You’ve got to know when to fold ’em

You’ve got to know when to walk away, or know when to run….

I’ve worked with some interesting patrons lately.   As a reference librarian, I love to help people find answers to their questions, and I really love helping them with business research.   The thing I love most about business research is that there is no one place to look for business research questions.   I tell my students there is no Walmart for business information; you have to go shopping all over town.

Now this analogy can backfire, and I’ll tell you why.   With the thousands of dollars that we spend for business databases, books, and journals, there comes the inherent expectation that every single piece of knowledge about a company, industry, or product ought to be available somewhere (and it ought to be available online).   Most librarians will tell you that it’s impossible to have everything online, and most business folks should know that companies only disclose what they have to or what they want to.     This makes the search for business information a little tricky.   How long, deep, far do you look for information before you decide that the information you are looking for does not exist?   When do you decide that the information is impossible to find when you’ve tried and tried and you still haven’t found what you’re looking for?   (You can start humming U2 now if you wish 😉 ).

Last night I met with two students who were looking for information about donut, bagel, and pastry shops.   One thing they wanted to know was the sales mix of products for a typical Dunkin Donuts store.   Basically they wanted to know how many donuts, muffins, coffee, bagels, english muffins, etc were sold at each store, with a percentage of sales for each product.   You know who knows that?   Dunkin Donuts.   You know who else knows that? Yeah, me neither.   Fact of the matter is, Dunkin Donuts is likely to keep those cards pretty close to the chest, as it is not in the company’s best interest for other companies to know what their top sellers are.   Now occasionally you’ll find a press release or an article in a trade publication that mentions how sales have increased in a product category, but they’re not likely to give you information for the whole restaurant.

This is typically easy to explain to students, but sometimes they still don’t stop looking.   They’ve got it in their heads that their projects will not be complete without that one piece of information, and perhaps their argument or recommendations are based on finding that one needle in a haystack.   When I get questions such as the donuts sales mix, I will try my best with to work with the students to find what they are looking for, because I don’t know everything and occasionally the best report ever will be available in IbisWorld or Hoover’s or Business Source Complete.   However, most times I steer them toward the information that is available, while teaching them a bit about the nature of information, and why sometimes information is sacred.   It’s tough sometimes letting a student down, but part of doing tough research is knowing when to walk away.

So, dear readers, how far do you go before you decide the information you’re looking for is not generally available?   Do you have a checklist so you cover all of your bases?   Or do you simply spend a certain amount of time before you give up?   If you have tips that work, please leave a comment on this post and share your insight with others.

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