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Developing research strategy

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After the client interview, the researcher should have a clear understanding of the questions to be answered, what end product is expected, what is already known about the topic, and the time and budget constraints.

As we’ve seen, the information gathered in the client interview provides the groundwork for planning the research.

The next step in the process is developing a research strategy, which outlines the steps required to get from your list of objectives and questions to the information that offers the answers.

To develop an effective and appropriate search strategy, you need to look at your questions and constraints in light of what you know about the research process.

How will you answer the research questions in the time required?  Which sources will you start with?

Are any key sources that will strain your budget?  If so, are there any alternatives?  These are the sorts of questions your search strategy will address.

Define the Research Depth
To plan your research, you’ll need to know how much information you should be looking for.  In other words, how much is enough?

The client interview should have defined the research questions rather specifically, and you should have a good idea how the information will be used.

Now it’s time to look at these questions and objectives in terms of the sources available to you.

Let’s look at three research examples, including the situation, opportunity, or problem that prompted the request, the decision to be made, and the research questions:

1. Situation:  A new product requires a competitive warranty package.

Decision to be made:  What will our warranty package look like?
Research Question:  What are the competing products?  What kinds of warranty do they offer?

2. Opportunity:  Your client is a high-technology computer peripherals company.  The competition’s color printers seem to be gaining market share.

Decision to be made:  Should we rethink our target market or should we redesign the printer?

Research Questions:  How is the competition positioning its printer in the marketplace?  What are the features and benefits of their printer compared with ours?  How does the competition advertise and promote its product?

3. Problem:  Sales for one of your client’s products have gone flat.
Decision to be made:  Do we reposition the product, or identify a new target market?

Research Questions:  How has the competition positioned its product for the market?  What is the target market?

What are the characteristics of this market in terms of size and demographics?  How does the target market perceive the product?

Each of these examples suggests a different project depth.  Look at the research questions.

Is the information required general or specific?  How many different areas of research would you need to investigate in each case?

The greater the number of distinct research topics, the deeper your research needs to be.  The first example, for instance, is relatively straightforward, requiring specific research into a fairly focused area.

Your research will need to identify competing products and describe the warranty packages they offer.

The second example is a bit more complex:  it requires you to do some general research to identify competing printers, and some specific research on features, benefits, advertising, and promotion.

The third example is relatively focused on the market, but it requires the deepest research:  you’ll need to identify the market, describe the market, and research the market response to the product in question.

Looking at your research questions in this way allows you to start planning your research.

A relatively simple research question may be answered in a short period of time, using only a handful of key resources.

More complicated questions require more time, and you’ll need to look at a broader variety of sources.

As we will see, the more you know about your sources, the better able you’ll be able to define your strategy at this point.

To define the research depth, you’ll also need to consider your time and budget constraints.

In planning your search strategy you will sometimes need to consider whether time constraints outweigh cost concerns, or vice versa.  In many cases, the tradeoff between paying more and obtaining the information quickly is worth it.

For example, let’s say a pharmaceutical company CEO asked her research librarian to comprehensively search the medical literature for references to a specific antibody and what disease states were being associated with it.

The client wanted to broaden her own thinking about therapeutic applications in time for a meeting two days later.

The researcher could have chosen to search free sources, such as PubMed, or printed indexes such as Biological Abstracts, with the only expense being her time.

But given the short deadline, she instead conducted a simultaneous online search of three huge medical/pharmaceutical bibliographic databases (citations and abstracts only, no full text articles), with duplicates automatically removed.

The search yielded a highly relevant list of references, formatted and delivered within a couple of hours.

This approach left plenty of time for the client to scan the list, obtain the full text, and prepare for the meeting.

The results, using the Dialog Corporation databases, cost about five hundred dollars, with most of the expense attributed to the large number of hits downloaded.

In this case the research librarian developed a research strategy that favored speed over low cost, paying the fees associated with the online aggregated databases to ensure a broad search that could be completed in a short period of time.

There may, of course, be situations in which cost concerns outweigh time constraints.  In such a case, your research strategy may include free databases and Web pages, free library access, and time to format your results so that the client can use them.

Whether it is time, money, or the nature of the required results, always consider the project constraints when planning the search strategy.

Conceptualize the Information You Need
In developing the research strategy, it can help to conceptualize the information you need to address the questions.

Ask yourself, what, exactly, am I looking for?  Try to picture the answer, or even the report that you will eventually deliver.

Will it contain statistics, copies of articles, charts, tables, or all of these?  If your question involves trends or forecasts, will you need a table of statistics to illustrate the answers?

What kind of data would fill that table?  Ask yourself, if you haven’t already asked your client, to imagine the ideal article that would address your questions.  What would be the title of that article?

By conceptualizing the information you need and what the answers might look like, you can begin to identify possible sources for that information.

If you think the answer will come from published articles, you can search the databases containing that type of information.

If data and statistics will answer the questions, you can identify statistical sources and plan to search there.

Later portions of this chapter elaborate on how to construct a search string to retrieve information from online databases.

Consider Who Might Have the Information You Need
In developing your research strategy, it helps to know something about the origin, assimilation, and distribution of the information you’re looking for.

