Most research conducted during the 20th century on business-related topics relied on the use of quantitative analysis. Newer studies conducted using qualitative methods demonstrate the value of exploring phenomena from this methodological perspective. The qualitative research process becomes easier to understand when the research activities are explained in a step-by-step manner. A hermeneutic or interpretative phenomenological qualitative research study on the role of volunteer organizations in leadership skill development served as platform for this learning case. In all, 30 full-time employees who served as current or past presidents of two volunteer organizations participated in the study. The researcher shares insights regarding the following qualitative study processes: (1) rationale for qualitative research, (2) choosing a venue for research, (3) gaining permissions and approvals, (4) data collection and analysis, (5) steps needed throughout the process to ensure trustworthiness, and (6) presenting results, study limitations, and recommendations for future research. The study results demonstrated the value of qualitative analysis in a business-related research inquiry.
By the end of this case, students should be able to
- Categorize hermeneutic phenomenology as a qualitative research methodology
- Apply the systemic process for conducting the research
- Identify the components and role of trustworthiness in qualitative studies
- Explain ways to present study outcomes
- Identify study implications, study limitations, and recommendations for future research
Project Overview and Context
My interest in learning more about workplace strategies and understanding how employees succeed at work became the initial driving forces for this research. With the dynamic and highly competitive work environment of the 21st century, it becomes a compelling challenge for employees to gain and refine the leadership skills sets necessary for continuous professional development. Ksenia Zheltoukhova’s (2014) research results confirmed that corporate leadership training might focus more on theory rather than hands-on application and the training may be limited to only a select few employees. Even if a selected employee successfully completes the leadership training program, this does not guarantee a promotion or even an opportunity to implement the newly acquired skills within the employee’s workplace. However, employees who possess transferable leadership skills may become a more valuable asset to their current company or may become more viable job candidates as they explore other career opportunities within the job market. A goal of my research study was to discover how employees could acquire leadership knowledge and transfer skills beyond the offered workplace corporate training:
My interest in community volunteering encouraged me to examine service learning as the experiential component for how employees gained practical leadership training beyond their corporate environment. Corporate social responsibility and giving back to the community are important to employees as well as organizational leaders. Service learning is unique in that the outcomes are mutually beneficial on several levels for individuals and the organization.
As a researcher interested in business topics, my comfort level remained with the quantification of data—measurable numbers. My impressions of quantitative analysis incorporated words such as generalizable, objective, structured, valid, reliable, and the phrase cause-and-effect. I believed the misconception, along with many other business researchers, that only quantitative analysis provided hard evidence. I originally believed the misconception that qualitative data were subjective, biased, and opinion-oriented, and that the entire research process was easier to conduct when compared with quantitative analysis. After a review of scholarly literature and books on research methodology, I came to realize that qualitative research captures a rich source of information in the quest for the meaning of why and how of phenomena. This eye-opening learning experience lead to another goal of my research, which was to explore qualitative analysis with my own research experience and evaluate the quality and relevance of the collected data from my study.
Many novice researchers erroneously think they actually choose a research methodology which then leads to selecting the research design. If that was the case, researchers who felt comfortable using math and statistics would be more apt to perform quantitative analysis, while those researchers with math anxiety would most likely prefer to avoid crunching numbers. Researchers will always have methodology and design preferences; however, just as research results add to the body of literature, researchers should remain open-minded regarding research preferences and be willing to add to their own knowledge base by choosing a methodology and design outside of a current comfort zone. A key point to remember is that quantitative research and qualitative research do not necessarily compete against one another; they actually can be complementary to one another by providing the researcher with broader choices for exploring perspectives.
In many instances, determining whether to conduct a quantitative or qualitative research study may depend upon what the researcher wants to discover when conducting the research. One method researchers may consider is to allow the research question or questions to guide them toward an appropriate methodology. Once researchers identify the appropriate methodology, then they explore research design options within What or Which? Are researchers interested in comparing variables (data items) and possibly, uncovering cause and effect factors? Prior to beginning the study, have researchers developed a hypothesis, which is a proposed possible outcome of the study? If the answers to these questions are yes, then quantitative analysis may be an appropriate methodology for the study. Conversely, qualitative research questions usually begin with the words: How or Why. Researchers conducting a qualitative study try to uncover trends or themes from participants’ feelings, perceptions, or lived experiences related to a phenomenon. Hypotheses in qualitative studies evolve from the study rather than guide the study, as in quantitative analysis.
