by Terry Linhart

If ever a week defined what makes Arbor Research Group such a wonderful group to lead, and unique among research companies, it’s been this one. When tragedy struck the community of one of our consultants, he returned from O’hare to lead and coordinate the next steps of recovery. Without hesitation, one of our other consultants got in her car and made the long drive so that our client would continue to be served. And the two-day visit (of focus groups, interviews, and more) went very well. It’s that “on-site” thoroughness that is an important element to our distinctiveness. And this week, Arbor consultants have been on-site all over the world.

The Arbor Distinctives

Many research companies do their “study” from a distance. showing up on-site for a day or two only rather than immersing themselves in the context under study. Arbor consultants strap on backpacks and travel where necessary (even across the world) to dig out the data in person and that makes a difference for our clients’ confidence in the end. As trained qualitative researchers, the time in the field is important to build the trust necessary for data collection. It’s this personal approach that creates trusting relationships and leads to ongoing projects after.

We have four clients this summer, our second official year as a company (though some of us have been doing this work for over 20 years now), and this week has seen our consultants at work on all four projects. I’m writing from Manila where I am up very early (the city roosters are already crowing loudly) and preparing to hear the stories of 22 American college students after they spent five weeks working with and living among the poor here. Jen has just returned from Kenya where she did the same a few weeks ago.

Since Arbor’s specialty is qualitative research (focus groups, observations, and interviews), this “immersion” approach to research is data-saturated and I’m excited to hand this report to our client in a few weeks. There’s no better way to discover data than to sit at a streetside lunch shack with these students as they share, cry, and laugh about their experiences.

While I’m here in the Philippines, Ebonie is in Los Angeles interviewing a similar team who have been actively at work in a community there for the last four weeks. She, like me, spent time with the college students during their orientation and is wrapping up the project using a structured series of focus groups for data collection.

Even though widely-used, focus groups are rich opportunities that go underutilized by other consultants. What they don’t realize is that focus group methodology has inherent problems if you don’t account for them. Too many consultants think they’re a bit automatic as data-generators. You don’t just get folks together and they’ll share their best insights. In fact, what may be said in a focus group doesn’t truly represent the collective experiences of all present. Many consultants miss the best data in a focus group because they are only interested in the first few answers or the ones they hear most. Those data may just be simply the loudest.

In seminars or conferences where I’m speaking with people from other consulting agencies, it’s the talk on focus groups that always gets the highest responses.Arbor staff spend considerable time designing focus groups to gain the best data. Arbor Research Group spends considerable time designing focus groups to gain the best data that may be missed. Using a variety of proven methods helps to get beyond the basic to something more representative and reflective of what is happening. Well-designed focus groups honor everyone’s time and alleviate frustration.

While Ebonie was in LA, Jon and Jason set out for another city where a faith-based non-profit is trying to figure out how to create a first-class work culture with particular appeal to millennials. The NGO hired Arbor consultants to conduct various interviews and provide an objective set of recommendations. Jon and Jason bring decades of organizational leadership to a project that, combined with their doctorate-level expertise, gives clients a lot of confidence that they’re being well-served by a 3rd-party consulting firm.

We work with our clients to shape the process along the way so that there is a higher chance of implementing the findings. The best experts in any context are usually the people in the context.I serve on many boards in my community and I’ve personally seen too many reports by outside agencies end up on a coat rack in the hallway after my organization spent tens of thousands of dollars. Arbor Research Group makes sure, from day one, to work with our clients to create a final product that is used rather than hidden away because it doesn’t provide a viable solution.

But, back to this week. While four of us are in the field, Brent, Scott, Donna, Karli, and Melisa are spending time working on the background research for our next client. Before we perform any on-site research or online survey, we explore the literature and previous research that has been done already to make sure we’re as well-versed as possible. Jen is beginning the final write-up for this year’s biggest client and she and I will meet with them later in September for a 2-day “data summit.’ This event is a feature we offer all clients where we work with them to walk through the findings and develop a strategy for their further presentation and implementation within their organization.

Maybe the most distinguishing hallmark quality of our team is its ruthless commitment to discovering quality data. We do this by triangulating the data so that anything we report has been validated across three methods, researchers, or theories. It’s our “GPS validation” of the data. More than just a survey with percentages as the findings, we show the connections and (if possible) the causations for various what is taking place.

What’s Ahead

Wow, when I think of all that is going on this week and the way our team has supported each another in the middle of a busy week, I think that this is what makes Arbor Research Group unique among other agencies. It’s no wonder that I’m a proud founder/owner this summer and am looking forward to what’s ahead for 2018.

As a boutique agency, we only serve five clients a year with customized and attentive research. With our extensive background in qualitative methods, we design and lead research projects that answer difficult questions that plaque larger social work contexts.We have space open for 2018. If your organization or company has a situation where an outside agency can help you work through a problem, answer a question, or dream about the future, I would love to talk with about how we can serve you next year and beyond. Feel free to contact me and I’ll set up a phone call to talk more about your needs and dreams.

Photo by Romain Vignes on Unsplash