The Research Process

Planning and managing the research process

  • Construct a research plan in order to stay on track, organize findings, allocate tasks, and track progress.
  • Identify problems and information needs
  • What is your objective or goal in researching a company or organization? It can be helpful to list all of the questions you want to answer, and note which ones are most important to you
  • Determine your deadline, and work backwards to determine how and in what order you will proceed in your research.
  • Some basic steps:
    • Identify the type of company or organization (public/private, nonprofit, government agency)
    • Locate or construct a basic company/org profile
    • Research key figures (board members, CEOs, donors) Identify labor, legal, safety violations and analyze patterns
    • Understand industry context (competitors, norms, regulations)
  • Types of information
    • Organizational structure and finance data (SEC filings, articles of incorporation [for private companies], IRS Form 990s [for nonprofits])
    • Company/organizational history (company websites, business databases)
    • Legal and legislative (legal databases, PACER, THOMAS, NCSL)
    • Regulatory compliance (DOL, OSHA, NLRB)
    • Lobbying/political donations (FEC,; also consider front groups
    • News and analysis (industry news, investigative journalism, press releases, research reports)
  • With this info, construct a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis. You can locate SWOTs in databases such as Business Insights, but they will be from an industry or business perspective.

Tip: When estimating your research timeline and project plan, build in time for both searching and analyzing information. When searching and reading, track your efforts in a shared research log in Google Docs so you are not duplicating efforts.

What can you get free? What are the different levels of access?

  • Lots of data is freely available online if the company is publicly-traded
  • There's not necessarily much if the company is privately-held

What's not free, but still accessible?

  • Sometimes you'll need to go somewhere else (e.g. to a library) - not everything can be accessed online from home.
  • You may want to consult reference books, for example, such as Hoover's Handbook of American Business, which includes historical financial data
  • News articles and other useful information may be in subscription databases such as ReferenceUSA and ABI/INFORM Research, which may be available from home with your library account information or maybe only on-site at your library