Is your knowledge base more like a sock drawer or a supermarket?
There are three models for a knowledge base – which one is most like yours?
Your online Knowledge base is where you store your documented knowledge, It is a repository – but more than that, it is a knowledge resource for others. Someone looking for documented knowledge comes to the knowledge base to search and browse.
So what do they find?
Generally knowledge bases fall into one of three categories. Let’s call them the underwear drawer, the library and the supermarket display.
The underwear drawer (see top picture), if you are anything like me, is the place you pile all your clean washing, generally with the newest washing on the top. The drawer is easy to fill – you just cram everything in – but you know that the hard work will be done when you search (often early in the morning, in the half-light) for a set of matching underwear with no holes. All the work is done when searching, and very little is done when storing. The knowledge base equivalent is the uncontrolled filing structure, where you rely on a good search engine to find what you want. Dump it all in, then search for what you need.
The library (or the organised underwear drawer, see bottom picture) is a managed and structured repository. You know the category, you know the title, and you find the book. Or you know the drawer, and the relevant section, and you find a rolled set of underwear of the right colour. The work is distributed between the seeker and the storer. You categorise when you store, and you browse to the right place when you search. The knowledge base equivalent is the organised and tagged knowledge base, where you can browse or search for the knowledge you know you need.
The supermarket goes one step further (see my post from last year on the knowledge supermarket). In my local supermarket, for example, you can find a section that displays pasta, pasta sauce, Parmesan cheese and Italian wine, all within the same attractive display. Without searching, you are presented with all the ingredients for an Italian meal. Similarly with curries – curry sauces, poppadoms, nan bread, Cobra beer, lime pickle – all in one display. Lots of work is done by the storer, so as to minimise the work for the seeker, and as a result, they pick up the Impulse Buyer – the person who was not actually looking for this material in the first place, or who had forgotten that they need lime pickle with their poppadoms. The knowledge base equivalent is the Knowledge Asset; the one-stop shop for knowledge on a topic – the wiki page or portal that gives you everything you need to know, whether you knew you needed or not.
So what’s the lesson for Knowledge Management?
I believe there are three reasons why a supermarket is the best of the three models for your knowledge base.
- Firstly the main barrier for KM is not supply, but re-use. Many companies have no difficulty in creating knowledge supply, but all companies struggle with re-use. Therefore if we are to lower the barriers, let’s lower the barriers for the seeker and the re-user. Let’s invest in knowledge packaging, and the creation of knowledge assets, so that there is no excuse not to re-use.
- Secondly, although the search engine vendors will say that the search engine can do all the finding work for you, most people start by browsing rather than searching when they are shopping for something. Supermarkets are built for browsers, unorganised underwear drawers aren’t.
- Thirdly, a search result will not return the “unknown unknowns” – the things you did not know to search for. The supermarket, on the other hand, is well designed for ensuring you find the impulse-buys which were not on your shopping list.