Boost your business and morale with knowledge sharing
Open up your culture to preserve your legacy
The first day of a new job, team, or project is a whirlwind of tiny details. Every question answered spawns three more, and everyone else just seems to know everything. Long-time employees – you’re not immune either. You can be at a company for years and still, with every big change, feel like a stranger in a strange land all over again.
When an organization has a habit of keeping its information tucked away and buried in shared drives, written docs, or human brains, this not-knowing is unavoidable whether you’re a newbie or a veteran. A culture full of walls slows down projects, forces employees into frequent and frustrating searches for knowledge, and eats up the time of experts who have to answer the same questions over and over and over.
Without a way to store and access the information they need, employees end up stumbling around in the dark. In a survey for the American Management Association, 36 percent of workers said that they “hardly ever” know what’s going on in their companies. Fifty-five percent said they only know what’s going on “some of the time.”
As Kim Wall, Atlassian team lead for technical account management, puts it, “You might find old data or old knowledge that's not useful anymore,” she explained. “You might not find the answers that you're looking for at all. Even though they live there, you may not find them.”
Essentially, having a bunch of locked vaults of knowledge throughout the company wastes a lot of time – and (cliché alert) time is money.
What is knowledge sharing?
Not to be basic, but we should probably define knowledge sharing before we get into the details of why it’s a good thing. Knowledge sharing is the exchange of information or understanding between people, teams, communities, or organizations. It’s a proactive and intentional act that expands the number of entities in the know while also creating or building upon an accessible archive of knowledge for others.
If you’re writing a book or manual, presenting your research, mentoring, or just having an informal chat with your team, you’re sharing knowledge. Knowledge sharing helps workers and businesses be more agile, adaptable, and better able pivot and ensure ongoing growth and survival.
3 bad habits that hinder knowledge sharing (and the fixes)
As with most deepset habits, people working within a closed off culture may have some trouble letting go of their best-kept secrets. Watch out for these behaviors that might bring knowledge sharing to a screeching halt – and proactively model the vibes you want to see instead.
The harm: Knowledge is power, and power is job security. Employees who want to feel they’re indispensable may keep what they know hidden to make themselves seem irreplaceable. Some may be driven by competition, worried about someone else getting the credit they believe they deserve.
The fix: Give kudos. If you regularly recognize and promote everyone’s hard work, you’ll show them as experts in their arena and dull their need to fight for status on their own. They’ll also feel less threatened if they know the company sees them as valuable mentors for new workers or folks on other teams.
The harm: Who are the most celebrated? Who leads most discussions? An organization built around “rock stars” discourages others from opening up.
The fix: Spread the love. Recognize that there are likely members of your team who hold vast knowledge, but they aren’t the most vocal or are in roles that don’t call for lots of exposure. Yet, they could be your company’s best leaders. Help them boost their PR by directly asking for their thoughts or to take the lead on a project – an opportunity to share what they know.
Habit: Reliance on the go-tos
The harm: Do you ever say, “I don’t know what we’d do without so-and-so”? That’s a problem. While So-and-so may be proud to be the company’s walking wiki, it’s a burden to have to answer the same questions constantly. These interruptions make your expert less capable of doing great work, and if they decide to walk, all that knowledge goes with them.
The fix: Build your bench. Some companies make it part of everyone’s job to mentor another employee, and even go so far as to tie salary increases and promotions to passing on knowledge. This way, more than just one brain knows how you do as a team or organization. Creating a program like this may be a big cultural shift – and could be too much at once. You may start with interviewing and documenting what your go-to experts know. (We’ll tell you how in a bit.)
If you build it, they will contribute
For this and so many other good reasons, knowledge-sharing systems are a crucial tool in keeping your entire organization in the loop. When people share what they know, your organization will collect all kinds of useful content. This knowledge-sharing system will soon be jam-packed with everything from FAQs and product troubleshooting tips, to high-level documents about the company’s goals and mission.
With total transparency, teams are able to find and communicate relevant information easily. Not only does it connect the right people with the right content, it cultivates a company culture that shares wins, losses, and lessons. By shining a light on mistakes or disappointments – product launches that didn’t take or reasons why your company’s customers are choosing the competition – all employees benefit.
