What qualitative research can tell us about performance management systems

Qualitative Research

This case study of Company A, one of the largest retailers in North America, is organized as follows: the following section provides the reader with the key elements arising from the case. A summary of the methodology and the method used for this research is provided in Section 3, which also shows how the collected data was processed and organized for case writing. Section 4 introduces the causal conditions for adopting a performance measurement system (PMS) at Company A, as well as organizational and intervening conditions which affected the design and the operation of the PMS. Section 5 presents an overall summary and a discussion of the hypotheses, which have emerged from the research.

Methodology and method 

The objective of this research focuses on understanding and exploring the PMS of a company without creating changes in the phenomena being studied. This objective is qualitative and interpretive (Burrell and Morgan, 1979; Chua, 1986; Orlikowski and Baroudi, 1991). The exploratory nature of this study determined the adoption of a qualitative research methodology (Buckley et al., 1976) suitable to gaining “more understanding of accounting practices in their natural setting” (Alenizi, 2001, p. 7; Tomkins and Groves, 1983; Hopper and Powell, 1985). 

Within this qualitative track, this research used a qualitative approach (Strauss and Corbin, 1998, 2008), which offers flexibility in understanding the phenomena under investigation by liberating the researcher from imposing a priori assumptions. 

Unlike Glaser (1992, 1998) who suggests researchers enter the study site: [...] without a predetermined research subject and that the phenomenon will emerge through interactions on-site [...] the Strauss and Corbin (1998) approach introduces a structured set of steps which provide the researcher with systematic analytical techniques for handling raw data and interpretations, as well as developing concepts to build a theory (Alenizi, 2001, p. 8; Koenig, 2006). 

Accordingly, the adoption of Strauss and Corbin’s qualitative methodology led the researcher to explore literature relevant to the area under investigation, which served as a theoretical starting point. 

The analytical techniques used by the researcher followed the five dimensions of Strauss and Corbin’s (1998) qualitative methodology, which can be related to Robert K. Merton’s work on causality. As shown in Figure 1, research labels were gathered into categories related to the phenomenon under investigation (the PMS) in terms of causal conditions, organizational conditions, and external conditions impacting action/ interaction strategies of the PMS and ending in having effects and outcomes related to its operation. The qualitative nature of the research questions led to the adoption of a case study research strategy (Buckley et al., 1976; Birnberg et al., 1990; Keating, 1995; Ahrens and Dent, 1998). 

The motivation for using a case-based approach and semi-structured interviews was because they are coherent both with the objectives of the study which targets “explanatory, back generalization and theory refining objectives” (Johnston et al., 2002) and Strauss and Corbin’s (1998) qualitative methodology. 

The outcome of the implementation of this methodology is to suggest hypotheses, which will be discussed in the case analysis section of this paper. The use of case study research methodology provided the researcher with rich, in-depth examinations of the organization so that the findings would be reliable. It also provided a context-based, organized and replicable way of looking at the case, as far as data collection, information analysis, and reporting results were concerned (Kaplan, 1983; Yin, 2003; Irvine and Gaffikin, 2006). 

The type of case study that was used is exploratory in the sense that it was aimed at helping the researcher to make refined questions about the topical situation and to develop hypotheses, which can be compared to existing theory. Semi-structured interviews were used because they allowed the researcher to obtain information, as an outsider, in a non-intrusive manner. In addition, they not only allowed the researcher to gain relevant general information regarding specific questions but also the reasons behind the answers that were provided by respondents. 

The semi-structured interview guide was formulated prior to starting the fieldwork after a literature review of prior research regarding performance measurement and management. This provided the researcher with the required flexibility to approach fieldwork and explore the phenomenon in-depth with an open mind, allowing the formulation of unstructured, broad questions before starting the case study. 

Interviews were organized with designers of performance management systems, providers of information, and users of performance measurement systems, at headquarters and business unit levels. The interviewees were, as much as possible, personnel belonging not only to top and middle management but also performing diverse activities such as accounting and finance, marketing, human resources, sales, and operations. 

