What Every Startup Needs to Know about Knowledge Management

Captured knowledge lasts foreverOccasionally, I’ve been hanging out at the Tech Ranch in Austin, Texas. The Tech Ranch is an office space for startups and entrepreneurs to incubate their ideas and organizations. My focus is on Knowledge Management in medium to large organizations, or more descriptively, managing the flow of information and knowledge across an organization. For the most part, I don’t fit the mold at Tech Ranch, but it offers me a place to break out of my work-at-home routine.

In my observations and interactions at the Tech Ranch, managing knowledge in these small businesses and startups is more spontaneous, earthy, unstructured, and tribal. This is part of the allure of a startup or small organization. Ideas have potential to germinate into big things. Hope springs eternal — until the money runs out. In small organizations, most of the communication and knowledge sharing occurs naturally. Teams are well-connected.

At the end of the day, organizations will make it based on their competitive edge, which is typically defined as speed to market of their unique ideas, muscling forward with determination, and the way they manage their information and knowledge. An organization can have a ton of funding with the greatest, and smartest people; however, ineffectively managing their organizational knowledge will doom them.

As I look at their excitement, the gleam in their eyes, and their noses to the grindstone, I would like to offer a few suggestions to improve their chances of success, lay the foundation for strong Knowledge Management practices, bolster their competitive edge, increase their organizational effectiveness, and allow them to propel sooner to the next level of organizational maturity, growth and revenue.

Knowledge Assets are the value of your organization (KM Strategy)

People, resources, and funding may come and go, but the knowledge you capture stays with you.

Streamline and Centralize Knowledge Assets

Centralize the Organization’s Knowledge by identifying and communicating the official spaces or repositories for your Organization to use. The cloud makes it really easy these days. Employees (including you reading this) should not keep organizational information and knowledge in his or her personal repositories (ie: computers, personal email, phones, etc …). Granted, an organization will have Confidential, Restricted and Legal documents, those assets should be defined as such, and kept in their own restricted areas.

Avoid the Cool Tool Du Jour

Even though someone may have their favorite new-fangled, cutting-edge technology that all of the kids are using these days, a smart business will not allow the “cool tool du jour” to occur. One of the fasted ways to derail goals and objectives is to freely allow for splintered and silo’d knowledge to propagate, creating conflicts and redundancy – especially if most of the organization does not know it exists. This is a rampant issue in many large organization today. Nip it in the bud.

Communicate Your Organizational KM Strategy and Practices

If you are currently in a splintered environment with knowledge hoarders, schedule a short meeting to discuss the potential issues with the repository leads and owners. Appeal to their sense in regards to the mission of your organization. This is part of the maturity of an organization. In addition, communicate a KM Practice on a weekly basis.

Finding Answers

Studies show workers spend 20% (or more) of their time searching for answers.

Centralizing your Knowledge Assets will reduce some of these organizational inefficiencies, and administrative overhead.

Establish a Knowledge Structure beyond Functional Roles

You have different individuals in charge of Development, Marketing, Hiring, Sales, and Engineering (or someday you will). You hired them because they are experts in their field and can work autonomously for the greater cause of the organization. But don’t leave it to them to develop their own Departmental Knowledge Strategy without it being part of the overall Organizational KM Strategy.

Knowledge Training

Everyone in your organization needs to be familiar with your Central Repositories, and how they are structured at the top levels. Get in the habit of tagging, and storing your Knowledge Assets in their intended place. This will make it easier for someone in the DEV group to find the latest Logo created by the Marketing team. It will make it easier to onboard new employees quickly. It will make it easier for people to find answers. Everyone in your small organization needs to understand how to do this, as well as the benefits of doing this. Spend 30 minutes training them on your KM Practices, and remind them on a weekly basis. If needed, coach individuals to get their buy-in, and reduce rework.

Understand these two words: Tacit Knowledge and Explicit Knowledge

  • Tacit Knowledge: This is the information and knowledge you keep in your head, and you can spew at will. In other words, you don’t know what you know, until someone asks. (ie: What are the 3 restaurant you would tell people to avoid?)
  • Explicit Knowledge: This is the Tacit Knowledge that has been recorded, and structured into an Organizational Knowledge Asset. Others can find it, Reuse it, and collaborate on the knowledge. This is documents, code, manuals, websites, videos, presentations, procedures, etc …

This is the tip of the iceberg for effective Knowledge Management (Organizational Effectiveness). Many organizations will say they do not have time. Just remember, Knowledge is the value your organization provides, and is your competitive differentiator. If you don’t have a KM Strategy, set aside some time, and bring a bit more sanity to your organization. They will thank you for it.