Good-quality research enables organisations to make evidence-based decisions relating to a wide range of pursuits, such as:
- identifying new business opportunities,
- understanding customers better,
- evaluating the competitor environment,
- identifying and planning for business risks,
- interrogating relevant regulations and policies, and
- assessing the organisation’s culture and climate.
However, many organisations struggle to clearly distinguish between good- and poor-quality research, which can have potentially dire ramifications.
Based on nearly two decades of experience in conducting research in Africa for academia, corporate companies, governments and non-profit organisations, these are In On Africa’s (IOA) top five indicators for distinguishing good-quality research from the rest.
1. A clear concise research question
Many organisations who are not familiar with conducting and utilising research have unrealistic ideas about what research is and about what it can and can’t do. In essence, we conduct research to answer one or a few specific questions. It is tempting to leave the questions vague and broad because, first, this is much easier than actually getting to the heart of your problem, and therefore the heart of your question or questions; second, it appeals to a broad audience who all have different ideas about what is being researched. Unfortunately, however, questions that are too broad can’t be adequately addressed through a research study.
- Too broad: Are my employees happy?
- Much better: Are my employees happy in their job?
- Excellent: Are my employees happy with the current package and benefits that my company offers them?
2. A research sample that can expertly answer the research question
A research sample refers to the people who will be surveyed to answer the research question. They are a sub-set of the whole population of people that the question applies to. Often, it is too expensive or unrealistic to reach the whole population. Think, for example, about the experiences of employees in the mining industry. There are too many people in the mining industry to include in the study, and therefore, a group of people in the mining industry have to be selected to participate in the research.
The sample must be experts with regards to the research question or questions. They have to be the best source of information to answer the question at the heart of the study. In our example in point 1, employees who’ve been with a company for less than six months may not be the best people to answer the question. Similarly, those who are contractors, consultants or part-time staff and those who do not receive benefits would also not be in a position to answer the question. The sample could consist of full-time employees who have been with the company for at least one year and who receive a package with benefits. It seems obvious, but often the research sample are not those people who are best positioned to answer the research question.
|Research question: Are my employees happy with the current package and benefits that my company offers them?
– Contract/ part-time staff
– Less than six-months tenure
|– Full-time employees
– With benefits
– With a minimum one-year tenure
More than one sample is sometimes better. Sometimes, those around you can see your situation more clearly than you can and, therefore, asking them for information can lead to insights that would not have been obtained if only one group of people were asked the question. For example, often our partners or spouses are better able to gauge our job satisfaction than we are.
3. Research methods that illicit the right type of information
There are many ways to find evidence to answer a question, but not all ways are equal. If the research question is sensitive, anonymous responses may be required. If the question is debatable, then focus groups that allow people to agree, disagree and discuss with one another may be best. If we are eliciting personal opinions about fairly well-known phenomena, in-depth interviews might work well. If we are asking the prevalence of a phenomenon among a large group of people, a short questionnaire survey may be required.
The research methods have to be best suited to the type of information that will answer the research question, and they have to be sensitive to the context and environment in which the participants are most likely to share their answers openly and honestly. Using more than one method is the best practice in research, for example, combing a quantitative survey with qualitative interviews or combing focus groups with desktop research.
|Methods suited to the research question
|Obtain background knowledge and context
|Solicit detailed personal opinions and experiences
|Elicit new ideas, debates, points of disagreement, obtain consensus
|Understand a particular event
|Understand how people behave in a context
|Measure prevalence and characteristics of a fairly well-known phenomenon
|Monitoring and evaluation
|Understand the operation and effect of an intervention/programme
4. Data analysis that can cut to the answer
Good-quality data analysis requires patience and effort. Quantitative (based on numbers) data has to be cleaned, sorted, described and well understood before any analysis can begin. Qualitative (based on words) data needs to be transcribed, checked, sometimes translated, checked again, read, re-read and once the analyst is familiar with the content, then only can any analysis begin. In both cases, only once the researcher is thoroughly familiar with all the data can they begin to arrange it in ways that answer the research questions thoroughly and holistically. Quick is usually dirty when it comes to data analysis.
5. The desire, capacity and resources to do something with the answer
So much research goes unread or unutilised, even by those who commission it. This is unfortunate, given that the research sample spent their time and effort answering the questions, and of course, the research came with a cost. Before any research is done, it is important to think about how the answer to the question will inform organisational policy or practice, such as what will come of the insights gained from the research and is the organisation really in a position to change their package and benefits? The best research is that which is utilised to make an improvement to some existing practice.
Good-quality research is invaluable to any organisation. However, research done without thought and consideration at each stage of the research project can be underwhelming and lead to business decisions being made with blind spots, based on assumptions, on incorrect data or even information obtained from the wrong types of people. We recommend that you look carefully at potential research partners’ expertise, approach and portfolio before choosing your research partner.