Problem Definition and the Research Proposal 

  1. IMPORTANCE OF PROPER PROBLEM DEFINITION
  • Iceberg principle
  • Understanding the background of the problem
  1. Isolating and identifying the problem, not the symptoms

THE PROCESS OF PROBLEM DEFINITION

  1.     Ascertain the decision maker’s objectives
  2. Understand the background of the problem
  3. Isolate and identify the problem rather than its symptoms
  4. Determine the unit of analysis
  5. Determine the relevant variables
  6. State the research questions and research objectives
  • III. HOW CAN THE PROBLEM STATEMENT BE CLARIFIED?
  • IV. DECISION-ORIENTED RESEARCH OBJECTIVES
  • V.  HOW MUCH TIME SHOULD BE SPENT DEFINING THE PROBLEM?
  • VI. THE RESEARCH PROPOSAL
  • VI. ANTICIPATING OUTCOMES

Lecture OutlineProblem Definition And The Research Proposal

  1. THE IMPORTANCE OF PROPER PROBLEM DEFINITION

Business research is conducted to help solve managerial problems.  It is extremely important to define the business problem carefully because such definition will determine the purpose of the research and, ultimately, the research design.

Formal qualitative research should not begin until the problem has been clearly defined. However, when a problem or opportunity is discovered, managers may have only vague insights about a complex situation.  If quantitative research is conducted before the researchers understand exactly what is important, then false conclusions may be drawn from the investigation.

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Problem definition indicates a specific business decision area that will be clarified by answering some research questions.

  1. THE PROCESS OF DEFINING THE PROBLEM

The process of defining the problem involves several interrelated steps. They are:

  1. Ascertain the decision maker’s objectives.
  2. Understand the background of the problem
  3. Isolate and identify the problem not the symptoms
  4. Determine the unit of analysis
  5. Determine the relevant variables
  6. State the research questions (Hypotheses) and research objectives
  1. ASCERTAIN THE DECISION MAKER’S OBJECTIVES

The research investigation must attempt to satisfy the decision maker’s objectives. Sometimes, decision makers are not able to articulate precise research objectives. Both the research investigator and the manager requesting the research should attempt to have a clear understanding of the purpose of undertaking the research.  Often, exploratory research—by illuminating the nature of the business opportunity or problem—helps managers clarify their objectives and decisions.

  1. The iceberg principle.

The dangerous part of any business problem, like the submerged part of an iceberg, is neither visible to nor understood by the business managers.  If the submerged portions of the problem are omitted from the problem definition, and subsequently from the research design, then the decision based on such research may be less than optimal.

  1. UNDERSTAND THE BACKGROUND OF THE PROBLEM.

The background of the problem is vital.  A situation analysis is the logical first step in defining the problem.  This analysis involves the informal gathering of background information to familiarize researchers or managers with the decision area.  Exploratory research techniques have been developed to help formulate clear definitions of the problem.

  1. ISOLATE AND IDENTIFY THE PROBLEM, NOT THE SYMPTOMS.

Anticipating the many influences and dimensions of a problem is impossible for any researcher or executive.  Certain occurrences that appear to be the problem may only be symptoms of a deeper problem.  Executive judgment and creativity must be exercised in identifying a problem.

  1. WHAT IS THE UNIT OF ANALYSIS?

The researcher must specify the unit of analysis. Will the individual consumer be the source of information or will it be the parent-child dyad? Industries, organizations, departments, or individuals, may be the focus for data collection and analysis. Many problems can be investigated at more than one level of analysis.

  1. WHAT ARE THE RELEVANT VARIABLES?

One aspect of problem definition is identification of the key variables.  A variable is a quality that can exhibit differences in value, usually magnitude or strength.

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In statistical analysis, a variable is identified by a symbol such as X.  A category or classifactory variable has a limited number of distinct variables (e.g., sex—male or female).  A continuous variable may encompass an infinite range of numbers (e.g., sales volume).

Managers and researchers must be careful to include all relevant variables that must be studied in order to be able to answer the managerial problem.  Irrelevant variables should not be included.

In causal research, a dependent variable is a criterion or variable that is expected to be predicted or explained.  An independent variable is a variable that is expected to influence the dependent variable.

  1. STATE THE RESEARCH QUESTIONS AND RESEARCH OBJECTIVES

The research question is the researcher’s translation of the business problem into a specific need for inquiry.

  1. Clarity in Research Questions and Hypotheses

Research questions should be specific, clear, and accompanied by a well-formulated hypothesis.

A hypothesis is an unproven proposition or possible solution to a problem.  In its simplest form, a hypothesis is a guess.  Problems and hypotheses are similar; both state relationships, but, whereas problems are interrogative, hypotheses are declarative and more specifically related to the research operations and testing.  Hypotheses are statements that can be empirically tested.

A formal statement of hypothesis can force researchers to be clear about what they expect to find through their study.  The hypothesis can raise critical questions about the data that will be required in the analysis stage.

When evaluating a hypothesis, researchers should make sure that the information collected will be useful in decision making.

B. Decision-oriented research objectives

The research objective is the researcher’s version of the business problem.  The research objective is derived from the problem definition and it explains the purpose of the research in measurable terms, as well as defining what standards the research should accomplish.  Such objectives help ensure that the research projects will be manageable in size.

In some instances the business problems and the project’s research objectives are identical.  The objectives must, however, specify the information needed to make a decision.  Statements about the required precision may be necessary to clearly communicate exactly what information is required.

It is useful if the research objective is a managerial action standard.  That is, if the criterion being measured turns out to be X, then management will do A; if it is Y, then management will do B.  This leaves no uncertainty concerning the decision to be made once the research is finished.

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The number of research objectives should be limited to a manageable number so that each one can be addressed fully.

Exhibit 6.5 shows how statements of the business problem influence the research objective.  The specific objectives, in turn, are the basis for the research design.

HOW MUCH TIME SHOULD BE SPENT DEFINING THE PROBLEM?

It is impractical to search for every conceivable cause and minor influence of a problem.  The importance of the recognized problem will usually dictate what is a reasonable amount of time and money for determining which possible explanations are most likely.

THE RESEARCH PROPOSAL

The research proposal is a written statement of the research design—it explains the purpose of the study, defines the problem, outlines the research methodology, details the procedures to be followed, and states all costs and deadlines.

The proposal should be precise, specific, and concrete.  All ambiguities about why and how the research will be conducted must be “ironed out” before the proposal is complete.

The research proposal can act as a communication tool.  It allows managers to evaluate the proposed research design and determine if alterations are necessary.  The proposal should be detailed enough that managers are clear about exactly how the information will be obtained.

Misstatements and faulty communication may occur if the two parties rely on each other’s memory of what occurred at a planning meeting; therefore, it is wise to write down all proposals.  Such a written proposal eliminates many problems that may arise and acts as a record of the researcher’s obligation.  In the case of an outside consultant, the written proposal serves as a bid to offer a specific service; a company can then judge the relative quality of alternative research suppliers.

ANTICIPATING OUTCOMES

By anticipating the outcomes of a research study, possibly through the use of a dummy table (a table filled by the researcher with fictitious data), managers may gain a better understanding of what the actual outcome is liable to be.  These tables help clarify what the findings of the research will be, and if these findings will meet the needs of the researcher.

Maddox Smith

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