Hi there! Most of you who have read my articles in this website will know that I'm a strong advocate of the importance of domain knowledge in project management.
Project management in and of itself is now considered a "generic" (some would even say "commodity") skill set which is scarcely in demand in the market. To make your resume more marketable these days, it is imperative you upskill yourself and pick up domain knowledge.
In this article, I want to share with you 7 proven ways to increase your domain knowledge in a project. I'll come from a perspective of you, being a project team member (e.g. PM, a business analyst or developer) who is say, in a core banking project but have limited domain knowledge in banking.
This assumes that you're already in a project within a specific domain / industry area of interest and want to build up your knowledge of that industry.
There could, of course, be instances where you WANT to join a core banking project, but you're say, from the telecommunications industry. While I won't cover the latter scenario, many of the concepts you'll learn here can be usefully applied in those cases as well.
Ready? Great - let's move on!
Now, before we delve into the details of building domain knowledge, let's set the stage first. I'll assume:
With this in mind, let's investigate the ways in which you can increase your domain knowledge in the project.
The first thing I'd do to increase domain knowledge is to come up with a plan of attack. You see, knowledge is so easy to access these days - you can easily become OVERWHELMED. You need a filter to trim down the amount of knowledge you're trying to absorb.
For example, if you may say you want to become a domain expert in banking. But which area of banking, specifically? Retail banking, investment banking or private banking? Or it doesn't matter to you?
Also, are there any burning questions you always wanted an answer to? It's useful to take note of these things and log it somewhere in a little journal. For me, I like to keep a "Work Journal" on my iPhone where I record these thoughts.
When you come back later to review your thoughts, you'll start to observe patterns and trends in the skill areas you're interested in, as well as any inner conflicting thoughts you may have.
Flipping through my work journal, I found this sample of of the domain knowledge I wanted to pick up several years ago, when I first joined a bank as a business analyst (after seven years as a consultant).
Do you see where I'm going with this? By listing down the specific knowledge areas or questions you want to answer, you can slowly, over time, build up domain knowledge in a very STRUCTURED manner.
The key word here is "structured". When we learn or study a topic, how often do you find yourself languishing in a sea of information and getting all lost? Hardly recalling what you read or picked up from the experts? By following a plan of attack, you can learn according to a plan and log your progress.
Start with some questions or topics you want to find out more about. As you learn more, you will have more questions or topics to investigate, creating a spiral where you keep increasing your knowledge base. This spiral also motivates you to learn more and more.
The second way to build up knowledge while in a project is to ASK QUESTIONS. You may say, "That's obvious, isn't it?".
Well, not really. Asking questions is an art in itself and if you want to build up knowledge, you need to know WHO to ask, WHAT questions to ask and WHEN to ask them. Then you also need to record the answers from others so you build up a sort of FAQ database for yourself.
Let's delve into these in a bit more detail:
You must know who to ask. Asking the wrong people wastes his or her time and also your time. Be focused - find out who has the knowledge, move in, get what you need and move out.
For example, if you're trying to build knowledge about private banking, I'd go straight for the jugular and seek out the most experienced, operationally skilled person in the bank and fire away with my questions.
This person (let's call him or her "Private Banking Expert") need not necessarily be a C-level person or a Head of Department. In fact, in my experience, the most experienced folks who have most of the answers are one or two levels below senior management. It could be that operations officer who has worked in the bank for twenty years. Or that credit administration lady who has seen all kinds of cases over fifteen years in the bank.
I'm sometimes appalled by the questions that some of my junior team members ask the client. For example, a user may tell my team "The collateral used for credit facilities in a bank needs to be marked to market everyday so that the Loan-to-Value positions of the client are updated to monitor the bank's exposure to default".
My junior BA may ask "So the mark-to-market for collateral is done daily?". That's a BAD question to ask. It's asking the obvious!
It's much better to ask "How are the loans monitored?", "Is the mark-to-market done for all asset classes?", or "What about asset classes where you can't do a valuation daily (e.g. private equity funds)?"
Ok, to be fair, some of these "appropriate" questions require you to have some background knowledge of the topic at hand. However, my advice is to always aim to ask questions which reflect you've done some background reading already. Don't ask the obvious, please.
Now, there is a correct time to ask questions too. You DON'T ask questions deep technical when you're having a meeting with senior C-level executives. Also, you DON'T ask strategic questions when talking to the operations guy who does reconciliations day in and day out.
Always take time out to record your learnings and answers which you obtain. Ideally, you record them in your "Work Journal" (like me). Otherwise, you may want to summarize your learnings in an email and send them back to the person to whom you asked the questions to validate your understanding is correct.
This way, at least you have an audit trail of what you learnt. Do realize that knowledge can be fleeting - our minds are not built to permanently store stuff. So externalize the knowledge and store them somewhere safe for future reference.
