Philip Sugg

Research and the Knowledge Worker

Selected definitions of the word research, from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Middle French, French recherche, thorough investigation (1452)

(1) The act of searching carefully for or pursuing a specified thing or person

(2) The product of systematic investigation

(3) An attribute of a person: the ability or inclination to carry out scholarly investigation; learning, academic achievement.

“A writer of painstaking research” (1861). Obsolete

(4) To seek or pursue.

“a tremendous desire of researching after truth” (1760). Obsolete

The meaning of the word “research,” and its value as a skill across all kinds of work, has become too narrow. The first two definitions above are contemporary, but look at the second two: at one time ‘research’ was a word you applied to a person, an attribute of character (“a writer of painstaking research”), or a shorthand for drive and ambition (“desire of researching after truth”).

Today the term typically means something far more specialized, most often tied to scientists, technology, equipment, labs, budgets and institutions. Maybe, in a university setting, research also applies to any work done by scholars or experts in a field.

What many of these efforts have in common is that they are long, time-consuming, tied to training, and hard for outsiders to understand. That is, unless the research is successful and has clear technological applications (“researching a cure”)–which it usually doesn’t.

But if we search for more general synonyms for research, and open our minds to those older definitions which are no longer in use, research can mean very generic activities like ‘looking, ‘doing detective work,’ or ‘digging,’–even ‘hunting’ (to hunt for the solution), fishing (‘fishing for an answer’) and questing (‘on a quest for the truth’). In that case the number of researchers expand to include some very general job titles, like ‘consultant,’ ‘analyst’, ‘investigator’, ‘operative’ or ‘agent’. I’d argue that some of the most general and hard-to-describe jobs of the information economy got to be that way because they involve research in its ever-shifting forms.

What ties together the prestigious and profitable notion of research as something that happens in a controlled lab to the research that happens every day in the knowledge economy is this: research is just the search for an answer, absent any authority, incentive structure, or built-in hints about what the answer might be.

Without these guardrails, most people just give up. Another way to put the idea of real research is that it is training about how to keep going when you hit an obstacle. Being a good researcher is about learning how to continue making progress even when you have no signs of it.

In research you don’t know what you are seeking. Being a good researcher is partially about forming a certain type of character. A willingness and comfort with experiencing confusion, over and over again. It’s also about knowing when and how to apply a particular method or structure to a problem, a question for which there is never any systematic answer.