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Knowledge management is pointless without structure

69% of people find it hard to locate the information they need to do their job. And according to our research, more than half say that online apps actually make that task harder. Clearly, attempts at knowledge management in organizations often fail — but why?

For fast-growing companies in particular, the answer lies in something that’s both fundamental and usually overlooked: structure.

Knowledge management in a complex world

Some businesses might not realize they’re doing it, but they all create and harness knowledge. Sharing that knowledge with team members across the organization is vital. It shapes everything they do, from making the big decisions to carrying out routine processes.

As organizations grow, ever more people need to access, use, and update that knowledge. And today more than ever, those people are often working asynchronously – in different places and time zones.

Successful companies recognize the challenges of working like this. To address them, they look to knowledge management — the process of identifying, collecting, storing, organizing, and disseminating information. 

An effective knowledge management system puts information at people’s fingertips. So if it’s done right, everyone can access what they need, whenever they need it. They don’t need to wait for colleagues to be available, and they don’t have to interrupt someone else’s work.

Why structure matters in knowledge management

But to do knowledge management right, companies need more than endless documentation. They need a structure that enables people to create, store, and navigate it effectively.

Imagine you go into a massive library, but there’s no system or structure. You have zero chance of finding the title you’re looking for, and you can’t browse a particular section to see what’s interesting because the books are everywhere. The joy of discovery gets ruined by chaos. 

If there is a system but it’s not clear or easy to understand, people will be dumping the books back on the shelves wherever they like, and the system breaks down. A negative spiral unravels. 

It’s the same challenge when you’re documenting knowledge at a growing company. You might have already started with a company wiki, like Notion or Confluence, which works perfectly fine to begin with. But as a company scales, and as more and more knowledge is created and documented, things will start to fall apart.

Take Notion as an example. Its structure is defined by its two core building blocks of pages and tables, which can be linked together in lots of different ways. Beyond that, the structure is highly customizable and entirely up to you to decide. This level of customization can be incredibly powerful. But it also means anyone can make edits or changes to that structure, whether that’s creating new pages or editing existing ones. In most cases, unless it’s managed very carefully, it’s likely to break once you’ve got more than 50 people using it. 

Or it might be that the structure isn’t intuitive, so nobody can actually use it. Either way, the results are the same. People aren’t sure where or how to store information, meaning  they either don’t add new information, it goes in the wrong place, or it’s duplicated. The single source of truth is undermined, it becomes ever more difficult to find what they need, and the system itself loses value. As a result, everything takes longer. Information gets lost. Frustration peaks. And people simply give up. 

But what if that information were there all along, but you didn’t know where to look? This will happen without a clear structure. And the issue starts to get a whole lot worse if you’re growing fast and teams start to use different tools. For example, you might find long-time employees still using Confluence, while newer teams start using Notion without telling anyone — with no way of searching across both tools.

All of this results in duplication, or a new, skewed version of the truth. It adds another record to the pile, compounding the problem when someone searches for something.

The cost of chaos in knowledge management

For many knowledge workers, this is their reality, and the consequences are significant.

Research from Qatalog and Cornell University found that:

  • 49% of people worry that important information is being lost at work. 
  • 48% of people report making mistakes because they can’t keep track of the information stored across different online tools and apps.
  • An average 59 minutes a day are being wasted in efforts to recover lost information.

And without a clear structure, ad-hoc fixes just create extra noise. A study by Qatalog and GitLab found that knowledge workers are receiving notifications from no fewer than six different apps a day. 

The problem isn’t just wasted time and effort. The loss of knowledge leads to poor decision-making. It prevents people from identifying valuable opportunities for collaboration.

For new staff trying to get established, the difficulties are even more acute. The lack of structure makes finding answers to even simple questions difficult and time-consuming. It damages morale and it risks new hires voting with their feet, taking their talent elsewhere.

As the system becomes more and more complex, people lose faith in their ability to find what they need. They may give up using it altogether, creating their own solutions — and information silos — in an attempt to keep core knowledge safe. 

But it’s not just about being able to find what you’re looking for. Discoverability is also important. A good knowledge management system will have a structure that’s easy to navigate and have a look around, when you’re feeling curious. You’ll discover things you weren’t necessarily looking for and make new connections with others as a result. 

For example, you might notice someone is working on a project that overlaps with yours, creating opportunities for collaboration, or perhaps someone else has solved a problem you’re grappling with. Without an intuitive, navigable structure, the likelihood of this happening is drastically reduced.

Somewhere along the line, a poorly structured system ceases to have any value at all. 

The prize for structuring knowledge effectively

Creating the right structure cuts through that chaos and delivers a host of positive outcomes:

  • Work is visible and discoverable. People can find answers to questions quickly and easily. And they gain fresh insights that drive innovation and continuous improvement.
  • Decisions are better and faster. It’s easy to find relevant information, so people can analyze options effectively and easily understand the context of previous decisions.
  • People and ideas connect. When everyone knows what’s happening across the organization, they can identify and exploit opportunities for collaboration.
  • Knowledge is retained. When key people leave, their knowledge remains — and others can find it when they need it.
  • Staff are motivated to engage with the system. They see its value, so they provide quality inputs and consistent documentation … 
  • … and that creates a virtuous circle that sustains the system over the long term.

Getting knowledge management right

Every organization wants to have a knowledge management structure that can be tailored to its unique needs. But far too often, the customization used to enable this proves to be its eventual downfall.

So when considering a knowledge management system, think about a long-term, sustainable structure from the start. And before you begin your implementation, consider the knowledge management tool that will support it. 

Can the software be customized in the way you need? Can it bring together the knowledge you hold in different places, moving beyond separate company wikis to a single knowledge hub? And can it continue to deliver as your business grows? Answer “yes” to those questions, and you’re on your way to knowledge management nirvana.

Book a call with our Customer Team to find out more about how Qatalog’s structure can solve your knowledge management problems.

Product Manager @ Qatalog
Kaitlin is a remote work veteran (since 2015) and having previously worked as a Product Manager at Qatalog, and at InVision running Sales Operations and Strategy. She's particularly interested in the intersection between workers' rights, flexible work practices, diversity, and workplace inclusion.
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