Qualitative Research Methods in Business

Introduction

As globalization takes root in the world economy, many businesses are starting to operate at an international level. However, majority of the chief executives of small and big companies will readily admit that penetrating the international market scene is no easy task. Despite the cut-throat competition for the ever-dwindling market share, many business managers are duped into the international market without undertaking a simple analysis on the viability of their products and services at the international scene. In the local scene, the media is full of stories about companies going under day after day due to a clear lack of understanding of local market trends. What they fail to understand is that business situations and problems are different, and each case or problem should be analyzed based on its merits and demerits (Saunders, Lewis, & Thornhill, 2002). They also fail to understand that the lifeblood of commerce and business in the contemporary world is information (Veal, 2005). This brings in the need to undertake scientific research as a tool that can be used to analyze the market environment, and also as a problem-solving tool.

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According to Shuttleworth (2008), research is a systematic and organized way of unearthing answers to the questions and challenges facing the people or organizations concerned. A start-up company specializing in the sale of beauty products may want to undertake a comprehensive market survey to know if the market is saturated with other beauty products from other companies, or the clientele to target. For the company to be successful, and portray the actual realities on the ground, the survey must be done in an organized and systematic manner. It must follow a distinct set of steps and procedures in order to get the most accurate results about the viability of its products. It must undertake a planned procedural survey, not a spontaneous one. This is because the survey must be focused and restricted to a specific scope – that of analyzing the market saturation and suitable clientele for its beauty products (Godin, 2001). It is therefore imperative to develop a method or structure that will be used to undertake the survey or research – the research methods.

There are two research methods commonly used in the process of data collection. These are the quantitative and the qualitative research designs or methods. Quantitative research concerns itself with counting and measuring entities, and producing specific averages, frequencies, and estimates between categories of groups. Qualitative research is more concerned with trying to understand the perceptions and behaviors of people. Having its origins in the social sciences, it is more concerned with understanding peoples’ core values, knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and fears (Taunton et al., 2006). Many questions asked in the business profession cannot be effectively answered through a quantitative research design. For instance, when a researcher asks a respondent why he prefers a certain beauty product over the other, the answer that will most probably be given is that of perception and attitude, not figures or estimates. Such type of question is therefore best answered through the use of qualitative research methods.

It is against this backdrop that this term paper aims to examine the contemporary approaches to qualitative analysis in business, explain the commonly used qualitative research techniques or methods, and finally elaborate on the use of qualitative research software. The qualitative research methods to be covered include open-ended interviewing, focus groups, and case study approaches.

Qualitative Research

Plainly put, qualitative research is a complex and enormous area of methodology which can easily take up the space of whole textbooks to be covered comprehensively. It is a field of investigation that cuts across disciplines and subject matters. It aims at gathering an in-depth understanding of the human behavior, and the rationale behind such behavior. According to (Veal, 2005), the discipline of qualitative research is mostly interested in the why and how a particular action or behavior is so, not just the where, what, and when. Hence, unlike in quantitative research where large random samples are used, qualitative research utilizes smaller but focused sample sizes. Due to its basic tenets of trying to understand the why and how, it has been found to be highly effective in the field of business, where managers are preoccupied with such type of questions on a daily basis when they want to become more experienced with a business experience such as understanding the market trends of their products or services. This is because qualitative research bears a special interest for investigating sensitive and complex issues that continue to affect and influence the decision making processes of business managers across the world (Tucker, Powell, & Meyer, 1995).

Gaining wide acceptance as a research method in the 1970’s, qualitative research has easily gained momentum in recent years to become one of the best methods of conducting any type of research in any field, especially in the business field. In some quarters, it is perceived to be competing with the more established quantitative research. According to Tuanton et al. (2006), this is an unfortunate trend since the two research approaches should indeed compliment each other, providing varied viewpoints, and answering different specific questions within any particular area. For example, if the area of study has previously never been investigated, qualitative research may be an important forerunner to any efforts of conducting quantitative research. Practically, it is almost impossible to administer a consequential structured questionnaire survey on client or customer satisfaction with a particular brand of product or service, if the important issues to the customer regarding the provision of that particular product or service are not known. Those issues of belief and attitudes towards the provision of the product or service can only be unearthed through qualitative research.

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At the other end, both approaches can compliment each other when qualitative research is used to help the researcher understand the findings of a previously conducted quantitative research (Tuanton et al., 2006). For example, when marketers are promoting a new brand of product or service, it is very easy to come up with the age categories of the people targeted by that particular product or service. But to uncover the reasons behind a certain age categories preference to a particular product can be difficult, and conventional surveys may fail to spot some of the vital factors. This exemplifies the need to carry out qualitative research to gain valuable insights missed out by the quantitative research. Whereas quantitative market research may aim to generate the required information about the percentage of customers and the size of the market aimed for a particular product, qualitative research would provide the necessary clarifications about the customers’ behavior and opinions towards that particular product (First Direct, 2009).

Qualitative research utilizes a variety of data collection techniques. The resulting data is often transcribed and analyzed using a variety of methods such as the development and interpretation on key themes technique (Tuanton et al. 2006). Some of the widely used methods of data collection in qualitative research include focus groups, open-ended interviews, and case studies. These methods will be discussed in detail elsewhere in this term paper

Contemporary Approaches to Qualitative Analysis in Business

Ever since its acceptance as a standard and scientific technique alongside the quantitative method, the qualitative research methods have blossomed into two main approaches – the direct and the indirect approaches (Veal, 2005). The approaches largely govern the type of data collection technique to be used in any business related survey. However, most qualitative methods utilize the direct approach. In this approach, the purpose of the study and the company or organization that commissioned it is clearly disclosed to the respondent. The nature and intent of the study is thoroughly discussed with the respondent prior to commencement of data collection (Dung, 2003). In this approach, questions that are direct and to the point are asked. Modern data collection technique such as the open-ended interviewing, focus groups, and case studies fall under this category.

