Using data to aid organisational change
Using data to aid organisational change

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Using data to aid organisational change

3.1 Finalising research questions for your project

In developing your research questions, you also need to be concerned with issues of feasibility in terms of access and time. Most importantly you will have to consider the possibility of implementing the change you have identified. You do not need to be over ambitious, but you need to realistically evaluate how difficult it would be to get enough of the information you are planning in the time you have available before beginning the change. You need to plan a project that is neither too broad nor too narrow in scope and one that can be carried out in the available time.

Activity 3 Designing research questions

Timing: Allow around 60 minutes for this activity

Part 1 Things to consider when thinking about your research question

In Video 1, you will hear from four individuals who provide insights on the importance of setting the right research question. They will also talk about the strategies they adopted to come up with specific research questions for their projects, which were part of their MBA projects at The Open University.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 1
Skip transcript: Video 1 What to consider when developing research questions for your project

Transcript: Video 1 What to consider when developing research questions for your project

So the question I was answering within my MBA project was how could the hospital I was working in report against the new Department of Health mandated reporting standards for use in emergency departments that measured the care and the time patients spent in the emergency department with timestamps and reporting requirements throughout the patient's journey?
So the question I answered for my project or, rather, the project focus was literally looking at the threats coming from the external environment. And in the case of my project, it was a nationally-mandated change in how we reported patients' journeys through an emergency department at an NHS hospital, arising from a nationally-mandated change in reporting coming from the Department of Health and recognising that currently we weren't reporting against those standards, and we needed to move quite quickly to meeting that national requirement.
The main question that I was trying to find the answer to in my MBA project was, essentially, how could knowledge be shared within an organisation, within a department, where knowledge sharing didn't really happen, it didn't really exist, and no one really understood what knowledge sharing was?
The way that I came up with a specific question was really an iterative process. So it involved me collecting a lot of information and evidence. So collecting interview- so undertaking interviews and speaking to stakeholders, looking at publicly-available information such as the accounts, utilising data that was available to me, but also, as well, undertaking a rich picture to understand the organisational context and the problems within the organisation.
Also, as well, using different academic theories such as the power-versus-interest matrix. And essentially, it was a constantly iterative process of gathering information, analysing the situation, and then going back to- as to whether I felt that that specific question would allow me to, one, undertake a MBA project that was suitable and also, as well, allow me to make a difference within the organisation. But it was very much an iterative process of narrowing down the scope of the project and the question.
I would say that as a curriculum and assessment organisation, there was an expectation from our customers that we would help those students from the beginning to the end to get their qualification. And we were letting those customers down. And I needed to find the answer to how to overcome that and because that was my area of responsibility that had been given to me.
So thinking about how I came up with this question- and I think, fundamentally, I'll just qualify this with that- I come from a very commercial background. So I'd always worked in for-profit organisations, creating educational products. And so my main concern was we're getting a big complaint here from customers. This is wrong.
And it's my remit- it's my role to do something about it. But it also- the question- choosing that question was a pragmatic decision, because it was part of my job to do something about it. And it was in my job description to come up with a new strategy and new product service strategy. I thought, well, I'm not going to have time to do something outside of what's in my current remit.
I've just recently started this job. So to look at something perhaps further afield, I wouldn't have time to do that, wouldn't have the resources, know the people, know how to go about doing that. And then again, I think I felt that this was something that would really help me apply my MBA learning, my MBA education. My favourite module was strategy. So I was absolutely really keen on looking at how I can develop a new strategy here.
So the main question that I'm- that form the basis of my project was whether we could capitalise the R&D expense to the balance sheet under IAS 38 in a way that a pure form pharmaceutical company could not. Because I felt that we had more flexibility, because we were a medical device company.
And this was clearly a sort of shift in thinking within the finance department. Because as I discovered, they were quite risk averse and quite subject to the herd instinct. So in order to- I did go through a sort of laddering technique in order to actually go from more of the conceptual big picture to getting down to the actual question about, could we capitalise the R&D expense?
So initially, just to go through that laddering technique. So the bigger picture was to move from a 590 billion group company to a 1.5 billion FTSE 100 company by 2021. So all of my colleagues, including myself, wanted to work towards that goal. We wanted to make a difference. So the strategic goal under that was looking into the 60:40 ratio of R&D to overhead spend in a project and whether that was optimal.
So just to give you a brief overview on IAS 38 in the context of that. So IAS 38 allows for qualifying R&D spend to be capitalised on the balance sheet, instead of expensing it to the income statement. It's then amortised over a product lifecycle. So the value out of this is increased profitability, because you're not expensing all of your R&D costs and thereby reducing your profits.
You're capitalising and amortising over time, so you're driving higher earnings per share and reduced taxation because of capital allowances for R&D tax relief. So this has the advantage of allowing for more profits to be distributed via dividends, ultimately driving up the share price, potentially decreasing the cost of credit. So that was the background.
However, this is where the buck comes in. It was an established convention that because of the risks inherent in the pharmaceutical industry, you do not capitalise the costs of drug trials, as there is a risk that the grant of final regulatory approval will not happen.
However, I felt- as we were positioned in the medical device sector, which is less heavily regulated and there's more of a probability of success when you reach a certain point- that the applicability of IAS 38 to our company was more opaque and therefore open to more interpretation. So therefore, I chose that as the basis of my inquiry.
End transcript: Video 1 What to consider when developing research questions for your project
Video 1 What to consider when developing research questions for your project
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Now watch the video a second time and make notes on how the interviewees talked about the following points.