Phenomenological research strives for a deeper meaning of an experience and can be either descriptive or interpretative. The hermeneutic data analysis process, sometimes referred to as a hermeneutic cycle, entails reading, reflective writing, and interpretation of participants’ experiences. As Rola Ajjawi and Joy Higgs (2014) noted, “ … hermeneutics allows for an added layer of abstraction and interpretation through the lenses of the researchers to make meaning of the phenomenon in a way that is credible and maintains faithfulness to the participants and their interpretations” (p. 633). The overarching research question for my study was “How does accepting a leadership role in a volunteer organization impacttransferable skill development.” I wanted the participants to share their subjective, lived experiences about their leadership roles in a volunteer organization, the skill sets they gained from this experience, and their ability to transfer those skill sets to another venue. If the goal of my study was for participants to provide their opinions about the concept of volunteering to gain transferable leadership skills, then a case study would have been the more appropriate study design.
Another difference between qualitative and quantitative research is the number of participants required for the study. To ensure statistical significance, a larger sample is required for quantitative research. While qualitative research requires a smaller sample size, it is still important to have an adequate number of participants to lessen the chances of discovery failure. For thematic analysis, Mark Mason (2010) reviewed 561 qualitative studies and found a median sample size of 31 and a mean sample size of 28. A sufficient sample for qualitative research also ensures that the results reach saturation. Patricia I. Fusch and Lawrence R. Ness (2015) posited that saturation occurs with research depth: for example, information becomes repetitive and after coding the information, no new themes occur. I used a sample of 30 participants in my research.
Choosing a research venue is an important consideration in any study. Researchers must select a venue where (1) potential participants match the research criteria, (2) a sufficient number of participants are available from which to draw an adequate sample, and (3) permission is granted to recruit the participants from this venue. Familiarity with the venue is an added advantage, as it ensures knowledge of the above-listed considerations. In my research, my co-author and I chose two international volunteer organizations where we are members of the respective organizations. In this way, we knew that the members met our research requirements. In addition, various chapters of the organizations were available to us and we knew exactly whom to approach in each organization to receive the necessary approvals to conduct the research.
In planning sample selection, examples of options are random sampling, purposive sampling, or convenience sampling. Since my research required specific participant characteristics, purposive sampling was the appropriate choice. To be considered for the research, the participant requirements were as follows: (1) full-time employment (work as an employee or be self-employed) and (2) serve in a leadership role within the volunteer organization. Current and past presidents from each organization spanning the past 30 years received a research study recruitment email. The total population, therefore, numbered 60. The first 15 participant responses from each volunteer organization became the sample. Each final participant signed an informed consent form which fully explained the research process, implications, and consequences.
All researchers follow must ethical standards to uphold the integrity of the research process and protect the human subjects who serve as participants in the study. The World Health Organization Ethics Review Committee maintains ethics guidelines and reviews all research that involves human participants when the research is funded or supported by WHO. The European Commission (2013) published a document listing ethical standards and the ethics review procedure that all researchers within the European Union applying for research funding must follow.
In the United States, it is highly recommended that researchers adhere to the following ethics guidelines:
- Obtain valid research certification from the Collaborative Institutional Research Initiative (CITI), National Institutes of Health (NIH), or other approved research credentialing organization.
- Gain approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) from your academic institution or other affiliated organization.
- Ensure all participants are provided with an informed consent form. Not all IRB protocols require a signed informed consent; however, participants who are not required to sign should be given the informed consent form and researchers should review the study process with each participant and answer any questions related to the study purpose, potential risks, and potential benefits of the study.
Researchers conducting qualitative research must consider additional ethical issues:
- Unlike in quantitative research, qualitative researchers only ensure participant confidentiality. Due to interviews or observations frequently occurring in a face-to-face setting, participants are not anonymous to researchers as they are in quantitative research with compiled aggregate data. It is possible to protect participant anonymity in the published results of the study; however, since researchers remove the participants’ personal identifying information.
- As discussed in the Methods in Action section below, maintaining the trustworthiness of the study is the cornerstone of qualitative research. Understanding and following the steps involved to uphold confirmability, transferability, dependability, and credibility ensures that the collected data is interpreted honestly and in a consistent manner.