In other researches, an indirect approach in qualitative research may be employed. In these types of studies, the accurate objective of the research is disguised, either by omitting any reference to the purpose of the study or by claiming a false purpose. This approach has come under a lot of pressure and misgivings from contemporary researchers who claim that a lot of deceit is involved in this particular approach (Veal, 2005). But those in defense of the approach feel that it provides more accurate and honest responses since the respondent does not have any chance to role-play the questions. However, all respondents should have a de-briefing session upon completion of the procedure that used the disguised method so that they could be enlightened on the true purpose of the research and the reason behind the deception. Projective techniques such as the association technique, completion technique, construction technique, and the expressive technique fall under the indirect approach (Dung, 2003). The figure below shows a summary of the classification of qualitative research procedures.

Just like politicians use focus groups to measure their popularity, policies, and public opinion towards them, companies and organizations use the various techniques in qualitative research to test if their products and services, and the advertisements that they produce, are satisfying the needs of customers. Indeed, current trends show that the glamour of market research business lies in qualitative research. It is the way to go for business managers who have a burning urge to know about the motivations and clues as to what really propels the market. As one author rightly puts it, “quantitative research, with its formalized questionnaires, statistics, and measurements is the dry measuring tape to the dash of the qualitative scissors in the marketing tailor’s sewing box” (Dobney.com, 2007). Below, the qualitative research methods of focus groups, open-ended interviewing, and case study will be discussed in detail.

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Classification of qualitative research procedures

Classification of qualitative research procedures

Focus Groups

Focus groups are a qualitative research technique that utilizes structured group discussions and group interviews to learn or obtain details about a precise topic (Cater, Lambert, & Yenco, 2002). Focus group interviews are specifically useful when the researcher need to explore the feelings and attitudes of a particular segment of people, and draw out defined issues previously unknown to him or her. Ideally, focus groups are most effective when they are composed of six to nine participants, brought in to discuss and shed light on a clearly defined subject of interest. The participants must be homogenous, representing a specific segment of the population. Indeed, participant homogeneity is vital if the proper understanding and perceptions of the issue in question is to be realized. In order to avoid participant and moderator fatigue, a typical focus group session should last for between 1 to 2 hours, with the latter being the absolute maximum time that a session can last. The function of the group moderator is to keep the discussion among the participants on track by asking a sequence of open-ended questions to motivate discussion.

In the business field, focus group qualitative research is the preferred point of entry for many companies’ marketing research strategies. If a firm wishes to undertake a comprehensive survey about the intake of its products or services in a particular market segment, the most effective manner to go about it is to select focus groups as a qualitative lead up to other quantitative market studies, phone surveys, online surveys, and other quantitative market research (Mariampolski, 2001). Focus groups are also important for start-up businesses in the early stages of strategy-decision making. The focus group discussions enables the management of start-up firms to comprehensively learn about market trends by learning about the values, perceptions, and beliefs that people hold towards certain products, including their own (Morgan, 1996). Well established firms also benefit immensely from undertaking the focus group discussions. This is because the focus groups offer the value of attaining an in-depth insight into the consumer attitude and belief structure. Such valuable insights can be effectively used for business strategy development. For example, when a firm undertakes a focus group qualitative research to scan for strategic opportunities within a particular market segment, it can uncover useful business and consumer buyer beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that may uncover an emerging trend. Such information can consequently be used to boost the firm’s sales within that market segment.

Steps in the Focus Group Process

Clearly define purpose

The most crucial step is to come up with the issues that the researcher would like to understand better in the process of undertaking the focus group discussion. The researcher must then formulate some clear-cut objectives relating to the issues in question. To obtain useful data from the focus group, the researcher must make the objectives as specific as possible (McNamara, 2006; Focus Groups, 2005).

Prepare interview questions

After clearly defining the purpose of the focus groups, the researcher should then develop a set of questions that will offer a general direction for the discussion. The questions should be formatted in a way that they flow from general to specific. The function of these questions is to stimulate debate, and therefore should be kept simple, open-ended, focused, and unbiased to the issues under study (Focus Groups, 2005). It should be remembered that these questions will serve merely as a guide. The actual discussion will undoubtedly extract more questions among the participants, and bring up more issues that may be of interest to the researcher. Since the focus group is supposed to last for not more than two hours per session, a researcher should only develop up to six questions (McNamara, 2006). In developing the questions, the researcher should always ask himself or herself which need or problem is expected to be tackled by the information collected during the session. For example, does the researcher want to understand how a particular product is fairing on the market, or does he want to know why a particular program is failing? This is a crucial area in the focus groups as it will determine the credibility of the data collected in relation to answering a particular need.

Identify and recruit participants

The researcher should then embark on the process of identifying the type of individuals who may be well versed with the issues at hand. Participants must always be fetched from key population groups that have an interest in the issues covered by the study (Focus Groups, 2005). For instance, if a researcher want to know how a particular beer brand have been received in the market, his key population group must comprise of bar patrons, not church pastors.

