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IA Research Questions

Sometimes thinking of the right question is the hardest part, eh?

Student with Laptop

The importance of the research question

The most important part of the IA in Business Management is of course the research question.  It is important to first consult the IB guide for this course, but here are some of my own tips on how to settle on a good question. If you are a student, you’ll want to ask your teacher for the sections of the subject guide on the IA, and the annual subject report, if they have not already done so.  The subject published every year is a fantastic resource in which the IB team gives specific guidance on strengths and weaknesses that they tended to see in the last exam session’s IAs.  


Most of my students go through multiple rounds of consultation with me before they settle on a question that is viable.  If your question is problematic in any way, a student will likely end up wasting a lot of time and effort pursuing a path that is fruitless or must be significantly altered.  It is therefore much better to spend more time than you want nailing down a good question rather than having to fix it later.  

Should I do a backward-looking or forward-looking question?

The question can be forward-looking or backward-looking, as long as you remember for backward-looking questions that there is a three-year limit on sources and that the question needs to be evaluative and not simply report and/or analyze what happened.  A student may not use source material that is dated more than three years before their IA submission.  I personally often advise my students that writing a forward-looking IA question is usually easier, giving the question a binary either/or choice for the firm.  However, it is quite possible to do a backward-looking question, and many students evaluate something like how successfully a firm has been able to implement a choice, or to what extent it was the right decision.

Examples of good questions

  • Should Nintendo stop making Rated M games and focus on kid-friendly games?

  • Should Alphabet acquire a smart TV manufacturer?

  • How can Google best adapt their search engine to the emergence of AI chatbots?

  • To what extent should the Coca-Cola company change its bottling to be more sustainable? 

  • Should International Paper change its marketing mix to a more sustainable brand image in response to the growing eco-friendly movements?

  • To what extent should Ferrari produce more cars to increase profits?

  • Should the Walt Disney company continue to compete in the streaming service market with all of their current platforms?


Most of these questions narrow the firm’s options down to a clear set of options that can be addressed adequately within the word limit.

Types of questions

"Should" questions 

For most students, I often find that “should” questions end up being the easiest for the students to narrow down their focus into a scenario in which they can apply course tools, techniques, and theories.  It tends to lead to a simple binary choice of “yes or no,” or “Option A or Option B.”


"Can" questions 

This is similar to a “should” question in the sense that the answer is clearly going to be yes or no.  For example, “Can Exxon successfully increase revenues by adding electric car charging ports to its gas stations?”


"To what extent" questions 

Another option is to go with “to what extent.” For instance, to what extent is a product line, marketing campaign, strategy, or so on impacting the firm in a positive way (profitability, competitive advantage, productivity, etc.).   While the conclusion could be a bit more fuzzy than in a “should” question, it’s still pretty straightforward to conclude if the answer is to a limited, moderate, or great extent.


"How Effective" questions 

As long as this addresses an issue that is ongoing and not solely in the past, this can be a good way of evaluating the merits of a firm’s objectives, strategies, tactics, and so on.  For example, “How effective is Gold's Gym's use of social media promotional techniques?”  

What makes a BAD question?

There are many things that can lead to a bad research question, but here are a few things I commonly see in students’ first iteration of their questions: 


  • Too broad

  • Considers too many aspects of the business functions

  • Is about the industry, not the firm

  • Requires info that you don’t have access to [for this reason, I highly recommend that students do a publicly traded company so that they can get access to financial info]

  • Has already been answered

  • Is very likely to be answered/irrelevant long before you submit your draft

  • Has an obvious answer

Examples of bad questions from prior students

"Should Nike cut back on advertisement/ marketing money and focus it on new tech products?"

  • This could work, but so often the student doesn't have a really good idea of what "tech products" they envision Nike getting into.  Nike is a company that mostly sells sporting goods and apparel.  What kind of tech products would they do?  Upon questioning, the student was unable to come up with concrete examples other than NFTs, and they were unable to explain Nike's potential creation of NFTs further.  Students need to have a clearer idea of what they're proposing.

"How did the transgender bathroom policy impact Target's profits?"

  • I doubt you’re going to be able to prove whether or not it had any impact on their profits; teasing out the cause and effect there is likely to be way too difficult, and you will not have firm data to point to in order to justify a conclusion. This essay will thus be highly speculative.  Also, the way the student has phrased this question, it’s entirely in the past and they're running the danger of writing a report on facts and ahve no true evaluation.  If the student wants to investigate whether this will have an ongoing or future impact on the business, then this should be rephrased.  

"What impact will the recent move of Wilson Sporting Goods' headquarters have on the mobility of jobs within the workforce of the company?"

  • This is a mouthful.  I’m not entirely sure what the student means by mobility of jobs within the workforce of the company, and the student clearly didn’t either when we chatted.


"How can Wendy's revamp the public's outlook on the service and attitude of the staff?"

  • Firstly, I generally advise against questions beginning with “how.”  Too often, there are far too many possibilities to explore, so a “how” question is too broad to be covered well within the word count limit. Secondly, the student is assuming that Wendy’s has a problem with the public perception of service and staff attitudes.  In this case, the student was never able to come up with reliable data showing that these were even problems to begin with. 

"Should Amazon invest in private label brands?"

  • They already are, so this question is irrelevant.

"Should Sony expand its electronics sales into new markets?"

  • Sony is a huge company, and I don't know what market they could potentially get into that they're not currently in.  Also, does the student mean geographic markets, new product markets, etc?  The student was never really able to answer these questions for me.

"What new features can Spotify add to better compete with Apple Music?"

  • Maybe this could work if it were more specific, but the student wasn't really able to clearly lay out what options he had in mind.  Consequently, without narrowing it down to specific features or at least types of features, the question was too broad and wasted a lot of the student's time before he switch

How do I integrate a key concept?

The important thing is that you are constantly bringing the IA commentary back to your key concept so that it truly revolves around the concept, rather than it being an add-on that doesn't really work together with the rest of the commentary. 


Consider doing the following: 

- Define the key concept in the intro or first body paragraph

- Consider the key concept both from an internal lens, under the firm's control, and an external lens, happening or likely to happen in the market/industry/society around them.

- Think of your IA concept in multiple different ways (see concept charts below). This is particularly important with sustainability, which includes social, financial, and environmental sustainability

- Ask yourself, "Are there areas in which I have implied a link to the concept but have not analyzed it directly?"

- Use this chart to describe possible connections between your key concept and the syllabus BEFORE you write your IA. 


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