“Information and Organizational Development”
The thirst for information is an aspect that characterizes all organizations regardless their nature, mission statements or techniques. Each organization tries to use the most appropriate methods to gather, process and use information in a manner that guarantees its competitiveness, survival and success. Yet, different methods are to be used depending on the nature of the organization, the nature of the information sought, and the nature of the sources from which the organization is going to seek the information. For example, when seeking information from the government, the most likely method would be resorting to the use of documented records, statements and other formal sources. By contrast, when seeking information from the market, many methods may be used, and in this case, it is the nature of the information sought that would decide, as well as the exact objective of the organization and the manner into which the information will be put to use.
From the Alexander Center case, all these issues have been analyzed and taken into consideration. One might wonder: Why did Alexander Center choose to use the focus group discussion method rather than interviewing or any other method? Certainly, one can deduce the answer to this question by looking at the results of the discussions. The thirteen derived conclusions could not have been reached had the management resorted to the use of interviews or the distribution of questionnaires for example. At best, a questionnaire might have provided the Center with data that can be used in a mathematical form that makes a lot of sense but that is not much of a purpose for the Center. Similarly, the results that may have been obtained from interviews may have resulted in the discussion of very narrow dimensions of the issues raised, something that does not serve the purpose of the Center.
Apparently, the word “purpose” must be of great import, and indeed it is. The informational needs of the organization in this specific situation made it quite necessary to resort to the use of a focus group discussions. Quoting the study, it says that “The focus group technique is a popular applied research method because it reveals important information about respondents’ personal experiences and interpretations of reality. It also enables researchers to learn quickly and inexpensively about the needs, values, beliefs, expectations, and behaviors of specific populations” (p.231).
Importance of Information:
We can break down this definition into the following parts:
-Important information about respondents’ personal experiences and interpretation of reality
-Researchers learn quickly.
-Researchers learn inexpensively.
¾Learning is about: needs, values, beliefs, expectations and behaviors.
To start with, obviously, Alexander Center was looking for a lot of information in depth about the respondents’ personal experiences and interpretation of reality. There is a reality that is being discussed, namely what parents thought and felt about organizations such as Alexander Center. Some of these parents already know the center and are acquainted with its services, advantages and problems; others are not. The purpose of the information research was not to measure attitudes only, as in that case a questionnaire would have served the purpose. The purpose was to detect and analyze the feelings and thoughts of the people involved (Groups A and B) or who may be potentially involved (Group C). Since the nature of the services at Alexander Center are of a highly personal and sensitive issue, going in depth is of great importance. Alexander Center and its services to the youth are the reality. The thoughts and feelings of those parents are the interpretation to the reality: what they see, what they feel and what they think.
The second important aspect constitute both time and cost. Research is generally expensive, especially when it generates information of strategic nature. Indulging in expensive research is not very adequate for organizations that serve the community and that usually face funding limitations. Accordingly, these aspects, time and money, must have been taken into consideration. Yet, the adequacy of the focus group technique lies in that it achieves the informational purposes in a short period of time while at the same time keeping costs low.
The last two aspects to be considered are: what the learning is about and the nature of the populations. As mentioned earlier, the population constitute three distinct groups of parents: Group A, whose children had already completing receiving services at Alexander Center; Group B, whose children are currently enrolled; and Group C, whose children are not enrolled at Alexander Center and who may not be even considering that option at all.
The nature of the services that Alexander Center provides imposes itself once again. Many parents go through the denial phase as obvious from the results of the research. Denial means that the parents deny that their children need rehabilitation at a facility such as Alexander Center. Denial has many psychological and social reasons but the result is the same: the parents (decision makers in this case) simply reject that their children need the service even when this service is actually necessary. This is one major reason why a focus group discussion was seen as important since it would enable the researchers to closely and deeply understand the concerns, fears and reservations of parents. The focus group atmosphere is not only friendly, but also very encouraging, especially to those who may feel shy, intimidated or reserved about the situation. The focus group method helps the respondents get over their fears and worries, and at the same time, encourages them to open up to the ideas, themselves providing their personal experiences, insights and analysis.
Nature of Communication:
By analyzing the nature of communication in a focus group method, we realize the following aspects:
-The respondents operate as a family or a friendly group. They are bound by common (although not necessarily similar) concerns. They need to communicate, to reveal their thoughts and feelings, and to have their opinions acknowledged and considered, all which a focus group discussion provides.
-There is no competition inside a focus group discussion. With the help of the facilitator or moderator, the discussions remain within the borders of interest, but at the same time, there is no competition for asserting who is right and who is wrong. Since they will not worry or fear that they may be judged or prejudiced, the participators are stimulated to speak their minds, realistically reflecting their concerns, feelings and worries.
-Tension is relieved in focus group discussions. Apart from the fact that politics of influence and competition are absence, there is also the awareness that the attendants are interested in knowing the different and diversified experiences of others. Ultimately this is what a typical focus group would generate.
-In the Alexander Center case, the respondents were members of three specific and distinct groups with related experiences. This helped in covering the scope of informational needs of the researchers and at the same time, it helped facilitate the transfer of information among the respondents.
-The depth of the experiences and opinions communicated by the respondents does not only help in detecting the attitudes of the respondents, but also helps in finding the roots of these attitudes and the means through which these attitudes can be carefully modified or preserved, depending on what the need of the management is.
-The discussions were all taped for future reference and analysis. This may not always be possible, but obviously, when it is available as an option, it helps a lot in improving the quality of future discussions, in detecting issues and in covering areas that were missed.
Yet, focus groups still have their limitations. It can never be claimed that the respondents in this particular group are representative of the population. Rather, it is likely that there has been some bias, especially that one can easily anticipate that those who participated were parents who either had positive experiences with Alexander Center, or parents who were anticipating such positive results. Yet, the impact of this limitation can be reduced as in the case of Alexander Center where an effort was made by the researchers to make sure that even those who held prejudices or negative attitudes against the Center or its services would be involved. After all, the issue was not related to a business enterprise but rather to a community service organization, a matter that is of great concern for the entire population.
Apparently, the focus group discussion technique used by the Alexander Center was a great success. This technique enabled the researchers to achieve their mission, that is, getting the informational needs relevant to the concerns, opinions, ideas, worries, thoughts, and feelings of three distinct groups of parents. These information needs could be successfully utilized to produce an integrated policy at the Center that would in turn help improve the quality of the service provided to the community.
It is not always possible to achieve similar successes, and information researchers should always take into consideration the nature of the information they are after, the nature of the source that provides the needed information, the costs that may be incurred, the time limitation, and most importantly, the purpose for which the information is needed. As the experience at Alexander Center asserted, focus group discussions are most useful when the researchers are looking for information that is related to the personal experiences, perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, expectations and needs of the population. Also important is that the population represented by the respondents has very specific characteristics.