Note 3: How to Research - San Jose State University

Note 3
Researching Strategic Issues in
Big, complex topics are difficult to study. If you want to answer a simple question
(How many people live in the United States?), you can do it with a quick Google
search. If you want to find out why Apple succeeds or why unemployment is up, a
Google search will turn up lots of seemingly relevant writings. But people who know
little about the topics will have written many of them. Often few at the top of a
search list will be based on careful research and good reasoning.
This poses a challenge. Businesspeople often must make judgments about
individuals, companies, etc. Textbooks are of limited help. Often a company that was
doing great work when the text was written will have made huge mistakes since
then. You need to find, recognize and use high-quality information and analysis.
For generations, businesspeople have relied on business magazines and
newspapers. Books and academic articles often help, too. Some publications have
carefully built a reputation for accuracy and usefulness. And today databases and
search engines make them more accessible.
However, information accessibility on the web means fewer students subscribe to
business newspapers and magazines than in the past. Thus today’s students
are less likely to know which publications are reliable. Web and database
searches often produce vast numbers of valueless “hits.” Articles that would provide
the most thoughtful, best-researched understandings of a firm’s distinctive
competences, business-level strategies, and key technologies often do not contain
words that would bring them to the top of a search. Meanwhile, searching for a
company name and a topic like “distinctive competence” will often take you to a
paper written by students who know less about the company than you do.
To research strategic issues you need to find longer analytical articles whose
authors have done careful research. To help you understand and use the quality
sources of information that are available, Business 189 students are required to
subscribe to one of the major business periodicals. As you read you publication, be
alert for good information not only about the company you are studying and its
competitors but also about the firms that others in the class are studying.
Businesspeople need to help each other.
In addition, use these five steps to better strategic knowledge:
1. Know the leading sources of high quality analytical business reporting.
Important publications include the magazines Fortune, Bloomberg
BusinessWeek, Forbes, and the Economist, and the newspapers the Wall St.
Journal, the Financial Times of London, and the New York Times, This list is
not complete. (The San Jose Mercury News also has excellent business
coverage.) Normally you can rely on facts in an article written for these
publications and other reputable journals. Frequently you can’t rely on other
Web articles (sometimes even articles on the web sites of high-quality
business magazines).
2. Develop an understanding of how search engines and databases work.
In addition to Google and perhaps other search engines, you should use
databases available through the university library. Neither Google nor the
database companies produce most of the articles and other items they
display. Therefore in a search, very reliable and very unreliable items may
appear next to each other. Always check what is the original source of the
article. Ask yourself whether you have reason to believe it is reliable.
3. Identify some databases and web sites likely to contain the kind of data
you need, then develop a strategy for finding the information in those
places. Among databases with content useful for strategic research are ABIInform, Business Source Premier, and Factiva. On each database you can limit
searches to specific publications. A good approach to finding information
relevant to business strategy is to limit your search to info from
BusinessWeek, Fortune, Forbes, and the Economist. (You will miss good
analyses from newspapers this way, but including newspapers will capture
many small articles unlikely to interest you.) Some of the top business
publications have good web sites. BusinessWeek’s, Fortune’s, and Forbes’ are
free. Be cautious – to attract social media links, the big publications try to
produce new content every day, and some of it is not useful. (Generally this
content will not be included in searches of the big databases.) But you can
usually access much of the magazines’ contents on their sites.
4. In addition to publications from leading journalists and academics, be
sure to read material from the company. Usually the best and most
reliable company material is in its annual report, written for investors. It is
usually accessible through an “Investors” link on the company’s main web
5. Usually there are just a few excellent recent articles on any company
(and indeed, on any topic you want to research). Be sure to save the most
useful ones and share them with others on your team.
If you learn to do research this way, it can be a valuable skill you’ll use throughout a
business career.
- R.C. Wood, July 30, 2014
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