Everyone who wants to streamline a business and improve its operational efficiency must build a company knowledge base.
Knowledge base is a way to “copy” information from the heads of employees into one place. In the knowledge economy, what your employees know, and the processes they follow are what make up your business.
Without all the knowledge documented, losing the key employee will set your organization many steps back. That’s the potential loss in the performance.
Similarly, onboarding employees requires getting them up to speed quickly with the business’s systems and processes. They can “learn on the job” through trial and error and by talking to managers. OR you can expedite this process and turn them into efficient employees without wasting the first few months of productivity. A detailed knowledge base will fast track onboarding new staff.
Those are just a few common uses of a company knowledge base. The biggest gains can be capitalized on when that knowledge that is currently in the employee’s heads is structured and improved.
In this article, we will explore three key areas required to build a great company knowledge base:
1) Knowledge base fundamental principles
2) Information architecture
3) How you can create your unique knowledge base
In this article, you will learn precisely how to think about the knowledge base and will be able to build one without wasting time through trial and error.
There are tons of software tools for information and process documentation. However, the biggest challenge is to structure information in the most useful and practical way. If done wrong, your whole effort might be wasted. That’s why the “how-to” is the last part we are going to explore.
“A knowledge base is a self-serve online library of information about a product, service, department, or topic.”
Your knowledge base may include processes, troubleshooting instructions, manuals, FAQs, and any information that your team may need to know.
When all of the information is at the fingertips of employees, they will be educated and capable of working independently. And that means unnecessary communication loops avoided and less rework. It’s like building “the internet,” but for your organization.
Although your knowledge base may cover just a minimal area of your entire company (such as customer service), it’s best to integrate it across your entire company.
The key functions of an effective knowledge base:
Knowledge bases or some of its parts are not limited to internal use. It can also be used externally to help customers get up to speed. That’s particularly common for service businesses that use onboarding guides, FAQs, or status reports to update or onboard clients.
The main benefit of a knowledge base is to get information out of people’s heads.
I call this the information leverage. If you explain to a newcomer how the company works, that may take 3h of your time. To onboard the second person, you will still need to spend 3h. Whereas, documenting this exact information in a guide or simply recording the call may take 3.5h in total. But onboarding the next employee will take you no time at all.
This is how documenting your knowledge can give you infinite leverage on your time.
Fundamentally, it brings the following advantages:
1) Reduced communication overhead
2) Available self-serve info based on need
3) Faster work
4) Improved efficiency through iteration
5) Minimized risk of key hires leaving
6) Simplified company scaling
The most significant benefit, in my opinion, is the fact that when information is documented, you can identify mistakes more easily and improve operations.
Think about it as a multiplication of large numbers in your head. It gets challenging fast, and mistakes get made. But when you do multiplication on paper, all of the information is right there in front of you, and following simple multiplication rules get your the right answers without much effort.
Reducing cognitive load is crucial because that brain muscle can be used elsewhere.
When processes are documented, you can spot inefficiencies much quicker. Moreover, team members can collaborate to improve things together.
A few popular items that your knowledge base may include:
You can document action items, recordings to revisit, and key decisions. In this way, not only will meetings be more effective, but also people who couldn’t attend will have the same information as those actually attended.
Department wiki often includes all of the collateral, playbooks, and processes that people in a department need to know. When all this data is in one place, people will be more informed.
Google’s mission statement is “to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.” The reason Google is so useful is that it gives us relevant information, not just any information.
The way you structure information will determine the way everyone is going to think about it.
A great knowledge database must be easy to navigate and have optimized information architecture.
For that purpose, we are going to use two principles:
1) Information Hierarchies
2) Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive (MECE)
Imagine if you were to write down everything about your business in a list form. This list will be so long and hard to navigate; no one will want to use it.
The bigger your business is, the higher is the level of complexity.
We shall organize information in a way allowing us to think in abstraction. You do not need to know how the engine of your car works to drive it. All you need to know is when you press the gas pedal, the car accelerates. The same principle applies here. Everyone needs to understand the big picture and be able to go a level deeper if required.
The lower you move down the information hierarchy, the more detailed knowledge you will get.
We organize our knowledge base following the value chain model, which includes eight key areas:
Each of these areas is broken down into categories unique to the department. For example, Human Resources will include the following:
- Corporate Policy, etc.
If one knowledge base article can be used in two different areas, it’s not organized correctly and will confuse your team.
Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive is a framework developed by McKinsey (world's top business consulting firm) as the optimum of information arrangement. Every employee learns this principle from the very beginning of his career and uses it in any type of activity - whether it is searching for information, communicating with clients, drawing up a business plan, or speaking for a conference.
