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Your business changes, your documents don’t

by Lee Provoost

Last week, a client asked us for some help with finding a good name for their Enterprise 2.0 and knowledge platform. The internal Headshift chat was buzzing with suggestions and one person remarked that in his previous company they called it “the big black box where knowledge documents go to die”…

Sounds familiar? Continue reading!

Document-oriented company in search for people

Currently, I’m working on a pitch for a new client where I’m brainstorming with the Headshift team on an overall strategy framework to see where the big gaps in the organization are in terms of collaboration and communication.

Given the requirements, I was trying out several models to map the client’s requirements with our Social Business Design framework. They always say that one image says more than a thousand words and that was proven once again during our exercise. When mapping all the information and doing voodoo-magic-level whiteboard drawing (I have a black belt in that!), a very interesting piece of information came up: the very-knowledge intensive and document-focused company has a bigger need for finding people instead of finding documents.

Is it surprising to learn that they actually have a much bigger gap in the area of human connections and expertise finding (people-oriented) rather than in the area of the traditional document-oriented knowledge management (KM)?

Traditional KM often failing to deliver value

During my “previous life” as a systems integrator, I’ve seen many Enterprise 2.0 / KM projects utterly fail because employees just got a piece of software pushed through their throat and got the message: “this is your new KM system, start uploading knowledge”.

Whilst being brilliant systems from a technical point of view, they often fail to live up expectations because people tend to upload knowledge to these systems just for the sake of doing so. That can be because they have to for their yearly review, because their manager forces them, because… for all the wrong reasons. This has the side effect that these “I’ll-store-it-once-so-they’ll-stop-complaining”-documents become quickly irrelevant. Your business changes with such a rapid speed that these documents become outdated by the time that they are entered in the system. So why even bother?

It would be too easy to just end this discussion here because for many types of knowledge, the time factor isn’t really that crucial. Some pieces of content are for instance best practices, project learning, strategic information, etc. that are perfectly valid for a longer period of time. The biggest problem doesn’t lay in the actual KM system itself, rather in the people that are dealing with it.

People’s ordinary interactions generating knowledge

I’ve seen it in so many organizations: people often don’t have time for properly uploading knowledge artifacts to a system and adding good meta-data. Even if people do occasionally take the time in doing so, they are usually not skilled enough in providing high-quality meta-data and applying taxonomy/folksonomy.

Even if we do manage to create a culture where people store their knowledge in documents and upload them to a KM system with the appropriate tags and meta-data, we’re still accessing only the small part of information that people bothered to write down. Many people don’t realize that the things we find very simple and straightforward are actually very precious and contribute tremendously to a company’s wisdom.

Take a very basic and rather “administrative” interaction like a meeting. If a company bothers to take meeting notes, they are often scribbled in a Word document and then emailed to all the people that attended or that have an interest in being updated. If you’re lucky someone adds it to the project space in SharePoint. With employees coming and going, and projects often lasting longer than many employees’ involvement, a lot of information gets continuously lost. Even more, the time needed to onboard someone on the project often takes a significant amount of time and effort.

I’m using the example of the meeting notes because when I joined Headshift last year, I quickly had to get familiar with some of our larger clients. To my big surprise every meeting note was stored as a wiki page in our company wiki, which gave me an incredible amount of information about the Headshift people involved over time, the client stakeholders involved, the decisions made, certain issues discussed, etc.

One meeting note might sound irrelevant, having hundreds of them at your disposal can give you often a far better view of a project or a client than a whole bunch of meticulously crafted “knowledge artifacts”.

Connecting the dots

So let me shortly recap what we’ve discussed so far:

  • We tend to overvalue static documents and undervalue knowledge in people’s heads. 
  • Companies deploy technology platforms and employees’ limited participation is often driven by less-sustainable motivations. 
  • Traditional approach of KM focuses on the “important” knowledge artifacts and often ignores the vast amount of information that is generated during our daily work.

Linking this back to the client pitch I’m preparing: no, it’s not surprising that they have a big gap in the human-to-human interactions area. Their staff are under a lot of project pressure with little time to contribute knowledge to a KM system, they operate in an era where almost every week their own industry has reinvented itself, employees and contractors come and go and teams change on a frequent basis (because of the dynamic environment they are in). Most importantly? Their only asset is knowledge!

So this solution will need to mainly focus on:

  • Capturing knowledge that is in the employees’ heads, as a happy byproduct of their daily job with very low intrusion in their existing workflows and without many extra steps or hurdles. 
  • Because time is money and people come and go, the on boarding of new employees or new project members needs to happen with as little impact on the project duration or impact on the other team members. 
  • Big focus on finding experts in a global organization operating in 25+ countries and hundreds of business units. Focus is not on the people you already know, but the ones you don’t know yet.
Sounds like a challenge? It sure is, but the kind of challenge we’re taking up every day at Headshift!

2 Responses to Your business changes, your documents don’t

  1. By Jacob Ukelson on February 16, 2010 at 11:04 am

    Great post. I am really happy to see that other prople are coming to see this as an issue, At ActionBase ( our product has been focusing exactly on the issues you discuss here. The business processes that are executed through the use of documents, email and meetings are the mainstay of what we call human process management (and others are starting to call adaptive\advanced case management).
    The goal is to allow user to remain in their familiar document and email environment while providing just enough structure to the processes to faciltate management and monitoring of the process (and the knowledge generated by the process), but not so much as to turn people off or require a change in the way they work.
    Your meeting example is an excellent one – many meeting create documents that have important information and action items. In the best of cases email (and maybe a document repository, maybe a wiki) is used to send the information to the relevant parties – where as you put it – “it goes to die”. No followup, no managment, no monitoring. By linking documents and email (through what we call ActionMail, busines class email) – these documents and the related email processes can be managed and monitoring. I have been blogging about the subject at “”.

  2. By uberVU - social comments on February 16, 2010 at 1:13 pm

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