How can you learn something new?

August 27, 2013

I’m not asking about how you are learning about competitive intelligence. Hopefully this blog, the books I recommend, and other sources are doing that right now. My question refers to the process of mastering new material when you are starting a competitive intelligence task.

 Of course if you doing this for yourself, the odds are that you know the subject matter already. Or you think you do, anyway. Then ask yourself, “If I know the subject matter, why am I doing more research?” The answer is you don’t really know what you need to know. You just know you have a problem.

 So how to approach learning something new? This focus may be more about your target, details of a mechanical or chemical process that is critical to your research, the regulatory or cultural environment in which your competitor operates, etc. In most cases the process is the same.

 You can just jump in. This is probably what we do most of the time. We look at the topic, and then set off collecting data on it, without really deeply analyzing the data as we collect it. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as you intend to analyze it, and not merely parrot back what you have (can you say cut and paste?).

 One way to teach yourself is to look for a background resource. By that, I mean a long news feature on the rise of part-time work, or a website explaining the mechanics of the salamander broiler, or even a Wikipedia site on environmental regulations in Canada. But always keep in mind that whatever the source you’re looking at has its own perspective, which a nice way of saying bias.

 Once you have that initial source, look within that source for references to other places where you can get more of this kind of background information. Then go to that site, place or publication. What you are trying to do is to weave your own tapestry of background knowledge so that you can then make sense of the data you’ve collected. To do that you must look to multiple sources, particularly from different perspectives, and weave them together in your mind into your own overall picture. Sometimes, when you are dealing with particularly complicated issue, it is useful to write out or dictate what you think you have learned. You’d be surprised how often you come up with insight about your project by organizing your new background knowledge.

Now with that background established, look at the data you have previously collected. If you find you still do not understand something, go back and add to your background research. Develop a piece of the tapestry for that new issue and then return to your raw data. One additional benefit of this approach is that you are being forced to approach the data differently than you usually do. I believe one key to making sense out of the pile of unconnected facts is to find ways to look at the facts differently. This is yet another tool to help you do that.

2 Comments on “How can you learn something new?”

  1. […] How can you learn something new? August 27, John McGonagle. […]

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