Stop thinking about your knowledge base as a library

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 As I started to open docs and folders I got out of date, incomplete and contradicting information, and I quickly gave up my search.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.

Don’t think of knowledge base as a library full of books

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.

Instead, approach docs like you approach a community garden

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.

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Check in regularly

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.

Assign ownership

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:

  • Make sure everyone knows what portion of documentation they are responsible for –– from that all-important vacation time to how to onboard, hire, flag problems in code and approach cold sales calls.
  • Make sure people know what to do when they find gaps, errors or outdated documentation. Have a system for tagging and assigning updates.
  • Empower people to add their knowledge to your documentation and provide doc templates and instructions for getting started.

Work as the need arises

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!

Delete, delete, delete

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.

Ask not what you can do for your documentation, but what your documentation can do for you

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.

No more libraries, and no more mountains of virtual papers

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.

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