Ok, one of the best ways to pick up domain knowledge is to sign up for a course. You have many options, really. For example, here in Singapore, you could get private banking knowledge in a number of ways:
This course is structured specifically for those looking to break into the wealth management industry. You learn about private banking and wealth management products / services, as well as topical issues in the industry. Most importantly there's an internship you can take up at prestigious banks in Singapore and an exchange trip to Switzerland (if I'm not wrong). By the end of the course you'll be in good stead to join the wealth management industry.
The CFA programme comes in three levels. You get one chance to take one of these exams every half a year (in January or June). For me, I took the CFA Level 1 (and failed miserably because I didn't study :P). Still, I think the CFA is a good option if you want to break into fund management.
The topics in there - efficient frontier, Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM), asset allocation, etc. are very fund management focused.
Some of those who are older tend to remain in Singapore and study a part-time MBA (e.g. at the Chicago Booth School of Business, National University of Singapore or Nanyang Technological University). I think the MBA with a finance specialization is a good alternative to the CFA - it's a good way to get into fund management or wealth management too, particularly if you get one from the Ivy League universities.
Try to think of which courses suit you and take the appropriate one which will suit your career interest and trajectory. Trust me, your domain knowledge will be significantly beefed up - but you do need to invest time in this.
Studying part-time while working can be VERY taxing if you have a family. And studying full-time will keep you out of the job market for at least a year - so there's some risk there in that approach as well.
Case Study. I'll give you a personal example. A few years ago I joined a global bank here in Singapore to roll out a huge banking system across several countries, However, having spent several years in consulting across various industries, I didn't have much banking domain or industry knowledge.
This bugged me a lot, seeing some of the other new joiners (from banks) having a lot more know-how about equities, bonds, structured products and credit operations in the bank.
So I told myself that I had to up skill myself. And one of the first things I thought of was to take up a course.
I thought about the courses available out there and finally took up a part-time finance degree. The part-time aspect was very attractive to me, as I had a family and could not afford to study full-time.
It was tough but I managed to complete it in two years on a part-time basis (two classes per week during my time).
And I'm proud of myself! Now I can talk to traders and bankers about structured products and derivatives without batting an eyelid :)
Another good idea to build domain knowledge while in a project is to attend industry events. It's also an excuse to eat free food :)
In Singapore, there's still plenty of opportunity in banking, particular wealth management. Besides Hong Kong, Singapore is the only other major centre of finance in Asia.
There are TONS of banking related industry events too. And being a trading hub in Asia, there events in non-financial services industries too, from marine to petrochemical conferences.
Take the example of banking. If I wanted to learn more about retail banking - the first thing I'd do is to some research online on the major service providers to the industry. Here's a sampling of who these may be:
Each of these providers will organize events and conferences and invite banks to join. If you know someone in any of these companies, you can try to get a "backstage pass" to attend.
For example, the software vendor Temenos runs banking conferences for its customers in the region and you can get the scoop on the latest news, trends and potential opportunities in the banking space.
A great idea when learning domain knowledge is to build a knowledge base. This really expands on my first point about having a plan of attack when learning. If you have set of topics or questions that you've preapred when starting on your learning journey, you should expand on that and build up a full knowledge base.
For example, here's what I do to build up my knowledge base on private banking. Follow these ideas and you'll be able to get a handle on that huge amount of information.
My advice to you is to invest in a solid external hard disk that has terabytes of space. ALL of my knowledge from my work goes in there. I have THOUSANDS of folders in there containing emails, tips, tricks, PDFs, slides, thought leadership, templates, sample project reference materials across all sorts of companies and industries.
Heck, my ENTIRE professional work life is in there (and yes I back it up to my Network Attached Storage (NAS) just in case).
I have a master "Knowledge Base" folder in that hard disk and underneath I have sub-directories like:
I find that after I create the basic folder structure above, it's VERY important to continously update the knowledge base.
This means that for every email or article I receive, I do a mental check to see if I want to retain the knowledge. If I do, I file it into my knowledge base IMMEDIATELY. If I can't file it immediately, I place the materials into a temporary directory, then make sure I clean it out on a weekly basis.
Information comes in at such a fast rate these days - if you don't take action to review and archive it regularly, soon you'll be literally DROWNING in the material.
The other thing I do for my knowledge base is to create an INDEX of the knowledge. Again, this is for management of information. You have so much material accumulated in the hard disk over time - how do you find what you want?
So I create a mind map using this tool (or you can use a simple Excel file) to index that knowledge. It could be something as simple as the folder structure I have above, so that you have a "map" of what you know. And this is very useful for finding out what you DON'T know.
You may find there's some area you don't have any knowledge in and you want to gather some knowledge on - that's frequently something I find to be the case - I then create a new node on my mind map and also new folders on my external hard disk to gather the required domain knowledge.
Related to my point on attending industry events is this point on "knowledge communities".
Ok, the thing is, besides service providers, there will be hundreds, if not thousands of online communiities dedicated to your industry.
