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The activities involved in this step tend to bring the researcher and the manager together because the manager needs the researcher to help in his decision making. Usually before the researcher undertakes this consultancy work, the manager has to state what he believes to be the main issue surrounding the problem. At this point, the researcher would make sure that the manager understands the actual problem. The researcher then helps the manager to look at the problem objectively, and justify whether it is really a problem or it is only a symptom to a problem. It is important for the manager and the researcher to agree on the problem to be researched so that the research processes would provide information which is relevant to the problem.

2.2 Steps required in determining the research problem

1. Understand the management's objectives or situations

The purpose of conducting research is to facilitate the management with relevant findings. The researcher should try to meet the objectives of the manager by clarifying what to achieve before the beginning of research. Both parties must have a clear agreement on the problems and the objectives of the research. This step provides the direction for a successful research project. For example, the demand for a product is decreasing. The problem is supported by the previous weekly and monthly sales figure. The management's objective is to decide whether to launch new product package into the market, to launch heavy sales promotion for the existing product, or to study the strength and weaknesses of competitors' product before making any decision. The research findings would indicate the appropriate decision that the management should undertake.

Identify the problem from the symptoms

The most important step in problem identification process is to understand the background of the problem. The failure to understand the actual problem will make research project begins without clear objectives and direction. Normally an exploratory study and informal interview with the expert in the field might help both the researcher and the management to identify the problem. The researcher should study the similar problem occurring in other organizations, trying to figure out the similarities with the problem at hand in terms of the variables involved. For example, the background of the problem is the stiff competition in terms of product pricing, product range, and product quality from foreign importers

The actual problem may be identified only after gathering the background information and conducting an exploratory study. For example, in measuring the customer satisfaction towards a certain supermarket, a manager may think many possible factors that influence customer satisfaction. Among them are the products, the services, the location, the price, etc. The most critical task of the researcher is to isolate and identify the most likely causes based on the symptoms of the problem. However, certain factor that appears to be a problem may be only symptoms of a deeper problem.

The iceberg principle serves as a useful analogy to describe the problem definition process, the symptoms of the problem, and the causes of the problem. This principle is like a sailor on the open sea who notices only the 10 percent of an iceberg that extends above the surface of the water, while the other 90 percent is lying below the surface. The dangerous part of the problem is the 90% portion of the iceberg below the surface, which is neither visible nor understood by managers.

For example, a marketing manager of a Swimming Club in town is concern about the possibility of losing customers. From his observation on the club's record, he found the number of membership has declined since a new water park was built in the town a few years ago. In this case, the declining in memberships is the symptom to a problem.

By looking at the symptom, he has an opinion that the customers might prefer the exclusive water park as compared to his traditional swimming pool. However, after an exploratory study using the focus group interview on customers, he found that the actual problem is the change in demographic variables, the change in lifestyles, and hence the change in the preference of customers. Children in this neighborhood have grown up and their preference has switched to the water park. So, there is no demand for traditional swimming pool from the generation of younger and outgoing lifestyles.

For example, decreasing sales volume is a problem to the company, and consumer dissatisfaction concerning the quality of products and services provided by the company is a symptom of the problem.

Identify research objectives

In doing the research project, the researcher has certain objectives to accomplish. In the process of achieving the objectives, the researcher normally discover some uncertainties regarding the variables, the factors influencing the variables, and the nature of relationship among variables in the study.

Determine the unit of analysis (UOA)

Defining the problem requires the researcher to determine the unit of analysis for the study. Determining the unit of analysis is the most important aspect in the problem definition and should not be overlooked during this stage of the research.

The researcher must justify clearly whether the research will collect data from individuals, households, organizations, departments, geographical areas, etc. The unit of analysis in any study must come from the group which relates directly to the problem to be researched. In the case of the swimming club, the unit of analysis must come from the existing customers of the club and also the potential customers from the people living within the geographical area where the club is located. In general, the unit of analysis must come from a population that the generalization will be made.

Determine the appropriate research variables

The research problem is normally associated with many factors, and those factors are basically represented by variables. A variable is anything that changes in value and represents a quantity that can differ in values, magnitude, or strength. In other words, the variable is generally anything that may assume different numerical values. Among the variables normally associated with marketing research are perceived quality of product or service, product image, product price, competitor's price, socio-economic status of respondent such as education, occupation, income, etc.

