How You Can Increase The Domain Knowledge Of Your Team

Hi there! As a project manager, you may know that it's increasingly important to be conversant with the business domain. Domain knowledge - understanding the industry, operations and solutions in use within your organization, is now more important than ever before.

Gone are the days where a project manager can survive on "methodology and standards". These days, employers want project managers and team members who know the domain.

I've written about the important of domain knowledge here and here. If you're lacking domain knowledge, or if you know your team members could beef up in this area, what can you do?

In this article, I want to share some tips on how you can increase the domain knowledge of your team.

how you can increase the domain knowledge of your team 1Increasing your team's domain knowledge helps them deliver projects better

1. Overview

Before we understand how to increase domain knowledge, let's understand what it really means. To me, domain knowledge refers to:

  • Knowledge of a particular industry - its products, operations, trends and players
  • Knowledge of a particular functional area in the industry - for example, in banking you would have trading, compliance, risk management, credit management and so forth.
  • Knowledge of a particular system solution in the industry - for IT project team members this is very important. The knowledge of software solutions (e.g. core banking or insurance, CRM, data analytics) is an important part of domain knowledge.

We'll now go into some detail on how to improve your knowledge of the above areas.

1. Industry Knowledge

The first thing we want to discuss is industry knowledge. To gain industry knowledge, there are a few things you and your team members can do.

  • Work in the industry
  • Read about the industry
  • Talk to someone from to industry

Work in the industry. The single best way to gain industry knowledge is to work within the industry. If you've sat in the trenches doing reconciliations in the back office of a bank, or worked as a junior underwriter in an insurance company, you cannot help but pick up industry knowledge.

If you're a "Business As Usual" employee looking to cross from line operations over to project roles, you stand a very good chance! Simply because projects value people with industry knowledge. And value them a lot.

Read about the industry. If you've no experience from the industry, one good thing to do is to just get some good books and read them. There are literally tons of resources on every industry out there that you can pick up.

One of the problems with say, reading about an industry like banking or insurance, is the lack of good introductory books on them.

For example, I find many of the books on banking tend to be very academic and are inaccessible to the layman. I wish someone would write books like "Banking for Dummies" or the "A Day In The Life of A Bank Operations Officer". I'd buy one of those any day!

Talk to someone from to industry. Another way to quickly pick up industry knowledge is to go talk to someone who works in the industry. Buy him or her some coffee and listen for 30 minutes about how things are run in the industry.

Case Study: There was once I needed to know more about private banking to prepare for a project at a client.

Initially, I went to the library to try to get a book that talked about private banking in Asia - but guess what? There were hardly any. I ended up buying a book (this one) which I thought was totally academic in nature and hence, not very useful at all.

I was, you realize, in a bit of a panic as I had to lead some workshops in private banking strategy and to be honest, I was very "thin" on the domain (such is the nature of the consulting industry, in case you didn't know).

In the end, I turned to a friend who worked in a private bank here in Singapore. He led a project team to implement a core banking system in the bank - so I guessed he must know a thing or two about private banking operations.

I sat down with him for about 30 minutes and absorb a huge amount of content on front office (e.g. sales, trading, portfolio management, account opening), middle office (e.g. KYC, compliance, customer service) as well as the back office (e.g. the trade lifecycle, reconciliations and settlement, corporate actions). And I was way prepared for the client the following week.

The lesson I learnt is that tapping on an expert's knowledge is one of THE best ways of picking up industry knowledge. Try it - you'll be amazed at the outcome!

2. Functional Knowledge

Now, while industry knowledge is about the entire industry as a whole, e.g. banking or insurance, "functional" knowledge is a about a specific area in an industry.

Take for example, the following functional areas in banking:

  • Risk management, e.g. Basel knowledge
  • Securities trading
  • Portfolio management
  • Client account opening and KYC
  • Cash management
  • Client investment suitability

These are the "deep dive" areas of banking knowledge. They are probably even tougher to obtain than generic banking industry knowledge - because they are quite specialized.

If you wanted to get information on areas like these, the best way would be (as before) to either (A) work in the industry or (B) talk to an expert who knows that area.

Reading up on the functional areas may help - but be aware that books on say, client account opening in banks, may be even harder to find than a book on the generic banking industry.

Tip: As a consultant, one of the things I really like about my job is that I get to work with different banks and insurance companies, focusing on different functional areas.

Over the course of my career, I've learnt about discretionary portfolio management in private banking, CRM in retail banking, underwriting in insurance, credit monitoring in bank lending, etc. - just to name a few examples.

Over time, I've amassed a huge repertoire of knowledge about the financial services industry which helps to make my résumé more marketable to headhunter.

So the tip here is to join a consultancy if you enjoy working with different financial institutions and picking up varied areas of functional expertise and knowledge. Beware though - the hours in consulting can be brutal (but that's another story).

3. Solution Knowledge

If you're in the IT industry, you'll be familiar with "packaged" applications - which need to be configured to deliver business systems to corporations.

That's another aspect of domain knowledge. If you're familiar with solutions like core banking (e.g. Temenos or Avaloq), CRM or data analytics - you are quite valuable in the market too.

