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The topics discussed here grow out of the bread-and-butter issues that confront my consulting and software clients on a daily basis. We'll talk about prosaic stuff like Membership Management, Meetings and Events Management and Fundraising, broader ideas like security and software project management, and the social, cultural, and organizational issues that impact IT decision-making.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Growing Organizational Knowledge

In the last post I talked about the difficulties we see organizations have in managing knowledge. So often vital information is just in one person's head. But what's worse, it may be spread across heads, with no-one having a complete picture of an issue. And in some cases, these heads are not all within the organization, but may be on the shoulders of outside partners or consultants.

In my experience, for information to be truly organizational knowledge, at the very minimum four things must be true:
  • It must be written down so it cannot walk out the door.
  • It must be easily retrievable across the organization, so it can be found when it is needed, by any authorized person.
  • Authorship must be shared so it represents a complete view of each topic
  • It must be easily updated as reality changes.
The first point seems obvious - but its a big problem. Writing takes time. That's why so many documentation projects fall by the wayside.

But there is a more agile way to build documentation - by re-using the routine communications that are generated in the course of actual daily work. Whenever your or one of your users asks or answers a question, announces a policy, or simply shares information, chances are an informal email or other document was generated. In the best of all possible worlds, you might want to carefully rewrite this email before posting it as official documentation. You know you'll never get to it. But you can turn that email into organizational knowledge if you put it where authorized users can see it, add to it, comment on it, and search for it. But where would that be? Now that we have a process, we need a tool.

Here is a perfect application for a wiki. A wiki is a website that allows a community of users to easily add and edit content and is especially suited for collaborative writing. We've been finding that the wiki is a perfect place to plant organizational knowledge.

There are a number of wiki tools around. The inexpensive hosted wiki service EditMe can be started in minutes, and costs as little as $5.00 a month. At Members Only Software we've been using it to build our new Help System for our applications, and we're really impressed. Especially when you consider it is hosted - no installation or maintenance!

An Editme wiki allows you to upload attachments to each page, to allow comments on the page, and to determine which users can edit a page and which can only read. You can set the rights differently on each page. Readers can view the history so they can see who made what changes. Users can see an index of page titles, or search the entire site for specific text. Of course the editor makes it very easy to put in hyperlinks to other wiki pages or external sites. To stay up with new information, users can request that the system automatically email them every day with links to all changes made the day before.

How would you use it in daily life? Suppose someone sends you an email with valuable information in it. Don't remain the only one who get access this information - cut and paste it into the wiki. You download a pdf from your software vendor's site. Attach it to a page in the wiki. As you start integrating the wiki into your workflow, you realize it can become the first place you put information. When someone one your staff asks you a question about your fundraising software, for example, don't email them the answer. Add the answer to the wicki knowledge-base, and then email your user a link. The next time someone asks the same question, the answer is already there to be re-used. But before you do, ask them why they didn't search the wiki before bugging you!
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Comments on "Growing Organizational Knowledge"


Blogger Paul Morriss said ... (March 6, 2006 at 5:56 AM) : 

That's a great idea. I've got a process manual that needs a better implementation, and though I'm aware of wikis I never thought of using them.

It sounds like you're proposing this as a hypothetical solution. I'd be interested in hearing your experiences from when it has been used (by you, or anyone else reading this).


Blogger Michael Stein said ... (March 6, 2006 at 8:15 AM) : 

We've actually put our core manual into a wiki and have one client using it as a test. Shortly we will be providing it to several others. I don't have any real feedback yet from the one who is using it, or a sense of how it is going.
In house, we have a more structured way of managing this, in our project management system.


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