I am a firm believer that having a greater number of college degrees does not necessarily mean you’re smarter than those with fewer. I am unapologetic in my stance, as I believe the role of the university is not to increase your IQ (arguably a number with little flux). The role of the university is instead to train you, largely in a particular discipline or process or both. Yes, some programs require a greater degree of raw intelligence, and the purpose of this post is not to draw those lines. The purpose instead is to understand how we can walk away from the misconception that only those with a research background can perform business research. What connects these two dots? In short, the conclusion that just because someone has a PhD, it does not mean they know more about your business than you do. In fact, the opposite is usually true. If they are trained in the process, and you are intimate with your business, I would like to make a suggestion. When seeking a greater understanding of your business’ either process, program, or product performance, team up instead to form a symbiotic relationship between the business and a researcher so you both can accomplish more and do the research together.
The Why – The Interpretive Approach
Among the approaches to organization studies which exist, these include the interpretive approach. As described by Aldrich and Ruef (2009):
The interpretive approach focuses on the meaning social actions have for participants at the micro level of analysis. It emphasizes the socially constructed nature of organizational reality and the processes by which participants negotiate the meanings of their actions, rather than taking them as a given. Unlike institutional theorists, interpretive theorists posit a world in which actors build meaning with locally assembled materials through their interaction with socially autonomous others. (p. 43)
If this is true, then a lone researcher cannot simply be transplanted from one organization to the next, all the while delivering revenue-trajectory-altering research in a vacuum. The research is to be built on great questions, those may just come from the business, and the very meaning of the business and the data it generates is embedded within the interactions and the actors in the business itself.
The What – A Symbiotic Relationship
A relationship where you – representing the business – provide the context, maybe even help gather some of the data, and are there to take part in the interpretation once the researcher has completed a substantive portion of his/her analysis. You’re a team, the researcher is not a gun for hire. Which also means, if you’re a team, you’re a researcher too. This approach is important for many reasons, among which includes your store of tacit knowledge. As we are reminded by Colquitt, Lepine, and Wesson (2013), “Tacit knowledge [is] what employees can typically learn only through experience. It’s not easily communicated but could very well be the most important aspect of what we learn in organizations. In fact, it’s been argued that up to 90 percent of the knowledge contained in organizations occurs in tacit form” (p. 239). That is a vast amount of available information the researcher simply will not have if you do not team up and start working together.
The How – A Cue from Empowerment Evaluation
We can draw a number of conclusions on how best to form this reciprocal relationship between business and researcher as one team, and many come from the literature on empowerment evaluation. As put by Fetterman and Wandersman (2005):
If the group does not adopt an inclusive and capacity-building orientation with some form of democratic participation, then it is not an empowerment evaluation. However, if the community takes charge of the goals of the evaluation, is emotionally and intellectually linked to the effort, but is not actively engaged in the various data collection and analysis steps, then it probably is either at the early developmental stages of empowerment evaluation or it represents a minimal level of commitment. (p. 9)
There is a final, critical subtext to all of the above. In essence, there must be a consistent flow of ideas between the researcher and the business. Research in business is everyone’s business, yet only in environments when the researcher can share his/her craft, and the business more informed can help to grant the researcher access to the knowledge only they possess. For a final thought on the merits of this proposed team I defer to the literature on constructing grounded theory. Therein Charmaz 2014 reminds us that, “We need to think about the direction we aim to travel and the kinds of data our tools enable us to gather… Attending to how you gather data will ease your journey and bring you to your destination with a stronger product” (p. 22).
About the Author:
Senior decision support analyst for Healthways, and current adjunct faculty member for Allied American University, Grand Canyon University, South University, and Walden University, Dr. Barclay is a multi-method researcher, institutional assessor, and program evaluator. His work seeks to identify those insights from among enterprise data which are critical to sustaining an organization’s ability to complete. That work spans the higher education, government, nonprofit, and corporate sectors. His current research is in the areas of employee engagement, faculty engagement, factors affecting self-efficacy, and teaching in higher education with a focus on online instruction.