The 4 Foundational Pillars Of Rock-Solid
Henley MBA Assignments

You’ve been involved in your industry for over 10/15/20 years. You’ve learnt a thing or two along the way. Your opinion counts in the boardroom. When you talk, people listen. Therefore, your opinion must carry weight in your assignments, right? Wrong.

One of the easiest ways to lose significant marks (or even fail) in Henley MBA assignments is to have your analysis, argument and conclusions rely heavily (or exclusively) on your personal insights, observations and experiences – in other words, your opinion. While your experience-backed opinion might be sufficient in the workplace, academia demands more. When writing your assignments, a prudent rule of thumb is this:

Your personal opinion (no matter how well-founded it may be) means nothing.

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So, how do you make an argument?

Given that your opinion carries so little weight, any argument you make in an assignment needs to be underpinned by credible sources. There are a variety of sources you could potentially draw on, but we simplify this down to 4 broad categories, or “the 4 pillars“. The more pillars you can draw on to support the arguments in your assignment, the better.

What are the 4 foundational pillars?

An academically respectable assignment typically draws on the following data sources to support its arguments:

  1. Academic literature (conceptual and empirical work/research)
  2. Practitioner literature (conceptual and empirical work/research)
  3. Internal data (company reports, survey results, etc – secondary research)
  4. Assignment-specific fieldwork (your interviews, surveys, etc – primary research)

These 4 categories deserve some discussion:

Pillar 1: Academic literature

At the heart of any good Henley MBA assignment lies analysis which is underpinned by quality academic literature. That is, after all, one of the key assessment criteria in any assignment – i.e. did you apply the module theory (which consists of academic literature) to a real-world situation.

A good starting point for quality literature is, of course, your study guide, and the reference lists of articles referenced in your study guide. You should always aim to base your assignments primarily on the key resources (theories, models and frameworks) in the study guide. There’s no harm in seeking out additional literature (this generally impresses the markers), but that should complement the key resources, not replace them.

Where can I find additional literature?

Google Scholar is an excellent starting point for finding credible academic literature using keywords (for example, motivation, trust, innovation). Scholar is effectively the Google equivalent of journal articles and academic research. Much like Google, it uses intelligent algorithms to find the most relevant results. Additionally, it shows the number of citations for each result, giving you an indicator of its relative popularity (and indirectly, it’s quality – but remember popularity does not equate to credibility).

Google scholar

When using Google Scholar, you will invariably find that some (if not most) of the content requires payment in order for you to access anything more than the abstract or summary. In such cases, copy all the relevant details (i.e. title, author/s, date), log into the Henley ARC, and search for the material there. In many cases, you will find that the university provides free access. If not, it’s probably best to just look for something else (it doesn’t make sense to spend money on journal articles for an assignment).

Importantly, be sure to enter the details verbatim or you may come up empty-handed – unfortunately, the libraries typically don’t have extremely intelligent search functionality (unlike Google Scholar).

Pillar 2: Practitioner literature

While academic literature (i.e. literature written by professional academic researchers) forms the basis of a good assignment (and indeed a good dissertation), the Henley MBA, being an applied business degree, requires more than just academic input. To this end, practitioner literature such as industry reports, publications and conferences provide a valuable additional data source, which oftentimes brings contextual relevance into an assignment.

Naturally, these sources are more prone to bias, subjectivity, commercial agendas and so on, but as long as you recognise and note these weaknesses in your assignment, they can provide a valuable additional layer of research which strengthens your analysis.

Pillar 3: Internal company data

Moving inward, internal company data is the next pillar. This includes internal reports and publications, newsletters, memos, survey results and so on. Basically any form of data that the company itself has generated is a potential source you can draw on.

Naturally, the same risk of biases and commercial agendas exists here, as well as just plain low-quality research (not all companies have the resources to undertake rigorous research). So, acknowledge and accept the limitations of this data source.

Pillar 4: Assignment-specific fieldwork

If there’s one thing that consistently pleases Henley markers, its some basic fieldwork – in other words, your own primary research. Some basic, semi-structured fieldwork with relevant stakeholders can deeply enrich any assignment, as it adds real-world perspectives and thereby highlights real-world problems. So, I always recommend that you include at least a little fieldwork. This needn’t be sophisticated (that’s not the expectation for assignment) – you just need to show that you tried to gather people’s input.

When you undertake interview-type fieldwork within your company, try to get input from as many different levels as possible. In other words, try to gather a well-round basket of insights, from those of low-level workers through to the CEO. At the very least, try to get input from both the people that make the decisions and those affected by the decision. This will enrich your analysis substantially, and may also help you spot potential implementation, control and measurement issues down the line.

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An essential note regarding referencing

Whether you draw on academic literature, practitioner literature, internal data or fieldwork (hopefully all four), be sure to follow Henley’s referencing requirements. There is no simpler way to annoy a marker (and lose marks) than to reference poorly. To this end, be smart and use a reference manager such as Mendeley or Zotero.


Enter your references into the manager from the day you start a module and keep an Excel spreadsheet (or some form of notes) of all the key ideas, theories, models, arguments and so forth. You will inevitably forget who said what when it comes to writing your assignment – so be smart, use technology.

Let’s recap.

In summary, then – when writing Henley MBA assignments (and indeed, any academic work – particularly your dissertation or thesis):

  1. Assume that your personal opinion means nothing – don’t say anything without backing it up.
  2. Draw on the four sources as a foundation for your arguments:
    1. Academic literature
    2. Practitioner literature
    3. Internal data (secondary data)
    4. Fieldwork (primary data)
  3. Ensure that your referencing is 100% on point. Use a reference manager and start building your reference collection from day one. 
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