One of my favorite sayings is, “Life is an open-book test.” It is not important that you know everything, either in life or in business. But it is important to know where to find the answers you need. If you have set up your web presence correctly, chances are that even if you don’t know the people personally who could answer your questions, you know how to get in touch with them—through work contacts, mutual friends and associations. This network is the beginning of your knowledge base.
A knowledge base is the network of people you are connected to whose expertise you can draw from, and whose ideas and actions you respect. Most of us make decisions in our careers based on a combination of good and bad advice from the people we know. If we are lucky, we figure out pretty quickly which advice is which, and correct our mistakes before things get out of hand. So the first step in broadening your knowledge base is to take stock of your existing circle of friends and colleagues, and notice which have given consistently good advice. Make a point of thanking these remarkable people for their expertise, and stay in touch with them as best you can.
One of the obvious ways to expand our circle of wise friends is to get to know the people our current wise friends admire and like to hang out with. This is one of the great benefits of actual face-to-face social networking, but it is not always possible. While there is no real substitute for relationships cultivated in person, there are three very good ways that you can use the social web to much the same effect. If you are not yet growing your knowledge base online, here is how to start.
Many of today’s most influential industry analysts and thought leaders got where they are by blogging to share their expertise. The best of these writers continue to have an active readership that comments on posts and shares ideas. If you don’t know who the influential thinkers are in your area, find them and start reading their blogs. You may notice that several frequent commenters have over time built relationships with the writer by making useful observations and asking good questions. My rule for commenting on other people’s blogs is only to do so if I have something to add that hasn’t been expressed yet. Avoid redundancy, ask smart questions, be brief and courteous, and you may see your knowledge base grow to include several wise members of that community conversation, not to mention one grateful blogger.
Reading influential blogs can be time-consuming, but that is not the only way to build your knowledge base online. There are two ways to do this using LinkedIn, one of which was shared by Dr. John Todor in a webinar we did last August. John’s advice is that when you meet someone knowledgeable through work, you should follow up by adding them as a connection on LinkedIn. This small act has potentially far-reaching consequences, as it insures that you have a way to contact them in the future and build your relationship.
Another great way to use LinkedIn to expand your knowledge base is by joining groups. The quality of most group discussions on LinkedIn is uneven, but can be useful. And once you are a member you are in much closer contact with everyone else in that group. I have used LinkedIn group discussions to research articles, and have successfully landed interviews with industry leaders through the access that group connections afford.
Finally, there is Twitter. If you think you know what Twitter is about, think again. And if you are not on Twitter and have no idea why you should be, the answer is that it is a fantastic way to broaden your knowledge base. Even if you never post a tweet, there is a wealth of information and contacts to be made by following people and conversations on Twitter.
For our purposes, the most important thing is knowing who and what to follow. Twitter has recently made it much easier to browse by category, listing several great accounts to follow for any given topic or industry. Once you have an account set up you can choose to follow any number of people and organizations, and can add or delete accounts as often as you like. My suggestion is to keep following an account for a month or so, to see if what they post is really important or helpful to you. If not, let them go. Your goal is to have a streamlined Twitter feed that gives you plenty of what you want, with a minimum of noise.
Once you find someone who posts truly helpful tweets, look at their Twitter profile to see who they are following. Again, you are looking for the “friends of friends” who will help you broaden your expertise. These people will share links to their own articles and blog posts, which brings you right back around to following and participating in those online conversations.
Ideally, building a knowledge base is a two-way street, and over time your expertise will be as valuable to your network as theirs is to you. The more well-rounded and well-informed you are in your field, and the more connected you are to others of similar caliber, the more people will want to hear what you have to say. If we are only as good as the company we keep, let’s make sure we have the very best company.