Qualitative research relies on unstructured data and forms of data analysis that are not numerical. There is no consensus about which type of research is superior – qualitative or quantitative. In actuality, their validity and practical use depend on the subject matter that is being investigated. In other words, research goals largely dictate the type (Bryman & Bell, 2015). The current objective that the organization in question seeks to reach is to understand how well the staff is learning through formal courses, informal training and on the job.
The Pros and Cons of Qualitative Research
Qualitative research design fits the purpose as it is able to provide specific insights into phenomena. Numerical analysis can describe associations between predictors and outcomes: for instance, the type of training (formal or informal) and the amount of information retained at a follow-up. However, while being robust, the quantitative study design does not quite offer an explanation as to why these relationships exist. Qualitative research, on the other hand, enables a deeper understanding of human reasoning and motivation (Saunders, Thornhill & Lewis, 2015). For instance, if a person is dissatisfied with the quality of formal training, a qualitative study design allows for developing the conversation further and asking the person about what caused this dissatisfaction. As a result, qualitative study results can provide implications for a more profound transformation of an organization.
On the contrary, qualitative research provides subjective data that often cannot be easily replicated nor inferred outside the selected sample. Because qualitative research typically implies smaller sample sizes, their participants may not be representative of broader populations (Saunders, Thornhill & Lewis, 2015). On the other hand, if the practical implications of such a study are only meant to be applied within one organization, this disadvantage might as well be overlooked. However, there is a more significant disadvantage that is the human factor (Saunders, Thornhill & Lewis, 2015). Understanding human behaviour during qualitative research is quite challenging. Some participants might be inclined to lie or conceal information while others will hold back out of fear, insecurity, or for other personal reasons. This might result in skewed data that does not draw a full picture of what is happening within an organization.
The Stages in Designing a Research Study
It is recommended to take a stepwise approach to a research study (Saunders, Thornhill & Lewis, 2015). Below are the main stages involved in designing a qualitative research study:
- identify the problem. The first step in the process is to identify the problem or pose a research question. In the current case, the problem is the uncertainty with regard to the actual efficiency of formal and informal training in the organization.
- review the relevant literature. Researching literature can help with collecting ideas about how this problem was approached before and what methods were used.
- specify the problem. Following the literature review, one should specify the problem by narrowing its scope. For example, learning encompasses a broad range of topics such as motivation, engagement, information processing and others. The present study cannot address all of them, which is why the scope needs to be well-defined.
- define the key terms and concepts. A qualitative study that embarks on sociological topics needs to provide a clear operationalization of the key terms and concepts. For instance, the researcher needs to answer the question as to what is learning efficiency and how it can be measured.
- define the population. Research projects typically focus on a specific group of people. Depending on the size of the organization in question, it could be all of its employees or a specific department, for example, the one that continually shows poor performance.
- develop a plan. The researcher needs to have a plan that outlines the administration of the key procedures.
- analyze the data. Data analysis helps to organise the information and gain meaningful insights from it.
- draw conclusions and practical implications. Since research serves a specific purpose, the final stage should be to provide practical implications about how the investigated issue should be addressed from now on. For example, if many participants refer to a specific problem they have with the learning process, it needs more attention from the managers.
Types of Qualitative Research
According to Myers (2019), there are many types of qualitative research, including but not limited to:
- The phenomenological method employs a combination of methods such as interviews, reading papers, or visiting places and events, to gain an insight into what meaning participants impose on the analyzed phenomenon. In the context of this paper, it might mean visiting the analyzed organization to understand the employees’ attitude toward formal and informal training ;
- The ethnographic model implies that researchers immerse themselves into a target environment to understand the goals, issues, challenges, cultural elements and other aspects that manifest themselves in the process;
- The case study model seeks to describe, explain, or analyze a particular instance of a theory or a principle. For example, the organization in question can publish a case study that reports how a specific mentorship program was introduced and what results it has yielded.
- The narrative approach weaves together life events, stories and experiences of a small number of people (typically, no more than two) to form a cohesive narration. In business, this approach can be used for building a persona – a typical customer with generalised traits and characteristics;
- The grounded theory approach seeks to provide a theory or a principle behind a specific event. For example, analyzing the employees’ attitudes toward training programs may expose specific patterns and form an understanding of the learning processes within the organization.
Because interviews require face-to-face interactions, building rapport and trust with interviewees is key to collecting full and meaningful information. Magnusson and Marecek (2017) recommend choosing a quiet setting with no distractions. Interviewees need to be explained the purpose and the format of the interview (types of questions, its duration and others) in detail. Such an explanation serves two purposes: firstly, it makes the study more ethically grounded. Participants can only fully consent to an interview if they are well-informed. Secondly, as noted by Magnusson and Marecek (2017), clarity and predictability might help participants to feel more at ease. Before the interview, the organizers need to address the terms of confidentiality, how the data will be handled and who will have access to it. Participants should be encouraged to ask questions if something is unclear.
Format-wise, interviews can be structured, semi-structured, or unstructured; the type defines how the questions are asked. A structured interview requires the interviewer to adhere to a predetermined list of questions with little to no freedom. A semi-structured interview allows more freedom while an informal interview lets the natural flow of conversation be its guide. Regardless of the chosen interview type, there are general recommendations for how to ask questions in a research interview. Magnusson and Marecek (2017) advice to keep the questions open-ended, for example, “How are you feeling about the mentorship programs in your organization?” The questions should be worded clearly, as neutral as possible and asked one at a time to avoid confusion. The interviewer should be friendly but still in control of the conversation, not allowing the interviewee to divert to irrelevant topics.
Qualitative Data Analysis
Data analysis is one of the final stages of a research project whose purpose is to provide insights from the collected information. A weak analysis provides inaccurate results and defeats the purpose while strong analytical methods provide meaningful implications that can be put to use and improve the performance of the organization. Qualitative data such as interview data is unstructured and, thus, typically cannot be analyzed using numerical methods (Saunders, Thornhill & Lewis, 2015). The most commonly used methods are:
- Content analysis. Content analysis is used to identify the presence of certain words, themes, or concepts within the corpus of data such as responses to interviews;
- Narrative analysis. The narrative analysis focuses on interpreting stories told by participants: how the story is structured, what purpose it serves, and other aspects;
- Discourse analysis. Discourse analysis takes into account the circumstances in which the analyzed data was retrieved; it interprets the data in its social context.
- The grounded theory uses qualitative data to explain why a certain event is taking place or has happened.
The organization in question could potentially benefit from conducting internal qualitative research with the purpose of understanding its employees’ attitudes towards training. A qualitative study is carried out in several steps starting from identifying a problem and then moving onto developing a plan, administering procedures, and analyzing data. At present, there are different types of qualitative research with phenomenological being the most appropriate for the current case. Interviews are used extensively in qualitative research; their efficiency is contingent on organization and the quality of questions.
Bryman, A & Bell, E 2015, Business research methods (4th Ed), Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Magnusson, E. and Marecek, J., 2015. Doing interview-based qualitative research: A learner’s guide. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Myers, MD 2019, Qualitative research in business and management, Sage Publications Limited, Thousand Oaks.
Saunders, M, Thornhill, A & Lewis, P 2015, Research methods for business students (7thEd), FT Prentice Hall, London.