company knowledge problem

How to Address Company Knowledge Problems

November 21, 2019 by Milton Herman

9 min read

Community sites like Hacker News, Reddit, Quora and more are filled with posts and the resulting conversations relating to sharing company knowledge.

The obvious answer is to write everything down. Documentation for code, writing thorough job descriptions, creating style and brand guides for marketing. This is often called a writing culture.

But stopping there is incomplete and overlooks nuance. Dozens of real-world answers from these professional communities speak o this.

We analyzed posts such as:

  • HackerNews - Ask HN: Organizing company knowledge?

    • In the world of collaborative systems and wikis, what are some good resources for learning how to organize and structure knowledge at a company level?
  • Reddit - r/engineering

    • Is it just me, or does knowledge management (e.g. documenting practices such that a new-hire could easily pick them up, Wikipedia-style) generally SUCK at large engineering companies?
  • Quora

    • How can one identify a company with a knowledge management problem?

And similar posts, conversations and threads around the web to identify common themes then a universal solution.

Company Knowledge Problem #1: Lack of incentive - The most common reported hurdle recording company knowledge is there’s no incentive or strong expectation to document knowledge effectively i.e it’s a culture issue.

User Comments, Replies and Answers:

  • I’ve found that the tool doesn’t matter as much as the company culture. You need to foster a culture of documentation for EVERYTHING. It doesn’t matter if you have the best tools in the world if nobody uses them.
  • This cannot be stressed enough. Often I see managers talk about Sharepoint or some wiki type tool within the company but then the culture of documentation is missing.
  • Reinforcement, not organization is critical. It’s simply not enough to make knowledge available. You have to reinforce and reward its use, contribution, sharing and security.
  • In most corporate cultures not only is documentation not rewarded, problems caused by a lack of or poor quality documentation are usually not recognized.
  • It doesn’t matter how good the tool is (and so many knowledge-management tools are not good), you need the processes and organizational habits in place to make knowledge management a success.
  • Anything works as long as everyone does it.

These quotes show how knowledge management and company culture are intertwined. The word culture is used multiple times and “writing culture” is often referenced. These examples also show why writing (without reading and collaboration) isn’t enough. Making knowledge available is only part of the process.

company knowledge data

Company Knowledge Problem #2: Storage Without Function - Another commonality regarding knowledge management is the implementation of storage tools without consideration of organization, shareability, findability, and other practical features. These are symptoms of the larger problem, creating and storing information isn’t enough to distribute knowledge effectively.

User Comments, Replies and Answers:

  • Well, maybe documenting everything is good, but what’s more important is to make sure that the documentation is properly organized. I’ve seen many wikis/confluences with multiple documents per topic, i.e. the author of the second document didn’t know that the first one existed at all. In such cases, company wikis get cumbersome as they are polluted with knowledge. In addition, I’d recommend following some protocol when documenting things.
  • 3 clicks away is not good enough. 2 clicks away [was never] good enough. Information needs to be a) in the user’s immediate view along with their work, or b) a single click away.
  • They [IT Department] don’t seem to understand that there’s a world of difference between document storage and document presentation. Storage is a file dump. Presentation of documents provides guidance, discoverability, context.
  • The most important thing is that the material is organized in a way which allows for findings things efficiently. It can work if everyone knows the rules of said curation.
  • I’ve been in a culture that desperately wanted to do documentation, but the tool that management forced people to use was SharePoint, and it was horrible (search functionality that never worked, very bad response time, very difficult to link or move documents, and worst of all a policy to delete “unused” SharePoint sites after a while.
  • These examples show how problems occur when tools are used for different purposes. Just as culture plays a role in documenting knowledge, tools and processes do as well. This isn’t surprising but eludes to how difficult the problem is to tackle.

Additional Company Knowledge Problems:

Lack of content moderator - Many people believe there’s a need to have someone own the knowledge storage process i.e. monitor the company wiki and keep things up to date. This desire stems from a problem called the 90-9-1 principle. Instead of being a solution, it creates a choke point as a single person or small team has an unfair share of responsibility.

A mix of tools and processes - Especially in corporate and enterprise environments, it’s common for there to be a mix of different tools or processes in place that might be unique to one team or fail to integrate with each other.

