Business report structure
There is no single, standard format for business reports so you should always refer to your assignment instructions, or ask your lecturer directly, for guidance about required sections. If your instructions do not indicate what sections are required, then the sections outlined below are a sensible default. Business reports will usually need a reference list, and may also need a title page, table of contents, and/or appendices.
Sometimes you are required to give an executive summary and sometimes you are not. So, it is a good idea to make sure you refer to your assignment instructions or ask your lecturer. Note: sometimes this section is simply called a Summary. Generally, executive summaries are placed at the start of reports and usually it is a single page that "stands alone" from the rest of the report in that it gives a concise overview of the report. A useful summary condenses the essence of the report so that the reader can quickly grasp the report's aims, objectives, and main findings (with key recommendations if the report is an action plan).
Example Executive Summary
Agribus Consultants were commissioned by Mr and Mrs Stuart to prepare a financial management plan for the 1994/95 season for situations where the existing horticultural operation was maintained and where a neighbouring 10 ha property with 3-5 year old apple trees was purchased.
The forecast cashflow budget for the existing and expanded orchard businesses were based on current levels of production and Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) Policy forecasted prices (May 2018) for various apple varieties and grades. Total production of apples would increase by 30,000 tray carton equivalents (100%) if the neighbouring orchard was acquired. These would be produced between March and May. The net cash surplus would increase by 120% to $60,000 with the expanded operation. Economics of scale for labour and machinery, and a better varietal mix (20% more Braeburn) would contribute to the proportionately greater returns.
It is recommended that arrangements to purchase the property proceed forthwith. It will be necessary to arrange a 10-year loan of $100 to purchase the land and buildings.
This is the first section of the report and is easiest to write after you have written the other report sections, as then you know what your outcomes will be, which you can briefly summarise in the introduction. The purpose of the introduction is to
- State the purpose or aim of the report, which may include who has commissioned it, if relevant.
- Sometimes you are expected to outline your analysis procedure or process. This might include noting any key approaches, sources, theories, or frameworks used in your analysis.
- Provide background details relevant to the situation, such as a brief overview of historical developments, as well as definitions of any terms that are unlikely to be recognised by the audience.
- Summarise the problems and recommended solutions.
- Clarify any limitations, restrictions, and/or assumptions made in undertaking your investigation of the situation, such as restrictions on time, lack of money, limited access to information and people, and/or assumptions made about the organisation because of the lack of information available.
In general, one page is sufficient to address the issues typically required in an introduction.
This section is usually allocated the most marks, so it is well worth your time to do it thoroughly. Note: sometimes the terms "Analysis" or "Discussion and analysis" are used. Sometimes you may have two separate sections for "Discussion" and "Analysis". Again, check your course guide or assignment instructions for guidance about specific terms.
The discussion section is generally the only section where you are able to support your analysis and reasoning with theoretical ideas, concepts, and models available within the course. It also tends to be where you provide evidence to back up your conclusions and recommendations. Therefore, ensure that you draw on evidence from the literature, course materials, as well as your own observations from the actual case or organisation, where applicable.
Generally, the discussion section is where you identify the problem(s) and then consider a range of possible solutions. You may find that as you outline the strengths and weaknesses of the various solutions or outcomes it is very clear which solutions will be recommended. Sometimes it can be useful to first identify your conclusions and recommendations before supporting these outcomes in the discussion.
Sometimes lecturers will ask you to include your recommendations in your discussion section and omit a recommendations section altogether. Again, refer to your assignment instructions or course guide for guidance on specific sections and what is required.
Once you have planned the points you need to cover in your discussion, it can be appropriate to create different sub-sections within the discussion that encompass and frame each of the issues, with appropriate headings for each sub-section. When writing each sub-section within the discussion, the following structure may be useful for demonstrating the process you used to carry out your analysis and evaluation.
- Identify the problem
Example: The problem involves a lack of coordination at top-level management.
- Identify the causes
Example: This is caused by a lack of organisational skills and a lack of assistance from support people.
- Identify the symptoms
Example: As a result, the department is constantly in a state of flux, with no knowledge of where it should be heading.
- Identify the key theory, approach or framework used to analyse the problem.
Example: Systems theory is used to analyse the cause and effect of lack of coordination at top-level management and identify possible solutions.
- Identify and discuss possible solutions
This can be achieved by explaining advantages and disadvantages of a few options, which may involve describing short-term and long-term benefits.
- Often this is arranged as a numbered or bulleted-list. Sometimes, however, conclusions may be presented as a statement in paragraph form that synthesizes all the discussion points.
- Arrange each point (if applicable) in order of importance, rather than necessarily in the order found in your discussion.
- If possible, match each point in sequence with the list of recommendations.
- Usually, each point provides a brief summary of one of the problems outlined in detail in the discussion section (if any) of the report. Sometimes, however, your discussion section may be a statement of all the problems, rather than a point by point discussion. In this case, it will not be possible for each conclusion point to match a specific discussion point.
- Ensure each point links with the report's objectives.
- Write each conclusion in the present tense.
- Each point needs to be specific and clear.
- Note: Sometimes, you might be asked to combine your recommendation and conclusion section. Sometimes, the conclusion can follow recommendations. Again, refer to your assignment instructions or course guide for guidance on specific sections and what is required.
- This can also be arranged as a numbered or bulleted-list.
- If possible or applicable, each recommendation should appear in sequence with the order of points in the list of conclusions.
- Recommendations should clearly address the report's aim and objectives.
- If possible, each recommendation should provide a response to each problem identified in the list of conclusions.
- Each recommendation should be action-oriented, concise, and clear.
- Each recommendation should also be realistic and feasible within the identified needs and constraints of the client and also within the current social, economic, and political climate.
- Write each recommendation in the future tense, as appropriate.
- Note: Sometimes, lecturers will ask you to include your recommendations in your discussion section and omit a recommendations section altogether. Sometimes, recommendations are not required for your assignments. Sometimes, you might be asked to combine your recommendation and conclusion section. Again, refer to your assignment instructions or course guide for guidance on specific sections and what is required.
The order of the above sections varies depending on whether it is an inductive or deductive report. Business reports will usually need a reference list, and sometimes include a letter or memo (see other kinds of business communications) to the client, a title page, table of contents, and/or appendices.
It is always important to re-read your assignment instructions before submission. It may also be useful to ask yourself the following questions before you submit your assignment for marking:
- Have you clearly addressed the objective(s) of your assignment and report?
- Have you included all the required structural elements (e.g. Title page, Executive summary, Introduction, Discussion, etc.)?
- Does your executive summary (if required) stand alone and could the reader understand the main issues and solutions without reading the report?
- Does your introduction clearly outline the purpose and objectives of the report, explain the context and any relevant issues, describe any limitations or assumptions (if appropriate), outline major findings (if appropriate), and identify relevant theories, models, or frameworks used in analysis?
- Does your discussion clearly analyse and discuss issues, solutions etc. as foundation for your recommendations and conclusions?
- Are your conclusions and recommendations divided into logical subsections with clear subheadings (if appropriate/required), listed in order of importance (or chronologically if appropriate), and sequentially numbered (if appropriate/required)?
- Are your references in-text and in your reference list correctly formatted in the required style?
- Is your tone and style of writing suitable for the intended audience?
- Does your report look polished and professional in format and layout?