How a shift in mindset can save your team effort and make docs work for you
A few years ago, I wanted to put in a request for time off to take summer vacation. I headed to my company’s wiki, hoping to find a document I remembered reading the last time I put in for leave.
Instead, I found multiple conflicting records. As I started to open docs and folders I got out of date, incomplete and contradicting information, and I quickly gave up my search. Then, I emailed my manager my request and manually added my vacation to our public calendar.
I know you have a story like mine because most teams have problems with their docs. It’s clear that how we approach documentation needs a major shakeup.
The library metaphor for documentation is overused and, as it turns out, not that helpful.
The image of a library is too static. It brings to mind a quiet place that can’t be disturbed. A place everyday people have no ownership over –– it’s a specialist’s job (the librarian) to decide what comes in and what goes out.
And libraries are filled with books. Books are wonderful things! But they’re nothing like folders in your documentation. Once they get off the printer nobody can change them. And they are not something that the average person can sit down and write.
Rather than imagining docs as a library, try thinking of a community garden. Check out these knowledge base examples.
To start, you need to prepare your plot, decide what you want your garden to look like, buy plants, dig some holes, and water everything.
But you would never assume once you’ve done these few steps, your garden is under control and will flourish with no further attention. Nor would you expect that every plant will live forever, or that only a few special people are capable of pulling up weeds or cutting grass.
Documentation should be a dynamic, all hands on deck tool effort that helps your team do their jobs. So let’s get gardening.
You don’t need to be scrutinizing your documentation every day. But, just like a garden, documentation needs regular tender love and care.
Consistently making time to prune, water, plant and weed a garden means you never have weeks worth of work to do to make it usable again. The same goes for your knowledge base.
Make it a cultural expectation that if there’s something that needs to be updated, written, archived or condensed, it’s not pushed aside for months until documentation updates feel like Mount Everest.
In a community garden, you wouldn’t assume that everyone will magically know all the tasks that need to be done and take care of them the minute the need arises.
So don’t assume docs will be created and updated by whoever comes across a need for improvement, either.
At work, people take care of tasks that relate to them, their team, and their expertise. This can make people hesitant or unsure of how to approach contributing to your docs, because it feels outside their wheelhouse. To mitigate:
You can’t tend to everything in your garden at once. There’s a time to put different vegetables in and a different time to prune trees. There are dry weeks where you need to water every day, and wet weeks where you just let nature do the work.
In the same way, you can't write every piece of documentation or organize everything in your knowledge base at once. Instead, let the work cycles and needs of your company help you pace your updates.
To do this, schedule “spring cleaning” regularly outside of your busiest times of the year.
And in between know that what you have to address is never more clear than the moment someone goes to find something and sees it isn’t there or it isn’t right. Be prepared to take advantage when that moment strikes!
Your documentation is not a precious, rare books library where everything has to be carefully preserved with white gloves.
You delete emails all the time, and pull up plants when they’re dead – delete your docs, too.
A more organized knowledge base means less confusion, less being overwhelmed and more clear answers for your team. It can feel scary to hit the trash icon, but your documentation is a living organism that needs proper care. The cost of never deleting is higher than the risk of removing things nobody has looked at in two years.
We understand documentation is critical to good company culture, happy employees and keeping projects on track. Maintaining it is worth the work. But we also know workplaces can struggle to do that work.
That’s why we created Ask. Ask helps you find answers to questions from your documentation without pulling up a huge list of every single doc that contains possibly relevant information. Instead, it finds the docs that really contain what you’re looking for and synthesizes that information.
So if you ask “How do I log my vacation time?” you don’t get a long list of docs and folders you have to manually sort through. You get two things: the answer to your question, and a short list of the docs the answer is pulled from.
That means no more clicking around a bunch of results and old folders, getting overwhelmed and emailing your manager. Instead, when a source doc comes up that looks irrelevant –– Onboarding Handbook (2020) (Updated) (Archived) –– take the opportunity to assess that doc, then flag or delete it. Just like that, your workplace got better.
Slite is on a mission to make team's knowledge management the best it can be. That means encouraging everyone to shift mentalities to have new best practices as we all get better at managing our digital setups.
And it also means thinking smarter about our own product. We realized that if a knowledge base software isn’t supposed to be treated like a library, it’s not supposed to feel like a mountain of virtual papers, either.
Ask is one step towards pushing our product to be something that works for and with your team and workflow by letting you use your own resources intuitively. We’re excited to be rethinking things for anyone who wants clearer, better documentation.
Lauren Christiansen is a freelance marketer with a passion for content that helps teams work better, together. While she specializes in B2B SaaS professionally, in her spare time you can find her unplugged and hiking in the woods of New England.
Clara Rua is on the Design team at Slite. She juggles with all the Slite's brand codes to make our values and beliefs come to life in illustrations, projects, and visuals, amonst other things. You can find her cycling, surfing, pottery making, jump-roping, yoga-ing from the south of France to the Moroccan west coast.