Sunday, November 08, 2015

Conceptual change

The last few weeks – if not months – have been very frustrating, in terms of my doctoral research. I have spent a great deal of time during this period locating companies which use Priority, then locating a suitable contact person within that company, then sending my introductory package. Sometimes those companies have answered with refusal, but more often they have 'answered' with silence. It has been coming clear to me that unless something drastic is done, the entire doctoral project is in danger of not being consummated.

Let's backtrack to module 2 of IBR3: methodology. The text discusses two alternative methodologies, quantitative and qualitative. These methodologies lie at opposing ends of a continuum, so a research project could be 100% quantitative, 90% quantitative and 10% qualitative, etc. A quantitative project basically asks the question "How much?"; it is carried out by means of a fixed questionnaire, is hypothesis based, and those hypotheses are tested by means of statistical analyses of the results obtained from the questionnaires. Such a project also requires a large number (100+) of observations, where the sample is supposed to be representative of the total population. Anyone who knows the methodology of my research project will recognize that I chose the quantitative route.

On the other hand, a qualitative project basically asks the question "Why?"; it is carried out by interviews (which may be fully structured, semi-structured or freestyle) on a small sample which does not have to be representative of the entire population. Its conclusions are considered to be binding with regard to that sample only and not to the general population, although they may be indicative. I could have concluded the final sentence in the first paragraph by writing "It has been coming clear to me that the only way to succeed with my doctoral project is to change to a qualitative methodology".

A few days ago, I emailed all the contact people of companies who have agreed to participate in the research, asking how many responses could be expected from each company. This was in an attempt to see whether the sample size would be sufficient to support the quantitative approach. So far, I have received only one response to that letter: someone wrote to tell me that their company does not use spreadsheets along with Priority. My initial, from the hip, response was to ask (rhetorically) why they signed the participation agreement if they don't use Excel; as it happens, another company with which I was in contact also claims that they don't use Excel, which is why they didn't sign the agreement, assuming that they would be of little use to me.

Yesterday evening, the pieces began to fall in place. I would like to have written that my conclusion was reached after analysing the entire doctoral project and rethinking, but that wouldn't be true. It was more a case of suddenly realising that not only would the qualitative approach be better, the fact that this company does not use Excel could be turned to my advantage.

I still intend that they complete the questionnaire, as the collateral information which can be obtained is very useful. But more importantly, I intend to interview about five users in an attempt to discover how they manage to use Priority without Excel. Obviously, this is possible – in fact, desired behaviour – but it's very difficult to achieve in practice. I would like to say that even I do not use Excel, but that's not strictly true. Hopefully, I will be able to 'extract the secret' from these interviews, then compare them to similar interviews in other companies which do use Excel. I can also attempt to corroborate the findings from the one company with the other company which does not use Excel and which did not sign the agreement.

Fortunately, this company is located about twenty minutes away, so it would be quite convenient for me to spend a few afternoons there. The company which did not sign is located in Afula, which is a two hour drive away and very awkwardly situated.

I have decided that as from today, I am ceasing my attempts to find more companies and sign them up. On the other hand, I am not going to ignore those that have already signed: I will send them the questionnaires, and some of the data will be useful. Thus my project will be partially qualitative and partially quantitative. I am going to run these ideas past my mentor and I imagine that he will be supportive.

Then I will have to rewrite parts of my intermediate submission. The methodology section will have to be expanded as well as the 'conclusions' section of the pilot study, but apart from that, I don't see – at the moment – any parts which will have to be excluded. One might say that adding the qualitative aspect is greatly improving the quality of the project.

As is my nature, I have to examine the above and find where I went wrong. I can see that from almost day one, I have been fixated on the quantitative approach, and have never considered any alternative. This assumes that I knew from the very beginning why people use spreadsheets; I thought that I knew because I work with such people. The idea that people can and do work without spreadsheets never occurred to me, because I had never seen it in practice.

Rereading the material in IBR3 yesterday evening, I saw a hint which I had ignored. One of the differences between the approaches is that qualitative methodology is often used as an exploratory technique, when researchers are not sure of causes. I have often stated that my research is apparently the first of its kind; had I been more experienced (read, less blinkered) or had read IBR3 in a more open frame of mind, then I would have known that the qualitative approach would have been better suited to this research. My mentor had tried to nudge me in this direction at times, but I was convinced that my approach was better.

Well, I was wrong. Maybe it's just as well that insufficient companies signed up.

Another hint may have unconsciously come from a discussion which I had on Friday morning with the Occupational Psychologist. We were discussing the extremely low marks which one examinee achieved from our flagship questionnaire. Obviously, statistically, someone has to have low marks (in the same way that someone has to be last on the bus), but the fact that he had similar marks across the board was suspicious. When I examined the raw data from his exam, I saw that only slightly less than half the questions had been answered. Once this would have meant that his raw data would not even have been accepted into the database, but a recent change in the raw data file format now allows this.
I was somewhat incredulous to see this so I asked whether anyone had noticed that the examinee had not completed the exam. "Yes", replied the OP. "We have here the observations made by the person administering the exam, and … yes, it was noted that the examinee did not complete the exam. Not only that, the psychologist who reviewed the data also noted this fact". I should point out that the OP was extremely worried that we were basing recommendations solely on the computerised data, so she was greatly relieved to see that all along the chain, the incompleteness had been noted and in fact commented upon as a sign of the examinee's psychology.

Only after writing the bulk of today's blog did I become aware of the relevance of this incident, which can be translated in the following manner: I see only the quantitative aspects of the OP's work and am barely aware of the qualitative aspects. In this case, the quantitative data was sorely lacking (read: useless), but the qualitative data proved exceedingly useful. In other words, due to my psychological composition, I am strongly attracted to the quantitative side and tend to ignore the qualitative. This has to change!!

Now I am wondering whether the fact that I have been reading John Le Carre's "Honourable Schoolboy" might have some bearing. George Smiley remarks on Karla's lack of moderation (or his fanaticism) and foresees that this will lead to his downfall. Once again, my fanaticism was the belief that the qualitative approach was the methodology required, but fortunately have managed to avoid the downfall.

Obligatory irrelevant musical observation: a few days ago, the listening material on my mp3 player was the groundbreaking "The Yes Album" from 1971. I devoted quite an amount of thought as to why this album was so good but as to why it pales in comparison to VdGG. I won't go into that now, but I am reminded that the ultimate track on that album is called 'Perceptual change'. Maybe that phrase was hanging around in my brain, for I have undergone a perceptual – or more accurate, conceptual – change in the past few days.

[SO: 4012; 3, 17, 38]

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