As we move to the new Business Management programme and assessment models, it is a good time to reflect on negative trends in the preparation and completion of the higher level internal assessment, and the (probably optimistic) hope that these will be addressed in the May 2016 session. Although, left to last in this post, the appendices are becoming the most problematic aspect of the HLIA.
At the start of any programme, there tends to be a range of mistakes that are then corrected over time. For example, when the present HLIA was introduced, a key failing was the omission of an action plan in the research proposal, leading to the awarding of a zero for criterion A. So much has been said about this failing in subject reports and workshops, that it has become a relatively minor infringement over the last four or five years.
Although, the new programme has made no major changes in the assessment task itself, the assessment criteria, although familiar, contain minor changes that must not be ignored or overlooked, and may prove to be the source of future lost marks. There is, for example, the assessed requirement for reflective thinking.
The purpose of the HLIA should not be forgotten. The intention is to get the student into a real world situation, so that they can apply business tools, techniques and theories learned in the classroom to a real business issue or decision. This means that the HLIA must be based predominantly on primary research. A project based on secondary research alone is not acceptable. This is made crystal clear in the wording of criterion B in the new guide.
Although not comprehensive (for more details – see the examination session subject reports on the OCC), the following are some of the key issues and negative trends that have developed over the duration of the existing programme.
Research Proposal and Action Plan
Research proposals and action plans have improved in virtually all aspects over the last seven years. However, there are two key areas where candidates tend to lose marks. Firstly, the rationale is frequently misunderstood. The rationale for the investigation should not be a personal motivation, such as ‘I want to study accounting at university’, or that the investigation is of a family firm that the student wants to join. It must be a business rationale and relate to business problems and decisions. For example, sales and profits may be falling, staff turnover increasing or the firm is considering expansion options. The investigation should be based on a decision the firm is considering, not one that the student believes they should consider, unless based on clear evidence that the proposed action would be both beneficial and feasible.
The second issue relates to the theoretical framework and methodology. Candidates often fail to explain both their choice of business tools, techniques and theories and why they will be undertaking certain primary and secondary research.
The 500 word count must include the words in the action plan, and as in the case of the entire report, the word count cannot be avoided by putting words into boxes.
Analysis and evaluation
SWOT analysis seems to be an obligatory aspect of many candidates’ projects, even when the technique does not address the research question. Perhaps more importantly, SWOT is often inaccurately prepared and frequently used inappropriately. Opportunities in a SWOT must be uncontrollable by the firm and arise as a result of the external environment, such as changing markets and economies and new technologies. The fact that a firm can expand its operations or produce new products, comes from the internal strengths of the business, and is controllable by the firm itself – it decides whether to take advantage of external opportunities using its strengths; these are not opportunities in a SWOT. In addition, a SWOT cannot be used to assess a strategy; it should be used to analyse the present situation of an organisation. SWOTs used to analyse a strategy are normally no more than a list of advantages and disadvantages of that strategy, masquerading as a SWOT in the hope of ticking off a business technique. In most cases, SWOT analysis really should be combined with a PEST analysis to provide the framework for evaluation.
Force Field Analysis is becoming the flavour of the month, but one key weakness of this tool, when it is used in many reports, is that the weights applied are not justified objectively or evidenced, but are purely the candidates’ unsupported judgments. The ‘result’ of the force field analysis is then used to support decisions and recommendations as if the results were an objective measure, without identifying the limitations of the findings.
Conclusions and recommendations
This section does not provide a further opportunity for the candidate to analyse new options or recommendations. Recommendations must be supported by discussion and analysis in the main body of the report and be consistent with findings in this section. The inclusion of new information inevitably leads to reduced marks.
The IB does not specify a particular citation style, but the bibliography style should be consistent. Bibliographies that have few sources, especially those which refer almost exclusively to textbooks, Wikipedia and the investigated firm’s website, are normally accurate indicators of the quality of the report itself. Websites should include the retrieval or access dates.
Only the tools techniques and theories, and the analysis and evaluation, included in the main body can be rewarded through the assessment criteria. There is a growing trend for candidates to place SWOT, PEST and other tools and techniques in the appendices, with footnotes pointing to these in the main body. It also appears that some teachers are positively advising candidates to place these tools, and related analysis, in the appendices. This is simply unacceptable, as it is an attempt to avoid the word count restrictions. Only the information in the main body counts towards the overall assessment. The teacher support material on the OCC for the 2009 programme also makes this clear – ‘Information in appendices will not be directly assessed. It is reference material only.’
As one perceptive participant (thank you Paul) in one of my recent workshops said – “placing analysis and tools in the appendices is no different to including a footnote that says – ‘ for the conclusion and recommendations – see appendix 4′!
Information that is not essential to the candidate’s findings, but that supports their analysis, can be placed in the appendices. This may include raw research data, questionnaire results, transcripts of interviews, pictures and maps.
The appendix must provide relevant information that is discussed and analysed in the main body – it should not be a catch-all for related information that does not address the research question. It is not totally unacceptable to have a detailed PEST and SWOT in the appendix if, and it has to be if, the SWOT and PEST are examined in depth in the main body of the report. However, it is the only discussion and application of the SWOT and PEST in the main body that can be rewarded using the assessment criteria. In most cases, it would be appropriate to include the SWOT and PEST in the main body if these form a substantial part of the analysis and evaluation. The words in the PEST and SWOT must then be part of the word count.
In summary, the main body of the report must be complete without the appendices, and must contain all information, including tables, diagrams and results necessary to answer the research question.