Why Docs, Wikis, and Chat Clients Are not knowledge management solutions

A lot of times, when organizations think about knowledge transfer and information sharing, they consider the method of posting information. Where information is stored is the foundation of any knowledge management challenge, but it doesn’t solve the problem. How information is organized and consumed is the active part of knowledge management, and arguably the most important. This is where documentation, wikis, and instant messaging tools fall short.

The Value of Information

To understand the difference between technologies for information sharing, you need to quantify the value of the information consumed. There are a lot of ways to do that, and not all are straight forward. For example, you can measure value by the actions that result from the information shared. You find the answer to a critical question and help to fix a bug in time to prevent a customer from abandoning your service.

If you can act on information, that’s great, but what if it took days or weeks to find the answer you needed? The overall return on investment should take into account the time it took to find, understand, and use that information. If it takes a week to find an answer you need to respond to an email about a product development problem that is, at best, a third-tier concern, then the information was perhaps not worth the time it took to find it.

I like to say that the value of information is determined by what the consumer was able to do with that new knowledge relative to the time it took them to consume it (the overhead).

You can also measure it in the amount of new understanding the consumer gained from the information shared. Understanding means they obtained the answer they sought, but they also gained a better perspective on the tool or concept, overall. Maybe no short term challenge was addressed, but long term, they and their team are now happier and more productive.

The reason this is important is because having MORE information does not necessarily mean more value, particularly if the overhead is high. Quick and easy access to information does not necessarily generate sustained understanding.

We see information as having value, but in knowledge management what matters is how that information translates into actionable results by the consumer. It needs to be low overhead and very actionable. Thus the consumer should not need to keep hunting for more information; it needs to address their questions or concerns, and there needs to be recourse if the information is not complete.

Key Aspects of Knowledge Management

There are a lot of ways to capture information. I put these methods on a spectrum of value based on the amount of effort it takes to create and modify the information and the ultimate ease of consumption. For example, product documentation has (or should have) very high value, based on these factors: effort required to create is high, effort to modify is low, effort to consume is high. That is compared to instant messaging (IM) clients, which provide less value per word written, but very little effort to create, modify, and consume.

The ideal knowledge management system should be moderately easy to create and contribute to, easy to modify and thus add value to, and easy to consume. But that is not where it ends.

Knowledge management solutions are not just about storing information; they need to be useful. The convergence and interelational properties of metadata, tailored search, information architecture, and conversational threads is where knowledge management solutions depart from its information storage peers—because knowledge is the actualization of data, not the transmission. To put it in simpler terms—you can have an enormous database of incredible knowledge, but it’s not valuable unless it’s easy for users to search, share, and update.

In addition to storing information, knowledge management solutions are characterized by the way information is collected. There is a huge benefit to information being collected on-demand, like in instant messaging. It is the most current and relevant information; albeit often incomplete. Conversely, here is a huge benefit to the comprehensive information found in more traditional documentation, but it’s often not timely enough. And because it’s written in small steps that can only be undertaken once the feature is complete, it can be a “boil the ocean” approach to answering questions—small, ineffective steps towards affecting a large change.

The smart approach to modern knowledge management is dead in the middle, where the information can be collected on-demand, made comprehensive over time, and easily linked to specific questions and answers that user can find through both plain language queries or metadata searches.

Let's look more specifically at the various types of knowledge management solutions that exist today.

Knowledge Management vs. Wiki, Chat, and Docs

Documentation’s value comes when used for training and to create a system of record or history of actions. Often times, big, technical documentation projects are a “set it and forget it” effort, and the author hopes they never have to look at it again.

In the tech world, that hope is rarely fulfilled, as documentation is used to get an entire overview of a tool’s functionality, while step-by-step instructions and support become useful when something goes wrong.

Both wiki and documentation solutions are similar in that most employees interact with them infrequently. The biggest difference between the two is that wikis have a built-in mechanism that makes them much easier to update. Wiki’s have one key element that makes them more collaborative than documentation because anyone can update and contribute to them. Despite this, it’s rare to find a work place where employees are all highly engaged in the work of keeping the wiki up to date. They still end up being static documents written like an article. And as a result, the content in a single article applies to a broad set of questions, and may not be immediately actionable.

Good knowledge management differs from the static article method of communication in that it is more contextual and has an added social element. It incorporates the crowd-sourcing aspect of wikis, resulting in additional metadata, and has the potential of targeting more specific questions and answers.

Modern knowledge management is also the creation of information on a as-needed basis. You may be familiar the concept of “just in time inventory,” which helps agile manufacturers avoid waste and maximize their margins. Good knowledge management is a form of “just-in-time documentation.” Instead of creating large volumes of documentation or wiki content in anticipation of questions which may or may not be asked, a more real time approach answers questions as they arrive, then archives the knowledge in such a way that it becomes an artifact with long term recurring value. When you stop trying to predict what your employees will need, you cut way back on wasted effort.

On the other side of the spectrum is chat. Chat is designed to be very transactional, characterized by small amounts of high-impact, low-value content. Chat information is meant to have a short life, and the questions being addressed may not be as evergreen as what you find in documentation, wikis, and knowledge management tools.

Similar to chat is email, although the way email is used depends a lot on the audience receiving the email. We send knowledge-management-type information to external consumers and chat-type emails to internal audiences. Email has been misused as a knowledge management tool, but its function is more comparable to chat. In both cases, conversations between certain groups of individuals may result in an exchange of question and answers with the potential for high value across your organization, but many employees may have no way of knowing this conversation took place or of searching for it after the fact, because the information is siloed in certain email threads or chatrooms.

How Knowledge Management enhances Wiki, Chat, and Docs

All of this is not to say that chat, docs, and wikis are not useful in the activity of knowledge management. It also does not mean that knowledge management replaces these tools. Most of the time a great knowledge management tool is even more effective when integrated to fit into your existing workflows for chat and documentation.

Chat is an effective way to share relevant articles or collaborate in article creation. The transactional nature of chat often does not lead to comprehensive answers to questions, but it’s fantastic for socializing these articles and asking your team to create new ones.

When an article stored in the knowledge management solution is not comprehensive or does not have sufficient background information for the consumer, links within the article can be useful to provide whatever information is needed at the time.

The difference between wikis and documentation only go so far as the organization's ability to keep the wiki pages active. Most organizations find that only a handful of people update and contribute to wiki articles after they are created. The domain expertise of that handful of contributors is limited to specific areas, which results in the wiki being great in some areas and not great in others. If the organization has a culture of keeping wiki pages current, then there is huge value. Otherwise, it’s just another version of documentation that has more convenient editing functionality.

Why it Matters

Acknowledging the difference between knowledge management, chat, wikis, and docs is important because organizations will often rely on these tools to solve critical, time-sensitive problems without fully realizing the problem they are trying to solve.

While knowledge management looks at first mostly like a problem of information storage and retrieval, it is as much, if not moreso, an issue of information value. How much time do your employees need to invest to find the right answer, and how actionable is that information?

Getting the most out of knowledge management means acknowledging that its a separate discipline, one best addressed with its own unique set of tools. Chat, wikis, and documentation tools were not designed for this purpose. They have their strengths in areas of transactional collaboration, long-term information storage, change management, and training.

When an organization understands the value and need for knowledge management processes, then they can pick a tool that reduces the effort in searching for, consuming, and executing on shared information.

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