The Key Question

The third question on the list is probably the most important.

  • What does your paper tell us about the world?

The way I normally raise this issue with students and scholars is to ask them to complete the sentence, “This paper shows that…,” reminding them that this will require them to compose a grammatically complete and presumably true sentence. Indeed, the sentence will ideally be theoretically significant and empirically true; it will make sense only to your peers in your discipline and it can be believed only because you have data to support it. Writing this sentence is an art worth mastering because it brings the subjective and objective moments of your research together in a flash. It shows us how the world looks from your perspective.

Here’s an example of such a sentence:

  • This paper shows that the marketing team at Xompany made effective use of prospective sensemaking in planning the launch of ProDuck.

Notice that this sentence does just not say

  • This paper shows that prospective sensemaking can be used effectively in planning processes,

which is a purely theoretical statement that makes no reference to an empirical object that was studied. Nor does it say

  • This paper shows that Xompany’s marketing team planned a successful launch of ProDuck.

which is a purely empirical statement, making no reference to any particular theory of planning. Rather, the sentence mentions both

  • a specific team in a specified company, which we can only make statements about if we have gained observational access to it, and
  • a concept of planning that belongs to a named discipline, which will only be properly understood by the members of a specific research community.

As I hinted in my last post, this is precisely why this is the third question on the list. Its answer can only be understood by properly prepared reader; in this case, the reader must know something about

  • Xompany
  • ProDuck
  • Planning
  • Sensemaking

In my ideal introduction, all this must be accomplished within the first two paragraphs, which is to say, within the preceding 400 words. Here, at least four questions must be answered:

  • What sort of company is Xompany?
  • What sort of product is ProDuck?
  • How does marketing research understand planning?
  • How does sensemaking inform marketing research?

It will be natural to say something about the industry that Xompany operates in and the market for ProDuck. What has happened recently that made the launch of a new product significant? Likewise, it will be important to say something about the literature on marketing plans and its intersection with sensemaking scholarship, perhaps focusing on the difference between retrospective and prospective sensemaking.

But this, like I say, will all have happened before we get the sentence that begins “This paper shows that…” so that what follows easily makes sense to the reader. The names “Xompany” and “ProDuck” are meaningful to the reader by now, as are the concepts of planning and sensemaking. I should add that, if the company and product are sufficiently famous, this may be the first mention of them. The first paragraph may have talked only about the industry and market, but reader is nonetheless ready to interpret this sentence, as would be the case if we were talking about Apple and the iPhone, for example.

I’m calling this the “key question” and I hope you can see why that is a fitting label. It unlocks the rest of paper by setting you up for a paragraph that outlines the study you did, framed, like I say, by the preceding two paragraphs, which evoked a world (of consumption) and invoked a science (of marketing). It could sound something like this:

This paper shows that the marketing team at Xompany made effective use of prospective sensemaking in planning the launch of ProDuck. It is based on twelve semi-structured interviews with members of the marketing team that had been assigned to the launch, as well as observational data gathered at the launch itself. We interviewed each member twice: once at the beginning of the process, when the team was formed, and then again a month before the launch, which we finally attended. The interviews revealed a consistent focus on the future, both in terms of threats and opportunities, and very little concern with past launches, whether successful or unsuccessful. Also, at the time of the launch, the team had clearly put the past behind them and were not hung up on the struggles and conflicts of the months and weeks they had just been through. Everyone was looking ahead and moving forward. This has important implications for how we think about sensemaking in marketing contexts. In particular, the longstanding orthodoxy that sensemaking is primarily a retrospective process needs to be reconsidered, and the concept of prospective sensemaking needs to be developed further.

Obviously, this is an entirely made up paragraph. It’s interesting only for its form, not its content. I hope it is useful.

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