Getting up to speed in a new industry – 5 top challenges

ships, planes, trucks, representing transportation industry

As business professionals, we often need to know the ins and outs of a new industry. Maybe you have a new client or a new job. Perhaps it’s a valuation case or a merger. Or maybe you just need to understand what’s going on now and in the future within your own rapidly-changing business environment.

Like any type of research, industry research comes with it’s own set of challenges. Unless you’re aware of these challenges and know how to work around them (or with them), you’ll spend too much time floundering, with little to show for it. And you’ll wonder what you might have missed.

Here are five challenges I’ve encountered with industry research and some tips for not letting them get in the way:

There’s a lot to cover
An industry profile can cover a lot of ground: Industry structure, statistics, products and services, buyers, trends and issues, outlook, and more. Try focusing on a few key questions, noting what’s a “need to know” vs. a “nice to know.” Use multiple sources, including a search engine like, which organizes results into content subject folders. Start with some broad searches to gather intelligence, then narrow your searches and use specialized sources to fill in the necessary data.

There’s no NAICS code for your industry
Industry classification codes like the North American Industry Classification System and database industry subject headings don’t include every industry. Their broad categories work well for some situations, but they fall short with emerging or highly-specialized industries. When this happens, go to the broader subject (e.g., “photonics” instead of “silicon photonics”) and then add keywords for the specific area of focus. From there, work backwards, looking within some of the better results for other subject headings.

Limited information in your industry
With emerging and specialized industries, there may be a limited amount of content. Also, international or localized information. For these situations, use specialized sources for deeper geographic and industry-specific data. I also recommend talking with experts or tapping into your network. With limited information, you may need to re-frame your questions and manage expectations.

The answers you need may not be online
Sometimes what you need to know hasn’t been posted online, and it’s likely to reside in someone’s head. Or their file cabinet or to-do pile. That’s when it’s time to go offline and ask yourself “Who cares?” Who cares enough about it to have some knowledge? Do as much research as you can, arm yourself with some smart questions, and reach out to the experts in your network. Look who’s writing articles or speaking at conferences about the topic. They may not have all the answers, but might know who does.

You don’t know what you don’t know
This is probably the biggest obstacle in industry research. You don’t know what questions to ask, you’re unfamiliar with the jargon, and you don’t understand the information landscape. Even if you’ve worked in an industry for a while, there’s a lot that’s never crossed your radar. Again, search broadly to start, looking for associations and trade publications. Also look for LibGuides, handy research guides that librarians put together, by searching your topic keywords and using in your search. They’re great finding tools, and – when in doubt – pick up the phone and ask a librarian.

These challenges shouldn’t deter you from getting up to speed in any new industry. Just make sure you know how to manage the challenges – and your expectations.



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