Reports happen to be one those categories that are hard to define. Reports are used in all aspects of business in varying ways and to varying degrees. What this means to you is that there is very little standardization about what a report is and what it is called. Despite their variety, however, all reports have one thing in common: They present results.
Reports provide a description of a task, project, or research activity either at its completion or at some mid-point to recount and summarize your actions. And reports can be broken down into three major types that have typical components. The types of reports and the components contained within them are our focus in this overview.
Types of Reports
Figure 1 provides a visual representation of the three major types of reports.
Some of the alternate names or sub-types of three major categories are listed below each heading. The document’s primary purpose is generally noted in the self-explanatory names. For example, the progress report under informational provides the reader with information on the progress of the project, while the analytical empirical report will provide methods and results of empirical research.
To illustrate the complexity and altering forms of reports, look closely at Figure 1 again. For each of the three major report categories, you will see the same type of report: evaluation. An evaluative report is usually evaluating something or evaluating one thing in relation to another. You can have an evaluative report that only presents results.
For example, you were asked to evaluate what people did on their breaks. You sent out a survey and then compiled results. Once your supervisor saw your report, he asked you to draw some conclusions about the data so that he could forward it to the regional office. Your conclusions found that most people used their breaks to surf the Internet or talk on their mobile phones. The regional director asked your supervisor who asked you to make recommendations based on your conclusions. So, you can see how the evaluative report can actually be informational, analytical, or a recommendation report.
Two of the most common types of informational reports are the progress report and the incident report.
The progress report is a relatively informal document that is normally delivered to a supervisor, project manager, associate, or customer about progress you’ve made on a project over a certain period of time. It is a good example of a CYA (Cover-Your-Behind) document that keeps interested parties informed of the status of the project and specifically, what you have been doing.
The progress report does three things
- what has been done (and who’s done it)
- what work is in progress (and who’s doing it)
- what is left to be done (and who’s going to do it and how you’re going to get it done) and
- what problems you’re having and how you’re dealing with them
Progress reports have the primary function of reassuring recipients that progress is being made on the project and that it will be completed on time. Progress reports are used as an accountability document, and often times, you’re annual performance review may include references to your progress reports. If your company is working for a client that requires progress reports, those reports may ensure (or not) that your company receives payment on deliverables. If you are on a team, progress reports encourage communication and accountability, and hopefully, keep communication channels open in case of problems.
Incident reports are usually in-house documents used for quality assurance and record keeping purposes. An incident report can vary in complexity and format, and many companies now have web-based or intranet based electronic incident reports forms. No matter the format or method of delivery (print or online), the incident report should always answer the following questions:
- what: what happened
- when: when did it happen
- who: who was involved including client, sub-contractor or any people involved in solving the incident
- why: why it happened. may already be answered in the what and who
- how: how was the incident resolved
Corporate annual reports fall somewhere between informational and analytical.
You have a lot of experience writing these types of documents whether you realize it or not. One of the most common examples of an analytical report is a college research paper. In a research paper, you’re presenting information and drawing conclusions. While the style and format of a research paper is not directly transferable to a business analytical report, the skills you used in writing and developing the research paper are transferable.
David McMurrey has done a solid job pointing out the fine distinctions between types of recommendation reports, which are probably one of the most popular forms of reports used in the workplace. So as not to re-invent the wheel, his distinctions follow.
- Feasibility report: studies a situation (for example, a problem or opportunity) and a plan for doing something about it and then determines whether that plan is “feasible”—which means determining whether it technologically possible and whether it is practical (in terms of current technology, economics, social needs, and so on). The feasibility report answers the question “Should we implement Plan X?” by stating “yes,” “no,” but more often “maybe.” Not only does it give a recommendation, it also provides the data and the reasoning behind that recommendation.
- Recommendation report: starts from a stated need, a selection of choices, or both and then recommends one, some, or none. For example, a company might be looking at grammar-checking software and want a recommendation on which product is the best. As the report writer on this project, you could study the market for this type of application and recommend one particular product, a couple of products (differing perhaps in their strengths and their weaknesses), or none (maybe none of them are any good). The recommendation report answers the question “Which option should we choose?” (or in some cases “Which are the best options?) by recommending Product B, or maybe both Products B and C, or none of the products.
- Evaluation report: provides an opinion or judgment rather than a yes-no-maybe answer or a recommendation. It provides a studied opinion on the value or worth of something. For example, for over a year the city of Austin had free bus transportation in an attempt to increase ridership and reduce automobile traffic. Did it work? Was it worthwhile?—These are questions an evaluation report would attempt to answer. Evaluation reports compare a thing to a set of requirements (or criteria) and determine how well it meets those requirements. (And of course there may be a recommendation.)
As you can see, these distinctions are rather fine; and they overlap. In workplace writing, these types often combine—you might see elements of the recommendation report combine with the feasibility report, for example. You should always verify with the person who requests the document exactly what the expectations and purposes are.
Components of Reports
Following are the major components of reports as well as possible topics within those components:
Front Matter (for very formal reports or long reports)
- Letter of Transmittal : serves as the friendly “I know you don’t have time to read this 15 page report Friday afternoon, so here’s the scoop.” Normally not bound with report.
- Cover : preserves the report, reveals the title, and makes an initial impression on the reader
- Title Page: provides bibliographic information for the reader
- Table of contents, lists of tables and figures : locates all elements of the report for the busy readers reference
- Executive Summary: acts as a one page summary for all readers. address to the executive audience
Introduction : orients non-specialists reader to the problem and states how the report solves the problem
- Problem (includes the exigence for the report)
Body : gives the readers the bulk of the information you gathered
- Background (theory)
- Results or discussion
Conclusion : concludes the report
- Appendices : presents relevant data that some specialist readers may need or want to know
- References, works cited
See Rebecca Burnett’s table summary of reports (*.pdf). This is one the best, brief references I’ve ever run across. Burnett’s table is from her textbook, Technical Communication.
The purpose of including figure 2 is to briefly show you how reports, while all one large big category, can have different components. All three of these report configurations are “right.”
Figure 2a is would be used for a simple informational report. Figure 2b could be used for a type of recommendation report, while figure 2c is a basic format for an empirical report.
As you writing your report, you need to keep in mind purpose, audience, and design. Reports will often have multiple purposes and audiences. The document design will help organize the information and make it easy for your readers to find the information they want to read.
Reports will often repeat information for different audiences within the same report. To that end, different parts of the report will be written in different styles based on the perceived audience. For example, the technical section of a report—complex financial schemes or density levels of building materials—will use specialized and complex language. On the other hand, conclusions should be written to a general audience so that even those people inside or outside of the organization without a specific specialty in your field will understand your conclusions.
Style in reports
The writing style of your report falls on a continuum of formality – from informal to very formal. See figure 3. The guiding principle to help you determine the level of formality in your writing is the level of familiarity with the audience.
The more familiar you are with the audience, the less formal you can be. The less familiar you are with the audience, the more formal you should be. As you may recall, the context of the writing situation is a primary guide for not only what you write, but also, the form you use and the style you use.
With the level of formality in mind, you can then draw some broad generalizations and divide reports into three main categories. Much like graphics, you want to use the appropriate report – no matter what your company calls it – for what you’re trying to accomplish.