Thursday, 15 November 2012

Research File: Seeking, searching and sourcing information

It seems a bit strange to me now that I haven't covered this topic already given I try to regularly run a Research File on here! Yes, you've got it the theme this time is research, but research for what - for facts, opinions and information - anything that helps us to make educated decisions. Decision making is always vastly improved by relevant research beforehand and here even opinion and the assumptions of others can prove very useful to know. What follows are hints, tips and suggestions about how to go about your research. 

There are two main categories of information which are useful to anyone, regardless of whether you are running and enterprise, a member of staff or looking for work which are: factual general information and opinions. 

Factual Information

Factual information can include financial details about a company you are thinking of trading with, some of which the company itself is happy to divulge through annual reports, but some records are also held by Company's House for some legal structures which will also conveniently highlight how many directors a organisation has had and how often they have changed. If they change regularly one has to start asking why as it can be an early indicator of possible ongoing problems and instability or it might be part of it's policy to make such changes. 

Golden rule - try in as far as possible to avoid making assumptions when fact finding. 

Other sources of information can come from following the leads from their own websites. Check out their recommendations, check their 'satisfied customer' list and if it's a local company with no website, ask  the local community and ask for them to refer you to 3-5 happy clients of theirs if need be. Then assess those contacts and their connection with the company.

Facts are actually quite slippery things as few things in life are categorically provable with absolutely no shadow of doubt. The more independent the source of information is, the better. Remember just as you will need to be adept in presenting your facts in a favourable light to win over people, so too do others! Facts are always subject to interpretation and a clever accountant can easily disguise the bear bones of what is actually happening so - buyer beware.

General facts are fairly easy to find, especially if you happen to be a person that people like to talk to. All manner of interesting information can be gathered via private conversations and the name of the game is to get people to be straight with you preferably by supplying you with written evidence where possible. Social media can help you to nail down information that you require via news stories and all manner of articles but remember they are all marketing tools in themselves designed to engage with you to follow them. This blog site is just such an example - no point lying about it!

Most important of all is to be clear about what is a fact and what is hearsay and opinion. A bank statement has factual information, a person telling you they've made significant profits this fiscal year is not.


Opinions give you the 'feel' for what will go down well. Aside from just asking individuals direct, you can gather information via surveys either conducted by yourself or by reading those run by others and published. However, be aware of who participants of surveys are and how big they are. Most surveys are limited to a few hundred people taking part in them so they might not be ideal or give a accurate picture of what you wish to know. Anyone who has conducted a survey will tell you that there is seldom a 100% return i.e. not everyone asked will take part. Surveys also vary in structure, some are detailed and ask for opinions while others are just a series of tick boxes so you will never accurately know the figures for people who dither between two options if the choices available are restricted. Remember too that certain personality types love doing surveys while other loathe them so I recommend that you take them largely with a pinch of salt unless they are asking directly for the participants to voice their views in their own words.

The opinions of others matters most when it comes to customers, clients and service users.  The best way to get that information will always be through normal channels of communication in written and verbal form. Don't forget though that colleagues and connections throughout the industry sector you are involved in are also extremely important, particularly when it comes to planning and development and in reaction to outside influences e.g. changes in the law.

Information research options

Most people in business are familiar with using computers these days and with browsing the Internet for things of interest to them, but how do you get the best results?
TOP TIP: Be clear about what you are searching for at the outset for the best results.

Suppose you want to look for a list of dentists. If you hook up to any search engine and type in the word 'dentist' you will find a mishmash of results from definitions of the word to dentist practices and job descriptions. It highlights the need for accuracy. The clearer the parameters for your search the better, the more detail for those parameters the better too. 

So if you want dentist practices in your area tap in 'dentist practices' followed by your county or town. Simple. However in business, you might want a full list with all the contact details of all those practices and that can take up a lot of man hours. This is why there are dedicated businesses who do nothing but research and will charge you a fee for supplying you with that information. It can be worth it too when their database records have contact details numbering thousands.

Hang on though, there is almost bound to be a directory of some things such as dentists in the UK somewhere... guess what you type! 
Alternatively you could also try some business and other advisory services e.g. Business Link as some of their database records might be free because it is public information. Regulatory bodies can also be helpful to approach. Remember though that some information is protected under the Data Protection Act 1998.

When it comes to products and suppliers, the number of price comparison sites springing up can make life easy but not all enterprises subscribe to them for a multitude of reasons, so be aware that you might be missing out on the best deal if you only rely on those sites. For some purchases that might not matter, but for others it could make a huge difference.

Be it suppliers, materials, contacts or customers the information is usually out there for you to find but weigh up how much you really need that information to be able to function with how much time (and money) it will take you to obtain it. When it comes to finding information be smart and think first about where it is most likely to be lurking and why it's in the public domain at all.

Never be fooled by what appears at the top of the list when using search engines. For many searches the first few listings are adverts because those companies are good at things called meta tags and other weird and wonderful back end Internet stuff. The largest organisations will always have the upper hand in investing to ensure they top of any search engine list that is relevant to them. They might be your top choice too, but then again they might not be. Handy to know if you are researching who does invest in such things!

Searching is one thing, finding exactly what you want is quite another. Best to write down your objective before you start if you want to avoid getting sidetracked or seduced into things which are not strictly relevant to your needs and  goals. Research is a process, from which careful decisions should be made, so it's best not to let the research results make the decisions for you. Spend time doing some analysis to use the information found to help guide you, not command you.  

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