Relationships and communication in family firms

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In this chapter of the thesis, the reader is introduced to the methodology of this thesis, how we chose to design our research and our research strategy. Following, the reason for our chosen method of data collection is explained. Subsequently, the data collection process is presented, as well as, how the data is analysed. Lastly, we present the research quality of the thesis and the analytical generalisations.

 Research philosophy

Research philosophy can be divided into two main terminologies, ontology and epistemology (Carson, Gilmore, Perry, & Gronhaug, 2001). Essentially, ontology focuses on reality and epistemology concerns the relation between reality and the researcher (Carson et al., 2001). From an ontological perspective, reality can either be seen from the perspective of the objectivist, or from the subjectivist (Carson et al., 2001). Furthermore, epistemology concerns what constitutes as acceptable knowledge to a researcher (Saunders, Lewis, & Thornhill, 2009) and can be described as the relationship between us as researchers and reality (Carson et al., 2001).
Dependent on the nature of the study, the research philosophy can mainly be argued as either positivist or interpretivist. In our study on communication and information-sharing within family firms we adapt to an interpretivist research philosophy. The selection of the interpretivism stance is appropriate to our case, because it enables us to develop our research strategy and methods based on the belief that people have subjective perception of things. We see reality from a subjectivist perspective as we believe that reality is subjective and is different dependent on us as individuals. We also believe that we as researchers continuously affect reality since we socially interact with the environment, rather than that reality exists independently, i.e. as the objectivist perspective concludes (Carson et al., 2001). In our case, from an epistemological perspective, we emphasise on the importance of the subjective meanings in the cases, which an interpretivist stance promotes. As Saunders et al. (2009) endorse that “interpretivism advocates that it is necessary for the researcher to understand differences between humans in our role as social actors” (p. 116). Furthermore, the interpretivism stance allows us to experience how the actors within family firms subjectively perceive the ongoing situations, rather than to see the nature of reality in family businesses as independent from social actors, which individuals within the objectivistic stance of positivism view reality (Carson et al., 2001).
In order to be able to conduct an appropriate research with the selection of relevant research strategy and method, it was needed to perceive the nature of the topic correctly (Bryman & Bell, 2011; Saunders et al., 2009). As the main purpose of our research concerns investigation of communication and information-sharing between people within businesses, it is appropriate to consider that there are differences in the individual perceptions of the ongoing behaviours within the firms. As Bryman & Bell (2011) emphasise, interpretivism concerns the importance of individual differences between people and their perceptions. In our thesis we followed the viewpoint of the interpretivist philosophy which is that there are multiple socially constructed realities where humans interpret the roles of individuals in order to make sense of them (Saunders et al., 2009). Therefore, we found it important to analyse the data with the consideration that the experiences which the respondents formulated to us during the interviews were based on their own subjective perception. That is why we also tried to put ourselves in the position of our respondents.
Moreover, by having multiple sources of data in the specific cases, sometimes we received different perceptions of the same situations, which enabled us to get an overall picture of the ongoing phenomenon in the companies. It was helpful for our research to adapt interpretivist philosophy, since the opinions could considerably differ between individuals. Furthermore, since we were interested in investigating humans and their perception of communication, it was central for us to consider specifically, what people perceive as being important in communication. We found it critical for us to put emphasis on looking at data from different perspectives throughout the data collecting process, in order for us to meet our purpose. Furthermore, from an axiological perspective, we also considered ourselves as an affecting part of the matter being researched due to our participation in the process of data collection (Saunders et al., 2009).

Research design

Since the purpose of this thesis is to investigate information-sharing and communication between individuals in family firms, this study focused on collecting qualitative data. In order to get the appropriate data to answer our research questions, in particular, expressing the relations between humans, qualitative data in form of words instead of numbers were collected (Blumberg, 2011). The main focus of qualitative studies is to penetrate a topic in order to get answers to how, what, why, how come, how so, what if types of questions. A qualitative research method is favoured when studies of objects in normal context is pursued and when intention is to investigate a phenomenon in terms of developing a new meaning (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). On the contrary, quantitative studies focus on explaining how much different variables are affecting each other within a topic (Blumberg, 2011). Since we collected data in order to fulfil the purpose of our research, which concerns communication between individuals in firms, we found it important to catch personal experiences and individual stories, which are only obtainable qualitatively.

