“What You Know” now beats “Who You Know”

This article originally appeared in Forbes on Oct 1, 2012.

The old adage that “it’s not what you know but who you know”
is so entrenched that we don’t question the premise. Undoubtedly, who you know
has been important throughout history, whether in the trade networks of ancient
Greece, or in the dense web of high tech companies in Silicon Valley. A good
network is especially important when capital is scarce, information hoarded,
and when finding the appropriate contacts is difficult. For most of history,
knowing the right people was crucial if you wanted cash and cache.

Who.picassoIn a Harvard Business Review article entitled “How
to Build Your Network
,” Brian Uzzi and Shannon Dunlap contend that “Networks
determine which ideas become breakthroughs, which new drugs are prescribed,
which farmers cultivate pest-resistant crops and which R&D engineers make the
most high-impact discoveries.”  They cite the 1998 work of University of
Pennsylvania sociologist Randall Collins who showed that breakthroughs from
icons such as Freud, Picasso, Watson, Crick, and
Who.PythagorasPythagoras were the
consequence of a particular type of personalnetwork that prompted exceptional
individual creativity. 

But with tools such as LinkedIn and Facebook, the ability to network is becoming
more democratized. If before it was difficult to ferret out the perfect
contact, today finding a right marine biologist in New Zealand or the genetic
researcher in Norway is as easy as a Google search. And social media has made
it even easier to connect with that person.   As for capital, today it is relatively plentiful and accessible, and it is much
easier than ever to get access to people who have it (accessing capital can be
as easy as sending an email).

Who.TEDInformation, too, has been democratized. It used to be that if you wanted to
get access to cutting-edge ideas in technology, you needed an invitation to an
exclusive conference like TED, or to attend a university like MIT. Today, TED
lectures and MIT courses are offered free online. The only barrier to most of
the world’s best information is knowing English.  Because it is so
accessible, public information offers less competitive advantage than

Given our hyper-connected world, could it be that “who you know,” while still
important, matters a little less than in the past? Could it be that “what you
know” carries more weight?
My intuition is that “what you know” has now crossed the line to be more
important … and possibly even MUCH MORE important … than “who you know.”
Like Kurt Vonnegut said in Breakfast for Champions; “new knowledge is
the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the
richer we become.” 

In today’s world, if you know something really compelling, you will be sought
out … and sought out directly. Dorothy will follow the World Wide Web
equivalent of the Yellow Brick Road to come to you. In the past, the people
with connections were gatekeepers who controlled access to the elite circle and
got paid handsomely for that. Today, people that invent interesting things (the
true What-You-Know people) will reap many more rewards than the brokers who
make introductions.  

Even professions such as banking and law are becoming more specialized.
 The lawyer that understands the intricate tax implications of U.S.-Brazil
joint ventures is now much more valuable than the generalist lawyer that
introduces you to that person.   

I’m not saying your network isn’t important – it will just
be less important than it has been in the past. 
Even the Wizard of Oz was looking to network: just before he leaves the
Emerald City he tells Dorothy that he is off “to confer, converse and otherwise
hobnob with my brother wizards.”

In the new world of abundant capital, easy access to information and people
with knowledge, it’s what you know
rather than who you know


Follow Auren Hoffman on Twitter (@auren) and Facebook (aurenh).

40 thoughts on ““What You Know” now beats “Who You Know”

  1. Johanna Hopkins

    Does “What You Know” depend on the profession that you are in? For instance, I’m a nurse and while I do my best to know more than other nurses, I’m not sure my compensation has increased because of it. Where my compensation has increased it is because I know certain doctors or hospital administrators.
    You point seems more valid if I happen to be a nuclear physicist.

  2. Ted Tagami

    I believe knowledge workers know how to leverage LNKD et al to find the right person, but we are still a generation away from What You Know overtaking Who You Know. BTW, nice shout out to US-Brasil JVs. Took our team nearly a year to put one together!

  3. Salil Pradhan

    In a world where information is democratized, and connections are more readily available (I’m still not sure if that is completely true), it’s it more about what you DO with the information/connections?

  4. Jeremy Toeman

    (1) congrats Auren, great piece. but (2) not to be too cynical, but these days it seems to be a bit more of “it’s what you claim to know” that matters…

  5. Jared Genser

    Rings true to me… though part of what you know in terms of knowledge is actually the unseen map of who the key people are to make things happen in the world. Though simple mapping is publicly available, the weighting, emphasis, sequencing is not — and having the credibility b/c of who you know to navigate those pathways matters too.

