Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Institutional Knowledge Is The Default

This article is a follow up to my previous post on the topic of institutional knowledge.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Please don't interpret my recent post as a claim of personal innocence when it comes to accumulating institutional knowledge. I have completed many projects in my time that are completely devoid of, or seriously lacking in adequate documentation.

I realized long ago that the only way to avoid becoming emotionally paralyzed by constant feelings of inadequacy is to acknowledge my own shortcomings and work hard to improve myself day by day. By staying disciplined and focusing on continuous improvement, my recent projects have been more thoroughly documented than those from only a few years ago.

The Pit Of Despair

Eric Lippert writes about the pit of despair as a place where the traps are easy to fall into and difficult to climb out of. Unfortunately, institutional knowledge fits this description to a tee.

We constantly pick up valuable little nuggets of information as we go about our duties. Sometimes these are technical details about the systems we're working with. Other times, it may simply be the knowledge of who is already an expert in a given area.Tapping into the institutional knowledge of others can be more valuable than struggling to discover everything for yourself.

There is nothing wrong with this knowledge in and of itself. This knowledge can be used to unlock further discoveries and make key decisions that allows us to avoid disasters and achieve success. The problem is that the knowledge is trapped inside a lone individual's head. Without further action, we end up continuously accumulating more and more institutional knowledge. Institutional knowledge is the default and we must act deliberately if we intend to avoid it.

Why We Despair

Knowledge is tremendously valuable. As G.I. Joe has taught us, "knowing is half the battle." This is why distributing institutional knowledge is so important to any group of people working towards a common goal. When knowledge is trapped within a single mind, its potential is limited to that one individual. Time is wasted, uninformed decisions are made, and existing work is duplicated unnecessarily. From a business perspective, institutional knowledge is clearly bad for the bottom line.

I am about to draw a moral line in the sand. Neglecting to share institutional knowledge is regrettable, but intentionally hoarding knowledge to the detriment of the team in order to further one's own selfish ends is reprehensible. This is comparable to the salesman who viciously defends his "territory" from his coworkers to protect his own commissions. Not only does it reduce the collective effectiveness of the team, but it fosters and air of hostility and inhibits sharing important details needed to succeed.

Scaling The Walls

How then, do we climb out of the pit of despair and tiptoe around the pitfalls waiting to drag us back down? I'm no expert on this topic, but I'll share some of the things I do in my attempt to scale the walls and share my knowledge with my coworkers.

One of the best tools available at my workplace for sharing knowledge is our internal company wiki. Any pages I create on the wiki are immediately available to be searched, read, and modified by our entire company. These days, whenever I start a new project I will immediately create a new wiki page describing the basic purpose of the project and how it will work. As I continue to develop the project, I frequently edit the page with the most up-to-date understanding of the available details. As for my writing, I try to follow many of Joel Spolsky's excellent tips for writing functional specifications.

Another great way to ensure you're not accumulating institutional knowledge is to pay attention to the questions people ask. Sometimes people ask lazy questions. When they ask about something you've already covered, simply point them to the relevant documentation. If, on the other hand, they've done their homework and still require missing details or clarification, consider this a flaw in your documentation. Recognize the flaw, modify the documentation, and think about how to improve for the next time around.

On the same token, any time you find yourself asking for assistance, it's a likely sign that someone else has a collection of hidden institutional knowledge. Ask them if there's documentation, and suggest (or insist) that they write some. If nothing else, write down whatever lessons you've learned from your interactions.

Do You Validate?

Words of caution: just because you wrote some documentation, it doesn't mean that it's adequate.

When it comes to documentation, if I can't find it, it doesn't exist. You may have written a 500-page treatise covering every last detail of uses and maintenance of your paper clip system including a full bibliography, glossary, and footnotes on every page. It pays me exactly zero benefit if I can't find the document after giving an honest effort to search for it in all the expected places.

Just because instructions are clear to you, that doesn't necessarily mean that they will be clear to everyone. Each person is familiar with his own style. Things that appear straightforward to you may be ambiguous or unclear to others. Instructions that seem obvious to an experienced user may involve hidden steps unknown to a novice.

A great way to check for these flaws is to ask someone to validate your documentation for you. I find this particularly effective in the case of a documented procedure. In the spirit of hallway usability testing, ask a coworker to start from scratch and try to achieve your documented goal. Watch from a distance and note every time that they get stuck or confused. Later, add additional notes for clarification. Once another person can follow your documentation with minimal fuss, then you can be confident that someone else can perform the task when you're gone.

Still No Expert

As noted previously, I am not to be considered an expert in these matters. Listed above are some tips that I've found useful in sharing my institutional knowledge with my coworkers. What are are the best tips and tricks you have for avoiding the pit of despair and sharing your own institutional knowledge? Tell me in the comments.


Joshua Ganes

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