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WHAT IS A TECHNICAL REPORT?

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1.0 INTRODUCTION

This unit answers the question: What is a technical report? It is important that you are able to answer this question clearly and confidently at the outset as all other study units of the course will be built on it. You may also need to ‘unlearn’ some or all of the ‘wrong’ notions you may have had on the topic and concentrate, in a systematic manner, on its presentation in this unit. This approach will help you to steadily build up your knowledge in technical report writing and to apply that knowledge in writing all forms of technical reports and scientific papers.

The foundations of this unit are in communication – the study of effectively sending and receiving a message in a given context, through a given medium. But since this course is not for students of communication, you will just consider a selection of conclusions which have clear implications for effective technical report writing. If you are interested in the research which lies behind these conclusions, which can be very illuminating, you can find out more from the references listed at the end of the study units for the course.

Unit 1 is divided into four topics, each of which deals with a different aspect of the ‘what is …?’ question, and ends with a conclusion and a summary. There are several self-assessment questions which are very important for helping you to assimilate the new information being presented to you. Therefore, you will do well not to miss any of them.

2.0 OBJECTIVES

At the end of this unit, you should be able to:

  1.  define and recognise a technical report on any topic in science and technology 
  2. list the types of technical reports normally encountered in science and technology 
  3. describe the purpose and functions of technical reports 
  4.  explain the major attributes or characteristics of technical reports.

3.0 MAIN CONTENT 

3.1 The Nature of Tectinical Reports in Science and

Technology A technical report in science and technology may be defined as a written document which presents the results or findings of an experiment or field observation in a coherent and logical manner. This definition emphasises two fundamental concepts which require further explanation as follows:

“written document” implies that the -writing is done in a particular way to conform with accepted norms and standards which have evolved in science for a long time; and “coherent and logical” implies that a process is involved whose outcome may be considered ‘good’ or ‘poor’ on the basis of those norms and standards.
Thus, it is important that you should not only be able to define a technical report on any topic in science and technology, but also be able to recognise the difference between a ‘good’ and ‘poor’ one. Moreover, as stated in the Course Guide, the primary objective of this course is to help you to write ‘good’ technical reports on any topic in science and technology.

The outcomes of many experiments and field observations never go beyond the stage of technical reports in science and technology. In other words, they never attain the status of a valid publication (see Unit 14 of this course).

However, you must present sufficient information in a good technical report so that its readers can (i) assess observations (ii) repeat experiments and (iii) evaluate intellectual processes. (Are the author’s conclusions justified by the data?) The rest of unit 1 and the course will help you to understand how to “present sufficient information” in a systematic, coherent, and logical manner when you write a technical report.

Furthermore, a technical report, by definition, is a particular kind of document containing certain specified kinds of information. A technical report, very much like a scientific paper, “demands exactly the same qualities of thought as are needed for the rest of science: logic, clarity, and precision” (Woodford, 1968). This unit and all other units in the course will help you not only to appreciate the fundamental significance of logic, clarity, and precision in technical report writing, but to apply them in your writing of the same.

3.2 The Purpose and Functions of Technical Reports

A technical report, whether commissioned, routine, or produced on the author’s initiative, normally aims to achieve one or more of the following objectives:

  1.  accurately and objectively compose and present information on an object, idea, process, or event (the “communication objective”) • promote or “sell” an idea, product or service through rational/logical presentation (the “marketing objective”) 
  2.  clarify issues that may have remained obscure before the report was produced (the “educational objective”) 
  3.  put forward ideas in a conventional, usable or acceptable form (the “social objective”) recommend a specific course of action, or non-action (the “judicial objective”). 

Thus, a well written technical report may perform the function of informing, educating, clarifying, socialising, modifying attitudes, or directing behaviour, in an organisation. Even reports that arc produced for mere record purposes perform these functions to varying degrees. In industry, the ultimate purpose and function of all reports is to facilitate management’s rational/profitable decision-making.
You should always keep in mind the purpose or function that a technical report is written to serve and ensure that no aspect of it contradicts such purpose or function. If more than one function or purpose is to be served by the report, then you should designate one as primary and the other(s) as secondary. You should never leave the reader of your report in any doubt as to its primary purpose or function.

