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Research Mixed With Analysis Provides a Complete Meal
By
Volume 39, Number 1 - January/February 2015

Consider this scenario: You’ve just completed an awesome body of research. One of your clients awaits word on your findings. Now, what’s that deliverable going to look like? Of course there are options, but I will make a case for thoughtful analysis of results delivered clearly and concisely. In my experience, this approach offers value, meets needs, and leads to repeat business.

I’ve seen the range of options in terms of deliverables, and some of them are not pretty. Imagine a busy manager in the business development group asking for an overview of a target company. Now imagine responding with an email saying, “Here’s the information you asked for” along with nine attachments containing news output from a Factiva search, news and technology information from a Dialog search, links to competitor websites, and excerpts from market research reports. Watching the researcher hit the send button, I cringed.

While we’re in imagination mode, put yourself in the client’s place, only instead of a manager in business development, you’re a hungry traveler seeking out a hot meal. You find a restaurant, talk to the waiter, and order the lasagna. After a modest amount of time, a platter lies before you. It contains a carton of ricotta cheese, a package of dried lasagna pasta, some eggs, a bundle of fresh herbs, a basket of tomatoes, and a block of parmesan cheese. What the what? Yes, technically, you have what could eventually become lasagna, but I seriously doubt you have the resources, time, skill, or interest in doing the work to make it happen. As a hungry diner, you will not value a pile of raw ingredients nearly as much as a nicely presented meal, ready to eat, prepared with the skills, judgment, and training of an experienced chef. Let us assume the same sentiment holds for our busy clients and business partners within our organizations.

Just as the chef adds value to raw ingredients by transforming them into a satisfying meal, the information professional can add value to information by creating content ready to consume. The formatting will vary according to the need, and yes, occasionally a simple email will do the trick. Info pros have the skills and experience to develop spot-on deliverables that knowledge workers need to help the organization succeed.

Many info pros do this and have done so for ages. Many do not. Why would we not undertake this kind of valuable service for our clients? It appears largely to be a matter of training, culture, and perceived resource availability.

WHY WE DELIVER RAW INGREDIENTS

What is behind an info pro’s propensity to deliver the raw ingredients rather than the cooked meal? I can think of four major reasons:

  • Graduate school training
  • Low expectations within the organization
  • Perceived lack of time or resources
  • Lack of confidence in our ability to draw conclusions

In graduate school or on the job, many info pros learned to be the conduit of information, not passing judgment or offering opinions in any way. Remember the admonition, “Do not offer legal advice. You are not a lawyer.” (Although in some cases we are!) “You are not a doctor, so don’t offer medical advice.” There are instances, however, when these warnings are inappropriate and counterproductive. Part of our professionalism is recognizing the difference.

Possibly the culture of the organization does not expect this level of service from its info pros. This may be based on the info pro’s job description or the level of service received from librarians in the past. If it’s the former, consider changing the job description, the job title, or both. Librarians and information professionals have an abundance of responsibilities and duties. They may feel that there are just not enough hours in the day or money in the budget to offer this level of service. Some info pros harbor a fear of missing something or getting it wrong, while others assume that the requester is better qualified to evaluate the research findings and draw conclusions.

Times have changed. With information proliferation, it is no longer enough to “rip and ship.” A key value of information professionals lies in the skillful collection, evaluation, and communication of analysis and insights in an easy-to-consume deliverable. There are an abundance of situations in which the info pro can, and should, provide an analysis or insights into the findings from a research project.

Most organizations welcome new products and services that lead to increased productivity and more informed decision-making. Info pros should not be timid about proactively addressing gaps in strategic thinking to better meet enterprise needs. As for the perceived lack of time or resources, that may well be simply a matter of priorities or time management. Consider dropping or reprioritizing low-value tasks or carving out time for analysis and writing by simply stopping the research process sooner rather than later.

Info pros are well-suited to the task of research and analysis. Mass quantities of text do not intimidate us. Info pros have experience processing volumes of information from disparate sources. Scanning pages and pages of content for relevant data points comes fairly easily to most. In general, info pros are detail-oriented, thorough, and inquisitive. Admit it. You’ve continued the search in response to a reference question long after the questioner has left the building.

Do the Analysis

What does analysis look like? How do we do it? In processing a body of research (the raw ingredients of your final dish), it’s reasonable to follow a sequence of steps such as filtering, selecting, and collecting. Filtering involves looking for the relevant content and removing articles or results that do not directly address the question at hand. From the remaining findings, select useful information and collect it into a working document. In reading through the collected content, try to do the following:

  • Identify themes or recurring concepts.
  • Consider sources and evaluate authority or bias.
  • Triangulate findings to confirm validity from multiple sources.
  • Collect statistics or relevant data points.
  • Seek out content that addresses the question at hand.
  • Look for conflicting or contradictory information that pushes back on initial assumptions.
  • Connect the dots and identify patterns.

