Step 1: Focus Groups as a tool for EOs

Focus groups are, as the name suggests, small groups who discuss an issue/constraint, or a limited amount of issues/constraints, in a focused manner. A typical focus group session will last between 60 and 90 minutes.

They can be a more useful tool than surveys and questionnaires as they are more flexible than set questions, they encourage group interaction, and can be performed relatively easily with limited costs. Additionally, the information gathered should be largely qualitative (opinions, insights and personal responses) by enabling the EO to probe members on the issues and dig deeper. They can look at the constraints in a holistic fashion and unearth remedies and solutions.


  • A large amount of information can be collected in a relatively short time;
  • they can be used to complement other forms of research, e.g. surveys and questionnaires;
  • group discussions produce data and insights that would be less accessible without the interaction that is found in a group setting such as listening to others' verbalized practises, which in turn stimulates memories, ideas, and experiences in participants.
  • they provide an opportunity for disclosure among others with similarities in a setting where participants are validated.
  • they are a more personal means of data collection, providing direct member contact, and provide an opportunity to address other member concerns;
  • information can come from across the EO's membership, i.e. different sectors and differently sized, from SMEs to larger enterprises;
  • they can be used to ascertain the nature and depth of a constraint, its pervasiveness, and its impact on direct enterprise costs;
  • they can signal to the EO the urgency for action on a given issue;
  • they connect EOs to their members and their issues;
  • they can help in providing outlines of what policy recommendations would look like.

The ideal group will have about 10 participants – with too few you will not get the interaction that adds value over individual interviews; while with too many, people will not be able to fully participate. The focus groups can either be held on a one-off basis or as part of continuing process.

Issues to be aware of:

  • Time - getting relevant enterprises to release individuals to provide their opinions can be challenging;
  • analysis of the data collected is time consuming;
  • the ideal is to record the session and then transcribe. An alternative is to ensure that there is someone available who can take detailed notes. These need to be comprehensive. It is important that the note taker does not attempt to interpret remarks but simply to record them. Information can be lost or taken out of context if not carefully recorded.
  • group dynamics: individuals can feel nervous when placed in an open discussion group and this may affect the result. They seek to give the 'correct answers' or try to impress their peers by being over-opinionated.

1.1 Recruitment of participants

The success of the focus group(s) will be dependent on the successful recruitment of participants. Selection may depend on the constraint. For example, if the constraint identified is legislation, then the makeup of the focus group should be targeted at those industries most affected.

Establishing a group needs careful consideration. Ensure a good mixture of enterprises and individuals, including businesswomen. The size of the group will be important, smaller groups can be more easily focused and information is easier to assimilate. The smaller the group, the larger the percentage of time available for each person to contribute; a larger group will instead allow a broader perspective to be gained.

1.2 Facilitation

The main role of the facilitator is to maintain the focus of the group on the constraint under discussion. Although the session should appear to be unstructured to participants, the facilitator needs to direct the discussion in order to probe the nature of the constraint.

The facilitator will also be expected to introduce and explain the purpose of the group without influencing the results. Ideally, the facilitator will be a staff member and have a thorough understanding of the constraint being discussed as well as being able to answer any questions which arise. However, it is also important for this individual to let the discussion flow organically without pushing it in a certain direction, while at the same time facilitate and actively encourage a 'downward' analysis of the issue and keep probing.

The facilitator will need to reassure participants of the confidentiality of responses and make participating enterprises feel comfortable enough to converse with each other. Trust must be established at the very beginning. To do this, the facilitator will need to be personable enough to empathize with each member of the group in a very short time span. Where the facilitator is a staff member with a probable existing relationship with the participating enterprise (or at least a connection to that enterprise) this should be straightforward.

Throughout the discussion, the facilitator will need to remain neutral and avoid favouritism, giving their personal opinions, or criticizing individual answers. The conversation must be kept flowing, ensuring that everyone has their say, without individual personalities being allowed to dominate over others.

One to one discussions between the facilitator and group members should be avoided.

The facilitator will need excellent interpersonal, communication and listening skills, a good memory, as well as organized, sympathetic, energetic, intelligent, observant, and firm. The facilitator should also be a clear and precise speaker.

At the close of the session the facilitator should summarize and seek agreement on the final position. For example, if the issue under discussion was a particular piece of legislation, through which the discussion process led to a situation where the legislation is considered by the group to be overly costly and administratively heavy, but it also seems to be impacting chiefly on certain sectors, the EO has identified an issue for action and confirmed its negative impact.

This issue then needs to be acted upon by the EO and pushed up the advocacy agenda; however, as it is not an issue that impacts all sectors and enterprises, and is therefore unlikely to be the EOs main priority, thee is no escaping the fact that the findings require action.

1.3 Collating and analysing results

If the only record of the session is written notes, then the staff member taking notes should aim to quote some people directly, especially where they seem to be making insightful comments, or else making comments which seem to summarize a group view. This can be very useful in illustrating the impact of a constraint, e.g. "The law as it stands seems to regard every enterprise as a very large or multinational enterprise".

Show interest Be too controlling
Nod and murmur encouragement Appear judgmental
Use open questions Use closed questions
Silent pauses to allow thinking time Use leading or suggestive questions
Summarize the answers Change topic too abruptly
Check if you understand correctly Assume you understood

1.4 Planning the session

Questions should be open-ended to avoid 'yes or no' responses. Beginning a question with 'Why?' will often result in a presumed response, while asking 'How?' or 'What?' often provokes a more detailed and spontaneous response.

Questions should be limited to no more than ten, ranging from broad to narrow subject matter, and facilitation of the discussion should follow the rules of a natural conversation.

Facilitators must be comfortable and familiar with questions in order to clarify their meaning in a group situation.

Participants are representative of the membership, including women members Yes / No
Do some Participants come from the most important sectors affected by the issue? Name these sectors
The Focus Group is conducted by an individual who can inspire trust and confidence. If the EO wants feedback on its role then it should not be a staff member of the EO
Participants are varied – not solely the member companies that ‘can be relied on’ or are ‘usually used’ by the EO, as this can sway the outcome Yes / No
SMEs are represented in the sample Yes / No

(1) See for further information: