The Focus Group Report:

What is the Moderator's Responsibility?

by Thomas L Greenbaum

Virtually every focus group project concludes with a report from the moderator which provides an interpretation of what he or she felt happened during the groups and how those events relate to the project's objectives. The format of the final report differs dramatically based on the needs of the client and the style of the moderator. Some people prefer a simple written top-line, others an oral debriefing, others a stand-up presentation and some a formal written document that can range from 20-60 pages and which may include verbatims from the participants.

Most organizations consider the moderator report to be the most important part of the process since it provides a summary of what occurred and the relevant conclusions and recommendations. Others consider the report to be very anticlimactic, since they attended the group and the report simply serves as a record of the proceedings for future reference.

One of the key issues facing moderators today is the nature of the report. Should it represent their views or those of the people who have retained them to conduct the groups? For example, it's not unusual for a client representative to read a moderator report and indicate they want some of the information changed because they did not agree with the findings, conclusions or recommendations. Some moderators have been asked to change their conclusions and recommendations because they aren't politically appropriate within the client organization, or will make some people disappointed with the outputs. The key question is whether the moderator should change the report to please the client, or insist that it remain intact.

This article argues for the integrity of the moderator report and suggests an approach that should be acceptable to both moderator and client.

Keep the report intact

I feel very strongly that a moderator report should not be changed in any way by the client except to correct typographical errors or misstatements of fact. My reasons:

  • Qualitative research by its very nature is subjective, and there is never one correct answer. Clients should expect that people may interpret the information differently, and realize that this is a healthy rather than a destructive process as it provides a vehicle for good communications.

  • Organizations should hire an outside moderator both for their professionalism and their objectivity. A moderator should never have any stake in the outcome of the group discussion, and therefore will interpret the information from their own perspective. If the client organization does not want objectivity, they should do the groups themselves and not go to an outsider.

  • Just because the client is paying the bill does not make them more qualified to interpret the findings of a group. Some clients feel that they are paying for a report to agree with what they think, rather than an independent assessment of the topic at hand.

  • An organization's senior management deserves to be exposed to the views of their outside consultants, even if they do not agree with the junior people in their company who have retained the researcher. With these differing points of view, management will be in a much better position to make the appropriate decisions.

  • Finally, a focus group report is submitted under the name of the research company, where the responsibility and liability for its contents rest. Should a problem arise which requires a reexamination of the results, the moderator can't shirk responsibility for the content of the report. In the long-term self interest of the moderator, he or she must be very comfortable with everything that goes out to clients under their name, as someday they might have to defend this information in a court of law or other forum.

An appropriate compromise

Focus groups never produce one absolutely correct answer. There should always be room for healthy disagreement. However, in view of the moderator's responsibility to be objective and their ownership of the report, it is best not to address these differences by making changes in the summary document. We believe the client and the moderator should agree at the beginning of the project that differences of opinion will be handled by a cover note that will be attached to the moderator report. This dissenting argument should be brief, and should identify only those points where the client and the moderator disagree on the interpretation of the findings from the groups. This will enable the moderator to retain his or her objectivity, integrity and legal/ethical responsibilities, while permitting client personnel with dissenting views to express them to management and to retain them for the record.

  Just because the client is paying the bill does not make them more qualified to interpret the findings of a group.   Some clients feel that they are paying for a report to agree with what they think, rather than an independent assessment of the topic at hand.  

Thomas L. Greenbaum is president of Groups Plus

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