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It has been recommended that ‘qualitative researchers (should) make explicit the process involved in their collection and analysis of data. By failing to do so, small firm researchers employing qualitative methods do little to encourage theory development or progress current knowledge and understanding about small firms’ (Shaw, 1999). All steps of the research process adopted to arrive at the results of this dissertation are thus described here in detail. The description is in shape of a ‘true chronology’ and not as ‘reconstructed logic’ (Silverman, 1985). The objective is to underpin the inductive or ‘Verstehen’ (Outhwaite, 1975) nature of analysis used here.
Although the initial phase of the research process was focussed exclusively on literature review, it became necessary to return back to the extant literature on many occasions subsequently as issues repeatedly sprang up for which various aspects of previous work in the field was required to be consulted.
The process started with the identification of a number of innovative small food companies in Scotland. There were two separate sources of information on this; people working within Scottish Enterprise to promote innovation in the food and drinks sector and two of the supervisors of this research, Susan Laing and Aidan Craig who have a long and distinguished records of work with Scottish SMEs. From these two sources, names of companies, which were known to be innovation active were obtained, i.e. they had successfully created new food products in the recent past. As stated above, investigating a large number of companies within a limited time does not allow room for an in-depth investigation as well as creates a data overload, as stated above, following Eisenhardt's (1989) recommendation, the plan was to restrict the study to less than ten but more than four companies. As not all companies chosen to be investigated might have agreed to participate in the research, about twelve companies were short-listed in the hope that from these twelve it should be possible to secure permission from more than four. To choose twelve from the names suggested as being worthy of investigation products that they had recently developed were closely looked at. The organisations that have been coming out with new products on a regular basis were selected and the organisations that had developed products only sporadically were screened out. The rational for this approach was that companies that have been able to come out with new products constantly should have created enduring structures to sustain the process of innovation whereas those that developed new products only occasionally may have an element of chance in their innovation process which will then be difficult to capture and articulate through this research. The selection presented with a list of truly innovative organisations and the fact became increasingly clear as this investigation was started and continued.
This list of twelve companies was then forwarded to Professor Masson, the former director of this research with a request to send a letter (Appendix 12.2) in his name to the Managing Directors of each company explaining the nature of this inquiry and requesting for permission to interview the people who had a good understanding of the process of innovation in their enterprises. The logic of sending such a letter was that companies would respond more favourably to a request from a university professor than from a research student. This strategy worked as nine1 out of twelve companies approached agreed to let us interview the people directly involved in new product development, the key informants to the inquiry. Gummesson, (1991 in this context mentions that a researcher has to confront two types of people, ‘gatekeepers’ and ‘informants’, in order to gain access to the information essential for his / her research. Gatekeepers open the door and informants provide vital information. In this case, managing directors of the companies were the gatekeepers and people responsible for new product development were informants. Professor Masson’s high profile approach to the managing directors created access to both of them. Targeting ‘key’ informants sharpened the focus of the investigation by ‘not randomly sampling from the universe of characteristics under study’ but by ‘selectively sampling specialised knowledge’ (Tremblay, 1982).
As stated above, out of twelve short-listed companies, nine agreed to participate in interviews. It is not known why some companies did not agree to the request but it can be surmised that they were perhaps not convinced that they could gain something from the exercise. It may also be so that there are elements in their new product development process that they did not want to divulge. As the case study companies were willing to discuss every aspect of innovation in their organisations quite openly, it is difficult to understand a reason for that, if at all, this was the case. The fact that most of the companies approached, agreed for interviews, does give confidence to believe that this research presents a good snapshot of innovation in the case study companies at a point in time.
For the purpose of interviews, the Managing Directors deputed one or two people from their companies who were interviewed, over a six-month period. In most cases, interviewees were the owners/entrepreneurs themselves and in some, these were senior executives, but in either case, these were people directly involved with new product development in their organisations in leadership roles, the ‘key informants’, as pointed out above.
In one case, however, only a telephone interview was possible and though it did confirm most of the generalised findings generated by other case studies, the information that could be recorded was not in sufficient detail to be included in the final thesis.