Guide to conducting industrial interviews

This guide is written for researchers with integrity intending to conduct industrial interviews.  There are alternative means to get information, but they’re not worth sacrificing your integrity.

Personally I don’t think that tape-recording interviews is necessary, but if the interview is a long one it’s a good idea so that you’re not wholly reliant on your notes/memory. Make sure you get permission from the respondent first though.

The purpose of cold calling is to establish who has the required information. Document your journey so that it’s easier to find the right person at the next company that you contact.

  • Establish common ground (i.e. explain who you’ve been introduced by)
  • Explain who else you’re contacting and who else is participating
  • Emphasise any confidentiality agreements (and provide in writing)
  • If the interview is semi-structured explain that the questions aren’t designed for self-completion and required dialogue

Sell the interview

  • It won’t take long
  • The final results will be of interest
  • Explain how this information helps their business needs

General advice

  • Know your subject matter as much as possible
  • Know your questionnaire thoroughly
  • Ask follow up questions to clarify any points that aren’t clear
  • Ask bold questions
  • Triangulate responses against available data
  • Complete questionnaire and save it
  • Keep all promises and engage in any follow up work
  • Leave door open for follow up questions (e.g. “would we be able to contact you again…”

Tips for getting useful answers

  • “It is my understanding that…”
  • “What range would you estimate…?”
  • “Other interviewees have suggested that…”

Finally, follow up. Make sure you say thank you. Make sure you send a copy of the final report. Keep the relationship open. Keep your promises.

Writing a case study

Case studies are not without controversy, and came to prominence via the University of Chicago’s Dept. of Sociology in the early c20th. It’s important to make a distinction between case studies as a research method, and sociology as a research discipline.

Choosing a Case

  • A unique event
  • New data that hasn’t previously been available
  • Applying a theory that isn’t dominant

Collecting the Evidence

A brief overview of the key examples of what constitutes valid evidence, plus ideas on how to get hold of them:

(i) Documentation

  • Letters & memoranda
  • Minutes of meetings and written reports of events (e.g. from official website)
  • Administrative documents (direct from the company)
  • Formal studies and evaluations (Google Scholar, Library database)
  • Newspaper clippings & mass media (Lexis-Nexus, The Economist, the FT)

Documents will provide the bulk of your analysis (they’re the easiest types of information to find). Rather then base your case study on what the documentation tells you, however, try to use it to corroborate evidence from other sources.

(ii) Archival Records

  • Service records – Market share, profitability (company website and annual reports)
  • Organizational records – charts and budgets (ditto)
  • Maps and charts
  • Lists of names
  • Survey data – census records etc
  • Personal records – diaries, calendars (from interview contacts)

Archival records are crucial to establish the factual content of the evidence you use. Not all of the above information would be accessible/useful, but the final case study will depend on the accuracy of the archival records you uncover.

(iii) Interviews

  • Open-ended – ask for the respondents opinions and insights
  • Focused – following pre-arranged questions
  • Survey – tightly defined questions used for multiple respondents

All methods are suitable, but be clear before conducting an interview which approach to take. Open-ended are very good if you have plenty of time, and the respondent is an expert on the subject. However this must be corroborated with archival records. Be careful not to ask leading questions, and use more focused interviews to double-check.

All interviews suffer from problems about bias and inaccurate information, so do not depend too heavily on interviews – use them to get advice, and to corroborate other evidence.

 (iv) Direct Observation

A field trip is useful if the situation is still occurring – i.e. if the company is still trying to solve the same problem that you’re investigating. Observation can help you corroborate what an interviewee has told you about how the organisation is run, but due to the subjective nature it’s better if more than one of you is present.

(v) Participant-Observation

This is when you take an active role within the environment you’re observing, but is usually used if the other sources of evidence are unavailable.