Reliance on chat and email - For small startups, Slack might be a viable option for information storage. This option quickly erodes as teams scale. No email or chat platform is designed for sharing and distributing company knowledge.

Summary

Anyone with experience in the workforce can relate to these problems. Whether you’ve been on a small or large team, startup or global company - recording and sharing company knowledge is a challenge.

The solution is not just a commitment to culture change or fancy new tool, but the ability to change how information flows throughout an organization. This is only possible through reading culture.

company knowledge data

What is Reading Culture

Reading culture addresses the limitations of writing culture. Writing is not just encouraged or incentivized. The collective writing and feedback of a team is the knowledge referenced for every business process and decision. Here’s how it works.

More than documentation. This isn’t about providing documentation for code or storing design files in a central location, those tasks fit under a writing culture. But a reading culture means these files will be up to date, iterated upon as needed and ensures stored information is useful for the organization.

A better meeting culture. There are fewer meetings with better results. This is possible through document reviews and requests. Instead of generalized PowerPoint bullet points, complete thoughts are required to complete documents.

Knowledge-driven Management. Managers rely on long-form writing to get insight, create accountability and optimize the effectiveness of their team and their time.

These ideas aren’t whiteboard theories or marketing spin, real-world anecdotes are easy to find.

At previous companies, I was constantly frustrated when decisions were made off of partial context without an opportunity to properly present the data. I would see logical flaws and statistical flaws, but not have the opportunity to probe them because others in the room didn’t have the same context or the same data. I would recognize that the team had flawed tenets, but couldn’t get the team to articulate their core decision criteria.

The Beauty of Amazon’s 6-Pager by Brad Porter, VP Robotics

Nearly every meeting at Amazon starts with a document written by the organizer which attendees sit in silence and read for 20 mins. On the surface this sounds awkward AF. In practice it is brilliant. Writing a document forces clear thinking, complete analysis and concrete proposals. Reading the document ensures everyone is on the same page so that attendees can have a concrete and informed discussion afterwards. You rarely leave a meeting without actions and people who don’t attend can always catch up on what happened by reading the doc and notes.

Things I Liked About Amazon by Samir Lakhani, Product Manager at Facebook

Amazon isn’t the only case study. Back in 2001, Xerox was looking for ways to encourage engineers to use their internal knowledge management tool. They made a small tweak to the interface so knowledge base entries included author credit. This mirrored the effect of Amazon’s document system where a primary author is assigned to a document.

Xerox’s director of corporate strategies at the time, Dan Holtshouse said,

Once we enabled them to attach their name, it became a professional peer process. They’re proud of their solutions and are recognized for it. We’ve accumulated over 50,000 solutions in just a few years, with 70 to 80 percent participation of engineers inputting an average of once a week.

How Xerox got its engineers to use a knowledge management system

This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to the corporate world. It goes way back, before the internet, before the industrialized world. George Washington saw the importance of clear writing during the days of the founding fathers.

Based on the fleeting mention in the Constitution that he [Washington] could request written opinions from department heads, he created an impressive flow of paperwork. Jefferson noted that he would forward them letter he received that feel within their bailiwick, then asked to pursue their replies. They would gather up daily bundles of papers for his approval. Although this briefly delayed replies, Jefferson explained, “if produced [for] us i return the benefit of his sanction for every act we did.” This paper flow also meant that Washington was “always in accurate possession of all facts and proceedings in every part of the Union and … form a central point for the difference branches; preserved a unity of object and action among them,” and enabled him to assume personal responsibility for all decisions.

“Washington: A Life” by Ron Chernowuch

This issue is pervasive, it’s also harmful for productivity which makes it expensive. A TSIA survey spoke to this,

  • 72% of surveyed companies said if their organization was sharing knowledge as well as it possibly could, production would increase by at least 20% (15% estimated a 50%+ increase).
  • 52% rated their company’s knowledge sharing culture to be between 5-7 on a scale of 1-10.

If you’ve found yourself or your team saying similar things or having similar issues, or you want to know about how reading culture impacts company knowledge management - contact us today.

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