How to transform yourself into a node of knowledge
Though we love talking about our oh-so-cutting-edge Information Age, sharing info is nothing new. Before the Web—even before your Olivetti started gathering dust—knowledge sharing was integral to getting a job done.
Michele Lent Hirsch is a writer, editor, and native New Yorker. She is currently at work on a nonfiction book about health and gender.
Editor: Talha Khalid
But now more than ever, we're analyzing the play of information: how people swap it, who's milking it best, and which bits we should soak up. And, as always, we're looking at how our bailiwick compares with that of our peers. Certain roles rely heavily on playing catch with ideas, but everyone from a nurse to a pianist is, in a sense, a knowledge worker. And we can all use help refining our expertise.
Whether you're hoping to remain a fixture at your current job or break into a whole new field, here are expert tricks for defining your province and standing out.
The Local Lockbox
You know him: the coworker who can tell you the name of that guy who worked on that project that you think was in 2003—though you're not sure when…or which project exactly. "Peterson, '05!" he'll declare with the certainty of a Jeopardy champ. You can depend on him to click through his institutional memory or connect you to someone else helpful. But if you're that go-to person, you might want a break.
"You can be too cooperative for your own good," says Jessica Pryce-Jones, CEO of iOpener and author of Happiness at Work. What's more, a go-to person often isn't valued enough. He's almost never a higher-up, so his intangible leadership, though appreciated by peers, is mostly overlooked by the boss. If you're the generous one, start talking about it: "I helped Maria last week and she ended up connecting with a great new client—I was happy for her that it worked out!" If you've got a little more chutzpah, ask the person you're assisting to let the boss know you pitched in, says Pryce-Jones. Word of your expertise will trickle up.
Sociologists label people as "local" and "cosmopolitan," adds Ezra Zuckerman, an economic sociologist at MIT's Sloan School of Management. The first type is quite knowledgeable about his organization, whereas the latter has established herself across contexts. Cosmopolitans risk appearing fickle, but locals risk depending on one workplace. If your company is indelibly fixed in your memory, ask for projects that keep you marketable.
The Savvy Specialist
Typecasting is known as a career killer. Yet when Zuckerman studied film actors over the course of several years, he found that those who were boxed-in fared better: By fitting into character constraints, they were able to land gigs that generalists couldn't. In many fields, renaissance men and women are idolized, he says. But in reality, "you've got to turn yourself into a very specialized commodity."
Academics, too, need a fresh niche. You might meet a prof who specializes in 19th-century spider metaphors—she's into it because nobody else is.
The catch-22, Zuckerman admits, is that a niche can get you into a field but be hard to climb out of later. Still, specializing is part deep knowledge, part branding magic. Define yourself narrowly to appeal to a prospective employer's needs, but maintain a broader set of skills so you can wow your boss later.
The Ingenious Generalist
"There's a seduction to being an expert, an assumption in society that credibility relies on deep (and narrow) expertise," writes Jess McMullin of the Information Architecture Institute. "However, for people operating at the edges, intersections, and overlaps where innovation thrives, being a generalist is far more powerful."
In the world of business and design, broad skills lead to opportunities. For the last few years executives have buzzed about "T-shaped" people: those who pair a deep, narrow expertise with breadth in other areas. Some folks are even expected to branch out. To become a master chef, says Zuckerman, you must learn how to be a pastry chef, a cold chef, and a host of other specialists. Limit your expertise and you may never run your own kitchen.
Generalists also tend to be good people-people, says Pryce-Jones. One man she knows used to work in advertising and was always strategically introducing colleagues within the agency. Though he helped huge projects blossom, his work was largely intangible. Realizing that his know-how went beyond the confines of the ad world, he left his job and now works connecting people across industries.
The Navigating Newbie
It doesn't matter whether you've been working for a decade or more: You're still uninitiated when you start a new job. Ben Dattner, author of The Blame Game, suggests tuning in to how your colleagues like to share knowledge. If you're in need of a tutorial on, say, the office's wiki page, but your new boss keeps ignoring your query-stuffed emails, consider a new move. Might your boss prefer a face-to-face lesson over typing everything out? It may seem like a minor difference to you, but asking for help the right way means you'll get the info you need. You can also offer insights that you've gained elsewhere to initiate subtle bartering.
The Part-Time Techie
Your position is outside the tech realm, yet everyone calls you when their computer crashes or if that hamster video on YouTube won't load. Psychotherapist Michael Formica, an informal techie himself, suggests teaching them how to problem-solve on their own—and learning how to say no when you need to. "If you grab the mouse and do it for them, you're not doing them a favor," he says. Instead, give them new skills—and tell them when you're too busy to help.
Hoping to gain recognition for on-the-side troubleshooting? Do it by being, well, helpful. "From time to time, send out a little missive to everyone saying, 'You know, I've discovered that if you press control-F6 you get such-and-such in your spreadsheet,'" says Pryce-Jones. Small tips every once in a while remind people that you're savvy and help them in tiny but crucial ways.
Just don't broadcast your knowledge too often. You wouldn't want to become known as That Guy Who Has All The Answers But Is Too Annoying To Ask.
You don't have to be a secret agent to do professional recon. Rotman School of Management's David Zweig shares tips on gleaning knowledge from your peers.