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Types of Reports in Professional Communication

This section describes the popular report types listed above and points to more detailed descriptions: it is a "nuts and bolts" discussion. We also direct your attention to writing reports in Principles, which addresses writing reports more generally.

To comfortably grasp the selection of report types, you need to embrace report truth # 1: Reports may be classified similarly and still function (and even appear) very differently in two different situations.

This will make sense in an immediately accessible context: Imagine that you want to ask a close relative (who gives you money freely) for money to support your business. Your approach would be very different than if you were to ask a venture capitalist for that same money. While you might write a proposal in each instance, these two proposals will not be similar in length, tone, support for the argument, financial statements, and so on.

When adjusting the report to your purpose, you should consider who will read the report, why, in what detail, with what prejudice, with what knowledge, and to make what decision.

Keeping your audience's needs in mind will help you decide


Preliminary Reports

Problem or Needs Analyses

A problem or needs-analysis report—a very preliminary piece of writing—examines a particular issue that the client faces. A problem or needs analysis is particularly appropriate when the need or problem is complex or ill defined. Perhaps the client is not convinced of the need for change, or personnel in the client organization have different views about the issue (which is often the case). A problem or needs analysis names the problem that you think shouls be addressed and provides analysis that supports your position. Such analyses are especially appropriate to a problem-solving paradigm.

Professional communication includes a variety of reports common to business and industry. Below we define many of them briefly and then point to further discussions and models available elsewhere in Professional Writing Online.

We have argued that you can identify reports by differences in audience and purpose. Actually, there are even more factors to include. Every discussion of report formats is complicated by the fact that reports within the same classification may vary in

This section describes the popular report types listed above and points to more detailed descriptions: it is a "nuts and bolts" discussion. We also direct your attention to writing reports in Principles: that section addresses writing reports more generally.

To comfortably grasp the selection of report types, you need to embrace report truth # 1:

Reports may be classified similarly and still function (and even appear) very differently in two different situations.

This will make sense in an immediately accessible context: Imagine that you want to ask a close relative (who gives you money freely) for money to support your business. Your approach would be very different than if you were to ask a venture capitalist for that same money. While you might write a proposal in each instance, these two proposals will not be similar in length, tone, support for the argument, financial statements, and so on.

When adjusting the report to your purpose, you should consider

who will read the report, why, in what detail, with what prejudice, with what knowledge, and to make what decision.

Keeping your audience's needs in mind will help you decide

the level of formality (in structure and tone) of your report

the length of the report

what kinds of data to include (tables, figures, general graphs, or pictures)

how much to explain

what positions to defend

the visual sophistication required

Project Plans

Here's an old maxim about projects:

A project can be done

But you only get two out of three.

A project plan may be part of a proposal, or it may be a report of its own. The purpose of a project plan is to conceptualize, organize, and plan a project, usually with two audiences in mind:

Principally, the project plan should define the shape and scope of the project: what will be produced, for whom is it intended, what is the scope of treatment. A good plan also anticipates possible problems or obstacles. A plan is persuasive (in trying to secure the reader's approval), but it should also be realistic and honest in its assessment about what can be done within a particular timeframe.

A project plan typically includes an overview (which, most importantly, includes a statement of purpose); a description of the client and their needs; a list of deliverables (documents or products to be created); a detailed schedule for a project (often in Gantt- or PERT- chart form); a budget; a list of personnel, together with an assignment of their duties and responsibilities to the project (and perhaps a discussion of their qualifications); and a methodology or procedure to be followed (e.g., a research plan). The project plan needs to convince management that a project is well organized and feasible and that the participants listed are all necessary in order for the project to be successful.

Sample Project Plan

Gantt chart

Comparison Reports

A comparison report examines two or more options and performs a "relative advantages" analysis to determine which option would best serve the client. Use a comparative format when there are several serious alternatives that should be considered.

Comparison reports are similar to recommendation reports and feasibility reports in their approach (i.e., establishing criteria for a good option and evaluating possible options), and sometimes the reports are identical except in name. But in some technical communication situations, the comparison report only includes analysis and does not recommend a course of action. If it does not recommend an action, then the comparison report takes on some of the functions of a white paper or backgrounder.

Feasibility Reports

A feasibility report may respond to a single question or recommend a specific option. It may also apply several criteria to that option and make a judgment as to whether it would be in the client's best interest to implement the option. (Simple thumbs up or thumbs down.) Use a feasibility format when the client has one favored alternative or plan of action and is trying to determine the effects of that one course of action.

"Feasibility" in this context refers both to technical feasibility in the limited sense (can this be done? will this action solve the problem?), as well as to a wider sense of feasibility that focuses on the desirability of a certain course of action (should this be done? is it reasonable to do this? will the benefits of doing this outweigh the ill effects? is this in the best interests of the company? )

Read more about feasibility reports.