3.3 Types of Technical Reports

It is useful for you to knowthe various types of technical reports that can be written. However, being able to classify reports is by itself not of much use simply because one classification is as good as another. For example, reports may be classified according to:

  1.  degree of formality: formal and informal reports 
  2. length: long and short reports 
  3. regularity: routine, periodic, or occasional reports, annual, biannual, or quarterly reports 
  4.  phase: interim, pilot, progress, or terminal reports; and 
  5.  format: alarm form, letter form, schematic form, or mixed form. You are more likely, however, to see and write technical reports that are classified by content, such as: 
  6. Occurrence report: which describes an event, such as flood disaster 
  7.  Field trip report, such as is written by an engineer, agricultural specialist, or technologist just back from a field assignment 
  8. Feasibility report: which develops and analyses an idea or concept or project to assess whether it is economically or technically feasible 
  9. Investigation’, report : any form of report in which you describe how to perform tests, examine data, elicit or weigh tangible evidence in order to arrive at your conclusions 
  10.  Evaluation report: similar to, but not exactly the same as the investigation or feasibility report. In an evaluation report you: start with the idea to be developed (evaluated) 

a. establish controlling guidelines
b. evaluate the idea or concept in light of the parameters set and data collected
c. conduct tests to prove or disprove your theories, and
d. draw conclusions about the soundness or otherwise of the given idea or concept.

An investigation report normally begins with known data while an evaluation report begins with the idea or concept to be evaluated. Their cousin, the feasibility report, differs from an evaluation report only insofar as it tends to concentrate on more concrete and short-term projects. An evaluation report may, however, take several years to produce.

You should also know two other types of technical reports: the technical proposal and the technical brief. You can describe each of them as follows: • technical proposal: which is normally prepared by a company to

convince another company or institution of its technical capability to offer a specific service or perform a specific task. It is usually expensive

  1.  technical brief in which a new idea is presented in sufficient depth to enable the recipient (the contractor or consultant) to assess its practicability and cost. 

It is also useful for you to know two other types or reports which, strictly speaking, are not the types of technical reports, normally written by scientists and technologists: the staff report and the audit report. The former gives a succinct account of the deployment and disposition of staff within a given period. An audit report is a short comment on the degree of efficiency with which a company has operated its financial and material accounts and kept records of such operations. It is normally based on an extensive examination of the company’s books.

You will probably find the classification of technical reports by content the most productive and least confusing. In practical terms, a given technical report in science and technology is likely to combine many of the features normally used in classifying reports. You may not always need to know what type of report you are writing, but there will be times when it becomes very important to do so in order to ensure that you are doing the right thing at the right time and in the right place for the right target audience.

3.4 Characteristics of Technical Reports

Here, you should endeavour to learn thoroughly all of the seven characteristics that experts have agreed as essential for good technical report writing. You are advised not to proceed with the rest of this unit and course until you satisfy yourself that you have mastered the seven characteristics. These are:

3.4.1 Technical Accuracy

To enhance sound scientific judgment and sound business decision-making, based on data presented in the report. Technical accuracy also preserves your own image as a careful and dependable person.

SELF-ASSESSMENT EXERCISE

List some personal examples here of the attributes you would want associated with “your image as a careful and – dependable person.”

3.4.2 Consistency in Presenting:

  1.  weights and measures 
  2. decimal or imperial systems, not a mixture of both 
  3. numbers by maintaining generally accepted conventions in using words and numerals throughout the report (e.g. there were five cars 
  4.  conveying 15 workers) and keeping to them consistently 
  5.  alphabetic style: being consistent in your use of capitals and 
  6.  small letters 
  7.  punctuation, especially in your use of the full stop and the 
  8. semi-colon; and 
  9. abbreviations, with or without the full stop. 

The benefits of consistency in,these and other regards include pleasurable reading and avoidance of various forms of disorientation for the reader of your report.

