Thursday, 14 May 2009

On Researchable Questions

When reading any piece of academic research, a tell-tale phrase is "my research question is ..."

Some scholars within some research traditions would say that the very notion of a research question is an offence and that their enquiry journey doesn't need such obvious structuring. If you, or perhaps more importantly your supervisors, go down that line you can avoid what follows. If not, some research questions are better than others.

Good research questions help by (a) structuring your thinking and (b) suggesting ways of building a way of investigating or answering your question. Good questions should have a "?" based on grammatical merit rather than as an ironic twist on a provocative statement. Compare the two examples below.

1. Researching organizations might help change the world ?
2. Does A effect B more than C does ?

Example 1 above is more of a catchphrase or strapline. It might be poetic or provocative but it is also loose and unhelpful when it comes to the conduct of the research itself. Example 2 by contrast is highly structured. It implies certain givens. First, that we know and can define what A, B and C are. Second that we think that there is some implied relationship like increased sales or reduced staff turnover which may or may not be causal in its nature. Third it at least deserves its question mark. Fourth and finally, it suggests that there might be ways of answering the question. You could take a collection of "Bs" and try some A and some C on them, then compare the outcomes you get. There is an implied research design built into the question itself.

Don't try to force fit your research question into the style of example 2 because, in all likelihood, it won't fit. However, think of of example 2 as an exemplar of a particular type of research question ... in terms of being explicit, succinct and researchable, it is hard to beat. These represent good aspirational characteristics for any research question. Try writing your research question down in 30 words or so ... do so regularly and don't put it off.

Then, if you're interested in where research questions come from and why they sometimes change in the conduct of research you could read this paper on the evolution of research questions.

1 comment:

  1. Your original question:
    "Do supply chain networks foster service innovation and value co-creation?"

    This doesn't imply focus or any obvious clues about research design. IF there was a gap around the role of social capital in networks … then a more focused question might be …
    “Does increased social capital within supply chain networks lead to higher levels of service innovation ?” Each of the key terms would need defined and operationalised but then you’d probably adopt some kind of comparative research design where you looked a different networks and tried to correlate social capital with innovation. Bear in mind that this is just a “for example” … the real point is that your reading of the literature needs to lead you toward an identified failing in existing studies. In my hypothetical example it might be that of the 12 prior studies you can find, only one considers social capital at all and it relates it to profitability rather than innovativeness. Then you’re justification for your contribution is nice and clear. However, you need to build your equivalent argument around why you might want to ask the question … then craft the question in a way that offers some insight into how you might address it.