The researcher may want to consider forming different, homogeneous categories that represent divergent viewpoints to grasp a deeper understanding of the issues at hand. In such a scenario, the research can utilize such characteristics like age, education level, income, unemployed, and retired, to come up with the groups (Focus Groups, 2005; Carter, Lambert, & Yenco, 2002). Although the researcher should always be on the lookout for homogeneity of the group, he should always avoid getting participants who know each other into the same group. He should also be on the look out for participants’ ability to participate freely in the discussion, and how they share their opinions.

Invitation letters should then be sent to the participants clearly indicating the purpose of the focus group, the sponsor, the moderator, and the purpose of the results generated from the session. The participants should also be told via the invitation letter that the comments made in process of the discussion would remain strictly confidential. Three days prior to the meeting, the researcher should call the participants to confirm attendance and remind them of the place and time of the meeting (McNamara, 2006; Focus Groups, 2005).

Pre-meeting preparation

Prior to the meeting, the researcher should make sure that the room where the session will take place is comfortable, quiet, and devoid of any external distractions. A round-table sitting arrangement should be provided to ensure that the participants maintain contact. Light refreshments can be served in between the session if they will not distract the attention of participants (Focus Groups, 2005). Place cards and name tags are also supportive if the resources to produce them are available. If any consent materials are required, they should be prepared prior to the meeting and handed over to the participants for scrutiny.

Conducting the focused group interview

The focus group discussion must be led by a facilitator cum moderator. The facilitator must possess good communication skills, and have the ability to induce a relaxed and informal atmosphere where the participants feel free to share in their experiences and express their divergent opinions (Focus Groups, 2003). The moderator must never make judgments on the opinions of the participants or express his or her own feelings – his role is to direct the session without being part of the discussion (McNamara, 2006). As already mentioned, the moderator should pose open-ended questions to the participants, starting with the more general to the more specific. In the case of beer promotion example, the moderator may ask the participants to name any two types of beers they feel comfortable with. A more specific question that may follow is to ask them why they favor the chosen brands over the others. This will open a can of more questions and discussions (Morgan, 1996). It is therefore imperative for the moderator to allow the discussion to diverge into new scopes and directions as long as it is within the parameters of the topic under discussion.

It is the role of the moderator to allow all members of the group to participate in the discussion, and limit any member who may want to dominate the session at the expense of other contributors (Focus Groups, 2003). This is done in order to get a balanced view of opinions from all the participants. Indeed, some focus groups are arranged such that members have to write down their opinions and ideas on paper without consultations before the session starts. In addition to bringing out many view points, such an arrangement also eliminates bias (McNamara, 2006). The session can employ the services of a note taker or be recorded and transcribed later. The note taker, usually a member of the research team, must never at any one time interfere with the discussions.

Analyzing the Data

The analysis for focus groups can be time-demanding as huge volumes of data are generated from the discussions. Analysis basically involves preparing the data, coding, and thereafter performing a summary of the data for discovery (Focus Groups, 2003; Morgan, 1996). If the sessions were recorded, preparation would entail transcribing the data into readable text. Standard research procedures dictate that the real names of participants be removed from the prepared transcripts to protect their identity.

The prepared transcripts must then be reviewed to look out for concepts, themes, and keywords that keep on reappearing. These themes must then be grouped into distinct categories, known as codes (McNamara, 2006; Focus Groups, 2003). These codes can effectively be used to reflect individual channels of conversation found in the transcripts. Similar comments made during the discussion should be grouped into one definite category. However, some comments may have several phrases, keywords, or themes that fit into different categories. According to standard qualitative research analysis, recurring phrases can be coded for the primary theme and the general sentiment (Focus Groups). The general sentiment carries the positive-negative-neutral types of suggestions. Grouping of phrases and keywords into categories is followed by the interpretation step. At this step, the central issues and themes relating to the topic of study will already have emerged.

Reporting Findings

The presentations and reports from the focus groups findings are derived from the primary and sub-themes that are reflected from the process of data analysis. Reports can be incorporated with actual quotes from the participants, and even with credible quantitative data that may be available. However, any comment or quotes that are added on the report must accurately replicate the views of the participants, not the writers of the report. Any instance of bias must be avoided at any cost (Focus Groups, 2003).

Advantages and Disadvantages of Focus Groups

In the field of business, focus groups have won the hearts of many managers especially in the area of marketing and strategy development. Since Focus groups have proved to be effective in qualitative marketing research methodology, especially in understanding how people make the decisions they make about particular products and services, and the factors that influence such decisions, it can ideally be used to:

  • Understand a company’s brand image
  • Discover new product or service ideas
  • Conduct product or service testing
  • Gain useful insights into the purchasing decisions made by consumers
  • Test the effectiveness of marketing and advertising materials and concepts
  • Distinguish competitors’ apparent strengths and weaknesses (Source: Morgan, 1996).

As a general-wide qualitative research technique, focus groups offer the following advantages and disadvantages (Focus Groups, 2003).

Advantages Disadvantages
  1. Social interaction within the group produce more complex and freer answers
  2. Not complicated to undertake
  3. Takes a short period of time
  4. The researcher is able to solicit greater detail and probe for clarification
  5. Responses have high credibility and validity due to the detail of discussion and clarity of context
  1. The results may not be representative of the universal population since the group is hand selected
  2. Moderator must be highly skilled
  3. It is difficult to assemble groups
  4. The responses given by the participant may be biased because of the group setting

Case Study Approach

Plainly put, case studies can be defined as comprehensive investigation of individuals, institutions, groups or other social units (Key, 1997). According to Creswell (1998, 61), A case study is “an exploration of a ‘bounded system’ or a case [or multiple cases] over time through detailed, in-depth data collection involving multiple sources of information rich in context.” The researcher undertaking a case study endeavor to perform an analysis of the variables that are pertinent to the scope of the subject under study. Case study methods involve a longitudinal, in-depth examination of a single event or instance, rather than using sample sizes and following inflexible procedures to study limited number of variables (Yin, 1993). The cardinal difference between case studies and other qualitative research techniques is that they pay attention to individual cases and not the entire population of cases. Most studies look out for patterns of generalizations, commonality, and pervasiveness. But case studies seek to understand the particulars and complexity of a specific case of study. The case studies are performed on a surrounded system, typically under natural settings, so that the system under study can be understood from its own natural habitat.