The case study involved ten semi-structured interviews lasting from an hour to an hour and a half each and took over one year to complete. The subjects that the interview addressed were the following: Section 1 contained questions concentrating on what performance measures were considered by the organization and why. Section 2 focused on the collection of measures. Section 3 was interested in the use of measures, while Section 4 dealt with their dissemination. 

The final section collected data about the respondents. Interviews were recorded with permission and transcribed, respecting total confidentiality for interviewees and the company. The researcher both facilitated qualitative content understanding and further coding but also respected the strict confidentiality of interviewees and company identities performed the recorded interview transcription process. 

Data processing 

In accordance with Yin’s (2003) criteria for case study research, the research methodology mixed multiple sources of evidence so that crosscheck and construct validity could be ensured. Internal validity was ensured by testing theoretical assumptions (i.e. pattern-matching), whereas external validity was assured through a replicable case study protocol. This procedure aimed at establishing theoretical relationships from which analytical generalizations could be drawn (Birnberg et al., 1990; Atkinson et al., 1997). 

Throughout the research process, the implementation of Strauss and Corbin’s methodology allowed the researcher to enhance his sensitivity to the phenomenon under investigation (i.e. theoretical sensitivity). Theoretical sensitivity is the ability to perceive variables and relationships. Within the Strauss and Corbin methodology, it is a source that stimulates the thoughts of the researcher regarding the phenomenon under exploration, as well as the generation of questions to be used in the fieldwork. Theoretical sensitivity is an “accumulative aspect, which is part of the research process and represents a learning curve [...]”. 

This learning curve helps the researcher develop his “[...] awareness of how to formulate theory by conceptualizing data through categories and their constituent properties”, thereby facilitating the analytical process to collect data, code, and analyze (Alenizi, 2001, p. 16). It is affected by a number of variables including one’s reading of the literature and one’s use of techniques designed to enhance sensitivity such as on-site access to documents.

Data organization through case writing The structure of the company story consisted of exposing the PMS that currently exists and then providing evidence about why and how it came to be that way and with what success. Consequently, the organization of the case study tells a story that is structured as follows: the key reasons why companies decided to have a PMS and how it evolved in response to “causal conditions” relating to its adoption. 

Causal conditions within the Strauss and Corbin methodology refer to the events, which make the phenomenon occur in the setting of the case study (i.e. each company has its own environment and industry, which gives it distinct characteristics, as well as the evolution over time and use of a PMS). Causal conditions may come from within the organization or without. Because the PMS is a dynamic process, organizational change (Soin et al., 2002) is more subtle than Lewin’s (1946) changing shape of a block of ice through the “unfreeze”, “change” and “(re)freeze” model: performance measurement systems are not simply designed and implemented, but they evolve over extended periods of time (Waggoner et al., 1999). 

This explains why it was necessary to consider that different events generated the phenomenon under investigation and that some emerging Causal Conditions may also constitute “Organizational Conditions”. “Organizational conditions” – or inner context – refer to a particular set of internal company characteristics and circumstances in which the phenomenon occurred. They are related to the organization’s internal environment in which the PMS has been designed, implemented, and operates. 

The organizational context is similar to the organizational environment that surrounds the phenomenon under investigation. Organizational conditions, which may have a positive or negative impact on the phenomenon under investigation, create a set of circumstances to which companies’ management responds through “actions/interaction strategies”. “Intervening conditions” – or external context – are related to the organization’s external environment that impacted the design and the operation of the PMS. 

Intervening conditions are general conditions that influence the phenomenon and the strategies that a company can adopt. Intervening conditions are conceived as environmental conditions that surround companies and have a direct impact on the phenomenon and the company strategy. The Company’s management implements a certain number of practices (i.e. management strategies) in response to the aforementioned causal, organizational and external conditions. 

These are called “action/interaction strategies”. They are “purposeful or deliberate acts, which were taken to resolve a problem and which shaped the phenomenon in some way” (Strauss and Corbin, 1998, p. 13). Labels that emerged both from the interviews and the multiple pieces of evidence collected in the case represent the main “action/ interaction strategies” that have been implemented as a result of the operation of the PMS at the company.

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