SIFT THEM OUT. I always have a few favorite websites and particularly online forums which I regularly visit. These sites allow you to post questions and gather the top issues concerning the industry today. Check them out and besides asking questions, try to contribute your own domain knowledge over time.
The true benefit of these knowledge communities is that you can both learn and share knowledge at the same time. If you become a regular contributor on the forum, you might even start getting some opportunities to speak or attend industry conferences.
One thing to note is that knowledge communities may also exist in your company. If you're in a bank, seek out the HR or learning department to see if such communities exist. For those in consulting firms, there DEFINITELY are knowledge communities to support practitioners out in the field, so join them, make some friends and learn a thing or two.
Another way to pick up domain knowledge (especially if you're a junior member of a project team) is to find a mentor. Of course, mentorship doesn't cover only domain knowledge aspects - it is usually applied in a much broader context, e.g. career management and planning.
For me, finding a mentor who has years of domain knowledge acquired kills two birds with one stone - you get guidance on your career and you ALSO get to beef up your domain knowledge.
Case Study: I'll let you in on a personal example. After I left the banking industry and rejoined consulting, I started working on many banking projects. After running project after project, I realized that career advancement was not just based on "burying your head in the ground and working to death".
You'd be surprised that in Asia many people think that working, working and working (day in and day out) is the best way to advance. That's NOT TRUE. After a certain point in one's career, its more about NETWORKING - who you know.
Many people in Asia cannot accept that. Asians are brought up thinking that if you slog hard enough, you will be justly rewarded and will climb to the top of the organizational hierarchy.
For me, once I realized that was not the case, so I sought to find someone in senior management who became a mentor to me. He has decades of banking experience and taught me SO MUCH over coffee and adhoc meetings on how I should advance my career. How I could pick up domain knowledge. What my weaknesses and strengths were.
Being a senior executive, he could not give me close guidance all the time, but he always pointed out to me how I could acquire knowledge to do what I needed to do. That is TRUE MENTORSHIP and it's something I sincerely appreciate till this day.
The last piece of advice I have about gaining domain knowledge is this - offer your services.
What do I mean? Well, let's say you're a junior team member on a large-scale banking project. Maybe you're tasked to gather requirements for the client account opening module. And day in and day out, that's your job.
What I mean by offering your services is to "go above and beyond". Go up to the Lead BA or Project Manager and tell him or her you have bandwidth and you want to volunteer to help in say, the payments module as you'd like to pick up knowledge in that area.
Now, first thing to take note is that you should REALLY have bandwidth since you don't want to kill yourself.
Having been a Lead BA and Project Manager before, I can tell you that we take such gestures to volunteer VERY POSITIVELY. So don't be shy about asking.
I'm ALWAYS encouraged by my juniors who ask for more. It demonstrates (1) a positive attitude; (2) a strong desire to learn and (3) a desire to help others and be a team player.
These are all great characteristics to have when you're a junior team member. The other benefit of doing this is that you can very likely get a strong positive rating for your performance at the end of the year and maybe a promotion to the next level.
Also, offering of your services need not be restricted to the project you're in. If you're up to it, volunteer OUTSIDE of work and maybe find a weekend role in something related to the domain area you're interested in.
When I first started out working, I was very in "e-business" and the Internet, so I volunteered to set up web servers for companies on weekends to learn more about Internet architectures :)
Ok, one last point on solution knowledge. In the above, I've covered domain knowledge - which I deem as more "industry" or "business" kind of knowledge - how client account opening works in a bank, how trades are settled, when margin calls are made, etc.
To me, there is also another class of knowledge known as "solution" knowledge, e.g. a ERP solution, a retail banking system solution, a specialist system solution for monitoring collateral, a software to automate reconciliations.
While I've not focused on the acquisition of this knowledge in this article, many of the concepts above - a knowledge base, industry events, knowledge communiities, mentorship and volunteering your services - still apply.
So see if you can pick up solution knowledge as well - because, as you know from this article - someone with BOTH domain and solution knowledge is one VERY DESIRABLE job candidate in today's market.
I hope the above has given you some solid tips on how to increase your domain knowledge in a project. There are SO MANY things you can do in this aspect.
You start with a knowledge acquisition plan, build a knowledge base, then move further by asking lots of questions, taking up a course or two, participating in industry events or communities.
Find a mentor and volunteer both in and outside of work. I guarantee that if you implement just a few of the above suggestions, your domain knowledge will be catapulted to the next level before you know it.
Also, as with all learning, I think the the most important aspect of increasing domain knowledge is your DESIRE to learn. If you have the desire, no hurdle or obstacle will be great enough to block you from gaining that knowledge.
It's useful to also ask yourself why you want to learn the domain (e.g. to be more credible in front of users, to become more valuable in the job market) and you'll better be able to motivate yourself to learn.
That's all I have for now. Until next time, stay positive and have fun picking up domain knowledge in your projects!
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