The history of case study research is manifested by moments of passionate use and disuse (Tellis, 1997). The earliest use of case studies as a form of research technique can be traced to France, in Europe. Indeed, the employment of case studies as a method of research dates back to the beginnings of social science research (Lashley & Statnikova, 2003). Business case studies can be traced back to the establishment of the Harvard Business School. After it was started, professors from the school quickly realized that there were no materials that could effectively suit a graduate program in business (Yin, 1993). Immediate short-term solutions to this problem were to interview leading business practitioners and write comprehensive accounts of what they were doing. This was the beginning of case studies in business. Business case studies therefore gave an account of real life business situations that present a dilemma to business executives. Many years down the line, the case study approach is still one of the most profoundly used forms of qualitative research.

A common characteristic among the various types of case studies is that they all try to clarify a decision or set of decisions, why such decisions were taken, their implementation, and the result that the decisions brought to the organization (Lashley & Statnikova, 2003). As such, case studies are always preferred by many business managers when it comes to evaluation of specific policies and programs affecting the operations of a firm. They are also used as a learning experience or exchange by managers of a firm who may want to emulate the success stories of another firm or project. If the relationship between the two firms is that of mutual friendship, managers from the start-up firm can be allowed to investigate a contemporary phenomenon, issue, or program within its real-life context in the established firm, and duplicate such a phenomenon in the start-up firm (Yin, 2002). This happens quite often within the parent company-subsidiary type of relationships. Case studies have overly been used by multinational companies to train local personnel on how to run their offshore subsidiaries as they are the preferred mode of examining contemporary issues and events

However, the case study approach continues to draw a lot of criticism from scholars and researchers alike, who claims that the methodology’s reliance on a single case makes it to be incompetent of providing a generalizing conclusion (Lashley & Statnikova, 2003). Indeed, some scholars have termed it a ‘microscopic’ approach to research due its lack of ‘satisfactory’ number of cases (Tellis, 1997). But other scholars and researchers have rushed to the defense of the case study approach, arguing that the relative size of a sample, whether 3, 6, or 200 cases are employed, does not in anyway change a compound case into a macroscopic study (Yin, 1993). Any study should focus on establishing the parameters that should be applied in the process of conducting the research. In this perspective, even a single case passes the test of acceptability, provided it follows the established objectives. Below are the typical six steps that are mostly used in case study research

Steps in Case Study Approach

Determine and Define the Research Questions

The first step in case study research is to institute a solid research focus to which the researcher will refer to over the course of study of a multifaceted object or phenomena. The focus of study is established by developing questions about the problem or situation to be studied, and establishing the purpose for the study (Soy, 2006). In the field of business, a research object may be a particular program or strategy, an entity, an individual like the Chief Executive Officer of a company, or a group of individuals. The researcher examines the object of study in depth utilizing a number of data collection methods to garner evidence that vehemently lead to a proper understanding of the case, answering the research questions in the process.

Case studies utilize the how and why type of questions in attempting to explore particular situations, events, or conditions. Case study researchers must conduct a through review of related literature that will help them in targeting and formulating the questions. The review is aimed at evaluating any research that has been previously done regarding the area under study, and therefore helping the researcher to refine the questions about the problem. The definition of the purpose, literature review, and early determination of the potential audience for the final report offers useful insights on how the case study will be designed, undertaken, and reported. Research questions can also come from conflicting evidence, a knowledge void in the organization, or incomplete knowledge about a strategy or issue (Soy, 2006; Feather-Gannon et al. 2004)

Select the Cases and Determine Data Gathering and Analysis Techniques

The researcher must determine which approaches to use during the design phase of case study research. The approaches are either single or multiple real-life situations which the researcher intends to examine in depth (Soy, 2006). In this step, the researcher must also decide on which type of data gathering technique or techniques will be utilized for the study. In multiple cases, each case is looked into as a single case. The conclusions for each case can then be used as information that has contributed to the whole study. In order to increase the validity of the study, cases must be carefully selected. To achieve this, the researcher need to constantly refer back to the purpose and scope of the study so as to draw concentration on where to look for evidence and cases that will satisfy the rationale of the study, and give credible answers to the research questions posed.

Selecting a single or multiple cases is a vital element, but international research practice allows case study research to include “more than one unit of embedded analysis” (Soy, 2006). In the field of business, a case study may entail studying a single industry and a firm or organization participating in that type of industry. For example, when conducting a case study on why the motor vehicle industry is cutting down on human labor costs, a researcher can undertake a case study on the industry as a whole, and then select Ford Motors Corporation for another case study. This kind of case study will undoubtedly involve two levels of analysis, thereby increasing the amount and complexity of data to be gathered and analyzed (Soy). But the advantage of such multi-faceted case study is that it brings out more detail. Overall, researchers must ensure that the study is well developed to ensure:

  • Construct validity: Researcher must use the appropriate measures for the concepts under study
  • Internal validity: the study must be able to establish that certain situations leads to other situations and show evidence, especially with causal and explanatory studies
  • External validity: the study must be able to reflect on whether the findings can be generalized beyond the immediate case study or study cases
  • Reliability: The study must be able to reveal the accuracy, stability, and precision of measurement.

