Crafting Your Capstone Proposal

Crafting Your Capstone Proposal

Crafting Your Capstone Proposal solid Capstone project proposal begins, ideally, with coming up with two, three or more ideas, and then sifting through them to identify the one particular idea that captures your interest.  The ideas may stem from or relate to your current professional work, or a professional position you aspire to in the future, or perhaps from a subject area you found especially fascinating in your MBA program.  Regardless of how the idea came to you, the important thing is that it reflects a keen interest on your part.  After all, once you settle on that particular idea, you’ll be living with it from the time your proposal is accepted to the last day of your Capstone course!

Crafting Your Capstone ProposalAs you conceptualize your research topic, consider carefully the breadth and depth of your coursework throughout the MBA program.  Your project must draw upon significant aspects of that coursework and apply the knowledge you’ve gained in the program – at least selected aspects of that knowledge.  If your concentration happens to be in health care administration, or finance, or human resource management for instance, the project you pursue should lie somewhere within the confines of that field of study.

Your research topic also needs to have a clear connection to an organizational or departmental context – whether for profit or not-for-profit.  Developing a study about human motivation or the causes of child obesity, for example, does not qualify unless the topic is narrowed to embrace a connection to an organizational or workplace setting – either in general or in reference to a specific organization or association. 

For most students, the Capstone project will be a first-time experience.  It’s the first major research proposal you’ve created, the first project you’ve developed in more depth and complexity than ever before, or the first time you’ve completed a project that carries significant practical consequences – for a current or future position, for governmental or corporate policy, for the publication of a research report, or even for the creation of a new business venture.

The Next Step:  Core Purpose

Once you’ve settled on “the idea”, you need to create a core purpose statement, also known as a thesis statement.  This must be a clear, concise statement that captures the overarching purpose of your research project.  [It may be phrased as either a statement or a question.]  In crafting this statement, think about two things:  (1) the depth and breadth of your MBA program and how your core purpose will in some way draw from significant dimensions of it, and (2) sufficient breadth of topical focus that will allow you to flesh out a number of research questions [more on this later].

After coming up with a couple of options, i..e, as your core purpose statement, consider carefully whether:

  • Each of your alternative purpose statements could be viewed as reflecting MBA-level content, or whether an undergraduate student could write a term paper on the subject.
  • The core purpose has reasonable substance – i.e., sufficient depth and breadth to serve as an overarching, central purpose for a significant project and from which you will, in turn, tease out 5 to 7 research questions.
  • One or more elements of critical reasoning are embodied within the statement[s]. In other words, does the statement clearly reflect research that will provide important synthesis of knowledge in ways that may lead to new conclusions, improved policy or etcetera?  Or, does it reflect an orientation toward comparison or contrast that will help identify new or important avenues of organizational action [for instance]?  Or, does it hold the basis for significant analysis of organizational or departmental issues that will make a contribution to the field?  Or, does it constitute the basis for developing an action plan – i.e., a plan for creating a new venture, or for reorganizing parts of a business firm, or for evaluating the feasibility of acquiring a high-cost diagnostic asset for use by a health care consortium, or etcetera?

One of the more difficult aspects of crafting an excellent core purpose/thesis statement is the matter of appropriate breadth and depth.  What exactly is appropriate, given the nature of the project requirements and the seven-week length of the course?  Based on the considerations noted above, the important thing is to do your best in creating a solid, workable, MBA-level statement of purpose; beyond that, your instructor will provide assistance in helping you narrow or better-focus it, if it’s too broad or unfocused, or to broaden it if you’ve started off with something too narrow.

Consider a few examples, drawn from the first draft of a few students’ Capstone proposals:

  1. The purpose of this project is to explore employee motivation and performance.
  2. My project will examine the impact of website marketing.
  3. Is the participative style of leadership the best in all organizations?
  4. The overall purpose of this project will be to explore the progress of affirmative action in the province of Ontario.
  5. My project will focus on the impact of [XYZ] federal legislation on health care management.

Think about these in the context of the guidelines noted above.  Would any of these purpose statements serve as a clear guide for (1) creating a half dozen or so specific research questions and (2) for conducting, with reasonable efficiency, a thoroughgoing literature review and accompanying primary research?  Are they clearly MBA-level statements?  Do they embody one or more elements of critical reasoning?  The answer is either “no” or “questionable”, in each case.

Regarding Question 1, the word explore is so broad that it can carry the researcher into a myriad of possible research avenues.  It’s suggestive of a scavenger hunt and, in the short span of 7 weeks, you don’t want to be on a hunt of this sort!  As the content of what’s to be “explored” . . . what is it about motivation and performance that is of interest?  Motivation of whom, under what circumstances, for what purposes, and so on.

The second statement raises several questions, such as “impact on what?”  “To what end?”  Marketing for “all types of websites”, all kinds/categories of organizations, etc?  Similar questions apply to Questions 4 and 5 as well.

