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The focus group.


A California association uses a qualitative research instrument to compose meaningful educational programs.

The conductor was meeting for the first time with his new orchestra to plan the year's programs. "What shall we play?" he asked in an excited voice. "A Bach cantata, a Beethoven symphony, perhaps a piano concerto by Rachmaninoff?" There was little agreement. Although the orchestra had been playing for several years, it had not established a performance routine, a long-range plan, or an image within the community.

This was how I felt, like the new conductor, when I entered the first education committee meeting of the California Association of Homes for the Aging (CAHA), Sacramento. The six committee members all had different ideas about the content of the year's educational programs. Two members managing free-standing elderly housing wanted programs on accessing community resources and "de-admitting" seniors to health care facilities. Three members from skilled nursing facilities wanted programs on the national and state regulations that license them, and one member from a life-care retirement facility was hoping for a workshop about using marketing to attract potential residents. All had valid ideas but different priorities. In addition, the association's educational programs projected no image--what members could expect the association to offer in a competitive marketplace of educational programs, how often, and what type of attendance could be expected.

Fortunately, my CEO agreed to my very first suggestion: "Let's abolish the education committee and use focus groups instead." My reasoning for the suggestion was this:

* Committees meet three to four times a year; focus groups meet only once to plan a single workshop. * Committees are always composed of the same individuals meeting several times throughout the year; in focus groups, the participants differ each time they meet, so we get more perspectives. * Committees are composed of heterogeneous groups of individuals; focus groups are homogeneous groups of individuals (i.e., specific, targeted segments of the membership). * Committees have work plans directed by the board; focus groups are organized by staff, which allows staff the flexibility of preparing topics and groups as needed. * Committees often require air travel and overnight expenses; focus groups meet locally and require minimum travel or expense. * Committees are usually composed of 12-15 members; focus groups are often smaller, with 8-12 participants, allowing more in-depth group discussion of members' ideas.

We therefore developed the characteristics of CAHA focus groups: a homogeneous group of 8-12 members who meet locally to plan a specific program or workshop at the direction of association staff.

Understanding the basics

Some Fortune 500 companies first used focus groups in the 1950s as a qualitative research tool to gather consumer opinions on everything from laundry detergent to high-fashion clothing. Originally, focus groups were used to supplement more quantitative data, such as mail surveys or telephone surveys.

Since then, focus groups have gained recognition as a respected technique for learning how people feel--a means of getting ideas that cannot be collected from a survey instrument. In education, for example, focus groups can provide a variety of ideas about programming, such as these:

* What are possible formats for an annual meeting? * What programs on public policy issues should the association provide? * What training should the association provide for trustees of member boards? * What topics should the association consider for a video library?

Notice that all of these potential programs have prescribed limitations on topics, such as format for an annual meeting or trustee training. The best leaders, in fact, prepare a series of questions about the topic as a way to direct the group discussion. An adept facilitator will limit the amount of time any one individual speaks, seeking opinions from all participants. Probing questions or statements, such as "We haven't heard from you on this issue. What do you think, Charlie?" or "Let's hear from some of the rest of you" will ensure equal participation.

The facilitator should be someone who leads a group dynamically, understands the objectives of the focus group, and does not have a vested interest in any particular outcome. It is also useful to have someone taking notes or recording the focus group so that details can be recaptured.

A time limitation (three to five hours) is also suggested. This forces the group to deal with a variety of questions within a specific time period.

A productive focus group structure is several open-ended questions, followed by a group reaction to one or two product or service models. By presenting models, the facilitator solicits the group's likes and dislikes about the model as well as what the group would change to fit its needs. For example, to plan an annual meeting program with educational tracks, a facilitator might present one model based on knowledge levels (basic, intermediate, or advanced) and a second model based on subject matter (management, technical, or personal skill development).

Implementing the concept

The concept of CAHA focus groups was first implemented in 1988 with CEO and board approval. After discussing the aforementioned reasons for focus groups with my CEO, I called all six members of the education committee and key board members to discuss the idea. All of the members I called agreed to try focus groups as a substitution for the education committee.

Then, with backing from the leadership, I discussed the idea with the board chair. At the next board meeting, he was willing to recommend focus groups as a substitute for the education committee. The idea was included as part of an overall structural change in committees. The concept also was documented to the board in a staff briefing paper. Once the concept was adopted by the board, CAHA published an open letter in its bimonthly newsletter and sent it to the membership. I then began designing the structure for our focus groups.

