Want to Make Onboarding Actually Work? Rethink Knowledge Management

Nothing kills the excitement of a new employee like a poor onboarding experience. Given how much knowledge transfer is required when you add a new employee to your team, it is very easy to fall into the trap of creating an onboarding process that leaves employees bored, confused and disillusioned because of the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the onboarding process.

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I’m making this point not because you should avoid onboarding altogether. Onboarding is a critical process. When done right, it empowers employees with the knowledge they need to hit the ground running as a new team member, making them feel confident and happy about their position.

But designing an onboarding process that achieves this goal, rather than one that inundates employees with a sea of information which they will struggle to absorb or—worse—wonder why they need to know at all is a real challenge.

With that reality in mind, let’s take a look at what it takes to build an onboarding process that works. As we’ll see, at the core of successful onboarding is an effective knowledge management philosophy and solution.

The challenges of onboarding

You don’t need to be an HR expert to understand why onboarding can be difficult. By its nature, onboarding poses several challenges for employees and companies alike:

  • New employees usually aren’t familiar with the systems or tools the company uses, so they face a learning curve.
  • New employees don’t yet know the lingo and cultural values of the company or the team of which they are a part, which can make it hard for them to interpret all of the information thrown their way during onboarding.
  • New hires typically just want to get started doing the jobs they were hired to do. They are often inclined to view a lengthy and tedious onboarding process as a distraction from doing work which they view as more important. Onboarding processes that they perceive as too lengthy or inefficient can undercut their morale.
  • It can be easy for employees to assume they already know the knowledge that onboarding is designed to transfer to them, especially if they have used similar systems at previous jobs. As a result, they don’t really pay attention. In the event that your company uses those systems differently than they expect, this leads to problems.

Traditional onboarding strategies

Faced with these challenges, many companies attempt onboarding strategies which might seem like solutions, but in reality, actually exacerbate the issues.

They run long orientation sessions, during which employees spend a day (in many cases, longer) sitting in seminar rooms, being bombarded with PowerPoint slides, handouts, and lectures.

While orientation meetings might appear to be a good way to transfer large volumes of knowledge (and although they can be effective when they are kept short and to the point), they often end up leaving employees inundated with much more information than they can actually absorb effectively in a short time. In addition, because companies tend to run generic orientation sessions for all of their new hires on a periodic basis, much of the information shared may not matter to all employees in the room. If you’re onboarding new programmers and landscapers in the same orientation event, you’re probably not achieving very efficient or targeted knowledge sharing.

The other common approach to onboarding knowledge transfer is to prepare lengthy manuals --- or, at slightly more forward-thinking companies, wikis or similar tools -- that contain everything a new employee will need to know in order to join a team. Written documentation of this type can reduce the need for long, in-person orientation meetings, but the reality is that few employees are going to go home and read your team’s onboarding guide cover-to-cover. These resources also do not give new employees much opportunity to ask for clarification. Additionally, it requires a lot of effort to keep the documentation up-to-date and tailored to each employee’s needs (especially if your company distributes hard-copy versions of its documentation, which can’t be updated automatically).

Next-generation knowledge management as the solution for onboarding woes

You might think that onboarding is just inherently difficult by its nature, and that there’s simply no good solution for the onboarding challenges described above.

Fortunately, however, there is a strategy that can significantly streamline onboarding: Effective knowledge management. Since communicating knowledge about your company is the core goal of onboarding, a knowledge management solution that is efficient and pleasant for employees to use allows your company to overcome many of the challenges traditionally associated with onboarding.

For onboarding purposes, an effective knowledge management solution should:

  • Be easy for employees to access on a self-service basis without requiring long in-person training sessions.
  • Enable collaboration so that employees can ask questions and receive answers.
  • Be simple to update whenever information changes.
  • Speak to the specific needs of different teams and individual employees.
  • Be persistent and accessible over the long term, so that employees can look up information on an ongoing basis.

These types of knowledge management solutions exist, but you have to think beyond traditional onboarding manuals, wikis, orientation seminars, and the like to implement them. Instead, look for tools like Stack Overflow for Teams, which streamlines the process of documenting, sharing, absorbing, and collaborating around internal company knowledge.

With effective knowledge management, you put your company in a position to stand out and assure new employees from the start that you are committed to efficiency and clarity in internal operations. By sending this message early on in your employees’ tenure at your business, you set both them and your company up for success over the long term.

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