Some knowledge on types of knowledge
Now that you've gotten real with the state of the state of your company's openness, understand the different types of knowledge you will want to capture. By placing these insights into separate buckets, you’ll have a better sense of how to capture them. (We’ll tell you how to get started too.)
Tacit knowledge. It’s one thing to be told that a stove is hot and quite another to get that lesson while from running to the ER after placing your hand on it. Some things you just have to figure out by doing – that’s tacit knowledge. Think about how much we pick up just going about our day-to-day jobs. It’s the most valuable information for businesses and the toughest to pin down. You don’t know what you don’t know until you need to know.
Capture it: Harnessing all the business-driving stuff inside the heads of your employees is hard, and not a perfect science. But there’s hope. You can recruit an interviewer who can ask the deep-dive questions of your veteran employees, document their answers, and store them in a best practices hub within your knowledge-sharing system.
That was a lot of words. Here’s how this might play out. Vernon is one of your top support reps who has been solving issues for your customers for several years. He always gets five-star ratings no matter how dire the reason your customers call in. How is he doing this?
Have an interviewer sit with Vernon to learn what is beyond the talking points or trouble-shooting guide. What are the special things that Vernon is doing to please callers? Throw him some scenarios and see what he comes up with. Gather up his answers and share them broadly in your knowledge-sharing system, social intranet, or internal wiki and encourage everyone to use it so we don’t all lose it. (Bonus: Vernon will feel incredible and may be more proactive with sharing his approaches in the future and/or encourage others to do so too.)
Here’s one way we gather tacit knowledge at Atlassian. “We have something that we like to call conversation guides,” explains Wall. “We'll sit on a call with the person who just knows this stuff to their bones and write down every single thing that that person asked the customer, every single phrase, and all of the concepts. Then we try to formulate it into something that other people can use, so that they get that base level of knowledge without having had to live in those shoes for 15 years.”
Explicit knowledge. Also known as “codified knowledge,” this is information that has moved out of the brain and into written or audio form. It’s now available for mass access and consumption. It’s the stuff you likely already have ready to go, such as the employee handbook, whether we work the day after New Year’s, and how the heck to get that printer to stop jamming.
Capture it: Good job on preserving these important assets in some documented form. Now make sure they’re findable and current, so that they deliver long-term value. You can’t really blame the events team for ordering 500 company t-shirts with the old logo if that’s what they found in your files.
Skip the shared drives (which can be a document black hole) and bring on a solution that makes updating and sharing knowledge easy and fast. Tools like Confluence, an open platform for creating, sharing, commenting on, and archiving all content, can help.
Implicit knowledge. These are the unwritten how-to’s of the office that originate in the processes and routines of the everyday. These tidbits turbocharge you into getting things done smoothly and efficiently – and appropriately within your company’s culture. “It lives in how you run the business,” says Wall. “It’s what everyone knows.”
It’s the difference between creating a project plan in Google Slides when the culture prefers using Trello boards. It shows newcomers how to be as they ramp up on their work function and saves them from having to ask questions like whether it’s ok to Slack the boss after 5 or if anyone minds if you turn off your camera during video conference calls.
Capture it: This one is a toughy since a lot of the “how we do” details stem from living and breathing the company culture and infusing it every email, project, and presentation. Your mission and vision statement can serve as high-level guidelines of what everyone should put first in their day-to-day interactions. You also want to grab and share specific ways of working that trip people up.
One way to do this is to survey your employees asking “What about the way our teams work did you wish you knew on day one?” and gather feedback. Then consolidate the answers into best practices docs that you can then share broadly to new hires as well as current employees.
Now that you know what you know about knowledge-sharing
Knowledge sharing isn’t a one and done; it needs to be embedded into the fiber of your company so that valuable information doesn’t vaporize, become locked in silos, or disappear when a veteran moves on to their next adventure.
You might think that you’re all set up to keep business-driving knowledge forever and ever, but take an honest look and see if your organization encourages employees to keep their cards close to their chests. Run through the practices we’ve talked about, but equally important, see how you can model the change you want to see.
Here’s some homework: have thoughts about how to improve the knowledge sharing practices in your company? Share them (and this article, why not?) with your team right now and kick off the dialogue. Go, go!
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