Every business function involves research of some kind. Tax accountants research case law and tax legislation to determine the proper way to handle a transaction. Supply chain professionals make choices based on research about potential vendors, production methods, and shipping options. Financial planners conduct research on investment options. Management policy and strategy decisions involve research about the issues, options, and outcomes of various options. Marketing strategies and plans require extensive research about an industry, consumer preferences, and marketing methods.
Research within a specific industry or business function will typically use specialized research resources, ranging from surveys or databases maintained by professional organizations to expert sources who might blog or conduct seminars on specialized topics. For many professionals, career success amounts to learning where to find the information needed to make decisions or perform effectively.
Research methods vary as well. Some professionals will need to become proficient in conducting online surveys, while others will find themselves using sophisticated data analytics software. Some professional research involves the analysis of published research; some requires experimentation, customer interviews, or observations of employee behavior. As you become an expert in a business profession, you will learn its methods for gathering information.
Regardless of the industry or profession, professionalism in business research involves a few key steps.
Unlike academic or scientific research, which often aims just to learn about an unknown topic, business research always involves a business purpose. This creates a fundamentally important difference in approaching a research project. Rather than looking for a specific piece of information (i.e. "how many competing restaurants operate within 15 miles"), the business researcher really wants to know the answer to a question (i.e. "how much competition will my new restaurant have?"). As a result, the researcher who comes back with a single answer might miss the point of the research. For example, learning that there are only two restaurants within 15 miles doesn't account for another nine restaurants within 20 miles; nor does that answer consider the possibility of casinos, nightclubs, and fast food operations that might compete for the customer's food-purchasing dollars.
- A business researcher will always frame the research in terms of a business purpose: "What is the policy or strategy question that needs an answer?" This helps the researcher to keep on looking from every potential angle, even after the first pieces of information have been located.
A related factor in business research involves the nature of business as an interconnected, complex organization. Research, like any other business task, necessarily reflects the assumptions, priorities, values, and experience of the organization. Furthermore, many employees will use the research results to do their own jobs, make business decisions, and drive organizational practice. Everyone involved in research must take into account both the reasons the questions are being asked and the ways in which the answers will be used-the entire context of the research task.
- A business researcher will carefully consider the context of the research project: "What do we already know about this issue, and who will be using the research results?" This helps the researcher know how to understand the results and how to deliver them to others.
Every research involves choices in timing, sources, methods, and level of detail that affect a project's effectiveness and efficiency. An experienced professional will select a strategy that yields the optimal amount of information at the least cost to the company. The parameters represent shifting priorities, however, and the better you understand the research goal and context, the better you will be a developing (and revising) the research strategy.
Timing and Timeliness
Research projects in the business world don't typically come with arbitrary due dates, as school projects sometime do, but the question of timeliness becomes more complicated as a result, not less.
- It might be that a project deserves as much time as needed to get to the best answer possible.
- On the other hand, the data might become useless after fiscal year end. Missing a due date in this situation might be worse than doing no research at all, since all the time spent becomes useless.
- A competitor might release a new product sooner than expected, requiring a due date six months earlier than anticipated, with more questions to answer.
Planning always involves guesswork, but research projects add the special mystery of working with the unknown. Your own time has value as well, and the extra time spent to find exact details might be unnecessary when an expert colleague is able to provide a very good estimate.
Sources and Resources
Information resources will be specific to your own industry and profession, but a few key questions will help you decide the breadth and depth of information you need.
- Any researcher must locate all the "relevant" data, but different stakeholders might define "relevant" in different ways. Regardless of your own business function, remember that other functions must also use whatever information you generate. Take some time to identify the various stakeholders involved in the business purpose, include information on either side of any controversies, and be sure to identify the decision issues that have required a search for additional information.
- Where controversies or conflicting stakeholder positions exist, take another step to identify the various positions, interpretations, or hypotheses. Use this to guide your search, looking especially for objective data interpreted in multiple ways. A fully developed research strategy will include methods for comparing those differing results.
- Identify research resources that can provide accurate data for a broad spectrum of stakeholder positions, interpretations, or comparisons. In many cases, those who advocate for a particular viewpoint will provide data to support it, and your research strategy will include a review of those sources.
