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Qualitative Research in Management Addresing Complexity Context and Persona

Qualitative Research in Management Addresing Complexity Context and Persona

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06/07/2011

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Qualitative research inmanagement: addressingcomplexity, context and persona
Evert Gummesson
School of Business, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden
Abstract
Purpose
– To contribute to improved research practices by addressing three key realities inmanagement research, all being largely disregarded by research: complexity, context and persona (thehuman and social aspects of researcher behaviour).
Design/methodology/approach
– Based on observations from real world cases and inductiveanalysis the article proceeds as a scientific discourse and advocacy for qualitative methodologycombined with network theory, particularly current developments in the natural sciences.
Findings
– A qualitative approach to research is required, allowing researchers to deal withcomplexity, context and persona and their multitude of factors, relationships and fuzzy phenomena;conventional statistical methods fail in all these aspects. Holistic, systemic thinking as manifested incase study research and modern network theory offers a superior mindset and techniques for mergingmodern physics and mathematics with qualitative approaches. Social and human properties, includingtacit knowledge, common sense, subjectivity and what drives a researcher need to be made part of research.
Research limitations/implications
– Research in management disciplines, neither basic researchnor applied research can rely on mainstream quantitative techniques. These are two shallow as theycan harbour too few variables, do not put studied phenomena in their proper context, and sweeppersona under the carpet.
Originality/value
– The article is on qualitative methodology and the opportunities it offers toaddress issues not handled well by mainstream research in business. Modern natural sciences areintroduced; especially network theory, suggesting a merger between the quantitative and thequalitative and between modern natural sciences and business research. In this way the reality of complexity, context and persona can be added to the research agenda.
Keywords
Qualitative research, Management research, Complexity theory
Paper type
Research paper
Introduction
During the past few years the business press has regularly reported the developmentsof Airbus, the European manufacturer of aircraft (see, e.g.
Business Week
, 2003, 2004;
The Economist 
, 2005). Airbus is building the A380 superjumbo that can seat 555passengers in its standard version but 800 could be packed in. It flies 14,800kmnon-stop. The new aircraft has required the gargantuan development budget of US$13billion. It not only demands an expensive and lengthy design and engineering phase,the building of new factories and the hiring and training of staff, but alsoinfrastructural investment. To transport components from other countries andfactories they had to widen highways, and build an ocean-going ferry and customisedriver barges. The project is dependent on partners; financial solutions for the project assuch and for the customers to be able to buy; government decisions; strict securityregulations; capacity of airports; and environmental considerations. On a political
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
www.emeraldinsight.com/0025-1747.htm
Quality researchin management
167
Management DecisionVol. 44 No. 2, 2006pp. 167-179
q
Emerald Group Publishing Limited0025-1747DOI 10.1108/00251740610650175
 
