Magazine article Training & Development Journal

Focus Groups: A Habit-Forming Evaluation Technique

Magazine article Training & Development Journal

Focus Groups: A Habit-Forming Evaluation Technique

Article excerpt

Focus Groups: A Habit-Forming Evaluation Technique

Every trainer has a favorite training evaluation technique. For some it's a paper-and-pencil questionnaire; for others it's an in-depth interview with a supervisor. One method that's enjoying increasing popularity is the focus group. Why? Because focus group discussions always seem to elicit responses that other techniques can miss, such as whether training really is working back on the job.

A recent evaluation added to the appeal of focus groups as a measure of training effectiveness: The participants' reaction sheets showed high approval for the material and the trainer's presentation. The statistical analysis showed significant learning differences in the intended direction within the group. Yet not until after examining data from a follow-up focus group session was it clear that the training did not improve job-related performance, nor were the participants able to use much of the presented material in their day-to-day work.

This scenario may sound a bit extreme, but it's a true story. Even though focus groups can be time consuming, the discussions often bring out information from participants that may not come to light using other evaluation techniques. A focus group is an interactive evaluation method that can provide in-depth answers to complex problems. Focus groups are appropriate for needs assessment, training evaluation, or as a technique for probing the intricacies of a problem.

Although market researchers report the successful use of focus group interviews, the use of qualitative evaluation among industry and training professionals has not received much attention in the training and development literature. Perhaps trainers believe that a qualitative methodology is not appropriate for a bottom-line, quantitative, business orientation. Nonetheless the popularity of focus groups is growing among training managers. Be careful though: Once tried, this effective technique could become habit forming.

Defining the technique

Focus group interviews are in-depth, interactive, and yield qualitative data. They define organizational problems in language consumers can follow, use real-world case study material, and pinpoint future training content. A focus group consists of eight to 12 people who share a common denominator such as ties to an organization, interest in a particular topic, or use of the same product or service. Participants, under the guidance of a moderator, discuss a topic, sharing their thoughts, attitudes, and opinions.

Two related reasons may account for the increasing popularity of focus groups: First, the group often provides qualitatively different information from that obtained in individual interviews. And it often yields a wider range of information, insight, and ideas because the group setting encourages greater spontaneity and candor, fewer inhibitions, and greater anonymity and security than individuals might feel one on one.

Another reason for using this type of qualitative analysis for needs assessment, training evaluation, or problem solving is that for some endeavors there is no widely accepted, valid, and reliable quantitative measure. Many researchers suggest that when no valid measure is available, it is more appropriate to collect descriptive information on what happens during the focus group session than to use a questionable quantitative measure.

The focus group technique has three primary phases: the planning phase; the conducting phase; and the analyzing and reporting phase.

The planning phase

Focus groups can seem extremely simple: Gather a group together, ask the members some questions, and write up their answers. They're not quite that simple, however, and the amount and type of up-front planning done prior to a focus group interview will determine the quality and quantity of the results. The planning phase produces three products: a statement or definition of the problem, an identification of the participant population, and an interview guide for leading the group discussion. …

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