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Humak's Thesis Manual, Bachelor's degree

Utilizing the methods of development work

In academic institutions, method means something slightly different from what is meant by method at universities of applied sciences. In many faculties at universities, empirical research methods refer to either quantitative (e.g. questionnaire studies and surveys) or qualitative research methods (including interviews and observation). The objective of academic research is generally not the development of operations; rather, the results of the research are more in dialogue with the theory than with actual working life. The possible application of the research results into practice remains the responsibility of others. Instead of copying research methods from academic research, be inspired by the systematic approach and in-depth familiarisation with the previous knowledge of the field, which are typical traits of academic research. 

The objective of final projects and theses at Humak is to develop the operations of the commissioner of the project. Therefore, it is more appropriate to talk about methods for research-based development work, rather than research methods as such. These include, for example, various collective brainstorming methods, think tanks, process analyses, peer reviews and future workshops. For further information about such methods, you can look up “Kehittämistyön menetelmät” (2009 or 2015, Katri Ojasalo et al). Methodological questions will be discussed in the course Research-based Development. 

The methods of development work are characterised by combining different methods in order to achieve the objective. For example, the author of the thesis may begin the development work with a group interview to identify the need for development. After this, a think tank or brainstorming session can be used in the work community to together find different solution models. Benchmarking can be used to discover good practices in Finland and abroad. After the concrete completion of development work, you can collect feedback, for example, through an e-mail questionnaire. 

Development work is often done in the spirit of the increasingly popular culture of experimentation. The starting point for a culture of experimentation is not so much in making numerous reports and preliminary reports to reports, but rather diving into genuine operational experiments quickly and on a low budget. The experiment may be small, but even small experiments always aim at a bigger change. The idea is also to experiment with things that cannot be tested in any other way than experimenting. Experiments can be very bold and original, and they produce important information also when they do not succeed. It is important that experiments are carefully and systematically documented, and data is collected by means of participatory observation, for example. The culture of experimentation can be interpreted as one approach to development work, in the same way as action research or case study. 

Development work is usually carried out in collaboration with the working community. Even if the ideas and solution models had been developed in a collaborative way, the student can make full use of them in the thesis. The ability to engage in development work with an open mind together with others prepares students for working in teams and networks also after the studies, which is a highly valued working life skill. In collaborative development processes it is essential that the student itself plays an important part (for example as a development process leader). The student needs to be able to analyse received information systematically and objectively, using them to arrive to concrete conclusions. 

Observations produced in the development work are usually called the material. In universities of applied sciences, the term research material is usually not used, and the more descriptive concept, development material, has not yet been established in wider use – that is why we simply talk of material. Material can also be called a primary source. This means that the material has been gathered specifically for this project and is now used for the first time. The word material also appears as a part of the word source material. Source material and material are different things, however. Source material refers to the knowledge base, while material is subject to analysis. These two intertwine in theses analysis and conclusion chapters. Both have meaning as a base for refining and producing new information. 

The material should be documented carefully. However, often the students are so focussed on managing and completing the interviews, etc., that they tend to forget to document their efforts. The material obtained through interviews and collaborative brainstorming methods should be recorded and transcribed with sufficient precision in terms of the objective of the project. In operational experiments, it is often necessary to keep a journal of the final project, as otherwise a big part of the important observations will simply be forgotten. The material will not be attached to the thesis as an appendix, but questionnaires and interview structures are. 

A careful assessment of the success of the project and identification of the need for further development are crucial aspects of any development work. Development work involves a pragmatistic understanding of knowledge: the better something works, the closer we are to the correct knowledge. Too often students forget to evaluate how well the work or project functions. Collecting feedback from the commissioner and other interested parties is one way to evaluate success. Another is identifying application opportunities for the project elsewhere. Sometimes the success of a final project can be assessed by objective, pre-determined criteria. The main thing is that the critical assessment is more profound than simply the presentation of one’s superficial opinion. The supervising teacher should also stress that evaluation does not just mean simply praising one’s work: a careful analysis of failures and a complex reflection of development needs are also an important part of evaluation in successful development projects. 

Development work does not always need to involve numerous different methods and materials. In some cases, the development project may be based on one set of materials, such as one interview or survey. In such cases, the analysis of the material requires more than cases where interview or query is used just to collect feedback. The minimum requirement for quantitative analysis can be set at the level of cross-tabulation, i.e., the material is examined separately and cross examined. Simply listing percentage distributions is seldom sufficient for the development of operations. The minimum level for interview studies and surveys is grouping the transcribed material in a meaningful way, or in the case of expert interviews, systematically seeking new factual information. 

The most common question students ask their supervisor about the material is: How much material is enough? When using qualitative methods, the adequacy of the material is often assessed by means of reaching the saturation point of the material. Often, however, resources are exhausted before the saturation point. A good rule of thumb is that five interviews will suffice if the content of the interviews is relevant and the interviews are the central material for the development work. In surveys, the representativeness of the data is more important than the amount. If the data is collected with the Webropol survey tool, it is good to prepare for the fact that only 10 to 20% of recipients of the survey will answer the survey. If data collection fails, it is good to have a backup plan. 

When conducting interviews or surveys, it is good to bear in mind that the ultimate goal is to develop the operations of the commissioner. The thesis cannot end with the presentation of the results. As a minimum requirement, the author of the thesis will have to make recommendations to the commissioner for the development of operations. In many cases, the student can present the results of the project as well as the development proposals to the commissioner in a dedicated meeting and finally report this in the thesis. In the best case, the author will get to apply the results of the final project in practice as a paid employee.