Research approach

There are different approaches a researcher can pursue when conducting research. Although, mainly two approaches are distinguished: inductive and deductive (Saunders et al., 2009). The inductive and deductive approaches are distinguished by the method the researcher contemplates to make research (Saunders et al., 2009). Inductive studies are signified by gaining a close understanding of a research context, as well as, by grasping the meanings, which humans attach to events (Saunders et al., 2009). Additionally, inductive research approach is greatly signified by forming a theory rather than testing it (Bryman & Bell, 2011). On the other hand, deductive reasoning concerns testing a developed hypothesis which is based on existing theory within a certain area (Bryman & Bell, 2011). Moreover, a deductive research approach is generally preferred when quantitative research is pursued (Saunders et al., 2009).
Through the careful evaluation of research approaches and the discussion about which approach would be the most favourable to pursue, the decision was settled on a combination of the aforementioned approaches – on abductive research approach. We decided that abductive approach is the most appropriate one for our thesis, because we wanted to move back and forth between the literature and the empirical data in order to fulfil our purpose. Van Maanen, Sørensen, & Mitchell (2007) promote the use of the abductive research approach by stating that the research process is a continuous balancing between theory and practice. According to Van Maanen et al. (2007) while pursuing the abductive approach, data is collected to explore a phenomenon and to explain certain patterns and themes. Dubois & Gadde (2002) argue for the use of abductive approach by stressing the importance of iterations in the research process, by stating that “the theory cannot be understood without empirical observation and vice versa” (p. 555).
Throughout the study we were moving between theoretical reviewing and data collection. In order to obtain a grasp of the research area for our thesis, our initial process was to review the literature in the area of governance and communication in family businesses. This formed an early picture of the research area, and we understood what was worthwhile of investigating. From the deductively compiled theories we structured interview questions to collect empirical data. After the collection of empirical data, we recurrently came back to literature in order to make sense of the data. Also we adjusted and added theories to the literature review in order to get additional insights. Additionally, we used the theories for the analysis and interpretation of our empirical data. So the described research process was of abductive nature and was the most suitable in accordance with our purpose and research questions.

Research purpose

Our research was carried out with an exploratory nature. An exploratory study is preferred in order to get new insights within the field, where the nature of the problem is not completely certain (Saunders et al., 2009). Furthermore, exploratory research also concerns putting focus on the processes in specific situations in order to get insights of an occurring problem (Robson, 2002). The purpose of this thesis is to investigate communication in family firms. As the phenomenon of information-sharing between family members and non-family members within family firms is a topic not widely researched, we came to conclusion that an exploratory study is preferable for this thesis. Furthermore, since there are general theories concerning the interrelation between entities in family firms, our work sought to assess the phenomenon in a new light. One of the main characteristics of explorative research is that the process is significantly flexible, allowing the researcher to change focus within the progression of the study (Robson, 2002; Saunders et al., 2009). In our thesis project, the ongoing research process has been signified by flexibility based on the new insights, which we continuously received. Throughout our research process we modified our interview questions, based on the responses, which we received initially, in order to get more accurate and beneficial replies.
The reason for pursuing an explorative research rather than descriptive or explanatory studies in our thesis is twofold. Firstly, descriptive studies have a clear focus of portraying accurate profiles of events where extensive knowledge of the situation is needed (Robson, 2002). In our case, we sought to receive new insights within a field where theory has not been yet established in order to fully enable us to portray accurate profiles. Secondly, studies with an explanatory purpose are rather quantitatively focused, and the research usually concentrates on establishing the relationships between variables (Saunders et al., 2009). In our interviews we received opinions from the respondents concerning how they experienced certain areas in the firm communication. We also received explanations on their experienced emotions and feelings in some incidents they experienced. For example, they explained that in some scenarios they felt overseen by some people and they explained how that effected them and their work. As we decided to use emotions, opinions and experiences as data and to collect qualitative data foremost through words rather than in numeric form, an explanatory purpose is not applicable for our thesis.

