By Dr. Elliott S. Lynn
Faculty Member, IT at American Public University
What do you think? What do you feel? What do you believe? Ponder those things, say them aloud and write them down, but get them out of your system. This is the very premise of APA style. In all my years of education, I always thought of adhering to APA guidelines as nothing more than a silly formality that academic institutions use to be able to deduct points from students. As an information technology professional, I found the logic and value behind APA useless until I got my first high-profile position.
Making a Case for APA Style Outside of Class
I was asked to propose a technology-based solution for the aeronautical firm I was working for at that time. I selected a popular technology I liked and wrote a proposal for the CEO, CFO and VP of Sales to review and approve. Two weeks after my proposal was submitted, I was called into a conference room to meet with a consulting firm lobbying for the work I proposed for my team and the in-house staff to complete.
The consulting firm had a completely different idea of how to accomplish the work. After getting over being insulted, I listened to their proposal and to my surprise, my preference, which was based on familiarity and comfort level, was no longer the industry standard or the direction organizations were going. Every argument I made against the consulting firm was quickly rebutted with articles, statistics and quotes from industry experts.
Could it be? Was it APA style in disguise? I looked at their documentation, and industry experts backed up what they were stating from leading technology magazines. There were quotes from Fortune 500 executives that utilized this technology. My entire argument was based on emotion and what I thought, felt and believed. My bias was clear and I had no ability to defend it.
My thoughts on APA were changed at that very moment. That experience taught me that APA style is more than just margins, headings and a properly formatted title page. APA style allowed me to bring the experts in the room and have them help me with the case I was making. APA creates a solidification of ideas presented by doing the following:
- Aligns your thought process with industry experts and dedicated peers in the field
- Establishes who the experts are, when it was said and what was said
- Creates a collection of evidence in support or in contradiction to ideas free from profitable motivation (when using peer-reviewed or scholarly sources)
- Demonstrates rigor and dedication in researching the topic discussed
- Reduces bias and formulation of thoughts by what the evidence suggests
Why APA Style Works
APA establishes that I conducted the research, and based on that research, my recommendations are created from what the evidence suggests and not my personal preference. I thought about the all the instructors who would not allow me to use sources that had no date or no author. Where is the validity in using something that you cannot say who said it and when they said it? I thought about all the instructors who would check my references to ensure that what I was quoting was in the right context. I looked harder at the quotes from the contractor’s proposal and found those quotes came from executives who had a stake or interest in the technology. Dare I venture to find a scholarly or peer-reviewed source confirming or condemning this technology? Now I am beyond simply looking at paid executives and what they have to say and paying more attention to the peers in my field who are strictly interested in my field’s advancement.
After my eye-opening experience I reached out to the CFO and requested a one-week hold before a decision was made. I was granted one week. I found myself pulling out my APA guideline book and using my alumni login to access the journal databases that I ignored during my entire academic career. My complete mindset was no bias and no emotion, but to seek out what my findings would suggest. I convinced myself I would either be the biggest advocate of the proposed solution or find every inconsistency out there to assist with my case.
I began revising my proposal and found myself sticking to the facts, validating those facts with viable and solid sources. “Oh, now I get why using a source from 10 years ago can be problematic in technology-based papers,” I said to myself, thanking yet another professor. “Now I see why the proper context of a source is just as important as the source itself!” I thought as I found one inconsistency after the next.
Every thought I presented, I made sure it was supported. By understanding the practical use of APA, I was able to demonstrate who said it, when they said it and what they said. I did not need a week to revise and resubmit my proposal to executive management. I found myself in the conference room explaining my proposal with a room full of experts I never met, utilizing the experience of my peers to solidify my thoughts that had been so poorly presented last time. I was thankful for my professors and university for establishing a foundation for academic rigor. Most importantly, I found myself with funding and approval of my proposal because APA has a practical use I never knew about.
IT has a tremendous amount of bias and uses decisions made on experience and comfort level. To understand the practical uses of APA is more important in IT than most other professions, because it changes rapidly. It took this experience for me to understand the importance of APA, but more importantly, the practical use of APA.
The premise behind APA is my secret weapon. When I walk in a room, I have a team of experts behind me ready to support any thought I present. This practice affords me the opportunity to propose solutions in the private, public and academic sectors from provosts to generals with very low denial rates. While my education and experience helped, the practical premise behind APA is the secret weapon to my continued success.
About the Author
Dr. Elliott Lynn is regarded as a knowledgeable subject matter expert in information technology security and architecture with 20 years of leadership experience dedicated to developing business-minded IT professionals capable of aligning strategic goals with secure IT solutions. His current certifications include MCSE, MCSA, MCT, CTT and the DAWIA Level III Defense Acquisition Certification, the highest level recognized by the DoD Acquisition Workforce.