The effects of lateral and vertical heterogeneity on focus group discussions for organizational and learner needs assessment

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Virginia Tech


The focus group meeting is an approach to identifying potential learning needs and developing awareness for organizational change. Currently, the literature recommends that focus groups be composed of both laterally and vertically homogeneous group members to enhance trust among participants and facilitate positive group dynamics.

Two research questions explored the relationship between heterogeneity and the quality of focus groups for organizational change and training needs assessment at a multidisciplinary environmental consulting firm: 1) In what way does lateral (disciplinary) heterogeneity affect the quality of focus group discussion? and 2) In what way does vertical (hierarchical) heterogeneity affect the quality of focus group discussion?

Meetings of four focus groups of four participants each were tape-recorded, transcribed, and compared according to the following parameters: trust, group development, conformity, participation, awareness of the need for change, and idea generation. Each group represented a different combination of lateral and vertical homogeneity or heterogeneity.

The highest quality group discussion and greatest diversity of ideas were found in the group which was laterally heterogeneous and vertically homogeneous. Vertical heterogeneity was found to adversely affect group dynamics.

The findings suggest that moderators who lead focus groups for identifying learner needs and developing an awareness of the need for change in organizations might consider composing small, laterally heterogeneous, but vertically homogeneous, groups in order to enhance group development, encourage a holistic understanding of the organization, and provide diverse ideas and high-quality results.