Plant of the Western Electric Company in Cicero, Illinois in the 1920s, with a view to determining what affected worker productivity. The researchers manipulated the conditions of the workers in various ways, and came to a number of conclusions:

  • Individual aptitude is a poor predictor of performance.
  • There was a "group life" amongst the workers which affected performance.
  • Each group had its own norm of a fair day's work.
  • The workplace is a social system.

However, they also observed that productivity tended to increase whatever the conditions, and came to the conclusion that observation had an impact on performance – which substantiates the point made by Giddens (see above).

In 1911, Frederick W. Taylor published The Principles of Scientific Management in which he looked at how the application of scientific method could aid productivity. He introduced time and motion studies, which looked at the sequence of motions used to perform a job, and expounded the idea of scientific management, which comprised:

  • Replacing rule-of-thumb work methods with scientific ones.
  • Placing emphasis on the importance of training.
  • Ensuring that scientific methods are followed on an ongoing basis.
  • Dividing work up between workers and managers, with the workers carrying out the tasks and the managers implementing scientific management in order to plan work.

It would almost be true to say, therefore, that the science of management owes its genesis partly to experimental design!

One of the key advantages of experimental design in management research is the fact that it requires "a setting where the real world can be simulated". The advantage of a simulation is that you can set up an imaginary situation with realistic elements, so you are not dependent on the constraints of the real world. Thus, if you want to investigate buying behaviour, or reaction to brands, you are not dependent on finding real buyers buying real products, or reacting to real brands. This means that you can set up the variables to reflect the hypotheses that you want to test. Used in conjunction with the questionnaire (see using questionnaires effectively), the experiment can help yield some quite sophisticated information on attitudes and behaviour (see the examples in types of experiment).

Experimental design can also provide excellent opportunities for observing behaviour – both the Hawthorne and the Taylor experiments used forms of observation, and yielded interesting results.

However, experiments differ from observation in that they deliberately attempt to manipulate a situation, as opposed to observing what is there, or else, as with Taylor, fitting what is observed into a framework. The Hawthorne researchers may have observed, but their presence changed the workers' environment and conditions. This may well be beyond the researcher's control and can be a cumbersome process – the Hawthorne research took five years because of the difficulties in manipulating the physical conditions.

The experimental method also differs from the survey in that it seeks to explain causes, while surveys look at relationships between variables (in the absenteeism example quoted above, a survey could be used to ask staff members what their reasons for absenteeism were, but these would merely yield related factors rather than proven causes).

In summary, the experiment remains of value in management research, although it is used differently and "pure" experiments remain relatively rare. As an undergraduate or MBA student, you should probably use an experimental design with extreme care, and certainly under the close counsel of your supervisor.

References

Giddens, A. (1989), Sociology, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK

Mayor, H. and Blackman, K. (2005), Researching Business and Management, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK