7. COMMON DOCUMENT TYPES
Long reports, such as Feasibility and Recommendation Reports, are most often the final step in a series of documents, often beginning with a Proposal and perhaps a series of Progress Reports. The reports in this rather loosely defined category are variously called feasibility reports, recommendation reports, evaluation reports, assessment reports, etc. They all do roughly the same thing—provide a careful study of a situation or problem, and often recommend what should be done to improve the situation. There are some subtle differences among these types, and names for them can vary.
A feasibility report studies a situation (for example, a problem or opportunity) and a plan for doing something about it, and then determines whether that plan is “feasible”—whether it is practical in terms of current technology, economics, time frame, social needs and preferences, and so on. The feasibility report answers the question “Should we implement Plan X?” by stating “yes,” “no,” or sometimes a “maybe” or “under certain conditions.” Not only does it indicate whether the idea is feasible, it also provides the data and the reasoning behind that determination; conversely, it might outline the reasons why the idea cannot or should not be implemented, or what obstacles must be overcome before the idea can become feasible. Typical questions addressed in these reports include
- Is it possible? Can this be done within the allotted budget, time frame, legal and regulatory conditions, and technical capabilities?
- Is it financially viable? Even if it falls within our budget, should we do it? Will it have long term benefits that outweigh costs? Is there a less expensive or financially risky way to achieving the same result? How does it compare to the cost of doing nothing about this situation?
- Will it be accepted by the community? Will people be in favor of this idea? Will anyone be opposed to it? How much public support is necessary to make this successful? (What kind of stakeholder consultation might be necessary to determine this?)
A recommendation reports starts from a stated need; it offers a selection of solution options, presents a detailed comparative analysis of the options, and then recommends one, some, or none. For example, a company might be looking at grammar-checking software and want a recommendation on which product is the best fit for them. As the report writer on this project, you could study the market for this type of application and recommend one particular product, 2-3 possible products (differing perhaps in their strengths and their weaknesses), or none (maybe none of them are appropriate for the client’s specific needs). The recommendation report answers the question “Which option should we choose?” (or in some cases “Which are the best options?) by recommending Product B, or maybe both Products B and C, or none of the products. These recommendations might arise from questions such as
- What should we do about Problem X?
- What is the best way to provide Function or Service A?
- Should we use Technology X or Technology Y to perform Function Z?
An evaluation report provides a judgment or assessment rather than a yes-no-maybe answer or a recommendation. It provides a studied opinion on the value or worth of something. For example, for over a year the city of Austin had free bus transportation in an attempt to increase ridership and reduce automobile traffic. Did it work? Was it worthwhile?—These are questions an evaluation report would attempt to answer. This type of report compares a thing to a set of requirements (or criteria) and determines how well it meets those requirements. (And of course, this may result in a recommendation: to continue the project, scrap it, change it, or other possibilities.)
As you can see, these distinctions are rather fine, and they overlap somewhat. In real-world writing, these types often combine; you might see elements of the recommendation report combine with the feasibility report, for example.
Typical Contents of Recommendation and Feasibility Reports
Whatever variety of feasibility or recommendation report you write, whatever name people call it—most of the sections and the organization of those sections are roughly the same.
The structural principle fundamental to this type of report is this: you provide not only your recommendation, choice, or judgment, but also the data, analysis, discussion, and the conclusions leading to it. That way, readers can check your findings, your logic, and your conclusions to make sure your methodology was sound and that they can agree with your recommendation. Your goal is to convince the reader to agree with you by using your careful research, detailed analysis, rhetorical style, and documentation.
The general problem-solving approach for a Recommendation Report entails the steps shown in the example below.
|1. Identify the need||What is the “unsatisfactory situation” that needs to be improved?|
|2. Identify the criteria for responding to the need||
What is the overall goal?
What are the specific, measurable objectives any solution should achieve?
What constraints must any solution adhere to?
|3. Determine the solution options you will examine||
Define the scope of your approach to the problem.
Identify the possible courses of action that you will examine in your report. You might include the consequences of simply doing nothing.
|4. Study how well each option meets the criteria||
Systematically study each option, and compare how well they meet each of the objectives you have set.
