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Knowledge management, since the conception of the term in the late 80s, has been associated with large organizations and complex corporate structures. Big companies come with big budgets and a long list of requirements, so tools for supporting knowledge management processes are often pretty expensive and extensive. The thing is, however, that smaller companies could benefit from knowledge management as well. They lose a lot of money on poor knowledge-sharing, information silos or making the same mistake numerous times. In this article, we’ll break down how to implement some good practices of knowledge management in a non-corporate environment.
What is knowledge management?
The Business Dictionary defines knowledge management as:
Strategies and processes designed to identify, capture, structure, value, leverage, and share an organization’s intellectual assets to enhance its performance and competitiveness. It is based on two critical activities: (1) capture and documentation of individual explicit and tacit knowledge, and (2) its dissemination within the organization.
According to that definition, an optimal knowledge management process is based on:
- Documenting the knowledge (explicit and tacit)
- Sharing the knowledge with other team members.
We’ll keep these two steps in mind for the next part of the article. Before we dive into some actionable tips on knowledge management, let’s reiterate the reasons for adopting it in the first place.
Benefits of knowledge management in small and medium-sized companies
In essence, knowledge management is about making sure that employees will make good decisions. This is quite a universal need, regardless of a given company’s size. Standardizing processes allows companies to boost their productivity: things get done faster and they’re of better quality.
Focusing on knowledge gathering and sharing is also a great opportunity to identify and celebrate true experts in a given field. Such an approach will likely make said experts more engaged and satisfied with their workplace. At the same time, the rest of your team will acquire valuable knowledge. It’s a win-win situation for your company.
Adopting knowledge management early makes it easier to scale the company. As your team grows, you already have processes in place to make the best use of their collective knowledge. These benefits will affect both: project-based organizations (creative agencies, software consultancies) or companies working on developing their own product.
Knowledge management in small and medium-sized companies
You don’t necessarily have to start with a full-blown process or a dedicated software. Effective knowledge management can become a part of your company’s culture when you encourage documenting and sharing everyone’s expertise. Here are some ideas you can try without having to worry about your software budget:
Support project transparency
Project transparency requires information visibility within a project team. There’s a variety of ideas you can implement here: from clear, well-documented project requirements, to regular feedback sessions. Promoting open communication and knowledge-sharing among people working on the same project will likely affect your teams’ effectiveness but also lay the groundwork for company-wide policies. On top of that, studies show that transparency is widely appreciated by employees.
Build a knowledge base
Creating a knowledge base or an intranet may seem like something large organizations need. The truth is, however, that your company might easily outgrow the initial system of storing documents and information (Google Docs or Dropbox, for example). A comprehensive knowledge base will be especially valuable if you:
- Have multiple offices
- Welcome new employees frequently
- Have remote team members
- Grow dynamically
- Notice some issues with communication or employee engagement
At Teamdeck, we use Atlassian’s Confluence to store knowledge that is important for our team members. This is also where we post written policies and share company updates. It’s useful when onboarding new employees or trying to figure out an optimal way of doing things based on past experiences of the team.
Introduce a habit of writing down “lessons learned”
Speaking of past experience, in order to collectively learn a lesson you need to have a lesson to learn from. It’s a good idea to document postmortem sessions, after action reports or retrospective meetings. Even if it feels slightly embarrassing, because the project you’re documenting ended up failing, it’s still a great learning opportunity. Thanks to these “lessons-learned”, other employees may be able to understand the causes of a problem and avoid some mistakes in the future. Emphasize to your team, that this process is not about finger-pointing or bragging. It’s about learning from past missteps or successes.
Take a look at this postmortem text by Gitlab, written after their infamous database outage incident. I’m sure that hundreds of developers who have read this post won’t repeat similar mistakes. This is not to say that all lessons learned should be publicly available: sometimes it’s out of the question because of confidentiality agreements. It is, however, something that you could think through, especially if external users have been affected by a given event.
Encourage your employees to share their knowledge
As mentioned in the first part of this text, you need to recognize experts: people that have a lot of knowledge about a given aspect of your operations. Once they’re identified, you need to encourage them to share their knowledge. This can be done through a variety of ways – from team meeting devoted to a certain topic, through blogging, to mentorship programs.
Make sure you pay attention not only to the explicit knowledge (already codified/easy to articulate) but also to the tacit knowledge. The latter is based on the know-how of your employees: their unique insights, intuition or a skill that is not easily verbalized. Think about one’s aesthetic sense, being able to come up with innovative ideas or...riding a bike.
Tacit knowledge is usually very valuable, but it’s difficult to share. Think about ways you can pair your experts with other team members in a “real-life” setting, that doesn’t necessarily have to be actually working on the same team. For example, organizing a hackathon could be a good opportunity for your employees to collaborate with each other. While working together, they can see a tacit insight in action and learn from it.
Prioritize knowledge management
There’s one more thing you have to do in order to successfully introduce knowledge management at your company: show that this is a true priority. It could be the case that your team members don’t document knowledge simply because they think it’s better to focus on “actual work”. Knowledge-sharing initiatives could also be easily abandoned when times get busy. The job of a company leader is to make sure people see the value of preserving important insights. Documenting and sharing one’s expertise should be a part of their job, not an afterthought. Only then can you truly adopt a knowledge-driven approach and fully benefit from knowledge management.