Institutional Knowledge and the rise of SharePoint and Wikis
How an organization stores institutional knowledge is a major challenge within any company. At Deep Core, we’ve used a number of different techniques internally, and we’ve deployed a number of techniques for our customers. The dreaded question of “how do we do this?” is a common problem in any firm and now there are technologies to help retain a “company knowledge base” that just doesn’t walk out the door one day. I wanted to take some time to review some of the major factors and considerations we regularly encounter.
Go Ask Janet
I don’t know a hard percentage of how much of any given organization’s knowledge is locked up in the heads of employees and not written down anywhere, but I’m willing to bet it’s alarming. This is especially true in a small company where a single person may be the keeper of all secrets. Regardless though, most of the time when an employee needs to know something that isn’t directly their area of expertise, they’ll ask around, wandering the building like an info hungry vacuum. Whether by walking over, calling or an email, the most direct path to getting the information you need is find somebody who knows…usually named Janet. This is fine until Janet decides she wants to change careers and become a rodeo clown.
Calls on Vacation
The problem with the “Go Ask Janet” approach, of course, is that human beings aren’t always available. Sometimes they’re away from their desk, sometimes they’re just gone to Bermuda, hopefully returning. Even in our always-on society, people don’t always like to be reached. When the person who knows isn’t available, for whatever reason, we need a place to get the most critical bits of their knowledge. Often a vacationing employee who has key knowledge can provide an object lesson. Perhaps it is time to have a receptacle of common knowledge, a company bible per se. However, what form should this bible take?
Systems of Record
Sometimes what you’re looking for is well-formatted data, like “What was Check 481221 for?” or “How many days of PTO days does Janet have left this year?” Then it might be obvious what system to query to get that information, such as an accounting or timekeeping system. A lot of information, though, is less-well structured.
Policies and procedures are a classic example. If a customer service representative needs to know if they’re allowed to offer a discount to a customer, where do they look that up? If a shipping clerk needs to know what service to send an RMA device by, where do they look that up? If a salesperson needs to know how much flex they have on the price list to land a deal with a new customer, how do they figure that out? The answer in all of these cases is that the company probably has a policy about what it needs to do in that circumstance. Policies are how management communicates the way it wants particular situations to be handled, so having them readily available to the people who need them is in the best interests of all but the most enthusiastic micromanagers. So how do you distribute these? Let’s look at some options.
Most systems that handle documents like policies write-ups, incident reports, and the like currently brand themselves as Collaboration Tools. Microsoft has Sharepoint, Google has GoogleDrive, and DropBox has, well, Dropbox. In addition, some companies use internal solutions, which are sometimes as simple as a shared network drive with documents organized into folders, to on-premise or cloud-based Wikis that users can log into on the fly.
Choosing A Solution
I’ll start this section by saying that the solution that employees actually use is usually the best solution. Especially in small organizations, asking people what they are comfortable with is often best. Something that your users are already used to greatly speeds implementation.
Even starting from no infrastructure at all, deploying a knowledge repository is usually pretty inexpensive. A MediaWiki (the engine Wikipedia uses) can be hosted for only a few dollars a month even without any pre-existing infrastructure. Customers who use Microsoft or Google for their email may (depending on their subscription level) get some or all of those company’s offerings for free. All in all, even a brand-new solution should only cost a few dollars per user per month, and might be considerably less than that.
The most feature-rich repositories you might use are often the most expensive and most complicated, so you might want to think about what you’re actually going to use before you jump directly to spending a few hundred dollars a month on licenses.
Although you can list bells and whistles until the cows come home, we’ve found there are three major features customers seems to care about:
Some repositories (especially free ones) are wide-open, publicly readable websites. While these can work for some organizations, most companies will at least want to make sure only employees and other authorized persons can log in to the site.
In addition, some organizations will want to sub-divide permissions, so that some files (for instance, customer-specific notes or internal HR policies) are only accessible to some employees. Almost all collaboration tools have some way to segment permissions, but some do it more easily than others. Also, if you want to grant permissions using existing accounts (like using a Microsoft Online or Google account), you’ll need to choose a solution that supports that.
Some systems allow you to throw anything in them. Network folders will accept basically any file, while some Wikis will only allow you to upload images to embed them in pages. Web-based solutions will often let you view some, but not all types of document files. This is especially true if your industry has specific programs that don’t just use regular documents and spreadsheets.
Making sure you can store the information you need is critical and finding out after the fact that something won’t work is a big, big problem.
What you need to edit the contents of the knowledge base is also a major consideration. Whereas a network folder basically requires you to have a program to open anything on it, a Wiki usually lets you edit page you have permission to right in your web browser. Other tools tend to allow you to edit some content in the browser, and requires you to download other content to view or edit it.
Once you’ve found something that has the major deal-breaker features you need, then you can start taking a look at other things. Revision history? That’s very handy for a lot of documents and policies. Built-in backups? That takes a worry off your plate. Two Factor Authentication? If this has all of our secrets in it, we probably want that kind of protection.
There are a huge number of reasons to maintain a company knowledge base of some kind, but it’s important to make sure what you have works for your organization.
At Deep Core, we can help guide you not only in selecting a solution, but also in getting it setup, hosted, populated, and a reliable part of your company. Give us a call to discuss what options are right for your business…especially before Janet decides to take a sabbatical.
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