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How to do qualitative research in internal communications

Here’s the audience question I’m going to answer today:

Hi Joanna, thanks for reaching out! For our team, one of the topics we struggle with most is how to measure the effectiveness of internal comms beyond quantitative data. We know how to measure the quantitative stuff, but that's not really what we aim for. So: how to get a grip on the more soft/ qualitative sides? What would be useful methods to use?

This is a topic that also came up in a call with a new client this week who told me they’re doing okay showing quantitative data in reports and in presentations but they’re struggling with qualitative data. What would you use it for, when do you need it and how do you collect it?

So let’s get curious about qualitative data.

I absolutely have an unfair advantage here because I spent 4 years training as a social researcher in Trinity College Dublin. I have extensive training in research methods, data collection, analysis. And this translates beautifully into the world of internal communication.

Demystifying qualitative data in internal communications

Qualitative data always seems a bit mysterious doesn’t it? It’s not ‘hard’ like numbers, it’s not ‘proof’ like statistics seem to be. But qualitative data is powerful. Like really, really powerful.

Qualitative data is information that explores the ‘why’ behind the numbers. It explores feelings, perceptions, understanding, experience, motivations… information that cannot easily be counted or measured just with numbers. The data is based on description and observation rather than hard numbers.

So let’s say you run an employee engagement survey that tells you that 45% of your employees don’t trust the senior leadership team. This is going to tell you what the issue is (lack of trust) but these numbers won’t tell you why your employees don't trust their leaders. To get underneath the why, you need qualitative data.

Sidebar: It’s often helpful to both both quantitative and qualitative data. The methods are complementary, not mutually exclusive.

Structured vs unstructured

Qualitative data tends to be lot more unstructured than quantitative data. With a quantitative survey, for example, you have a set of rigid questions and pre-defined answers for employees to select. There’s no deviation and it’s very structured – which is very useful for analysis and comparison.

But qualitative data is far more unstructured. You may have a core set of themes to explore or a set of questions to consider, but there is less rigidity and more room to explore insights as they emerge.

4 ways to collect qualitative data

Here are some practical ways you can collect qualitative data in your organisation.

1. Semi-structured interviews

Interviews are used to gain an understanding into a particular person’s opinions, feelings or experience on a topic. Semi-structured interviews use an interview guide which outlines the topics to explore and a set of core questions that can be used. The questions are open-ended, which means they are not simple yes/ no questions. Each interview will be different; you can use all the questions in each interview or skip some in others, because the interviewee may not be able to answer each question (or may not want to).

The interviews are exploratory so you have the option to digress down interesting rabbit holes when the interviewee says something particularly interesting or valuable. This is one of the most useful aspects of semi-structured interviews – you have the space for unexpected topics to come up which you can ask about and discuss deeply.

2. Focus groups

Focus groups are semi-structured interviews in a group setting. The aim is to explore the participant’s experiences and feelings to understand why things are happening or why people have certain opinions. Focus groups tend to consist of 6 – 12 people and should be led by an experienced facilitator. The facilitator will use an interview guide with a set of themes to explore. Ideally the facilitator will have an assistant who is taking notes during the focus group, so the facilitator is free to listen and engage and discuss with participants.

Focus groups may not be the right method for you to use to explore particularly sensitive topics because people may not want to speak about it in a group setting. You also need to be mindful of the group dynamics when setting up a focus group, for example a very junior professional may not speak truthfully if there are senior leaders in the same group. Your facilitator should be skilled at noticing and managing any groupthink or conflict in the session.

3. Observation

This method is also known as “fieldwork”, it’s where you go physically go and observe your research participants (in your case, employees). This is a really great method to deeply understand the actual behaviour of your employees (as opposed to their self-reported or assumed behaviour). Observations can be planned in advance, for example you could organise to spend half a day with your frontline workers to see what their experience of the job is like, or it could be unplanned, for example you could to an unscheduled visit to a site or an office.

To collect data using the observation method, you take notes on what’s happening around you during the visit. What are people doing? What are they saying? How are they interacting with each other? Where are they getting their information from? What is causing them frustration? Afterwards, you can write this up to capture what you saw, what surprised you and what warrants further exploration.

4. Open-ended survey questions

And finally, a very simple way to capture qualitative data is by including some open-ended questions in your next survey. These are questions without a pre-defined answers (like a ranking of 1-10 or a drop-down menu with answers to pick from), rather these are questions like “How would you describe…” or “How do you feel about…” or “What else would you like us to know?” Capturing qualitative data in your survey will add to your analysis efforts but can give you far richer insights than simply asking the structured questions.

There's lots more to unpack on the topic of qualitative data, such as how to analyse it or how to present qualitative data findings, but I hope this gives you a good starting point to think about why you would need it and how to practically collect it.

Thanks for reading and stay curious,



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