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I have a senior colleague with a lot of insider knowledge. He has too much information to write down at one time so I make documentation as I come across issues that require his attention.

He's been at one of our satellite offices for a long time due to some projects he's assigned to, but he's the only person I can go to for certain things. Sometimes he responds to emails instantly and other times he never responds to me at all. When something is really critical I will call him, but I don't like doing that often for several reasons.

  • He has a bit of an accent which makes it hard to understand what he says sometimes.
  • I like a paper trail and email makes it easy to reference exactly what he said and when.
  • Some technical information is just better served over email like file paths, console commands, etc.

I don't want to go to our shared boss because I hate being seen as "telling" on my colleague.

How can I get my colleague to answer my questions in a timely manner, with a paper trail?

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How can I get my colleague to answer my questions in a timely manner, with a paper trail?

You cannot, unless helping you by sharing information is part of their responsibility.

In other words:

  • If you're looking for additional help / guidance because of your colleague's knowledge, then you are requesting for help and you cannot demand it. You have to follow up and get the help you need.
  • If you're looking for piece of information only your colleague can provide you with and your colleague is to work with you officially to get things done, you can set a clear deadline for the expected response in the email. If you do not receive a response while 2/3rd. of the time has passed, send a reminder, keeping your boss / supervisor in the communication to keep them updated.

Whatever the scenario is, some general tips for asking question which are likely to be responded:

  • Be precise and clear on the ask.
    • If the ask is to define / describe something small, expect a written response.
    • If the answer is expected to be broad, suggest to have a meeting / conference call.
  • Do your research first, before reaching out.
  • Show what you have done/ tried already, how it failed and your analysis on this. It can be as simple as searching the document repository and not finding the related document, as complex as creating a mockup and failing to integrate with certain interface. Basically the motto is "Show, don't just tell."

Basically, you need to ensure that your college is interested in helping you.

  • Another reason to give a deadline is that you'll 'train' him to expect an urgent phone call near that time, giving him an incentive to deal with the problem before a call becomes necessary. – Robin Bennett Nov 11 at 13:47
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First, discuss it with this colleague, although you might prefer email, he might prefer calling. So discuss what is a good way to communicate.

If it is really blocking your work and you cant work it out with your colleague you should go to your boss. Tell that it is blocking you, that you are sure that your colleague is really busy but that all the knowledge is with him (and him alone, no documents).

In general it is bad for a company to have all (or much) company/product specific knowledge in one employees mind. It should be quickly documented or shared before he leaves and it is gone forever.

  • +1. By talking to your supervisor, you're not "telling on" anyone. You are asking for advice on how to do your job effectively. – O. Jones Nov 9 at 22:26
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Some more thoughts on that.

A call is quicker to explain something than writing an email. Some people might prefer that.
But a call is immediate. It tears you out of whatever you do and you have to switch into a different subject at once, then try to find back to your own. Your colleague could see an advantage in email for this reason. Explain it that way to him.
If you didn't understand something in a call, write a follow up email explaining you'd like to get that written because then you can read it again.
For the next question, write an email saying "before I still have to ask for a mail again, let's do that per mail right now".

But whatever you do remember he has things to do and hardly wants to leave everything behind at any time if someone interrupts him, perhaps not only you but many others. Eventually it will be made his fault if he doesn't get his things done.
So as someone else also wrote, going to a superior and making his loss of time official is a required step.
If this time is granted then your colleague might want to spend more time in a good answer.
If not, well then you know why he can't change much of his response times and behavior.

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