We live in the Information age (yes, I’m sure this is a big shock to some). The reality of the Internet as it stands today is that it has not only provided us with some really spectacular ways to keep track of information, but it has also raised the expectations of the general public with regards to information. No longer is it acceptable to suggest someone read a book on a topic; now, if you are looking for information, it’s off to Google, Wikipedia, various forums and blogs. This isn’t to say that this is a bad thing – quite the contrary, I think it’s great. For example, I use MediaWiki to catalog recipes and ingredients, as well as to cross-reference all these tidbits. This model works very well for me, since I tend to be the kind of person that starts at one place, and ends up somewhere entirely different.
Especially in technical fields, it is absolutely essential to document as much information as possible. As I have become fond of saying, “If I get hit by a bus, all that value in my brain is lost.” As well, the human brain can be rather unreliable – it would be like plugging your servers in to the wall without a UPS. So, what can a company do? Well, there are several options when it comes to Knowledge Management. The first thing that needs to be done is assessing what your needs are.
Blogs are a good way to keep in touch with your customers, but it isn’t a great way to track information and issues; it’s more on the PR end of the scale. It’s also a good way to solicit feedback, especially if you are a developer and want someone to try something.
Forums are a bit more interactive than blogs, but aren’t as classy looking. Also, moderation can be a real pain. However, you do tend to get a lot more user feedback, and it can appear that you are opening yourself up more to the general public.
A really excellent (and very easy to get started) way to get knowledge in a more permanent and shared form is a wiki. The most well-known and broad wiki out there of course is Wikipedia. Personally, I’ve been very pleased with the Open Source app that works its magic, namely MediaWiki, but there are plenty of options out there. My only gripe is the search features in most wikis, but if it’s indexed on something like Google, you can get around that problem.
On the higher-end of the scale are Knowledge Bases. These are usually more complex, proprietary applications (though I have little doubt that there are some good Open Source apps), which allow you to more formally document known issues, workarounds, and common questions.
So, you’ve picked your app (or combination), installed and configured to your heart’s content. Now what? Well, now you need to populate it. In the case of wikis and Knowledge Bases, you will be writing most or all of your content. In a larger organization, this can mean that entire groups must now be directed to enter information, some of which is sitting in their heads. There can be resistance to this, as some people think that by putting the information from their brain on to a searchable medium, they decrease their overall value, and in fact may even make themselves obsolete (this occurs more so in technical fields). However, by authoring articles or entries, they can decrease the time it takes to answer questions, as well as deflect things that may seem relatively simple, which means that they will improve their own productivity overall.