  6. Lenny Raymond

    Nice piece. I would go even farther. In a world where it’s easier than ever to get to whoever you want, easier to become an “expert” (by historical standards) on anything, and easier to get capital, what really counts is what you DO. When asked by people just starting out “how to network” I say “Don’t. Just do interesting things and be useful.” When you do that, the “networking” takes care of itself, you wind up knowing valuable stuff in depth as a by-product, and have demonstrated the ability to get things done, which makes the whole thing into a virtuous cycle.

  7. Dmitri Mehlhorn

    there’s a lot of truth to your piece but unfortunately it applies mostly to the meritocratic, transparent markets such as the Silicon Valley / VC community. How much does “who you know” matter in business in Venezuela, or Iran, or Russia and China? And as the state expands in the West and lobbying expenditures skyrocket, doesn’t “who you know” become more important here too?

  8. Nick Maier

    It’s not only what you know, but what you DO with the information. For example, people that understand economics know that the deficits that we are running in this country will eventually destroy the currency. Yet how many people are protecting their capital and preparing for a very difficult situation? Very few.

  9. Joe Schoendorf

    this is simply wrong. The missing word is trust. Who do you know that really trusts you. What do you know that you trust. Trust is really the key word. In the long term Trust is gold

  10. Zeke Wimert

    When it comes to business money decisions, it is always who you know and your relationship to the person who makes the money decisions. Without the knowledge, there is no deal, but even with great and valuable knowledge, if you do not know the person who makes the financial decisions you need to utilize that knowledge, you go nowhere.

  11. Tania

    I think it depends on where one is geographically. For eg, If one was in Silicon Valley, what you know becomes important. However in Ghana, West Africa, who you know is still very important especially in terms of business networks, politics, favors etc to get ahead in life.

  12. Laurie Yoler

    I would assert that it is being able to clearly and effectively articulate and share what you know that is particularly valuable. Look at TED. It takes obscure scientists, academics, artists and technologists and — if they can communicate effectively — allows them to inspire millions of people all over the world. Otherwise, they might remain buried in their labs/studios/offices, and never have the chance to change the world.

  13. gary howell

    Could not agree more—knowledge is power. In fact, I believe I saw this same example in the debates last night. One candidate was much more factual than the other. Even in politics, the silver tongued orator must have some command of facts, not theories.

  14. Thomas Laussermair

    Generally agreed, it’s what you know and what you DO with it that can put you on the map and on the path to success. Furthermore, since modern computing tools have become so powerful and resources so cheap, one or a few individuals (Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg) with clever ideas can create enormous impact and wealth (Google, Facebook). However, the low barrier to entry (for example to write a Blog) also means that your ideas and actions are competing with a very large number of others for finite attention. Attention inequality is huge – much bigger than income or wealth inequality – and getting bigger still. I’m afraid this is a systemic problem. (If you’re interested in numbers, I did a Twitter analysis here: http://visualign.wordpress.com/2011/12/06/inequality-on-twitter/ )

  15. Yann Lechelle

    Interesting theory. Problem is, knowing more than most in anything is getting harder and harder as well, and polymaths are a dying breed.
    Could it be that a potent mix of the who you know & what you know & how much of both (or little of either) you expose creates the best return?
    My feeling is that there is dynamicity in the mix.

  16. Brian Allman

    Thanks for sharing your article, interesting topic and nicely done. I would add or change your original positioning statement:
    You say,
    The old adage that “it’s not what you know but who you know”
    in reality I believe the difference is not who you know but WHO KNOWS YOU!