In general, secondary research-using data already collected and analyzed by others-is less expensive than conducting primary research-collecting new data with surveys, experiments, or observations. The cheapest method is not always the best, but typically, business researchers will do secondary research first. Once that process establishes the need for additional research, additional resources and planning will go toward the creation of a survey, focus groups, or experimental protocol.
Details and Implications
Perhaps the most important-and the most difficult-aspect of a research strategy involves no planning at all. With the discovery of each new piece of information, the researcher makes a crucial strategic choice: is this enough, or do I need to look further or deeper?
The best answer will depend, first on a solid understanding of the research question and the business context. For instance, your research strategy might have assumed the industry's professional organization would offer great data on a specific point-but once you see that the database includes data collected prior to the emergence of an important new technology, that information must be rejected as too old. Information is never good enough unless it answers the question.
Beyond that, an expert researcher learns to expect to turn over a few extra stones, regardless of the path chosen. Sometimes you stumble over a source or an issue that you simply didn't know about. Other times, you find an extra few sources nearby one you had gone looking for. Now and then, you realize your chosen path has reached a dead end, but you might kick a few random stones around, just to see what you can uncover as you retrace your steps. Stay curious and sharp; that odd fact found under a random stone might lead you down a more productive research path.
As with any business task, research requires a professional attitude. Tenacity, in particular, marks the professional who can locate accurate data or dig deeply enough to answer the business question, along with some creativity in finding ways to make good guesses when hard data doesn't exist. For more on tenacity and creativity, hover over Professional Attitude at the right.
There are many points at which ethical choices arise, in both the gathering of data and its dissemination. Business ethics includes multiple topics, and you'll find more about ethics by hovering over Professional Attitude as well. In the area of business research, some unique issues arise.
- Objectivity and reliability of the data. Sometimes pressure comes to find support for a particular course of action, or a researcher might limit her search or focus on results that support just one side of an issue. As part of a team, a researcher might focus on one perspective while a colleague looks at the data to support an opposite interpretation, but ethical research must ultimately look for the most objective and reliable data.
- Concerns for privacy and security of informants. Consumer research might seem innocuous, but take care to insure the privacy of participants. A choice to purchase life insurance or dog food or a video game might seem innocuous to you, but revealing it could pose difficulty for the respondent whose mom doesn't know he has a partner, a dog, or a video game habit.
- Company and partner confidentiality. The very fact that you are conducting research might signal a new business strategy or product development to competitors. Use the same security protocols for research that you would for any kind of financial, human resources, or marketing data.
The final step in any research project involves the communication of results. The exact format will depend on the project, which can require an informal presentation of results to a work team, an informal memo, or a formal report, or a daylong discussion of the results among representatives from multiple departments. Regardless of the format, research results should be responsive to the research question and business context.
Introduce the Purpose
Any business communication begins with an introduction that provides clear purpose and a preview of what will follow. With research results, the purpose necessarily involves answering the stated research question.
Organize the Results
Organize the material so that it clearly answers the research question, recognizing competing stakeholder positions, controversies, and/or decision issues that must be resolved.
Develop the Content
Keep in mind the audience's level of expertise, and provide sufficient detail to support, illustrate, or explain any conclusions you've drawn from the research. You might include raw data as a supplemental document or file, but the reader or audience is most interested in your summary and interpretation of those results. Be sure that you fully understand the implications of your results in terms of both the research question and the business context.
Fully developed content also indicates the character and quality of the data. Typically, sources of data indicate a great deal about its timeliness and completeness, as well as any biases or conflicts of interest. Thus, full disclosure of the sources-as well as an honest assessment of their value-becomes important to your own credibility.
Objective Presentation Style
Research aims to locating objective data, so any communication of those results should clearly, directly, and assertively highlight the validity of those results. Overly enthusiastic or emotional responses to the results are not generally acceptable, but neither is a tentative, deferential, or vague report. The writer or speaker will benefit from clear, concise, direct language choices and a self-confident, professional style.
Technical Display of Data
Beyond the basics of correct language and word processing or presentation technology, research results typically involve the presentation of tables, charts, graphs, and illustrations. The knowledge level and goals of the audience will govern the specific choices, but take care to provide clear, accurate, and useful information in every display. For more on the creation of these display tools, hover over Communication & Presentation Skills to your right and select Presentation Technology.