Building my MBA dissertation literature review

I knew the second half of my MBA would be easier. Still several courses to go, but the main thing now is my consultancy project and dissertation, which I’m doing on the connection between book value and shareholder value – in other words, the part of a firm’s value that can be vaguely attributed to ‘marketing’. But while a big job of doing stuff then writing about it isn’t the hardest thing in the world for me, it’s not quite as easy as I first thought.

The reason: it’s an academic piece, not an act of copywriting. Which means an important part of the work is finding where it fits into the broader intellectual universe: getting a grip on the landscape delineated by peer-reviewed journals and seeing where your ideas are best built.

It’s what one OB lecturer calls a “heading the cricket ball” problem. If your idea of playing cricket is to HEAD the ball being bowled at you, you’re unlikely to be regarded as as serious cricketer. Not only that, but your ‘innovative approach’ wouldn’t score you any points, and the whole activity would just give you a headache.

Which for a non-academic raises the question: which papers? Which textbooks? How do I know, when building my reading list, that I’m reading the right stuff?

Fortunately, I’ve found a shortcut that makes it easy.

One of the resources at WBS (what did researchers ever do without the Internet?) is a comprehensive database with searchable full-text articles from several hundred journals… with the number of citations attached.

Citations, not keywords, are the key concept here. If a paper in my multitude of search terms has been cited a hundred times by other authors, it’s a reasonable bet that paper is ‘significant’, a seminal work in the field. Following the trail of the papers cited in that paper make the method even stronger: most of the people citing that paper will also have read whatever papers it cites. By this process, I can quickly find the ‘core’ dozen or so papers relevant to the subject I was searching for. Which for a field like mine (brand valuation) tells me precisely where the needles are in the haystack.

In a way, this is doing a ‘manual google’ – the PageRank algorithm at the heart of Google uses precisely this principle to rank popularity of web pages. Who’s linked to you, and how many links you’ve got. I’m just doing it by hand. Some more whittling down to be done, but in just a day I’ve got ten papers that seem to lie at the root of this branch of marketing.

Sometimes, I could almost believe I’m smart.

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