Various authors of the guidebooks for writing reports (Bowden, 2002; Silverman et al., 2005; Smith, 1997) are unanimous that the Introduction is one of the most important parts of the research. As Bowden (1999) puts it, the Introduction sets the reader’s expectations and outlines the primary issues that will be covered by the report. Turley (2000) assumes that the Introduction and Conclusion are the parts of the report that are read through, whereas the other sections of the report might receive much less attention. A good introduction should comprise the following information:
- Definition of the key notions that will be covered throughout the report;
- Major set objectives and means of meeting them;
- Brief coverage of the key areas of focus and the methodology that will be employed for the report purposes;
- Reasons for choosing a particular company, industry or business area;
- In cases where the company/industry/area is predefined, the introduction should state the reasons for choosing particular models to study the issue of concern;
- The report sequence;
- Key assumptions. The assumptions are especially important in case the information from a case study or from accessible sources is not comprehensive and fails to cover all the dimensions of the area being studied.
When writing the report, one of the key challenges that arises from the very start is access to the publicly available information. This issue is especially acute when it comes to private companies that do not make their operations data publicly available. Therefore, if there is a possibility that a company has to be selected, it is highly recommended to focus on a public entity. Once a company or an industry is specified, a good starting point would be the review of annual reports of the selected company or of the key industry players. Sections such as the CEO statement and profit & loss data might provide highly valuable information about the sources of competitive advantage, key performance, criteria, industry trends and the impact of environmental factors. This data, when used along with the reports of market intelligence firms (Mintel, Datamonitor, Keynotes) is very likely to contribute to the effective usage of various models such as PESTLE, SWOT, Five Forces, Porter’s Diamond Model and OLE to name a few.
Building the discussion sequence
Defining a robust structure is one of the most critical stages in writing a good report. What is important is to remember that the structure of the report plays the role of mapping the overall discussion into a single entity. That is why it is very important to group similar sections or argument points (see Fry, 2000). It will then be easier for the reader to track the pace of analysis.
It is also important to define the role of the different sections in the report. Bowden suggests building a discussion or an analysis around the key areas and most significant findings that have a critical impact on the progress of the issue of concern. According to the principle of Pareto, of the different forces, only 20% produce 80% of the overall impact, whereas the effect produced by the remaining 80% of factors, if considered separately, is minor. Therefore, according to Bowden (2002), the critical forces should become the basis for the skeletal framework of the whole report, whereas the minor forces might be put into appendices. The order of headings and subheadings should be consistent with the proposed analytical statements. To assess the fit of the developed structure, Smith (1997) suggests using the following selection/exclusion criteria:
- Necessity test: Is each component necessary? For example: Is the section “Background information” necessary? The possible answer is “Yes” because it outlines the key facts about the company/industry/area which is under investigation. Is the section “key assumptions” necessary? The possible answer is “No”, as the key assumptions are typically included in the Introduction. In this case this section should be removed from the skeletal framework since it would serve no useful purpose.
- Inclusion test: Considering all the report requirements and learning outcomes, are all appropriate items included?
- Exclusion test: Considering all the report requirements and learning outcomes, are all appropriate items included?
- Hierarchy test: Are the issues in the sections hierarchically parallel? As mentioned above, in this case the use of the Pareto principle could be very effective. The key factors might be reflected by separate sections, whereas minor factors might be grouped into a single section.
Usage of critics and comparative arguments
What makes a good piece of research, is the weighted use of critics. The use of the arguments of different academics and industry experts indicates the student’s depth of theoretical knowledge of the research area. Turley (2000) claims that the failure to interact with the ideas proposed by other people makes reports look introspective and incestuous. However, the mere use of secondary arguments, without synthesising them in a logical manner is futile. Turley (2000) suggests that an author needs to be in control over the usage of the ideas of other people, not letting them put the author’s arguments in the shade. Smith (1997) puts forward the following ways of controlling critics:
- Using critical arguments to support the argument put forward by an author;
- Using critical arguments to contrast the ideas put forward by the author against the stance of other academics; and
- Using critical arguments to prepare the basis for the introduction of new ideas or coming to a particular inference.