Research method

Method – multiple case study

When making research, specific importance is directed to the methods that are used to collect data. The data collection strategy can involve several different approaches and techniques based on what kind of data is preferred (Saunders et al., 2009). In this research we had an exploratory purpose and we pursued to collect qualitative data, using an abductive approach. In order to collect accurate data, we decided to apply qualitative data collection method. Also, to receive a solid set of data, we used a multiple data collection method. Woodside and Wilson (2003) promotes that using multiple sets of data collection is a part of triangulation and it adds strength to a study. As well as Patton (2002) concurs that multiple data increases the strength of a research.
In order to obtain adequate data and to fulfil the purpose both primary and secondary data were collected. Primary data is data, which the researcher collects to answer the specific research question of the study, while secondary data is a material collected for another purpose, but which still is useful within the research (Hox & Boeije, 2005). In our research primary data was collected through semi-structured interviews with individuals in family businesses and through vignettes presented at the interviews. In our study secondary data consisted of firm-specific information and written documents about the cases.
Our data collection strategy involved the development of case studies. A case study is according to Robson (2002, p. 178)
“a well-established research strategy where the focus is on a case (which is interpreted very widely to include the study of an individual person, a group, a setting, an organization etc.) in its own right, and taking its contrext [Sic] into account.”
Furthermore, a case study is foremost signified by the usage of multiple sources of data collection in order to investigate a certain phenomenon within real life context (Robson, 2002). In this research, we use a multiple case study strategy (Yin, 2009) and this method is appropriate due to multiple reasons. Firstly, as our research questions emphasise on studying how information within firms is shared, there is a need of thorough investigation within family firms. Furthermore, as the topic concerns the specific nature of family firms and underlines the additional complexity within them, there is great importance of performing case studies to obtain the potential impact of contextual factors (Yin, 2009).

Semi-structured interviews

There are different ways of conducting case studies (Robson, 2002). However, in this thesis we decided that primary data should be collected through semi-structured interviews, which are conducted with key individuals within family firms. Our data collection strategy concerned having multiple cases, where key individuals were interviewed. The interviewees were selected based on their relation to the firm and were divided into two categories: family members and non-family members in managerial positions in the company. We built the cases on interviews with respondents from both categories within different family firms in order to obtain data concerning the relation between the parties.
Our choice of semi-structured interviews is originated in our interest in uncovering the specific viewpoints of the interviewees concerning communication in firms. Furthermore, Flick (2014) promotes that with guided interviews a researcher is able to recognise subjective perspectives of the respondents, which in our study is in line with our interpretivism research philosophy. The interview guide was structured to have a certain amount of open questions, which guided the interviewees loosely to the topic of communication in family firms and information-sharing between family and non-family managers in the firms. The answers to the open questions often led us to follow-up questions in certain areas of interest. At the same time, the guideline enabled us to keep focus to the core questions of interest and not to lose track of important question, which could provide us with data and could make the interviews comparable.
Additionally, we chose semi-structured interviews for our research, because we believed that it is an effective method to investigate a sensitive research topic. Since we anticipated that it might be emotionally hard for our interviewees to talk about problems in communication and information-sharing, we wanted to experience the interviews as resembling natural conversations and to be able to penetrate insights from the interviewees.
We developed two different interview guides (see Appendix). One interview guide addressed family members, working in the company, and second guide addressed non-family managers. As we aimed to penetrate the subjective experiences of people, it was needed to develop different questions to family managers and non-family managers in order to receive the highest amount of appropriate data. Our intention with the separate interview guides was to examine whether family and non-family managers experience situations in firms differently. However, we also wanted to get in-depth knowledge about how individuals perceive the importance of communication in family firms.
The first part of the interview guide was developed to get to know the interviewees. The starting questions were similar in both of the interview guides due to the need of information about a person’s history, role and connection towards other individuals in the firm. The questions were designed to invite the interviewees to open up, to feel more comfortable and to allow us to get to know the specific individual. Also, in order for us to understand the structure in the business, as well as, the composition of the managing family, we asked the first family interviewee at each case to describe how the business is structured and what people are involved in it. By understanding the involvement structure in the businesses we were able to follow up with more specific questions.
The core part of the interview guide concerned communication, information -sharing and the relationship between family and non-family members in the specific businesses. The non-family managers were initially asked how they would describe the relationship between them and the family members, and how important decisions are made in the firms. These questions were asked to get the respondents’ perceived connection to the family members which could open up for follow-up questions on why they experienced their relationship in a certain way. To guide the non-family managers towards the topic of communication problems we asked the questions e.g. whether they ever experienced situations where they lacked information, whether they ever felt excluded from information, and whether they felt their opinion was not valued etc.
The interview guideline to family members differed slightly in coherence to the one developed for non-family counterparts. In order to attain the highest amount of data it was needed to adapt the questions specifically to the viewpoint of the owner and the founder (or second generation of owners). We asked family managers specific questions on how they experienced communication and information-sharing in the firm and to what extent they have possibility to influence the situations. We asked whether they see any difference between family and non-family individuals in the firm, whether they experienced a situation when information was not shared with them by non-family managers, and whether they believe communication can be improved in the firm.