The Variables in Research:

Dependent variable is the variable of main interest in any study. Examples are the volume of transaction, the expected number of customers, the perceived quality of service, and the customer's loyalty intention towards the product or service. Some textbooks define dependent variables as the response variables.

Independent variable is the variable that causes the dependent variable to change in values. Examples are the interest rate, the selling price, the incentive provided, the amount of promotion, the quality of service provided, the monthly income of customers, and the number of potential customers in the target area. Some textbooks call independent variables as the predictor variables.

Mediating variable or sometimes called an intervening variable is the variable that mediates the relationship between the independent and dependent variable. For example, in the service quality - customer loyalty relationship, customer satisfaction is the one which stands between service quality and customer loyalty. In this case, the service provided by the company should be able to satisfy its customers, and these satisfied customers would, in turn, become loyal customers to the company.

Moderating variable is the variable that moderates the performance of a dependent variable. Examples are the gender, the socio-economic status, and the demographic variables. In the case of socio-economic status as a moderating variable and customer satisfaction as a dependent variable, the study is trying to ascertain whether the respondents from different socio-economic status perceived differently concerning their satisfaction towards the service provided by the same organization.

The Managers and researchers must be careful in selecting the appropriate variables when defining the managerial problem. The variables that are not directly related to the problem should not be included in the study. The process of identifying the relevant variables overlaps with the process of determining the research objectives. Typically, each research objective would directly reflect one or two variables that would be involved in the study.

State the research questions, and corresponding research hypotheses

Research questions express the research objectives in terms of questions that can be addressed by research. A good researcher manages to convert these uncertainties into research questions. The researcher can assume the research questions as the questions he anticipates would be raised by the audience of his research and must be clarified through this study.

2.3 Developing the schematic diagram for the study

This step will take place after the study identifies the appropriate variables either through purposeful interviews or through extensive literature search or both. The theoretical framework is a schematic diagram showing how the study believes the variables should relate among each other. From the schematic diagram, the study would debate the rationale why certain relationships between variables are believed to exist in reality. The nature and the direction of relationships among the variables are also discussed and the discussions are supported with findings from past research and also certain theoretical insights. From the theoretical framework, relevant hypotheses can be developed. The theoretical framework and hypotheses provide proper direction for the study to proceed till the end in term of the instrumentation to measure each variable, the methods of sampling and data collection, and the procedure for data analysis to use in order to test the stated hypotheses.

Example: The schematic diagram for the study:

1) Independent variable: Product, Price, Place and Promotion

2) Dependent Variable: Brand Loyalty

3) Mediating variable: Customer Satisfaction

4) Moderating variables: Income Characteristics

The schematic diagram relating the four variables in the study:









Independent variables

Mediating factor

Dependent variables



How the variables in the study relate to each other?

In the above diagram, the study believes that 4p's namely product, place, price and promotion provided by the particular organization are four independent variables. These four independent variables are believed to influence the mediating variable namely customer satisfaction. Finally, the study believes that the satisfied customers would become brand loyalty towards the organization in the future. In this case brand loyalty is the intended dependent variable.

(Remember: The relationship among variables in a study and any argument made regarding the relationship must be supported by the literatures in that particular field. That is why literature review is one of the important chapters in any research)

2.4 The Research objectives

Research objectives set a list of what the research is going to achieve. They provide evidence of the researcher's clear understanding about the purpose and direction of the proposed study. The research objectives should follow from the definition of the research problems. Formally stated research objectives provide the guidelines for determining which other steps must be undertaken. The assumption is that if the objectives are achieved, the decision maker will have the information needed to solve the problem. Overall, research objectives are the elements of what your research is trying to achieve. Most of the time the research objectives begin with the word "to"

Example 2.2: The objective of the study

Specifically the study is designed to achieve the following objectives:

To know the effects of certain demographic variables on service quality, corporate image, and students' satisfaction.

