I’ve talked about research a few times on this page, but today I thought I’d talk about a more concrete problem, specifically, “If I’m in a work situation, which sources do I use in specific circumstances?” The weasel-word answer, unfortunately, is “It depends.” However, I’ll try to clarify a few of those situations so you can apply them where you work.
It Depends On…
The Size of the Assignment
The size of your task will often dictate the number of sources you need to consult to complete it successfully.
Let’s start with something straightforward, like what type of deliverable you’re writing. Is it a business letter or memo? An article? A report? The size and complexity of the deliverable will affect not just which sources you use, but how many.
Example 1: Your boss calls you in to ask for help in writing a memo about an upcoming proposal opportunity and its importance to the organization. Your source, in this case, is most likely your boss alone. However, s/he might ask you to include a URL to the proposal solicitation or the customer website. In that case, all you’re doing is rephrasing what your leader wants to say and including the URL.
Example 2: On the other hand, your manager might want you to research and include links to your likely competitors on the opportunity so that the team reading the email can think of ways to “ghost” the competition while writing the proposal. Your sources could include what the boss tells you, the websites of the known competitors, or even Fed Biz Opps (FBO) to see which companies might be included on the Industry Day invite list.
Example 3: On the gripping hand, your boss might give you a research assignment, asking you to look up who the competition might be if your organization was to enter a new line of business. Suddenly you’re not just using FBO, but searching the internet using a variety of keywords to locate the proper companies. You also might ask subject matter experts in your organization (assuming the assignment isn’t confidential).
As you can see, even a small, “simple” task can result in more research than you originally estimated.
Or you might be asked to write a news story. When I wrote for Spaceflight Insider, my employer wanted a minimum of three reliable sources cited/linked in any of my articles. Ideally, he liked me to get direct quotations from participants in the story as well. The goal, obviously, was to ground my news stories in verifiable facts. Sometimes I would be quoting official media releases (also known as press releases by folks above a certain age). Sometimes I’d quote comments made on the 6 o’clock news or on a live webcast.
Other organizations and situations might call for more. And if you were writing for print, the same rules might apply, only you’d be going out and talking with multiple people to get comments about a situation.
Or you might be tasked with being the “book boss” of a large engineering plan, one that lays out the management processes for how your organization will handle a particular project (example: a Systems Engineering Management Plan or SEMP). A document like that typically requires inputs from multiple individuals across the engineering and management teams.
This could require you to interview these individuals one on one or to take notes during lengthy meetings and then translate the discussions into content that can be included in the document. Sometimes the participants from different areas will send a rough draft of their section to you for “cleaning up.” It is also likely, given the size of the document, the number of participants, and the importance of the content to the customer, you will have to incorporate multiple rounds of edits and negotiate differences of opinion.
One last example would be a company annual report. Like the SEMP above, such a document will have multiple inputs and high visibility, so you’d be incorporating inputs from across the organization, up to and including the legal department and the CEO. You might be researching past annual reports or electronic or paper files to get the information you want. It is even possible that the lawyers or the finance people rather than you will have the final say in how the report reads.
From the examples above, you can see that the size, complexity, and potential visibility of a deliverable all can affect how much research you need to do.
Other technicalities can affect what you research as well. These include:
- The most appropriate sources for your document can depend on the age range, education, professional background, or other factors among your target audience. Some of those factors could result in your not using particular sources.
- If you’re writing a white paper for a government agency (e.g., the U.S. Department of Defense), you might need to cite documents that are not in the public domain. The challenge, of course, is to make sure the documents you use can be viewed by your particular audience. Some information is restricted to specific organizations or individuals on a need-to-know basis. You also might have to write a severely redacted or scaled-down version of your document for the public that relies only on unclassified information.
- Deadline: Is your deliverable due in an hour, a day, a week, a month, or longer?
- Availability: Is your go-to subject matter expert available or on vacation? Does s/he have a backup?
- Lack of Backups: If your SME and his/her backup are not available, can you write the item without including that input or substitute something or someone else?
- Other People’s Stuff: Sometimes you can’t proceed until someone else generates one of the sources you need to complete the assignment.
- Lack of In-House Data: If you’re working for a small company and you need the “company line” on a particular product, you might find that there IS no company line on the product because a) it’s new and b) no one’s been around to write about it until you came along.
Bottom line: It’s not just a matter of what types of sources you use, but how many to ensure the proper rigor in your deliverable. When in doubt, ask.