(vi) Physical Artefacts

Obviously you should collect as much evidence as possible, physical artefacts might include technology, tools, instruments etc

Principles for Collecting the Evidence:

Once you’ve got your evidence, there are a few things that ensure a rigorous case study:

  • Use Multiple Sources. Using the classifications above, try to find information from as many different sources as possible
  • Create a Database. The perfect case study should have the data/evidence completely separate from the report. Whilst you’re creating and writing up your case study bear in mind that the facts should be kept separate from your analysis (as much as possible). This can be done using two stages. Firstly, write up your interview notes, and secondly, write up your analysis. In theory the first part should be made available to other researchers who have completely different research questions, but would still find your data useful.
  • Maintain a Chain of Evidence. To make your analysis reliable the reader of your case study should be able to follow the derivation of your evidence from the research question to your conclusion (or vice versa). This is done by accurate citations (whether it’s documents, interviews or observations), demonstration of the actual evidence (and the manner in which it was collected), and that all this is consistent with the original project plan.

A word of advice – if your case studies are chronological you may wish to start off by writing them backwards, i.e. have a section on the current conditions and then go back to the phenomena under investigation, and finish with the firm’s strategic decision-making.

For more, see Yin, R. (1994). “Case study research: Design and methods” (2nd ed.). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publishing.

Comments on doing fieldwork

Introduction

  • It’s not proper fieldwork, unless you become seriously ill [i.e. “you need to get a disease to be a serious anthropologist”]
  • Learning a foreign language – communication vs. theory of language [the Golden Lions of the Presidential Palace]
  • Three responses to “Global Prosperity Initiative”

Being Invisible

  • Jane Goodall and the Chimpanzees
  • Wearing an Adam Smith tie in an interview about laissez-faire
  • “Being a Westerner” (note, not an American!)

Fieldwork

  • Formal interview
  • Informal conversation
  • Direct/indirect observation

Local Knowledge vs. Standing Outside the Frame

  • Hayek: knowledge is dispersed
  • “You can’t see the picture, if you’re standing inside the frame” RS Trapp
  • How to assemble knowledge of time and place?
  • Equip yourself with a hunch, and a broader framework
    • Note: not a theory that predetermines all your evidence
  • Arrive knowing nothing of cultural context
  • See what strikes you
  • Learn culture from locals
    • Do the history books dictate the local behaviour? No! Local culture dictates what goes into the history books. Culture is the lead variable
    • Go out with the locals, learn from them
  • Then fill in the gaps, and corroborate, via historical record
  • Your hunch will probably be wrong, the fieldwork rests on your ability to ground it within a strong framework

These are notes for a talk that I gave on doing fieldwork. Out of context parts of them may not make much sense, but if you are interested in this topic send me an email!

Writing “One-Pagers”

A “one pager” is a succinct summary and commentary on either a book or journal article. It is intended to establish that you can grasp the key points of a particular work, and contribute constructively to scholarly dialogue (for advice on how to read an academic paper, see Peter Klein). I first encountered the one pager through Roger Congleton, and have found it to be a highly effective training device to interpret information. As the name suggests, it must be kept to one page.

Component Parts

There are four parts to a one pager:

  1. Provide an accurate citation of the book/article
  2. Include your own name and relevant details.
  3. Use three bullet points to provide a holistic summary. Each paragraph should be short, and pick up on a critical part of the thesis. If you’re reading the text with a specific reason in mind (e.g. a literature review on a particular subject), the summary can be focused on that aspect of the piece.
  4. Use three bullet points for constructive analysis. These might be aspects of the manuscript that you didn’t understand, sections you feel could/should be expanded, or parts you outright disagree with. The three points should demonstrate that you can critically assess the material, think creatively about how to build upon it, and draw upon a wider knowledge of the subject.

Finally

As with most skills you can develop your ability to write a one-pager with practice. It’s a method to focus your attention whilst reading an article, and therefore – I find – can drastically reduce the time it takes to absorb material, and increase the effectiveness of your reading.

Resources

Also see: Business One Pagers

Research article template

The title

Learn the lessons of social media and adopt the three C’s:

  • Catchy (i.e. you want it to be clickbait)
  • Citable (i.e. shareable)
  • Controversial (i.e. trolling)

This outline is based on advice from Pete Boettke. To some extent it’s a comment on best practice, but it also tries to map out a replicable blueprint. This is targeted at writing up a piece of traditional empirical work (i.e. testing a hypothesis) for publication as a journal article. Book chapters or theoretical papers have different foundations. If the empirical methods are non-quantitative, section 3 should include a discussion/justification.

