How to Learn About a New Field

I’ve been a freelance journalist, knowledge broker, and fact-finder for years. If my education credentials actually reflected my knowledge, at the very least, I’d have a Master’s Degree in Googling Stuff.

Let’s take something I don’t know anything about, but that I’d like to learn as much about as quickly as possible. Since I just saw Inception (again), I’ll use corporate espionage as my subject.

Know exactly what you’re looking for

Vague questions yield vague results. The more you can narrow it down to a single question, the better. That’s how you’ll be able to identify when you’ve completed the task, and avoid running the risk of going down the information rabbit hole. Yes, it’s likely that you’ll develop better, more interesting questions as you learn more about the subject, but you need a specific start.

Let’s say I want to look up “job training for corporate spies,” because while Inception has me thinking that it must be the coolest job in the world, my searches on LinkedIn and Indeed are coming up empty.

Go on Wikipedia. But only if you really want to

The extent to which Wikipedia is a good resource directly correlates to how knowledgeable Wikipedia’s editors are about the subject matter you’re searching for. As a thought experiment, think about the demographics of the kind of people you’d expect would spend a lot of their free time writing things for no compensation on Wikipedia–who’d have the resources of speedy, readily available internet? What else would they do or be interested in?

More Wikipedia articles are written about fictional places like Middle Earth than about many countries in Africa, the Americas and Asia, a new map reveals.
New York Times

So remember; Wikipedia is a start that can help you get a very basic overview of a field, learn what the major subdivisions are, and point you towards further, more comprehensive reading. A search on Wikipedia for ‘corporate spy’ redirects me to its page on Industrial Espionage.

Get some background reading

The Wikipedia page has a shit ton of background reading on Industrial Espionage. Because I want an overview of the subject, I stick to the section of the article that’s relevant (the intro) and look at the books that are most commonly referenced in that section. The winner is Economic Espionage and Industrial Spying, which anyone can buy me for Christmas 🙂

Learn some of the insider lingo

Corporate Spies probably don’t call each other corporate spies. One plus of Wikipedia is that it can introduce you to the more common terms. ‘Competitive intelligence’ describes the legal and ethical activity of systematically gathering, analyzing and managing information on industrial competitors. Next, find a place where people use these terms frequently.


Another good source of background information is the social bookmarking site Delicious, despite its recent, horrible overhaul. Searching by tags, or keywords, and ordering results by popular, instead of recent, ensures that you’re only getting non-spammy results that other people have taken the time to bookmark. Delicious a good collection of information, but I’m not actively using it anymore because of the changes. (Pity.)

My new favorite is Pinboard: the only downside for now is that the user community is very heavily skewed towards techies and developers. Diigo is a bit too complicated, but also worth a look.

Find a credentialed source of information

Steer clear of conspiracy theorists, and towards objectively-trusted resources. My preferred search is something like:

  • [keyword] association filetype:pdf
  • [keyword] association
  • [keyword] association

Let’s just ignore the larger question of whether or not the government or universities are trusted resources: they’re easy to target because you can search by domain. Professional associations are key, and thankfully, we’ve got the jackpot: The Society of Credentialed Intelligence Professionals.

Look at recent news

One article on Entrepreneur suggests looking for competitors’ information on Slideshare, while another claims that now is the time to mine data on Google+.

Find your source’s sources

Someone recently asked me how long people have been talking about the imminent explosion of the mining industry in Mongolia–specifically, he wanted to know how one of his investment gurus knew about the mining opportunities.

Thanks to Google’s new search result options, you can focus your search results to webpages that were published before a certain date. Find out who was talking about mining in Mongolia before your alleged guru, and DA-DING! You’ve just beaten your guru–in reverse. (The key is to beat him in real time.)

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