Where, for instance, does online information come from?  Who compiles it and makes it available?

If you have an image of the information stream in mind, it is easier to picture where and how to jump into that stream.

As Leonard Fuld points out, “Each business transaction reveals data.  By understanding the transaction, you can locate the intelligence source.”

If you know the target industry well, you are probably already well acquainted with the actors and the sources.

Consider How Information Is Organized
The more you know about how the information is gathered, organized, and retrieved, the more effective your search strategy will be.

As a researcher, you will search many collections of information.  A great deal of the information market and industry researchers need can be accessed through a portal or a database.

Portals have become very popular with the growth of the World Wide Web.  Portal developers bring together on one Web site a variety of resources, including links to other Web sites, subject-oriented directories of relevant sources, and searchable databases.

Alacra, described in more detail below and in Chapter Four, is a good example of a portal.

Databases have long been the fundamental resource for the online searcher.  These are highly organized collections of information labeled and categorized to facilitate retrieval.

Databases are generally searched using a command language designed for that database.

Knowing your way around online databases is an important key to successful searching.

Databases contain records that are tagged and indexed by fields.  To better understand this, think of your bank check register as a database.

Each check is a record.  Each check has fields in which to place information, and each of these fields has a name or “tag.”

So the field tagged Payee is the place in the record where you will find information about who received the money accounted for by this check.

The field tagged Amount contains information on how much money the Payee received.  The field tagged Date contains information on what day and year the check was written.

Similarly, in an online database, you might find records organized into fields tagged Title or Author or Journal Name.

These tags facilitate powerful and precise searching through the terabytes of information available online.

The search software for each online database service is set up to allow searchers to target specific fields.

For example, you could search for all references to a certain author in the Author field and retrieve the list of articles written by that author.

Each database has its own way of organizing its records – from the way it obtains its records, to the field names it users, to the search interface design you see on the screen.  Let’s look at one example.

A great deal of information is revealed in the normal course of doing business, information that agencies and organizations then gather and make available to the public.

For instance, information from vessel manifests and U.S. Customs data tapes on U.S. imports are gathered in the Port Import Export Reporting Service (PIERS), produced by Commonwealth Business Media, Inc.

Reporters throughout the country gather export information from bills of lading at all U.S. ports.

The data is compiled, indexed, and put into an electronic format for online searching.  Search fields include such things as Country of Port of Origin, City of Exporter, and Company Name of Importer.

PIERS makes this data available for a fee through their Web site and through information aggregators such as LexisNexis and Dialog.

The organizations that gather and publish information seem almost endless.  Another, database developer is a U.K. company called PJB Publications, which uses reporters and telephone interviewers to gather progress reports on new pharmaceutical projects.

Their Pharmaprojects database contains indexed and searchable entries online, allowing those interested in the pharmaceutical project pipeline to monitor projects of interest.

The Gale Group, which is a large company owned by Thomson, an even larger company, produces hundreds of reference works and databases.

Very popular is the Gale database PROMT, which covers companies, products, markets, and technologies for all industries.  PROMT includes documents from trade and business journals, papers, business publications, newsletters, studies, analysts’ reports, news releases, and annual reports.

Information Sources, a small private company, produces Soft-Base:  Reviews, Companies, and Products.

This database covers products in the information technology industry, gathering information from business, computer, technical, trade, and consumer publications and adding value through indexing and abstracts.

When organizations such as PIERS, Gale Group, and Information Sources compile information, they add value to it by tagging fields, applying indexing, and putting it online to facilitate retrieval.

These examples illustrate the range of organizations and agencies that collect, compile, organize, and disseminate information.  Understanding the information-gathering industry can help the researcher plan an effective search strategy.

Move from the General to the Specific
Research sources vary in the depth of the information they offer.  There are general, broad-based sources that tend to include a little bit of information on a lot of things (such as a Dun & Bradstreet company directory), and there are very specific sources that might contain in-depth information on fewer things (such as the 369-page directory that covers only companies providing library automation software).

In developing your search strategy, plan to move from the general sources to the more specific.

This is one of the most important principles of the research process:  move from the general to the specific.

Preliminary research in a general source should help you to get “the big picture” and to learn relevant market or industry jargon, acronyms, vocabulary, and keywords.

You probably remember this research principle from your writing courses in college, where many students learn the basic research strategy model.

Student researchers might start with a general or subject-specific encyclopedia article to obtain background and an overview.

They might then move to a search of magazine, newspaper, and journal indexes for more references to articles with information, different perspectives, and expert opinion.

Often, the next step is to pursue details, facts, statistics, and verification by searching directories and statistical sources for further detail.

Market and industry research works pretty much the same way.  Do the background work that it takes to understand the structure of the industry in question.

Familiarize yourself with the jargon, keywords, industry association names, and key players.

A good industry overview helps identify issues and trends and points you in the right direction.

As necessary you can then move to subject-specific databases for articles and analysis.  Even if your ultimate goal is only a specific piece of market data, background knowledge on the industry within which that market operates will help you put that bit of market data in context.  This context often allows you to provide better, more useful information to your client.

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