  1. Their main question (work problem or change) they set out to address for their project.
  2. How they came up with this specific secondary question (work problem or change). In other words, how did they narrow their project focus down to this particular question (work problem or change)?
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Part 2 Applying theories or frameworks to discuss your research questions

Read on to see how theories or frameworks are useful in helping you to focus further on your research questions.

Figure 3 depicts how research questions can contain a number of elements. The clear development of one or more research questions will guide the development of your data collection process and the tools or instruments you will use. Your research questions should emerge from a specific need to acquire greater knowledge about a phenomenon or a situation (i.e. your research topic). This need may be a personal one as well as a contextual and organisational need.

Described image
Figure 3 Elements relating to a research question

Consider this example of how to develop a research question:

As a consequence of government cuts, your arts organisation has to re-structure and this is causing stress and tension among staff. You are involved in the planning of the change initiative and want to develop an organisational change programme that minimises stress and conflict. In order to do so you need to know more about people’s views, at the various organisational levels. What types of question would help you to:

  1. understand the context
  2. demonstrate to the various research stakeholders (e.g. organisational members and research participants [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , or supervisor, etc.) what you intend to do?

Perhaps you would like to make some notes of your initial ideas and think about how you could apply this process to develop your own research question. A way round this may be to ask the stakeholders to look for the research topic, but explain that this should be a problem they can identify in their context. Then they proceed to think of research questions which are actually questions in relation to the change they would like to apply to deal with the problem they wish to explore and, if relevant, think of sub-questions.

Figure 4 is an example of a framework that can be used to develop sub-questions out of your main research questions.

Described image
Figure 4 An example of a research question and some sub-questions

Reading around the topic will help you to achieve greater focus, as will discussing your initial questions with colleagues and your supervisor. In the example above, assuming the literature has been searched and several articles on change management and business restructuring have been read, you are likely to have developed clearer ideas about what you want to investigate and how you want to investigate it.

Figure 5 shows what the main research question and the sub-questions or objectives might be.

Described image
Figure 5 An example of a research question and some sub-questions

Part 3 Testing your knowledge of what constitutes a research question

Based on your notes from Part 1 and what you have read from Part 2, answer the three questions below:

  1. What constitutes a research question?
  2. Thinking about the problem you identified for your project, use the information in Figure 5 to outline the main pieces of information that a research question for your project needs to contain.
  3. Thinking about your chosen organisational context, create a diagram similar to Figure 4 that captures your project topic, main research questions and two sub-research questions.
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You do not need too many questions, it is better to keep your project focused – too broad and it is unlikely to work. Keep in mind that you will need time to implement your change, if you decide to do so.

Next, you are going to look at how to link your research question(s) to a specific work problem or change.


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