Report vs briefing paper

May 01, 2019
With the exam season fast approaching, here is a timely outline of the key differences between a report and a briefing paper – two of the most common formats examiners ask for at strategic level.

WORDS BY PHILIP McCONN


In the ‘real world’ of work, one important thing to remember when writing either a report or a briefing paper is that you are writing material for senior management. Whatever the subject matter, it should be planned, structured and informative.

Management will give you a brief to follow and your response will be benchmarked against that brief. In the strategic level exam, you will also be given a structure to follow and this is usually found in the case study material. It provides you with the subject matter you must cite in your response – find this ‘instruction’ in the exam material because it provides the structure and order your report/briefing paper must follow.
At the end, when you think you have completed your report/briefing paper, re-read it. If it doesn’t make sense to you, it certainly won’t make sense to the examiner. Finally, cross-reference the original instructions to ensure everything has been covered.

Now, on to how the reports and briefing papers should be structured...

Writing a report

A report is a very detailed document. There is no limit to how long a report should be – it depends on what is asked for in the case study. A report is like telling a story: it has an introduction to put everything into context; the main body of the report where you present all the facts, analysis and discussions; and conclusions and/or recommendations followed by appendices where relevant. The structure of a typical report is as follows:

Opening

Begin with From, To and Date fields, followed by the subject matter (use the term “report”).

Introduction

The beginning of a report should state the purpose of the report. The introduction should capture the examiner’s attention and emphasise what each of the following paragraphs will cover (you could use the original brief from the case study to set out your agenda). The introduction should also answer the following key questions: why is the report being written? What kinds of information does it contain? How is the problem approached?

Main body

This is where you systematically work through the key issues using a discussion approach. If the question provides you with data, you are expected to analyse it as appropriate (ratio analysis or a net present value calculation, for example). You will analyse the data to provide information on which you will base your conclusions. Your calculations should be shown in a separate appendix. If the original brief asks you for examples, provide them.

Conclusion/recommendations

The conclusions should arise naturally from the evidence presented in the previous sections.  You might also consider further action that could be taken and provide an analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of various courses of action. If appropriate, you should give your opinion, in light of your experience and the evidence you have presented, as to what the preferred course of action should be. If there are any gaps in your knowledge that prevent you reaching a decision, make that clear and outline the further investigations necessary to provide fuller information. You should not include any new information (i.e. information that does not appear in the main body of the report) in this section and you should not make statements you cannot support with evidence. Finally, include your appendices to support any analysis undertaken in main body of your answer.

Writing a briefing paper

A briefing paper outlines a particular issue, usually for a government official or policy-maker. These decision-makers do not have time to research the issue and need you to provide the key details. A briefing paper is a summary of facts pertaining to an issue and often includes a suggested course of action, including arguments for and against. As the term suggests, briefing papers are short and succinct. Usually written in outline format, a briefing paper should not exceed two pages in length. In relation to the subject matter, it should propose solutions and recommend improvements. A persuasive briefing paper is concise, well-organised and covers the most important and relevant facts. The structure of a typical briefing paper is as follows:

Opening

Begin with From, To and Date fields, followed by the subject matter (use the term “briefing paper”).

Background section

The briefing paper will have multiple sections (Briefing Section 1, Briefing Section 2 etc.) For each section, outline the main aspects of the issue and include background information. Identify the options or courses of action that should be considered and note their advantages and disadvantages. Are there any negatives? If so, highlight the (possibly sensitive) aspects of the issue that may affect the organisation in a negative way. Finally, recommend a course of action that could be adopted.

Remember, the main function of a briefing paper is to bring your manager up-to-date on the subject. It should be short, sharp and succinct and use plenty of bullet points.