Criteria for quality proposal writing

Already this week I've been involved in two meetings that had a similar outcome – they required a proposal or strategy to be written on a business issue: telework take up, and building governance. Simultaneously I have been assigned some PhD learners by the university where I teach. They are wrestling with how to write a decent proposal that will take them to the point on their PhD journey.

In thinking about how to guide the PhD students I pulled out a paper written a couple of years ago by a faculty member I have worked with – Dr John Latham. He wrote a paper Building Bridges Between Researchers and Practitioners: A Collaborative Approach to Research in Performance Excellence Which describes a collaborative approach initiated by the Monfort Institute at the University of Northern Colorado to engage high-level practitioners of performance excellence and academic researchers to a) identify the external and internal dilemmas facing practitioners in high-performing organizations; b) develop a purposeful research agenda that addresses both the needs and interests of practitioners and researchers; and c) develop a concept of operations to address the research agenda.

What I found useful about the piece is that in it he identifies criteria that if met would result in quality research. But the criteria are equally applicable to business proposals. Organizational practitioners identified 10 criteria for quality research:

1. Content-New or profound information and best practices versus incremental knowledge in a narrow topic.
2. Readability-New knowledge presented in a language that they can understand that is fully deployable to all employees in the organization.
3. Utility-Actionable information that will help practitioners close gaps in performance, exceed customer expectations, and help sustain the organization in turbulent times.
4. Transferability-New knowledge needs to be transferable across the organization and ideally across industry sectors. The corollary to this requirement in research is the concept of generalizability.
5. Credibility-The depth of scholarship, including analysis and supporting data, is sufficient to inspire confidence and implementation of the new knowledge (Baldridge, Floyd, and Markoczy 2004). Part of the credibility is transparency on sponsorship and funding sources.
6. Timely-New knowledge and information needs to be accessible in time to address real-world problems and challenges and ideally in time to create a competitive advantage.
7. Access-Easy access to new knowledge and information available in multiple media and formats.
8. Benefits-There should be a clear connection between the new knowledge and information and organization results and overall success.
9. Involvement-Practitioners should be involved throughout the research process. As the practitioners put it, "Don't ask for our problems and data and then toss the research findings over the wall." The corollary to this in organizational change is the notion that resistance to change decreases as the involvement of the key stakeholders increases (Beckhard and Harris 1987).
10. Dissemination-Present new knowledge and information at public forums such as the annual NIST Quest for Excellence and make the new knowledge available to the public.

Not only did the practitioners identify a comprehensive list of what success is, they also succinctly described what success is not. According to the practitioners success is "not academic arcane language in some obscure journal."

Academic researchers identified three key factors for success:

1. Access to data-Access to good data and cooperation from participating organizations.
2. Dissemination-Successful dissemination of new knowledge via multiple channels including high quality academic journal articles, top practitioner journals, conferences, and workshops.
3. Interesting-Broaden the interest in the research topic with graduate students and academic colleagues both within and outside the particular discipline. The requirement for the research to be "interesting" is consistent with the definition of research proposed by Baldridge, Floyd, and Markoczy (2004, 1065) "interesting based on the extent to which it challenges assumptions or extends knowledge…."

Latham notes that:

The combined key success factors identified by the practitioners and academic researchers are consistent with the notion that research has a dual purpose of application to practice and advancing theory.

I encourage readers interested in organizational research (academic and practitioner) to read the full article.