Your sales manager gives you her 2-weeks notice. She ran your sales department, helped the whole sales team train on the CRM you implemented last year, brought on some of your most valuable clients, and is generally who the team goes to when they have questions about how stuff works. Are you panicking yet?
How do you ensure that all the team members can get the right information, even when she’s gone?
You need a formalized knowledge management system to ensure that when your sales manager leaves she doesn’t take your whole sales team’s institutional knowledge with her.
What is knowledge management?
Knowledge management pertains to a company’s organization and upkeep of systems and process intelligence. Knowledge management originally only included the company’s internal documents, but the definition was soon expanded to include important documents and knowledge from outside of the organization that inform how the company does business. According to KM World, knowledge management can be divided into in 4 major areas:
- Content: policies, procedures, handbooks, process documents
- Expertise location: Who can I talk to who would know the answer to my question? Org charts, directories, best methods of contact
- Lessons learned (best practices): documentation of practices and lessons learned so that new people who touch the product/information don’t have to have direct access to the previous knowledge holders
- Communities of practice: where teams of similar content interests can talk to one another
Another way to think about knowledge management is that it’s where People + Process + Technology come together within a business system. By gathering intelligence in a centralized location, the organization documents who has access to knowledge, what processes work best for the organization, and how technologies augment the workspace.
Basically, you should use knowledge management to keep all of your business information in a place where everyone can access it when they need it, without bugging the same 3 people who somehow got designated as the knowledge-holders.
Caveat: Don’t store personal identifying information, account passwords, or other pieces of operational security information in your knowledge management tool. This is just asking for a security breach. Passwords should stay in a password manager, personal employee information (social security numbers, banking information) should stay in a secure HR portal, and proprietary company documents like patents should be restricted to authorized users.
Why should you worry about knowledge management?
High employee mobility insurance
Today’s employees don’t stay in jobs for as long: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median time at a job is currently 4.6 years with variances for age and job types. All of this turnover can quickly put a strain on the institutional knowledge your company holds. Think of all the places where processes and systems understandings are affected when a team member leaves the company:
- Code bases and database access
- CRM workflows, customer interactions
- Marketing automation campaigns
- Manufacturing processes and best practices
- Human resources onboarding
Those on their way out often spend the last 2 weeks of their employment working on process documentation to ensure that others know which software does what and where to enter information. But those process documents are only as good as the writers, and any missed steps could mean the total breakdown of the process.
When your company builds up a deep store of institutional knowledge it becomes increasingly important for employes across the business to easily access it whenever they need it. Placing your process documentation, handbooks, and best practices knowledge in a centralized location means that everyone knows where to look for all of the most important knowledge.
Many companies also find it helpful to build a directory of who to go to with questions. This can be as simple as a list of product and technology owners in an organizational chart or as complicated as a chatbot that automatically pings the team member on call for questions that day.
In organizations with high turnover or rapid growth, it’s common for experienced employees to take on (voluntarily or by default) training roles. Training other team members is unavoidable, but it can become a huge time-suck and frustration for high-performers that are used to churning out lots of work.
While training time can’t be fully avoided, it can be managed with self-service documentation. The beauty of knowledge management is that new hires can access the knowledge base at any time, familiarize themselves with the policies and procedures, and move quickly toward productive, independent work. Think of it like the flipped classroom of training: employees teach themselves how to do the work, and trainers answer questions and clarify on difficult points during training sessions.
Documentation makes policy
Small businesses and startups often have a difficult time setting policy in those first years. While it can feel so Establishment or Corporate, having concrete policy in place can save managers and HR time and headaches should questions arise. What does your team really mean by “unlimited PTO”? When should employees expect bonus payouts? What measurements are used to determine bonuses? What happens if an employee is injured or has to take an extended leave?
Documentation can become policy, and then that policy can be measured and improved with future iterations. Without documentation that outlines your policies and procedures, everyone’s working off memory and gut feeling, which can get the company in legal hot water if you’re not consistent and some feel they’re being treated unfairly. Think of your knowledge base as a protection policy against unfair treatment of employees and legal repercussions.
Tools for knowledge management
AI-powered content suggestion
Artificial intelligence (AI) solutions for knowledge management use pattern matching and context to understand what kinds of content sales, support, and other roles might need to answer a question at any given moment. Think of these tools like Clippy’s smarter brother–they parse the work, emails, or questions you deal with and then suggest documents to share or reference in turn. Many of these tools are designed to support internal and customer support teams, but can be used across the company.
Look for AI-powered content suggestion for knowledge management in these tools:
Project management & collaboration tools
For very small businesses and startups where everyone works in the same couple of tools, having a single project management or collaboration tool with document management storage can work as a quick and easy knowledge management system. Make a project for company documentation, share it with all users, and place all process documentation, policy notes, and company-wide memos there.
These project management and team collaboration tools work well for knowledge management:
Wikis are pretty much websites that act as a small library of documents. These can either be accessed via a browser or through a company intranet. The best-known public wiki out there is Wikipedia, but you can also make a smaller version that acts as a private wiki just for your company’s knowledge. There are several free and paid wiki companies out there that host your wiki on their servers will help you build your site, or you can use some other, less conventional methods like building a website where all of your documentation lives.
Free and paid company wiki options:
- MediaWiki (used by Wikipedia)
Learning Management Systems (LMS)
Sure, you use your LMS for training new employees and furthering education for existing employees, so why not use it for knowledge management? Learning management systems can provide your team with document storage in a familiar, searchable interface. Let your LMS pull double duty and load your process documentation and employee handbooks into the system alongside department-specific trainings for technology.
Use these learning management systems for knowledge management:
Although many small businesses and startups put off hiring a dedicated HR professional, it’s likely that Human Resources Management tools will be an investment you make soon after hiring your second or third employee. Many of these tools also offer file management systems where you can upload your policy documents like benefits explanations, employee handbooks, and other policy documents.
Admittedly, HR software doesn’t feel like the most logical place to put process documents, at first glance. But since most companies offload large aspects of employee training to HR, having process and training documentation in the same space as your employee handbook may make those first couple of days easier on all employees.
HR tools with knowledge management:
File sharing tools
Online file sharing has gone from the workplace to the home space, and for good reason: so much of our lives happen online these days that we have to have a central location to share our files, photos, music, videos, and more. Today’s cloud file sharing tools like DropBox, Box, and Google Drive provide inexpensive storage and accessibility for everyone from individuals to enterprises.
File sharing tools are especially good for knowledge management because nearly everyone has a basic knowledge of how to search and access documents within them. For your knowledge management needs, you may want to make a parent folder with company-wide documents including employee benefits and handbooks. Then build out a folder for each department with varying levels of access.
File Sharing tools for Knowledge Management:
- Zoho Docs
- Google Suite (Drive, Keep)
A couple of people at the company probably already hold a majority of the knowledge, and are likely sick of being the only ones who answer questions. Get these folks together, and ask for any existing documents. Then plan out where supplemental documents need to come from. Assign work (along with due dates!), to product and knowledge owners. This is going to have to be a top or middle-down initiative, to some extent.
Ready to take control of your company’s knowledge? Call one of our Technology Advisors today to learn more about how you can corral your organization’s information in a single, searchable interface. Our Technology Advisors will help you choose the right knowledge management system for your organization, and provide you with the best software suggestions for your needs.