Flexible Systems Methodology: A Mixed-method/Multi-method Research Approach
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Systems methodology has been widely applied for problem solving by many researchers in past. Rather than fitting the problem to the systems modelling method selected by taking assumptions, it would be far more justified to fit a mix of the methods to suit the nature of the problem. In management research, a strong criticism has emerged on mono-method-based research as this is not adequately cross-validated. The flexible systems methodology is in a way mixed-method and multi-method research framework. According to it, first the characteristics of the research problem to be investigated should be examined on multiple dimensions. Subsequently, the research methods should be identified to suit the characteristics of the problem. The framework then suggests a couple of integrating mechanisms for systems modelling; the same can be applied to multi-method management research as well. This short note is an attempt to relate flexible systems methodology with mixed-method and multi-method approaches adopted in management research.
KeywordsFlexible systems methodology Mixed-method research Multi-method research
Application of systems methodology for theory building and problem solving has been reported by many researchers in the past in diverse shades ranging from quantitative to qualitative to mixed models. The dominant view prevailing in application of systems methods has traditionally been isolationist in nature. An interesting framework of this kind is suggested of Flood and Jackson (1991) for creative problem solving in the form of Total Systems Intervention (TSI). This framework helps in categorising the problem to be examined on two fronts, i.e. the nature of people involved (unitary, pluralistic or coercive) and the type of systems (simple or complex), and thus gives a taxonomy of six problem types. The TSI identifies systems methods that are most appropriate for each of these problem types. This helped in selecting the most applicable system method for the problem under consideration. But the system method selected may not always be able to address or model all the aspects of the problem, as usually each problem might not exactly fit into such neat categories and the characteristics of the problem might overlap the categories. Thus, the characteristics of the problem may form a fuzzy cluster and thus need to be addressed by a mix of systems methods. Rather than fitting the problem to the systems modelling method by taking assumptions (that might not be valid), it would be far more justified to fit a mix of the methods to suit the nature of the problem. Thus, this shifted the consideration from isolationist thinking to a more pragmatic and integrative approach in the form of flexible systems methodology (FSM) (Sushil 1994). The FSM gives different types of combinations of system modelling methods ranging from quantitative to qualitative in nature.
A similar kind of thought process has emerged on the front of management research. Traditionally, the management researchers have either preferred quantitative research methods or qualitative research methods with a skewness or preference towards quantitative analysis. There has been a strong research trend in management research on empirical analysis as a mono-method research. Of late, a strong criticism has emerged on mono-method-based research as this is not adequately cross-validated (Martin 1990). This has resulted into multi-method research or mixed-method research. This is leading to integrative research designs using empirical analysis, management interviews, case method, observation, big data analytics, and so on. Two most prominent mixed-method research designs are qualitative to quantitative (exploratory) and quantitative to qualitative (explanatory) (Tashakkori and Teddlie 1998).
The flexible systems methodology can be treated as a mixed-method and multi-method research framework. According to it, first the characteristics of the research problem (to be addressed) should be examined on multiple dimensions and a fuzzy clustering of the same should be carried out. The research methods should then be identified to suit the characteristics of the problem. The FSM subsequently suggests a couple of integrating mechanisms for systems modelling. These mechanisms can be the same that can be applied to multi-method management research design as well. The simplest integration would be to analyse the research problems using two or more methods, and the results of each should be compared; this is known as triangulation (Jick 1979) in management research. The next level of integration is to use the methods in succession, i.e. the findings of one method are used as input to the other. For example, qualitative research is the form of interviews or case studies may give insight about the major constructs as used in grounded theory (Corbin and Strauss 1990). These constructs can then be validated empirically by a questionnaire survey and factor analysis, and subsequently the path relationships can be derived. Another approach could be a both way integration of two methods, e.g. case method and questionnaire survey. Case method may be used to generate constructs inductively (for example cross-case analysis by Eisenhardt 1989) that can be tested by questionnaire survey. The empirical relationships obtained by the questionnaire survey can be cross-validated by detailed case studies. Another higher level of integration of two methods to lead to a new method as has been done in the case of evolution of total interpretive structural modelling (TISM) by integrating interpretive structural modelling (ISM) and expert interpretation for theory building (Sushil 2017). Still higher level of integration could be amalgamation of multi-methods in such a way that individual methods loose their significance and a new research method is generated.
An attempt is made in this deliberation to interrelate flexible systems methodology with mixed-method and multi-method management research designs. Such integrative research designs are expected to be more wholesome in nature and thereby addressing limitations and biases of mono-method research (quantitative or qualitative). It advocates a purposeful integration of research methods to suit the requirements of the problems to be investigated. Further, it may result in cross-fertilisation of systems methods with management research methods. This may also inspire the development of intensively mixed-methods that may have multiple combinations of quantitative and qualitative methods leading to the creation of innovative methodological frameworks for management research.
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