Reports are key communication tools in business; they often become part of an organization’s archives so that current and future employees can see the research, information, and reasoning underlying certain issues, actions, and decisions. Reports may be formal or informal, informative or analytical. They may be intended to provide updates, influence action, provide information, and/or offer different perspectives important in an organization’s discussion of an issue. At some point in your career, you most likely will need to write a report related to some aspect of your work.
The following video provides a good introduction to professional reports.
Reports have two main purposes:
- to inform
- to analyze
An informative report explains or instructs and presents details of events, activities, individuals, or conditions. It provides background and explanation without analysis or evaluation. For example, a progress report is a standard informative report intended to explain the completion of a project at certain key points within that project’s timeline. You might review the project’s purpose, explain what phase the project is in at this particular point in time, identify project accomplishments to date, and/or discuss anticipated next steps within the project timeline. You would not evaluate, analyze, or recommend, but would simply present relevant information to inform stakeholders about how the project is progressing.
An analytical report often provides some of the same information as an informative report along with evaluation of that information. Analytical reports may solve problems, demonstrate relationships, or make recommendations. For example, in addition to informing, you may also have an analytical purpose in a progress report, especially if the project has not progressed as planned. You might analyze situations that derailed the project from the intended timeline, and/or recommend ways to catch up and get the project back onto the original timeline. Another example of an analytical report is a field report by a Center for Disease Control (CDC) employee from the site of an outbreak of the H1N1 virus, noting symptoms, disease progression, steps taken to arrest the spread of the disease, and recommendations on the quarantine of subjects.
The following video clearly introduces and illustrates the nature of an analytical report. Note that the report sections mentioned will vary depending on your own writing context and situational analysis.
There are two main types of report:
Employees in most organizations create and use informal reports, many of which are for internal use. Some institutions have prescribed formats for certain types of informal reports (e.g., expense reports, mileage reimbursement), but allow you, as a writer, the freedom to structure other types of informal reports, such as status updates, recommendation reports, conference reports, or others.
The main characteristic of an informal report is that it tends to be relatively short, with fewer sections than a formal report. Overall, informal reports typically include the following structure:
- Introduction or background – the “why” of the report
- Information and/or analysis – your facts, findings, data, analysis, explanatory details, and/or recommendations
- Summary – restatement of main ideas
Informal reports may be in memo, email, letter, video, powerpoint, or written report format. An informal report usually has specific topics grouped in paragraphs, and these topics tend to have simple headings. Note that while informal reports do not require headings, you may decide to use them, especially if the report is a page or two, since headings may help your reader better understand and retain your main ideas.
A QUICK COMPARISON: USING HEADINGS
Look at the two brief samples to compare how you read and react to the same information in an informal report without headings and with headings. Which one is easier for you to read, understand, and find information?
|This is the very preliminary research you requested, to get a sense of potential costs for Harry’s General Store to open a new location in the Brevoort district in the fourth quarter of this upcoming year. There are three potential locations that are currently available for purchase and renovation for the new store. Location one, 200 Cedar Street at the intersection of Lumbar, is in a poorly trafficked area, but is relatively affordable at a cost of $__ for the property. Location two, 350 Central Avenue and Pine, is in a highly trafficked area, but would put us over our current comprehensive budget of $__, as it is $__ for the property only. Location three, 5650 Albany Street at the intersection of Carlton, is well trafficked and available at a cost of $__, which is within our budget.
The 5650 Albany Street location seems at this point to warrant further research.
This is the very preliminary research you requested, to get a sense of potential costs for Harry’s General Store to open a new location in the Brevoort district in the fourth quarter of this upcoming year.
There are three potential locations that are currently available for purchase and renovation for the new store. Location one, 200 Cedar Street at the intersection of Lumbar, is in a poorly trafficked area, but is relatively affordable at a cost of $__ for the property. Location two, 350 Central Avenue and Pine, is in a highly trafficked area, but would put us over our current comprehensive budget of $__, as it is $__ for the property only. Location three, 5650 Albany Street at the intersection of Carlton, is well trafficked and available at a cost of $__, which is within our budget.
The 5650 Albany Street location seems at this point to warrant further research.
Formal reports may be written because of many different situations, for example, to provide information and research on the psychological effects on employees as a result of moving from offices to cubicles, to analyze the results of moving from offices to cubicles in terms of employee productivity, or to make recommendations on the financial feasibility of moving employees from offices to cubicles. The hallmark of a formal report is its length; format reports delve into a subject much more deeply than informal reports. Formal reports synthesize main ideas related to your subject, drawing from your information, analysis, and/or research, to fulfill your purpose. Formal reports are not simply compilations of large quantities of data around a topic, with no purpose or reasoned presentation.
