Synthesizing Sources

As we’ve learned, the major barrier to research in the workplace is time. If you’re being asked to research something, it’s because it’s really important to your organization. Usually, you’re being paid not for just summarizing sources, but for providing your own analysis.  Even so, you will be reacting to your sources.

  • What parts of them do you agree with?
  • What parts of them do you disagree with?
  • Did they leave anything out?

It’s wise to not only analyze—take apart for study—the sources, but also to try to combine your own ideas with ideas and experience. In the classroom, professors frequently expect you to interpret, make inferences, and otherwise synthesize—bring ideas together to make something new or to find a new way of looking at something old. (It might help to think of synthesis as the opposite of analysis).

The same is true in a workplace. Often, you’ll be invited to consider the way that your business has always done something. You might draw on your experience in a different company to provide a fresh perspective. Or, you might remember a blog post you read and combine that with a conference presentation you watched to solve a unique problem your workplace has faced.

Getting Better at Synthesis

To practice synthesis, you should look for connections and patterns. One way to synthesize when writing an argument essay, paper, or other project is to look for themes among your sources. So try categorizing ideas by topic rather than by resource—making associations across sources.

Synthesis can seem difficult, particularly if you are used to analyzing others’ points but not used to making your own. Like most things, however, it gets easier as you get more experienced at it. So don’t be hard on yourself if it seems difficult at first.

In the workplace, the more you advance in your job, the more synthesis will likely be required of you. Basically, you’ll be paid for your own insights: insights that you built in part from your source material. Let’s take a look at an example of synthesis.

EXAMPLE: Synthesis in the Workplace

When you synthesize, you link different sources together to come up with new insights. So let’s imagine that you work in Human Resources. Your CEO wants to do something around encouraging employee wellness, but she doesn’t have any solid ideas about what that will look like. The budget is $10,000. Initially, you think it could be fun to do some sort of wellness challenge and give prizes to the people who go to the gym most. But then you read an article about how disabled people are often excluded or even shamed by these types of programs. Not everyone can go the gym. Also, would the company be liable if someone got injured trying to win a prize? Hmm.

You do a bit more searching and read some critiques of employee wellness initiatives. This leads you to an interesting article about fatphobia in the workplace. What does it mean to be well in the workplace? Some of the problems are outside of your control. You can’t control the company’s benefits or how they pay their employees, which contribute to wellness. You go to a conference and find a few interesting examples of what kind of wellness programs organizations in other industries have tried. You reflect on your own experiences with wellness programs. You talk to the union representative to see what kind of ideas will work within a union environment. You design a survey to find out what the employees want.

Combining all of these sources — everything from the academia article about fatphobia to the Instagram posts of fun employee activities at other companies — and then adding them to your own experience is challenging, but in the end you come up with an idea that is much better than your original one. Because you took the ideas from different sources and found the links and trends between them, you’ve saved your company from doing something ineffective or even harmful, and you shielded yourself from the criticism you might have received if you’d just gone with your initial idea.


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Business Writing For Everyone Copyright © 2021 by Arley Cruthers is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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