How to learn a new area of expertise in two weeks

The amount of information available online has continuously increased, and it is now easier than ever to learn new skills. The key to such learning is the ability to find relevant information online and evaluate its usefulness.

In this post, I will detail a process I myself use to get started on a new field in a business environment. I have successfully used this method to get started on Lean, project management, social business, and sales management to name a few areas. (How do I know? Because I’ve applied these skills for some years by now. There are other, more recent, fields where I cannot yet tell for sure.)

Books are a good way to get started

I still find books to be an indispensable resource when starting to learn something new. Sure, there are lots of articles (on sources such as Harvard Business Review and Sloan Management Review) and blog posts online, there are videos on Youtube, Vimeo, and TED, and there are also many academic articles available online for free.

The problem with all these free resources is that they come in bite-size chunks and it is very difficult to put together an understanding of a whole when relying solely on such sources. In order to learn a new field, it is useful to first get a good overview, and then move in to details, and the way to get such an overview is to study a well-constructed narrative, such as a book.

What about Massively Open Online Courses (MOOC)? They are definitely an option, but now we’re talking about getting started on the fast lane, and if an average MOOC lasts 6-7 weeks and does not start exactly when you need it, it does not fit our purpose here. I do recommend MOOCs for a slower pace (which, in turn, often results in better retention of information as well) and for reinforcing what you have already learned elsewhere.

If I wanted to learn something a bit more practical, like, say, playing a guitar, Youtube is a fabulous resource for that nowadays. But for now we’re sticking with information work.

How to find the right books to read

I never read only a single book on a subject. If I did, the risk of missing out on some key points of view would be too big. The books on any given subject usually form spheres of influence within the field of expertise: one group refers to each other, and again another group refers to each other, but the links between these competing groups can be thin.

With the aforementioned points in mind, I use a straightforward process to determine what to read:

  1. I search for books on the subject from Amazon. I make the assumption that almost all relevant literature can be found on Amazon, and by making the search there I will only find lists of books, nothing else. If I did it with Google, it would be much more difficult to weed out other material.
  2. I read the book descriptions and browse the reviews. Some of the books can be weeded out based on the descriptions, and some based on the reviews: it is both the content of the reviews and the ratings that count.
  3. I follow the recommendations from Amazon and from the reviews to find more candidates. Reviews contain invaluable links to other books (often also to a different sphere). Similar items, recommended, also bought lists are also great sources of new candidates.
  4. I check what the categories, in which potential candidates are on top-selling lists, are and browse those top-100 lists.
  5. Now that I am getting some kind of grasp on the terminology, I make more Amazon searches based on key terms.
  6. I repeat steps 2-5, until new, interesting books are not easy to find.
  7. I Google for further information on the books on my list. Reviews outside Amazon (in journals, blogs, on Goodreads), articles that cite these books, maybe Slideshare presentations based on them.
  8. Finally, I will also Google for any other books I might have missed or misevaluated using terminology of the field as search terms.
  9. By now I have a bunch of potential candidates. Some of them inevitably overlap, in which case they need to be ranked and the top ones selected. After this, there should be 3-5 books remaining that should give a good overview of the entire field.

This entire process of determining the books to read on a new field should take a couple of hours, a few hours at most.

Reading and learning

Based on the searching process, I have a good idea about the order I want to read the books in. Ebooks provide a huge advantage here: I can buy only the book I want to read first, and then I can change the order or remove or add books to my reading list at any time based on what I have already learned.

I have rarely been disappointed by a book that I have chosen to read, even in hindsight. The worst kind at the start are ones that do not form a coherent narrative, as it is really difficult to get a grasp of them without plenty of background information. Some form a good narrative, but nonetheless require extensive background information, and those are not very useful to start with either.

If the selection has been successful, everything feels quite smooth sailing from the start. Yet, inevitably, by the third book things in the earlier books start appearing in a different perspective. This is success! First, it means that the selection encompassed multiple points of view, and second, it means that I have learned something from the first books in order to be able to make comparisons between that information and the information I am currently reading.

What do we have after two weeks?

OK, I may have lied a little in the title. It is not possible to learn a field inside-out in two weeks. However, it is possible to read 3-5 carefully selected books on any subject in two weeks, and achieve a level of competence where you are able to discuss the field, make practical use of the information acquired, and pinpoint areas for further study. I find those to be pretty good results already.

Photo: The look and learn book by steve @ Flickr (CC)

Author: Ville Kilkku

I run my own consultancy business, so if you find the ideas on this blog intriguing, contact me at consulting@kilkku.com or call me at +358 50 588 5043 and we can discuss how I can help you solve your business problems. I am currently based in Tornio, Finland, but work globally. Google+