The similar rules might be applied to the usage of statistical data or findings from case studies. Certain case studies might be used to indicate the positive consequences of the recommended course of action, whereas other cases might be used to indicate the negative outcomes if the area/strategy is not improved. According to Schrecengost (2002), the different use of data might be a very powerful explanatory tool when used with analytical models. The model predicts the possible outcomes, whereas the cases and data ground these predictions.
Use of statistical data, financial information and marketing data
When writing reports about a strategic course of action of a company or when analysing the development of a particular industry, an author is highly recommended to use a wide range of statistical data. When using statistical or marketing data it is important to be consistent with the sequence of the analysis and the way it explains the point which an author is trying to elaborate.
What needs to be taken into consideration is a load of data and its digestibility by a potential reader. A lot of students fall into a trap of assuming that tutors have time and enough efforts to read between the lines or undertake additional guesswork into what a student intended to write. In reality, the process of reading the report is very likely to be the following: an average tutor scans the report through the keywords and then reads it through. Bearing in mind that usually tutors have to read 10 to 15 papers in one go, one should not expect that his/her paper will receive preferential treatment. So, to convince a tutor that his/her report provides comprehensive coverage of the research area, an author is highly recommended to use visual tools like tables, graphs and figures. These tools enable the potential reader to develop a perceptual map of what an author is trying to explain. Additionally, it can be an excellent “springboard” and linking chain for comparative analysis. The guidebooks (see reference list, available in Netlibrary) provide explicit examples of using various presentation tools.
It is important to consider the likely effect on potential readers of using graphical tools. To assess the fit of graphical tools they might be tested against the following criteria:
- The ease of comprehending the presented data. If left unexplained, certain tools might add complexity rather then simplicity;
- Graphical load – it is important to limit the number of tools used because excessive use might create a negative impression; and
- Attractive appearance – the report’s appearance might win up to 10% of the overall mark.
When presenting market trends, financial development, ratios, progress, etc the use of graphical tools might be the only way to maintain a report’s consistency and the strength of its explanatory power. Besides, figures and tables are more likely to attract attention and be retained in the tutor’s memory.
Report weaknesses and limitations
Bowden (1999) notes that the author’s recognition of a report’s limitations is a strong winning factor. He claims that “experienced writers routinely acknowledge ‘weaknesses’ in their argument because they know that, paradoxically, this helps to authorize their views”. In other words, the recognition of the limitations demonstrates that the author undertakes the comprehensive approach and seeks to explore the wide range of dimensions related to the area of concern.
According to Bowden (2002) and Smith (1997), the value of the Conclusion should not be underestimated. It might contribute between 5% and 10% to the overall assignment rating. Provided there is a likelihood that a tutor might omit critical points of the report, the Conclusion could be used to highlight essential findings. It makes it easier for the tutor to navigate across the report and process the report information. According to Smith (1997), the Conclusion should:
- Pull all findings together;
- Indicate the way the set objectives were met;
- Summarise the key inferences; and
- Indicate areas of further research.
Bowden, J., (1999), Writing Good Reports, Oxford How To Books, Ltd.
Bowden, J., (2002), Writing a Report: How to Prepare, Write and Present Effective Reports, Oxford How To Books, Ltd.
Fry, Ronald. W. (2000), Improve Your Writing, Franklin Lakes, NJ TheCareer Press Schrecengost, M. (2002), Researching Issues, FortAtkinson: Wis. Highsmith, Inc.
Silverman, J., Hughes, E., Wienbroer, D. R. (2005), Shortcuts for the Student Writer, New York: McGraw-Hill Professional,
Smith, P. (1997), Writing an Assignment: How to Improve Your Research and Presentation Skills, Oxford, U.K. How to Books, Ltd.
Turley, R. M. (2000), Writing Essays: A Guide for Students in English and the Humanities, New York: Routledge