Awash in White Papers

We are inundated with “white papers.”  They appear daily in our e-mail boxes promising expertise. What exactly is a white paper and why are there so many of them all of a sudden?

My context for white papers is based on what I saw as a child growing up in India. Whenever there was a thorny issue facing the country, the government would invariably publish a white paper on the subject authored by an eminent person or panel. I didn’t actually read any of the white papers (there were none on cricket or boy scouts), but I got the impression that the government was trying to educate people on a multi-faceted, complicated issue so that they could act on a fully-informed point of view.

Of course, as I grew older and more skeptical of government, I realized there had to be some spin in there somewhere. Without question, there was “white-washing” going on at some level.  I like to think that the intent of a white paper is to simultaneously (and often artfully) investigate, educate and advocate. Unfortunately, these days the “advocate” intent is really all about marketing. It’s no wonder then why we are awash in white papers. The pity is that the investigation and education dimensions are being diluted if not ignored altogether.

Why white and not any other color? A couple of possibilities come to mind. White is associated with purity, so it lends an air of objectivity. When you start with a blank (which in most cases is white) sheet of paper, you are starting from scratch without any pre-conceived notions and are open to all facts and points of view. White is perhaps the least objectionable color as well since it is a neutral and ideologically unencumbered color.

Why “paper”? Maybe we are just used to it now, but white paper sounds much more authoritative and official than white memorandum, white document, or anything else. A paper has an academic feel to it and lends further credibility in terms of not being biased or even subjective. You feel someone has taken a lot of trouble to research and write a paper. You feel obliged to take a look and take note.

I don’t know about your email inbox, but mine is flooded daily with white papers written or sponsored by consultants. Either way, it is not difficult to infer the underlying agenda.  The intent is usually to establish expertise with a view to marketing a product or service. It is reasonable to use white papers on a commercial basis. However, I find that commercial white papers exhibit a large range in terms of length, content, style, editorial slant, quality and usefulness.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but here are my thoughts on what a white paper ought to be.

A white paper needs to be comprehensive. Once you’ve read the white paper, you should have a complete and thorough picture of the subject in question. It should deal with every angle and every situation. You should be able to have a press conference and hold forth on the subject, taking any and all questions in your stride.

Since it is must be comprehensive, a white paper needs to tackle a specific issue. It ought to define the boundaries of the issue and be explicit about what it is not covering. There should always be a date on it, since situations change with time and new research emerges that makes previous views obsolete.

The topic needs to be substantive and of current interest. It need not be a controversial topic, but it ought to have different sides to it so that the whitepaper addresses and informs a debate. A white paper needs to be longer than one page. Make it as long as you want. It’s a white paper – comprehensive and authoritative. If it’s a couple of pages or less, either the topic does not warrant a white paper or the white paper is incomplete.

A long document needs to be well organized so that the reader can easily navigate through its contents. An executive summary is a must, as is a table of contents if it is more than say five pages long. A bibliography shows that some homework has been done, signals any biases based on sources, and provides a reading list for people who want to investigate further. An index would be helpful. Hyper-links would be icing on the cake.

No one wants to read a poorly written white paper.  Verbosity and pomposity need to be avoided.  A bullet point list does not constitute a white paper.  Illustrations are a plus; relevant photographs, tables, charts and schematics add color (literally!) and flavor. However, there’s no room for clip art. That’s just cheesy and distracting. White paper titles should be sober and informative, not breathless and crass

Some would argue that it does not matter what you call it – a white paper, a research report, a study, a product description, etc. I don’t agree. We use different documents for different things and they have different characteristics.  When presented with a document, we have certain expectations regarding what it is, what its purpose is and how it might be useful to us.

Calling everything a white paper to lend it credence and authority is potentially manipulative and deceptive.  That’s not how you want to introduce yourself or your services.



About thenelsontouch

Amit is the founder and managing director of Nelson Touch Consulting, a management consultancy that specializes in maximizing the return on human capital through strategy, incentives and analytics.
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2 Responses to Awash in White Papers

  1. Pingback: “Unaltyics” Award Nominee #2 | The Nelson Touch Blog

  2. Pingback: Who writes white papers? « DECISION STATS

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