A Shred of Knowledge

A story to illustrate a point:

A young engineer was leaving the office at 5.30pm when he found the Boss standing in front of a shredder with a piece of paper in his hand.

“Listen,” said the Boss “this is a very sensitive and important document and my secretary is not here. Can you make this thing work?”

“Certainly,” said the young engineer. He turned on the machine, inserted the paper, and pressed the start button.

“Excellent. excellent,” said the Boss as his paper disappeared inside the machine, “I just need one copy.”

Lesson: Never, never, ever assume that the person asking knows what they are doing.

The point here is that often when a client asks me to do X, it pays to really and truely understand what it is they are really asking for.

Thanks to Michael at http://www.compendium.com.au/ for passing the story onto me. Love it.

Knowledge Gap

Overheard a comment by @dflood yesterday that I’ll blatantly steal and post about here:

“…either 1. there is a technical resolution to the problem or 2. there is a knowledge gap…”

I’d have to say that this is a rather succinct description of something that happens all the time to us IT folk, where the client wants to do activity A but they can’t, what-ever it is it just doesn’t work and activity A can’t be completed.

The causes vary, but they do fall into one of these two categories:

  1. There is a technical resolution to the problem, where there is something broken, not working that needs to be fixed.
  2. There is a knowledge gap, where the client doesn’t know how to do the task at hand.

Dealing with the first is what most engineers/technicians jump to and find a way to make it work, only to discover that the client still isn’t happy, they still can’t do what they want to do. Because the engineer automatically assumed that they know what the client is saying, automatically assumed that the fix is to correct some technical issue. Yet often, if we really listen to the client, what we find is that there is a gap in their knowledge and simply by educating the client, helping the client become a power user the problem evaporates and becomes a non-issue.

I’ve trapped myself before by making the wrong assumption, have you?

Why Share Your Knowledge?

We see many big names in all industries that seem to just give away information, real knowledge like it’s going out of fashion.

I see the example of people like Seth Godin, David Armano, Dave Winer, Doc Searls, Mark Pesce, Wayne Schulz, Heather Smith, Robin Dickinson and Darren Rowse all of whom give away knowledge. This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but it is a list of a few A-Listers, a few well known in the local geographic area and a few that are well known in their field.

How can they give so much away and still make money? Should you do the same?

Let me state right upfront that I believe we should share our knowledge freely.

I’ll tell you why I believe that by relating a story told to me about four years. A mentor related this story to me. Listen to it and see what you think.

If I told you that by riding a skateboard to work you could solve the entire worlds pollution problems, would you do it?

No, you wouldn’t. Why not? Because you don’t own a skateboard.

Ok, so let me give you a skateboard. Will you ride a skateboard to work now?

No, you won’t. Why not? Because you don’t know how to ride a skateboard.

Ok, so let me give you a skateboard, let me give you lessons on how to ride the skateboard. Now, will you ride the skateboard to work now?

No, you still won’t. Why not? Because it’s too far, it might rain, part of the journey is uphill and it just takes too much effort.

The lesson here is that you can give someone the solution to a problem, the tools required and the education on how to use the tools and they still won’t go out and solve the problem for themselves.

This is a normal thing that happens everyday. I pay others to grow my food, process it and transport it to a place convienient for me to pick it up. I pay others to fix my car, wire up new lights in the house or make a fancy meal. We all do it. It’s too much effort for me to do all those things, it’s easier for me to pay someone to do them for me.

What people want is to deal with someone that does know their stuff, someone that does have that intimate knowledge of the subject, someone who is an expert. More often than not, others, like me, are prepared to pay for others to do those things I’m not expert at. Often the only way they or I find out if you know your stuff or not, is by trial and error, at our cost.

But if we were to give away knowledge, it makes it easy for people to know what it is we know, what our expertise is. They may not understand all the subtleties of what they read, or maybe they do, but either way, by telling them what we know builds their trust in us. With that trust comes their patronage.

I can hear some that say “but what if they take that knowledge and apply it themselves?”. Well, there are two answers to that:

  1. Firstly, if they are not an expert in your field, they will take the knowledge you gave them and try it for themselves, make mistakes, spend more time doing the job that you would, they’ll either wear those extra costs or come back and engage your sevices.
  2. Secondly, if you can’t find a market amongst seven billion people, in a market in which other experts operate, then your marketing needs an overhaul. Perhaps you should give away some of your knowledge and give them a reason to invest their cash with you.

So how does one give away knowledge? Here are few ways:

For a contrary view, read this article on Six Pixels of Separation titled Free Content is Killing Media – I’d say that perhaps he has a point with regard to the media, but free content can definitely build your business.

So, what do you think? Are you going to give away some knowledge?