Prepare to Collect the Data

Systematic organization of the data to be collected is needed since case study research generates large amounts of data coming from multiple sources. This is important to prevent the researcher from getting overwhelmed by the data, thereby making him or her lose sight of the original purpose of the study. Researchers must therefore prepare databases that will aid them to categorize, sort, store, and retrieve data for analysis (Soy, 2006). Excellent case studies entails establishing clear procedures and protocols in advance of researcher field work, preparing good training programs for the investigators, and conducting a pilot study in advance to remove any unforeseen barriers or problems (Soy, Feather-Gannon, 2004).

Collect Data in the Field

The objective of any case study research in business is to understand the nature and complexity of a case in the most wholesome manner possible (Robert Wood Foundation, 2008). There are very many cases that continue to affect business enterprises in their daily operations, from the unstable financial markets to the cut-throat competition, and international best practices. To be at the top of their game, business managers need to constantly undertake case studies to establish how best they can improve their businesses. Various methods of data collection are used, either singly or in combination, to collect the necessary information that can effectively influence policy and strategy decisions. By using manifold sources of data, both quantitative and qualitative, business researchers are able to achieve the best possible understanding of a particular case of interest. In most of the case studies, the following qualitative methods of data collection are employed.

Participant observation

Here, the researcher becomes an active participant in the issues and events that are being studied (Tellis, 1997). The researcher has to immense himself or herself in the daily activities and routines of the individuals, frameworks, or institutions that are being studied (Robert Wood Foundation, 2008). This method, often referred to as fieldwork, requires widespread work in the setting that is to be studied. When it is effectively done, participant observation provides useful insights into the behavior characteristics and business/ social organizations that operate to constitute a particular case or bounded system. It has been used extensively over the years by multinational companies in the process of training professionals to operate their offshore subsidiaries. Local professionals located in the country where the subsidiary is to be situated are transferred to the parent company to actively learn about the operations of the multinational.

Interviewing

Researchers often gain useful insights of the individual or individuals that are part of the case by actively speaking with these individuals. The process of interviewing actually involves talking to these informants (Robert Wood Foundation, 2008). The types of interviews undertaken by the researcher may vary in formality and degree, and may include, open-ended, structured, focused, informal, or semi-structured interviews (Tellis, 1997). For instance, key respondents may be asked to comment about a particular product in a business setting using the open-ended interviewing technique. They may be asked to provide useful insights into an emerging business trend within the organization, or propose solutions to a problem. Such interviews can be used by the researcher to substantiate evidence that has been obtained from other sources. To verify the authenticity from data attained from interviewing procedures, the researcher must always avoid becoming dependent on a single informant. He must seek the same set of data from several other sources.

The focus interview is predominantly used in situations where the informant is supposed to answer some set questions. This type of interview takes a very short period of time, and is used as a way of confirming initial data collected from other sources (Tellis, 1997). It is usually done on departmental heads and managers, after the initial data has been collected from the junior staff. In structured interview, the questions are detailed and finalized in advance, and the process of administering the structured interview is similar to that of undertaking a survey.

Documents

Documents could be letters, agendas, newspaper articles, memoranda, and any other administrative documents that could help in the process of administration (Tellis, 1997). These documents serve an important function of corroborating the evidence attained from other sources through a process known as triangulation of evidence. When doing case studies for organizations, documents provide useful insights for making interpretations and inferences about events such as financial trends of the organization, human capital, strategy, and other related issues. But documents should be used with a lot of care in the hands of inexperienced researchers as they could lead to false leads, which could jeopardize the purpose of the case study. Any researcher utilizing this form of data collection method must take into account that documents are communications between the subjects in the study. The researcher’s role is that of a vicarious observer.

Collection of Artifacts/ Archival documents

To learn more about a bounded system, researchers can collect and study materials that have previously been used by members of the case or system under study. Archival records may include organizational records of a business, service records, previously conducted survey data, list of names, written protocols, educational handouts, flow sheets and charts (Robert Wood Foundation, 2008; Tellis, 1997). However, the researcher must be careful in evaluating the authenticity of such records before utilizing them as the records may be inaccurate. Physical artifacts include instruments, tools, or other physical evidence that may be accumulated during the initial study as part of a field visit. Such physical artifacts help to broaden the perspective of the researcher as a direct result of the discovery.

Direct observation

Direct observation takes place when the researcher undertakes a field visit during the case study (Tellis, 1997). Such a visit could be undertaken to casually collect data or measure and record behaviors through formal protocols. In case studies, this technique serves to provide additional information about a topic under study. The reliability of this technique is augmented when more than one observer is involved in the process of observing. However, the researchers involved should remain unobtrusive.

Evaluate and Analyze the Data

Raw data is examined using many interpretation procedures to establish linkages between the initial research object and the outcomes, while referring to the original research questions. The researcher must remain open to new insights and opportunities throughout the evaluation and analysis process (Soy, 2006). The researcher has the opportunity to triangulate data using the case study analysis techniques, thereby giving the findings and conclusions more credibility and strength. To improve on the likelihood of attaining reliable and accurate findings, the researcher must move beyond the initial impressions created by the data.

