Originally published on March 30, 2015
By Bruce Karney
In a company with a knowledge-sharing culture, we have a duty to help each other to acquire useful and timely information. We must all work together so that our company can know what we already know. This post explains how to write an effective request for assistance. The target audience is knowledge workers, but the principles are universal.
Let’s start with a few assumptions:
- There’s a lot of information in document databases, but there’s far more in people’s heads
- Employees want to help each other, and will even help co-workers they’ve never met
- Asking for assistance imposes an obligation on the requestor to share what he/she learns
The wrong way
Below is a typical request for help. It’s similar to messages that many knowledge workers receive daily. Unfortunately, this is an example of how to do it wrong.
From: John Doe
To: <several email distribution lists with hundreds of names>
Subject: Information Request
Does anybody know if there is a commercially available software package that will automate the customer support function for a company in the financial services industry?
This message’s flaws are obvious:
- Sent to too many people
- Uninformative subject line
- Vague request
- No explanation of why it’s important to respond
- No indication that the author has done any prior research
The only positive thing about the message is its brevity. But that’s a flaw, too, if you assume, as I do, that Mr. Doe would have put more time and effort into composing his message if the situation were really important to him.
The right way
I’d like to propose 10 simple rules that will help you write requests that get results. That is, your requests will motivate those reading them to actually tell you things you need to knowthat you don’t already know. The same rules apply no matter whether you intend to send your request as an e-mail or post it to an online forum.
10 Rules of Asking Others to Share Knowledge
- Make the subject line very specific; use 5–10 words, not 2–3.
- Identify yourself by name, role and organization.
- Identify the problem briefly and clearly.
- Explain why solving the problem is important to the reader.
- Explain exactly what kind of help you want from them.
- Specify your deadline.
- Tell what you know (and how you learned it), and what you don’t know.
- Ask for suggestions about who else to ask and what else to do.
- Tell what you will do to share what you learn more broadly.
- Explain how those who help you will be rewarded or recognized.
At the end of this post, I give two made-up examples of messages composed using the rules. The first is a rewrite of Mr. Doe’s request. The second is a simple non-technical example. In both cases the numbers in brackets tie back to the rule numbers listed above. It is not necessary that the message list the points in order from 1 to 10, but I have done so for the sake of clarity.
Comments on the last 3 rules
Most of these rules are obvious to thoughtful writers. However, rules 8, 9, and 10 deserve a little extra commentary.
- Rule 8 operates together with Rule 7 to invite your audience to suggest new ways to extend your learning process. Recall that in Mr. Doe’s bad example, he just asked if we knew about the existence of something. If he had asked “do you know how I could find out if such software exists” it would have opened up new possibilities.
- Rule 9 recognizes the existence of a knowledge-sharing culture. Once an interesting lesson is learned or an important question is answered, that information should be put in the proper document repository so it will be available to others in the future.
- Rule 10 addresses “what’s in it for me?” Sometimes the individuals who help you will act altruistically and won’t care about being rewarded or recognized, but in other cases you should offer something. When helping you takes a lot of effort, offering a reward may actually be necessary to achieve the response you need. Anything from a t-shirt to flowers to the use of a gift card awards program may be appropriate and well-received. You should always acknowledge help with a brief e-mail or posted response. If the help you got was significant, you should also make sure the person’s manager learns of the good deed.
A real example
To see an example of what kind of knowledge-sharing takes place when most of these rules are followed, please see the SIKM Leaders Community.
Questions from earlier readers of this article
Q1. Your examples of good messages seem really long. That means they will take longer to read, and that costs more money. How can that be an improvement?
A: It will take longer if readers go through the whole message. However, because of the way it is written, most people won’t need to read the whole message. The title alone will let many readers know they have nothing to contribute. The first few short paragraphs also give enough information to help many others decide that they don’t need to read the whole message.
Remember, too, that more time may be spent in replying than in reading. For example, a message read by 100 readers at 1 minute each takes 100 minutes to read, but if the message generates 10 replies that each take 15 minutes to compose, that’s 150 minutes. By taking the time to be specific, the author of a detailed message helps those who reply. Their replies only have to address points that are not known by the requestor. Fewer people will need to reply, and their replies can be shorter because they know what the requestor knows and what he doesn’t.
