For writers of mba thesis papers, authors of business plans, marketing analysts,
and others doing technical, business, industry, and societal research, the 21st
century provides a new and complex set of resources. The new resources are available
for the most part from the Internet. But first, a look at what was available
in the past...
What was available in the 20th century:
Traditionally, there were only a few sources of information that could be quickly
accessed, such as:
- Academic journals & papers
- Government publications
- Association publications
- People who were deemed experts
Important deficiencies of these resources:
- They are almost all "one-way". That is, the data/information/knowledge
goes one way from the producer to the recipient. There is no opportunity to
question, challenge, iterate, or add to what was produced.
- The information was almost all text-based and delivered via text or spoken
word methods (Experts giving lectures, for example).
- Most was academic, written in subject specific lingo, making it hard for
outsiders to access.
- Any information that was current, live, or interactive was usually either
highly filtered (newspaper/journals) or expensive to obtain, such as going
to a trade show in another part of your country or in another country.
New tools available in the 21st century:
With the advent of the internet there are now many new research methods and
resources, most of which overcome the deficiencies of the above set of tools
and resources. Some examples of the new tools and resources are:
- Discussion groups - Yahoo group, for example (image at right)
- E-mail lists
- News groups
- Bulletin boards
- Chat systems
- On-line databases of journals
- Platforms for project collaboration
- Blogs - online journals done by millions of people around the world.
These new tools provide the following benefits:
- Most are interactive, allowing questions, comments, challenges, amendments,
and additions. They are two-way or multiple, generating learning dialogues.
- The information is often available in different modes: Text, sound, photos/diagrams,
and sometimes video. Time-delayed (email lists) or live (chat systems).
- Sources of the information include people from all walks of life: Academics,
professionals, laymen, self-taught, users, insiders and outsiders. Much easier
to access a variety of opinions, ideas, and creative thoughts than previously.
- Current, live, and wide ranging information is cheap to access. Even experts
are often just an email away.
How to access these resources:
1. Key words:
- Create a growing list of key words related to your subject. Reference librarians
used to be the best source of such terms. Now you have to be the one who knows
all the key words.
- Use your key word list every time you search for a search engine search,
look for a discussion group, hunt for an email list or in a run a journal
2. Start with the most common places for live, current, and interactive
- one of the largest platforms for easily accessible discussion groups
- http://www.tile.net -
a directory of lists, forums, newsgroups, etc.
- http://google.com - use
Google to search for an "email list" or "discussion group"
along with your key words.
- ... other sites that host discussions, email lists or provide references
to those lists.
3. Join many lists. Lurk for a while on each and see which
ones have the kind of topics, questions, answers, and people you want to learn
from and interact with. Some general guidelines:
- Number of people in the group/on the list: <10 is too small. >500
is too big.
- Little or no social chit-chat is a sign of a good list.
- Off-topic discussion is good if the discussion is related or a direct derivative
of the topic/theme of the group.
- Check the signature footnote of authors. Many times people will have an
automatic signature added to their postings describing their organizational
affiliation. Sometimes their actual email address will include their organization
name. For example: firstname.lastname@example.org (the person likely works for the New
York Times newspaper, which can be confirmed). The more diverse and broad
the backgrounds of the individuals posting messages, the better.
- Companies and other organizations are learning the power of grass-roots
discussion groups and beginning to stack these groups and lists with fake
supporters of a viewpoint or product. You will gain experience with how to
spot these individuals and lists. Some is quite subtle. Often a discussion
list "owner" will require you to be approved before allowing you
on the list. This can be a good sign that the list is higher quality.
4. Post questions about your topic/subject/problem on different lists.
See the magic that happens when you start getting answers from a diverse range
of people. Thank them privately and publicly. Answer other people's questions
as best you can when you can contribute something meaningful. Dive into the
"flow" of these discussion lists. Insights, contacts, clues, and more
5. Like a detective, follow suggested site and resources references
posted in the list or in response to your question. Research through the Internet
is like following a trail in the forest. You will take many turns and have to
backtrack sometimes, but a rich bounty of useful information awaits you if you
work hard at it and keep following clues.
How to know what to trust:
Once you find some potentially important information, how do you know if you
can trust it? So far, many students and other researchers have been discouraged
from using internet based resources by academics or professionals. Academics
express concern such as "what are the credentials of the person who wrote
it?" The implication is that if the information is not produced by academics
with PhD's and is not "peer reviewed" by their fellow PhD academics,
it is immediately suspect, or simply no good at all. Inversely, they believe
that information produced by them or their peers is immediately credible. An
equally dangerous view!
There are two sides to this situation, depending on your view of people's motives:
1. Academics are log rolling each other to protect their jobs and the PhD franchise.
Non-academic information is a threat to their livelihood and chances for promotion
to tenured positions.
2. Academics have the best interests in mind for getting the real and best
facts. For example, do you want to take advice on your serious medical condition
from some unknown person who posts something on a discussion list?
As with most things in life, there are elements of truth in both sides. How
then, do you ensure that information you get from the internet and the people
you interact with there is "good" stuff?
The answers to this question are quite simple, really. The internet makes it
easy to find information and interact with people who can help. It can also
make it easy for you prove the credibility of the information you find:
Essential techniques for ensuring information you obtained through
the internet is credible:
Use as many of these techniques as possible for the information you find through
- Check the background of the author, person or people producing the information
you obtained or who you are discussing something with. How do you do this?
ASK THEM! This is the age of the ability to interact. Send
them an email, post a question on a bulletin board and/or phone them. Some
questions to ask yourself and them, directly or indirectly:
- Does the person have a biased viewpoint because they work for an organization
who will benefit from the results of that viewpoint? (See the movie "The
Corporation" (2004) for vivid examples of this).
- How did this person create/obtain the information themselves? Through experience?
From someone else? If yes, from whom?
- How did this person prove the information was credible?
- What other ways does this person's background aid credibility, such as qualifications,
degrees, authority, etc.? (note that this question is last and least important)
- Find more than one source of the same information to corroborate the first
source. Just like a newspaper reporter: Find multiple sources that confirm
the "facts" you find. Make sure that these corroborating sources
are not just copies of the original, but original derivations that lead to
the same resulting conclusions. Or that others are willing to put their credibility
on the line to support a fact.
- Confirm the information yourself when possible, using your own observations,
tests, samples, statistics, etc. This is often the best support you can get
for the validity and credibility of information. Hard work, but often generates
lots of surprises as well as worthwhile insights.
Summary - hard work is hard work
Research processes in the 21st century - real research that will give you really
useful information - is partly science, partly art and a lot of hard work. 21st
century processes can be interactive, allowing wonderful mentoring, guidance,
iteration, broadening of thinking, and deepening of thinking. Books, academic
journals, and other printed sources of information are still very useful. But
they now represent only a part of the possible sources and resources available
to a researcher.
One thing is absolutely the same as what was available in the 20th century:
Finding and proving the credibility of good information is hard work. The difference
is that in the 21st century, you can do it faster, cheaper and with a broader
scope. But it will still be hard work!
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