A Framework for Management Research
Research to Support Evidence-based Management
This section begins by looking at definitions of management research and then considers issues around conducting it:
One of the central difficulties in evidenced-based management is that the systematic evidence to inform management decisions is still sparse. Clearly more systematic evidence will be needed to support widely-practiced evidenced-based management. There are several general types of information that can support evidenced-based decision making: continuous quality improvement, knowledge management and research. We focus here on research.
- Defining management research
The term management research is a broad one and is often used in two different, but overlapping, ways:
- Research for managers. Used in this way, management research is research tailored to specific management needs and usually conducted at the request of managers. While it ideally informs theory and contributes to the development of knowledge, the priority is to answer specific questions defined in conjunction with managers, generally within timeframes that meet their needs. The distinguishing feature of management research under this definition is the target audience not a particular subject area.
- Research about management and organizations. In this context, management research is defined by the subject of study: it is research, for example, about how organizations are structured and function; the practices of decision-making; the factors that affect organizational operations. It focuses on issues at levels higher than the clinician-patient interaction - for example, on clinic operations, service delivery models, hospitals or integrated delivery systems. The emphasis is on building knowledge.
In some studies, both definitions apply: the study is requested by a manager but is expected to add to theory as well as address shorter-term management questions. The evaluation of service lines in VA conducted at the MDRC is an example of a study that fell at the intersection of the two meanings of management research.
- Framing the question
One of the challenges of management research is the complexity of the issues to be studied. When investigators are conducting research for managers, the first challenge is to turn the manager's question or issue into a good research question. Conversely, when researchers are developing their own research about management and organizations, they should frame the questions to be relevant to managers, over the long- if not the short-term.
Researchers and managers, in collaboration, must begin by avoiding broad, vague or highly abstract research questions and instead ask questions that focus on specific management issues. Although theoretical arguments are often useful in developing greater understanding of managerial problems, it is more likely that the results will be used if the research answers practical questions that managers need to understand. Furthermore, the questions selected must be important to the organization. These questions might be operational (for short-term decision-making) or strategic, related to the viability of the organization in the future.
It is unrealistic to expect managerial decision making to be redesigned around research priorities or processes. There should be a match between when the results will be available and when management must make a decision.
When framing research question(s), investigators should not underestimate the cultural and educational chasm between managers and researchers. While managers will have an understanding of the issues to be studied, most will not be familiar with research literature on the topic or with research methodology and statistics. Therefore managers may not be as concerned as the researcher about using systematic methods or advanced analytic techniques.
Managers and researchers often approach studies from very different perspectives - the manager is looking to make changes; the researcher often approaches the study to prove or disprove hypotheses to build knowledge and/or theory - and may not necessarily be looking for clear and obvious answers. A partnership between the researcher and the manager will help bridge the natural differences in approach.
There may be a steering committee with multiple clients involved. The extent to which different goals are acknowledged and worked through will assist in ensuring that all objectives can be achieved. Note that on-going involvement of clients can result in a shifting of gears mid-study. It can be a challenge to be responsive to the client while setting boundaries related to research methods.
- Study timelines
Another difference between the approach of the researcher and the manager is often the timeframe they have in mind for producing study results. Managers have a need for quick results in order to apply to current or imminent operational issues. Researchers are often not used to deadlines created by operations or implementation timetables.
For the results to be useful, the question may have to be refined in order to provide results within the timeframe required by the manager. To be certain that the clients will get the answers they are looking for, in an appropriate timeframe, the clients should be an integral part of framing the research question.
Managers will value the timeliness of the study results. This need for timely information may result in a trade-off between creating the most rigorous design and getting portions of the study completed quickly.
Reporting results typically cannot wait for the traditional peer-reviewed journal article to be published. Results should be provided on an on-going basis when possible, and in planned interim reports. These reports should be tailored to meet the specified needs of the managers.