The Complete Guide to Building Employee Knowledge in the Workplace
They say the people make the organisation, which is why you want employees behind the scenes who possess the professional knowledge your organisation needs to achieve its business goals. The sum total of their know-how is what will help a company sail towards a successful, sustainable future—or cause it to run aground.
Keeping employees educated on workplace processes, information and needs is a crucial business priority. Without it, you’ve no competitive advantage since you lack the systematic value (innovative people, processes, products and strategy) to differentiate yourself as a business. This is why it’s important to create tools and processes to train employees and capture their experiences in easily accessible places.
In this article, we’ll look at why workplace knowledge is important, why you should be building it, and how to equip employees with the resources needed to build and expand their knowledge in the workplace.
What is workplace knowledge?
Workplace knowledge is the sum of all business processes, policies and procedures. Effective workplace knowledge provides a competitive advantage by reducing inefficiencies, encouraging collaboration, creating trust between employees and management, and making company knowledge readily available, accessible and accurate.
Why is workplace knowledge so important?
In its simplest form, the definition of knowledge is an understanding of information and skills that has been acquired through experience, perception and education. In the workplace, this is the foundation of your organisation.
It’s easier to break it down into two complementary entities: Workplace knowledge and the systems that manage it.
- Workplace knowledge is an invisible lifeline in your organisation. It’s the familiarity, experiences, techniques, awareness, and ability to problem solve that all effective employees possess. This understanding is critical, because it also offers a sustainable competitive advantage that justifies the cost of sharing it between employees.
- Knowledge management is the process of defining, sharing and storing company knowledge and the experiences of employees within your organisation. It’s what ensures employees can access the information they need at any time.
There is a school of thought that competitive advantage is solely rooted in talented employees and the systems that empower them. Talented employees, or knowledge workers, are those key people who create valuable but often intangible assets, storing the how-to in their heads—and taking it with them when they move to another company.
Knowledge silos (aka any know-how one person has that others don’t) create tunnel vision in teams or individuals, preventing them from seeing how they are part of a bigger picture. They are dangerously ubiquitous in organisations where cross-team collaboration is non-existent. That is any combination of the following:
- Different departments with their own customer experience agenda (i.e. common goals do not exist)
- Departments don’t understand what other areas are responsible for (or the value they create)
- Legacy technology or processes prevent collaboration
- Different teams rely on different, siloed information
- Information is hoarded by individuals even within teams.
These silos aren’t just the result of an employee who isn’t a team player, either. It’s possible that employees may simply believe they are too busy to document information, or that they are the only person in close enough proximity to a project to need to understand it.
Take a developer who has been working alone on a small product feature for a year. Without a helping hand, they grow resentful and eventually leave the organisation for a role they believe will offer more recognition and resources. But when they leave, they take with them the only source of information on how to service the feature: Their brain. By the time anyone realises that only the former developer knows how to get it to work, the developer is beginning to either utilise or forget that knowledge in their new role. This new role is also making them incredibly busy, meaning they have little time to write down documentation for their former employer, whom they don’t think highly of anyway. Replace “developer” and “feature” with any role and project you like, and you’ll find it’s a more common conundrum than you may think.
So, essentially, workplace knowledge is important because it enables employees to do their jobs effectively—and facilitating the sharing of that knowledge (while avoiding silos) ensures your workforce have equal access to the information they need to do their jobs. It’s a cycle, but it needn’t be vicious.
“To share an asset, usually it must first be divided. Knowledge is one of the few assets that multiplies as it is shared.”
Why you should be building and sharing employee knowledge
Staying ahead of the curve is incredibly important as marketplaces become more and more saturated. Consumers know they can go elsewhere. Employees know they can go elsewhere—which is a problem if (as we’ve already discussed) they take certain information with them. Even if they stay, guarding knowledge serves no one, your organisation least of all.
There’s another catch-all in there, too. On the one hand, fragmented ownership of knowledge is a money pit. On the other, what employees don’t know, they can’t do.
So, why should you be building workplace knowledge and facilitating knowledge sharing amongst employees?
Effectively managed workplace knowledge:
- Fosters innovation and enables it to be more easily executed.
- Facilitates decision-making capabilities.
- Decreases employee attrition and turnover.
- Builds better customer experiences through their proximity to best practices.
- Reduces loss of mission-critical information, particularly amongst geographically dispersed workforces.
- Creates opportunities to learn in the flow of work.
- Keeps your organisation competitive, if not at the forefront of your industry.
Let’s talk about a few of the more crucial benefits.
Build decision-making capabilities
If knowledge is the foundation your organisation is built on, capabilities are the building blocks. Access to the right resources at key moments in time is critical for leaders when making decisions. This rings even more true when there is an excess of irrelevant data in front of them and they’re on a deadline.
Cross-cutting decisions that happen frequently and have the potential to shape the future of a business are one example of a scenario in which timely, accurate business knowledge is needed. They are the culmination of smaller decisions taking place elsewhere—which means that siloed knowledge somewhere can have a ripple effect on mission-critical decisions. So, not only does it impact business outcomes to have good knowledge sharing practices, but it powers your leadership capabilities. (Organisational performance is, after all, the realisation of business objectives.)
Create a more collaborative culture
Knowledge sharing and retention depends, in large part, on culture. What’s done at the top trickles down and what’s done amongst a team is internalised by new hires. So, it’s important to ensure knowledge sharing is an underlying current in workplace culture, least of all to create a collaborative environment.
It’s even more important across remote work, too. It’s not just people that are scattered—information and resources are too, adding another layer of complexity to knowledge sharing and collaboration. Tacit and experiential knowledge, and all the critical insights gained from them, is neglected.
