Focus Groups: Ifs Not Just for Social Science Research Anymore?
Hyde, A. C., Yi, H. U., The Public Manager
What do focus groups have to do with public management? Lots, if you care to count the applications. This successful qualitative research technique which has been around just about forever has been quietly undergoing a resurgence. New techniques are being deployed that use developing technologies in videoconferencing and virtual communication that may make focus groups an essential part of the public manager's toolkit.
It's Not What They Know
Increasingly, public sector organizations are finding out that it's not what they know, it's what they don't know that is the problem. As managers grapple with how to get the best ideas and locate the worst problem areas out of all of their employees, how to understand the needs and concerns of all of their customers and partners, and even how to tap the suggestions of their contractors and suppliers--listening to the loudest or the first voice isn't going to do it.
Managers are finding that many of the consultants they hire to solve problems are increasingly relying on focus groups to meet with employees or customers and tap into a range of ideas and attitudes that better define the issues and problems. We used to define a consultant as someone you paid to steal your watch and tell you what the time was--now it's more like paying a talk show host who can get the trust of a group and tell you what they'd really like to tell you if they thought there was some chance you'd take action.
What Qualitative Research Is About
In essence, that's what qualitative research is all about--tapping into the range of ideas and feelings around subjective, political, or often sensitive issues and determining what's really driving opinions and attitudes. Focus groups are now being used as substitutes for surveys, suggestion systems, planning and problem solving meetings, brainstorming sessions, and employee and customer feedback systems. And it's going to get even more pervasive when video-meeting and video-conferencing enable individuals across distances to exchange ideas without having to travel great distances to sit in a room with a two-way mirror to be observed.
A key to focus groups is accurate reporting and recording of what was said and the reactions of all the group members participating. Two people moderating a focus group of six to nine people can just barely catch the main ideas--the technology of the next two to three years is going to allow for a lot more than efficient transcription of all the words. …