Different Hats for Business Researchers

If you do much business research, many of the mental habits involved become second nature.  As with any complex skill, you build up a lot of tacit knowledge over time; context that makes the work easier and more effective but is difficult to express explicitly and transfer to others.  In this post, I’d like to attempt to put some of the context for business research activities down on paper, so to speak, and codify some of the intangibles that can make more of a difference than how you use the search engines or research sources.  This stuff can be particularly difficult to internalize for more junior people just starting in business research and analysis roles.  Much of it boils down to putting on a different hat at each stage in a research project.

1. Figure out the story

Decide what your story is first.  In other words, what does your audience really need to know?  Let’s say you’re helping to prepare for a sales meeting: emphasize the meeting participants, recent initiatives they may be involved with, and overall priorities for the organization.  Short and sweet.  In contrast, a competitive analysis might entail much more extensive information on sales and marketing strategy, core competences, and profitability over time.  Outline the deliverable at the outset, perhaps in only a handful of bullet points.  Then structure your research framework and related topics around that outline.  If marketing is one aspect, the research should include advertising, product mix, pricing, distribution channels, and a few other concepts like social marketing.

This is going to sound like screenwriting advice more than business research advice, but also think about the story arc.  Two companies in the same industry might have vastly different stories which mean that you should focus on different data points to help explain those developments.  For a struggling company like GM, what are the fatal flaws that led to their problems?  Have they found the keys to redemption, and why or why not?  For a rising star (like Toyota, until recently), what market trends or internal strengths led to their ascendance?

2. Flesh out the background

Use the right background material to understand the target of the research, whether a company, industry, product, or person, before you dive down into detailed topics.  Make sure you have a grasp on the general field, and add concepts to your research framework as you get smarter on the area.  For example, you may realize that platform strategy is an important car industry concept that you might not have planned on looking into initially.

3. Gather information, make connections, and filter

While going through information, focus on avoiding lost time as well as finding the right information.  A lot of inexperienced researchers (or MBAs trained on case studies where the answer is always in the data) spend too much time sifting through mediocre data sources, rather than balancing the data gathering with analysis.  It’s a recipe for poor work products.  You should train yourself to triage a source in the first five minutes and decide how much of your time it merits.  If you’re not making progress at that point, you should move on.  The same is true of using search engines.  While you can sometimes find a valuable data point on the 5th or 10th page of results, your time is probably better spent trying a few different, more specific queries rather than just slogging through the results.

4. Analyze

Think about how you can build on the information you’ve found rather than just reporting it.  A quick 2×2 matrix or checklist analysis can help provide some structure and clarity to all the different things most companies are doing every day.  In the car industry, an instructive 2×2 matrix might plot products by list price versus car magazine ratings to assess which parts of the market different companies focus on and are most successful in.  Even simple steps like comparing growth rates or market capitalizations across companies provide context beyond the raw data.

5. Summarize

Boil down the information to as compact a form as possible.  Go for a crisp, short presentation over a data dump.  Your manager or client will not be impressed by seeing every fact you ever came across.  The deliverable’s value will depend on being quickly and easily digested and in providing context and connecting the dots.  That’s where the synthesis comes in.

6. Synthesize

Towards the end of every project, large or small, think about the top three things the audience needs to know.  Typically, they won’t be individual facts, but rather conclusions based on those facts.  Those conclusions should make up the first bullets on a short background document or the executive summary section at the start of longer presentations.  People should be able to get value from your work even if they only have a few minutes to glance at the beginning of the document.

Takeaway

Don’t spend all your time gathering information and giving your boss or client a data dump.  Make sure to filter, analyze, and synthesize.  You should consciously change your mindset as you go through the project in order to be a better researcher and analyst.

What do you think?  What aspects of research projects do you focus on to maximize your productivity?


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