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How to... manage the research process

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From objectives to plans: planning the project

Objectives

Planning a project is a major piece of work, and needs to be done up front. This is often difficult as you may not have a very clear idea of how the research will develop. It helps therefore to start off with some broad objectives.

Objectives may relate to a personal or strategic goal, such as "produce a dissertation to distinction standard by [x] date", "obtain a PhD","fulfil the criteria as set out by [x] – the funder". But you will also have objectives for your research, for example:

  • Research information cultures in international organizations
  • Understand the reasons behind the decisions to outsource human resource functions
  • Study the role of branding in the supply chain
  • Measure attitudes of librarians to the Internet.

You will probably need to break your main research objective down into a number of more detailed objectives, which should be SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time framed.

Activities

Once you have got this far, you can begin the work of actually planning out the project in detail. To do this you will need to develop a list of all the activities which will need to take place, from finalizing the idea up to writing the report. These will eventually need to be sequential and time framed but initially you may wish just to brainstorm a list of activities as they occur to you.

It will also help to think of the research project as a number of mini projects, perhaps defined by the research cycle: developing the proposal, designing the research, collecting the data, etc. These projects will probably correspond with milestones – significant stages along the way the completion of which is important for the overall project. If you are doing your research as part of a degree, you may have milestones created for you, for example you are expected to put a project proposal on a certain date, hand in the literature review etc. You may also have milestones that you agree with your supervisor.

Once you have a list of activities, put them in some sort of order. Don't worry if you can't always work out an exact sequence: some activities can be run simultaneously, a point to which we shall return.

Timing

Once you have worked out some sort of sequence, you then need to establish how long each activity will take. There are three things to bear in mind here:

  1. The total time required for the task.
  2. The time period over which the task will be executed – this is known as lapse time and assumes that you will not be devoting 100 per cent of your time to tasks in any one period.
  3. The need to plan in some extra time, known as "buffer time" to tasks. Always err on the side of generosity when you allocate time to task – things generally take longer than you think they will.

Buffer time is important, as is having a safety margin at the end of the project: some time between the final margin and the actual deadline. There are all sorts of uncertainties in research – you may find more literature than you planned for, data may be slow in coming etc. And there are the things that can happen in any project, such as illness, or unforeseen circumstance such as death of a relative.

You should also not assume, if you are generous with your time allowances and you meet your deadlines, that all is going well. Always start one activity once you have finished the last one, and use the "buffer time" to increase your slack at the end of the project.

Lapse time is often difficult to schedule accurately. You need to take account not only of other tasks in the actual research, but also of responsibilities outside the research such as other coursework, lectures, family, job, administration, teaching etc. It is therefore useful to decide how much time you have available/need (alas, the two may not be the same) on a weekly basis. When comparing task durations against lapse time, your weekly lapse time becomes time allocated to research.

Patrick is doing a part-time MBA, on which he spends an average of 15 hours a week. About half of this is spent on the project. Patrick reckons that he would probably spend the equivalent of a full working week of 35 hours on the literature review. Although this is currently his main task for his project, it is prudent to make allowance for the odd task so we can assume that he can spend 6.5 hours per week on the literature review. Thus the entire task will take him about 5.5 weeks.

Planning time over a longer research project

Generally speaking, the shorter the time-scale of any project, the easier it is to plan, and research is no different. Thus when planning a PhD, it may be better to plan at a fairly top level, looking at the main stages, e.g. narrowing down the topic, putting in the proposal, carrying out the literature review, deciding on the research methodology etc., then planning the various stages in detail once you've got there. The outcome of each stage is likely to dictate the shape of the next one.

It's important to know in broad terms what you need to do in what month (you can probably get general time-line guidance from your supervisor or someone in your department), but planning in detail when you are going to revise your questionnaire when you don't know for certain if you will be using this method is fruitless. Your planning should rather be of the "wave" variety discussed in the next section (see wave planning).

You might have a broad idea of the research paradigm in which you want to operate, perhaps dictated by your own skills and experience or that of your supervisor. But you might also need to do far more research into the methods already used on this or similar topics before deciding on a particular approach. Thus at the beginning of your research, you would only know what milestones you needed to achieve and by when (all data collected by x, in order to have sufficient time for analysis and write-up) and the actual detail of the data collection stage would need to be finalized when these decisions had been made.

