Today’s post is written by guest blogger, Frank Caron. Frank is a 10 year knowledge management vet. His career in tech writing and knowledge management has spanned from start-ups to massive orgs, and he regularly consults on and speaks about knowledge management best practices among other less-useful things. Find him on LinkedIn here.
The information age is no longer a novel tomorrow; it’s firmly our collective today. To that end, the vast majority of this age’s employees, across industries and verticals, are knowledge workers. Their output is not a physical product but rather a brokerage of knowledge, data, or insight.
And yet, though we’ve been living and breathing knowledge and data for years now, many companies remain ill-equipped to deal with the challenges that accompany this new world of work.
If you think about traditional companies with traditional assets like cash, bonds, or real estate, you’d be hard-pressed to find everyday examples where strong companies mismanaged assets.
Few great financial companies of old hid money under the mattress; rather, they invested and diversified to yield returns. Few great agencies and firms sat on burdensome real estate; rather, they bought and sold and expanded and contracted to address the bottom line. And few great merchandise companies sat on product or accepted inefficient processes; rather, they refined and relaunched to address the market’s wants.
So why then do so few great knowledge-based companies treat their knowledge as the asset that it is?
This is a question I’ve struggled with for my entire career, and one which I’ve been trying to help companies address in recent years.
In my experience, modern companies treat knowledge as a second-class citizen. In the ongoing war for product and talent, knowledge has fallen by the wayside, to most companies’ detriment. And while the costs therein may not be as readily visible on the ledger as are other profit and loss metrics, poor knowledge management is as much a liability to the business as would be putting your entire leadership team on an aging propeller plane over the Atlantic in a thunderstorm.
This is, of course, because knowledge management is generally viewed as unsexy; it’s much like accounting: all business leaders know they need it, but few want to be the ones to own and solve for it. I think that’s because they don’t know how to execute a strategy around knowledge management nor can they quantify the ROI expected thereafter.
So what do we do, and what do we get out of it? Those are the questions we’re going to answer in this, the first of a two-part guest blog post series on #InTheLoop.
The Secret of Legend
There’s one sure-fire way to ensure that your company succeeds in both keeping and using its key knowledge: write it down.
Yep, that’s it. Blog post over. You’re welcome. No autographs or flash photography, please.
Facetious though my delivery may be, that really is the critical endeavor. Writing down and organizing your information is 95% of the battle.
With information neatly archived and categorized, there are two major benefits that are immediately realized:
- Your organization no longer has liability sitting inside the head of your talent, who are increasingly willing to leave your organization when something new and shiny comes along, which it will.
- Your organization will begin to have fewer cross-team communication issues.
As a business leader, the ROI of the “write it down” activity when framed in those terms should become immediately palpable, particularly in our current climate. People are leaving jobs faster than ever, and with the increasing pace of work, the age-old problem of cross-team communication is an age-old problem now exacerbated by the rise of digital and geographically-distributed teams.
Write Stuff Down… Properly and Organically
So how exactly do you action “write it down”? Do you simply ask everyone to literally write things down and enforce that no product or service can be delivered to market without that box being checked and vetted?
No. Instituting rigorous process like that will only add what your employees will instinctively see as “overhead”; and, even if they somehow get over that generally-insurmountable hurdle, simply having every employee write everything they do down will inevitably lead to something “data lake”-like which becomes mostly useless when it’s needed.
The trick to making that simple task work is to enable the business to do so properly and organically in a manner congruent with their business function.
Generally speaking, success in this endeavor looks like enabling the business function with tools that persist information naturally while primarily streamlining a natural business process. Consider the following:
- SalesForce or RelateIQ for Sales and Relationship knowledge
- Qvidian or Loopio for Pre-sales and RFP/RFI knowledge
- Zendesk or Desk for Customer Service and End-user FAQs
- JIRA or Pivotal Tracker for Product Development, Issue Tracking, and IT/Ops Auditing
- Slack or Hipchat for intra-team communication
- Google Drive or Dropbox for sharing large files
These are all examples of tools that provide excellent baked-in ways to have your business produce documentation, and to capture knowledge, without any needless overhead. With these types of aides in place, you’ll be generating key documentation without anyone touching a dreaded wiki or, worse, a revision-less, uncontrolled shared file server. Yuck.
If you already have these kinds of systems in place, then you’re off to a good start.
Empower The Org
Once you’ve baked in the process for capturing knowledge, or even if you already have those systems in place, there’s one more critical aspect that you need to invest in which you surely haven’t yet. I call them shepherds.
Inevitably, your systems will begin collecting data from disparate sources in the organization, and each team will know its own info best. As cross-team collaboration evolves to leverage the info in these tools for answers, there will come the need to ensure two things:
- The information in the systems is relevant, accurate, and up-to-date.
- There is only one single source of truth for any one data point.
Many companies have tried to appoint a single person for this role: a tech writer, an information clerk, or what have you. But in an organization of today’s world which evolves, and needs to evolve, with great and unending agility, that simply doesn’t scale.
Instead, employ the help of “shepherds”: people in the organization who hail from each function, are generally OCD about organization, and who can represent their team and shepherd their team’s data into green pastures of relevance, accuracy, and reliability.
Embrace The Push Back
Unless you have some strong knowledge management folk in your organization already, you will inevitably get some push back on this approach, particularly if you try to assign shepherds in each department. After all, this is net new and strange work with no obvious added benefit to those who haven’t participated in this kind of initiative before.
The key to uptake, then, is to communicate the same value prop to the business; make it a priority, a company goal. Integrate the process as you would a new company benefit program or major project. Give it top billing at a town hall. Make it central to bonuses. Integrate it directly into the company’s operations.
Every time I do this, I like to integrate it into the company’s culture. At one company, I invented a mascot and told an entertaining story, intertwined in actual company events, which sold in the value prop in a way that wasn’t so cut and dry. In another company, I demonstrated the value of the tool by way of a functional intra-office ping pong leaderboard example. In yet another, we were able to tie bonuses to participation.
Ultimately, establishing buy in can be easy, providing you treat the process as part of an essential business process. Don’t make it as painful as expense filing, but do make it as necessary.
Reap The ROI
With organic processes capturing data your teams are producing anyway, and with a few shepherds to help your organize lead itself to success, it’s very easy to start realizing some immediate return on your knowledge management investment.
People can start taking vacations more frequently. Departing employees, and more importantly those taking over for them, won’t be so overburdened with brain dumps and won’t be as acutely missed when questions are raised. Teams won’t struggle to get key info from key people who aren’t immediately accessible to them.
Your company’s knowledge is an asset, and once you treat it as such, you’ll begin to see just how valuable that asset is.
And when you can optimize your organization around that knowledge thereafter, the gains can be even more significant—but that’s the opportunity we’ll explore in the second part of the series.