There is a close link between a research topic and a problem statement. Sometimes a researcher will identify a research topic and then explore the current problems and knowledge gaps in that topic area. However, often the first step in the research design process is to identify a real-world problem or management dilemma and provide a very brief description of the nature of the issue, the undesirable symptoms, and our inability or lack of knowledge to solve the problem. All the other components in the research framework are designed to produce a contribution to knowledge that will help solve this problem. While there are some fields that do pure research, there are plenty of real-world management problems and opportunities for improvement that management researchers don’t need to “dream up” things to research. If you have not yet identified a research topic then work on identifying an appropriate research topic then return to this section.
Reason for the Study
The problem statement is the foundation for and the rationale for the significance of the study. According to Cooper and Schindler (2002) “this section needs to convince the sponsor [or dissertation committee] to continue reading the proposal” (p. 101). Regardless of whether you plan on having a sponsor, a practical reason to conduct the study will help increase your motivation (and tenacity), your participant’s motivation thus increasing participation and response rate, and the impact on the real world. Cooper and Schindler propose that ideally, a problem statement includes four components: a management dilemma, the background, consequences, and the management questions (p. 101). The management dilemma and the management question are the first two levels of the management-research question hierarchy.
Creswell (2003) proposes that the problem statement should come early in the introduction to motivate the reader to read further or as Creswell proposes “pique their interest” (p. 79). So, develop a compelling problem statement now and let it guide the design of your research project. It can be an acid test for your methodology decisions – each time that you face a decision ask yourself – does it help to answer the management question and resolve the management dilemma?
The second component of the problem statement is the specific knowledge or theory gap that is preventing us from addressing the undesirable “symptoms.” There must be a gap in our existing theories, empirical knowledge, and so forth to justify a research project. If we already have the knowledge to solve the problem, then we can simply apply that knowledge or theory and solve the problem. It is not uncommon for organizations to experience many problems that we already know how to solve. The organization may not know how to solve the problem or may not be familiar with the current literature so the first step is to find out what we know about this problem. If there is a knowledge gap then the problem is a candidate for a research project.
Note: A problem isn’t always a “problem,” it might also be an opportunity for improvement. In other words, organization performance is seldom all that we would like it to be. The gap between the current performance or situation and the desired level of performance is an opportunity for improvement or a problem. One way to “back into” a problem statement is to ask if we only knew ________ then we could improve ________.
Caution: Possibly the biggest danger with developing a problem statement is creating a problem that is vague and so broad that a single study can’t possibly answer the problem.
Chad McAllister [Prospectus Version] – Several research studies show that one of the most important, if not the most important, reasons for software products to fail is because the requirements were not well understood. Although many stakeholders are involved in software development, two important parties that must agree on and understand the requirements are users and developers. Misunderstandings between these two groups lead to requirement errors, which increases the cost and time of the software project, jeopardize quality, and create work-life imbalances. The importance of well-understood requirements has long been recognized (Brooks, 1987). Several techniques specifically aimed at improving developers’ and users’ understanding of the requirements, such as QFD (Eldin, 2002), Voice of the Customer (Griffin & Hauser, 1993), Ethnography (Spillers, 2004), and others have been applied for several years. Even though these techniques have promise, the rate of software product failures has not substantially been reduced, hovering around 66% since the Standish group began tracking failures in 1994 (Walsh, 2003). What is lacking in techniques such as Voice of the Customer (VOC) is a fundamental knowledge of the factors involved in misunderstanding requirements between users and developers. Without this theoretical foundation, the efficiency and effectiveness of the techniques aimed at improving the understanding of requirements is difficult to determine. The proposed research will identify and evaluate the factors contributing to users’ and developers’ misunderstanding requirements for new software products.
- Identify a “real world” problem.
- Describe the undesirable symptoms.
- Identify the knowledge gap that needs to be filled in order to help solve the problem.
- Support your discussion with solid peer-reviewed references.
Align and Integrate
- The problem statement links directly to the purpose statement. The purpose statement should be focused on producing new knowledge and insights that will help fill the knowledge gap and help solve the problem.
- The conclusions should focus on how the research findings will help fill the specific knowledge gap and resolve the problem.
- As with all the components of the research methodology, the problem should be consistent with the variables, relationships, context, and so forth identified in the conceptual framework.
- The knowledge gap in the problem statement should be supported by the literature review.
- Cooper, D. R., & Schindler, P. S. (2002). Business research methods (8th ed.). Boston: Irwin.
- Creswell, J. W. (2002). Educational research: Planning, conducting, and evaluating quantitative and qualitative research. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.