To identify the influence of service quality provided at the university on students' satisfaction with their learning experience

To know the influence of corporate image of the university on students' satisfaction with their learning experience

To examine the influence of service quality provided at the university on students' loyalty towards their university

To examine the influence of corporate image of the university on students' loyalty towards their university

To examine the influence of students' satisfaction with the service provided by the university on their loyalty towards that university in the future

2.5 The research questions

Research question is the list of questions the research is trying to answer. It is an ambiguity shrouded the underlying research problem. The researcher and the manager should identify the ambiguities so that the researcher can redefine the ambiguity in a specific question. In other words, research questions are the questions identified by the researcher so that his research project is directed specifically to clarify those questions. The research project is considered successful if the researcher manages to clear all ambiguities surrounding the problem. The researcher utilizes the words "why, what, where, when, who, and how" to develop the research question.

The importance of a research question

Research questions will help clear the confusion that normally arises in any research project. The importance of the research question lies in its roles that help the researcher in the following manner:

Provides a clear direction in organizing the research project.

Delimits the research project through showing its boundaries.

Keeps the research project in focus at all times.

Doing a research project requires a complicated process and it is not impossible for the researcher to slide along the way through the research project. In this case, the research questions provide great assistance for the researcher to bring the focus back on track. Specifically, the research question is important to:

Provide a framework to carry out research project properly

Determine the data required by the research to answer the question

Provide a basis for designing a questionnaire to collect data

Provide a basis for the methods to be applied in data analysis

Provide a direction in writing the findings to address the question

Example: The research questions

This study attempts to address the following research questions:

To what extent does the effect of certain demographic variables have on service quality, corporate image, and students' satisfaction?

To what extent does the service quality provided at the university influence students' satisfaction with their learning experience in the university?

To what extent does the corporate image of the university influence students' satisfaction with their learning experience in the university?

To what extent does the service quality at the university influence students' loyalty towards that university in the future?

To what extent does the corporate image of the university influence students' loyalty towards that university in the future?

How significant does the students' satisfactions with their learning experience at the university manage to influence their loyalty towards that particular university? Or in other words, the study is interested to answer questions like "Is there exists a significant relationship between students' satisfaction and their loyalty?"

2.6 The Research Hypothesis

Hypothesis is defined as an intelligent anticipation or prediction of a researcher concerning the research problem at hand or an unproven proposition or supposition that tentatively explains certain facts or phenomena. An intelligent researcher manages to come out with several hypotheses regarding the problem at hand. It shows that the researcher has a thorough knowledge regarding the phenomena that he can predict the outcome of the study especially how independent variables affect the dependent variables. A hypothesis normally flows from the research questions. A good hypothesis provides a transition from an interrogative statement into a declarative statement. Types of hypothesis:

Null hypothesis (Ho) is a status quo regarding the phenomena. The null hypothesis serves as a starting point for observing the effect of the independent variable on the dependent variable. It also serves as a benchmark for the comparison between the "effects by chance" versus the "real effect".

The statement of status quo should read as follows:

Ho: There is no difference in the academic performance among students due to the differences in study methods applied.

Ho: There is no relationship between gender and academic excellence of students in higher educational institutions.

Ho: There is no significant increase in the price of consumer items in the market due to the increase in the cost of petrol

Alternative hypothesis (Hi) or sometimes called the research hypothesis is a declarative statement made by the researcher regarding the relationship between variables involved. The researcher makes this intellectual proposition after some extensive reading of the literatures. Thus, in the study, the research would support his proposition with the proper methodology and data analysis.

Example: The research hypotheses

H1: There is a difference in academic performance among students due to the differences in study methods applied.

H1: There is a relationship between gender and academic excellence of students in higher educational institutions.

H1: There is a significant increase in the price of consumer items in the market due to the increase in the cost of petrol


Suppose that you are doing a study to investigate the influence of gender on the performance of Mathematics among students in UiTM.

For the above study you are required to develop one research question and its corresponding hypothesis:


First of all, we need to determine the variables of main interest in the study. In this case, we found that the variable of interest is the exam score in Mathematics subject in UiTM. Another variable involved is gender. This study is trying to investigate whether students of different gender performed differently in Mathematics. Thus, the dependent variable is the test scores for Mathematics and the independent variable is gender (male and female). Now we can formulate the research question and its corresponding hypothesis.