  17. Tjsassani

    Very insightful as always, Auren. I agree on the singular point when considered as the only two options, and further present that these things (and others) are all inextricably linked at their core – one has a hard time existing (perhaps cannot) without the other. They even perhaps have a direct and bi-directional cause/effect relationship – either you have knowledge and then expand your network as a result of being credible (authority leading to social proof), or have a great network and therefore learn from the experienced people around you (social proof leading to authority).
    I believe that young entrepreneurs often misinterpret what is behind success. I’m often asked….is it ideas, team, smarts, money, connections, knowledge, timing, luck? The answer is YUP – it’s all these things and it’s very hard to succeed if you are missing even a single one of these key ingredients. I, however, argue that the single most important critical element is simply perseverance (at least for me, it’s been true). Consider the “Gold Rush Challenge”, where during the Gold Rush, most gold miners simply stopped just feet, even inches, from huge veins of gold after being discouraged by continued adversity. Similarly, how many entrepreneurs stop just short of achieving that turning point, that magical moment where all the momenta shifts in one’s direction. How many entrepreneurs, caught up in the sexy, in vogue “pivot” that somehow has seemed to become a measure of success in and of itself, shift directions too soon, or too often? Perseverance in the face of certain defeat drives us to the point of momentum, and Sun Tzu will tell us that warfare is all about momenta – if you are strong, go out, if you are weak, go home.
    In summary, there are plenty of smart people in this world who do nothing with their knowledge.

  18. Cbacosta

    I would argue the dissemination of knowledge is now so frictionless that knowledge capital has suffered a devaluation as a currency. Put simply, good ideas are a dime a dozen, execution is everything – and that depends to a large extent on who know you (fundraising, hiring, sales, etc). I also think geographic location plays a role in how frictionless knowledge dissemination can be – ideas move much more slowly, and concentrate in certain circles more, on the East Coast vs. the West Coast. Culture, the norms and practices a group of people abide by, plays a big role.

  19. Drkezirian

    Auren, a great post again–and outstanding comments as well. Even in fields that depend the most on knowledge, a network seems key to attain a certain level, with more knowledge enabling you to take the next step. At that point, knowledge and execution come into play. Many of the comments have added subtleties to your initial hypothesis. I would tweak it slightly to propose that it is more “Who knows what you know” that matters most.

  20. amaliahoffman

    I still think that the nature of the beast is such that we gravitate towards the safe & familiar. When people select a doctor, lawyer, realtor etc. they usually ask for recommendations and will select someone who someone already knew. Same is usually true in selecting merchandise, we tend to buy what someone else that we know already bought.But,what changed is the ability to know how to be known through social networking, websites and online promotion.

  21. BillB

    I’m a retired Toolmaker. I’ve stressed this point with many of my apprentices. Back then the UPS driver was earning more than double my salary. I could always do his job, but he could never do mine. I and my spprentices are in demand today

  22. Will S.

    It is and alway be “who you know”. Who you know gets you the opportunity to let the right people know “what you know”.

  23. Jeff Walker

    I wouldn’t completely agree with your point. I still think that there are way too many silos of knowledge and that a key skill is to know how to deeply connect and form tight partnerships (multi-stakeholders) to work on the big hairy issues of our day. I would argue that it isn’t access to the information that is hard…that is pretty easy…it is ways to get individuals/local governments/multi-laterals/politicians/the UN/foundations to work together for common cause (like we did when we set up the Malaria collaborations). Each of these collaborations requires having deep personal, walls down, trusting, managed ego relationships with individuals in each of the key stakeholder groups. Going deeper with who you know is key!!
    Jeff Walker

  24. Gligor Tashkovich

    I have probably one of the strongest networks on LinkedIn — since I joined at the beginning back in 2004 and well over 99.5% of my contacts are people whom I have met personally. There are now over 2,800 first degree connections encompassing a network of 10% of the worldwide LinkedIn membership..
    Your points are well-taken but I would suggest that there is an inherent bias to them. You are easily one of the most connected people in the world and you sit in an environment where everyone also seems hyper-connected. But start travelling around the world and you’ll see how far there is still to go. Well under 25% of the world has/uses/can afford internet access. (Yes, I know the Internet covers almost every country — but that’s not my point.) There is still a long way to go and it seems premature to state that the end of networking is nigh until we are closer to at least 75% connectivity.

  25. Brian Whetten

    Hi Auren,
    Great article!
    I think “what you know” is quickly becoming commoditized as well. The question that matters is “what value can you create – and for who, with what needs?”
    For example, in the self-help industry, information is fast becoming free. What people want is TRANSFORMATION – support in moving from where they’re at, to where they want to be. That’s value. That’s what people pay for. – Brian

  26. Bill Raduchel

    Information has been democratized but trust has not. If anything, the need for trust has increased. And trust is all about who you know. We know people hate to make a mistake more than then enjoy a success. All my career I have watched people pick the suboptimal but low variance choice because of that. Your logic is impeccable but it assumes veracity. Finding a name and engaging in a meaningful conversation are very different. The very success of LinkedIn says that who you know is still very, very important.