To pick up this type of knowledge, again, either you've managed or participated in the delivery of such a system before, or you have attended some kind of certification course on the software.

You should know that reading or "talking to experts" doesn't really work here because the knowledge of a system solution is very complex and specialized.

4. Other Tips for Improving Domain Knowledge of Your Team

Besides the above tips for on how you can obtain domain knowledge, there are some other tips below on how you can prime your team to learn more.

These are equally important because sometimes, teams may not have the energy or time to pick up domain knowledge.

Instill a sense of learning. One thing I notice about the younger generation these days - they don't like to learner learning's sake. You, as project manager, can help instill a sense of learning in the team. If you can help your team members become proactive in the acquisition of domain knowledge, you'll have won the majority of the battle.

A proactive learner will seek out knowledge on his or her own. You don't have to worry about them not being able to find stuff - they'll probably find reference materials themselves and even spread it out to the rest of the team.

So invest in a sense of learning - it will reap huge rewards.

Get tools for learning. The next point relates to getting tools in place to facilitate learning. What I like to do is to create a shared drive for team members to deposit "intellectual capital" - basically knowledge documents that can be shared to the team.

Sometimes, this requires some sanitization to remove sensitive client or company information. However, once done, that knowledge can be reused infinitely in your company.

Tip: A great tip for sharing things like domain knowledge is to get your team into the habit of sharing articles. If you come across an interesting article online, immediately print it into a PDF and send it to your team. Encourage your team members to do the same. Over time, the knowledge of your team will grow - slowly but surely.

Involve them in key meetings and workshops. One thing I like to do with my team members is to involve them in stakeholder meetings. You shouldn't hold them back and just ask them to do the grunt work.

From time to time, bring them into meetings with senior stakeholders of the project and give them a chance to see the bigger issues.In this way, they'll get to learn more about critical project issues and also pick up domain knowledge.

Tip: A very good thing you can do is to identify certain workshops or meetings where a team member can lead the discussion. For example, in one of my core insurance system implementation projects, where I was business lead, I had to run workshops across New Business, Underwriting, Policy Servicing, Claims, Billing & Collections, etc.

What I did was to identify simpler functional areas like Billing & Collections and got one of my junior business analysts to run the workshop.

In this way, my BA got tremendous exposure in terms of domain knowledge and also learnt how to facilitate and run workshops - a key skill requirement of a business analyst.

One note about letting your team members attend stakeholder meetings or run workshops - know when to intercept. There are times when my junior team members ask something inappropriate to senior stakeholders.

You have to make sure you intercept and clarify those comments. The last thing you want is to have your team member offend a stakeholder - that will make it much harder to get buy-in later on.

Recommend books and courses. So here's another tip for helping your team members increase their domain knowledge - share with them books and courses related to the project's industry. Of course, these will never beat real world experience, but they're certainly better than nothing.

Books are pretty good for learning. If you read ten books on banking, you'll definitely know a lot more than the average person about the industry. And remember Malcolm Gladwell, author of the Tipping Point? He says if you spend 10,000 hours mastering about a topic, you'll become world class at it.

I think courses are even better than books. For me, after I spent seven years with an IT consultant firm, I went on to take a part-time Masters of Financial Engineering (MFE) degree. It was tough balancing that with a day job, but I learnt so much about banking, trading, structured products and risk management.

The good thing about courses is that they give you a structured curriculum to learn. Reading books randomly on your own can sometimes be very "aimless" in nature - you just go from book to book. A course helps guide you along the topics relevant to the industry or domain, and you also get a physical certification at the end, e.g. a diploma or degree.

You should do your research properly though - be careful of online courses which talk about "convenience and accreditation" but are in fact not really recognized by employers out there.

Find a reputable educational institution and do some background checks on how well regarded the program and course work are.

For your information, I did my MFE at the National University of Singapore and it's a great program for those seeking work in banks within the Asia-Pacific. The other courses you may want to try are the CFA or a MBA degree with a finance concentration.

Hold informal sharing sessions. The other great way to get your team up to speed in domain knowledge is to hold informal sharing sessions among team members.

Granted, this can be very difficult when the team is trying to meet tight deadlines. However, if you find some downtime, knowledge sharing is one of the most effective and fun ways to increase competency in the team.

Tip: Try taking half a day off and book a meeting room. Get all team members to sit in a knowledge sharing session, with one senior team members doing up an informal sharing session on any topic of his or her choice.

Make it fun, throw in small quizzes and prizes so people are motivated!

For example, I conducted a mini "Business Analyst" course for my team once and filled it with role play, quizzes and chocolates for prizes.

My juniors learnt quite a bit about how to analyze business and system issues and told me it was one of the better courses they'd attended in the company. It's a good feeling to receive feedback like that.

Over time, as more of such sharing sessions are held, your team's knowledge will begin to grow and it will start to become apparent in the quality of your team's output.

Wrapping Up ...

Hey and that's all I have for now. Granted, it's a challenge to try to skill up all your team members whenever you're in the midst of a project. However, imparting domain knowledge to them - whether it be through books, courses, sharing sessions, talking to experts or simply recruiting team members who already have experience - is absolutely important to the project's success.

That's all I have for now. Until next time, have fun picking up domain knowledge with your team!

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