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5 Ways to Get Up to Speed on Anything Fast

You can't constantly monitor every development in your industry, but a few techniques can greatly expedite getting the knowledge you need.
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Few things embarrass me more than overhearing two employees heatedly discussing a new widget I know as much about as quantum physics. And few things will undermine my credibility faster with employees and clients than my inability to provide counsel on emerging trends and technologies.

So I must learn new things that affect my business in a hurry, or suffer the consequences. With help from other executives and a few of my firm's trendsetters, I've devised five surefire ways to help you get up to speed on anything fast.

1. Decide What's Important

We're all deluged with shiny new objects that are the talk of the business world for a week or two, and then fade away. Whether it's Google Glass, Flipboard, or SnapChat, there's always some weird-sounding new technology that ruins a Monday morning water cooler chat because you're clueless about the topic.

I no longer stress about new technology. Instead, I ask one of our millennials to provide me with a demonstration. I then ask how clients might benefit from the new development or how my firm might leverage it. If it resonates with me, I file away the information. If it doesn't, the shiny new object finds itself in my trash can.

I also depend heavily on proxies. Richard Ouyang, our director of digital, examines a diverse range of sites to keep himself (and me) up to speed. He suggests visiting VentureBeat, WSJD, and Quora to evaluate everything from venture capital funding to the hottest technologies.

2. Observe and Experience

When it comes to social media, it's not enough for me simply to be able to provide counsel to clients. I must immerse myself in every critical social media channel. So I write a daily blog. I tweet. I've created a few videos that have been widely shared. And I occasionally check in on my Facebook account. I've made some serious blunders, managed my way through the ensuing crises, and come out whole. That's enabled me to provide firsthand guidance on what to say, whom to engage, and when to maintain radio silence.

Barbara Goodstein is chief marketing officer of Vonage, a leading provider of communications services. She's responsible for everything from sales and e-commerce to data analytics, direct mail, and PR. While Goodstein relies on daily reports that monitor every type of customer habit, she's also benefited from a new ethnographic research approach in which Vonage observes exactly how its technology is being used in a customer's home. That's helped her better understand the customer experience and why he uses a telephone.

"We learned that phones are used for the most important, intimate conversations, followed by texting and email," she says. "By understanding a product's or service's purpose and why people use it, entrepreneurs can fast-track every aspect of their learning and marketing."

3. Span the Globe (Virtually)

I can't possibly keep up with the most creative and strategic advertising, marketing, and PR campaigns. So in the same way every U.S. president receives a daily briefing document, I get a weekly memo from Lauren Parker, a management supervisor. Her Innovation Mill is a weekly blog that shares the hottest and edgiest campaigns in the world. Even more importantly, Lauren and co. tell readers why these campaigns succeed.

In addition to my in-house proxy's help, I receive RSS feeds from Inc., The Huffington Post, Advertising Age, Mediabistro, and The Onion. I also make sure I read both the The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times on a daily basis.

4. Keep Your Yriends Close and Your Enemies Closer

When I need to know what the competition is up to, I ask my lawyer, accountant, broker, or insurance agent to breakfast. As is often the case in other sectors, many firms share the same suppliers. So, while these professionals won't betray confidences, they will share timely, relevant intelligence.

I also belong to, and am past chair of, the PRSA Counselors Academy. Its spring conference remains the only industry event I've ever attended where participants (in this case the owners of small and midsized firms) share competitive information. I always return from the conferences armed with best practices I can mix and match with our own capabilities to produce a new product or service.

5. Walk in Your Audience's Shoes

The first four tips won't matter if your organization doesn't stay ahead of customers' ever-changing wants and needs. Vonage's Goodstein uses her weekly commute to listen to recordings of incoming customer service calls. "By literally listening to the voice of the customer, I'm able to create clearer, more specific and more personalized communications that provide answers to the questions I keep hearing," she says.

The most effective thing I do is conduct periodic audits of Peppercomm. I visit our website to see how easy it is to find relevant news and information. I call the main phone number to gauge how well my call is handled. And when I know a temporary receptionist is sitting at the front desk, I'll walk in and pretend to be a new business prospect just to see how well I'm handled.

Data Is No Substitute For Real Experience

IBM Global Consulting interviewed 1,500 chief marketing officers to determine how they were adapting to a rapidly changing business climate. The findings? The vast majority were drowning in data. Most admitted they had no time to experience their organization from the outside in. They had too much information and not enough knowledge.

So do yourself a favor. Get out of the office now, and see what it's like to interact with your own firm. It's the fastest way I know to get up to speed.

Last updated: Feb 13, 2014

STEVE CODY | Columnist

I'm a climber, comedian, and dog lover. But not necessarily in that order. I also happen to be co-founder and CEO of Peppercomm, a strategic communications firm headquartered in NYC, with offices in San Francisco and London. I publish RepMan, a daily blog, and have had the opportunity to appear on CNBC, MSNBC, NPR, and a host of other top-tier media over the years. scody@peppercomm.com

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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