Recommendation Reports

As their name suggests, recommendation reports advise on what specific action should be taken by an organization. They are composed at the end of a process of inquiry and notify the reader that a certain course of action should be followed. The argument of a recommendation report can be developed in numerous ways.

Read more about recommendation reports.

Proposals

Proposals include forms, letters, memos, and more formal reports. In some companies and contexts (such as in the construction industry), a "proposal" refers to a work contract with a customer. In this sense, a proposal (which is often called a "bid") is a promise that specific work will be executed by a certain time for a certain cost (and such a promise is sometimes structured as a memo of understanding). "Proposal" could also refer to a grant proposal, which also needs to meets strict informational criteria (and may involve precise formatting—such as answering questions in specific boxes). Grant proposals, however, do allow the writer to convey and explain his or her vision. In other contexts, the term "proposal" is used in the same sense as a recommendation report and thereby "proposes" a course of action.

Grant proposals sent to foundations are often two-page letters that pitch an idea and attach some financial information. These proposals are informal but require the writer to match the group's mission statement in the opening, present the problem that needs to be addressed immediately in concrete terms, and convince the foundation that the group is qualified to successfully address the problem.

Proposals can also take the form of the "long proposal," a formal document that proposes to complete a future project and that requests organizational support. Often such proposals are in response to an RFP (Request for Proposal): Companies or organizations have jobs that need to be done and issue calls to interested bidders.

Learn more about writing proposals.

White Papers

White papers provide background for decisions. These reports can be internal and are often profoundly influenced by the particular discipline of their context. They can present investigations of new methods or technologies or report on new sales solutions. To offer an example of the internal white paper, novice engineers are often asked to write a white paper for their division about some aspect of new methods/technologies that they have been taught but the company does not currently use. White papers can also meet the needs of external audiences in responding to the frequently asked questions of customers. Used regularly in information technology, these reports examine a technology problem, investigate potential solutions, and highlight the solutions offered by the company.

White papers differ from recommendation reports and feasibility reports as they do not reach a decision about what action a group should (or should not) take. Instead, they offer backgrounds upon which decisions can be made, thus functioning somewhat like term papers.

Read more about white papers.

Marketing Plan

Companies use marketing plans to affirm and to revise their current approaches to marketing products and services. These marketing plans review the current strategy (or marketing principles) used to market one or more of the company's products/services. Tactics used to enact that marketing strategy are discussed in light of current market conditions. The plan is used not only for budgeting reasons, but also as a key document in planning the company's future.

The marketing analysis performed in preparation for the plan examines the changes in the market from the perspective of the customer. It identifies potential customers and their purchase decisions. It asks the following questions: what are the buying patterns? are new technologies available to our customers? have there been changes in public perceptions? are the target customers still the same? what are this year's demographics? should we adjust the target market? The marketing analysis also looks at the selling situation for the product, evaluating past plans and achievements and examining how changes in the selling climate may affect future marketing tactics.

The resulting marketing plan is organized—usually as a formal report—to explain the marketing strategy, to match the marketing tactics to the target customers, to detail the marketing implementation, and to provide a budget.

Marketing plans are also developed for new products, services, and even start-up businesses.

For more about marketing plans, see: Small Business Administration Women's Business Center.

An example of a marketing plan by Texas Tourism


Progress Reports

A progress report informs readers of the status of a project-in-progress. Its primary informational mission is expressed in two ways:

A good progress report provides actual results. It doesn't merely state "I've made lots of progress on this project." Instead, it reports preliminary key findings. In short, a progress report previews the final report to follow. Conventionally, a progress report discusses two major topics: Work Completed (or Results to Date) and Work Remaining.

Read more about progress reports, including contents.

Test Reports

A test report presents the conclusions from the test of a product or service and usually recommends changes in the product or service. (A usability report is one kind of test report.)

A test report is often written with a social science model of organization:

(In some contexts, a test report is not considered a type of recommendation report, but is regarded as more akin to a journal article or lab report.)

See usability testing reports and lab reports for more on writing test reports.

Strategic Plans

A strategic plan is a comprehensive report analyzing the current situation in a department or company. It recommends a plan to follow over some future course of time. Such a report usually focuses on the goals and objectives of an organization, reviews those goals and objectives, and perhaps recommends a shift in direction or policy (or a reorganization or shifting of resources).

Strategic plans are a favored document in companies that adopt management by objectives approaches to evaluation. You probably won't be asked to draft a strategic plan before you are a supervisor, but you may be asked to comment on one or perform to the criteria stated in one.

Business Plan

A business plan is a formal report developed by new businesses to raise start-up capital or by exisitng businesses that need to raise new capital.

