Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

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Understand operations management for better business reporting

July 14, 2021

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Image by Pashminu Mansukhani from Pixabay

If you had the option to do one thing to improve your business reporting and personal career, Karen K. Ho has two words for you: operations management.

Currently writing about the business of sustainability at Business Insider, Ho had been a reporter for Quartz and previously was a full-time freelancer covering money, media, and culture as well as a Delacorte Fellow at the Columbia Journalism Review. A lot of experience and learning, but she says studying operations management opened her eyes.

“Operations management is processes,” Ho says. “It’s fundamentally how do things get made, produced, delivered.” In short, how things happen within organizations and systems.

“Reporters should know the process of the things they’re covering,” Ho says. Otherwise, they’re left scratching their heads, trying to understand the dynamics in place. “How does a team win a playoff game? How does a city council pass a law? How does a university deal with declining international enrollment? Operations management helps you break down when things go wrong and what happens when things go right.”

To understand any complex system, it’s necessary to study how it works. A good car mechanic will be versed with the drive train, fuel system, cooling, brakes and suspension, electrical, computers, and more. Without that knowledge, it will be difficult at best to discern problems that could trace back to multiple different systems. Or if someone wanted to modify the car, when might a change interfere with another critical aspect of the design?

If you wanted to report on what the mechanic did, you’d also need knowledge of the auto’s systems, how they acted, where they could break down, and to what degree they interacted.

Ho used the approach in a 2018 piece she wrote for Time about how Crazy Rich Asians would change Hollywood. To many, the movie looked like a “risky bet” because it seemed outside the boundaries of what worked financially in cinema.

“But if you understand the cultural forces that are at play—an underserved audience, the rapidly expanding influence of Asian culture and the power of the global box office, this $30 million movie doesn’t seem like much of a gamble at all. In fact, it seems destined to be a hit,” she wrote.

“I mentor journalism students that they should take an operations management class because it gives them a lens that is broadly applicable,” Ho says, “how processes are a collection of small decisions. It’s a competitive advantage as a reporter. You’re also able to foresee a lot of problems. As a reporter you can say based on current events you can ask the right questions to experts. If X, Y, or Z doesn’t happen, what happens next. It’s an expertise or lens to view work people do on a daily basis.”

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