After our semi-structured interviews we presented three scenarios for the interviewees, so called vignettes, as a complementary technique to obtain further data. Vignettes is a technique often used by researchers to investigate diverse social issues (Barter & Renold, 2000). Vignettes are the creation of hypothetical scenarios of potential real life situations in a certain context, used to make interviewees open up and respond to them in order obtain untapped data (Wilks, 2004). Vignettes are specifically effective when it comes to giving interviewees opportunities to react and give their opinion on scenarios that are not directly related to them, but still related to the topic of the researcher (Wilks, 2004). In our cases the usage of vignettes was highly useful and effective. We used the technique to enable the respondents to firstly react and to share their reactions concerning a certain scenario and thereafter reminisce if they experienced similar scenarios in the firms. We chose to use vignettes due to the sensitive nature of our research topic. As the topic concerns experienced problems regarding communication between family and non-family members in family firms, we assumed that it might be difficult for some interviewees to talk openly and honestly about their experiences. Therefore, the vignettes are used to desensitize the topic to the respondents and create possibility for reaction (Hughes & Huby, 2002).
In this research we used three fictional scenarios regarding different communication, information-sharing and decision-making problems in family firms. The respondents were handed the scenarios in written form, and it was possible to have them either in English or Swedish languages. We made the choice of giving the interviewees the scenarios in written form due to that it might enhance the quality of data (Wilson & While, 1998) and it is often provided in this way in qualitative studies (Wilks, 2004). Furthermore, we chose to provide the respondents with the possibility to have the vignettes in their native language, due to that it could possibly enhance the level and quality of data received. However, only two persons chose to have the vignettes in Swedish, and only with one of those persons we conducted the further analysis in Swedish. When we conducted the telephone or skype interviews we chose to firstly articulately read the vignettes to the respondents, but implied that the vignettes could be sent during the second part of the interview via email for the respondents to read. One respondent chose to have it in written form and we sent the vignettes in real time to avoid a biased answer by allowing the person to read and analyse them on beforehand. The content of the scenarios in the vignettes was created by us, but derived out of our data and our readings of literature. We used our creativity to narrate realistic scenes and scenarios within family firms when dealing with our chosen topic. By doing this we tried to re-create some typical behaviours that might happen in family firms. Even though after couple of interviews we realized that situations in our scenarios are a bit extreme, we decided not to change them in order to keep consistency of our research method.
The first vignette concerns family and non-family relationships and being not transparent about sharing important information in family firms. In this scenario we wanted to make an impression that non-family manager was responsible for lack of information-sharing.
Markus is a non-family sales manager in a family-owned company. He knows that in this quarter the business is not going very well, sales are dropping, and some customers are thinking about to switch to another supplier. Markus does not share this information about the current bad situation in the company with the owning family, because he is afraid that the family will be dissatisfied with his performance and unhappy about the situation. Markus prefers to try to improve sales by his own efforts, trying to intensify his job and to motivate sales workers, who are under his supervision.
The second vignette describes lack of information between family and non-family members and how decision-making is made in family businesses. In this scenario we wanted to make an impression that family members were responsible for lack of information-sharing.