Method in Action
At my academic institution, all research protocols must be approved prior to conducting data collection. The university maintains a human research protection program in the form of an IRB. This review board serves as regulatory oversight to ensure that a proposed research protocol properly protects the rights and welfare of the research participants. The process includes submission of a research application that presents the proposed study and signed permission forms to show approval to recruit participants and disclose the name of the facility, organization, university, institution, or association in the event of research publication. With final IRB approval, the researcher has 1 year from the approval date to complete the research or an IRB resubmission becomes necessary. Once I received IRB approval, I began data collection.
Data collection for qualitative studies offers several different options, including interviews, focus groups, observations, and document reviews. I chose to use interviews as my data collection source. As part of the interview question development process, I asked several colleagues, some who were familiar with the research topic content and others who were experienced with developing interview questions, to serve as subject matter experts. These subject matter experts reviewed my interview questions for clarity and interpretation consistency. The interview questions were semi-structured to allow a conversational format and encourage more elaborate responses from the participants. Numerous sources are available regarding creating interview questions and techniques for conducting the actual interview. I found a helpful source in The Qualitative Research Interview by Sandy Qu and John Dumay (2011), for a deeper understanding of the interview process and methods.
After securing a signed informed consent form from each participant, I scheduled 30 private, face-to-face interviews for data collection. The interviews were 30 min in length and took place in a private room within each of the two volunteer organizations’ headquarters. To capture verbatim comments from each participant, I recorded the interviews.
Each participant responded to four questions related to the following:
- In what ways, if any, did the volunteer organization help the participant develop and implement new leadership skill?
- In what ways, if any, did the volunteer organization help the participant hone already acquired leadership skills?
- In what ways, if any, have participants applied the skills used in the volunteer organization to their full-time organization position?
- In what ways, if any, has the leadership position in the volunteer organization helped them to assume a new or higher level position in the workplace?
At the completion of data collection, I transcribed each recording to have a written transcript of the interview. Transcribing is tedious work and I listened to the tapes many times to ensure that I captured each recorded word, even the speech disfluencies (um and ah). The next step was the coding process. One of the sources I used was Johnny Saldaña’s (2016) text to better understand the coding process and to see examples. A combination of pre-set and emergent key words and phrases evolved as I carefully read each of the 30 responses. I also tabulated frequency distributions of these key words and phrases. Patterns evolved and themes emerged resulting from the coding process. After the initial coding, I conducted a re-coding approximately 2 weeks later to ensure dependability of the analysis. The themes that emerged in this study related to training, practice, and transference.
As mentioned earlier in the case, the same terms used in quantitative data are not the same terms used to refer to qualitative data. Quantitative terms such as validity, generalizability, reliability, and objectivity do not describe qualitative data. Egon Guba’s (1981) seminal work, however, produced specific criteria for assessing the trustworthiness of qualitative research practices. The appropriate qualitative terms are as follows: credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability. Guba recommended several practices to follow throughout the research process to ensure trustworthiness of the research.
Two recommended procedures to ensure that the information is accurate and believable are member checking and peer examination. After transcribing the data, I reviewed the transcript with each participant to verify that what I captured was what they actually said. Peer examination occurred when an impartial subject matter expert reviewed the interview questions for interpretation consistency. To be considered a subject matter expert, the person must be familiar with the research topic as well as knowledgeable regarding interview question development.
While qualitative study results are not generalizable, the data can certainly be applicable or transferable to other venues. The key is to incorporate strategies that enhance the data relatedness. I used purposive sampling and limited recruiting from the population of past or current presidents of each organization to ensure that all participations had an extensive range of leadership experiences with each of the selected volunteer organizations.
This refers to the ability to replicate the information. In this situation, I conducted a code-recode analysis. I initially coded the data, and after a 2-week interval, recoded the data and compared the results for consistent coding practices.
It is important to utilize triangulation to ensure confirmability. Adding multiple perspectives increases not only understanding of the evaluated phenomenon but the quality of the research, as well. Triangulation occurs when using a variety of data sources, theories, data methods, or investigators to ensure a full exploration of the explored phenomenon. Incorporating one or more of these triangulation methods reinforces the strength of the presented research information. Triangulation of data sources was the used in my study.