Modern case study approaches uses many different ways of sorting data to create or expose new insights, and look for incompatible data to disconfirm the analysis (Feather-Gannon, 2004). Consequently, the data will have to undergo categorization, tabulation, and recombination to address the primary purpose or proposition of the study. Cross-checks of discrepancies in accounts and facts must be undertaken at this stage. If need be, short, repeat, or focused interviews can be undertaken at this stage to check facts or verify key observations. According to Soy (2006) precise techniques for data analysis for case study research “include placing information into arrays, creating matrices of categories, creating flow charts or other displays, and tabulating frequencies of events.” The researcher is free to utilize any quantitative data to support and corroborate the analyzed qualitative data. But it should be remembered that qualitative data is most important when a business organization seeks to understand the theory or rationale underlying relationships, business trends, and strategy in the organization.

Another data analysis technique employed in case study approach is the use of multiple investigators in the process of data collection. Patterns and perspectives are generated when multiple observations coming out of the investigators converge, thereby raising the confidence level of the findings. According to Stake (1995), Data analysis and interpretation for case study approach can be attained through categorical generalization, direct interpretation, pattern establishments, and naturalistic generalization.

Prepare the report

Data must be reported in a way that transforms a complicated issue into an easily understood one. The reader must be allowed to reach an independent understanding of the study, and also be allowed to question and examine the study in detail (Soy, 2006). A business oriented case study research must be able to present data in a very straight-forward and accessible manner, thereby allowing other business ventures to apply the experience in their own real-life situations of their business settings. To gain the readers confidence, sufficient evidence must be exhibited in the report. Available techniques used in composing a report for a case study approach include treating each case as a chronological recounting, or handling each case as a separate chapter. Still, findings can be reported inform of a story.

Advantages and disadvantages of case study approach

The advantages and disadvantages of the case study approach in qualitative research are summarized in the table below.

Advantages Disadvantages
  1. It has the ability of combing qualitative and quantitative modes of analysis and reporting
  2. Shows how processes work in practice, not theory, and therefore are most useful to business practitioners
  3. Provide tremendous detail/ wealth of information about a research topic
  4. Has the ability to suggest why something happened
  1. Provide little basis for scientific generalization
  2. Case studies take a long time to complete
  3. There is complete lack of rigor for case study research
  4. Case study research is often confused with cases study teaching

Open-Ended Interviewing

The technique of open-ended interviewing, also known as unstructured interviewing, has its origins in the disciplines of sociology and anthropology, where it was largely used to draw out peoples’ social realities. In the field of literature, the technique was used interchangeably with other terms such as non-standardized interview, informal conversational interview, in-depth interview, and ethnography (Zhang, 2006). In the field of business, the technique of open-ended interviewing has found wide acceptance in qualitative research due to its ability to explore the experience of individuals within a given culture, and the knowledge that such individuals pass on to the future generations (Robert Wood Foundation, 2008). Marketing executives can use the technique to explore the various types of experiences their products and services elicit on a particular population. They can use the knowledge they get from the experiences to improve their products and services.

The technique of open-ended interviewing has been defined differently by various scholars. According to Minichiello (1990), open-ended interviews are a form of interviews in which the question and answer groupings are not prearranged or programmed beforehand. This technique must rely on the social communication between the informant and researcher to come up with information. Punch (1998) depicted open-ended interviews as a way to comprehend the multifaceted behavior of individuals without enforcing any form of categorization that can limit the scope of the inquiry. To develop future strategies, business managers need to understand the complex nature of human behavior so that they can develop products and services that will appeal to people. As such, open-ended interviewing is the way to go. Patton (1990) likened open-ended interviewing with participant observation since it relies in its entirety on unprompted generation of questions in the natural flow of social communication.

In open-ended interviewing, questions can be changed, altered, or adapted to meet the respondent’s belief, understanding, and intelligence. As such, the technique can effectively be used to perform a cross-cutting field marketing research to know about the attitudes and values that people hold towards certain products and services, since anyone is bound to understand the questions being asked. Though the categories are not exhaustive, open-ended interviewing can be divided into three main groups discussed below.

  • Oral (signed) histories: These relate to past experiences or events such as how an organization was founded to its present day status. Here, participants, who must be senior in rank and knowledgeable about the roots of the organization, are asked to recall their experiences from when the company was founded, their past experiences, and how they interpreted the experiences and events then and now.
  • Cultural interviews: Here, individual experiences within a cultural setting are explored, together with how these individuals pass on the knowledge on to the future generations
  • Life histories: These types of open-ended interviews focus on exemplary individuals in society, to ask about their life experiences from their childhood years to the present day. In the business field, such interviews are often conducted on company founders and Chief Executive Officers, to know about the experiences behind their success and the challenges that they have gone through (Bowling, 1997; Bryman & Bell, 2007).

Characteristics of open-ended interviewing

Minimal obvious structure

The questions asked in an open-ended interview must be open-ended and should express minimal control over the responses given by the informant (Robert Wood Foundation, 2008). The respondent should be allowed to follow his or her own direction, and the interviewer’s role should only be limited to that of directing the process, and making the respondent feel more comfortable with the interview setting. For valid information to be obtained, the interviewee must feel relaxed to talk about the issues and events that may be of interest (Chant, 2001). Accordingly, the interviewer goes to the interview with no predetermined hypothesis, theoretical framework, or questions about the social situations that are of interest to him or her. The conversation the interviewer engages in with the interviewee produces the questions in response to the narration given out by the interviewee (Zhang, 2006).

