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Managing management research

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Topic selection – executive development

A full-time student is often given a relatively free hand in choosing a research topic. A practising manager on an executive development programme of study, however, may be directed quite specifically. This means that he or she may be working to a broad objective set or guided by senior managers in the organization. This is not usually a constraint on innovation or imagination.

Selecting a topic

If you do have a relatively free hand in the selection of a research topic, you might start by thinking about the direction in which you want your career to go, within or outside your present organization, and look for a topic to give you relevant experience and knowledge.

Another useful idea is to review your organization's objectives and strategies, and look for any gaps of knowledge or practice which could be filled. These are quite likely to be cross-functional, where no one person or department has total responsibility. A third approach would be to look for efficiencies, or to look outwards at expansion; new products, markets or customers. If the study is for a qualification, however, care must be taken to ensure that there is sufficient substance in the work to be undertaken.

It may not be advisable to focus an MBA-level research project entirely on your own work area, as it wastes an opportunity to expand personal knowledge and experience of other functions within the business.

Typically, a Master's level research topic in business should centre on an issue which is:

  • important
  • needs to be tackled
  • is consistent with corporate objectives
  • has a senior manager (who may or may not be your own line supervisor) interested enough to support the topic as a client
  • is cross-functional, but partly within your own experience and/or responsibility, and
  • is in line with your own career objectives and aspirations.

Top management often identifies key issues which, ideally, the organizations should address. Despite the importance of these issues it is often the case that resources are not available (or made available) to explore them. Master's projects can be appropriate vehicles for satisfying the needs of both the organization and the researcher.

At topic selection stage, it is very useful to exchange ideas and suggestions with others. Appropriate individuals will usually be self-evident, but would normally include senior executives as well as your project supervisor, and fellow students or researchers on the programme.

Agreeing topics which are imposed

It is customary in an academic setting for the researcher to play a major part in topic selection. In business research, and in action learning oriented programmes, the topic is often suggested or imposed by management, and the direction given might be highly specific; "I want you to determine the feasibility of entering this market sector", or more general, "It's about time someone looked at communications around here". In this case it is important to find out precisely what is expected of you.

Questions you might ask are:

  • Can I be given a written brief?
  • Is the project in line with company objectives and strategy?
  • What is the deadline for completion?

Congruence with corporate strategy is of immense importance. Nothing could be more frustrating than to complete a major research project, only to find that the company was not intending to follow that route anyway (or that direction has been changed mid-project).

For that reason a researcher should insist on a written brief, if one has not been given, and circulate it widely, including top management if this is feasible. If the research is, in part, to satisfy academic requirements it is important to be personally comfortable with it, and essential that it is of sufficient substance, and can be completed in time.

Looking ahead, progress reports should be issued periodically by the researcher, restating the objectives and giving outline conclusions to date, and making as clear as possible the implementation issues as they stand.

Armed with guidance and evidence acquired from a range of sources, one or more topics might commend themselves for fuller consideration. Initially at least, topic analysis might take the form of a short (1,000 words or less) description of what is proposed, and why.

The topic analysis could be structured in the following manner, though the weight given to each section will vary according as to whether or not the research is part of an academic study programme.

(1) Problem definition

This provides the focus for the study. In an executive education or in-company development programme, the problem should be of concern not only to yourself, but to the organization and/or a senior member in it. You will need a clearly defined statement that has been agreed by those concerned.

Definition can be helped by:

  • identifying the problem;
  • providing the background to the problem;
  • demonstrating the general significance of the problem (e.g. importance to the relevant profession);
  • providing a national or international context to the problem; and
  • referring to the relevant literature.

(2) Statement of aim

This must derive from your definition of the problem. In defining your aim you should avoid generalities, set out the purpose, scope and limitations of the project, and provide a clear focus for your study. A vague or over-general aim will lead you into difficulties when collecting data.

(3) Value to the organization (if appropriate)

Applied or organization-based research must, by definition, have potential value to the organization. This is an important criterion by which to judge the suitability of your proposed study.

(4) Feasible project design

A good project brief will make the design of the project relatively easy, if not automatic. It will make clear what methods can be used, although you will still have a choice. It will also become clear as to whether the project can be carried out in the time available, and what skills and competencies are required.

(5) Use of data

A good project will require access to relevant data. This will involve library and field research. If the data you need to collect are politically sensitive, or confidential, you may have difficulty obtaining them. Such issues need to be resolved before you start your study.

The benefit of exposing topic analysis to critical examination by interested parties cannot be overemphasized. Many of the questions raised will lead to modification of intentions. It is much to be preferred that these questions are asked prior to the commencement of the study rather than after it has started – when it might be too late to rectify deficiencies.

Requisite levels

In qualification programmes there should be enough "meat" in a topic to justify the award being sought. Doctoral research necessarily requires a high degree of generalizability – application of specific principles to other organizations and circumstances – and at MBA level also, a topic should be more than simply a routine write-up of a case study.