The why, what, how, who, and when of capturing your team's knowledge.
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Every business you’ve ever heard of has more or less the same goal, aside from making money, and that is to grow. Sometimes that means creating new employee roles that didn’t exist before, but it always means more training and mentoring. The process of bringing new team members onboard takes months, regardless of whether the business is growing or not.
When employees leave though, whether it’s intentional or out of their control, temporary or permanent, all of that training and onboarding has to happen again for their replacement. That’s because we keep our knowledge in our heads, rarely writing down how we do our jobs. Even when we do, it’s not usually in a place and format that the next person will find and want to use.
This usually results in new team members, after orientation is over, spending the first few days feeling overwhelmed and confused about what they need to do, the next few weeks bugging colleagues to ask how to do it, and the next few months trying to learn all the tricks and tips to do the job well. It’s so much wasted time!
The obvious solution to the problems above is to capture our employees’ knowledge of how they do their jobs on a daily basis, and make it accessible to new recruits. In the case of an accountant, for example, I don’t mean how to be an accountant; I mean how they work as an accountant in the context of your business.
We’ll need to capture things like what sort of emails they receive and how they respond to different types of requests, what documents they use on a regular basis and where to find them, which equipment they use and how to use it safely and efficiently, what software they use and how often, which people they need to speak to - including colleagues, clients, and suppliers - what important dates they need to keep in mind, and so on.
While we could ask our employees to write all this down, that won’t work, unfortunately, for too many reasons to list here. Instead, the best way is to have someone interview them thoroughly. Their answers can be written down, summarised, consolidated with the knowledge from the rest of the team, and put into one easy-to-access place.
While you could ask one of your staff to do this, it’s unlikely that you’ll have someone with these interviewing and technical skills, that also has the right sort of personal skills to conduct these interviews, and the time available to do it. To do it well, and to get it finished, you'll probably need to bring in someone to do it.
Capturing the knowledge is just the first step. This knowledge that we get from our team members needs to be put together in one place that’s easy to access. An internal “website” is ideal because it allows any team member to access it from their computer or phone, and it’s a great format for capturing knowledge, with its menus, pages, and search functionality. It should have a web address that everyone on the team knows, like “guide.ourcompany.com”.
Don’t let the word website scare you though; it should be much, much simpler than any ordinary business website. Simple enough that any savvy person can make it. It shouldn’t have any fancy layouts, fancy fonts or graphics, and only one simple header bar at the top with just one menu.
Since you’re probably wondering what sort of software we could use to build it, let’s get that out the way. There are many good options, but the most important thing to remember is this; it’s not about the technology. I’ll put that another way; it doesn’t matter how it gets built. What matters is communicating the knowledge. It could even be made with pen and paper and stuck up on the office walls, and it would be nearly as helpful (or maybe more helpful!) to your team.
That said, let’s talk about the options briefly. You might have heard of Notion, or Basecamp, or some other “knowledge base” software. They are good, but often they’re so full of features that they get distracting and confusing. In our experience, Google Sites is perfect for team knowledge sites. It’s super easy to use, but it has the features we need.
The site will have a bunch of pages on all sorts of topics of course, ranging from very broad topics like “leave” to very specific things like “how we create invoices for foreign clients”. Ultimately, the pages that your company’s team knowledge site has will be pretty specific to your company, but there will be a few generic pages that most organisations have.
So, how much information do we put on each page? How do we know if there’s too much knowledge to put onto just one page, and it needs a whole section of the site? Well, the best way to answer is to put yourself into the mind of your team; think what will be the easiest for them to find and read and learn from.
Each page of the site should contain sections with headings. A page titled “Creating a proposal” might have sections with headings like “Gathering client needs”, “Creating a outline”, “Writing the introduction”, etc. How we write these sections determines how successful our team knowledge site is, so let’s consider what one might look like.
We’ve written a whole article on The perfect Team Knowledge Site Section (go check it out after this), but essentially a section for one particular task can include the following elements:
When it’s completed, all your team members should be made familiar with the site and get comfortable using it. The employees who were interviewed while the site was being made may see its value but won’t know how to use it. You’ll probably need to organise an interactive training session for the company or the specific teams it’s for.
In that training session, things that should be explained are why the team knowledge site is needed, how it can help solve problems, a brief tour of the site, how it will be used by new employees who join or employees who have to fill in for someone else, and how the experienced team members can use it to brush up on their skills.
Hopefully those last points in the paragraph above trigger a question about when and how exactly the team will use it. For on-boardinging new team members, it’s really effective for an experienced team member to go through the relevant sections with the new employee as part of their training. It’ll make training faster and far more effective. Experienced team members should use the site whenever they have a question like “How do we do X?”, but they should also go through it at regular intervals, such as twice a year during some sort of scheduled internal training or meeting. That will ensure that it remains just as useful to the team as the company grows and evolves.
Team members that aren’t new will need to be reminded about the team knowledge site, because it won’t be right in front of them. Discussing it should be written into the agenda of meetings. Questions like the following can then be asked: “Who’s using it?” and “How independent is the site making our employees?”.
Reminder notes should also be put up in employees’ working environment (wherever their desk or workstation may be). These reminders can say something like “Not sure how to do it? Use our team knowledge site at ‘guide.ourcompany.com’”.
Now you know the sort of struggles businesses face by regularly losing team members and their knowledge. You know how our team members can be interviewed to gather their how-to knowledge, and how this can be made into a helpful team knowledge site. And you know how we can embed the site into the regular workings of our team so that they use it for its full potential.
We hope you’ve found this helpful, and go and get your own team knowledge site made! Please let us know if you do and how valuable you find it.