Like informal reports, formal reports also have an overall structure of introduction, information/analysis, and summary. But because they investigate a concept or issue deeply, formal reports usually have many sections within the body of the report, which definitely require headings and subheadings. Formal reports also contain standard front and back matter. You can read more fully about Report Sections in the next page of this text.
Formal reports are usually written documents, because of their quantity of information. However, formal written reports are often presented and/or accompanied by powerpoint presentations, explanatory videos, or other professional communications that condense and introduce concepts offered in the formal report.
The following video compares and reviews informal and formal reports.
Importance of Reports in Organizations
Report purposes and types may be combined in many different ways; reports on the same topic may be informative or analytical in different situations, just as they may be informal or formal in different situations.
For example, if a group of workers in a particular department is experimenting with working remotely a few days a week, you could potentially write:
- an informal, informative, compliance report to your supervisor letting her know that this is occurring and providing a short description of, and question about, company policy on telecommuting
- an informal, analytical, feasibility report to your supervisor evaluating evidence gathered through discussions with the department head and workers who are part of the experiment
- a formal, informative, research report citing evidence that worker flexibility in work location can boost productivity
- a formal, analytical, recommendation report to your supervisor building upon your research and proposing the need to implement this option in your department
- any number of additional types of reports, depending on your purpose and role
It’s up to you, as a communicator, to decide on the best approach for each particular report you need to create, based on your purpose and comprehensive analysis of the communication situation.
Examples of some common reports include the following:
- Status updates may be internal to a company in addressing a business situation, or external in providing the status of a project to another organization. Status reports are usually to-the-point, tightly focused, brief informational reports.
- Project reports are lengthier documents which may cover many different aspects of a project at various stages, for various stakeholders in the project. They may be informative or analytical, depending on your purpose and situation.
- Feasibility reports analyze a situation and propose a direction to take. They are often written to explore a new idea or process, or to evaluate a current situation and make recommendations, as a way to explore a change before making major investments of time or money. For example, a feasibility report may be a first step toward doing a full business plan, since it can be developed in much less time and still provides direction for decision makers.
- Business plans are often informative reports about what an individual or organization plans to do over an upcoming period of time. A business plan can be informative but may be more analytical if it’s intended for potential investors. In some cases, a business plan may include a request for funds; in those cases, the writing is more persuasive and may, in fact, turn into a formal proposal.
- Proposals analyze a problem or situation, research possible solutions, and propose a specific solution or action, as a result of the evidence presented. They often include action plans, timelines, costs, and other appropriate information. Proposals may be informal or formal, internal to a company or external to an outside audience, depending on the situation.
- Recommendation reports often result from a business problem that an individual or team has been asked to solve; these reports are usually analytical and internal to an organization. Reports that deal with needs assessment are one type of recommendation report.
- Research reports gather and explain data; these reports are usually informative.
- Compliance reports may be informative or analytical as they deal with how well a department, division, or the whole organization is addressing a set of standards.
- Financial reports may be informative or analytical as they deal with use of funds in certain contexts. Financial reports may be internal or external to the organization.
- Trip or conference reports summarize and transmit information learned, therefore increasing the value of the trip by disseminating information through the organization. They are usually informative.
- Meeting minutes are informative reports that summarize concepts and topics discussed at a meeting.
From the list above, which is by no means exhaustive, you can see the pervasiveness of reports in professional situations.
No matter what type of report you create, all reports need to contain accurate information, clear writing, logical organization of information, and professional layout. These characteristics affect the report’s reliability and validity, as well as your reader’s comprehension of your information. Use simple, clear language and organization. Make key report concepts easy to grasp for the widest audience. Remember that a report may be retained for a long time and may be viewed by many readers.
Guadalupe is the manager for meats and seafoods for a rapidly-expanding grocery chain, Valuetown. Valuetown’s expansion has happened mostly by buying up individually-owned stores or small chains in the region. One of the issues Guadalupe has faced is that the display and storage units in these stores are not in great shape, and often meats can’t be displayed. Valuetown is also spending a lot on repairs. Guadalupe has done an analysis of what the old refrigeration units are costing in terms of repairs and lost revenue. Her manager told her to write a report to present to the Valuetown board requesting new units. How should she proceed?
She should write a formal report with her conclusions at the front, a summary of her analysis in the middle, and back matter that includes the raw data on costs and lost revenue as well as estimated costs to replace the units. This report should be thoroughly edited and proofread so it is both stylistically perfect and in line with the needs of her audience.
She should write an informal report that briefly summarizes what she wants to do, gives highlights of her analysis, and then leaves most of the data in the back matter. Her goal should be to get this report out as quickly as possible, even if it has a few errors.
She should ask for time to give a presentation at the next board meeting and then take questions. She’s more persuasive in person than on paper.