Defining and refining the problem



A “problem” does not necessarily mean that something is seriously wrong with a current situation that needs to be rectified immediately. A problem could also indicate an interest in an issue where finding the right answers might help to improve an existing situation. Thus, it is fruitful to define a problem as any situation where a gap exists between an actual and a desired ideal state.


  1. Long and frequent delays lead to much frustration among airline passengers. Th ese feelings may eventually lead to switching behavior, negative word‐of‐mouth communication, and customer complaints. 
  2. Staff turnover is higher than anticipated. 
  3. Th e current instrument for the assessment of potential employees for management positions is imperfect. 
  4. Minority group members in organizations are not advancing in their careers. 
  5. Th e newly installed information system is not being used by the managers for whom it was primarily designed. 
  6. Th e introduction of fl exible work hours has created more problems than it has solved. 
  7. Young workers in the organization show low levels of commitment to the organization.
The foregoing problems provide us with enough information to embark on our research journey. However, what these problems also have in common is that they still have to be transformed into a researchable topic for investigation. Indeed, once we have identified the management problem, it needs to be narrowed down to a researchable topic for study. Very often much work is needed to translate the broad problem into a feasible research topic.
Once we have identified the broad problem area preliminary research should help the researcher to gain a better understanding of the problem and to narrow the problem down to a researchable topic for study. Preliminary research should help the researcher to find answers to questions such as: “What is the problem?”; “Why does the problem exist?”; “Is the problem important?”; and “What are the benefits of solving the problem?” Although the exact nature of the information needed for this purpose depends on the type of problem one is addressing, it may be broadly classified under two headings:

  1. Information on the organization and its environment – that is, the contextual factors.
  2. Information on the topic of interest. 
Nature of information to be gathered
Background information on the organization
Information gathered on relevant contextual factors will be useful in talking knowledgeably with managers and other employees in the company and raising the appropriate issues related to the problem. Along these lines, an understanding of these factors might be helpful in arriving at a precise problem formulation. Background information might include, among other things, the contextual factors listed below, which may be obtained from various sources.
  1. The origin and history of the company – when it came into being, business it is in, rate of growth, ownership and control, and so on. 
  2. Size in terms of employees, assets, or both. 
  3. Charter – purpose and ideology. 
  4. Location – regional, national, or other. 
  5. Resources – human and others. 
  6. Interdependent relationships with other institutions and the external environment. 
  7. Financial position during the previous five to ten years, and relevant financial data. 
  8. Information on structural factors (for instance, roles and positions in the organization and number of employees at each job level, communication channels, control systems, workflow systems). 
  9. Information on the management philosophy.
Timeliness of the data. When were the data collected? It is important that the data are up‐to‐date. Check the dates on all of your secondary data to make sure that you have the newest information available. 
Accuracy of the data. What was the purpose of (presenting) the data? Web pages are created with a specifi c purpose in mind. Commercial organizations oft en post information online that might favor them in some way or represent their own interests. Who collected the data? How were the data collected? What are the author ’ s credentials on this subject? Th e accuracy of data can be impacted by who collected it and how the data were collected. Are the data consistent with data from other sources? If specifi c information varies from source to source, you need to fi nd out which information is more accurate.  
Relevance of the data. Not all of the secondary data you fi nd will be relevant to your particular needs. Data may be accurate and up‐to‐date but not applicable to your research objective(s) and research questions.
Costs of the data. 
How much do the data cost? Do the benefi ts outweigh the costs? Are you better off collecting other data? Are you better off using other (primary?) methods of data collection?
Information on the topic or subject area 
The literature – the body of knowledge available to you as a researcher – may also help you to think about and/ or better understand the problem. A careful review of textbooks, journal articles, conference proceedings, and other published and unpublished materials (see Chapter 4 for a detailed discussion on how to review the literature) ensures that you have a thorough awareness and understanding of current work and viewpoints on the subject area. This helps you to structure your research on work already done and to develop the problem statement with precision and clarity.
A good problem statement includes both a statement of the research objective(s) and the research question(s). In chapter  2 we have explained that good research has a purposive focus. Whereas the purpose of fundamental (or basic) research in business is related to expanding knowledge (of processes) of business and management in general, the ultimate aim of applied research is often to change something in order to solve a specific problem encountered in the work setting. For instance, a manager might be interested in determining the factors that increase employee commitment to the organization , since an increase in employee commitment may translate into lower staff turnover, less absenteeism, and increased performance levels, all of which will benefit the organization. The purpose or objective of the study thus explains why the study is being done. The statement of the research objective(s) should be brief, but nonetheless communicate clearly the focus of the project.
Basic types of questions: exploratory and descriptive
Exploratory research questions
Exploratory research questions are typically developed when: a) not much is known about a particular phenomenon; b) existing research results are unclear or suffer from serious limitations; c) the topic is highly complex; or d) there is not enough theory available to guide the development of a theoretical framework.
Exploratory research often relies on qualitative approaches to data gathering such as informal discussions (with consumers, employees, managers), interviews, focus groups, and/or case studies (discussed in Chapter 6 and 7). As a rule, exploratory research is flexible in nature.
Descriptive research questions.
The objective of a descriptive study is to obtain data that describes the topic of interest. For instance, if we want to know what percent of the population likes Coca‐Cola better than pepsi in a double‐blind test, we are interested in describing consumers’ taste preferences. Descriptive studies are often designed to collect data that describe characteristics of objects (such as persons, organizations, products, or brands), events, or situations. Descriptive research is either quantitative or qualitative in nature. It may involve the collection of quantitative data such as satisfaction ratings, production figures, sales figures, or demographic data, but it may also entail the collection of qualitative information. For instance, qualitative data might be gathered to describe how consumers go through a decision‐making process or to examine how managers resolve conflicts in organizations.
Descriptive studies may help the researcher to:
  1. Understand the characteristics of a group in a given situation (for instance the profile of a specific segment in a market). 
  2. Think systematically about aspects in a given situation (for instance, factors related to job satisfaction). 
  3. Offer ideas for further probing and research. 
  4. Help make certain (simple) decisions (such as decisions related to the use of specific communication channels depending on the customer profile, opening hours, cost reductions, staff employment, and the like).
Causal research questions
Causal studies test whether or not one variable causes another variable to change. In a causal study, the researcher is interested in delineating one or more factors that are causing a problem. Typical examples of causal research questions are: “What is the effect of a reward system on productivity?” and “How does perceived value affect consumer purchase intentions?” The intention of the researcher conducting a causal study is to be able to state that variable X causes variable Y. So, when variable X is removed or altered in some way, problem Y is solved (note that quite often, however, it is not just one variable that causes a problem in organizations). In Chapter 5, we will explain that in order to establish a causal relationship, all four of the following conditions should be met:
  1. The independent and the dependent variable should covary. 
  2. The independent variable (the presumed causal factor) should precede the dependent variable. 
  3. No other factor should be a possible cause of the change in the dependent variable. 
  4. A logical explanation (a theory) is needed and it must explain why the independent variable affects the dependent variable.
 The research proposal drawn up by the investigator is the result of a planned, organized, and careful effort, and basically contains the following:
  1. 1. A working title. 
  2. Background of the study. 
  3. The problem statement: a. The purpose of the study b. Research questions. 
  4. The scope of the study. 
  5. The relevance of the study. 
  6. The research design, offering details on: a. Type of study – exploratory and descriptive b. Data collection methods c. The sampling design d. Data analysis. 
  7. Time frame of the study, including information on when the written report will be handed over to the sponsors. 
  8. The budget, detailing the costs with reference to specific items of expenditure. 
  9. Selected bibliography
Managers sometimes look at the symptoms in problematic situations and treat them as if they are the real problems, getting frustrated when their remedies do not work. Understanding the antecedents–problem–consequences sequence and gathering the relevant information to get a real grasp of the problem go a long way towards pinpointing it.
Managers’ inputs help researchers to define the broad problem area and to narrow down the broad problem into a feasible topic for research. Managers who realize that correct problem definition is critical to ultimate problem solution do not begrudge the time spent in working closely with researchers, particularly at this stage.
A well‐developed research proposal allows managers to judge the relevance of the proposed study. However, to make sure that the objectives of the study are actually being achieved, managers must stay involved throughout the entire research process. Information exchange between the manager and the researcher during all the important stages of the research process will definitely enhance the managerial relevance and the quality of the research effort.
Preliminary information is gathered by the researcher to narrow the broad problem area and to define a specific problem statement. In many cases, the researcher interviews decision makers, managers, and other employees to gain knowledge of the situation so as to better understand the problem. 
Once a problem is specified and a problem statement is defined, the researcher needs to assess his or her research capabilities; if the researcher does not have the skills or resources to carry out the project, he or she should decline the project. If the researcher decides to carry out the project, it is necessary to inform all the employees – particularly those who will be interviewed for preliminary data gathering through structured and unstructured interviews – of the proposed study (though it is not necessary to acquaint them with the actual reasons for the study, because this might bias responses). 
The element of unpleasant surprise will thus be eliminated for the employees. It is also necessary to assure employees that their responses will be kept confidential by the interviewer/s and that individual responses will not be divulged to anyone in the organization. 
These two steps make the employees comfortable with the research undertaken and ensure their cooperation. Employees should not be forced to participate in the study. When employees are willing to participate in the study, they have the right to be protected from physical or psychological harm. They also have a right to privacy and confidentiality. Attempts to obtain information through deceptive means should be avoided at all costs.

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