3.4.3 Clarity

For easy comprehension by the non-technical reader in particular. Here, you should carry out audience analysis, or at least some preliminary consideration of the target reader(s) of. your report. As an authority on the subject puts it, communication is an act of the recipient. You should remember, though, that there will be some difficulty in catering to the comprehension capabilities of the varied audiences for which most technical reports, even internal ones, are written. For example, a single report may be addressed to the engineering, production, accounts, personnel, marketing, and corporate affairs departments of Nigerian Breweries Plc. But the challenge or you as the technical report writer is to constantly search for the common denominator in expressing your ideas. You should explore the richness of the English language in the use of alternatives. And you can establish rapport with your reading audience by: 

  1.  avoiding the use of jargon in a ‘generalist’ report, and 
  2. organising carefully the material in your report. 

3.4.4 Mechanical Accuracy

you should follow standard rules of spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Many large organisations, just like media publishing houses, have their own house-styles. In addition to making use of these, you should feel free and humble enough to consult dictionaries and standard reference works when in any doubt. Mechanical language errors (e.g. ‘adopt’ for ‘adapt’, ‘twenty sits’ for ‘twenty seats’ ) as well as clichés and colloquialisms, suggest laziness on your part or a lack of concern about your work.

3.4.5 Conciseness

You should say what you have to say in the shortest possible form, e.g. the police usually /often harass, not `are fond of harassing” or, worse still, “are in the habit of harassing.” Brevity or conciseness makes reading your report less time-consuming for busy executives. Conciseness is also achieved through: 

  1. presenting your report in brief sections with sub-titles, rather than in one long, unbroken piece, and 
  2. avoiding needless repetition. Remember that: 

a. Newton’s Law of Motion contains only 29 words, and
b. Einstein’s earth-shaking Law of Relativity is reducible to just five symbols.

  1.  akin to conciseness is precision, since unmasked circumlocution is one clear evidence of an imprecise mind. Say what your mean and avoid dancing round the subject. Also, a. prefer the specific to the general expression (e.g. “a Peugeot 504 GR saloon car” instead of “a vehicle” is acceptable for precision instead of the longer stretch. *prefer the pointed to the vague description/expression (e.g. “a 10-acre factory” to “a large factory”).

3.4.6 Persuasiveness

You may be tempted to think that this objective is secondary to the transmission of accurate information, and you will be wrong. You have a selling job to do. What you are selling is not an appeal to emotion, but the quality and objectivity of the presentation of your report. 

3.4.7 Interest

You must retain the interest of your reader throughout the report without being chatty or colloquial. You can make your report lively by making it lucid, remembering that businessmen, industrial and financial executives, and other professionals who are going to read your report are human, too! 

4.0 CONCLUSION

Technical report writing is both an art and a science. While most students of science and technology may be quite comfortable with learning and mastering the content of their disciplines (the science), they often exhibit obvious deficiencies in how they communicate that content to others (the art). You have been introduced in unit1 of this course to the most basic elements which constitute the foundation of technical report writing. You have the responsibility of ensuring that this foundation remains as strong as possible so that the other 13 study units of the course that will be built on it will progressively improve your knowledge of technical report writing. If at any time during the rest of the course you are in doubt about the strength of your foundation, you should always return to it.

5.0 SUMMARY

In this unit, you have learned:

  1.  how to define a technical report and to recognise the two fundamental concepts implied in that definition 
  2. why a good technical report must present sufficient information to enable your readers (a) assess observations (b) repeat experiments, and (c) evaluate intellectual processes 
  3.  that a- well written technical report must perform one or more of five functions: communicating, educating, marketing, socialisation, or modifying attitudes 
  4. various types of technical reports, especially the occurrence, field trip, feasibility, investigation, and evaluation reports, as well as the technical proposal and the technical brief 
  5. the seven characteristics of technical reports — technical accuracy, consistency, clarity, mechanical accuracy, conciseness, persuasiveness, and interest. 

6.0 TUTOR-MARKED ASSIGNMENT

  1.  Explain the major attributes of technical reports. 
  2. List the types of technical reports normally encountered in science and technology. 

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