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Knowledge Management 101: A Guide for Managers

Every organization accumulates explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge. Learn everything you need to know about knowledge management (+5 tips for getting started).

Knowledge Management 101

There are a number of strategies that managers can use to build happy, productive teams. Much of that begins with the manager themselves, like being a better communicator, respecting autonomy and testing the utilization of progressive policies that are favored by modern and dynamic companies. But once you have built and delivered a personal philosophy that you believe will enable your team to be successful, you can now turn to the toolkit that arms the employee with the things that enable success. Most notably, for knowledge workers, its access to knowledge (it’s right in the name!).

What is Knowledge Management?

According to Tom Davenport, Knowledge Management is the process of capturing, distributing, and effectively using knowledge. This succinct definition captures the essence of the three main functions of knowledge management. But before you can manage knowledge, you need to know what kind of knowledge exists within your organization.   

Knowledge Management is the process of capturing, distributing, and effectively using knowledge.

– Tom Davenport

Every organization accumulates explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge. Explicit knowledge can be recorded and structured into an organizational knowledge tool such as a knowledge base or documentation. Employees can access it, reuse it, and collaborate with it. On the other hand, tacit knowledge is the knowledge you keep in your head, and you can conjure up at will. As they say, it’s what we know that we don’t know. 

With this in mind, it’s not the volume, format or availability of tacit knowledge that makes it problematic but rather, the accessibility of the information. While changing habits is almost impossible (especially in mature companies), creating good habits from onboarding is achievable—that’s why creating a culture around knowledge sharing and documentation is critical for success. Gitlab, an all-remote company, famously coined the term “handbook-first” and acts as a great role model for a company that lives and breathes through documenting and codifying internal knowledge.

“It’s really key in onboarding that we train people to look first in the handbook and to adopt this practice of self-service and self-learning, which is very counterintuitive if you’re used to tapping someone on the shoulder to fill in any knowledge gaps that you have. We’re very upfront about what it’s going to be like and you’re going to have to write a lot when you get here, but you learn that this creates massive efficiencies, the more that’s written down, the less you have to re-answer.”

Darren Murph, Gitlab’s Head of Remote during an interview with Fellow.app.

Capturing the Knowledge

To enjoy the fruitful nature of a documentation-first culture, you’ll need to begin your knowledge management journey with a focus on how to capture knowledge in physical and digital forms. 

Let’s begin with capturing explicit knowledge, which includes: documents, code, manuals, websites, videos, presentations, procedures, and so on.  

The knowledge capture process requires an awareness about what knowledge will have value for the team within the scope of daily work, and furthermore, to continuously add and update your repository to increase trust in documentation as a source of self-support. 

Your team needn’t brush up on their Shakespearean prose—in many cases cut-and-paste snippets can be just as powerful and have tremendous value without any editing required. Choosing tools with a dedicated knowledge format for FAQs (or any text snippet, really) can accelerate capture and grow your repository of explicit knowledge at breakneck speed. As for tacit knowledge, you can create open spaces for communication and discussions: like Slack channels or random Zoom meetings designed to elicit conversations that inspire employees and hash out ideas that would otherwise never happen.

Capturing knowledge at work, directly from within Slack

Don’t forget, knowledge capture means keeping it up to date too! One thing is for sure, very little knowledge remains static forever. Policies change, strategies are modified and products are iterated. Be prepared to build a maintenance schedule for your knowledge to preserve it’s quality.

Distributing the Knowledge

There are three core components to the distribution of organizational knowledge: search, sharing and storage. 

The distribution begins with recording explicit knowledge in a knowledge base (storage). While there are numerous commercial-grade tools, small teams often begin with a cloud-based collaborative word-processor (such as Google Docs). There’s nothing wrong with starting this way, the main challenge is that it doesn’t scale well. While it does have its challenges, Google Drive is a serviceable search and access portal for the documentation. It has collaborative functions and some version control features which are required for a proper knowledge base solution, but it is optimized for a wider variety of use cases, which works against it from a scaling perspective. Eventually, organizations will have to choose a dedicated knowledge management tool that offers a more comprehensive suite of tools like analytics and workflow integrations.

51% of employees avoid sharing documents because they can’t find them or it would take too long to do so

– Igloo State of the Digital Workplace Study 2020

One of the most common, productivity-inhibiting issues in organizations of all sizes is that knowledge gets distributed among a number of silos, which makes it difficult to find. Silos are more prominent in smaller organizations where employees tend to have more freedom in choosing the tools in their tech-stack. In larger organizations, silos still exist, but they are often segmented by SBU-specific use-cases. Silos create confusion as to where knowledge exists and a lack of trust in the knowledge base, which is counterproductive to the documentation-first culture.

