How to choose the best tool for successful and scalable knowledge management

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Mark Vletter

16 Sep 2022 Clock 9 min

Mark is a rebel with a cause according to some. An eccentric lunatic and business hippie according to others. We know him as the founder of Voys. Here he reflects on 15 years of learning to build a second brain for organizations. This has been the hidden success factor of companies like WordPress, Gitlab and Voys. Learn how to capture and maximize the combined knowledge of the people that work in your organization in the first of this three-part blog series and upcoming video.

Equal access

Everyone having access to the same information. It’s an essential part of equal collaboration. But, as simple as it sounds, for many organizations it is not a default to have knowledge available to all colleagues. At the same time, more and more people are working remotely or on a hybrid basis. I strongly feel that knowledge management is the key for organizations to scale up, grow and prosper.

In this blog I’ll tell you why many knowledges systems fail, how to choose a tool that works for your organization and which tool we use at Voys to keep our knowledge fully accessible and up-to-date.

Why do knowledge bases fail?

Knowledge bases were invented to make work easier. In practice, however, many knowledge bases actually make work more difficult. The information is outdated, incomplete, not up to date or can’t be found.

In many organizations, people solve this by “asking someone who knows.” This is a short-term solution that works: you can swiftly get back on track with your task, project, or research. But in the long run, it doesn’t help the organization. The information has been transferred from one person to another. And the rest of the colleagues? They still have no idea.

Sharing information on a personal level has three problems:

  1. It’s not scalable: you repeat the process of information sharing over and over again
  2. A lot of information resides with one person: if that colleague is not there or leaves the company, a problem arises
  3. You interrupt others in their work, which puts that person off their flow. According to a study by the University of California Irvine, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to work. Now just imagine getting five questions a day.

Why is information in the knowledge base incomplete and not up to date?

There are several reasons why many knowledge bases are not complete and up-to-date. These are the most common problems within organizations:

  • No login In many organizations you need a separate login for a knowledge base. This creates a barrier to entering or changing the knowledge base.
  • Not user-friendly enough If a knowledge base is not user-friendly, people will not use it.
  • No admin rights Often people do not have the ability to change information themselves. The knowledge base is locked by default by the author.
  • No decent search function The information is in the system, somewhere. But people can’t find it, so the knowledge is not used.

So people either don’t have access to the system; have access but don’t know how it works; know how it works but can’t find, change, add or update information. So having a knowledge base is not enough – you need a knowledge base that people actually use.

How to choose the right knowledge management tool

Because not every company has the same needs, there is no perfect tool that works for every organization. That’s why it’s important to choose a tool that fits the specific requirements of your organization.

Still, there are a few things that make choosing the right tool for your knowledge management easier:

  • Access with existing accounts in the organization: there is no barrier to using the tool, because logging in (with a Google account, for example) is a familiar procedure
  • User-friendliness is key: the tool is easy to use, both in viewing and editing information
  • Familiar interface: choose a tool that resembles the interface of the programs your colleagues are using now, so they can find their way around faster
  • Lightweight and fast: a slow system that takes ages to load is not used by anyone and only leads to frustration
  • Simple linking: a hyperlink refers to an entire page or a specific element within a page, making information easier to find
  • One system for the whole organization: choose a tool that is suitable for everyone and not just one team. This enables members of the entire organization to exchange information with each other

The knowledge base at Voys: these are the steps we took

At Voys, we have used several tools for our knowledge management. We have switched tools a few times over the past 16 years. Sometimes because a better alternative appeared on the market, but also because the needs of our growing organization changed.

This is also where the scalability factor comes into play: if your organization grows, your tools will not always grow with it. A tool is a means, not an end. So as soon as you notice that a tool slows down the sharing of information, it is time to take action.

We started with Mediawiki, the tool that Wikipedia uses, along with our CRM. We called these systems “our memory”. Every time someone had a question, we’d say, ‘Look it up in our Wiki.’ And if it’s not in there, put it in there.’

