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Researching Information Systems

A place for qualitative methods?

In a recent top-billing article in the European Journal of Information Systems ("The Teaching of Qualitative Research Methods in Information Systems: An Explorative Study Utilizing Learning Theory"), Bob Galliers and Jimmy Huang explore the kinds of research undertaken in the field of Information Systems (IS) and what this might mean for the preparation of new generations of teachers and scholars in this critical field.  Bob Galliers is the University Distinguished Professor at Bentley and Jimmy Huang is a faculty member at Warwick Business School, University of Warwick, in the United Kingdom.

Galliers and Huang note that most published research in the IS field is quantitative – that is, it involves the analysis of measurable, verifiable quantitative data and evidence. An alternative to this approach, qualitative research, is much less common in major IS journals. Qualitative research typically involves evidence that might be gathered from interviews, observations and the analysis of documents, and is more subject to interpretation.  As the impact of information and communication technologies increases – in organizations and society more generally – a full understanding of the issues will require statistical analysis and deep insight into potential human influence, for example, decision-making by CIOs or policy makers.  The authors explore the reason why quantitative research dominates the IS field and consider how the use of qualitative methods might be increased.  They believe that having a diversity of methods available for use in the field will strengthen it and improve research and teaching in years to come.

Galliers and Huang practiced what they preach by approaching the subject using qualitative methods. First, they convened a panel of leading IS teachers and scholars from around the world and interviewed them regarding their views on the qualitative research tradition and whether and how such research methods are taught in doctoral programs. They also elicited their views on how qualitative research is perceived in relation to the more dominant quantitative methods.  In addition to the interviews, Galliers and Huang also examined course syllabi and other course materials.

The authors concluded that there are several possible reasons for the relative lack of qualitative research in the IS field. One is lack of experience with qualitative methods on the part of doctoral advisors, which naturally leads them to favor quantitative approaches. Another is the perceived risk in departing from what has been the norm for so long. A third possibility is that proper instruction in qualitative research is time-consuming; it is best learned through practical experience, and there is often insufficient time to get enough such experience in doctoral education.  Overall, these factors have led to a general bias against qualitative research in the field as a whole that may be difficult to overcome.

Galliers and Huang identify several steps that might help address this issue. These include more balance in doctoral training and encouraging a greater willingness on the part of top journals in the field to publish qualitative work. Bentley University is already in the lead in addressing this imbalance. Bentley’s doctoral programs in business and accountancy offer extensive instruction in a wide range of research methods for all its students, not just in IS: qualitative as well as quantitative. Having an appreciation of when to use different research approaches is crucial to their training as future academics. Bentley’s innovation in this regard should be soon having an influence: 14 graduates of the doctoral program – launched just six years ago – have assumed tenure track teaching positions at universities across the country, with more due to graduate this coming academic year.

Exploring possible reasons for the relative lack of qualitative research in the IS field.