Most business plans are organized in the following manner: The front matter normally includes a cover letter, a non-disclosure statement, title page, and table of contents. The executive summary pitches the plan (the business concept, the current situation, key factors for success, and financial situation) and sometimes stands by itself. The body of the report starts with the corporate vision, moves to a market analysis (including identifying the target customers), an analysis of the competition for that market, and the marketing strategy your business will employ. Subsequent sections develop the company approaches to operations, sales, and products. It closes with a financial section that includes forecasts, assumptions, balance sheets, profit/loss projections, and cash-flow projections. Appendices include financial data, personnel credentials, and other relevant exhibits.

Help with business plans for new companies is available through the Small Business Administration.

Design Reports

Design reports describe in detail the implementation of a solution to an engineering problem and the testing methodology that has been applied to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of a solution. If the design has some problems, the report also voices those problems and considers alternatives and adjustments to the design.

Design reports are often assigned to help complete advanced engineering projects. These reports are developed as formal reports with front material (cover letter/memo, title page, table of contents, table of figures, abstract), introduction, background of the project, circuit design, supporting analysis, data, discussion, summary, conclusions, and appendices.


Periodic Reports

In almost every work setting, certain kinds of reports are generated periodically, either on a regular schedule, such as annual performance reviews, or when necessary, such as trip reports.  Periodic reports often follow clear and fairly rigid formats and can range from very brief (most trip reports) to extensive and formal (corporate annual reports).

Annual Reports

An annual report informs stockholders and others outside the company about the company's achievements and financial performance in a given year. Such a report usually serves both a promotional and an informative purpose. The report provides basic financial information about the status of an organization and addresses the question of a company's profitability and degree of financial success—but it also attempts to instill some confidence in the stockholders that their investment is a worthy one.

Read more about annual reports, particular newsletter-based reports for non-profits.

Performance Reports

A performance report evaluates individual or organizational performance over a given period of time. When applied to employees, such a report might be called a "personnel evaluation." Most companies develop forms that help in developing a score, and many also have the supervisor write a summary paragraph for each segment of the evaluation.

Activity Reports

Employees produce activity reports to identify what they have accomplished over a period of time (usually six months or a year). These reports often help employers to assemble the employee's performance evaluation. The activity report, therefore, allows employees to craft their own portraits. If successful, they influence how bosses view their employees' work.

Since the activity report is often a list, it shares some of the challenges involved in writing a résumé: How does one use a list to create a portrait?

Read more about activity reports.

Trip Reports

Trip reports are used to justify activities conducted away from the work site. Sometimes it provides information about a meeting or conference to others in the organization who did not attend. Other times it reports on visits to customers. Further, if it is form based, the trip report may also report expenses.

Read more about trip reports.

Business Plan

A business plan is a formal report developed by new businesses to raise start-up capital or by exisitng businesses that need to raise new capital.

Most business plans are organized in the following manner: The front matter normally includes a cover letter, a non-disclosure statement, title page, and table of contents. The executive summary pitches the plan (the business concept, the current situation, key factors for success, and financial situation) and sometimes stands by itself. The body of the report starts with the corporate vision, moves to a market analysis (including identifying the target customers), an analysis of the competition for that market, and the marketing strategy your business will employ. Subsequent sections develop the company approaches to operations, sales, and products. It closes with a financial section that includes forecasts, assumptions, balance sheets, profit/loss projections, and cash-flow projections. Appendices include financial data, personnel credentials, and other relevant exhibits.

Help with business plans for new companies is available through the Small Business Administration.

Presentation Reports

Presentation reports are an emerging category. Using PowerPoint software and its bundled content templates, some busy groups use the slides and notes function to create a report that is filed with a brief orienting memo.

Read more about presentation reports.


 
Typical Occasions for Reports
  Early in a Project Later in a Project Periodically Addressing a Business Problem
Less Formal in Format

 

Problem or Needs Analysis

Project Plan

Preliminary Report

Comparison Report

Recommendation Report

Short Proposal

Lab Report

Usability Report

Test Report

Performance Report

Standards (in Principles)

Abstracts (summaries

Progress Report

Activity Report

Trip Report

Recommendation Report

Comparison Report

PowerPoint Presentation Report

More Formal in Format

Long Proposal

Recommendation Report

Feasibility

White Paper

Marketing Plan

Design

Business Plan

Research Report/Journal Article

Interim or Status Report

Formal Plan for Policy (e.g., Strategic Plan)

Annual Report

 

White Paper

Business Plan

Preliminary Reports: Problem Analyses, Proposals, and Plans


Lab Reports


Usability Reports


Abstracts and Summaries


Periodic Reports: Trips, Activities, Pro


White Papers


Recommendation and Feasibility Reports


Presentation Reports

1.4.2






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