Research questions and methodological choices in environmental management research

Some few years later, in our research group, we started to undertake environmental management research. JFMA examined the relationship between environmental management and strategic management, describing how environmental issues can be included in the strategic management process and how environmental management influences firm competitiveness.

Later, two doctoral dissertations (from 2001 to 2005 by MDLG and JPM) addressed this fast-developing field of environmental management. While the doctoral dissertation by MDLG focused exclusively on environmental management in different industries, JPM’s dissertation addressed key issues that determined competitiveness in the hotel industry. Not only did this include an examination of environmental management practices but also other important factors such as quality management and human resource management. The methods used in these two dissertations differed and it is, therefore, interesting to examine our choices regarding research questions and methods.

The research methods we know may determine the research questions we ask

JPM conducted his doctoral dissertation studying key determinants of competitiveness in the hotel industry. The plan was to carry out a quantitative study to examine the influence of key antecedents of competitive advantage in this industry. As in the case of the PhD research on the construction industry, however, he realised that first he needed to identify these key determinants. The best approach, therefore, was to conduct a first qualitative phase based on data collected from interviews with managers and other important stakeholders in the hotel industry. These interviews also helped to increase knowledge of the industry context and to develop theory and hypotheses that was then tested in the second quantitative phase.

A key point that we would like to emphasise is the relationship between research questions and methods. The traditional view is that the research question determines the specific methods (Tashakkori and Teddlie, 1998). Then, scholars are expected to select the best tools available in their methodological toolbox to answer the stated questions. We tend to believe, however, that there is a reciprocal relationship between questions and methods. So, while the research questions indeed influence the methods we use, the methods we master may also influence the research questions we ask (Mertens et al., 2016).

This idea was pretty clear when we began to explore environmental management problems. In the research about strategy in the construction industry, a predetermined statistical analysis was planned. This first quantitative part utilised a cluster analysis to determine the strategic groups (groups of firms with similar competitive strategies) proceeded by an ANOVA analysis to examine whether there are differences in performance among these competitive groups. As we mastered these statistical techniques, we then asked: Are there differences in performance between hotels with different levels of environmental proactivity? This research question was determined because we again wanted to use cluster analysis (to identify environmental groups of companies with similar levels of environmental proactivity) and ANOVA (allowing for analysing whether there are performance differences between these environmental groups). From a methodological point of view, therefore, an important realisation that happened when we conducted our research on environmental management is that the methods we knew, and applied, in competitive strategy and strategic groups tended to determine the research questions we ended up asking in relation to environmental management.

The point here is that scholars are at risk of (implicitly) sticking with and relying on the methods they initially learned and actually used during their doctoral programmes and/or previous training. When researchers develop expertise in using some methods where they feel comfortable, it is hard to break from that (Mertens et al., 2016), which also seemed to be the case in our research group. If methods influence the research questions, then an important consequence is that, by extending our methodological skills, it is possible to improve (broaden/widen) the question-asking process. A key learning, therefore, is that by extending and sharpening our methodological skills, we can increase the rigour of our conceptual thinking, see new ways to answer research questions, and even identify questions that would not have occurred to us otherwise (Edwards, 2008).

In this regard, exposure to and experience with mixed methods can indeed play a key role. As indicated by Mertens et al. (2016, p. 7), ‘because mixed methods research combines and integrates quantitative and qualitative methods, the researcher is motivated to develop a broader set of research skills. Training in mixed methods can overcome the tendency to rely on known methods and play an important role in widening and extending our repertoire of methods if the training emphasises the importance of combining, comparing, and mixing different methodologies.' This aspect of widening our toolkit of methods has been a key idea for us not only for trying to provide well-focused answers to research questions but also for identifying interesting and relevant research questions.

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