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The top external factors that impact research

This article looks at exogenous factors that impact research to see if any can form the basis of a research project.
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0

How to identify topics and research problems

A route to identifying appropriate topics and research problems is to reflect on wider social, economic, political, legal, technological and environmental trends to see if any can form the basis of a research project – sometimes referred to as a PESTLE analysis.

PESTLE analysis

You may be familiar with a PESTLE analysis as it is often undertaken as part of a wider strategic review of an organisation. It’s simply a way to view the external context and break this down into different categories.

The CIPD has identified the following examples of what might be included in each category:

  • Political: tax policy; environmental regulations; trade restrictions and reform; tariffs; political stability.
  • Economic: economic growth/decline; interest, exchange, inflation and wage rates; minimum wage; working hours; unemployment (local and national); credit availability; cost of living.
  • Sociological: cultural norms and expectations; health consciousness; population growth rates; age distribution; career attitudes; health and safety.
  • Technological: new technologies are continually emerging (for example, in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence), and the rate of change itself is increasing. How will this affect the organisation’s products or services?
  • Legal: changes to legislation impacting employment, access to materials, quotas, resources, imports/exports, and taxation.
  • Environmental: global warming and the increased need to switch to sustainable resources; ethical sourcing (both locally and nationally, including supply chain intelligence).

Within these different categories, you might consider some of the following specific trends or events that impact many organisations and which managers may have to consider now and in the future.

Equality and diversity

Increasingly, organisations are having to adapt to expectations for much greater diversity in their workforce and equality between different groups. For example, in the UK, organisations now have to report on the gender pay gap and others have had to consider how they address concerns with their colonial past and involvement in the slave trade.


The global pandemic of 2020/21 has posed numerous challenges to organisations. For example, how to support greater flexibility at work and more remote working or how to find creative ways to offer services and maintain public health expectations.

Automation and the role of AI

Debates around the introduction of greater automation at work and the use of artificial intelligence have implications for most organisations. Much of the technology to support this is still emerging, but it might be something you have already observed in your workplace.


A trend in employment practice is the greater use of workers employed via arms-length contracts. Companies like Uber or Deliveroo assume their workers are independent contractors and so deny them certain employment rights. These employment models present significant competition to organisations that use more traditional practices.

Data management

Increasingly, organisations are required to explain how they manage and retain data on their customers. At the same time, this data has become increasingly valuable as a means of targeted marketing activities. These are issues that can impact practices within organisations in both a technical and more social or even ethical manner.

Sector-specific issues

As well as looking at broader trends in the external environment, it is also worth considering any sector-specific issues that will impact your organisation. Here you might examine material produced in professional publications or look at organisations such as MAKE, which represent manufacturing organisations.

Remember, the main focus of your research should be on addressing a management problem related to your own organisation, but you may find that linking to these types of issues can help you reflect on the wider implications of your topic.

© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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