Provide a systematic and quantifiable way to compare how well to solution options meet the objectives (weighted objectives chart).
|5. Draw conclusions based on your analysis||Based on the research presented in your discussion section, sum up your findings and give a comparative evaluation of how well each of the options meets the criteria and addresses the need.|
|6. Formulate recommendations based on your conclusion||Indicate which course of action the reader should take to address the problem, based on your analysis of the data presented in the report.|
These steps generally coincide with how you will organize your information. Your report will be divided into several sections that will likely include most or all of the following elements:
- INTRODUCTION: the introduction should clearly indicate the document’s purpose. Your introduction will discuss the “unsatisfactory situation” that has given rise to this report, and the requirements that must be met (the Problem Definition). Your reader may also need some background. Finally, provide an overview of the contents of the report.
- TECHNICAL BACKGROUND: some recommendation or feasibility reports may require technical discussion in order to make the rest of the report meaningful. The dilemma with this kind of information is whether to put it in a section of its own or to fit it into the comparison sections where it is relevant. For example, a discussion of power and speed of tablet computers is going to necessitate some discussion of RAM, megahertz, and processors. Should you put that in a section that compares the tablets according to power and speed? Should you keep the comparison neat and clean, limited strictly to the comparison and the conclusion? Maybe all the technical background can be pitched in its own section—either toward the front of the report or in an appendix.
- REQUIREMENTS AND CRITERIA: a critical part of feasibility and recommendation reports is the discussion of the requirements (objectives and constraints) you’ll use to reach the final decision or recommendation. Here are some examples:
- If you’re trying to recommend a tablet computer for use by employees, your requirements are likely to involve size, cost, hard-disk storage, display quality, durability, and battery function.
- If you’re looking into the feasibility of providing every student at Austin Community College with an ID on the ACC computer network, you’d need define the basic requirements of such a program—what it would be expected to accomplish, problems that it would have to avoid, and so on.
- If you’re evaluating the recent program of free bus transportation in Austin, you’d need to know what was expected of the program and then compare its actual results to those requirements.
Requirements can be defined in several ways:
Numerical Values: many requirements are stated as maximum or minimum numerical values. For example, there may be a cost requirement—the tablet should cost no more than $900.
Yes/no Values: some requirements are simply a yes-no question. Does the tablet come equipped with Bluetooth? Is the car equipped with voice recognition?
Ratings Values: in some cases, key considerations cannot be handled either with numerical values or yes/no values. For example, your organization might want a tablet that has an ease-of-use rating of at least “good” by some nationally accepted ratings group. Or you may have to assign ratings yourself.
The requirements section should also discuss how important the individual requirements are in relation to each other. Picture the typical situation where no one option is best in all categories of comparison. One option is cheaper; another has more functions; one has better ease-of-use ratings; another is known to be more durable. Set up your requirements so that they dictate a “winner” from situation where there is no obvious winner. A “weighted objectives chart” or “Decision Matrix” is often used in these cases.
4. DISCUSSION OF SOLUTION OPTIONS: In certain kinds of feasibility or recommendation reports, you’ll need to explain how you narrowed the field of choices down to the ones your report focuses on. Often, this follows right after the discussion of the requirements. Your basic requirements may well narrow the field down for you. But there may be other considerations that disqualify other options—explain these as well.
Additionally, you may need to provide brief technical descriptions of the options themselves. Don’t get this mixed up with the comparison that comes up in the next section. In this description section, you provide a general discussion of the options so that readers will know something about them. The discussion at this stage is not comparative. It’s just a general orientation to the options. In the tablets example, you might want to give some brief, general specifications on each model about to be compared.
5. COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS: one of the most important parts of a feasibility or recommendation report is the comparison of the options. Remember that you include this section so that readers can follow the logic of your analysis and come up with different conclusions if they desire. This comparison can be structured using a “block” (whole-to-whole) approach, or an “alternating” (point-by-point) approach.
|Block Approach||Alternating (Point-by-Point) Approach|
All the information about Option 1
Compare all Options according to Criteria A (cost)
All the information about Option 2
Compare all Options according to Criteria B (functionality)
All the information about Option 3
Compare all options according to Criteria C (ease of use)
Direct Comparative Analysis of all three options and Summary of Results
Summary of Results
You might compare 3 options (1, 2, and 3) using three criteria for comparison (A, B, and C). If you were comparing tablets, you’d likely use the point-by-point approach, having a section that compared all three options based on cost (criteria A), another section that compared them on battery function, and so on. You wouldn’t have a section that discussed everything about option 1, another that discussed everything about option 2, and so on. That would not be effective or efficient, because you still have to make direct comparisons somewhere near the end of your discussion (such as in a weighted objectives chart).
Each of these comparative sections should end with a conclusion that sums up the relative strengths and weaknesses of each option and indicates which option is the best choice in that particular category of comparison. Of course, it won’t always be easy to state a clear winner—you may have to qualify the conclusions in various ways, providing multiple conclusions for different conditions.
If you were writing an evaluation report, you wouldn’t be comparing options. Instead, you’d be comparing the thing being evaluated against the requirements placed upon it, the expectations people had of it. For example, Capital Metro had a program of more than a year of free bus transportation. What was expected of that program? Did the program meet those expectations?
6. SUMMARY TABLE: after the individual comparisons, include a summary table (such as a Weighted Objectives Chart) that summarizes the conclusions from the comparative analysis section. Some readers are more likely to pay attention to details in a table than in paragraphs; however, you still have to write up a clear summary paragraph of your findings.
7. CONCLUSIONS: the conclusions section of a feasibility or recommendation report amalgamates all of the conclusions you have already reached in each of the comparison sections. In this section, you restate the individual conclusions, for example, which model had the best price, which had the best battery function, and so on. You could give a summary of the relative strengths and weakness of each option based on how well they meet the criteria.
This section has to go further. It must untangle all the conflicting conclusions and somehow reach the final conclusion, which is the one that states which is the best choice. Thus, the conclusion section first lists the primary conclusions—the simple, single-category ones. Then it must state secondary conclusions—the ones that balance conflicting primary conclusions. For example, if one tablet is the least inexpensive but has poor battery function, but another is the most expensive but has good battery function, which do you choose and why? The secondary conclusion would state the answer to this dilemma.
8. RECOMMENDATIONS: the final section of feasibility and recommendation reports states the recommendations which flow directly from your conclusions and directly address the problem outlined in the introduction. These may sometimes be repetitive, but remember that some readers may skip right to the recommendation section. Also, there will be some cases where there may be a best choice but you wouldn’t want to recommend it. Early in their history, laptop computers were heavy and unreliable—there may have been one model that was better than the rest, but even it was not worth having. You may want to recommend further research, a pilot project, or a re-design of one of the options discussed.
The recommendation section should outline what further work needs to be done, based solidly on the information presented previously in the report and responding directly to the needs outlined in the beginning. In some cases, you may need to recommend several ranked options based on different possibilities.
As you reread and revise your feasibility or recommendation report, ensure that you have included all of the sections and elements described below.
|Document Section||Key Content Elements||Check|
|Introductory Sections||Indicate the situation and the audience.|
|Discuss the background of the problem or opportunity—what brought about the need for the report? Give technical background if necessary.|
|State requirements—those factors that influence the decision on the choice of options (objectives and constraints).|
|Indicate how the field of options was narrowed to the ones being compared (if relevant).|
|Provide an overview of the contents.|
|Discussion Sections||Organize the comparative analysis/discussion of the options using the point-by-point or whole-to-whole approach. Choose the structure that best matches your content and purpose.|
|At the end of each comparative section, state the best choice in terms that point of comparison.|
|Include a summary table, if possible, in which you summarize all the key data in table form.|
|Conclusion||Restate all the key conclusions from the Discussion sections.|
|State secondary conclusions, and based them on requirements established at the beginning.|
|State a final conclusion (about the overall feasibility of the idea or about the overall strengths and weaknesses of each option compared).|
|Recommendations||Make recommendations for future actions; reiterate how these actions will provide the sought-after benefits outlined in the introduction.|
|References||Fully document any sources used in the report.|
|Appendices||Add any additional information that has been referred to, but not included in the body of the report.|