Taking the second question, suppose the statement were revised as follows:  The core purpose of this project is to assess the relative impact of select web site advertising strategies on the growth and profitability of service-oriented organizations [both profit and not-for-profit].  While this may not be a “perfect” statement of purpose, it does at least have the merits of increased clarity/focus as well as incorporating critical reasoning elements.   Compare the two statements closely.  Do you see the essential differences?

One more:  The 3rd statement, in question form, has two serious problems.  First, it’s one that anticipates a research outcome of a clear-cut Yes or No “answer”.  Social science research seldom lends itself to such definitive outcomes!  It’s far more productive, insofar as a ‘purpose statement’ goes, to ask questions starting with “How does . . .?”, or “To what extent does a participative leadership style create problems in working relationships in small business settings . .. [etc]?”  The second major difficulty with the question, as posed, is its excessive breadth – as is the case with both statements  1 and 5 [in particular].

The discussion to this point takes the approach of constructing a declarative statement to describe the core, overall purpose of your project.   You have an option here, and that is to phrase the core purpose in the form of a question.  Using the second core purpose example above – as rephrased – a loose rephrasing would be:  What is the relative impact of selected web site advertising strategies on the growth and profitability of service-oriented firms?

How to Construct Research Questions

Moving on to the next challenge, a series research questions need to be crafted, drawing upon or teasing out the various dimensions of your core research purpose.  If that overarching purpose is stated in sufficiently broad terms [but not “too” broad], you should be able to come up with at least 5 solid questions [preferably no more than 8 or so] that will serve as your chief guide for conducting (1) your literature review and (2) your customized research using a survey and/or questionnaire.  [Depending on subject, it may be more than one survey or questionnaire, if there are different groups involved.]

These questions likewise must have a critical reasoning component.  They must draw upon the depth and breadth of your MBA program.  The must be sufficiently detailed and clear so as to provide guidance in efficiently conducting both your secondary research [i.e., the literature review] and your primary research.

Research questions are your guide . . .  a guide to uncover, examine, and assess important areas of knowledge that will all contribute to accomplishing your core research purpose.  If properly constructed, these questions will serve as your research road map.

Research questions are not questions that provide background information [useful, but not germane to the core research purpose], questions that can ostensibly be answered with a simple yes or no, questions regarding the history of the topic of interest, questions of definition, and questions that can easily be answered by picking up an undergraduate textbook in the subject.  Examples of  questions that fall into one or another of these categories [from prior students’ draft proposals] include:

How does one obtain a CPA and what is the CPA exam all about? 

What is the history of auditing? 

What is the ICD-10 medical coding system? 

What is a merger, and what are the reasons for companies merging? 

What does the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation say about corporate ethics? 

Does an organization’s culture have an impact on individual creativity? 

Is there a national hotline to report financial statement fraud?

Crafting Your Capstone Proposal

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these questions.  The problem is that they do not serve productively as MBA-level research questions per se.   Variously, they contain the faults noted in the paragraph above.

Recognizing that context is useful, the above questions would need to be refashioned in a way that would provide a solid, clear basis for significant MBA-level research, and here are some corresponding examples [again. . . .  more context would be helpful here, but short of including numerous proposals, the re-phrasing below should give you an indication of the kind of question that is expected]:

  • How has the CPA exam changed over the past quarter century, and to what extent has accounting education in the U.S. kept pace with these changes?
  • To what extent are internal auditors adequately prepared to cope with the range of corporate fraud being perpetrated today, i.e., internal to the organization?
  • To what extent will a one-year extension in the implementation of ICD-10 coding protocols aid in more effective implementation of them within the medical community?
  • To what extent does the history of mergers in the technology sector demonstrate sound strategic planning in the process of considering such mergers, i.e., in the conduct of due diligence?
  • Over the past ten years, what evidence, if any, points to the promulgation of higher standards of corporate ethics as a direct result of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act?
  • What are the correlates of organizational culture [in its various dimensions] and individual creativity?
  • What are the key avenues available to corporate stockholders in the reporting of suspected financial statement fraud?

So, research questions involve a degree of complexity; they are not typically answered with an easy yes/no response; they require synthesis of knowledge and/or comparison or contrast of data and/or determining relative levels of impact, for example.  In other words, they reflect a level of thinking based on the knowledge gained throughout your MBA program, and they demand a level of sophistication in organizing and implementing a research project.  In so doing, you will produce results that are either novel or that provide the basis for significant action [a new venture plan, policy recommendations, change in corporate direction, or the like].

Given all of this, the process of crafting one’s initial research proposal for the Capstone course is not a simple matter, and it takes “work” of the thinking variety.  We all learn by experience, but if you apply the guidelines outlined above, you will start off with a “draft” proposal that will at least serve as a workable foundation for a final research proposal of substance and clarity.  From that point on, between your instructor and yourself you’ll be able to finalize a proposal that will, in all ways, serve as that “efficient research guide” discussed earlier.

David Marks

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