Does sharing knowledge make you less valuable?

Posted by bob on August 24, 2014

Does sharing knowledge make you less valuable?

This is a serious question, closely following the previous “document or die” posting.  Many people worry that by writing down what they know (documenting clearly) they somehow diminish their own value to an organization.

You might hear something like, “If I do a good job explaining this, then anybody in my organization can do my job!”

I would argue that sharing your knowledge, and clearly documenting the things you know (and documenting the things you do) actually increase your value to any organization.

The first basis of my argument is that by sharing what you have learned, you save time and effort for other folks in your organization.  Instead of repeating the same mistakes or searching for some hidden nugget of information, they are able to quickly follow a guide that leads them to a successful result.  That allows these other people to achieve their individual goals in parallel to each other.

Imagine for a moment that you have deciphered the correct start-up sequence for some unfortunately complex computerized system.  We all have encountered headaches like this.  “First, you have to turn on switch “A” while holding down button “B” but making sure to wait for “C” seconds before pressing “D” and then enter the global password “E” but don’t use your personal password “F” because the system won’t recognize that and will lock you out of the startup for an hour.”  The original developer might have failed in his documentation task because he only wrote, “Boot the debug system and enter a password at the prompt.”  Your clear explanation of the requirements can save hundreds of hours of wasted, pointless activity by many people.  Your explanation might allow a sustaining engineer to reproduce these critical steps many years after the development team has gone on to new adventures.

Think of good documentation as a multiplier: you boost the productivity of everybody around you.  Good organizations understand this and appreciate it.  Bad organizations don’t care.  If you find yourself in a bad company, start looking for a new job.  They probably won’t be around for very long and time spent in a bad company will not teach you the skills you need to thrive in a good company.  Mostly you spend your time learning a lot of things that don’t work.  Reading Dilbert can teach you a lot of things that don’t work, is funnier, takes less time, and doesn’t add stress to your life.

The second basis of my argument is that sharing what you know (in writing) establishes you as an in-house expert.  Let’s think about two people named Fred on a team.  Fred-1 consistently generates clear, understandable guides to the things he does.  These guides let you know how to duplicate his work, how to interface to someone doing his work, and what to expect in the way of cost, schedule, and results of this work if you give him good input.  Fred-1 always seems a little ahead of the game and has the chance to explore new technologies and new ideas.  He always seems to be ready to move on to bigger and better challenges.

Then we have Fred-2, who will only share a little of his knowledge and only if you come talk to him.  He says, “Just ask, it is much easier.  I can explain the part you need to know in a few minutes.”  He doesn’t tell you that he means it is much easier for him.  Because it is verbal, you have no record of any commitment from him.  Even if you show him your notes later he can always say, “Oh, you must have misheard what I said.  We never can do that job in 2 weeks or for that price.”

Pretty soon, you find that there is always a line around Fred-2’s desk, waiting to clarify some detail.  Fred-2 tells his manager, “Look at this, I am too busy!  Everybody wants a piece of my time!”  And that manager is frustrated.  The manager cannot effectively reduce Fred-2’s workload because much of that workload is self-induced.

The third basis of my argument is that sharing what you know makes it easier for a company to replace you.  “How can that be a good thing,” you quickly ask? 

It is simple: if you can’t be replaced, you can’t be promoted.  When you can’t be replaced, you spend your days painfully reproducing the same effort again and again.

But if you can be replaced, your boss begins to see you as his greatest strength.  “Everything we throw at Fred-1, seems to get solved better and quicker.  Everybody works better around him.  I want him on my team.”  Or better yet, “I want to work with Fred-1.”  And best of all, “I want to work for Fred-1.”

Finally your ability to share your knowledge inevitably spreads out to the greater world.  Maybe in the form of great sales brochures that help make your products succeed.  Maybe it will be in the form of patents; scholarly papers, or public talks about a subject.  At some point, you become the guy to consult about your favorite topic.  This means that you get to choose when and where you do that thing you do.  And I believe that is a pretty good definition of success.