Look Who's Talking!

posted 7 Nov 2012, 07:20 by Brian Pickering

One effective way of bringing stakeholders together was using a focus group methodology. As an approach, it has been used many times, especially in the social sciences, to explore ideas and their formation about topics ranging from proposed new brands (marketing) to personal and sexual health (in nursing and paramedical social care). As adopted by SESERV during the second year of the project to explore both economic issues around network services and resource provision as well as more generic societal and socio-economic concerns like user-centricity and the need to involve all stakeholders, the methodology as described in the literature suggested we needed to think carefully about the following issues: 

* the adaptability of the method (flexibility): could it be used for our purposes?

* venue: where should we host the groups?

* participants: who could we get to take part?

* dominant voice: would anyone try to take over and control the discussion?

* thematic focus/seeding: would it help to set the scene?

* recruitment: how would we get participants?

This post briefly summarises the way we implemented focus groups; all issues and considerations are discussed in detail in [D1.5]. Topic selection was reported in elsewhereOur experience can be summarised as follows:
  • Flexibility the overall methodology lends itself well to adaptation. It is based on a guided discussion amongst a number of participants with more or less control exerted by any facilitator. The WP2 (economic) focus groups involved more explicit stakeholder role-assignment and thematic seeding than those (societally focused) in WP3.
  • Venue we took advantage of other related events, organised by SESERV, the FIA or other external bodies. This provided access to potential participants who were by definition interested; and to a setting familiar to them (being part of the umbrella event). 
  • Participation as above, exploiting a related event meant that participants would more likely be knowledgeable and motivated in the area. After all, they had chosen to attend the umbrella event. 
  • Dominant voice this is a recognised issue in focus groups or indeed any group discussions. The facilitators in the SESERV focus groups were asked to look out for this, and take whatever action may be necessary to manage the problem. It turned out that this was not so much of an issue: perhaps because all participants were equally motivated and knowledgeable, as well as knowing each other in many cases professionally.
  • Thematic seeding/focusing again, delegates at the umbrella events would be expected to be knowledgeable and experienced in the areas under discussion. In each case, there was a formal (WP2 introduced sessions with a technical project presentation) and informal (WP3) scene-setting to help bound the discussion.
  • Recruitment within the constraints of other project and professional commitments, the channel for recruitment was obvious in connection with the umbrella event. A balance did need to be struck though: sometimes delegates were leaving straight after an event and could not spare the time; at other times, other ad hoc project meetings might interfere. WP2 did make an attempt to mitigate these factors to some degree by assigning stakeholder roles that the participants would recognise if not typically represent.

The overall experience with the methodology was very positive and allowed us to explore the issues highlighted in the first year, especially at Oxford, and move forward to make the recommendations we have in the various deliverables [D2.2D3.2]. By way of conclusion, SESERV was flexible in its approach to focus group methodology: we were dealing with motivated participants who had significant experience and interest in what we were discussing, but who were time- and resource-constrained; we chose to exploit associated events organised by FIA and the like, as well as the second workshop we organised, since this meant participants would be on site and more likely to attend. Nonetheless, recruitment proved the main challenge. Ultimately, this led to a one shot approach: whereas focus groups are often repeated with the same or different participants, reconvening with the same participants was avoided for pragmatic reasons. 

The focus groups turned out to be very successful though in moving the FISE Conversation forward.