Usually concerned with decision processes

In addition to been concerned with gaining an understanding about the thoughts of an interviewee towards an issue, the technique of open-ended interviewing is also engaged in trying to gain an understanding of the decision making processes the interviewee went through, and how they arrived at the position they are in (Chant, 2001).

Involves helping the interviewee

For the technique of open-ended interviewing to be a success, the interviewees must be helped to think through their own decision processes. The interviewees do not go into the meeting with a predetermined knowledge of what the interviewer will be looking for. Thus, the daunting task for the interviewer is to help the interviewees adapt to an environment that assists and allows them to explore the issues and events at hand (Chant, 2001).

High quality interviewer is required

Another characteristic of open-ended interviewing is that the interviewer must possess considerable influence and skill in undertaking the open ended interviewing. The interviewer must be able to win the confidence of the interviewee if any meaningful discussion is to take place (Chant, 2001; Zhang, 2006). He or she must therefore be trained in empathy development, understanding non-verbal cues, and on how to understand the structure of the questions.

The interviewer is the key, not the questionnaire

This technique does not follow any interview protocol or schedule; the interviewer is the research tool. The interview effectiveness is sorely determined by the interviewer’s skill in persuading the respondent to talk, and in assisting them to explore their feelings and decision processes. Effectiveness of the technique is also determined by the ability of the interviewer to interpret the responses that comes from the interviewee (Chant, 2001). To guide the discussion effectively, the interviewer must have an understandable plan in mind regarding the goal and focus of the interview (Robert Wood Foundation, 2008).

Steps in open-ended interviewing

There are no all-agreed or official guidelines on how to undertake data collection using the open-ended interviewing technique (Zhang, 2006). But principally, many researchers comply with the following steps

Get in: accessing the research setting

A variety of difficulties and challenges have been documented regarding the process of gaining entry to the research setting, especially when the researcher is not an insider. In the business setting, the bigger the organization, the harder it is for a researcher to gain access into the organization. In such a scenario, lucid negotiation and communication skills and tactics are needed. Before accessing the research setting, the researcher must consider any possible legal, political, and bureaucratic barriers that may entangle him or her during the process of gaining entry (Zhang, 2006).

Understanding the language and culture of the interviewees

The practice of open-ended interviewing is governed by the cultural principles of the research settings. These conventions make it clear that the researcher must clearly understand the language used by the interviewee, and its meanings in the particular cultural context (Zhang, 2006). Since the primary focus of open-ended interviewing is to understand the human experiences and their meanings as described from the perspective of interviewees, the researcher must make sure that he or she is well versed with linguistic skills and adequate cultural trends of the interviewees.

How to present yourself

Open-ended interviewing is a two way conversation between the interviewer and the interviewee, with the former exercising minimum control over the discussion. How the interviewer represents himself or herself greatly influences the quality of the conversation (Zhang, 2006). The research setting or context largely influences the interviewer’s self representation. If the setting is in a formal organization, the interviewer’s self-representation should also be formal. Casual self-representation is best utilized when the research setting is in the field like it is the case with field market research. Apart from the code of dressing, the interviewer should represent himself or herself as a ‘learner’ in the discussion, attempting to rationalize the interviewee’s experiences from their own point of view.

Locating an informant

This involves finding an insider or a member of the group under the research setting who either is willing to be involved with the discussion or act as a translator or guide of the unfamiliar culture or language. The informant in the latter case needs to be conversant with the research setting to serve as a good interpreter (Zhang, 2006).

Gaining trust and establishing rapport

The most essential issue that governs the success of open-ended interviewing as a method of data collection is the ability of the interviewer to gain the trust and establish rapport with the interviewee. According to Donalek (2005), “the giving of one’s story is a deeply valued gift” (Source: Zhang, 2006, 4). The interviewee will only share his or her own experiences with the interviewer only when a harmonious and trustful relationship has been cultivated. This is especially the case when sensitive topics like company’s financial disclosures, salaries, and human resource policies are expected to be discussed between the interviewee and the researcher. However, the interviewer must always maintain objectivity when endeavoring to cultivate the needed trust and report. He should be careful not to become the spokesman for the interviewee or for the group under study.

Collecting the empirical materials

Traditionally, note taking has always been used as a procedure of recording materials that come from the interview process. But this method is hard and disruptive when it comes to open-ended interviewing. The challenge of note taking in open-ended interviewing is that it will always disrupt the natural flow of the discussions between the interviewer and the interviewee (Zhang, 2006). Also, the discussions may develop in unanticipated directions since open-ended interviews often contain open –ended questions (Robert wood Foundation, 2008). It is therefore imperative for the interviewer to audio record the conversation session using a digital recorder or tape. The interviewer should always take notes regularly and promptly in situations where only note taking is possible. The interviewer must be fast enough to write down everything that the interviewee says no matter its relative importance or unimportance at that time. If note taking will jeopardize the conversation, the interviewer can consider engaging the services of a note taker. The interviewer must also make sure that he remains as inconspicuous as possible.

Since the aim of open-ended interviewing is to look for the depth of information, they require a great investment of time. But an interviewer can save a lot of time by understanding how to present the questions to the interviewee. The interviewer should present the questions in such a way that she/he moves from public accounts to more individualized accounts. The interviewer must establish a mechanism through which she/he moves away from the kind of answers that the interviewees can reveal to anyone to those answers that reveal their true views and feelings. The interview can achieve this using the type of questions explained below (Zhang, 2006).