Our memory became our biggest competitive advantage. Our CRM was open and contained all communication, including email, so it was very easy to take over each other’s work.

Our Wiki contained everything you needed to know to do the work.

  • This is how you register international phone numbers
  • This is how we do our taxes
  • This is how we configure a Cisco SPA504g to work on our platform

If you found a better way to do the work, you just updated the Wiki page. Everyone was always up to date.

Onboarding a new colleague was a breeze and helping our customers was easy. We even opened up part of the system to our customers, so they could find relevant information themselves. If our Memory described a way to do things, but you wanted to do it differently, that was fine. Memory was not a rulebook: it was meant to guide, not determine.

Then we made the switch to Google Sites. This was convenient because it eliminated the need for a separate login. Also, at that time, Google Sites was a lot more user-friendly than Mediawiki, because it didn’t require you to learn any new markup language rules. When Google Sites was updated to a new version, we basically had to rebuild everything. The new Google Sites was slow and had too many options for us, making it a very heavy tool.

On top of that, Google Sites was getting pretty messy. Because people were copy-pasting from Google Drive documents, maintaining some sort of standard became complicated. The tool moved more and more toward building websites. Finally, Google Search in both Google Drive and Google Sites is surprisingly bad.

Notion for knowledge management: the tool we use now

We needed a real knowledge base and not a website. We noticed that after years of successful knowledge management we were starting to slack off. Information was becoming outdated and teams were using their own systems. Everything we did not want. It was time to find a good solution, usable for the entire organization.

After researching different tools, we ended up with Notion. In Notion, it is very convenient and easy to create a ‘normal’ knowledge base. The barrier to entry is low, the interface is simple and Notion has some very strong advanced features you’ll learn to use along the way. In addition, Notion has strong database components. That makes the system scalable, durable and able to integrate into different workflows.

Of course we didn’t take any chances: after extensive experiments to test how Notion would work for us in practice, we concluded that it is currently the best tool for both all colleagues from novice to expert.

The benefits of Notion for our organization

  • Notion is user friendly
  • The tool is fast and therefore easy to use
  • Notion is very good at linking to different pages on the same topic (in multiple ways)
  • We can login with our existing Google accounts
  • All pages are open for editing by default
  • Blocks of information can be synchronized across multiple pages

Is Notion then the ideal tool?

Notion is a very good tool, and for our organization, it is definitely the best choice. But, to be fair, Notion is not perfect. Its default open nature, which is a basic advantage, has one major drawback: it is very easy to break something. And that can sometimes have major consequences. Novice users in particular may be shocked when they accidentally break something. The search feature of Notion should also be improved.

A safe company culture makes knowledge management better

We believe in making mistakes. Because you learn from mistakes. We prefer to see colleagues share their mistakes with the organization because then we all learn from them. Because we have created a safe basis within the organization, colleagues are more likely to start working with Notion.

We also provide training and individual coaching on the use of Notion. We have a few colleagues who are real Notion wizards. They understand exactly how the tool works and also know how to solve it when someone makes a mistake.

You can reach these colleagues via a Slack channel in which anyone can ask questions about Notion. By making these questions public, everyone learns from them, and as soon as communication becomes information it’s moved to Notion again. In addition, these colleagues are always open to an (online) meeting in which they give a general step-by-step explanation or help with a specific issue.

These four elements are the essence of knowledge management

There are four elements that are essential for your knowledge management to succeed, no matter which tool you choose.

  • Everything is open by default
  • Everything can be changed by default by anyone
  • We describe the optimal way of working, but that is not the only way of working
  • Making mistakes is not a problem, we can fix them

I cannot emphasize the importance of these four ingredients enough. In my opinion, it is the only way to make knowledge management work at scale.

Knowledge management in your organization

What tool are you using for knowledge management? I’d love to chat with you further. You can find me on Twitter as @markv

Follow our Notion blog series

Part 2: Getting started with Notion: this is what our knowledge base looks like

Part 3: Adding structure to Notion: this is how you make information in your company easy to find

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