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Managing management research

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.

Topic selection – executive development

A full-time student is often given a relatively free hand in choosing a research topic. A practising manager on an executive development programme of study, however, may be directed quite specifically. This means that he or she may be working to a broad objective set or guided by senior managers in the organization. This is not usually a constraint on innovation or imagination.

Selecting a topic

If you do have a relatively free hand in the selection of a research topic, you might start by thinking about the direction in which you want your career to go, within or outside your present organization, and look for a topic to give you relevant experience and knowledge.

Another useful idea is to review your organization's objectives and strategies, and look for any gaps of knowledge or practice which could be filled. These are quite likely to be cross-functional, where no one person or department has total responsibility. A third approach would be to look for efficiencies, or to look outwards at expansion; new products, markets or customers. If the study is for a qualification, however, care must be taken to ensure that there is sufficient substance in the work to be undertaken.

It may not be advisable to focus an MBA-level research project entirely on your own work area, as it wastes an opportunity to expand personal knowledge and experience of other functions within the business.

Typically, a Master's level research topic in business should centre on an issue which is:

  • important
  • needs to be tackled
  • is consistent with corporate objectives
  • has a senior manager (who may or may not be your own line supervisor) interested enough to support the topic as a client
  • is cross-functional, but partly within your own experience and/or responsibility, and
  • is in line with your own career objectives and aspirations.

Top management often identifies key issues which, ideally, the organizations should address. Despite the importance of these issues it is often the case that resources are not available (or made available) to explore them. Master's projects can be appropriate vehicles for satisfying the needs of both the organization and the researcher.

At topic selection stage, it is very useful to exchange ideas and suggestions with others. Appropriate individuals will usually be self-evident, but would normally include senior executives as well as your project supervisor, and fellow students or researchers on the programme.

Agreeing topics which are imposed

It is customary in an academic setting for the researcher to play a major part in topic selection. In business research, and in action learning oriented programmes, the topic is often suggested or imposed by management, and the direction given might be highly specific; "I want you to determine the feasibility of entering this market sector", or more general, "It's about time someone looked at communications around here". In this case it is important to find out precisely what is expected of you.

Questions you might ask are:

  • Can I be given a written brief?
  • Is the project in line with company objectives and strategy?
  • What is the deadline for completion?

Congruence with corporate strategy is of immense importance. Nothing could be more frustrating than to complete a major research project, only to find that the company was not intending to follow that route anyway (or that direction has been changed mid-project).

For that reason a researcher should insist on a written brief, if one has not been given, and circulate it widely, including top management if this is feasible. If the research is, in part, to satisfy academic requirements it is important to be personally comfortable with it, and essential that it is of sufficient substance, and can be completed in time.

Looking ahead, progress reports should be issued periodically by the researcher, restating the objectives and giving outline conclusions to date, and making as clear as possible the implementation issues as they stand.

Armed with guidance and evidence acquired from a range of sources, one or more topics might commend themselves for fuller consideration. Initially at least, topic analysis might take the form of a short (1,000 words or less) description of what is proposed, and why.

The topic analysis could be structured in the following manner, though the weight given to each section will vary according as to whether or not the research is part of an academic study programme.

(1) Problem definition

This provides the focus for the study. In an executive education or in-company development programme, the problem should be of concern not only to yourself, but to the organization and/or a senior member in it. You will need a clearly defined statement that has been agreed by those concerned.

Definition can be helped by:

  • identifying the problem;
  • providing the background to the problem;
  • demonstrating the general significance of the problem (e.g. importance to the relevant profession);
  • providing a national or international context to the problem; and
  • referring to the relevant literature.

(2) Statement of aim

This must derive from your definition of the problem. In defining your aim you should avoid generalities, set out the purpose, scope and limitations of the project, and provide a clear focus for your study. A vague or over-general aim will lead you into difficulties when collecting data.

(3) Value to the organization (if appropriate)

Applied or organization-based research must, by definition, have potential value to the organization. This is an important criterion by which to judge the suitability of your proposed study.

(4) Feasible project design

A good project brief will make the design of the project relatively easy, if not automatic. It will make clear what methods can be used, although you will still have a choice. It will also become clear as to whether the project can be carried out in the time available, and what skills and competencies are required.

(5) Use of data

A good project will require access to relevant data. This will involve library and field research. If the data you need to collect are politically sensitive, or confidential, you may have difficulty obtaining them. Such issues need to be resolved before you start your study.

The benefit of exposing topic analysis to critical examination by interested parties cannot be overemphasized. Many of the questions raised will lead to modification of intentions. It is much to be preferred that these questions are asked prior to the commencement of the study rather than after it has started – when it might be too late to rectify deficiencies.

Requisite levels

In qualification programmes there should be enough "meat" in a topic to justify the award being sought. Doctoral research necessarily requires a high degree of generalizability – application of specific principles to other organizations and circumstances – and at MBA level also, a topic should be more than simply a routine write-up of a case study.

