Exploratory Studies

Exploration is particularly useful when researchers lack a clear idea of the problems they will meet during the study. Through exploration researchers develop concepts, establish priorities, develop operational definitions, and improve the final research design. Exploration may also save time and money. If the problem is not as important as first thought, research projects can be

Exploration serves other purposes. The area of investigation may be so new or so vague that a researcher needs to do an exploration just to learn something about the dilemma facing the manager. Important variables may not be known or thoroughly defined. Hypothesis for the research may be needed. Also, the researcher may explore to be sure it is practical to do a study in the area.

Despite its obvious value, researchers and managers alike give exploration less attention than it deserves. There are strong pressures for quick answers. And exploration is sometimes linked to old biases about qualitative research: subjectiveness, non representativeness, and nonsystematic design. A wiser view is that exploration saves time and money and should not be slighted.

Secondary Data analysis
The first step in an exloratory study is a search of the secondary literature. Studies made by others for their own purposes represent secondary data. It is inefficient to discover anew through the collection of primary data or original research what has already been done. Within secondary data exploration, a researcher should start first with an organisation’s own data archives. Reports of prior research studies often reveal an extensive amount of historical data or decision-making patterns. By reviewing prior studies, you can identify methodologies that proved successful and unsuccessful. Solutions that didn’t receive attention in the past due to
different environmental circumstances are revealed as potential subjects for further study.

The researcher needs to avoid duplication in instances when prior collected data can provide sufficient information for resolving the current decision-making dilemma. The second source of secondary data is published documents prepared by authors outside the sponsor organisation. There are tens of thousands of periodicals and hundreds of thousands of books on all aspects of business. Data from secondary sources help us decide what needs to be done and can be a rich source of hypothesis.

Special catalogs, subject guides, and electronic indices are available in most libraries that will help in this search. In many cases you can conduct a secondary search from your home or office using a computer, an online service, or an internet gateway. A search of secondary sources provides an excellent background and will supply many good leads if one is creative. If we confine the investigation to obvious subjects in bibliographic sources, we will often miss much of the best information. Suppose we are interested in
estimating the outlook for the copper industry over the next 10 years. We could search through the literature under the headings “copper production” and “copper consumption”. However, a search restricted to these two topics would miss more than it finds. When a creative search of  copper industry is undertaken, useful information turns up under the following reference headings: mines and minerals, nonferous metals; forecasting; planning; econometrics; consuming industries such as automotive and communications; countries where copper is produced, such as Chile and Zambia.

Experience Survey
While published data are a valuable resource, seldom is more than a fraction of the existing knowledge in a field put into writing. A significant portion of what is known on a topic, while in writing, may be proprietary to a given organisation and thus unavailalbe to an outside searcher. Also, internal data archives are rarely well organised, making secondary sources, even when known, difficult to locate. Thus, we will profit by seeking information from persons experienced in the area of study, tapping into their collective memories and experiences.

When we interview persons in an experience survey, we should seek their ideas about important issues or aspects of the subject and discover what is important across the subject’s range. The investigative format we use should be flexible enough so that we can explore various avenues that emerge during the interview. What is being done? What has been tried in the past without success? How have things changed? What are the change-producing elements of the situation? Who is involved in decisions, and what roles do they play? What problem areas and barriers can be seen? What are the costs of the processes under study? Whom can we count on to assist
and/or participate in the research? What are the priority areas?

The product of such questioning may be a new hypothesis, the discarding of an old one, or information about the practicality of doing the study. Probing may show whether certain facilities are available, what factors need to be controlled and how, and who will co-operate in the study. Discovery is more easily carried out if the researcher can analyse cases that provide special insight. Typical of exploration, we are less interested in getting a representative cross-section than getting information from sources that might be insightful. Assume we are called to study an automobile assembly plant. It has a history of declining productivity, increasing costs, and
growing numbers of quality defects. People who might provide insightful information include:

  • Newcomers to the scene – employees or personnel who may have recently been transferred to his plant from similar plants.
  • Marginal or peripheral individuals – persons whose jobs place them on the margin between contending groups. First-line supervisors and lead workers are often neither management nor workers but something in between.
  • Pure cases or cases that show extreme examples of the conditions under study – the most unproductive departments, the most anatognostic wokers, and so forth.
  • Those who fit well and those who do not – the workers who are well established in their organisations versus those who are not, those executives who fully reflect management views and those who do not.
  • Those who represent different positions in the system – unskilled workers, assemblers, superintendents, and so forth.

Focus Groups
With origins in sociology, focus groups became widely used in market research during the 1980s and are used for more diverse research applications today. The most common application of focus group research continues to be in the consumer arena. However, many corporations are using focus group results for diverse exploratory applications.

The topical objective of a focus group is often a new product or product concept. The output of the session is a list of ideas and behavioral observation with recommendations of the moderator. These are often used for later quantitative testing. As a group interview tool, focus groups have applied research potential for other functional areas of business, particularly where the
generation and evaluation of ideas or assessment of needs is indespensable. In exploratory research, the qualitative data that focus groups produce may be used for enriching all levels of research questions and hypothesis and comparing the effectiveness of design options. A focus group is a panel of people led by a trained moderator who meet for 90 minutes to 2 hours. The facilitator or moderator uses group dynamics principles to focus or guide the group in an exchange of ideas, feelings, and experiences on a specific topic. Typically the focus group panel is made up of 6 to 10 respondents. Too small or too large a group results in less effective
participation. The facilitator introduces the topic and encourages the group to discuss it among themselves.

Following a topical guide, the moderator will steer the discussion to ensure that all the relevant information desired by the client is considered by the group. The facilitator also keeps gregarious individuals from dominating the conversation, ensuring that each person enters the discussion. The ideal situations, the group’s discussion will proceed uninterrupted; however, if the discussion begins to lag, the facilitator moves it along by introducing another facet of the topic that the group has not yet considered. In some groups a questionnaire is administered to the participants before the group begins to gather additional data. Typically, one or more
representatives of the client will sit behind a one-way mirror in the focus group room to observe the verbal and non-verbal interactions and responses of participants.

Advantages and Disadvantages
The primary advantage of the focus group interview as an exploratory research tool is its ability to quickly and inexpensively grasp the core issues of a topic. Focus groups are brief, relatively inexpensive, and extremely flexible. They provide the manager, researcher, or client with a chance to observe reactions to their research questions in an open-ended group setting.

Participants respond in their own words, rather than being force-fit into a formalized method. Focus groups best enable the exploration of surprise information and new ideas. Agendas can be modified as the research team moves on to the next focus group. Even within an existing focus group, an adept facilitator can build on the ideas and insights of previous groups, getting to a
greater depth of understanding. However, because they are qualitative devices, with limited sampling accuracy, results from focus groups should not be considered a replacement for quantitative analysis.

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