Section 1: Introduction [2 pages]

  • Why is this topic important? Why should the reader care about your contribution?

Section 2: Lit Review [5 pages]

  • What has everyone said on this topic? What is missing?

Section 3: Methods [5 pages]

  • How are you able to fill in this missing gap?

Section 4: Results [5 pages]

  • What have you discovered?

Section 5: Conclusion [2 pages]

  • Recap what was done, how you did it, and why we’ve learnt something

Also, to bear in mind:

  • Inputs and outputs – look at your references. They should reflect your target publication. If you’re citing books, you’ve written a book. If you’re predominantly citing journal articles in the same field as you’re writing in, you’re on the right lines
  • Structure of production – it takes a lot of time to switch between a policy paper and a journal article. If you can submit a paper within 6 months of a start date that is doing well. Don’t try to rush the end result; focus on continual progress.

The comparative method

  1. The Phenomenon: what is the object of study?
  2. Outcome: define the outcome and determine the binary conditions (i.e. what constitute presence/absence)
  3. The degree of analysis (which is flexible)
    • How many cases?
    • How many variables?
  4. What are the theories we wish to test?
  5. Determine the key variables as mentioned by those theories (as well as their binary conditions)
  6. Collect data on cases and create the truth table
    • Outcome
    • Variables
  7. Reduce and perform Boolean analysis
  8. Factoring, if required
  9. Edit, revise, edit, revise, etc

For more, see Charles Ragin, “The Comparative Method“.

Writing a literature review

The primary objective of a literature review is to summarise and synthesise the available research on a given topic. It establishes that you are aware of the relevant literature, and have the capacity to understand it and set it in context.

Reading an Article

@JessicaCalarco has some good advice, including [Only] “read as much of each article/book as it takes to identify the:

  • Research question
  • Data/methods
  • Argument/answer
  • Key evidence supporting the argument/answer
  • Limitations (i.e., what questions it doesn’t answer; what perspectives or possibilities it doesn’t consider)”

Planning the Literature Review

  • Define the topic
  • Conduct a broad search to assemble a long list of references
  • Evaluate the long list to create several key references
    • Pay particular attention to the academic merits of each publication
      • How prestigious is the journal that it was published in?
      • How much impact has it had on future work?
      • How renowned is the author?
    • But don’t neglect less established work that you feel has significant merit
  • Analyse the findings by identify key themes
    • Group references into similar categories: you should analyse themes (ideas) rather than each individual paper (sources)
    • Each section in the literature review should focus on a separate category
    • These categories can be organised in different ways
      • Methodologically
      • Thematically
      • Empirically
      • Chronologically
      • Geographically

Writing it Up

  1. Set the scene
    • The introduction should define the key topic and outline the basis of your argument
  2. Be wary of chronology
    • For each category introduce papers in a chronological order, especially if using phrases such as “in response”, “then”, “leading to” etc.
  3. Be critical, not merely descriptive
    • A descriptive literature review merely describes the key points of each paper
    • A critical literature review demonstrates your personal judgement
    • What are the limitations of the papers?
    • What are the holes in the literature?
  4. Illuminate the interplay between the literature
    • Which papers are parts of a similar/common trend?
    • Which papers are critical of each other – and what are the strengths/weaknesses of each side?
    • Highlight controversy
  5. Be succinct
    • A good literature review will summarise a complex argument in one sentence. An excellent literature review will arrange those sentences so that the simplification doesn’t lose the context/meaning.
  6. Use references and quotations for supportive evidence
    • When you refer to a concept that is associated with one particular paper, cite the paper
    • Use quotations to support your points
    • Short quotations can be made within a paragraph
    • Longer quotations should be a separate paragraph
    • You must document all sources. If in doubt always provide more information than you think is necessary
    • Be wary of Ariel Rubinstein’s warning, relating to interdisciplinary research, that “often the citation is just intended to demonstrate the breadth of our horizons” (2012, p.200)
  7. Draw things together
    • The conclusion should summarise the key argument and draw your analysis together
    • Provide a full bibliography
  8. Revise the document, edit, re-read, revise, edit, re-read etc…
    • Remember: “All writing is work, and all work is work-in-progress” James Buchanan