An Iterative Research Process

The biggest challenge in doing business research on the web these days is sifting through all the stuff out there to find the most informative sources and best foundation for your analysis.  Because commodity information is so cheap and easy to produce these days, it can crowd out the sources you’re really looking for.  To avoid wading through millions of sources aimlessly, you need a strategy.

Think of research as an iterative process where you create a chain of searches going from general concepts to specific ones.  You’ll find the right facts when you get down to concepts specific enough to eliminate redundant general content but still broad enough to avoid hitting keyword-stuffed pages like job postings.

The process goes something like this:

  1. Search
  2. Identify relevant concepts
  3. Organized and prioritize them
  4. Iterate one level down with searches on the most important topics

The goals are to focus your time on high-priority concepts instead of whatever happens to come up and to start organizing your thoughts for what your deliverable will look like while you are doing research.  The biggest mistake most business analysts make in research projects is to spend too much time looking for data, past the point of diminishing returns, and not enough time thinking about the information and how to analyze it.  Taking a concept-based approach from the beginning is one way to avoid that trap.

A Home Depot example

To walk through a concrete example, let’s say you are doing research on Home Depot’s strategy as part of an analysis of the home improvement retail industry.  One good approach is to start with general background sources to get a sense for the company’s strategy.  In this case, however, let’s try the iterative approach I described, starting with a web search on “Home Depot strategy” to see what comes up.  Walking through the first 30 results or so, I came across a moderate amount of useful information, but more importantly some notable terms to follow up on.  After grouping them together, here are a few of the topics I would look into further:

  • Management
    • Frank Blake, CEO
    • Bob Nardelli, former CEO
    • Matt Carey, CIO
    • Bob DeRodes, former CIO
    • Craig Menear, EVP Merchandising
  • Store strategy
    • Store format / store layout
    • Store modernization
    • Store leadership program
    • Expo Design Centers
    • Home Depot Supply
    • “Clustering strategy”
  • Customer service
    • American Customer Satisfaction Index
    • Harris Interactive Reputation Quotient
    • “Customer cultivation”
    • Staffing levels
  • Marketing strategy
    • Merchandising
    • Multichannel marketing
    • “Every day value”
  • Other
    • Executive turnover
    • Lowe’s
    • Hughes Supply Acquisition
  • While some of these company-specific phrases sometimes lead to overly-specific pages like job postings, they can also help you strike the information jackpot.  For example, Home Depot is currently positioning itself as “every day value,” but searching on that term mostly inundates you with job postings and other less than useful pages.  Of course, it also brings up a good presentation on merchandising by EVP Craig Menear, which provides amazingly detailed information on how Home Depot is working to use “destination” product lines to drive sales of complementary products.

    Looking at these results, you can start to see the outline of a few analyses that might be interesting to present to a client.  One might be a chart showing Home Depot’s customer satisfaction scores over the last few years combined with changes in staffing policies and other initiatives as well as financial results.  It seems like customer service has been one of the hot-button issues for the company over the last few years, and one that led to former CEO Bob Nardelli’s departure in 2007.

    By partitioning your search out this way, you also get halfway to a document outline.  Even when you’re in the middle of looking for data, never let yourself get so absorbed in the research process that you neglect to keep thinking through what you’re going to do with it.