Paying the Price for Knowledge

Local Bench

There is a story told of the famous engineer Charles Proteus Steinmetz who was instrumental in the making alternating current usable. It goes like this:

[Steinmetz] had worked on a very complex system [at General Electric] that was broken. No one could fix it no matter how hard the technicians tried. So they got Steinmetz back. He traced the systems and found the malfunctioning part and marked it with a piece of chalk

Charles Steinmetz submitted a bill for $10,000 dollar. The General Electric managers were taken back and asked for an itemized invoice.

He sent back the following invoice:

  • Making chalk mark $1
  • Knowing where to place it $9,999

Those of us who are knowledge workers still live in a world that asks questions just like this one “$10,000 that’s a lot of money – all you did was put a piece of chalk on the side of the machine”.

The value of a document is often viewed by the number of pages that it includes.

The value of a presentation is measured on the number of slides that it includes.

The value in an answer that is provided is regularly derived from the amount of time it took to answer the question. If it doesn’t take long to resolve the answer can’t be of much value.

There is often no immediate value in a knowledge worker having the knowledge before the question is asked, because people want to see you ‘working’.

I have just finished reading The Heart of Success by Rob Parsons and he focuses very clearly on being productive rather than spending lots of hours working. The problem is that actually we don’t know how to measure productivity. And because we don’t know how to measure it, we struggle to know how to reward it. we can measure the hours that people work, but we struggle to measure productivity, especially for knowledge workers. Perhaps it’s about time we started applying technology to answering that question.

Lots of statements and questions today, but not many answer so I’ll leave you with another thought from Charles Proteus Steinmetz:

“No man really becomes a fool until he stops asking questions.”

One thought on “Paying the Price for Knowledge”

  1. Like the story – I’d heard an obviously apocryphal version about an IBM engineer. I’ve read quite a few Rob Parsons books and found them excellent. Will have to have a look at this one.
    PS. Found the site via


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