The Important Job of Making What You Know Clear and Accessible

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Knowledge management activities have a symbiotic relationship with an organization’s culture.

Perhaps the signature trait of our species isn’t the smarts any one person might possess, but the knowledge we can collectively accumulate. The annoying or maddening thing, of course, is our tendency to forget. We can know great, useful things—like that on occasion rocks large and small, full of fabulous metals, can fall from the sky—and then lose that information. The ancient Egyptians had a special term for iron arriving from the heavens, which they fashioned into tools and weapons. And yet thousands of years later, the revolutionary physicist Isaac Newton regarded meteorite impacts as tall tales told by attention-hungry peasants. (The cosmochemist Greg Brennecka in his excellent new book Impact: How Space Rocks Led to Life, Culture, and Donkey Kong ultimately blames Aristotle for this blunder.)

This is just one way of pointing out that “knowledge management” is a perennial problem—for civilizations and, albeit on a smaller and perhaps less grand of a scale, for businesses, too. It’s expensive to relearn or rediscover effective practices and useful procedures, and it’s time-consuming to search for information that otherwise might be easily accessible, if the appropriate infrastructure were in place. So, to avoid these costs, companies might do well to have someone be a Director of Knowledge Management—someone, that is to say, like Dana Tessier, who performs this role at Shopify, one of the world’s most successful tech businesses. 

If organizations want their employees to share their knowledge, the senior management team must be the ones to start first.

Tessier is also the editor (and contributing author) of a new book, The Handbook of Research on Organizational Culture Strategies for Effective Knowledge Management and Performance. She and her coauthors tout knowledge management, or KM, as eminently rational, especially during the pandemic, which has and is causing workplaces worldwide to fragment and go remote. “Implementing a knowledge management (KM) strategy can help organizations improve operational effectiveness, innovation, and adapt to changes,” the book’s description states, “but the majority of KM implementations fail due to misalignment with the organization’s existing culture.” (The book is available now, and Tessier is pleased to offer a 50 percent discount. Here’s the code you’ll need: IGI50.) 

We caught up with Tessier recently to discuss the book, her role at Shopify, how knowledge management can impact ethical culture, and what got her interested in her line of work. “Knowledge management” doesn’t really strike a romantic sort of note, yet Tessier said, “It felt meant to be.”

Would you say that Shopify has a knowledge-driven culture?

Yes. Employees are taught to share knowledge with each other and see this activity as beneficial, and there are many positive examples of our leaders doing the same. 

What role do you think knowledge management can play in fostering and maintaining an ethical organizational culture?

By engaging in knowledge-management practices, organizations can ensure their values, processes, and procedures are well-documented, discoverable, and usable. This helps organizations maintain an ethical culture by clearly providing a definition of what this means to the organization and how to uphold this value. By providing examples of how this has been done in the past, and ensuring these practices are known as “how we do things around here,” this can greatly help organizations have the correct reinforcing artifacts that will help maintain their ethical organizational culture.

What are some of the most common or most consequential missteps or mistakes that companies make in their knowledge-management efforts?

Many organizations attempt to solve knowledge management challenges with only technology, rather than a more holistic approach that considers the needs of their employees and their processes. Employees need to understand the benefits of knowledge management to their day-to-day work and how this helps them in order to trust this process and engage appropriately. They need the time to participate fully in these activities, and they need to feel rewarded for these efforts.

How would you describe the link, if there is one, between knowledge management and a company’s culture?

Knowledge management activities have a symbiotic relationship with an organization’s culture. A culture built on trust, transparency, and communication will have an easier time implementing knowledge-management activities than a culture where employees are not trusted with information from management, are focused too heavily on outputs, and are on a “need to know only” basis. If organizations want their employees to share their knowledge, the senior management team must be the ones to start first. 

You’re contributing a chapter to a new book on knowledge management in which you provide, you write, an “overview of how trust develops, the different barriers to trust in knowledge-sharing, and practical strategies for building a high-trust culture to promote knowledge sharing while navigating new ways of working in remote and hybrid models.” Could you briefly expand on each of these points?

Yes! I wrote this chapter, as well as edited the book and wrote a second chapter on how to enable knowledge flows through an organization. In the chapter on trust, I explore how trust is a critical element when building knowledge management in an organization. I also explore how our new remote and distributed environments are impacting our ability to build trust, and how we can navigate this new environment to ensure we are able to build trust, share knowledge, and get the benefits of our knowledge-management activities which are typically improving organizational effectiveness, innovation, and productivity. 

Trust is developed over time, and typically through several interactions. Due to our remote-working styles, we have less visual cues about each other and this has negatively impacted our ability to build trust. We require trust to accept knowledge from each other because we need to believe the other party is benevolent, honest, and credible. In our digital environments, we may interact with a person’s content asynchronously before we ever interact with that person, and so we need to extend our trust building to include trusting the systems we use to share knowledge. 

