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Identifying Your Research Problem

Learn more about identifying your research problem.
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Did you know that Amazon Prime was the brainchild of a manager by the name of Charlie Ward who submitted an idea via a version of an employee suggestion box?

Charlie had identified a problem that Amazon was struggling to match the growth of eBay and that next-day delivery could be the solution, and this led to Amazon Prime. Your research may not lead to quite the same impact as Charlie’s idea (although don’t rule this out) but this example shows that when managers identify problems they can often have a significant impact on their organisations.

Across this activity and in this step, we will consider how you can identify a problem that might be appropriate for research and the different factors you should take into account when deciding your focus.

It is reasonable to ask why management research should start with a problem? This might seem a bit negative because it assumes that managers are first and foremost there to deal with things that are going wrong and so why can’t research be focused on understanding parts of the organisation that are working well?

Unfortunately (or fortunately), research is more effective when it results in transformation or change and so researching something that is not a problem offers fewer opportunities to do this. Remember that we saw in the previous section that management research has always been focused on making an impact and bridging the gap between theory and practice, and this can work better when there is already an acceptance that something can be different or better. If your research is focused on a recognised problem but one that is not well-understood or has no clear solution, you are opening up more opportunities to explore different opinions or possibilities.

What Form Should the Problem Take?

This is not an easy question to answer because it will depend on the specific context in which you work. As a result, we will have to think in general terms and your challenge will be to apply these points to your own situation.

The first thing to consider is the level where you can look for your problem. This can either be localised to your own team, function, or department, or you may have the opportunity to address something that is pan-organisational or strategic. You might feel that a strategic problem is somehow more interesting or more appropriate, but there is often no specific advantage to either. A localised problem may mean that you are better able to collect relevant data about the issue because you are more directly involved. A strategic problem may mean that you can make a wider impact across the organisation, but it may also require a broader data set to address this and this could be hard to achieve in the time available.

This is related to a second consideration in identifying your problem: to what extent should you take your pre-existing knowledge into account? Ideally, you should choose a problem you are familiar with because this will help you understand the parameters of the research. However, the more you know about the problem the more you will have to manage your pre-conceptions and biases.

The best way to manage this conflict is to think about something where you understand the problem but not the solutions, or where you know that something isn’t working but you don’t know why. In short, you should be identifying a problem where there is uncertainty. For example, you might know that the business has a very small proportion of women in senior roles whereas there is more equality at other levels of management, and so the uncertainty is around why this is the case.

Finally, there are some things to avoid when identifying your problem and knowing these can help your focus:

  • Avoid problems that cannot be well defined and which have no obvious parameters. Investigating the problem of why so many graduate recruits leave within six-months has a clear focus, whereas researching the problem of retention across a whole business area has less obvious limits and will make the whole research process more difficult.
  • Researching more abstract concepts such as culture, commitment, motivation in isolation can be problematic because they are very often amorphous and hard to contain within the research process. For example, simply looking at a question of commitment amongst sales staff might be very hard to pin down as it could be caused by such a wide range of variables, and these variables could all be understood differently. A problem that has more focus includes a more tangible factor that you can explore and which might link to commitment, for example, what is likely impact of changing shift patterns on sales staff?
  • Avoid the temptation to link something to ‘performance’. For example, is the reward system impacting on individual performance? Any organisation wants to be able to find ways to get employees to perform better, but performance is another abstract term that can be affected by so many things it is always hard to measure in a meaningful way.

If you can try to put some of these issues aside, you should be left with a core problem that is recognisable and will allow you to strip away all of the interference that is inevitable in any organisation.

Your Task

Can you come up with two to three problems or issues which might be the focus of your research? To help with this, consider gathering information from some of the following sources:
  • Strategic reports – what is coming over the horizon for the organisation?
  • Colleagues and senior managers – what do they view as the key issues?
  • Current change projects – what are they seeking to change and why?
  • Your own experience – what interests you most?
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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