The research question:

To what extent does the gender difference among students affect their performance in Mathematics subject?

The research hypothesis:

1. Null hypothesis

Ho: There is no significant difference in Mathematic performance between male and female students in UiTM.

2. Alternative hypothesis

H1: There is a significant difference in Mathematic performance between gender (male and female students) in UiTM.

The researcher may relate one or more independent variables to the dependent variable.


The management of UiTM is wondering why there are many students who refuse to consume the food provided at dining halls at the residential college. Every day, a large amount of food is not taken and wasted. The government is paying the contractor at least RM 5.50 per head for the food and this has resulted in a waste of millions of ringgit every year. Instead of eating the food provided at the dining halls, the students are buying their food at the cafeteria or from the stalls nearby. The management of UiTM wants you to study this matter. The findings of your research should determine the main factors that contribute to the above problem so that appropriate actions can be taken to rectify the situation. At the same time you should provide some recommendations based on your findings to the management of UiTM so that the existing problem can be rectified.

What is your research question?


First of all you need to determine the variables involved in the study. The dependent variable is the students' preference of eating at dining hall.

The independent variables are the quality of food served, the quality of service provided, the cleanliness of dining halls, etc.

The research questions

Does the quality of food provided at the dining hall have an influence on the students' preferences of eating at the dining hall?

To what extent does the influence of service quality provided by the caterer on students' preference of eating at dining halls?

b) What is your hypothesis?

Solution: The hypothesis should relate closely to the research question

The hypothesis for research question 1

1. Null Hypothesis

Ho: There is no significant relationship between quality of food provided and students' preferences of eating at dining halls.

2. Alternative Hypothesis

H1: There is a significant relationship between the quality of food provided and students' preferences of eating at dining halls.

The hypothesis for research question 2

1. Null Hypothesis

Ho: There is no significant relationship between the quality of service provided and students' preferences of eating at dining halls.

2. Alternative Hypothesis

H1: There is a significant relationship between the quality of service provided and students' preferences of eating at dining halls.



1. When a researcher defines and develops a decision statement and the steps involved in translating it into more precise research terminology, he or she is involved in what process?


hypotheses development


research planning


research process


problem definition

2. Which of the following make defining problems more difficult?


situation is recurring or routine


a dramatic change occurs


symptoms are scattered


symptoms are consistent

3. All of the following are gaps that represent problems EXCEPT:


actual business performance is less than possible business performance


actual business performance is greater than expected business performance


actual business performance is worse than expected business performance


expected business performance is greater than possible business performance

4. Which of the following is the FIRST step of the problem definition process?


determine the unit of analysis


identify the problem


identify key symptoms in the situation


determine the relevant variables

5. Which of the following is the LAST step of the problem definition process?


state the hypotheses and the research questions


determine the relevant variables


determine the unit of analysis


understand the background of the problem

6. All of the following are steps in the problem-definition process EXCEPT:


identify key problem(s) from symptoms


determine the unit of analysis


develop dummy tables


determine relevant variables

7. All of the following are helpful hints that can be useful in the interview process when attempting to understand the situation EXCEPT:


develop hypotheses before conducting interviews


develop many alternative decisions and problems


think about possible solutions to the problem


be open-minded

8. Which of the following essentially answers the question, "What information is needed to address this situation?"


dependent variable


independent variable


research objectives


research design

9. When a researcher determines what or who should provide the data and at what level of aggregation, he or she is determining the:




research questions


analysis technique


unit of analysis

2. a) State the definition of the following:

i) Dependent variables

ii) Independent variables

iii) Research objectives

iv) Hypothesis (10m)

How could the iceberg explain the nature of the research problem? (5m)

A company director is concerned about the low productivity of his employees. The literature on job performance mentioned four variables having significant effect on job performance. The variables are the amount of training provided, the remuneration, the motivation, and the job satisfaction. In several of the articles, it was indicated that only if remuneration were attractive to the employees, then their job performance would increase.

For the above situation:

Identify the population of the study (1m)

Develop the research objectives for this study. (2m)

Identify the dependent and independent variables for this study. (5m)

Develop three possible research hypotheses. (3m)

Develop the study work schedule by using the Gantt Chart diagram (4m)

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