How To Write A Solid Assignment Introduction

By: Derek Jansen | December 2017

Henley MBA Introduction Chapter

I’ll kick off this post by making a bold assertion:

The introduction chapter of your assignment is the single most important section in your entire assignment.

Yip. Not the analysis chapter. Not the recommendations chapter. The introduction chapter. Yip, that short 200/300/400-word chapter that so many students rush through to get to the meatier chapters.  Why do I say this? There are a few reasons:

It creates the first impression.

Apart from the executive summary (which some assignments don’t have), the introduction creates the very first impression on your marker. It sets the tone in terms of the quality of the assignment.

It introduces your industry.

You might have decades of experience in your industry – but your marker won’t. This means that the simplest concepts can be misunderstood (and thereby cost you marks) if not explained right at the beginning of your assignment. A good introduction lays the foundation so that the marker can understand your upcoming arguments.

It defines and justifies your topic.

The introduction, if developed correctly, clearly outlines what the assignment will be about (and what it won’t) and why that’s important (i.e. a justification). In other words, it makes it clear what the focus of the assignment will be about, and why that is worth investigating. This clarity and justification of the topic are essential to earning good marks and keeping you focused on the purpose of the assignment.

It clarifies your approach.

Beyond the what and why, a good introduction also briefly explains how you’ll approach the research, both from a theoretical and practical perspective. This lays a clear roadmap both for the marker and for yourself. For the marker, this improves the readability and digestibility of the document (which is essential for earning marks). And for you, this big-picture view of the approach keeps you from digressing into a useless analysis.

In short, a good introduction lays a solid foundation and a clear direction for the rest of your assignment. Hopefully, you’re convinced…

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The 5 essential ingredients.

In this post, I’ll outline the key components of a strong introduction chapter/section. But first, I want to discuss the structure.

Some assignment briefs will provide a proposed structure which combines the introduction and analysis chapters. I always encourage my clients to split this up into two chapters, as it provides a clearer, more logical structure. You’ll see why once I discuss the core components.

#1 – The Four Ws

A logical starting point is to assume the marker knows nothing about your business. Make sure you cover the basics:

  • Who – what is the name of the business? If its multiple words, you should take the opportunity to introduce an acronym here. Then, stick to the acronym throughout the rest of the assignment. It’s also good practice to provide a list of acronyms in the appendix.
  • What – explain what the business does, in simple English. Avoid industry jargon and explain the basic operating model of the business.
  • Where – explain where the business operates from and where its customers operate. If you have multiple offices and serve multiple markets, a visual representation can save you some words.
  • When – mention the age of the business, and how many staff it employs. You can also note the ownership structure (private company, listed entity, JV, etc).

If you’re only going to focus on one country/branch/department, make mention of this now. Also, be sure to justify why you’re focusing on that (for example, due to limited access to data).

If done right, you will have now painted a very clear (but concise) picture of the organisation for the marker. The next step is to discuss the context that the business operates in.

#2 – A brief discussion of the context.

Now that you’ve introduced the business, you need to move towards identifying the key issue(s) that will form the focus of the assignment. To do this, you need to lay a context, which will then lead to the issue(s). This will vary between assignments, and could be something like:

  • The entry of new competitors resulting in reduced market share (STR, SM)
  • A merger leading to a culture clash and poor performance (MP)
  • A corporate scandal resulting in reputation damage (R&R)
  • Changing regulation leading to the opening of a new potential country market (IB)

In other words, you need to present a (brief) story of how the key issue(s) or opportunity has arisen – X has lead to Y, which caused Z.

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#3 – Identification of the key issue and research question(s).

With the context set, you need to clearly state what the key issue(s) or opportunity is, and why this is worth investigating (for example, due to the financial impact if left unresolved). This is pretty straightforward, but it is a critical step often missed by students, and results in the marker questioning the quality of the entire assignment.

With the key issue identified, its time to lay out your research question(s). In other words, state in question format, what question(s) your assignment will seek to answer.

For example:

  • “What has changed in Organisation X’s competitive context, and how should it best respond to ensure sustainable competitive advantage?”
  • “Should Organisation X internationalise to Country Y?”
  • “What segments exist within Industry X and which segment should Organisation Y target?”
  • “Which digital business model should Organisation X adopt?”

By stating your research question(s) up front, you are providing a very clear, focused direction for your assignment, thereby reducing your risk of getting distracted by the shiny objects that will invariably pop up along the way. You are stating clearly what you will and won’t focus on, and ring-fencing the assignment to a manageable breadth. This is critically important for earning marks, as it allows you to go deep into a highly relevant set of theories and develop meaningful insights, rather than superficially fluttering with numerous less-relevant ones.

What’s critically important is that you achieve alignment between the context, the issue(s) and the research question(s). They should all flow in a logical fashion, as shown below. 

If you achieve this alignment, you have a rock-solid foundation for your assignment, and your marker will be crystal clear regarding your direction, and why you chose that direction.

#4 – A brief outline of your theoretical approach.

Now that you’ve made it clear what your assignment is aiming to achieve (i.e. what research question(s) it wants to answer), it is very good practice to briefly mention:

  • How you will approach the analysis.
  • What key theory you will draw on.

In other words, you should give the marker an indication of how you approached the analysis, and on what theoretical basis. For example:

“The report begins by briefly looking at the organisation’s broader strategy, as well as values using Schwartz’s model (1994). It then reviews stakeholders using Mitchell et al.’s framework (1997) and identifies a key group with which reputation needs to be managed to achieve strategic alignment. It then analyses antecedents, reputation, and outcomes of the said group using Money et al.’s (2012) RELATE framework. This is followed by proposed strategic actions.”

As you can see, this excerpt clearly outlines how the analysis was approached, and what key theory was used in the relevant sections. This gives the marker a big-picture view of the assignment, which aids the digestibility of the document.

#5 – A brief outline of your fieldwork.

Now that you’ve communicated the approach, structure and underpinning theory, it’s best practice to make a quick mention of your fieldwork. Yes, you’re typically supposed to collect some primary data (for example, undertake some semi-structured interviews or a survey), as well as secondary data (for example, review industry reports, company data, etc), for your assignments – especially in Stage 2 and 3 of the program. 

In this final section, you should very briefly outline what you did in this respect so that the marker can rest assured that your assignment is not an opinion piece. A quality assignment draws on multiple data sources to make well-informed, data-backed arguments. Show that you’ve done this, and be sure to refer the reader to the appendices for evidence of this work (for example, interview transcripts, survey results, etc.).

Lastly, make mention of your relationship with the business, and your broad responsibilities. Remember to keep this in third-person language. For example:

“The author is employed as the [INSERT YOUR TITLE] and is responsible for X, Y and Z.”

Let’s recap.

In this article, I’ve hopefully convinced you of the critical importance of writing a strong introduction chapter. I’ve also presented 5 essential ingredients that you should bake into your intro in every assignment. By incorporating these ingredients (ideally, in this order), you will set the foundation for a strong assignment.

To recap the 5 essentials:

  1. A (plain language) explanation of the organisation.
  2. A brief discussion of the context.
  3. Identification of the key issue and research question(s).
  4. A brief outline of your theoretical approach.
  5. A brief outline of your fieldwork and your professional position.
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