Monday, 28 June 2010

Design Research Issues

There seems to be a tendency among academics to find many different ways of looking at research and thus create numerous categories and approaches to describing their research activities. At the European Conference on Research Methodology for Business and Management Studies at the IE Business School in Madrid last week a distinguished panel of academics discussed the importance of design research (DR) or design science research (DSR). All four speakers argued for the importance of design and it is not easy to disagree with such a proposition. But it was possible to interpret what they said in different ways as the term design can play more than one role in the way we describe research.

There seem to be at least 3 ways design becomes a research issue.

The first is that any research programme which is intended to lead to a degree or a publication needs to be planned and the options adopted in the plan may be referred to as the research design. If a research programme is undertaken without a carefully conceived research design then its success will be a question of serendipity – and sometimes some people are lucky. The meaning of the word design in this context is not problematic.

The second way in which design needs to be considered is described by Peffers et al. (2004) when they argue for the needs for a design science research methodology (DSRM) which they describe as an important “discipline oriented to the creation of successful artifacts (sic).” It is not difficult to see that research aimed at the creation of successful artefacts offers a different set of challenges to what researchers normally face in business and management studies. Hevner (2004) supports the view that design science research is different to information systems research and they call for collaboration between the two approaches.

This seems to be a reasonable use of the word design and it is worth noting that in certain cases the results of this type of research may not lead to a completed artefact but perhaps only to a detailed blueprint for its development. Again there is not cause for confusion here.

The third way the word design is used has roots in the work of Simon (1969) who wrote about the study of natural systems and the study of artificial ones. According to van Aken (2005) and based on the Simon distinction, there are two domains of study which are the explanatory sciences and the design sciences. Explanatory sciences include physics, biology, economics and sociology. Examples of design sciences are engineering and medicine. van Aken argues that there are differences in the core missions of these two groups of knowledge. van Aken argues that “The core mission of an explanatory science is to develop valid knowledge to understand the natural or social world, or – more specifically – to describe, explain and possibly predict. The core mission of a design science, on the other hand, is to develop knowledge that can be used by professionals in the field in question to design solutions to their field problems”.

This distinction is problematic.

I am not sure how useful this distinction between explanatory science and design science really is. Anything which bears the name science should be explanatory and therefore the expression explanatory science does not add any value. The term design science does not do much for us either mostly because the word design can be used in multiple ways as described above.

van Aken (2005) does not like the terms basic and applied sciences and I would agree that there is no room for these words, basic and applied, in the field of business and management studies. Business and management studies is primarily problem solving orientated. But there is more to this issue than just the objective of the paper. Academic research in business and management studies sometimes, if not often, written up in such a way as to be inaccessible to practitioners.

But this is not the main issue. Academic research for the purposes of degrees and/or publishing in peer reviewed journals need to make a contribution to the field of study. Some academics have trouble in defining what this means but it is relatively easily understood when it is pointed out that such research has to add something of value to the body of theoretical knowledge. In addition this research has to be conducted in a scholarly fashion which takes cognisance of what the academic community already knows about this topic. The results of this research will “describe, explain and possibly predict” as van Aken (2005) claims for explanatory research.

For many years this was all that was required of quality academic research. However in the past 10 to 15 years a new dimension has been introduced and that relates to the application of this new knowledge of management and/or business practice (Starkey 2001). To be assured of success in a degree or to have a paper published today the research ideally needs to point out how the addition to the body of theoretical knowledge can be used to solve practical problems. This does not in any way reduce the status of the research. It is not appropriate to regard this type of work as mere consulting because of its practical dimension. When developed in this way these research results “can be used by professionals in the field in question to design solutions to their field problems”. In fact the findings of the research orientated in this way will directly offer a solution to such problems. Of course not every academic in every university will agree with the need for the translation of the new theoretical contribution into practical guidelines for management but there is increasing support for this approach.

It therefore seems to me that the distinction between explanatory and design research is not of much value to researchers in business sand management studies. In fact new research distinctions, processes and methods should be named and recommended with care as they have the potential to complicate and confuse some researchers.

Any comments on the above will be gratefully received.


Hevner A S March J Park S Ram, March 2004, Design science in IS Research, MIS Quarterly Vol. 28 No. 1, pp. 75-105

Peffers K T Tuunanen M Rothenberger and S Chatterjee, Winter 2007–8, A Design Science Research Methodology for Information Systems Research, Journal of Management Information Systems, Vol. 24, No. 3, pp. 45–77.

Simon, H. A. (1969), The Sciences of the Artificial, MIT Press, Cambridge MA.

Starkey K, (2001), In defence of Modes One, Two and Three: A Response, British Journal of Management, Vol 12, Special Issue, S77-S80

van Aken Joan, (2005),Management Research as a Design Science: Articulating the Research Products of Mode 2 Knowledge Production in Management, British Journal of Management, Vol. 16, 19–36 (2005)