Research is about gathering data so that it can inform meaningful decisions. In the workplace, this can be invaluable in allowing informed decision-making that will meet with wider strategic organizational goals.
However, research comes in a variety of guises and, depending on the methodologies applied, can achieve different ends. There are broadly two key approaches to research — qualitative and quantitative.
Qualitative v Quantitative — what’s the difference?
Qualitative Research is at the touchy-feely end of the spectrum. It’s not so much about bean-counting and much more about capturing people’s opinions and emotions.
“Research following a qualitative approach is exploratory and seeks to explain ‘how’ and ‘why’ a particular phenomenon, or behavior, operates as it does in a particular context.” (simplypsychology.org)
Examples of the way qualitative research is often gathered includes:
Interviews are a conversation based inquiry where questions are used to obtain information from participants. Interviews are typically structured to meet the researcher’s objectives.
- Focus Groups
Focus group discussions are a common qualitative research strategy. In a focus group discussion, the interviewer talks to a group of people about their thoughts, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes towards a topic. Participants are typically a group who are similar in some way, such as income, education, or career. In the context of a company, the group dynamic is likely their common experience of the workplace.
Observation is a systematic research method in which researchers look at the activity of their subjects in their typical environment. Observation gives direct information about your research. Using observation can capture information that participants may not think to reveal or see as important during interviews/focus groups.
- Existing Documents
This is also called secondary data. A qualitative data collection method entails extracting relevant data from existing documents. This data can then be analyzed using a qualitative data analysis method called content analysis. Existing documents might be work documents, email, or any other material relevant to the organization.
Quantitative Research is the ‘bean-counting’ bit of the research spectrum. This isn’t to demean its value. Now encompassed by the term ‘People Analytics’, it plays an equally important role as a tool for business decision-making.
Organizations can use a variety of quantitative data-gathering methods to track productivity. In turn, this can help:
- To rank employees and work units
- To award raises or promotions.
- To measure and justify termination or disciplining of staff
- To measure productivity
- To measure group/individual targets
Examples might include measuring workforce productivity. If Widget Makers Inc., has two production lines and Line A is producing 25% more per day than Line B, capturing this data immediately informs management/HR of potential issues. Is the slower production on Line B due to human factors or is there a production process issue?
Quantitative Research can help capture real-time activities in the workplace and point towards what needs management attention.
The Pros & Cons of the Qualitative approach
By its nature, qualitative research is far more experiential and focussed on capturing people’s feeling and views. This undoubtedly has value, but it can also bring many more challenges than those simply capturing quantitative data. Here are a few challenges and benefits to consider.
- Qualitative Research can capture changing attitudes within a target group such as consumers of a product or service, or attitudes in the workplace.
- Qualitative approaches to research are not bound by the limitations of quantitative methods. If responses don’t fit the researcher’s expectation that’s equally useful qualitative data to add context and perhaps explain something which numbers alone are unable to reveal.
- Qualitative Research provides a much more flexible approach. If useful insights are not being captured researchers can quickly adapt questions, change the setting or any other variable to improve responses.
- Qualitative data capture allows researchers to be far more speculative about what areas they choose to investigate and how to do so. It allows data capture to be prompted by a researcher’s instinctive or ‘gut feel’ for where good information will be found.
Qualitative research can be more targeted. If you want to compare productivity across an entire organization, all parts, process, and participants need to be accounted for. Qualitative research can be far more concentrated, sampling specific groups and key points in a company to gather meaningful data. This can both speed the process of data capture and keep the costs of data-gathering down.
- Sample size can be a big issue. If you seek to infer from a sample of, for example, 200 employees, based upon a sample of 5 employees, this raises the question of whether sampling will provide a true reflection of the views of the remaining 97.5% of the company?
- Sample bias – HR departments will have competing agendas. One argument against qualitative methods alone is that HR tasked with finding the views of the workforce may be influenced both consciously or unconsciously, to select a sample that favors an anticipated outcome.
- Self-selection bias may arise where companies ask staff to volunteer their views. Whether in a paper, online survey or focus group, if an HR department calls for participants there will be the issue of staff putting themselves forward. The argument goes that this group, in self-selecting itself, rather than being a randomly selected snapshot of a department, will inevitably have narrowed its relevance to those that typically are willing to come forward with their views. Quantitative data is gathered whether someone volunteered or not.
- The artificiality of qualitative data capture. The act of bringing together a group is inevitably outside of the typical ‘norms’ of everyday work life and culture and may influence the participants in unforeseen ways.
- Are the right questions being posed to participants? You can only get answers to questions you think to ask. In qualitative approaches, asking about “how” and “why” can be hugely informative, but if researchers don’t ask, that insight may be missed.
The reality is that any research approach has both pros and cons. The art of effective and meaningful data gathering is thus to be aware of the limitations and strengths of each method.
In the case of Qualitative research, its value is inextricably linked to the number-crunching that is Quantitative data. One is the Ying to the other’s Yang. Each can only provide half of the picture, but together, you get a more complete view of what’s occurring within an organization.