Secondary research, even though it's called secondary, is an important first step when you're trying to answer questions. Secondary research involves searching available information to directly answer or discover insights into a current question based on knowledge others have developed, published, and/or have readily available. Secondary research is a fundamental practice whenever you are gathering data.  

Using secondary research techniques was our starting problem-solving approach when I worked at Kansas City Infobank. It helped us get smart fast when tackling a new project or industry assignment. We informally defined secondary research techniques as methods to find what you're looking for among answers to questions others already asked and answered.


Secondary research was ideal for me since it was similar to school (which I always enjoyed) and required a strategic, problem-solving approach that's been valuable not only in business, but in many other situations.

5 Keys to Getting Smart Fast with Secondary Research

There are several keys to effectively using secondary research techniques including strong skills in anticipation, visualization, detecting clues, and making sound assumptions.

Here are 5 keys to getting smart fast through secondary research techniques that Bill McDonald taught me that I still use all the time.

1. Start by anticipating what your ultimate answer will be.

Approximate the answer and its form: If it's a prediction, what's it likely to be? If it's a recap of something, how extensive will it be? Approximating what you're looking for helps you know when you've found the answer and aids directly in step 2.

2. Envision what components that could make up the answer will look like and where they might be found.

Rarely do you find the exact answer; instead, you need to piece it together as you would a puzzle. Start by thinking through what the "puzzle pieces" look like: quotes, number, expert names, trend information, news, etc., then map out where the pieces will likely be located.

3. Armed with hypotheses on the answer and its pieces, begin quickly searching and scanning information sources.

Having imagined the information upfront allows you to get through a search more quickly, i.e. if you need numbers to develop a forecast, it's easy to look at articles online and see right away if numbers are included. The key is grabbing as much information as appears relevant early on and leaving heavy analysis for later.

4. When you've captured these first sources, review them for more clues on where other information may reside.

Are there sources or experts mentioned you haven't explored but need to? Where are they located and how can you get to them?

5. While scanning sources, start piecing the answer together.

Ideally, you should be able to begin constructing the answer in parts, even if it doesn't look like the final form. Doing this effectively means making sound assumptions to start filling in the answer. This is where your initial hypotheses come in handy as a springboard for constructing the answer and providing a check on how the pieces are fitting together.

Secondary Research Techniques - Just the Start

There's certainly more to be written about secondary research techniques, but these five keys will help you be more successful whenever you have to find out an answer online or in printed material. - Mike Brown
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