Term Paper & Company Selection

You may have already heard that this course requires you to prepare a term paper and most students feel that is the most challenging part of the course.  Actually, the papers are typically only about 25 pages long and they are double spaced so they aren’t really that long. However, doing well on the paper DOES require a very significant amount of time spent doing research (most “A” papers require at least 50 or more hours of research).  The best way to do well on the paper is to start early and to be disciplined in spending time each week working on your research. Once we begin class you will constantly hear me “nag” everyone about not letting the paper go until late in the course.

Selecting a Company:

So what can you do to get started?  Well, the first thing is to make a smart selection of a company to write about (see the information below about which companies you may select from).  

  1. The company you select should be listed on the current US Fortune 500 list at http://fortune.com/fortune500/ between rank 700 and 1000.  
  2. You may not select any of the following companies:    Boston Scientific, eBay, Starbucks, Gamestop, Nike, Live Nation, Yahoo, JC Penney, Facebook, Tesla, McDonalds, AMD, Netflix, Chipotle, Electronic Arts, Occidental Petroleum.
  3. I strongly recommend that you select a company that appears to be facing some challenges.  Spend a little time doing some preliminary research to see if you can identify a few weaknesses or problems the company is facing.  In fact, before I picked a company, I would make sure I can identify AT LEAST one area where the company is facing a challenge and things aren’t going great.  (HELPFUL HINT – One way to do this is to use the filters built into the Fortune 500 list to identify companies who are seeing weaker profitability, or slower sales growth, or lower investor returns than others in their industry.  
  4. I also recommend against selecting a company that you already know a great deal about or have strong opinions about.  If you pick a company that you already know a lot about, past experience has shown that you are likely to jump to conclusions or you may have preconceived opinions that impact your paper negatively.  Please be careful about selecting a company you already know well since passing the paper (and the course) requires demonstrating that you’ve researched knowledgeable sources and documented that research rather than stated your own opinions or pre-existing knowledge.
  5. Be very careful in picking a company because you think it is “cool.”  I’ve seen a lot of papers on Tesla, Live Nation, and Gamestop which didn’t score well because they turned into papers about how cool the company is or discussions of the company’s use of technology and failed to focus on the company’s business issues.
  6. While you are not required to pick a publicly-traded company, you are likely to find much more information on a public company and that will make your research job considerably easier.  So what is a “public” company? This term refers to a company in which you can buy stock (typically on one of the major stock exchanges like the NYSE or NASDAQ). If you’re in doubt, go on a site such as Yahoo Finance and search to see how much the company’s stock is selling for.  If you can’t find a price for the company’s shares, then it probably isn’t public.
  7. Finally, I recommend that you select a company which is included in both the IBISWorld and Business Insights: Global databases on the PSU library website.  You are not REQUIRED to meet this particular criterion however picking a company which is not included in these sources will make your research task more difficult.  More information on this is given below.

Identifying Problems:

The central focus of this paper is the identification of problems the company is facing and possible solutions.  These challenges or problems should be current problems, NOT problems the company has already faced and dealt with.  Use your basic business knowledge to find information about the company and see what issues you can find (good places to start include the current 10K report – especially the Management Discussion and Analysis section, the corporate CSR report if they have one, and the IBISWorld and Business Insights: Global databases.  In your search for problems you can consider that any area where the company isn’t doing as well as they probably want to be doing constitutes a problem.  If you select a company for which you’re able to find some problems, I promise you that the term paper will be much easier. 

Scope of the Paper:

In your term paper, you will be required to describe the culture, management style, corporate values, mission and vision, key stakeholders, business strategy, financial performance, market position and competitive situation, and similar facts about the company which impact how they make decisions and how they operate.  In short, you are going to want to understand their business environment as completely as you can. From there you will describe a number of problems or challenges that the company faces in their business and then you will select one of those problems to focus the rest of your paper on. Once you’ve selected that one key problem, you will analyze that problem in depth and determine what the causes are at a detailed level. Using that root cause analysis of the problem, you’ll then develop and analyze various potential solutions.  Finally, you’ll recommend a single (best) solution and prepare an implementation plan for your recommended action. You can get a better idea of how all these pieces come together if you take a look at the file “Suggested Organization of BA 301 Term Paper.”

If all this sounds intimidating at this point, don’t worry.   One of the objectives of this course is to give you a framework for solving real life business problems and we will develop each of the above subject areas over the course of the term.  I’ve shared this with you now simply so that you understand the scope of the paper before you start trying to pick a company.

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