Q2. Should questions be e-mailed or posted to a forum or both?
A: It depends on whether a useful forum exists and how quickly you need a response. The one thing that is always true is that if there is a relevant forum, you should post your question there even if you also decide to send it by e-mail to certain individuals. By posting the question, and later the answers, (see Rule 9) you enrich the collective knowledge base.
Q3. What should you do if your query results in information being given to you over the phone or sent as a private reply?
A: Unless the reply contains truly confidential information or could embarrass someone, I believe the best practice is to post a summary in the relevant community or forum as a comment on your original posting. The person who provided the private reply should be made aware of your plan for sharing the information before you post it publicly.
By asking for assistance in the right way, you can improve the number and quality of responses you receive. You can also minimize wasted time for those who help you, and ensure that what you learn is available to others in the future.
Subject: Looking for Call Center Automation S/W for $500K Credit Union Deal 
I’m John Doe, a Project Manager in the Financial Services Practice based in the Western US. 
We have been asked to respond to an RFP from Pacific Federal Credit Union (PFCU) to modernize its call center. They have 15 agents currently and are growing 10% per year. They are currently using CallWare, a twelve-year old solution running on Windows 3.1. 
If we win this bid, we think the total revenue (hardware plus services) will be about $500K in the first year, plus $100K annually thereafter. We think we have a good chance of winning if we can identify the right third-party Call Center Automation software to propose. 
I’m looking for recommendations on what software would be best for this small call center environment. The client has a preference for software that runs on Windows, but will consider Linux or Unix if the solution is truly superior. High availability (at least 99.8%) during their 12-hour x 5-day workweek is imperative. 
Our response to the RFP is due June 30, but we need to make our decision on what software to recommend by June 23. Therefore, I would like to get inputs by June 20 so we have a few days to analyze everything. 
Based on the research we’ve done so far, we believe that CU-Track and RateMaster are possible solutions, but we have no internal references. We believe that OMNIcare is too expensive for this client and that MyCallCenter should not be considered because it doesn’t have enough features. 
If you have any ideas about what else we should contact or what else we can do to get this information, please let me know. 
We will post all replies (and our conclusion) in the Financial Services Community of Practice to make it available for future reference. 
The entire PFCU account team will be very grateful for any help you can provide. 
Anytown, CA (555) 555–8888, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Subject: Looking for Lost Members of the Oly High Class of 1975 
Hi, it’s Jane Jones, a classmate of yours from good old OHS. 
I am the Chairman of our 30th Reunion Committee, and I’m trying to track down the “lost” members of our class so we can invite them to the reunion. Unfortunately, we have no address for more than half of our classmates. 
I’m sure you’ll all agree that the more people who attend a reunion, the more fun it will be for everybody. Wouldn’t it be great if we could track down all our classmates so that we could invite everybody to the last reunion we’ll have before we all turn 50? 
What I’d like you to do is to review the list of “lost” alumni that is attached. If you have a current address, e-mail, or phone number for any person listed, please send that information to the Committee. 
The reunion is on August 4, and we want to send out invitations on May 4. So, if you have information to share, please send it by April 30 so we’ll have time to update our database before the big mailing. 
We’ve already got the mailing list we used for our reunion 5 years ago, plus a few updates. We’ve also sent e-mails to everyone listed on the Classmates.com web site. So, we now have what we think are good addresses for 215 classmates, but 325 are still “lost.” Sadly, we also have a list of 30 classmates who have passed away. 
We will send a letter or e-mail like this one to each lost person we find to validate the information and ask for their help in searching for other lost alumni. 
Finally, for every person you help us find, you’ll get one ticket in a raffle that will take place at the reunion. The prize will be a $100 gift certificate to Rainy Day Records, Olympia’s best CD store, courtesy of our classmate John Doe. 
1234 Main Street, Olympia, WA 98502
(360) 555–1234, e-mail email@example.com
- Why won’t people ask questions in the open?
- Ten Simple Rules for Getting Help from Online Scientific Communities
- Getting Answers
- How To Ask Questions The Smart Way
- Relearning the Art of Asking Questions
- Asking and Doing. The Only Skills that Matter Anymore — “He didn’t turn to the expert first, he researched. It’s hard to ask good questions when you have no idea what to ask. So the best way to start is to do some general reading and exploring.”