Organizations can navigate this challenge by ensuring teams are encouraged to spend time together to get to know each other, and that even in a remote environment trust building exercises are prioritized. Also, by providing more context on digital content, they can provide important cues that will help employees build trust with that system, such as author, author bio, last updated date, and where to reach out with questions are all simple indicators that can help build trust. 

When you started working at Shopify, in 2015, what sort of culture around knowledge management did you find there?

I was actually amazed at how many elements of the culture would lead to great knowledge management. On my first visit to our head office, I saw signs that said, “Do Things, Tell People,” which indicated a culture that wanted to share their knowledge with each other. There are regular Town Halls to share knowledge from different parts of the company and the executive team. Even in 2015, we had a centralized repository to store knowledge. Shopify employees genuinely want to help each other by sharing their knowledge and a lot of folks take the time to write documents and do just that. I started to wonder—why did they need me? And then I discovered that while the spirit to share was alive and well, the structure and the maintenance of this sharing did not exist yet, and there was resistance to implementing bad processes and so this had to be properly navigated if we were going to make progress on knowledge management at Shopify. 

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Can you describe what you wanted to achieve for Shopify at that time, when you first started? That is, how much of their knowledge-management practices did you see going well and want to continue, and how much did you want to change, or add?

The Support team had just transitioned to a remote and distributed team structure. This is the team that was feeling the most pain from a lack of a knowledge-management system. We make jokes that supporting Shopify is like supporting the entire internet—there are many ways that our product integrates with a variety of other services, and concepts like search-engine optimization, marketing, and shipping can be complicated for first-time business owners. Our goal with knowledge management was to ensure that Support was set up for success by having the knowledge they needed to do their job, when they needed it. 

This required creating both a product-release process, and a process of continuously maintaining content to ensure it always held the latest and greatest since things change quickly in a hyper-growth company! The Support team did have a number of documents already created in our centralized repository, however they were hard to find and, due to a lack of maintenance, not all documents were trusted. Our first priority was to clean up the existing documentation and broadcast these activities to rebuild trust with our internal documentation. 

Can you give us a sense of how widespread knowledge management is, as a company function or focus, in business as a whole? 

Knowledge management is a somewhat new field (been around since the 90s) but it has had its ups and downs. Many organizations attempt to “do knowledge management” by implementing some sort of SharePoint or Intranet project that is managed by the IT team and have a “if they build it, they will come” approach and this has failed many times. It is commonly quoted that 80 percent of knowledge management implementations fail. 

However, with the move to more remote and hybrid work, I see an even greater need than before for organizations to ensure they are capturing critical knowledge and making it discoverable so that their employees have the information they need to do their jobs. Products like enterprise search, intranets, and asynchronous communication tools are critical for our new remote and hybrid environment, and when these are implemented with knowledge-management best-practices in mind, they are more successful and less overwhelming for employees. 

When I began at Shopify, there were not many knowledge management teams out there in tech companies, and I had not met another Director of Knowledge Management at that time. However, in the past few years, I have met many more and heard of more and more companies embracing the need for better documentation and discoverability of their critical knowledge, although they don’t always call this activity knowledge management. 

What projects are you focusing on now in your role at Shopify?

One of my favorite things about knowledge management is that it is never done—we are constantly iterating and improving. Currently, we are focused on our internal-knowledge repository to ensure it is meeting our needs as we grow, and experimenting with ways to keep content up-to-date easier. We have teams that have very mature knowledge-management practices due to their size and scale, and some that are more emergent and at the beginning of their knowledge-management journey, so we will continue to bring these best practices to more teams so that they can easily find the information they need to do their job. 

You started doing this sort of work at another company, Pivotal Payments, which, according to your LinkedIn, you started working for while you were in college at Concordia studying literature and writing. How did you get interested in knowledge management while at Pivotal Payments? And did that work encourage you to get a masters degree at McGill in information science/knowledge management?

Yes, my work at Pivotal inspired me to get my masters degree at McGill in information science specializing in knowledge management. We didn’t have documented procedures at the time so, being an eager student, I wanted to practice my professional writing skills and create these procedures. This led me to writing the training manual, which then led to conducting training, and developing a quality-assurance process. Eventually, I was leading all these practices and our new VP of Operations told me that what I did was knowledge management, specifically how I went about learning from our quality-assurance process to enhancing documentation or training to improve overall performance. I had never heard this term before and I thought he made it up! I Googled “knowledge management” and discovered this was definitely my thing, and due to the Google Ad Words that popped up, I realized I was only a 15 minute walk away from one of the only universities in Canada that had a knowledge-management program. It felt meant to be. 

What were some key things you learned about knowledge management from your education at McGill and your time at Pivotal Payments?

Going to school for knowledge management and working in the field at the same time was a huge blessing. I was able to learn about something in the morning, and then try it out that afternoon. I learned how to identify critical knowledge and organize it and display it in a way that improved discoverability, and overall usability of this knowledge. If you write something down and no one can find it, you’re not going to see the benefits of that action.

Brian Gallagher is the Communications Director at Ethical Systems. Follow him on Twitter @bsgallagher.