Taking the Opportunity for Direct Observation during a business visit

Primary data sources such as Interviews are a useful method of gaining valuable data about a business, as are secondary sources of data such as company reports and statistics. When visiting a company there is also an opportunity to use your eyes and ears! Direct observation can yield very “live” and relevant data about a business, some of which may support or even contradict what is said by interviewees. Observation may also yield new insights not picked up in interview.

It is a part of empirical research.

An “Inductive” approach to observation will involve going in with a very open mind, and simply recording what you see and possible hear as well, for later analysis. A more “deductive” approach will involve looking for and listening for things you might predict will be there, supporting or denying hypotheses and pre-existing thoughts and ideas you may have about the business. “Look fors” and “Listen fors” can help you to be more structured about observation but may also narrow your field of view.

A lot of what we see in a business can reveal aspects of  “the way we do things around here” – the business culture. We can derive this cultural impression from the “artifacts” we observe – very much in the same way an archaeologist might observe and excavate a piece of land.

The writer, Edgar Schein talks about the “artifacts” of an organisation that can be compared to the stated beliefs and values of that organisation, often helping to uncover deep-rooted, more or less conscious assumptions about that organisation by the people who work there. Sometimes the artifacts we observe confirm the beliefs, sometimes they show a contradiction, which can tell us a lot about the organisation’s consistency in terms of its strategy and business processes.

So, for example, a business might claim to be a “team culture. What might you look for and listen for, to test out that claim in observation?

Here are a few suggestions…

Look for…

– the physical layout of the offices supporting team work

– the design of meeting rooms – are they designed to support collaborative meetings?

– posters that support the concept of team work

– the mood of the office or shop floor seems to be collaborative – people clearly in dialogue with each other

– places to socialise during breaks

– places for informal work communication

Listen for…

– examples of collaboration

– people talking about feeling part of a team

So, get a decent notebook (you might also take voice notes) as you observe) and ensure you make use of whatever observation opportunities are available during your visit to the business. Be sure to follow any rules of confidentiality and be sensitive to your visit hosts. It’s better to ask in advance, though no one can stop you simply using your eyes and your ears, even if you aren’t allowed to take photographs or use a video camera!

Whilst your observations are fresh in your mind, write your notes up as soon as you can after the visit and compare with observations with colleagues. You can then “triangulate” this data with any interview data or other forms of data collected. Does the observational data support or contradict data collected by other methods?

Useful External Resources and Links

A short article – how to collect primary data

A short guide – Ways to collect primary data in a business

Final tips

– Take good notes

– keep your eyes and ears open

– set some look fors and listen fors

– see the interview as a conversation

– decided who in the team will ask what

– prepare well: each person’s role should be clear

– have default questions – a backup list

– choose a team leader – a conductor, someone who introduces the process to the interviewee – they need to be clear what to expect

– break the ice – “what is your role, how long have you been here etc…”

– then ask “what” and “how” questions first, only later why and who

– mobile phones as recording devices can creation caution in the interviewee

– time manage the interview well – clear awareness of sticking to your plan

– just the right amount of eye contact – active listening is vital

– it’s all about the interviewee feeling comfortable

– end with a clear and confident thank you

– transcribe the notes – all members of the team

– then write up with a good summary

Key tasks:

– decide a leader/conductor

– key roles on the team

– key default questions going in

Key tasks

What do you want to find out?
Key topics/themes to focus on…
What specific questions will you ask?
What research can you do BEFORE the interview/visit?

Before you leave…
1. Meet as a group with clear plan in place
2. Have all your materials prepared and rehearsed (Your questions, your note books etc)
3. Be clear about roles – who is doing what
4. Ensure your plan is flexible and able to adapt quickly

Sample question based interview schedule

Date of visit:

Place of Visit:




Six key questions we want answered…

Question 1

Question 2

Question 3

Question 4

Question 5

Then add back up/reserve questions…

Date of visit:

Place of Visit:


Keep good, accurate notes