Identifying an area of study on an executive development programme

Personal value of the topic

It is up to the individual to obtain the maximum self-development from the research project. A key factor in this respect is the choice of research topic.

Other things being equal, a project that is closely allied with the student's career aims is better than one that has no obvious relevance. Thus students who intend to pursue careers as, for example, business consultants, are clearly well advised to familiarize themselves with the 'state of the art' in some field which has high relevance to the future rather than studying a topic which has little interest to practitioners.

Management research in context

Management research is the application of information which has been gathered and analysed to the resolution of a given problem or question. It should contribute, whether directly or indirectly, to the decision-making processes in an organization. It should be of sufficient depth and rigour to satisfy an organizational client, accomplish the given objective and, where applicable, satisfy the academic requirements of an educational institution.

Research in business and management should normally:

  • be aimed at a problem to which there is no single answer; rather than a 'puzzle' to which there is a previously known answer which can be found;
  • be externally judged, by client, supervisor, and/or examiner as appropriate;
  • draw on extant knowledge as far as is possible;
  • be rigorous in its analysis, and have a consistent internal logic;
  • be aimed towards a tangible output;
  • be communicated;
  • be developmental, i.e. should bring skills and knowledge to the researcher which are of relevance to his or her work which were not present before.

Management research, especially within an executive education framework, should be contextual, applied and congruent with the objectives of the organization within which the researcher is working; otherwise it loses its meaning.

Managers usually come to management research for one of four reasons:

  • they are asked by their organization's senior management to solve a problem;
  • they take it on themselves to solve a problem;
  • they are required to do so as part of a management development initiative within their organization;
  • they are studying for an academic qualification in management.

It is always the case that data can be obtained and processed. The measure of the potential impact of the research – its "quality" – is the appropriateness of the data gathered, the rigour with which the data are analysed, and the presentation of the data, analysis and conclusions in such a way as to communicate effectively with the target audience. By so doing, problems are solved, and rewards, whether externally bestowed or of improved self-esteem, are gained.

In most cases, a well-managed research project, to well-defined and appropriate objectives, brings tremendous benefits to the organization and individual alike. It is one of the most powerful personal development tools available, with the advantage of showing tangible paybacks for the organization.

The critical starting point for any project work is to be clear about what it is you are seeking to achieve. Whatever the temptation and pressures, researchers should never launch themselves into projects without investing some time in thinking and planning. There is much to be said for attempting, in outline, to envisage the full study process and its output.

The important qualities to be demonstrated, whether on organization-based development programmes, business-school-based executive education programmes, or formal qualification-bearing studies, are the ability to:

  • select and organize facts;
  • differentiate between facts and opinions;
  • develop arguments in a logical way;
  • show originality;
  • develop and implement conclusions.

It will be necessary to apply appropriate techniques, methods of material selection and investigative procedures. In addition to clarity of argument, proper documentation and effectiveness of the presentation, you will be expected to make competent use of research techniques and have an understanding of relevant concepts in the field of your profession.

A valuable and useful research study should take account of work already done on the subject, demonstrate that it has comparative value, and be of practical application to the respective field of study.

Proper credit must be given to the sources used in the study. Objective, reliable reporting of factual information, an analytic approach, and a professional style of presentation are important.

All of these factors should be taken into account during the initial planning phase in thinking about an area of study to be undertaken.

Selecting a project topic

The primary aim of a research project such as an MBA dissertation is to develop the individual student's ability to conduct independent research. It is not expected that there will be a significant contribution to knowledge; indeed, many good dissertations do no more than review systematically and impose some structure on a field of interest or demonstrate that the student can carry out the processes of research adequately.

In many cases, the student who is involved in a research project for a taught course will find that a list of topics is made available by academic staff. The student can choose from this list in the light of personal interest, career plans, etc. In such cases, it is safe to assume that the topic is viable provided that the research project is conducted competently.

In other cases, especially where the course is part-time and students are sponsored by their employers, the dissertation is often expected to provide a solution to some problem in their own organization, as discussed above.

Some thought starters in identifying an area of study

Purposes or objectives include:

  • description (what?)
  • explanation (why?)
  • speculation (what if . . . ?)
  • measurement (how much . . .?)
  • performance improvement (how can we . . .?)
  • prediction (what happens if . .. ?)
  • policy analysis (where are we going ... ?)
  • technique analysis (how can we use ...?).

Design

Designs (i.e. how we plan to address the problem) include:

  • historical analysis
  • case study
  • survey
  • data analysis
  • comparative analysis
  • mathematical or conceptual modelling
  • mapping.

Tools or methodology

Tools for research include:

  • literature survey
  • experimentation
  • interview
  • questionnaire
  • informal data gathering
  • statistical analysis.