How Business Research Fits with Career Development

Often, simply focusing on your daily work leaves you without the skills and knowledge you need in other areas to advance your career.  At many companies, training budgets have been cut (or never existed), while many business jobs now involve dealing with more change and variety than ever before.  To help people deal with these challenges, a whole constellation of personal development approaches has sprung up, including conferences, self-directed study, and online classes.  I have a bias, but I think ongoing business research is a great tool as well.

Conferences can be excellent, but of course many are exorbitantly expensive or simply boondoggles.  Those are a topic all their own, so I won’t go into them here.

There is an enormous amount of material on personal development online.  Sites like Lifehacker have personal development themes, and there are also sites like Personal MBA offer good business book recommendations and some courses.  These sites have their place in getting you to focus on your mental habits, but sometimes they overstate just how much they can provide the in-depth knowledge needed for many positions.  Reading a book can help you be more conversant with finance or market research, for example, but it’s quite a leap from there to being able to do the work.

Luckily, online classes targeted for specific business functions are also proliferating.  I have found providers like UMUC (part of University of Maryland) to have excellent programs.  If you have the time and budget for these programs, they are a great option for really expanding your area of expertise.

Now we get to the research-related part of the discussion.  Two of the most meaningful ways to make yourself more valuable at work are to understand your industry (or that of your clients) and function better.  This knowledge directly impacts the impression you make on your peers and managers, and the insights you derive from this research can help show that you’re ready to take on more responsibility.  Online trade publications and blogs are perfect for this kind of focused learning.  The format allows for daily reading that does not intrude on your work schedule, and you can follow several of them to get a better sense of differing perspectives.  Doing a quick search on the industry can lead you to good trade publications if you’re not already aware of them.

There are also a few ways you can make sure it’s productive:

  • Set goals.  They could be as simple as reviewing three trade publications every morning before you start other tasks.
  • Keep track of your reading.  Keeping score helps you stay motivated.  It also helps you figure out how much you’ve already gone through.
  • Bookmark good sources or reference articles.
  • Assign yourself homework.  Doing something with the information you’re reading will force you to really assimilate it.  Your homework could be as simple as emailing some colleagues once a week with anything interesting you’ve found.  Or if you prefer something anonymous, you could keep a blog or set up a Twitter account for your industry musings.  Just make sure you occasionally come up with your own opinions or analyses of what you’re reading.  You’ll benefit from exercising your writing skills, and you could also develop a higher profile in the industry over time.
  • Keep your reading focused on your short-term career goals.  If you’re a marketing analyst, it probably makes more sense to spend your time learning about managing primary research efforts than reading about managing global advertising campaigns.  There will be time for that later.
    • I would make a minor exception for business strategy reading.  This stuff helps frame how you think about all business problems, so it’s appropriate throughout your career.

None of this is really mind-blowing, but it’s amazing how few people make a concerted effort to keep expanding their knowledge base.  If you do it, it will most definitely set you apart from the crowd.

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