Familiarity vs Knowledge


Acquiring knowledge takes effort.

Too many people and companies mistake familiarity for knowledge. A while back I was working with a CIO, whom I’ll call Ray, and realized that while he was familiar with several technologies, he had no actual knowledge about them or how they could help transform the business.

Being familiar with or knowing about a product is one thing – but actually having knowledge of its true capabilities and how it can or can’t help your organization is another thing altogether. There has never been more information so readily available to so many people. Literally any piece of information is now a few keystrokes or finger swipes away. But information so easily gleaned isn’t necessarily useful knowledge.

Back to Ray.  Almost every person is familiar on some level with Twitter or Facebook, but that isn’t the same as knowledge. Ray was no different, in that he was familiar with and knew about Twitter and had even created an account, but he never took the time to learn about how to leverage the platform. In Ray’s mind Twitter was a waste of time because who cares what someone has for lunch. And if that is all Twitter was good for – it would be a valid criticism. However Ray didn’t develop any knowledge about the platform and therefore was unable to see the possibilities how Twitter and other forms of social media might help communicate with both customers and internal employees. As a result of this lack of knowledge, Ray was resistant to a marketing initiative to establish a social media presence along with some social media policies and procedures.

Like many things in life Twitter is what you make it. If you want it to be a low-value added activity it will conform exactly to that mindset, but if you actively work to make it an integral part of your marketing, communications, customer service and sales strategies then the value reaped can be significant. It’s not easy to do, but as with most things it gets easier with practice. Organizations as disparate as Dell, Comcast, and the KogiBBQ  Truck have all discovered the real power that Twitter can have to speak directly to customers and increase revenues or solve problems. Because of a lack of knowledge Ray is risking being left behind.

Another example of the familiarity vs. knowledge is resetting and recalibrating a product’s perceptions.

Joe A. Tyler's public artwork in Oro Valley, AZ - The Tree of Knowledge.

I was recently having a conversation with a senior consultant who has been around the technology space for a long time. Our chat inevitably wandered around to speculating what Apple was going to unveil next week at the Jan 27th media event.

Not especially noteworthy since no one really knows what will be revealed and this topic comes up in pretty much every conversation these days because the interest is so high- even my father-in-law is asking me “so what’s with this Apple Tablet – should I get one?”  Don’t laugh, he’s on his second iPhone already.

Anyhoo, back to this consultant whom I’ll call Jodie.  Jodie loved her iPhone but wished it was ready for business. I said, “what do you mean?”  And with that Jodie opened the floodgates and started talking about the iPhone’s supposed lack of security, no ability to remote wipe the device, difficulty getting certificates onto it, no push email, lack of IT manageability, etc. Pretty much all valid concerns for the iPhone OS 1.0 that was released in the summer of 2007. But all of which have been resolved with the iPhone 3.0 OS release this past summer.

Now Jodie is a great consultant who knows more about software than I can ever hope to learn, but she let familiarity with a product in the form of out-dated knowledge of an earlier product version get in the way of current knowledge. This lack of knowledge was also impacting her wallet, because she carried two devices with full data and talk plans – one of them just to get her corporate mail from company’s Exchange server. Once I showed her how the iPhone could become her sole device for business – you could see the dollar signs start working in her head. Her lack of knowledge was personally costing her roughly $1,200 a year – or roughly the price of a cozy weekend someplace warm – because she paid for both plans herself, but her company would only reimburse her for one of the two plans.

Despite the flurry of media attention about the new capabilities of the iPhone OS  –  Jodie tuned them out because of her earlier, accurate knowledge of the device made her, in her mind, familiar with the new devices capabilities. And yes while she was familiar, she wasn’t knowledgeable about the capabilities that might be useful to her and her clients. This is a small example, but one that is repeated over and over again. Just ask  Hyundai’s marketing department about how hard they’ve had to work to overcome the formerly valid perceptions in consumer minds that their earlier cars were cheap and low-quality, despite the fact the Hyundai finished ahead of Toyota and Honda in a recent J.D. Power quality survey.

Of course I don’t have any magic pixie dust or wand I can wave, but at a time when we are ever more inundated with information, try to remember the crucial difference between knowledge and familiarity. Always be on guard against letting your familiarity with a product, service, company or person get in the way of acquiring knowledge of how they can, or can’t, help you and your business, or how you can help them.

Remember acquiring knowledge takes both time and a willingness to learn and ask questions, as well as a spirit of openness for new things. Listen to experts,  but don’t let their knowledge (or mere familiarity) of a product or technology combined with only a passing familiarity with your business be confused with actual knowledge about how a product or technology might best be used for you and your company.

Do you have any good examples contrasting familiarity and knowledge? -t

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  1. #1 by dave on 2013/02/19 - 21:37

    Having this discussion with colleagues, I suggest your article is based on a false premise – and that is the understanding of the word “familiarity”, which seems to have been bastardised by loose usage to mean “a cursory understanding”. It is the complete opposite. Knowledge is just knowledge. Familiarity, is an extensive knowledge, an intimate knowledge, and even implies a long standing applied knowledge of a topic, person or thing. I can get knowledge from a book, the web, another person. I can only attain familiarity, through a longstanding and diligent study or application of knowledge. A student may gain knowledge of a subject, a teacher or professor has familiarity, which is defined as a close relationship or intimacy with something (or someone). From the word roots, we can see that Knowledge and Familiarity essentially mean the SAME thing, however the modern definition would place Familiarity as something more substantial than knowledge – not less. However, many see it as the opposite, so perhaps the definition needs changing…..

    If you re-read your article above and substitute knowledge of for familiarity with and vice-verse, then see how it sounds?

    Too many people and companies mistake knowledge for familiarity. A while back I was working with a CIO, whom I’ll call Ray, and realized that while he had knowledge of several technologies, he had no familiarity with them or how they could help transform the business.

    Being knowing about a product is one thing – but actually being familiar with its true capabilities and how it can or can’t help your organization is another thing altogether. There has never been more information so readily available to so many people. Literally any piece of information is now a few keystrokes or finger swipes away. But information so easily gleaned doesn’t give familiarity.

    etc.
    Remember acquiring familiarity takes both time and a willingness to learn and ask questions, as well as a spirit of openness for new things. Listen to experts, but don’t let their familiarity (or mere knowledge) of a product or technology combined with only a passing knowledge of your business become confused with familiarity of how a product or technology might best be used for you and your company.

  2. #2 by Thom on 2013/02/20 - 18:19

    Dave, an interesting perspective. Words evolve over time and if someone tells me they are familiar with something – I take it to mean they know about it but aren’t subject matter experts in it or on it. But if they say they are knowledgeable – I would understand that they have a significant level of expertise.

    While the definitions of the words and their current use in the vernacular may be up for debate, I think the larger point still stands.

    There is a significant difference between have a cursory level of information about something and being deeply aware of something capabilities or configuration. And the point I was trying to make is far too many people are making decisions with outdated information or information that is insufficient. This is especially true with consultants who may know a lot about something but may not know as much about your business, and therefore their recommendations should be considered in that spirit.

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