Why even bother using the qualitative methods in business?

A really good question with a simple answer: “Where the quantitative methods show what the challenges are, the qualitative methods show why they are there”.By using the qualitative method you can tailor strategies, behavioral design and initiatives that actually work because you know the cause of the issue and not only the issue it self.


Before we go into explaining why the qualitative method is so great in business, let’s start by explaining what the qualitative method is all about. With qualitative method you examine something in-depth and detailed. Where the quantitative research methods is surveys, KPI and statistics the qualitative research methods is interviews, observations, focus groups and discourse analysis – doing interventions where you as a researcher come “close” to the people it’s all about.

Since the 1980s the qualitative method has become an integral part of the social science method, as it has previously been understood that scientific evidence can only be attributed to the scientific tradition of quantifiable facts. But since then humanities, anthropology and philosophy gain solid ground also in the industry of business because as Steinar Kvale and Svend Brinkmann points at in their book InterView from 2010: “If you wanna know how people understand their lives and world – why not ask them?”.    

Compared with the quantitative methods the qualitative is – admitted – more time consuming and difficult. So, frankly, why use SO many resources, time and money to understand why people act like they do? The answer is: there is money to save and gain – a lot actually. To illustrate our point we will begin a place little bit off. A place that might be a little distant to the more “ordinary” business, but it will make sense – we promise -, the detail industry.

Since the 50s they have used qualitative methods in the detail industry because it was found out through marketing how effective a behavioral design you can make when you know why the customers act and buy as they do. Have you ever considered why a grocery store is decorated with vegetables and fruits as the first thing to buy? It’s super annoying, because then the bananas will end up at the bottom of the basket or shopping cart. But the reason why is because of interviews, observations and discourse analysis done on customers shopping habits that showed the costumer as more likely to buy the chocolate bar or white bread on sale, if they first had their basket filled with vegetables and fruit. Because the mindset is that it’s ok: “Now I’ve bought a bunch of healthy food”. The grocery store have made behavioral design that works – we buy more of their offerings on “unhealthy” foods when they get us to buy all the healthy stuff first.

“Unethical and gross” some might think, but it works.

We want that – the things that works without the unethical and gross. Because you can use behavioral design to create all the good things – e.g. a better work environment to gain happier and more fulfilled employees. This is where qualitative research methods is a fundamental step to gain an understanding of human behavior.

If we look at it in the context of organisations we have to not only look at what the challenges are but why they are there. It is always easier to illustrate this by an example:

A Danish company with a HQ in Italy was experiencing a high level of stress among employees. Overall, the collaboration with Italy worked well, but for some reason the Danish employees continued to turn in sick due to stress on a level that was way above normal and acceptable. Acknowledging the problem the management team in Denmark tried a number of initiatives aiming to decrease the stress-levels of the department – e.g. new IT systems were implemented and flextime arrangements were made in order to promote a better work-life balance. But nothing seemed to work.

In the end a qualitative research process was established, where employees and managers were interviewed about their views on work and life in general. Here something interesting was discovered: The reason why the Danish employees felt so stressed was due to one “simple” thing: They felt obligated to be available for their Italian colleagues 24 hours a day – all year around. In Italy there is in general a different understanding of worklife vs. private life, and in Italy the two often mixes. In Denmark, there seem to be a more clear divide between the two. Hence, the Italians would call and email their Danish colleagues on at all hours and in the weekends, and they would expect a quick answer. This made the initiatives around work-life balance non-existent in real life. Understanding this the organisation was able to make initiatives that was actually targeting the roots of the issue, and this reduced stress-levels significantly. They had to do a cultural bridging of working styles and hours. E.g. a “after-hours-and-weekend-block” was put on the phones of the Danish employees, and hereby it was only emergency messages that would reach the Danes in their spare time. With full support from the Italien HQ after they understood the reason.

<Even if the way stores use behavioral design can seem unetic and distasteful, it is a great example of what the qualitative method can do in real life. By understanding why people do as they do, and why a problem is there, we are able to actually change things in a way that works.

Organisations consist of people. And to understand human actions, we must go out and talk to the people behind them in the context of their own world.


All the best from the Culture Nerds,

Nicoline og Gitte

Posted in Cross-Cultural Collaboration and tagged , , .

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