Decades ago, if parents needed to hire a baby sitter, they would write down emergency phone numbers, the child’s food preferences, bedtime routine instructions, etc. Essentially, parents would document the whole “knowledge base” about the child in one fell swoop for the sitter.
Today, parents will simply say, “Here are our cell numbers; text if you need us.”
This same shift in knowledge management and knowledge base maintenance is now happening in the workplace. Knowledge workers are realizing that documenting everything and keeping it all up to date requires more time and effort than simply being available to answer questions as needed.
Why do we prefer to be available to our coworkers rather than constantly writing and disseminating what we know? Our research identified several contributing factors.
Why the shift in knowledge management?
All organizations struggle with managing their knowledge. Many organizations will look for a knowledge base or knowledge management system to help centralize information at their company, choosing tools such as wikis, SharePoint, Confluence, Google Sites and so forth to do the job.
These tools promise efficiency and ease of use. Ideally, any worker will be able to quickly find an answer to their question on their own. We call these consistency-based knowledge management systems because they rely on a single, consistently managed, centralized source of truth.
But is this how companies really operate? Our recent fieldwork found a different kind of tactic being used in modern offices. While knowledge bases still exist, workers ask themselves:
- What information do we have?
- Where is it stored?
- How do I access it?
- Is this information trustworthy and up to date?
- Who’s in charge of it?
- Who do I talk to if the information is wrong?
- Am I permitted to update it and is it worth my time?
So if these knowledge management tools are raising more questions than they answer, how do employees get work done?
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Goodbye, knowledge consistency; hello, knowledge availability
We observed an alternative to consistency-based knowledge management that we call availability-based knowledge management. In this model, knowledge workers no longer strive to maintain a consistent centralized source of truth, but instead rely on the availability of their coworkers to help them discover and mobilize the information they need on the fly.
Several factors contribute to this new evolution in knowledge management. Here are six of the most significant ones.
- Mobile phones and network availability. The chances of being able to reach an individual at any point in time are now much higher.
- Cultural shifts in the availability of workers. People now expect their coworkers to be more responsive to their messages. And because people want to be helpful, they are willing to make small concessions in their personal time in order to respond to their coworkers' inquiries.
- Fragmentation of knowledge. The diversity and volume of knowledge within organizations continues to grow, and particular formats or tools are more suited to particular kinds of knowledge than others. For example, Github may work well as a knowledge repository for software engineers, but not so much for sales professionals. So rather than learn how to navigate Github, a salesperson could simply ask an engineer for the information that's needed.
- Recent knowledge is generated and stored at the edges. The most accurate and readily available knowledge is inevitably stored in places that make sense for the creators and chief consumers of that knowledge. In our fieldwork, a salesperson noted that the latest information about customers isn’t documented in Salesforce or anywhere else—it’s in the head of the sales rep who just wrapped up a conference call with the customer. Because workers want to use the latest information, there is a bias toward asking the salesperson over waiting for Salesforce to be updated.
- The need for accountability, authority and context. Imagine your CEO asks you to prepare a report on your Q3 financials. You find a number, but it hasn’t been updated to reflect the last two weeks in the quarter. You might wonder whether it’s safe to use that number, so you’ll want to ask an expert. If one is not immediately known or available, you might dig around to find one. At any rate, the knowledge base is insufficient—it requires other people to give it accountability, authority and context.
- Friction in sharing. Even if knowledge workers are highly motivated to share everything they know with the rest of the company, it is burdensome to do so. The preferred tool or document management system might not be accessible to others, or it might not contain all the features needed to structure the information correctly.
Knowledge base switchboards, not repositories
Modern organizations are now seeing less value in creating a consistent knowledge base repository, and more value in creating an always-available knowledge base switchboard. There are issues with the switchboard model too—“search first, ask second” is a common complaint—but if there is one thing we know, it’s that resourceful employees will find ways to get things done.
This Slack research work is derived from an empirical mixed-methods qualitative study conducted Nov. 1-7, 2018, in Denver. Slack conducted three focus groups with a total of 20 knowledge workers, and in addition, conducted interviews and contextual inquiry at eight companies ranging in size from 10 to 4,900 employees. Findings are the result of inductive thematic analysis of transcripts, memos and videos from these activities.
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