The New Rickety Rocking Chair

When I first graduated from College, I went to work for CompuCom — who in 1996 was trying to change their business model from the dying dinosaur of reselling Compaq and HP (then two separate companies) and IBM to a service business, and I was a college hire, sent to build and bolster the resell business with service consulting in setting up software and services on the equipment they sold. It was an interesting business that forever established a healthy distrust on my part for “service consultants.” It was the wrong place at the wrong time and I was the wrong person to be there. And I’ll mostly leave it at that — save for one story.

I was sent on one assignment to shadow a “Senior Systems Engineer” and install this brand-new software called “Microsoft Exchange” at a marketing company. There’s an overly geeky story with that that would invoke sendmail, pegasus, mercury, netware, and a very early distribution of Red Hat Linux, but needless to say, we struggled a bit to get the software installed.

Anyway, I remember lamenting about things at lunch with the Senior SE — I was naive then (okay, I’m still naive) — but I had more than a few problems at using being billed out as experts at $150/hour without knowing much about the product we were installing (or even conceptually how it all fit together).

He said something that has stuck with me for now-on 11 years, and maybe perhaps the best thing I got out of the 9 months I was at CompuCom. He said:

“They don’t pay us for what we know. They pay us for what we can figure out.”

It took a long time for me to appreciate that. After all, I’m euphemistically in that employment category of “knowledge worker.” My entire job is based on having and obtaining knowledge about putting together rules and instructions that collect, store, route, and display information. The most lucrative of the jobs in my field are seemingly based on having knowledge — that collection of disparate pieces of information — on subjects that most don’t have. It is with little wonder that there are many in my field — and similar “knowledge worker” pursuits — that vociferously guard the collected information they’ve gained, giving themselves some kind of “expert” label — and selling access to that collection through me or my authorized agent. Few would blame me for doing that.

But I would.

You see, somewhere along the line I bought into the mission and the ideals of the industry that I’m in. That it is a noble pursuit to share far and wide the collected information, the knowledge, that I’ve gained. Not only noble, but that it is a moral imperative to do so.

As I’ve gotten older, that belief has been reinforced, as I find myself having to function in an employment where it is impossible to know everything, impossible to be an expert relative to others in all subjects in a field. There is always someone that knows more than I do about a given subject. And only by those sharing what they know am I able to successfully accomplish many of the tasks placed before me. Sure, I have to know a fair amount, I have to have the fundamentals, but I can no longer be successful in the business I’m in based solely on what I know.

This isn’t new. It’s always been this way. Any time and point in history where the so-called “experts” tried to limit and shape and influence access to the things that people wanted to know, there was rebellion. Information always finds a way to be known.

What has changed — not only in my industry, but in just about every field of pursuit for the “knowledge workers” is the pace in which that rebellion happens. Our Ptolemaic circles do not survive for long. I can be an “expert” only for the briefest of time, before what I know is replaced with something new.

My peers and I created a Frankenstein for the gnostics. Those systems we built to collect, store, route, and display information created a revolutionary way to share it. The distribution channel is no longer the same. Information is a commodity. I’d apologize for all of us for that. But I won’t. I’m not the least bit sorry about it.

And now that revolutionary distribution channel is doing more. It’s no longer about sharing it. It’s about collaborative augmentation. Remixing it. Assembling it in ways that the original authors never pictured. Some people are calling this “Web 2-point-oh” — whatever the name it’s just the technology catching up with how we already communicate. So not only is information a commodity, but so is knowledge.

This gets me to the real point of this whole rambling treatise. And that’s about Cooperative Extension.

The heart and soul of Cooperative Extension, in my mind, at least in my short time in Extension, is the county agent. In all my years in IT and Systems Engineering, I know that the best support has always come from local staff. Even if those local staff weren’t up on the latest IT trends, or didn’t have all the knowledge of what was happening with the services they were actually supporting the use of — they had the experience with the folks they were supporting. Knowing you have to jiggle the faulty video cable in the back of Bob’s computer is worth as much as the knowledge about the signaling protocol that VGA uses, or what video driver version is loaded. Combined together — that’s pretty powerful.

It goes back to the famous quote from Dr. Seaman Knapp — who spearheaded what has become our county agent system:

“What a man hears, he may doubt, what he sees he may possibly doubt, What he does himself, he cannot doubt”

The commodity information sources exist. People can find what plants to place in their yard. They can find what the soil is. They can find information about what plants work best with their soil. But what they don’t have is the experience that our Master Gardeners and Horticulture specialists have. And when the Master Gardeners are on those same sites — working in those same communities where the people already are — they can see the some information, the same knowledge, and can “Yep, I did this” or “Yep, I was working with some folks last week that were doing exactly what you are trying to do” And there’s an increased level of trust by knowing that that experience is just down the road from me. Those communities can broaden the experience of our agents, connecting them to peers and connecting them to the public at times and in ways that an office visit just can’t do. These “connectors” are the new experts.

This isn’t really different from the way it’s always been. My great-grandfather owned a country store — and used to sit on some rickety rocking chairs and entertain company. Usually while watching “The Price is Right” (at least in my memory). Web 2.0 is the new rickety rocking chairs and checkerboard.

Anne Adrian at Auburn wrote a blog post a few days ago, about trying to articulate “Web 2.0” for Extension. She wrote of something that I had been thinking about some time for the project that I’m involved in with Cooperative Extension. What’s in it for the states? What’s in it for the people in the counties that are where the people are? I know that where I in the same boat, on the spot, I would have ummed, erred, hemmed, and hawed a halting description of how Web 2.0 is beneficial to local folks. I wouldn’t have been even able to articulate what Anne felt was unconvincing. I’ve been thinking more and more about this since I read Anne’s post. And how would I answer that question?

I haven’t read Weinberger, so I’m going to boil mine down to those opening words.

It isn’t about what you know, it’s about what you can figure out.

And who do we have better than our local folks at figuring things out?