mega level the project is a threat to the dominant US manufacturer Boeing and this hascaused a conflict between the US administration and European Union leaders, alsoinvolving the World Trade Organisation, WTO. Eventually, the acid test is themarketing. The Airbus A380 must make it possible for airlines to serve passengerneeds. It is an understatement to say that Airbus has embarked on a complex venture.Following the advice from education in management, one should expect Airbus tohave secured elaborate quantitative information about future costs, revenue andprofits. They must have figured out probabilities of this or that scenario to occur. Costsshould be the easier part one would think. But is it? Who knows what ups or downsin the world economy will present themselves; how prices of components, interest ratesand salaries will change; what deliveries of parts will be delayed; what newtechnologies will emerge to make the chosen design unnecessarily costly or evenobsolete; what production problems will show; and what complications may arisewhen each aircraft is finally tested and delivered. Not only obese addicts of Frenchfries, sugared soda drinks and ice cream need miracle Weightwatcher programmes; sodoes the superjumbo. The demands from airlines to attract passengers by offeringinternet workstations, comfortable seats that may even convert into beds, partitions tocreate private compartments and more, require weight reductions elsewhere without jeopardising performance and security, but holding fuel consumption back, all withimpact on cost.How about revenue? Half of the orders needed to break even on the whole project aresigned. The list price of an A380 is a whopping US$280 million, but what discountshave to be given to secure volume? And what might the competition do? The airlinemarket is extremely turbulent history offers little guidance to the future andbuyers may demand re-negotiation of contracts or airline bankruptcies may cancelorders. And what overt or covert subsidies can Airbus count on from Europeangovernments?Revenue minus cost constitutes profitability. The uncertainty in both cost andrevenue is huge and even minuscule variation in either, can send ripples through theproject and quickly swing the bottom line up or down.The decision to go ahead is primarily based on qualitative assessments, vision andleadership. It is based on a belief in the future. Certain quantitative studies of atechnical kind can be made, and logical traps can be avoided through careful analysisand simulation. But the future conditions and their combined financial effects cannever be assessed with any certainty. All quantitative analysis is founded onqualitative and subjective assumptions and eventually on interpretation(Gummesson, 2003, 2005).Understanding Airbus requires case study research, which is primarily based onqualitative methods. The Airbus A380 is a huge object of study for those who want toget under the skin of management and industrial politics; it offers all the drama andtrauma there is. It covers every management discipline, from engineering and design tomanufacturing and assembly, purchasing, human resource management, marketing,customer service, finance and accounting, and in addition political action on a globalarena. The end product and service package must satisfy both the buyer – an airline orleasing company – and the customer’s customer the passenger. There is no need formore than a single case, although through definitional conjecture, Airbus could bedivided into a hierarchy of sub cases. In the next stage Airbus cases can be compared
MD44,2
168
 
with other cases; constant comparison is a powerful tool to develop and test theoryqualitatively. By continuously getting new data and improving data quality andanalysis, the processes of developing theory and testing theory merge into anever-ending iterative adventure.The Airbus case has been presented here to introduce the three main themes of thisarticle: complexity, context and persona. From an Airbus perspective, managementand staff need to address enormous complexity where everything belongs in a context,and the personalities of people involved are decisive for the outcome. From a researchperspective – whether it is commercial research by consultants or academic, scholarlyresearch a study of the A380 case requires methodology that can embracecomplexity, context, and researcher persona, including individual and group research,procedures and roles.To fulfil the demands of contribution to science, the researcher should conceptualiseand generalise from the case. This can only be achieved through access to substantivedetails of Airbus; there is need for grounded data. To just pick a few variables fromreceived theory, hypothesise some insulated causality between two or a few variablesand test it with perceptual survey data using statistical techniques will only result insuperficiality and emptiness. Such research may offer face validity and reliability – but not genuine validity and relevance. Unfortunately this type of bureaucratisedprocedures have become mainstream in social sciences including management andbusiness. Quantitative research is appointed superior to qualitative research andtraditional natural sciences are hailed by social scientists as the role model for rigorousand objective research. They impress academic peer-reviewed journals andconferences, where the fragmented research results are given theory status andstatistical ritual and detail seems more pivotal than the contribution to systemic theorydevelopment and understanding of phenomena.However, something has long been happening in modern natural sciences, whichbrings the qualitative and quantitative together. These developments are not embracedby mainstream social scientists that seem ignorant of the unorthodox methodology anddaring visions that natural scientists allow themselves to develop new theory. Whensocial or natural scientists transfer ideas from natural sciences to social issues, amainstream establishment often treats these scornfully, rejecting them as irrelevantspeculation and guru-like evangelism. It is my contention that such a fundamentaliststance has contributed to drive much of research in management and business into acoma. It is further my contention that not only metaphorical but also genuinecommonalties exist between the physical and the social. To draw the readers’ attentionto what natural sciences can offer to qualitative methodology, the article will makeample references to such developments.The article first presents my three main concerns complexity, context, persona – and proceeds with holistic approaches addressing these concerns: systems andnetwork theory. The article ends with a personal conclusion.
Complexity
Whereas reality can contain any amount of variables and interrelations, theory inmany economics and management areas shuns complexity. For example, attemptshave been made since the 1930s to include other variables than price inmicroeconomics but the result is meagre. The complexities of the variables affecting
Quality researchin management
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