  • Main questions: since the interviewer may want to investigate certain features in the interview, it is always advisable to have a few topics for the conversation noted down. These are the main questions. The list may not be used if the interview process proceeds in the right direction as the researcher and the interviewee can always successfully negotiate the course of the interview.
  • Probes: An interviewee may say something of interest to the researcher but fail to expand upon it. In such a scenario, the researcher may use probes to give confidence to the interviewee to give more details. An example of a probing question is, ‘That’s interesting, could you please continue.’
  • Follow-up questions: These are the basic queries arising from a topic or theme that has been introduced in the course of the interview. The interview often takes unanticipated directions, bringing in new ideas that will make the interviewer want to ask more follow-up questions.

Data analysis

Data analysis for open-ended interviewing is a complex procedure involving the identification of topics and themes that can help the interviewer understand the interviewee’s views and feelings through the use of the excerpts gotten from the interview process (Zhang, 2006). This can be done in many ways. The most common way to undertake data analysis for open-ended interviewing is to perform an isolation of the topics and themes from the transcribed data and noting them down. Excerpts from the transcribed data that relate to the topics and themes should then be identified. A way of cross-referencing is needed since some excerpts will fall into more than one group. This can be done successfully using index cards or computer software packages such as NUDIST or Ethnograph.

Advantages and disadvantages of open-ended interviewing

Like in many other qualitative techniques of data collection, open-ended interviewing has its own advantages and disadvantages, summarized in the table below.

Advantages Disadvantages
  1. Data validity as it is an exact account of what the participant said
  2. Ability to bump into important information which never seemed relevant before the interview
  3. suitable for sensitive topics such as financial disclosures
  4. researcher can ask further questions
  5. answers can be developed and clarified further
  1. Takes very long time to complete
  2. Data collected prone to digression. Much of the data could in fact be worthless
  3. Unreliability of data
  4. Hard to generalize results because the process is done on a small-scale
  5. Hard to categorize data due to the complexity of responses
  6. Interviewer bias

Qualitative Research Software

Due to technological developments over time, techniques of undertaking social research are also advancing. Now, complex data analysis can be carried out on a laptop or personal desktop computer due to new development in information technology (Fielding, 1993). Computer based telephone interviewing has fundamentally changed the way surveys used to be conducted. Day by day, new statistical techniques are being created to handle, with great improvement and efficiency, the kinds and types of data used by social researchers. Notwithstanding their efficiency, these new approaches to qualitative data continue to raise new ethical and theoretical challenges. It is in public knowledge that computer use in qualitative research is developing at a much faster rate than in quantitative research (Ereaut, 2002). By the start of this century, more than 15 dedicated computer programs for qualitative analysis were being offered in the market. Numerous other researchers have adapted the use of text retrieval and word processing programs to assist in qualitative data analysis.

The arrival of word processors with the capabilities of retrieving and handling text marked the entry of professional qualitative software packages in the form of Computer-Assisted Qualitative Analysis (CAQDAS). The main impetus for developing these packages came from computing enthusiasts and social scientists during the early 1980’s (Fielding, 1993; Ereaut, 2002). From the time CAQDAS was developed, it gained wide usage in applied research and market research. In the latter, the focus group approach continues to be a major player.

But the use of CAQDAS and other related software applications should not be taken as the answers to every qualitative challenge facing qualitative researchers. Indeed, some of software developers have expressed their fears that some researchers, especially those working under the pressure of applied research settings and those with minimal qualitative experience, may engage in mindless obedience to the conventions set into the program assumptions, thereby jeopardizing the craft skills of a deep-rooted research tradition. The software packages have brought perceived dangers of shallow data analysis, and an inherent theory of qualitative research analysis thought to be unfavorable to the “full range of analytic postures customarily found in this eclectic field” (Fielding, 1993).

There are many qualitative research software packages available in the market today. Among the commonly used are the NUDIST, Ethnograph, SONAR, ATLAS-ti, and Tom Synder Productions. Basic computer application packages such as word processing (Ms Word), database (Ms Access), and spreadsheets (Ms Excel) are also used in qualitative data analysis. Below, the basic overview of the NUDIST software program is offered.

The NUDIST

The creators of this software program claim that it has the ability to completely transform the field of qualitative analysis. Particularly developed and designed for multi-access usage, the program has the ability to provide audit trails of the retrieved data, and index off-line and on-line data (Ereaut, 2002). The current version comes with an interface to connect to SPSS, a quantitative data management program. The program displays the various interrelationships of data in the form of tree structures, thereby simplifying the coding qualitative data by coming up with repeated themes and topics. Rather than emphasizing on the construction of typologies where the association of the data to code is of crucial concern like is the case with the Ethnograph, the NUDIST emphasize on the development of conceptual associations between the codes (Fielding, 1993).

The NUDIST utilizes its text search and flagging capabilities to develop a large and extremely structured hierarchical database that it later indexes into the various documents for analysis. Both Boolean and non-Boolean sets of operators are used when it comes to data retrieval and indexing of the general categories (Fielding, 1993, Ereaut, 2002). This encourages generation of new concepts and ideas. All the retrievals are later added back to the indexing categories for further and more abstracted retrieval if there is need to do so. To support any emerging theory in qualitative research, indexing categories are structured in such a way that they can be titled, modified, or have text comments inserted on them, and can be transferred to other locations in the indexing configuration.

In the text unit, the user can type in as many words as they like, including multiple or single words. The search for text can be performed using a pattern of words, a single phrase, or by face sheet variables such as retrieving all interviews with men (Fielding, 1993). What’s more, the NUDIST qualitative computer application package has the ability to simultaneously open several windows so that the user can be able to view the codes and data windows. The tree structures, also known as representation of node relationships, are not graphical.

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