This post is part of the series: “How to write distinction-earning MBA assignments”. Check out the rest of the series for straightforward, actionable MBA assignment ideation, planning, research and writing advice.
So, you’ve been involved in your industry for over 10/15/20 years – you’ve learnt a thing or two along the way. Your opinion counts in the boardroom. When you talk, people list. Therefore, your opinion must carry weight in your assignments, right? Wrong.
The easiest way to lose significant marks in an MBA assignment (and potentially even fail) is to have your analysis, argument and conclusions rely heavily (or god forbid, exclusively) on your personal insights, observations and experiences – in other words, your opinion. While this approach might be sufficient in the workplace, academia demands more. When writing your assignments, a prudent rule of thumb is this:
Your personal opinion (no matter how well founded it may be) means nothing.
What, then, should you build your arguments on? Given that your opinion carries so little weight, then, any argument you make needs to be buttressed by other sources. At the very least, the arguments in your assignment need to be supported by references from reliable prior research (ideally peer-reviewed academic journals, but this is often not possible). Ideally, however, your assignment should draw on both the extant academic literature (mentioned above), and real-world data collection in the form of interviews with relevant stakeholders, collection and analysis of organisational documents, policies and strategies, etc. Simply put, the more (quality) data sources you can draw on to support the arguments in your assignment, the better.
The 3 pillars of rock-solid arguments
An academically respectable assignment typically draws on the following data sources to support its arguments:
- Academic literature (conceptual and empirical work/research)
- Practitioner literature (conceptual and empirical work/research)
- Assignment-specific basic fieldwork
These three categories deserve some discussion:
Pillar 1: Academic literature
At the heart of any good MBA assignment lies analysis, synthesis and conclusion formation which is underpinned by quality academic literature. Sound academic work (including assignments) is created by standing on the shoulders of giants – that is to say – drawing on the rigorous research of qualified researchers (typically PhD or doctoral candidates and degree holders) to inform your thinking and actions.
Yes, academic literature tends to lag behind current practitioner literature (quality research takes time and costs a good deal), but it typically provides a very sound foundation for argument development. Naturally, the quality of research varies from journal to journal (which is why, ideally, you should seek out peer-reviewed journals with high impact factors, Eigenfactor scores and rankings), but academic sources typically demonstrate a more rigorous, scientific approach to research, which ultimately means a stronger foundation for your argument.
But where can I find quality academic material?
A good starting point for quality literature is, of course, your study guide, and the reference lists of articles referenced in your study guide. Another source which is useful, but must be approached with caution is Wikipedia. Do not make the mistake of referencing Wikipedia (as there can be substantial quality issues) – but look up your topic on Wikipedia and scroll to the bottom reference list. These references can oftentimes provide a good starting point for further topical research.
Last but not least, Google Scholar is an excellent resource. This is effectively the Google equivalent of journal articles and academic research. Much like Google, it uses intelligent algorithms to find the most relevant results. Therefore, it is particularly useful for finding prior work that is relevant to your topic. Additionally, it shows the number of citations for each result, giving you an indicator of its relative popularity (and indirectly, its quality).
Source: Google Scholar
How do I actually access the content?
Regardless of which of the above-mentioned material hunting methods you use, you will inevitably find that some (if not most) of the content requires payment in order for you to access anything more than the abstract or summary. In such cases, copy all the relevant details (i.e. title, author/s, date), log into your university-provided online library (e.g. ARC in the case of Henley), and search for the material there. In most cases, you will find that the university provides free access. Importantly, be sure to enter the details verbatim or you may come up empty handed – unfortunately, the libraries typically don’t have extremely intelligent search functionality (unlike Google Scholar).
Pillar 2: Practitioner literature
While academic literature (i.e. literature written by PhD candidates and degree holders, professors, etc) forms the basis of a good assignment (and indeed a good dissertation), the MBA, being an applied business degree, requires more than just academic input. To this end, practitioner literature such as industry reports, publications, conferences and even organisation-specific documents (policies, practices, newsletters, etc.) provide a valuable additional data source, which oftentimes brings contextual relevance into an assignment.
Naturally, these sources are more prone to bias, subjectivity and so forth, but as long as you recognise and note these weaknesses in your assignment, they can provide a valuable additional layer of research which strengthens your analysis and therefore conclusions.
Pillar 3: Assignment-specific fieldwork
The expectation that you carry out fieldwork (e.g. interviews, surveys, etc.) will vary from assignment to assignment and school to school. Nevertheless, a little bit of basic, semi-structured fieldwork with relevant stakeholders can deeply enrich any assignment, as it adds real-world perspectives and thereby highlights real-world problems. If you’re thinking about adopting a qualitative approach for your MBA dissertation/thesis, it is wise to get some experience throughout your assignments, as the stakes are a lot lower (i.e. markers do not expect you to fully understand the intricacies of research design).
When you consider undertaking interview-type fieldwork within your company, try to get input from as many different levels as possible. In other words, try gather a well-round basket of insights, from those of low-level workers through to the CEO. At the very least, try to get input from both the people that make the decisions and those affected by the decision. This will enrich your analysis substantially, and may also help you spot potential implementation, control and measurement issues down the line.
One word of warning when carrying out fieldwork – be sure to check the university’s ethics-related requirements for interviews and data collection in general. These requirements can be both complex and extensive, and the consequences or non-compliance severe. You don’t want to trip over a wire by mistake.
An essential note regarding referencing
Whether you draw on academic literature, practitioner literature or fieldwork (hopefully all three), be sure to follow the referencing requirements specific by your school down to the letter. There is no simpler way to annoy a marker (and lose marks) than to reference poorly. To this end, be smart and use a reference manager such as Zotero, BibTeX, EndNote, RefMan or Refworks. Enter your references into the manager from the day you start a module and keep an Excel spreadsheet of all the key ideas, theories, models, arguments and so forth. You will inevitably forget who said what when it comes to writing your assignment – so be smart, use technology.
In summary, then – when writing MBA assignments (and indeed, any academic work – particularly your dissertation or thesis):
- Assume that your personal opinion means nothing – don’t say anything without backing it up with some form of literature or fieldwork.
- Try draw on the three sources mentioned in this article – academic literature, practitioner literature and basic fieldwork.
- Ensure that your referencing is absolutely perfect. Use a reference manager and build your reference base from day one.
Have a question, suggestion or counterargument?
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