It doesn’t matter the industry, sector, role or seniority level, knowing what’s going on in your professional world can only help you. It clues you in to new trends, recent discoveries, current thinking, and thought-leader insight; the little nuggets of information that inspire you, inform you, guide you and give you and your business credibility. It’s easy to remember this if your job deals in remote information, like mine does. But it’s easy to forget if your focus is offline or more physical.
As the digital world grows, information that originates online often stays there. The number of offline professional publications is dropping, and very often outlets, even reputable ones, will publish content online, and not re-publish it offline. Even when hardcopy information is printed, it’s often hard to get your hands on it. Some industries are very well supplied with journals and newsletters, and large companies within that industry order them every month, but if you work on your own, for a smaller company, or even in a less organised sector, you’re going to miss out. And it’s only if you work in something really old-school that the majority of new discoveries, information and trends are even being discussed offline.
But staying well-informed is HARD work
Even if you’ve already gotten the memo, and dived into to online professional information wholeheartedly, you’ll know that it’s not an easy job. It’s vast, and far harder to navigate than the offline world. At least in the olden days, somebody else had curated those journals, fact-checked those stories and peer-reviewed those studies. Then they kindly organised them in a logical manner, bound them and added an index. The internet is great, but we’re not quite at index level yet. It’s huge, it’s messy, it’s hard to judge worth, value and reputation, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of it is complete rubbish.
That means that even if you’ve accepted that the knowledge is online and dived in, you might still be finding the process overwhelming. It’s so hard to know what’s “good” that you might stick to only one or two sources that you trust. You might have dived in deeper, only to be overwhelmed by a wave of incredible volume and force. After an undignified removal of stray seaweed, you might have decided it’s safer staying on the shore.
But that, my friends, is cutting off most of the internet’s power!
You’re not hearing the plurality of voices, the variety of opinions. You aren’t hearing from the thought-leaders that never made it into the journals before, but are bright and brilliant on the equal-opportunities internet! You’re missing out on the pearls of unconscious insight dropped by young, enthusiastic newbies in online discussions, or the real concerns of your clients as they gripe in forums. You’re deaf to the concerns of your professional community - or customers - as they chat on social media. It’s the modern-day equivalent of snooping on conversations at the coffee station, except there are 6 million people having a coffee, and you're not hearing the vast majority of them (6 million! Yikes, can you imagine? There’d never be any teaspoons!).
So, we agree that being informed is an excellent idea, but there are several points that may be holding you back from using the internet fully or accurately as a significant source of information or discussion...
Pay attention to uses, goals and objectives
Information is not the same thing to all people. Although being better informed is good for everybody, not everybody will need to use the information they gather in the same way. You may want to read up on things, but not actually inform others in any explicit way. You may need to funnel information for a 3rd party, but not absorb any of it yourself. You may want to both spread and absorb information, and you may want to do it to varying levels of depth.
Let me illustrate...
Instance 1: I want to be seen an industry expert, so I’m interested in both absorbing and spreading information. I want to increase my own knowledge, and I want to pass on relevant pieces of that knowledge via my blog, social media and in my work.
Instance 2: I also work for a client who want to increase their visibility in their market via social media, which I manage for them. They want to be seen as active and knowledgeable, but I don’t need to get better acquainted with their subject matter. I need to identify and spread the relevant information, but quickly and efficiently.
Instance 3: My boyfriend is very interested in increasing his personal professional knowledge (and as a programmer, there is a vast amount to sort through online), but doesn’t feel the need to explicitly share it with anyone.
So where do you fall on the spectrum? Want to know stuff and have everyone else know you know it, or are you keeping your knowledge to yourself? Decide this before going any further, because you could save yourself a whole lot of work in the future. Randomly accumulating information is no good. If there’s too much of it, you’ll never absorb it. If you’re not careful how you spread it, you’ll damage your reputation. If it’s dodgy information, you’ll undermine your learning.
The key to finding good, useable information, without overloading yourself is practice, pickiness and laziness. How so?
Practise: you need to work on tweaking your sources for a while before you’ll be entirely certain of what’s good and what’s not. After a while, you’ll realize what providers, and what methods, work best for you, what sources you can trust, and what best supplies your aims with information. Pickiness is just that - you need to be choosy. There’s no point collecting, absorbing or passing on anything but the best, and when you’re operating online, this is a real concern - there is simply SO much online, you need to skip straight over the chaff. And laziness? Let the information come to you, readers. If you go after it, you’ll be exhausted by lunchtime.
