There’s no excuse for withholding information

I was recently approached by a company that recognizes that they have a knowledge management problem. They’ve just realized that there’s a lot of information held by individuals, and they need someone to solve the problem of insufficiently distributed information before it gets too big to handle.

This is great, and I love it when companies realize this (not least because it keeps me employed). But then I thought about times I’ve encountered people who zealously guard the information they’ve collected. This is bad. This is expensive. And there’s no excuse for it.

I want to believe that this behavior is disappearing. I’m hearing and reading that more developers are documenting their code, even enthusiastically using doc generation tools built into git. But this isn’t just a problem with developers, not by a long shot. Information gets locked in the heads of professional services, customer support, QA, sales…

This sounds like my usual “OMFG! Collaborate and share information already!” rant, and it is close to that. But I’ve seen more mini-hubs of information: customer support will have a knowledge base in their support tool, professional services will have a wiki, marketing will use Slack, but there’s no central repository of corporate knowledge. Every team has their own knowledge base, but they might not be shared with other teams. They might not know that the other knowledge bases exist, which is why they created one in the first place.

This leads to with repeated effort (which is expensive), multiple sources of information which any one employee may or may not know about, information that might be outdated (and how long does it take to figure out which piece of information is incorrect?), and this leads employees to question the accuracy of the information they managed to find.

Which is exactly what happened at my last job. It wasn’t my job to fix the problem, and it would’ve been a full time job. Some people who could have pushed for a solution acknowledged that it was a problem, but they couldn’t agree on how big a problem it was (it was pretty damn big) or who would be responsible for fixing it (the ever-popular question, “where does the technical writer fit into the organization?”).

I’d love to say that I came up with a brilliant, elegant solution that made everyone so happy that they threw a party for me, promoted me to Vice President of Knowledge and Stuff, and named the next product in my honor. That other company, that came to me looking for someone to solve their knowledge management problem? I started working for them today.

The moral of this story? Um…well, pick one:

  • “Hope” is not a business plan
  • Fix your technical communications problems early to avoid documentation debt later
  • I’m a mercenary bastard
  • All of the above 😉
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4 thoughts on “There’s no excuse for withholding information

  1. My take on this issue has always been, “what happens if you get run over by a truck? How is the company going to manage without you? Cough up the cheat sheets on your job tasks so that we’re covered.”

    1. Exactly. That was the favorite saying of the head of my first tech writing department. Another manager preferred, “What if you win the lottery tonight?”, but the idea is the same (although probably more enjoyable).

  2. Congratulations on the new job, you mercenary bastard you.

    You’ve described a problem that’s hard to diagnose and harder to fix. But the fix, I think, has to start from the top: senior management having the courage to (1) stand up and give voice to the problem and (2) lead by example. Would you agree?

    It sounds like your new company has at least done #1. Let’s hope that’ll start them on the way to success.

    1. Yes, I certainly do agree, and that’s a great point. That active leadership is essential. Most people want to do their jobs, and take pride in doing their jobs well. But “share knowledge” is rarely part of a job description (I bet it’s very close to 0), and it’s not something that most people are evaluated on. So it should be no surprise when engineer X leaves without documenting everything they did, or are asked to do a brain dump in their last week on the job.

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