We research every day, whether it be trying to ‘self diagnose’ that embarrassing growth, planning a holiday or cheating at a pub quiz*. I research for a living, but even if it’s not your main role you are likely to find yourself periodically tasked with some super-sleuthing: “Is our Employment Handbook up to date?…What are our competitors doing?…Do we need a copyright licence for all this photocopying?…” In an ideal world many of these questions would allocated to an expert but this costs money. So, if you find yourself wondering how to go about the task, my five top tips for research are:
- Clarify the task: This may sound obvious but if you spend three days going off on a tangent you’ll kick yourself. Check whether you are expected to report back with an answer, a range of options and/or present a recommendation. By the end of the task, your Manager may consider your knowledge on the topic to exceed theirs so it’s plausible that you will be expected to give a reasoned opinion.
- Rely on trusted sources: When you hit the web, stick to reliable sources of information. Wikipedia can be useful for background but remember that anyone can edit the content. Supposedly 60% of its articles contain factual errors (I’m not convinced that David Beckham really was “a Chinese goalkeeper in the 18thcentury.”) It’s generally pretty safe to rely on Government sources eg gov.uk websites and statutory bodies like ACAS or ICO. Many big charities produce useful guidance documents in plain English. Although appealing and well-intentioned try to avoid internet forums unless the users can offer a source to verify their opinion.
- Write as you read: Researching efficiently will help you keep on top of your workload. It is all too easy to spend hours reading articles and publications and then realise you have to skim-read the whole lot again when you put pen to paper. As soon as you identify your first useful (or potentially useful) point, jot something down in a Word document. Don’t write in full sentences yet because, in two hours time, you may render the point irrelevant and delete it.
- Report back properly: Does your Manager need a snappy verbal answer and/or something in writing? Bear in mind that the latter shows ‘your workings’ and can be useful to your Manager if he/she ever needs to go back to check or explain the rationale for what happened next.
- Report back helpfully: For complex or significant research tasks (such as where time or money may be invested) don’t be afraid to be thorough in your write up. If you fear your Manager will be irritated by a lengthy report, then be sure to nail the executive summary. This should be at the beginning of the report, present your conclusions as a list of bullet points and must include the points your Manager wants and needs to know. Your analysis should offer all the key facts and considerations that you discovered. Finally, your conclusion should mirror the executive summary.
I hope these tips help with that next research task. Even if you don’t enjoy it as much as I do, a logical methodology should keep it pain-free!
*For the avoidance of doubt, I never cheat in pub quizzes; I’m far too knowledgeable in my specialist subjects: Take That (1990-1996) and Malcolm Tucker quotations.