4 Ways Startups use Knowledge Management Tools to Outrun the Competition

If you’ve never worked at a startup, chances are that you’ve never quite felt the “hair on fire” moments that come with the rollercoaster ride of emotions experienced by its employees. It’s hard to describe other than to say it’s scary, exhilarating, stressful, fun, energizing and exhausting all at the same time. The end of your company’s financial runway is often approaching at break-neck speed as you try to find the elusive “product-market-fit”, so it eventually becomes obvious that time is the resource you struggle to preserve the most. That’s why startups clamor toward productivity tools so much; time is the startup team’s most precious resource.

One of the biggest time wasters experienced by startups is accessing and sharing the knowledge required to get work done. Yet, many fail to realize that prioritizing knowledge management tools, as un-sexy of a practice that might be, is often the antidote to growing pains in a not-so-distant future. In fact, with clear policies, procedures, and product documentation, startups have a new competitive advantage to fight off incumbents and monoliths.

With this in mind, we propose a four-part formula for ensuring that you proactively think about KM tools before the VCs stop returning your calls about your Series A round with 3 months of runway left and burning $200k/month… and you’re laying in bed the night before payroll, trying desperately to sleep but all you can think about is why you didn’t fix knowledge sharing months ago.

Commit to a documentation-first culture

Knowledge management is unique, in that, it is a problem that can plague almost every organization on the planet. Every organization has accumulated explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge. Explicit knowledge can be recorded and structured into an organizational knowledge asset with KM tools. Others can find it, reuse it, and collaborate on the knowledge. Tacit knowledge is the information and knowledge you keep in your head, and you can spew at will. It’s what we know that we don’t know. With this in mind, it’s not the volume, format or availability of this knowledge that makes it problematic but rather, the accessibility of the information. Changing habits is almost impossible, but creating good habits from day 1 is achievable—that’s why creating a culture around knowledge sharing and documentation is critical for success. Gitlab, an all-remote company, famously coined the term “handbook-first” and acts as a great role model for a company that lives and breathes through documenting and codifying internal knowledge.

In order to successfully enable this type of culture, we want to focus on two components: capture and search. The first ingredient, and arguably the more important part of the equation is capturing explicit knowledge: documents, code, manuals, websites, videos, presentations, procedures, etc., and ensuring it remains up to date. This requires awareness about what knowledge will have value for the team and to continuously add to your KM tools to expand their utility. Capturing knowledge doesn’t require that your team is writing Shakespeare-Esque prose—cut-and-paste snippets can be just as powerful and have tremendous value without any editing required. KM tools with a dedicated format for FAQs make this even easier to capture knowledge in the flow of work. You can also enable the transfer of tacit knowledge by creating open spaces for communication and discussions: like Slack channels or random Zoom meetings designed to spark spontaneous discussions between teammates unlikely to otherwise converse.

The second component of enabling a documentation-first culture is search. When you build a company that will rapidly scale during a period when wasted time is the most costly for the organization, you must stress the idea that people should always consider referencing the knowledge base or your other KM tools first, before they ask for assistance from a fellow team member. The sooner this is engrained in the culture or company values, the easier this habitual change will be. If new employees understand that the process within your organization is to seek self-service first, you won’t have to change bad habits later on. This dramatically improves productivity by reducing unnecessary interruptions. Having buy-in about what KM tools your organization will use furthers adoption of a documentation-first culture.

Onboarding: post-swag

Onboarding is arguably the most critical time in an employee’s tenure at your organization; it’s important to get this right. There are many facets to “onboarding”, but as it relates to KM tools you should focus on how to ensure new hires have good habits (search and capture) from day 1, and have all that they need at their fingertips. So, after the company swag has arrived, integrating knowledge search directly into the onboarding process means they will have access to the information they need for a seamless induction. Available KM tools can provide automated onboarding checklists and deliver answers to common questions when they need them. Do more than just show them how to access the vacation policy, the benefits forms and some other common FAQs direction, quiz them on it!

Finding knowledge is only half of the battle, though. Part two of integrating KM tools into onboarding is to ask the newcomers to contribute to the knowledge base. You could start with some easy things; like how they like their burrito for future lunch orders and work your way up to documenting a process that they discovered was not yet outlined in the onboarding process.

Investing in KM tools and knowledge management right in the onboarding process is like investing in the future productivity of your team as a whole. Don’t miss an opportunity to impress upon new hires the importance of KM tools and processes when they are most likely to take it to heart.

KM tools that communicate with the “Work OS”

What is your startup’s work Operating System (OS)? For many startups, the OS is the platform on which communication and collaboration occurs, like Slack. Platforms like Slack are the medium through which ideas and knowledge flow. It is inevitable that your team will share some of its most important documents, files and snippets here, therefore it’s critical that your KM tools are compatible with the platform. Slack has managed to succeed based on its extensibility. But, whichever platform you use, it must be built with the same commitment to integrations or you will be wasting precious time in sharing and maintaining knowledge through multiple platforms.

Optimally, your KM tools are completely compatible with your work operating system so that you can search, categorize and share anything that is important to your goal of reaching product-market-fit, faster.

The right format for ever-changing information in your startup

Let’s address the elephant in the room: startups often don’t prioritize a KM toolset or a documentation-first culture because things change too quickly. While this is absolutely true, getting in the habit of organizing your collective knowledge is much easier to do proactively than reactively—this is important but difficult to understand if you haven’t lived it. KM tools, if used properly, can alleviate the burden of outdated information with content verification reminders and simple content hierarchies. That’s how seasoned operators have been able to create competitive moats around their teams—by enabling strong documentation practices from day one.

Fancy verification features are great and a much-needed component of the KM tool evolution. However, what’s even more impactful is choosing the appropriate knowledge format when documenting your team’s collective knowledge. For example product documentation is going to change; ensure you’re using a robust editor that allows for collaboration so you can alleviate the burden on just one person. On the other hand, policies are less likely to change that often and should be organized in long-form but never buried into an endless array of folders. You could also consider sales scripts or common customer support answers to be documented using a more ephemeral format like FAQs—given the fact these are likely to change more frequently.

So there you have it – a four-ingredient recipe for startups to do knowledge management right; before your runway ends! To reiterate:

  • Commit to a documentation-first culture
  • Make knowledge search and capture part of employee onboarding
  • Integrate your knowledge base with your work operating system
  • The right format and KM toolset is important for ever-changing info

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