The essence of the MECE principle is to create a list in which the segments do not overlap, and each element takes place in only one segment (for example, the division of people by age groups - < 18, 19-24, 25-35, 36-45, 46-60, 61+).
Building a knowledge base is not particularly difficult if you got the above-mentioned principles down.
Our knowledge base building process looks the following way:
Having a concrete objective in mind will serve as a guide to determine what you should document, how much details you should include, as well as to understand whether you are successful in achieving that mission.
Different departments should define KB objectives independently:
Strategy — everyone on our team knows the visions, 10-year goals, yearly objectives, and the current sprint superbly as well. People understand why they are working on the current initiatives and how those relate to accomplishing the bigger company goal.
Design — designers can find our brand book easily and understand our key design principles. Look and feel, design philosophy, fonts, and color palettes are all nicely documented. The entire user journey is documented, and appropriate assets (Figma) are linked.
And so on…
After you determine the objective, you can structure your knowledge base.
We begin by creating an information skeleton to accomplish the objective from step #1.
Remember to use information hierarchy and MECE principles.
You must decide what needs to be documented and what doesn’t. Some areas of the knowledge base may require just a few sentences, whereas others need pages upon pages of documentation.
If you set the right objectives, as mentioned above, you will easily understand and create the structure.
Here is an example of structuring Fulfillment section for an agency:
Selecting the right software for your knowledge base is really important. The main factor for us is reducing “friction” or task switching.
For example, if finding an article or process takes you ten clicks and 60 seconds instead of 3 clicks and 8 seconds, the usability of your knowledge base drops significantly. People will rarely want to get out of flow to look something up.
Google docs for that matter, is a bad tool. First, it takes ~10 seconds to open a document. Second, you cannot create a proper hierarchy since there are no “documents within documents.” So, in the end, you are left with either super long google docs or many folders.
Embedding files is also a must-have feature. You are far more likely to watch a video embedded inside a page than to open it on a different page.
Lastly, anyone should be able to edit with ease and collaborate. The knowledge base is a living document that evolves with the company.
All things considered, the best knowledge base tool by lang shot is Notion.
We recommend it to all of our clients.
The next step is to transfer all of the available information to your knowledge base software. Again, our goal is to reduce friction as much as possible.
Everything must be nicely organized and formatted to reduce complexity. That is why all of our strategy documents, marketing plans, and KPIs are in Notion.
In step #2, we’ve built the knowledge structure. The old documents were transferred to the appropriate places as a result. The remaining areas need to be built out.
Your knowledge base should be built out over time.
You shall not ask every employee to spend the next couple of days writing down everything they know. That’d disrupt work and may frustrate your team. Instead, employees should document their processes while they are executing on real live projects.
For example, say, you’d like to document the client onboarding process for web design services. The account manager (person responsible) shall be in charge of documenting that specific process and shall do it when she has the next web design client.
Inevitably, there will be missed information during documentation. In this case, the manager should go back and make adjustments in the doc. The original video shall still be good (unless it’s completely off). The video will be embedded in your knowledge base.
Documentation will save employees a lot of time and increase quality. Remember to make sure to get employees on board and excited about creating the knowledge base. At the end of the day, it’s meant to make their lives easier.
The more you practice documenting, the quicker you will find ways to improve them. Your knowledge base will be the driver to get better and better over time.
One of our clients, Brandon, who runs a 100-person sales team, kills two birds with one stone: process compliance and improvement.
It’s often the case that experienced salespeople prefer their ways of doing their job. Many are reluctant to follow the processes, and as a result, things don’t always go smoothly.
Brandon has a policy where new salespeople have 30 days to try out their unique way of doing their job. If at the end of the month, they hit better results than following Brandon’s process, they get to keep going with their system. The best parts of their system would be incorporated into the old one, and the entire sales department would increase efficiency.
Employees shall be rewarded for taking the initiative instead of micromanaged for process compliance.
Organization leaders must instill the culture of documenting knowledge and improving it. Eventually, the companywide improve itself bottom-up instead of top-down.
Building a knowledge base is a must-have to build leverage, improve efficiency, and empower the team.
Hierarchically structuring information and following the MECE framework will make it easier to navigate and identify knowledge gaps.
Knowledge bases should be built not just by the leadership, bu also by everyone who’s well-versed in the subject.
Your knowledge base is never complete. It will grow over time, and processes will improve. Keeping the majority of your docs in your knowledge base will reduce friction, and the team will be far more likely to read them.
If you want to learn more about streamlining your company and increasing its efficiency, consider watching our free training video, 4Ds, Value Chain, and Bottlenecks.