Just as quantitative research presents validity and reliability data, qualitative researchers must protect the quality and rigor of their research practices. Following the suggested strategies allows researchers to further assess the criteria related to trustworthiness. I shared the practices I used that were relevant to my research design. Depending upon the research design and circumstances, additional relevant methods are available to evaluate trustworthiness criteria.
Practical Lessons Learned
During research projects, setbacks often occur at the worst possible time. That is why it is important to extensively plan the research process and have contingency plans in place for each stage of the research process. Here is a checklist of items to consider during the planning process:
- Consider several venues for research in case permission is not granted to use your first choice organizations.
- The population should be large enough to result in a sufficient sample. This also needs to include a large enough sample in case a participant drops out of the study or is eliminated for any reason. A sufficient sample also means you interview participants until you reach saturation.
- Allow sufficient time for interviews. If the interview takes approximately 30 min, actually schedule in 60-min intervals. Neither the interviewer nor participant should ever feel rushed. Realize that depending upon the number of participants and their schedules, interviews may cover an extended period of time.
- Evaluate the area used for the interview. It should be a comfortable, quiet, and private.
- Pre-check any technology devices for recording the interviews and have back-up materials readily available.
- If you are a novice researcher or using a particular methodology and design for the first time, it is a good idea to have a peer support system that you can contact for guidance and support throughout the research project.
Presenting your data findings is a little more of a challenge in qualitative research. In quantitative research, results are either statistically significant or they are not. You either reject or not reject the null hypotheses. Qualitative research explores themes, so it is more subjective. The qualitative researcher needs to curtail any unnecessary bias; however, the researcher should share reflections and preconceived notions as part the qualitative inquiry prior to viewing the resultant data. For example, my own experience and that of my co-author of being members of the respective organizations provided us with a deeper understanding of the possible types of leadership activities and training opportunities that were available to participants in their service learning.
As you present your resultant themes from your study, remember to discuss the conceptual or theoretical framework, which is the seminal information from the literature on your selected topic. This framework guides the study, and it is important to recap the framework in your discussion section to show how your results supported or challenged the empirical evidence. For example, in my research study, knowledge management and the knowledge transfer life cycle were the theoretical frameworks that guided my study. My study results supported the empirical evidence based upon the emergent themes.
In addition to providing the results of the study, it is important to translate these results into practical implications. The practical implications from my study discussed recommendations for how this information could be applied in a real world business situation. It is important to remember that the implications must derive from the results of the study. Many novice researchers make the mistake of extrapolating implications well beyond what the study results actually revealed. Since the study results revealed that participants felt that their volunteer leadership experience lead to acquiring new skills or strengthening current skill sets, my implications related to how employees and organizational leaders could further promote service learning to gain leadership skills. My recommendations included the use of reflective journaling for volunteers to assess their leadership experience and new skill sets. Another implication recommended that organizational leaders promote service learning to employees and incorporate this involvement into employees’ annual developmental or performance plan.
The study results may be just the tip of the iceberg. Through critical analysis, another portion emerges, similar to the large unseen portion of the iceberg below the surface: possible limitations of the study and recommendations for future research. It is imperative that researchers share reflections of both and attempt to tie a limitation of the current research into a recommendation for future research. For example, in my research, a possible limitation was that after spending considerable time and effort in a volunteer leadership position, the participant may tend to assume skills were gained or honed from the experience. In future research, the researcher may want to use assessment tools to measure pre- and post-skill levels and determine how the newly acquired or honed skills were actually applied in the workplace. Another possible limitation of the study was that each organization was gender specific: Junior League is considered an organization for women, while the Masonic Fraternity is considered an organization for men. Future research could repeat the study using less gender-specific organizations.
I began my qualitative research with a somewhat skeptical mind-set. With my experience in quantitative methods, I wondered if my current qualitative study would produce the same level of meaningful results as quantitative research. I followed the processes for conducting an ethical and trustworthy qualitative phenomenological research study and discovered that my results, while different from quantitative study results, offered a complementary dimension to the research paradigm.
Exercises and Discussion Questions
- Create three to five research questions for a qualitative study. Justify why these questions reflect qualitative methodology rather than quantitative methodology.
- Explain the difference between a phenomenological study design and a case study design.
- Explain the meaning of qualitative research data saturation.
- Discuss the components of qualitative research trustworthiness. Provide specific examples of processes to ensure credibility, dependability, transferability, and confirmability.
- Ethics question: Discuss how researchers uphold the integrity of the study and protect human subjects.