To be on target, understand the question being asked, how the information you collect will be used, or what decisions/actions will be taken as a result of these findings. During the reference interview or discussion, get an understanding of context. Often research requests come with an assumption or hypothesis. The requester believes a certain thing to be true or valid and seeks to find supporting evidence. Everything retrieved during the course of the research can be evaluated within that context. As you read through or scan the content, ask yourself, “How does this answer the question or meet the assumptions?”

Here are some tactics to apply in analyzing and organizing:

  • Highlight relevant content using the word processor’s highlighting tool—use different colors for different subtopics or themes.
  • Collect relevant content into a separate working document.
  • Reread the question to be answered, and reread the body of research to be sure you have captured all of the relevant content.
  • Circle back for more research if there are gaps or certain points needing triangulation or confirmation.

Consider using a tool such as Scrivener (literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php) to manage and organize the body of research. By the time you have worked your way through the content at least once, patterns or gaps may begin to emerge. These initial results often lead to another round of research to confirm the findings or fill in the remaining gaps. You might see all of the supporting data coming from only one source or uncover unexpected facts that challenge the original assumption. These are insights that the requester would want to know about.

Analysis need not be the sort that requires algorithms and statistical programming. It can, and often is, simply an awareness on the part of the info pro that facilitates evaluation of research findings through simple logic and reasoning.

Deliver Findings Effectively

Your business partner in this enterprise is the requester. Whether it is the manager in business development, a bench chemist looking for that one key fact, a professor working on a grant application, or the company president inquiring about the competition, knowledge workers are busy, just as you are. You do them a service by making the information they need clear and brief, providing the key conclusion, finding, or recommendation upfront. Don’t bury the lead, and don’t make them work for it. Effectively delivered research and analysis are immediately consumable. The requester should not have to slice, dice, sauté, or otherwise process the findings in order to take them in.

Tailor the deliverable to suit the user. The higher up the chain of command a user is, the more he or she will value tightly formatted information with no extraneous content. You don’t want your business partner thinking (or saying!), “Why are you telling me this?” As tempting as it may be to provide the full body of information collected in the course of the research, that gesture is rarely appreciated or even appropriate. Your value as a skilled information professional comes in sparing the user all of that content. Just tell them what they need to know in order to use or apply the findings. Save the backup information for questions or follow-up research.

Be Clear

Use unambiguous terms to avoid misunderstanding or misinterpretation. Keep sentences on the short side. You want your reader to be able to get the meaning of a sentence on the first read. Avoid jargon, acronyms, or any kind of shorthand that may require interpretation or explanation. It’s a risky business to assume that everyone will “get it.”

What format works best for clearly delivering insights and analysis? That depends. Upper management and executive types often prefer slide decks with bullet points and visuals. Put data in a table or graph to help tell the story. Include photos, screen shots, or maps if appropriate. Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words. These visuals save time, drive home points, and communicate much more effectively than pure text. In written reports, an executive summary is obligatory, and the body of the report should be broken down with headings and subheadings. These provide reassuring white space and way points for navigation through the document. Anything longer than three pages should include a table of contents.

Be Brief

Deliver only what you have to in order to answer the question or meet the information need. Truly, less is more. The whole point of research and analysis is to spare the requester the process of filtering the information on his/her own. Appending all of those awesome research findings to the document is less likely to impress and more likely to appear onerous and weighty.

As tempting as it may be, skip the methodology and supporting information. Your requestor doesn’t need the full recipe, the time and temperature for the cooking process, or the names of the markets where the ingredients were purchased. Unless it contributes to answering the question or validating the findings, leave it out. Reference it or suggest that it’s available if needed, but resist the urge to share.

‘BLUF’—Deliver the Bottom Line Up Front

Whether your deliverable is an oral presentation, a slide deck, or a printed document, get to the point early. Lead with conclusions, key findings, recommendations, and answers.

Your clients can dig deeper for more meaning or context as needed, but they will be better listeners and more attentive readers if they know where they are going. This is not a mystery novel. You will not spoil the ending by putting the bottom line up front (BLUF).

COOK IT RIGHT

Just as the chef adds value to raw ingredients by transforming them into a satisfying meal, the info pro can add value to information by creating content ready to consume. Add value through analysis and by adding insights. The formatting varies according to the need, but clarity, brevity, and putting the bottom line up front are the staples.

Librarians and information professionals can and should share the benefit of their research skills as well as their analysis and communication skills to advance the goals and objectives of their organizations.


Cindy Shamel owns Shamel Information Services, a consulting and business research firm.

 

Comments? Contact the editors at editors@onlinesearcher.net

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