The first step was to plan focus group meetings for specific educational programs. I initially applied that challenge to an annual housing seminar. For 10 years, CAHA had been offering a seminar for managers of elderly housing; however, the seminar was always held in Monterey, California, an expensive trip for our southern California members. We decided to try two housing seminars in October, with one in Monterey and the second in Santa Barbara. This would solve the travel issue for our southern California members, and CAHA could begin to build an annual tradition in the south similar to the northern seminar.

Since the two programs would differ in content, we organized two focus groups to plan the seminars, one in the north and one in the south. We held focus groups in central locations at member facilities to reduce meeting costs. They began at 10 a.m., included a working lunch, and ended at 3 p.m.. Hosted by previous education committee members, each focus group had a limited agenda: Discuss topics, potential speakers, and formats, with the primary emphasis on topics. We used a previous housing seminar program as a model to guide the group's thinking. Other details, such as hotel logistics, brochure, pricing, and promotion were left to staff.

Initially, participants were handpicked to represent a homogeneous group of members from our housing constituency in a particular part of the state. Then the group was balanced for corporate representation, size of facility, sponsorship of facility (Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran, and so forth), participant's sex, and ethnicity. The group was also balanced in terms of previous participation in committee and board structure versus no previous participation in CAHA leadership.

We found the commitment to one focus group, instead of four committee meetings, had instant appeal to our membership. It reduced time away from the office, eliminated travel expenses, and maximized member expertise.

By the time the two focus groups had met, CAHA had involved 24 members--half of them new participants in CAHA leadership--in education planning. Throughout the year, we conducted additional focus groups to meet other educational needs of the membership.

Evaluating the results

By the end of the first year, CAHA had held six focus groups, involving more than 100 members in educational planning. Members had planned portions of the annual meeting, three-day seminars, one-day workshops, training manuals, and seminar specifications for a request for proposal. CAHA found that members enjoyed the focus group concept. They like being involved in hands-on planning and the fact that their ideas were put into immediate action.

CAHA also learned that focus groups attracted new leadership to the organization and offered a way to reach deeper into the mid-level management positions of our membership. CAHA recognized focus group participants in its newsletter and in the program brochure. Participants also received a summary of the focus group and a thank-you letter shortly after the meeting.

Once the idea of focus groups was accepted among the membership, we solicited new participants through workshop evaluation forms and annual membership surveys. Not only were more members participating in educational planning, there was a greater awareness of educational activities among the membership. Participants went back to regional meetings and discussed their focus group activities. Thus, the regions became more aware of educational programs scheduled for the year. As awareness increased, attendance increased. For example, 200 individuals attended CAHA's two housing seminars the first year a north and south option were offered. This was a 40 percent increase from 125 attendees when only one seminar was offered.

Staff interest in focus groups also increased. I began to discuss the success of focus groups at management meetings, and soon other departments were beginning to think about using focus groups. CAHA discovered these other uses for focus groups:

* to discuss national and state relations with our national affiliate; * to discuss the format (workshop, videotape, workbook) for a trustee program; * to select recipients for annual membership awards; * to review an investment banking proposal for the membership committee; and * to design a wage and benefit survey.

Knowing the limitations

Focus groups do have limitations. Because focus groups only meet once for a short time, they usually are not well-suited to planning long-range projects, such as designing an association group purchasing program or reviewing the association's budget. CAHA found, for example, that while the specific educational needs of the membership were well met, we still lacked an overall direction or plan for education and faced conflicting priorities. For this reason, we used an education task force that met quarterly to develop a three-year blue-print for education. Later, CAHA, reinstituted an education committee--with a long-range planning function.

Another limitation of focus groups is their inability to provide quantitative data, such as "70 percent of the membership favor program X over program Y." Because focus group questions are open-ended, they do not always yield clear-cut yes or no answers. Generally, consensus arrived at in focus groups is best used in conjunction with quantitative data--particularly if monetary or strategic planning decisions are required.

For example, if an association wanted to develop new products and services for nonmembers, it might first conduct four focus groups. Then it might develop a survey asking nonmembers to rate each of 10 products and services as "most interesting," "somewhat interesting," or "not interesting." Additional questions could focus on characteristics of each product and service, yielding a series of data that prioritize potential products and services and the characteristics of those products and services nonmembers find most attractive.

At CAHA we've learned this: A focus group is like a solo instrument playing a melody. Learn to listen for that melody. Then take it, embellish it, and compose a symphony of services or programs.

Karen Hunsaker is director of education at the California Association of Homes for the Aging, Sacramento.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Society of Association Executives
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related articles; concept used by the California Association of Homes for the Aging for its educational programs
Author:Hunsaker, Karen
Publication:Association Management
Date:Aug 1, 1991
Previous Article:Practical theorist.
Next Article:Planning for action.

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