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posted 1 Dec 2010 in Volume 14 Issue 3

Why an email isnít good enough

David Gurteen says donít just ask for help. Build relationships

I was at a conference recently and in a knowledge cafť that I facilitated, a young woman complained that she often asked people for help by e-mail and she rarely received a reply.

The implication was that as KM practitioners we were not walking the talk.

I found her at lunch time to share with her my thoughts on this and I decided I would write about them more broadly here.

I could empathise with the people receiving her e-mails as I get many such messages myself each week.

She was contacting leading people in their field Ė including book authors. In other words, busy people Ė people who naturally receive many unsolicited e-mails each day.

The problem is time. I could spend all of my time answering such e-mails and never get any of my own work done. I need to be selective in who I reply to and who I donít.

So what prompts me to reply to a request for help?

  • I try always to reply, even if just to say sorry I am busy or that I cannot help. Though given the volume of messages itís not always possible;
  • If the question is one that requires a short answer or I can point the person to an existing web resource; Maybe a page on my site or elsewhere, where they are almost certain to get a reply;
  • If the question is a good one ? a hot one ? that interests me, or if my reply could form the basis for a blog post or an article, then they are much more likely to get a response;
  • If what the person is doing is exciting, interesting or might have an impact on the world for the better I am more likely to reply;
  • If I know the person or if they are a member of my community (in other words I have a relationship with them, however tenuous) I am more likely to reply. The stronger the relationship, the more likely
  • the response;
  • If the person takes the time to ask me nicely Ė if they tell me a little about themselves and why they are asking the question. Far too often I just get a ĎDear Sir, could you tell me how to implement KM?í. I get the feeling this e-mail has been sent to dozens of victims and in reply I will often give them the Google search URL for knowledge management. Maybe this is a bit mean, but if they canít take the time to give me some more context and my time is limited, why should I help?

It seems to me that if you are looking for help then you need to think about the person you are communicating with. Whatís in it for them? Out of the many unsolicited e-mails they receive each day, why should they respond to yours?

Personally, if I want help or wish to establish a relationship with someone, I initially, e-mail them and ask for nothing ? but I will look for a way to help them, to give them something of value.

I may or may not get a reply. If I do, I know it will be easy to talk with them. If I donít, I know it may be more difficult.

It's very rarely that I ask anyone for anything if I do not know them. It seems to me to make more sense to build relationships with a wide range of people who you can help and in turn call on for help in times of need.

So maybe it makes sense never to send an unsolicited e-mail to someone asking for help, but to take the time to build a relationship first.

David Gurteen is the founder of Gurteen Knowledge and a member of the Inside Knowledge editorial board. He can be contacted via his website at www.gurteen.com

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