A lot of attention in PhD research is rightly given to the writing process. There are loads of blogs, books and articles that describe the agony that can be the writing process (I share that pain) and how to deal with it.

One area that perhaps is quite relevant in business research, and which is written about less, is approaching people and organisations in that stage called gathering the data. Depending on your type of personality, this can be the most fun, or the most intimidating part of the process.

In approaching companies and people to get involved in my research there are a few things that have become glaringly obvious, and I thought I’d share them here.

Just because you understand it, doesn’t mean everyone else will

Have you ever sat down and talked to a potential participant, only to be met with a semi-interested smile and a quick glance at their watch? That glance feels like a road block.

Ethics clearance required me to put together a participant company information document, and I personally fell into the trap where I thought that I could present that two-page document and… Voila! Doors would magically open!

I have honed my elevator pitch over a number of conferences and have many personal contacts who appear genuinely interested in my research. However going beyond the pitch and participant document in presenting to senior management turned out to be a stumbling block in my first few presentations.

Start with the ‘Why?’

In having informal conversations with people, it is important to realise that personal interest and professional responsibility are two different things. My research is inspired by war stories shared about dealings between different business entities and people. One thing I’ve noticed is telling a good war story, business or personal, often brings out similar stories and anecdotes.

Research is about systematically investigating materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions. It requires me to apply a systematic approach to getting (the data) and analysing these stories. The organisations have to be approached formally, agreement and sign-off needs to be provided, questions structured (either fully or as a guide) … and people suddenly go from telling you that smiley war story to potentially not even talking to you. They want to know ‘why?’ (Why should they bother, why is it important, why get involved?)

The ‘Why?’ is becoming a key motivator in how I am personally structuring my approaches to my research, my writing and my approach.

Getting to the why didn’t just occur magically out of the blue… It started with examining writing difficulties that I had, and meandering around PhD blogs, webinars and support communities, and then I saw this, via James Hayton and his PhD Blog. He has a youtube video that includes a diagram used by Simon Sinek in his TED Talk called “How great leaders inspire action” (James initially refers to Simon Sidek’s book – Start with Why?).

The diagram looks like the following, and basically reflects the way we communicate information:



In my approach I was getting caught up in the what and the how, thinking that would immediately explain why I was researching my topic. After two meetings with companies I realised that this wasn’t happening and the ‘Why?’ was missing from my story.

So in adding the ‘Why?’ to my own personal journey, I have also realised that there is a translation of the ‘Why?’ required at many levels.

  1. My Research
    Understanding the ‘Why?’ is key to me staying on track with the story of my PhD. It’s what had me excited about the topic in the first place. Being mindful of this is key to being able to finish this part of my research career journey.
  2. My Writing
    I need to be able to communicate the ‘Why?’, or a variation of it in my writing, so people should understand why it’s relevant to them. People are increasingly time-poor, and being able to communicate the ‘Why?’ is going to be key in getting them to read my writing. It is key in getting people to decide that my research and writing is worth reading and spending time on.
  3. My Approach to Gathering Data
    And in being able to convince people to commit time to convince their companies and their colleagues to participate in my research, I need to motivate them with the part of the ‘Why?’ that affects them. This ‘why’ needs to be articulated, explained, with examples and presentation aids so I can clearly communicate why companies should let me investigate using their personnel, their time and their resources.
[I have actually found a mind-mapping tool that has helped me articulate this, however I’ll elaborate on that in another post. Whatever works – use it. This stuff is important!]

Present well

In approaching potential participants, I realised that relying solely on the Information Sheet for companies or participants was burying me and it wasn’t communicating the ‘Why?’ effectively.

Understanding that senior managers are time poor is key to ensuring that you can effectively communicate the purpose of your research, and communicate the reason why they should give their attention to it instead of other items on their busy schedules.

So I quickly established that I couldn’t just hand out my information sheet (PIS) and be effective. I had to put this in a format that they were willing to digest. A format that they were used to, that was familiar. A format that they were able to process quickly.

Crap. I found this often meant a slide deck. :p

For me the easiest and most portable way to do this was to use Keynote on my iPad. Whether your weapon of choice is Keynote or the new Microsoft PowerPoint on a tablet, a more traditional laptop, or a hard copy – that will be up to you. The key here was being able to whip out the presentation in two seconds and be able to point and say “See? This is why it is so important to you. This is why you need to participate.”

In doing this I found that graphs, pictures and as few bullet points as possible were really key. I had to remember to use these as a visual aid, not a presentation. I was lucky in that I had a preliminary survey on which I could base some of the information presented. I also went back to the literature. Information from my research proposal and literature review became very valuable. It helped me frame the ‘Why?’ – not just for me, but for those I was involving in my research.

I did, however, have to be careful in how I did this because I did not want the information to sound too academic, thereby alienating my audience. I had to make my ‘Why?’ relevant to them.

his is based on a survey I conducted. Use graphics, use charts… use visual aids!!

This is based on a survey I conducted. Use graphics, use charts… use visual aids!!


People won’t provide perfect answers in the perfect time

Language is a funny thing. I can be speaking English… you might be listening in English… and still we can be having a conversation that feels like two parallel lines –  they never meet. This has occurred a number of times throughout my research, and sometimes I wonder if it’s a result of some of the solitude of the research process – am I losing social skills? Am I communicating that poorly? Why aren’t they ‘getting’ what I mean?

It could be this, or it could be the framing. We all come at the world from a certain point of view. In putting together a case study I’m learning that sometimes there is no short cut in peeling away the layers of communication styles, cultures (national and company) and other lenses that affect they way that we see each other and affect the way we respond to questions.

I’m learning that in some cases, people sometimes just want to be heard on certain issues, and this could be particularly ardent if I’ve been almost too effective in communicating the ‘Why?’!

There was one case where I had discussed with a foreign manager about some of the issues around implementing a service-based contract that involved personnel of a different national culture. This particular incident had been very recent, and had posed some difficulties that had been particularly troubling for him. As a result he felt the need to spend 15 minutes of the time talking about a situation that appeared to be clearly off-topic. I had been told as soon as I entered the room that I only had an hour and he was flying to the US tomorrow. A quarter of my precious time was potentially wasted, and even more if I allowed this to continue!!!! I can’t say yet whether my interruption with a quick summary to show I’d heard him was an effective way of dealing with it. I can say that being able to draw a diagram on a piece of paper in order to get him back to my research topic did seem to assist – so in future I will be bringing more paper and more pre-prepared visual aids as I am learning that this works better for me to communication what I need from participants.

To Conclude…

I’m still in that data gathering stage, while trying to write up at the same time. It’s been tough with my own personal hurdles that have prevented my timeline from progressing as well as I would have liked. Finding focus and courage to tackle some of these has been tough of itself and I’ve sought many resources online to replace some of those that I have lacked through being physically absent from my university (due to my regional research focus and the fact that I am a FIFO academic). These ideas are helping me get through the stage that I am in.

However probably the most useful focus tool to date has been re-discovering the importance of ‘Why?’

Do you have any to add? How do you communicate your passion better to participants to get better research data?