Numerous forms of research can be of great help here: from surveys through personal interviews to focus groups. Each of these methods allows you to gather information which can be used to make the optimal choice.
In the context of organisations and employees’ engagement in decision-making processes, focus groups (also known as focus group interviews) are particularly useful. They originate from social research. Focus groups were first used in the United States to check the effects of war propaganda on public sentiments. However, they were quickly adopted by various organisations that used focus groups to conduct market research. Fun fact: the well-known Barbie doll was a result of focus group research conducted by Mattel, in which the company asked its customers what the doll should look like.
It is the area of marketing where focus groups gained the highest popularity. Currently, they are also used by many organisations to better understand the perspective of their employees. Focus groups allow for a higher engagement of employees in the decision-making processes. They enable various opinions to be uncovered and discussed, and sometimes even lead to creating specific solutions. Using this method, you can reveal the opinion and knowledge of employees on a given topic, and understand the emotions and associations related to a particular idea.
How do focus groups work?
According to the definition, this is “a research technique where co-operation and interactions between the participants of the group allow the researcher to gather information required for their own purposes” (Lisek-Michalska, 2013). This definition highlights the three crucial features of a focus group:
it has a defined purpose;
it must include a moderator (“researcher”) who uses a scenario to invoke interactions within the group and collects data;
the group is the source of information, as its participants share their knowledge, emotions, opinions, and propositions during the discussion.
To begin focus group research, you need to define a topic or a problem that you want to clarify. The goal determines the contents of the scenario and the selection of the participants. Creative groups are a special form of focus groups oriented at coming up with a specific solution. Its form resembles a workshop during which a carefully selected group of participants facilitated by the moderator creates a project to satisfy specific needs.
Another crucial element of focus groups is the moderator. His or her main task is to run the session based on a predefined scenario. The moderator facilitates the interview by allowing the participants to share their observations and remarks, comment and confront their opinions with others. It is important to understand that a focus group is not a series of individual subsequent interviews, but rather a joint conversation that should be as natural and fluent as possible (Lisek-Michalska, 2013). The role of the moderator is to stimulate discussion and point it in the right direction, especially when emotions or a given topic steer the group away from the intended goal of the research. In the majority of focus groups, the moderator should be entirely objective. The only exception are groups with goals that require the researcher to stage a provocation (e.g. for topics that participants are reluctant to discuss without an appropriate trigger). The effectiveness of the research depends on whether the moderator is able to create a space facilitating discussion and stimulating interactions between participants.
The final crucial component are obviously the participants of the focus group. The group usually comprises 6 to 10 people carefully selected based on defined criteria (such as affiliation with the same organisation, a set of personality traits, social status, etc.) Based on the goal, the researcher must clearly specify what people and in what proportions should be included in the group. If too many people meet the selection criterion (e.g. “works for XYZ”), the participants of the group may be selected randomly. However, it is important to consider whether the presence of a given person won’t have a negative impact on the discussion (e.g. the presence of a leader may cause reluctance among others to share their opinions). Proper selection of the participants is crucial, as interactions between them are to provide us with information and solutions. Group dynamics, i.e. interactions between people, leads to group effects which can be either positive or negative.
Positive and negative group effects, or the outcomes of interactions
Positive group effects, i.e. those supporting the goal of the session, include among others:
synergy – the outcome of cooperation is better than the outcome of individual activities;
snowball – people adopt information and solutions suggested by others, and then build on them;
stimulation – interaction between participants invoke specific reactions (e.g. by adding new perspectives or arguing constructively);
security – being a part of a group lowers down the sense of responsibility, which supports giving honest opinions;
spontaneity – authentic reactions in discussions and to events taking place during the research. This is caused by the lack of ability to prepare for what happens during the session.
Negative group effects that may occur during a session include:
“multi-headed animal” syndrome – the participants discuss various topics simultaneously and steer away from the goal of the session;
conflicting secondary goals – they occur in groups where the discussion turns into a rivalry aimed at meeting participants’ personal goals;
group laziness – dispersed responsibility may lead to certain participants being less engaged in the discussion compared to an individual interview;
group conformism – participants change their opinions under the pressure from the group;
increase of radicalism (extremes) – this occurs when, as a result of the interactions within the group, its participants are more willing to make riskier decisions or present more radical opinions than the ones they provided prior to the session.
Both positive and negative effects may occur during focus group interviews. Therefore, the big task for the moderator is to minimise the risk of those in conflict with the goals of the group.
Session’s complete, and then what? Analysis
Appropriately selected and conducted focus group provides a lot of useful data that would be difficult to collect using other methods. Next, information gathered during the session is analysed. Depending on whether the session was recorded and whether other observers (besides the moderator) participated in it, such analysis may include several stages.
For unrecorded sessions with a few observers, the analysis may look as follows:
Once the session is finished, the observers and the moderator exchange notes, and then summarise their remarks and observations.
After all sessions on a given topic are completed, the results, observations, and conclusions are compared.
Based on the information gathered, a report is created containing key results or solutions (depending on the goal of the group).
The outcome of the research is usually a set of defined actions to be taken. In marketing teams, this may be a campaign project, and in production teams – a new product. In case of organisations and management, the possible outcome of such research is the implementation of changes in company operations, modifications of strategic goals, or introduction of new activities or initiatives.
Focus groups are a tool that, when appropriately used, allows us to reveal people’s opinions and emotions related to a given topic. Based on the sessions I have conducted myself, this method enables us to make more informed decisions and implement solutions that meet employees’ needs in a better way.