What to Do Instead of Building a Knowledge Base
The Downside of Documentation
For the last seven years, I’ve worked with a fairly complicated work product. Ramp time on new employees can take a whole year, and even the most senior team members run into frequent questions that require help.
This has led to constant attempts to improve our documentation so that knowledge can be transferred effectively and we can all stop “bothering” more seasoned employees.
The first couple of times around, I jumped on the documentation train. It usually went something like this:
Four meetings to discuss the value of documentation and determine correct format (Intranet? Manual? Playbook?)
Fight over who was responsible for said documentation work (usually without real resolution)
Half hearted attempt at documentation before getting completely pushed aside in favor of actually doing the work (not writing about it)
This led to detritus of hard to find, wildly out of date articles on product or processes that no longer existed.
I stopped attending the meetings.
This didn’t change the problem; it just made me believe that there was a different, more elegant approach. It is a human-powered approach.
Google is out to prove me wrong (and maybe one day will!), but humans are infinitely better than documentation at helping get to an answer because they understand the context and are dynamic.
Real Life: Case Study for the Power of the Network
Let me give some examples from my own life.
My phone, like basically every other piece of technology in my life, came with a manual, which I probably threw away immediately without opening. When I have phone trouble, I have zero desire to look in my (now trashed) manual. Instead, I ask my more tech-savvy boyfriend and in less than 1 minute my issue is gone. Highly efficient.
But let’s say I run into a problem with my heater. Here my boyfriend would be basically useless, so I call my dad. Boom. Problem solved.
And then I’m not sure what side dish would go best with the french dip sliders I’m making for book club, and my mom sends me over a great spinach and apple salad recipe.
All of these people are part of my network, and I can call upon them for help when I run into challenges.
Promoting a Network Approach to Knowledge Transfer
So what do you need to make this a reality in the workplace and improve the efficiency of all of your employees?
Here is the secret sauce.
I don’t stress about asking my dad to help me fix my heater because I know him and I know he will help me, but I wouldn’t reach out to the cashier at the bodega for his help, even if I thought he was capable.
People are more comfortable showing vulnerability with someone they have a personal relationship with. I just hired a new team of very young employees, and they nicely demonstrate this. One of them was feeling poorly and asked another member what the policy is for sick leave. He didn’t go to our HR business partner, because he doesn’t know her. He went to his friend, whom he felt comfortable with.
How to do it: As a company, you should put effort into fostering social connections among your people. This is the best way to increase the number of connections in your network. Information travels along those networks.
Culture of sharing
Every day, you share information with those you are close to. It probably doesn’t even feel like a burden to you. In many relationships, mutual information sharing is just a part of the dynamic.
So why do people at work feel so put-upon when others seek their help?
Oftentimes, it is because the burden of information transfer exists within too small of a group, which can lead to burnout. People can only give so much; the dynamic is rarely balanced and the sharing is not mutual.
For this to be sustainable, you need to create a culture where everyone is expected to share what they can. Empower people to be experts, and don’t allow them to view this as a bother.
How to do it: Spread the responsibility out. If you are the leader, you might feel like it is your job to answer all of the questions, which can quickly become exhausting. Next time you are asked, feel empowered to say, “I actually think you should go to Erin on this. She just did this the other day and can walk you through it.”
My personal network is great, because I know who to go to with what type of question. This prevents me from unnecessarily asking the wrong people and also ensures I get good advice.
With the scale in a workplace, this won’t always be possible. You can’t expect all of your employees to instinctively know where they should go with issues. It is worth establishing dedicated pathways for your most common types of requests. The pathway should be a direct line of communication to your experts.
How to do it: At my work, we created unique email groups for our most frequent types of questions/issues. Oh, you ran into a site issue? Email bugs@....
I think lots of companies skimp on hiring people to be “super-connectors.” I’ve worked in environments where there isn’t any expertise to draw upon. A company I worked for was acquired a while back.
The transition was tough and we had no one to guide us through the process. They didn’t have anyone dedicated to just be a go-to when things came up.
In my eyes, the super-connector is the operator of the system. They might not be the experts, but they know the experts. They have the personal relationship and can act as a bridge.
Oftentimes, this person is your middle manager, but that isn’t always sufficient.
How to do it: Invest in people in your network who have the specific responsibility of facilitating connections. This is especially necessary for certain populations, such as your brand new class of employees.
DISCLAIMER: I am not against the idea of documentation, per se, I just don’t think it is the panacea it is made out to be.