3-step approach to online research

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No matter what type of work that you do, gathering information is an important first step. Planning an investigation? Preparing for big business decision? Conducting due diligence? All require some digging into the backgrounds and actions of individuals or businesses, looking at industry trends and best practices, or generally getting smarter before taking action. A lot of us start online.

This process of gathering and using information for making decisions or solving problems has lots of names. I call it “research.” I’ve spent the past 20+ years doing research, a lot of it online, and–honestly–I’m still learning. I’m always looking for ways to streamline the process and get better results (answers) for my clients. My go-to sources and the questions clients ask have changed over the years, and I’ve researched everything from silicon photonics to Jeff Zucker’s career to global hedge fund managers. But one thing hasn’t changed – the way I approach the task.

For just about any project, I tend to approach the research with a system. Fortunately, since no two client projects or cases are the same, this system works with any situation, and it actually encourages creativity.

Here’s the 3-step approach I use for online research:

Step 1: Prepare

Ask more questions: What does the client really need to know? Why do they need the info? What are they doing with it, or what are they trying to accomplish? When do they need the results, and how much are they willing to spend? The answers will help develop a strategy, select sources, add focus to the searches, or know when to try something different.

Gather all known information: What do clients, teams, stakeholders already know? Ask for everything, because you never know what will come in handy. Gather identifiers, name variations, any background that someone else may have collected, which will provide the foundation for research.

Know the limits: Take an early reality check. Have you managed expectations? It would be nice, but, no, everything’s not online. Personal and private information, trade secrets, information no one cares enough about to post it online, or lots of interest but no budget. Prepare to go offline, or try some different questions.

Know your sources: Learn the differences between free and fee-based sources. Understand what makes each database unique: what’s included, what’s missing, and how to use the advanced features for getting the most out of search time and budget. Keep up with what’s new and consistently re-evaluate your favorites. For each case, make sure you know which sources to use and which to avoid.

Step 2: Search

Start broad: Don’t try to get too specific right away, since you might miss something you didn’t know you needed. Cast a wide net and look for anything new. Learn more about the subject through some free sources, and it’s OK to flail for a little while.

Narrow it down: Take what you found in your first pass, and use it to find more. Add or remove keywords, limit by date or geography, try some specialized sources, follow a few tangents. Take a step back to evaluate progress and determine next steps.

Look for leads, not just answers: Keep your options open. Something may not provide the exact answer, but it might include a random piece of information that will lead to the answers. Another name variation, a previously-unknown business, a spouse’s name, names of possible experts to consult.

Save everything: Have a system for organizing what you find, and don’t toss anything yet. It’s easier to hold onto it than re-do your searches later on.

Step 3: Action

Review results: At this stage, you mostly have bits of possibly-related information. Pull out your notes from Step 1, and think about what your client really needs. With that in mind, review findings, and use only what’s necessary.

Identify gaps: Do you have everything you need to answer client questions? If not, what’s missing, and what will help you fill the gap? Do you need more online research, or should you take a different direction?

Report findings: Usually I work with written reports, although clients sometimes ask for PowerPoint slides, brief memos, phone and in-person debriefings. Tell the story, and re-read it from the perspective of someone who hasn’t been immersed in the topic.

Learn from feedback – Ask questions and learn to spot ways that you can improve your process and results. What would you do differently next time? What do you need to change, and how do you change it?

Using a framework like this helps me work efficiently and stay on target. What’s your approach to online research?

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