Jonas is a non-family production manager, working in family-owned company. He knows that sales are constantly increasing in number, and that the current production facility is already not enough to satisfy all orders. Jonas had a meeting with the CEO and other company owners to suggest his idea to buy a new machine for production. The purchase of a new machine would cost several million SEK. After two months Jonas still does not have any reply. However, he knows that the owning family together with several family members, who are working in the company, already had two meetings to discuss the potential investment in a new machine.
The third vignette concerns family and non-family interrelationship on top level in businesses and miscommunication between entities. In this scenario we wanted to make an impression that perhaps both non-family manager and family member were responsible for lack of information-sharing.
Fatima is one of three siblings owning a retail company. Fatima decided to expand the store chain and to open one more store in southern Sweden, and she shared this vision with non-family CEO Fredrik. Fatima knows a landlord and had found a perfect location for this store in Lund. At the same time Fredrik decided to explore independently potential venues for renting a place for a store in Karlskrona. A week after at the board meeting Fredrik proudly presents his achievement – he had already signed a rental contract in Karlskrona. Fatima is surprised and tells Fredrik that he was not supposed to search for venues and sign contracts without her guidelines.
After reading of each vignette, the respondents were asked questions concerning their general thoughts on the situation, whether they could relate to it, whether something similar ever happened in their company, how they would act and react to such or similar situation, and how it would affect the relationship between family and non-family members in the firm (please, see Interview guide in Appendix). This tactic helped us in several interviews to get some interesting and valuable for our research replies from our interviewees. Our intention with vignettes usage was that the respondents could tell us their opinions about the described in the vignettes situations, being emotionally separated from their companies. Usually after that, respondents transferred their company-neutral opinions about the scenarios in the vignettes on the reality in the companies, where they work, and told us whether a similar situation ever had happened in their company. It was especially valuable for our research, that some respondents recalled the examples from their working life with the help of vignettes, which they did not bring up during replying to our interview questions. Overall, the research method of using vignettes was helpful for our study.

1 Introduction 
1.1 Background to topic
1.2 Problem discussion
1.3 Purpose
1.4 Research questions
2 Frame of Reference 
2.1 Family business definition
2.2 Davis’ three circles model
2.3 Family ownership and proprietorship .
2.4 Agency, Stewardship and Entrenchment theories
2.5 Family business management team: family vs. non-family managers
2.6 Socio-emotional wealth in family firms
2.7 Internal communication
2.8 Relationships and communication in family firms
2.9 Linking the theories
3 Methodology 
3.1 Research philosophy
3.2 Research design
3.3 Research method
3.4 Research ethics
3.5 Data collection
3.6 Analysing empirical data
3.7 Research quality
3.8 Analytical generalisations.
4 Empirical findings
4.1 Company profiles
4.2 Communication and relationships between family and non-family managers
4.3 Summary of empirical findings
5 Analysis 
5.1 Communication and relationships in family businesses
5.2 Distinctive characteristics of communication between family and non-family managers
5.3 Barriers to effective communication between family and non-family managers
5.4 Information that is not shared between family and non-family managers
6 Discussion 
7 Conclusion 
7.1 Practical and theoretical implications
7.2 Limitations of the research
7.3 Suggestions for future research
Communication in family businesses Relationships between family and non-family managers

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