The Pilot Case Study

Pilot cases may be conducted for several reasons unrelated to the criteria for selecting the final cases in the case study design. For example, the informants at a pilot site may be unusually congenial and accessible, or the site may be geographically convenient or may have an unusual amount of documentation and data. One other possibility is that a pilot case represents a most compli­cated case, compared to the likely real cases, so that nearly all relevant data collection issues will be encountered in the pilot case.

A pilot case study will help you to refine your data collection plans with respect to both the content of the data and the procedures to be followed. In this regard, it is important to note that a pilot test is not a pretest. The pilot case is more formative, assisting you to develop relevant lines of questions—possi­bly even providing some conceptual clarification for the research design as well. In contrast, the pretest is the occasion for a formal “dress rehearsal,” in which the data collection plan is used as the final plan as faithfully as possi­ble. As a result, the pilot test might preferably occur before seeking final approval from an IRB, as discussed earlier in this chapter.

The pilot case study can be so important that more resources may be devoted to this phase of the research than to the collection of data from any of the actual cases. For this reason, several subtopics are worth further discus­sion: the selection of pilot cases, the nature of the inquiry for the pilot cases, and the nature of the reports from the pilot cases.

1. Selection of Pilot Cases

In general, convenience, access, and geographic proximity can be the main criteria for selecting a pilot case or cases. This will allow for a less structured and more prolonged relationship between yourself and the case than might occur in the “real” cases. The pilot case can then assume the role of a “labo­ratory” in detailing your protocol, allowing you to observe different phenom­ena from many different angles or to try different approaches on a trial basis.

One study of technological innovations in local services (Yin, 2003, pp. 6-9) actually had seven pilot cases, each focusing on a different type of tech­nology. Four of the cases were located in the same metropolitan area as the research team’s and were visited first. Three of the cases, however, were located in different cities and were the basis for a second set of visits. The cases were not cho­sen because of their distinctive technologies or for any other substantive reason. The main criterion, besides proximity, was the fact that access to the cases was made easy by some prior personal contact on the part of the research team. Finally, the interviewees in the cases also were congenial to the notion that the investiga­tors were at an early stage of their research and would not have a fixed agenda.

In return for serving as a pilot case, the main informants usually expect to receive some feedback from you about their case. Your value to them is as an external observer, and you should be prepared to provide such feedback. To do so, even though you should already have developed a draft protocol represent­ing the topics of interest to your case study, you should adapt parts of the pro­tocol to suit the informants’ needs. You should then conduct the pilot case by following (and pilot-testing) your formal field procedures. Under no circum­stance should the pilot case be the occasion for an overly informal or highly personalized inquiry.

2. Scope of the Pilot Inquiry

Nevertheless, the scope of the inquiry for the pilot case can be much broader and less focused than the ultimate data collection plan. Moreover, the inquiry can cover both substantive and methodological issues.

In the above-mentioned example, the research team used the seven pilot cases to improve its conceptualization of different types of technologies and their related organizational effects. The pilot studies were done prior to the selection of specific technologies for the final data collection—and prior to the final articulation of the study’s theoretical propositions. Thus, the pilot data provided considerable insight into the basic issues being studied. This infor­mation was used in parallel with an ongoing review of relevant literature, so that the final research design was informed both by prevailing theories and by a fresh set of empirical observations. The dual sources of information help to ensure that the actual study reflected significant theoretical or policy issues as well as questions relevant to contemporary cases.

Methodologically, the work on the pilot cases can provide information about relevant field questions and about the logistics of the field inquiry. In the technology pilot cases, one important logistical question was whether to observe the technology in action first or to collect information about the prevalent organizational issues first. This choice interacted with a further ques­tion about the deployment of the field team: If the team consisted of two or more persons, what assignments required the team to work together and what assign­ments could be completed separately? Variations in these procedures were tried during the pilot case studies, the trade-offs were acknowledged, and eventually a satisfactory procedure was developed for the formal data collection plan.

3. Reports from the Pilot Cases

The pilot case reports are mainly of value to the investigators and need to be written clearly, even if in the form of memoranda. One difference between the pilot reports and the actual case study reports is that the pilot reports should be explicit about the lessons learned for both research design and field proce­dures. The pilot reports might even contain subsections on these topics.

If more than a single pilot case is planned, the report from one pilot case also can indicate the modifications to be attempted in the next pilot case. In other words, the report can contain the agenda for the ensuing pilot case. If enough pilot cases are done in this manner, the final agenda may actually become a good prototype for the final case study protocol.

Source: Yin K Robert (2008), Case Study Research Designs and Methods, SAGE Publications, Inc; 4th edition.

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