According to a recent study, 51% of employees avoid sharing documents because they can’t find them or it would take too long to do so. This can be resolved by either eliminating silos (often very difficult to do), or by improving search tools. In siloed knowledge environments, knowledge managers often refer to what is known as a single-source of truth for their knowledge base. This can either refer to a unified or connected repository, or it can refer to a cross-silo search capability that effectively improves the search experience by enabling a single search query rather than repeated searches in multiple repositories.

Sharing of knowledge commonly occurs in modern communication tools, like Slack. Within a tool like Slack, one could directly share knowledge with a team member, or they can distribute it widely, say, in a channel to all subscribed members. This injects knowledge into a conversation so that it has the opportunity to be absorbed as tacit knowledge. Because it is recorded within this medium, it is effectively documented as explicit knowledge as well.

Putting the knowledge to use 

With all the right tools to capture, share and access knowledge in place, it comes time to consider how it will be effectively used. This is harder than it sounds. Set up a wiki, fill it with knowledge, and people will use it, right? Not so fast…

You can make the best efforts to build a beautiful, comprehensive modern knowledge base, but if it lacks proximity to employee workflow it will be, at best, underutilized. The time, money and effort you spent into building documentation will be wasted. Instead of going to the knowledge base, employees will simply take the path of least resistance, and that often looks like frequent shoulder-taps and interruptions, both in-person and in conversational channels, like Slack. 

This sounds manageable, but it’s not scalable; that’s the problem.  

In small companies, asking questions in Slack is an annoyance, but it can be tolerable to a point. As companies scale, the volume of questions and distractions becomes wildly undesirable. What you want to happen is for your employees to pause, recognize that they should try and resolve this issue on their own, and self-serve knowledge before questions are asked. Moreover, if there is a knowledge gap in a self-serve, they should create an “issue” to close the gap by a subject matter expert so that the same problem doesn’t occur in the future.  

It’s difficult to change habits, so as you onboard new employees, plan to make capture, access and sharing of knowledge part of the onboarding process.

That’s right, you should encourage them to add content to the knowledge base in the first week of work so that they recognize the cultural importance of the process. They don’t have to add a complicated script or update a policy, but ask them to add their list of favorite burrito toppings to a document for easy reference in the future. 🌯

If new employees understand that the process within your organization is to seek self-service first, you won’t have to try and change bad habits later on. This dramatically improves productivity by reducing unnecessary interruptions. 

Employee Review Questions

How knowledge management can be useful to managers

Besides the benefits to employees and teams, knowledge management has benefits for managers. Here are just a few of the related benefits of implementing a knowledge management strategy for your team.

Team Morale

A sound knowledge management strategy makes for happier, more productive and successful employees. Team members that don’t get frequently distracted by repeated questions stay in the flow of work for more of the day. This means less frustration and more focus on producing results.

Work gets done faster

Whether its decision making or work output, a strong knowledge management strategy increases throughput. There are an abundance of studies that corroborate this. For example, McKinsey published a study that found that 20% of time at work is wasted looking for information. The study further found that by implementing a centralized knowledge solution, teams can recuperate as much as 30% of that lost time. Therefore, with the proper knowledge management tools, you can accelerate your team to success.

20% of employee’s time at work is wasted looking for information.

– McKinsey Global Institute Study 

Lower Costs

Beyond the cultural improvement, managers will also reap the benefits of lower costs. More self-serve support results in lower support ticket costs, which benefits the entire organization. These costs free up resources for a multitude of other opportunities that will propel the entire company to higher levels.

5 tips for getting started with knowledge management

Managers who prioritize self-serve support via a documentation-first culture stand to reap a number of benefits, but where does one really begin? If you believe that your team’s productivity can be improved by a calculated knowledge management strategy, consider these five tips that should get you started on your journey.

1 Invest time in understanding your team workflows

Where are questions asked? Wherever questions are asked, that is where knowledge needs to be. If that’s in Slack, then you should explore solutions that integrate with that workflow. 

2 Build a knowledge-centric structure from day 1

After the swag boxes have been given out, switch gears to the important stuff – the cultural focus on documentation. Instead of having to break bad habits later on, onboard new employees with the confidence to work autonomously via self-serve support.

3 Find a champion

Knowledge management initiatives fail without a passionate champion that truly believes in the power of documentation as a tool for accelerating work. 

4 Google Docs is fine

Better there than in someone’s head, right? Sure it’s not optimized for knowledge applications, but once you figure out your workflow (where questions are asked and answers are given), you’ll find the tools that better suit your needs.

5 Learn from those that actually did it right

Gitlab, the largest remote company in the world, literally wrote a book on this topic. They developed the “handbook-first” culture, which underscores the importance of documentation in everyday work. Check it out. It’s worth reading!

About the author

Chris Buttenham is the CEO and Co-founder of Obie.

Obie is the fastest way to find and capture knowledge at work.

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