Research Methods for Managers

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Business processes today are more interrelated than ever. [1] It can be difficult to see all the consequences of a particular action. As complexity grows executives have to be thoughtful of their actions. As Daniel Kahneman observed, when feedback of our actions is delayed, experience does not produce learning. [2] Systems thinkers call this phenomenon the difference between immediate and systemic causation. [3] In these cases it is almost impossible to take any action, observe the results and draw the right conclusion from it. In these cases, we need rigorous research that can address the root causes of a phenomenon, not just the immediate and visible consequences. Today's managers need to address the secondary consequences of their actions. If they don't take the time to solve the underlying reason behind an unexpected problem it will come to the surface again. [4] Continuously trying to solve the immediate problems lead to "fire fighting" and micromanaging. [5] Managers who don't take the time to understand the real underlying cause of a problem often feel a sense of lost control and unpredictability. But it does not need to be this way. That is why today not just scientists but also managers need to be familiar with the process of conducting research. By better understanding a problem they can take more appropriate actions and prevent the same kinds of problems from occurring again.

Research has the potential to critically analyze the strategic and operational strengths and weaknesses of an organization. By doing research we can make sense of large amounts of data, convert it to knowledge and gain insights into various business problems.6 According to strategy expert Julia Sloan executives need to draw a line between data, information, and knowledge.7 By analyzing data, organizing it into coherent and understandable parts we can create useful information. By critically examining the available information and attaching meaning to it we can gain knowledge about a particular problem we are addressing. As our knowledge grows throughout the years of experience we can gain wisdom about a particular industry, procedure, know-how, or situation we are in.8 However, everything should start with data, the most fundamental particle of understanding.
Throughout the last few decades data has become a fundamental part of doing business. In his insightful book, The World is Flat Thomas L. Friedman argues, with the rise of the information age we have undergone a process of information democratization.9 Today we have more data than our ancestors could’ve ever imagined. The majority of the people can access the majority of the available data, which means that almost every piece of information is available for almost everyone. Consequently, today the most important skill is not creating data, but understanding it.10 Critically examining data, gaining insight from it has become one of the most important skills an executive can possess. (Some thinkers call it “metacognition”; in other words, thinking about thinking.)11
Since the rise of Big Data, businesses have developed much better data analytic systems. As uncertainty and complexity grow the use of data analytics has become critical in today’s business environment.12 When people research complex phenomena they depict reality by simplifying it.13 By building theories researchers represent the complex nature of the problem more simply. By building a theory we are also building a model of reality that makes the phenomena understandable. Many scholars call these “maps” mental models.14 They are representations of reality that make the situation, phenomena or problem more comprehensible, transferable and understandable.
Jeannette Wing, a computer science professor at Columbia University and former corporate vice president of Microsoft Research argues, the ability to deal with large amounts of data is crucial.15 As complexity grows, making sense of data has become as fundamental as reading or writing. This process is called Computational Thinking. It is a way to solve problems by specifying step-by-step solutions for those problems.16 17 It has 4 basic parts. The first step is the Decomposition phase. We break down complex problems into smaller, more understandable and manageable components. In the second phase, we look for patterns and structural similarities between components. In the third phase, we use abstraction to understand the problem. We focus on the important details of the problem and ignore the ones that are not important to us. As the last step, we can develop algorithms by specifying a step-by-step solution or rules to solve the problem. This way we can better understand data, and build practical, usable and transferable solutions.18

To effectively conduct research it is necessary to follow the steps of a scientific research process perfected by research scholars.19 After considering a particular research topic we can develop a research proposal. Then we have to critically review the research literature to gain an understanding of theories that have already been developed. After that, we have to clarify our research philosophy and potential approaches we would use while conducting the research. After that, we can formulate our research design, negotiate access to reliable information and address ethical issues. After we are done with this we can plan the data collection process, considering one of the following methods: sampling, using secondary data, observation, interviews and research diaries, questionnaires. After collecting data we can analyse it quantitatively and qualitatively. After we analysed the data we can prepare our presentation. Let’s examine these steps a little further.
When researching the first step we should clarify the research topic. First of all, we have to examine the idea itself. We should start by examining the researcher’s relation to the topic itself. It is beneficial to conduct research about a topic that has personal significance. If the problem is meaningful and the researcher is passionate about it, it is more likely that he or she will persevere despite difficulties.20 Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, who studied creative achievements argues if people enjoy their work it is more likely that they will create something meaningful and personally significant.21 It is also important to have the necessary skills to conduct the research and also to have access to all the relevant data you will need. There is an ongoing debate among scholars about what makes research relevant.22 Speaking about management research relevance is most often measured by practical implications of the particular research.23 It is also beneficial to draw a Relevance Map to have insight into the areas or processes your research might affect. Visualizing information makes it much easier to understand.24
Finding relevant research ideas need not be a coincidence, it can be practised and planned for. One way is to use critical thinking to find ideas that might be potentially game-changing.25 We can critically examine every taken for granted assumption in the respective areas of life. Taking reality as the baseline we can find out the legitimacy and accuracy of our thoughts, beliefs, mental models and scripted solutions to certain problems. As an example think about Copernicus who critically examined the taken for granted belief that the Earth is the centre of the universe and successfully disproved it.26 Another approach to generating potentially relevant research ideas is using our creative thinking processes. Creative thinking focuses on possibilities and connecting seemingly unrelated ideas to find something new.27 It is highly beneficial to keep an open mind and expose yourself to new ways of doing things. Indeed, studies suggest the more significant a researcher’s contribution is to the scientific community the more likely the person has interests outside his or her main professional world.28 For example studies show Nobel laureates are twenty-two times more likely to partake as amateur actors, dancers, magicians, or other types of performers.29  A few tools we can use to come up with ideas in a creative way are: lateral thinking,30 brainstorming,31 analogical reasoning,32 metaphoric thinking33 among many others.