The Way We Work

“Sharing knowledge is a synergistic process – you get more out than you put in.”
David Gurteen, knowledge management consultant, speaker and facilitator

What makes your business unique? Whether you realize it or not, your company has its own “secret sauce”: a competitive edge that generates revenue and wins new customers. While that success is partly built on external-facing factors (such as a stellar product or insanely great customer service), it also depends on something even more fundamental: specialized knowledge.

The knowledge that undergirds your company’s operations is an intangible asset, yet it clearly has an impact on tangible results. It encompasses the nitty-gritty details of your approach to source code, competitive market intelligence, accounting operations, data analytics – basically any and every process that keeps your business ticking.

The problem with specialized knowledge

For many distributed teams, the problem is not how to apply your organization’s specialized knowledge, but how to share it. Without access to this needed information, your team can’t be as effective.

Too often, vital knowledge is held by just a handful of team members. This turns these individuals into either an information bottleneck, because everyone needs to go through them to access that knowledge, or a brain drain when they leave – taking valuable know-how with them.

Another issue arises when discussions occur within subsets of the team and aren’t fully communicated to everyone else who should be in the loop. This impedes collaboration, and frustration often ensues.

Getting the right information to the right people

The answer to these harmful knowledge silos? Establishing a transparent flow of information and a central site for knowledge access. Here are some ideas on how to make that happen:

1. Prioritize the information that matters

There’s a lot of data stored in your team’s collective conscience and, despite the importance of distributing key information, the truth is that much of it doesn’t need to be shared. Knowledge management strategies that get bogged down trying to capture irrelevant data are headed for failure.

In order to figure out what’s important, first poll team members. What information do they see as valuable for their jobs? Your team will be much more engaged in sharing and learning when the focus is on topics that are meaningful to them.

Next, find out who the “go-to” people are within the team. Which freelancers are constantly fielding questions from others? Which ones have the most history on the team? The knowledge these freelancers possess is an important business asset, and you need to figure out how to transfer their expertise to others.

2. Record the (electronic) paper trail

For distributed teams, relying solely on certain communication methods such as email, phone calls and Skype can be problematic. Why? Because the knowledge shared through these outlets is hard to keep track of.

Using programs such as Evernote, OnTime Team Wiki or Campfire instead allows you to keep records of conversations and enable easy sharing and tagging of information for later reference.

Paul DeJoe, co-founder of sales productivity tool Ecquire, recognized the importance of this “paper trail”; to keep the information flow transparent, Ecquire’s team avoids using email for internal matters. Instead, they use Flow and HipChat to keep the knowledge exchange accessible to everyone.

“It just seemed inefficient to use email as an exchange among the team when most of the thoughts, questions and exchanges were around ideas, tasks or projects anyway,” he commented. “If we keep them in Flow then everyone is privy to the thoughts and exchanges. They’re not in a silo.”

3. Make it standard to document and share new discoveries

According to a study by the University of Colorado, knowledge sharing will only succeed when the process is actively encouraged from the top down. Your freelancers need to know that you view this as essential!

The same study also pointed out that knowledge sharing must fit the employees’ existing work habits. Get input from your team members on how they keep track of the information surrounding their job. Set up a process that plugs into their workflow as seamlessly as possible.

Another idea is to employ wiki-style documents. If an answer to a question could be applicable to multiple parties, forgo email and instead type it up in the wiki and share the link. Use a standardized tag set so people can find the information they need within the document quickly.

Finally, any knowledge-sharing database must be a living document. Give employees freedom to update as needed and to edit each others’ work. This requires a certain level of trust, but if you’ve hired a good team, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Sharing the “burden” of knowledge

Knowledge sharing is essential for efficiency and effective collaboration. But its benefits run far deeper.

In his 2009 paper, The Burden of Knowledge, Benjamin Jones pointed out that the ability to reach new levels of knowledge is highly dependent on the learning (and thus sharing) of discovered information.

“If knowledge accumulates as technology advances,” he wrote, “then successive generations of innovators may face an increasing educational burden.”

In other words, to increase innovation, your team members need each other. The “educational burden” must be tackled together. As individual freelancers share needed know-how with their teammates, your business’ “collective mind” will deepen and your distributed team can blaze new trails.

How does your team share and track information? How do you avoid knowledge silos? Share your insights in the comments section below.

Julia Camenisch

Contributing Author

Julia Camenisch is a freelance technology and business journalist. She also works as an editor and copywriter for a wide range of clients, including national magazines, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Julia brings to Upwork a passion for empowering small businesses through the innovative use of technology.