So let’s get to it.
Where do you get information?
Think trade journals, industry magazines, log-in websites and online clubs. Fees and memberships may be involved, so evaluate likely use or find a trial version. When evaluating, check out sharing options - can you save to collections? Favorite? Star? Is sharing allowed? Do the articles/information play nice on 3rd party networks or tools?
Consider what information will be more useful in blog format (RSS) vs. Twitter or other social media. It’s better for sources you know produce good information on a regular, but not OTT basis. Consider frequency of posting (details available easily through RSS tools like Feedly) - very frequent posters might be easier to monitor via social media. Consider blog ranking/search/directory services for new sources, and remember that the vast majority of websites/products/brands have a blog and many are very valuable sources of information. Blogs aren't cool, but that doesn't mean they're not useful.
Forums sound kind of old-school, but they’re still very popular, especially for you know, really nerdy things. Sure, they might not be the same forums you visited 10 years ago (RIP, eGullet), but lots more have sprung up in their place. They make it easy to digest, better understand and discuss information points, as long as you stick to places where professionals genuinely congregate.
I really want to be good at listening to podcasts, but I’m not. I have this fantasy where I will listen to podcasts while simultaneously cooking dinner or doing the washing, ending my day both domestically and professionally accomplished, but this never works. I have the attention span of a gnat, and can really only do one thing at a time. Sometimes not even one. Point is, there are some great podcasts out there, and you may or may not be able to listen to them while you also do other stuff. Give it at try, but not while doing anything potentially life-threatening, like driving or chopping vegetables. At the risk of stating the obvious, I usually just find them by googling “subject matter” + podcast.
Online videos are especially prone to being crap, so be very picky. Look for recommendations and critically acclaimed “vloggers” in your niche, or spend time finding good ones on your own. A word of warning - don’t get sucked in! Online videos can be a huge timesink, but can also be very useful, especially when it comes to product reviews, how-tos and walkthroughs of assorted processes.
Has anyone ever managed to get any genuine information from a live stream? Ok, probably they have, but I haven’t and I’ve lost the will to try. Maybe I should just take this point out of the article?
Twitter is a jungle, and you need to be very strict. It’s reached a messy point where many people started with a Twitter account for personal use, and gradually morphed it over to professional. I would argue that you can no longer really have both on one account, so either open a second one for business, or abandon personal use on the original one.
There are two approaches to Twitter. 1. Be very picky about who you follow, so all the tweets on your timeline are quality, or B. Follow everyone, on the basis that the timeline is unusable anyway. The good thing about the first approach is that it makes it very, very easy to set up sharing automation (which we’ll discuss in part 2), but it’s harder the older and more complicated your Twitter is (i.e. If there’s a big mix of follower types). If not all the content on your Twitter feed is stuff you would theoretically be happy sharing, you’ll have to make more use of lists (use lists to curate “reliable” content sharers, or to sort by topic), hashtags, and advanced searches.
I’ve never been a big fan of Facebook, but since moving back to Ireland, I’ve realised how important it is in many businesses’ and organisations’ strategies. I’ve even found businesses that have a Facebook page and no website, which I have to say, blows my mind. So, if your info is on Facebook, that’s where you’ll have to go, but approach with caution - groups can be good places to find like-minded people and discussion, but can also be total time-sinks, full of fluffy speculation, and light on facts. Don’t forget to make use of Facebook hashtags and tweak your page heavily and frequently to make sure you’re not wasting your time with content that is of no use to you. If you think you can drum up the interest, set up your own group to discuss a very specific niche.
LinkedIn can be great for information and discussion, but if you’re going to be active there, it makes sense to have a great profile first, which is a fairly time-consuming job. Again, be choosy about what groups you join, and the frequency with which you receive alerts and updates from those groups. Make use of Pulse’s filtering options, and to save time, only follow companies/groups with a proven track record for good content - in other words, be picky about both individuals you connect with, and the companies you follow.
In my estimation, the best LinkedIn features, apart from connecting with professional acquaintances, are the options under “interests” in the top bar. If you currently don’t make any use of LinkedIn for information, try following 10 of the major companies/associations in your sector, and then see if the “companies” option is giving you any good info. Tweak and repeat until it does.
More info sources and what to do with them when you have them coming in part 2....
Image of complicated train lines used in the 4 barriers graphic thanks to Gigi C.