  27. Evangelos Simoudis

    Interesting thesis. The democratization of education through online sources along with all the available social sources, e.g., blogs, provide a good database for the hyper connected population to expand their learning. Unfortunately, as I’m seeing in modern Greece, people while well-informed and rather well-educated lack the know-how that will enable them to really move forward. I don’t know what is the right combination of who you know and what you know but I know that they have to be together. Every time I’ve seen people favor one over the other there is failure of some type.

  28. George Scalise

    I believe the Silicon Valley has been largely driven by “what you know” and “who you know” helped to speed up the candidate selection process. Today the selection process is mired in endless interviews that seems to be more intent on a formula driven selection process. I wonder sometimes if we are too focused on which school and which degree is on your resume and too little or no regard for ones demonstrated ability to solve problems.

  29. Bill Kaplan

    Fun thesis and nice to see you got Forbes to pick it up. Did you send it blind to someone there or did you have a contact? 😉

  30. Auren Hoffman

    Forbes sometimes republishes my blog articles if they feel it is the right fit for their readers. I love it when they do because I hear from lots of different types of people that I don’t normally get to meet (they have a broad and intelligent audience).

  31. Tim

    Thought provoking post, thanks for sharing. While the adage is clever and oft repeated, my sense is that what you know has always been more important, but who you know is a crucial accelerant. I agree with your thesis that it has undoubtably become easier to connect with the “right” people. This is certainly changing the dynamics (and economics) of success. It is worth considering the importance of these new networking tools and the inherent advantage of those who have access and understand how to use them.

  32. Mark Richards MD

    Humans evolved as super predators because of our unique cortical brain development that allowed cold blooded killers to socialize. It was a huge evolutionary advantage for us to cooperate and thus dominate the larger and faster creatures as well as the vagaries of the elements.
    It was always a combination of who you know and what you know since the beginning of human time. The relative importance of each waxes and wanes at any moment. And, the two are very closely related because those who “know” or have deep knowledge are very popular as their knowledge is a tool others can use for success. The internet has allowed more people to access the people with specific knowledge than at any other time in history. The result should be unparalleled innovation and productivity… which will be required to sustain 10 billion plus people on the planet without a massive extinction event!

  33. Robert Fulton

    One of the difficulties of such democratization is sorting the valuable information from the bad, the misleading or just plain wrong – perhaps then networks of trusted connections will be even more vital to sort out the wheat from the chaff: “who can you trust”.
    I was also struck by a comment from a colleague whom I have always regarded as an active and highly effective ‘networker’ who explained to me that “who knows you” has always been a better question than “who you know”.

  34. Auren Hoffman

    George: thanks for reading this blog! For readers who don’t know, George Scalise is a legend in Silicon Valley and one its founders and promoters.

  35. epirot ludvik nekaj

    very well laid out Auren. disruptive thinking process is required today in order to keep in the competitive edge and innovate. I’d love to invite you to look at our new thinking process here http://www.crowdsourcingweek.com
    the question is: when will you disrupt yourself before it’s too late?
    cheers and thx for an awesome post.

  36. Andrew Stein

    Excellent post – makes me think of 5 Ws & 1 H. Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.
    For me, the proverbial third leg of the tripod is “how.” As in, how we think. I believe how is as critical as any other metric (such as who and what i.e., we know these 2734 people or we know these 5 programming languages).
    Angelos Simoudis’ comment refers to the how as “Know-how to move forward.” Tjsassani’s comment calls it “perseverance” to continue on. And, Brian Whetten’s comment refers to it as “value you create.” These are all forward looking “how you think” metrics.
    Perhaps this is what Kurt Vonnegut was referring to as “New Knowledge.” Not what and who we know from the past, but an indication about “How We Think” which in turn tells what we can do in the future.
    Seems that as we continue to measure people based on their “what” and “who” past indicators alone, we miss the forward-looking “how one thinks” metric, which in the end (if you are HR, or a hiring manager, or…) is all that really matters.

  37. Pingback: What-You-Know now beats Who-You-Know | Summation

Leave a Reply