Dependencies and the critical path

The next thing is to place the activities in the order which they need to occur, and decide which are dependent on one another. For example, suppose your research project involved interviewing managers about their leadership style, the list might look something like this:

  1. Research literature on leadership.
  2. Come up with list of questions.
  3. Determine sample size.
  4. Approach possible interviewees.
  5. Plan interviews.
  6. Carry out interviews.

Once you had analysed dependencies, you might conclude that you could start your questions as you were carrying out your literature search, and that you could come up with questions as you think about your sampling strategy, etc., so that the entire plan might look like this:

Image: planning the project

In other words, you are carrying out certain activities in parallel. It is particularly useful to bear this in mind for the data collection phase, when you will probably have periods of inactivity, which can be filled by, for example, writing up bits of the literature review.

There will however be some activities which are interdependent, i.e. when one activity cannot start until the dependent one has finished. This is known as the critical path.

Once you have prepared a plan, with dependencies showing and taking account of those activities which can be done simultaneously, you need to check it against your end date. This is the point where you need to check whether the project will achieve your objectives of getting a decent piece of work done by the target date. If you cannot, you will have to reassess and perhaps take out one or two activities, or change the approach.

Budget

The expenses you budget for your research will vary very much depending on the circumstances under which the research is taking place: you are unlikely to have much of a research budget for an undergraduate project, on the other hand if you are managing a large EU funded research project you may well have a budget that runs into six figures. In the latter eventuality, you should receive guidance from your funding body.

The sort of headings you should expect to think of are:

  • Staff (in proportion to their time spent on the project)
  • Costs of recruiting new staff
  • Training costs (e.g. in use of new software)
  • Equipment/IT/software (e.g. laptops for field researchers, statistical software, recording equipment for interviews)
  • Travel and subsistence (particularly for fieldwork, e.g. travelling to interviews)
  • Stationary and consumables – for example, postage costs of questionnaires
  • Events – e.g. focus groups, seminars to publicize research
  • Advertising and publicity.

If the research involves extensive fieldwork, this obviously needs to be budgeted for and you need to know where the money is coming from for travel, accommodation, subsistence, etc.

Identifying risk

Identifying risk is a key aspect of project management. If you know in advance where risk is likely to occur, you can create a plan to mitigate the risk. A scientifically managed project will always include a risk log, which describes the risk, assesses its impact, and identifies counter-measures.

It is not difficult to identify risks in research. Here are some examples, with suggested counter-measures:

Risks in research
It proves difficult to limit the literature review Continue to research the literature alongside other tasks, once the sustained reading period has ended. In any case you will need to keep an eye open for new developments during the course of your research
Failure to gain access to key organization which you had hoped would provide data Apply early, and have a fall-back position – apply to more than one organization, so that if the first organization won't play ball then you have other options
A very low sample of questionnaires is returned Locate another source for the data, perhaps secondary data. Has another survey already been done, which contains the same information but from a different sample?
People unwilling to be interviewed Approach more people than you will need
Writing takes longer than intended Start writing early; certain chapters, such as the literature review and the research design, can be written before the data is collected (indeed, if data is delayed, you could fill in the time by writing these chapters, thus shortening your writing time and lengthening that for data collection)
Too many last minute tasks References and bibliography are fiddly, last minute tasks which will be made much easier if you keep a complete bibliographic record of everything you read, including a few words to remind you of the main argument, so you end up with an annotated bibliography

Although the writing up part is often looked on as the most arduous part of the research, by far the most risky aspect of any research is the data collection, since that is the area over which you have least control. It is really important that you monitor closely all arrangements for data collection and not just assume that you will gain access/people will return questionnaires/turn up to focus groups, etc.

A number of partners were carrying out a major research project across numerous organizations. Whereas other partners had their eggs in many baskets, one of the partners had decided to concentrate on one large retail business with numerous outlets over the country. They were delighted when the organization agreed to cooperate, and helped to get focus groups across at least half a dozen sites across the country. However, although the organization was willing, many of the staff members were actually fitting in part-time work with a lot of other things and didn't want to spend the time on extra tasks. So, one focus group had to be cancelled due to lack of interest, whilst to the one that was eventually held only four people turned up. In the event, the partner was able to contact its extensive network of tutors as well as use another internal survey.