Knowledge bases that can be easily accessed create a repository of collective expertise. This has the added advantage of allowing for real-time course correction on misguided insights or incorrect information, and helps reduce replication of effort.
Reduce employee attrition & turnover
There’s an abnormally high number of resignations in the new pandemic-affected world. The more resignations, the more knowledge and experience lost if it is not properly captured.
Research has found that regular knowledge sharing between sales staff reduced friction, increased productivity and even increased sales by 15%. The effects of one “bout” of knowledge sharing (for example, discussions within a meeting) last five months. A central point for storing this learning demonstrates the value of collaboration and the unique knowledge your employees possess. Mistakes stemming from knowledge gaps can also be reduced, which in turn reduces attrition from employees who may feel like they’re flying blind.
For managers, we know that the risk of lost knowledge is factored into your attrition rate. Turnover could never be at zero for the life of your business (people will always move on even on the best of terms, whether that’s to other opportunities or retirement), which is why a proactive process for knowledge succession.
Exit interviews and handover documentation are two ways to capture crucial job knowledge at an individual level. Performing these a couple of weeks before an incumbent plans to leave ensures that managers can also help transfer this information to successors. This can then be codified for future reference within an LMS induction program.
Support learning in the flow of work
One McKinsey study found one in three surveyed organisations reported they lacked the systems to share learning among employees. The Harvard Business Review found that may be partially due to a perception that external experts are more valuable than expertise held internally. If you’re hiring bright, talented people, why not a) give them the chance to learn and b) impart that knowledge to others?
Day-to-day knowledge sharing (i.e. learning in the flow of work) is key for a couple of reasons.
- Peer-to-peer learning is an important factor of on-the-job training, which is in turn a hands-on method of imparting job-specific knowledge. This is low cost and requires minimal time compared to, say, group training programs that take employees away from their work.
- Employees who are encouraged to learn are more willing and able to meet their organisation’s needs and objectives. They’re essentially better able to translate learnings into business value.
But most crucially, it means employees are afforded the faculties to take ownership of their own professional needs. In other words: You won’t have the workforce skilled you need to meet your business objectives without learning in the flow of work, nor will your workforce even be fully aware of the skills their lacking.
How to share and build employee knowledge in the workplace
Creating a fluid and active knowledge management process in the workplace is as easy as a bit of reflection and an action plan.
- How is knowledge discovered inside our organisation?
- How is it stored?
- How can it be incorporated into our culture?
Let’s then turn these into action steps.
- Codify touchpoints for discovery
- Create a single source repository
- Establish knowledge sharing practices.
Define your touchpoints
There’ll be multiple sources of knowledge and multiple channels for it. You’ll want to figure out the crucial points it originates from, moves through and is stored. This puts boundaries around your knowledge assets, making it a whole lot easier to define what is mission-critical.
Remember you’re looking for knowledge that:
- Is sustainable and valuable
- Is impossible to replace just by hiring new employees
- Provides a competitive advantage
- Justifies the cost of training for and retaining it.
That could be (but is not limited to) customer data, business models, technical operations, project-specific information or stakeholder relationships.
Organise this information on a scale of how many people have a certain understanding against how easily accessible it is for those who don’t. For example, the nuances of a specific relationship held by a Partnership Manager may be low on your y- and x-axes, because they have cultivated this relationship informally without documenting it.
Be specific when identifying your knowledge and channels. Don’t just say “between managers and employees”. This should be a somewhat exact science: Define how, where and what. Via messaging platforms? Through a learning management system? Do employees routinely search for the same information about processes or industry? If so, why?
Figure out where your external channels are from there. Between your company and customers through marketing? Or specific support personnel and customers? Both? Neither?
It may seem like too many questions at first glance, but it will help you narrow down:
- Specific information customers seek from you
- Resources and/or information employees repeatedly turn to
- Processes or aspects of projects only one person can complete
- The places within your organisation employees interact with the above.
All together, this gives you an idea of what’s valuable, sustainable, impossible to replicate, and powering your competitive advantage. And this gives big data its value, justifying the cost of managing it.
Create a single source repository
All organisations accrue a vast amount of information and expertise, which is why it’s important to store and organise them in a structured manner. Good knowledge management assumes that it’ll be hard to pin down the ways in which things get done.
This can be as simple as standardising writing and keeping electronic copies of routinely used documents and processes. Consider:
- User guides
- Case studies
- Recorded demonstrations
- Templates for everything from social media posts to handovers
- Training unique to your organisation
- Meeting minutes
- Support or key personnel contact information.
All of this can and should live in a platform that is already used daily by employees. That could be collaboration platforms, digital share points or your learning management system. The advantage here is that you’re not introducing something new or complicated to their work lives, but making better use of an existing tool. Information is easily retrieved with keyword searches this way and can be easily updated by the collective. It also means critical knowledge isn’t necessarily bound to the workplace, which can be to the detriment of remote workers or those working flexible hours who have small windows of crossover with peers.
Establish knowledge sharing practices
What about tacit knowledge, we hear your ask? It can be hard to lock down value creation and lived experience, but codifying starts embedding knowledge sharing as a practice in your culture.
Some say that knowledge needs to be shared because all knowledge is created and built from existing knowledge. (That’s a lot of knowledge in a sentence. Talk about word of the day.) Research has also shown that perceptions of ownership have an impact on willingness to share know how. If employees believe they have the autonomous right to wield their knowledge, they may only share it if they gain personal benefits in return. On the other hand, if they see what they know as contributing to the greater (intellectual capital) goals of their organisation, they are likely to treat their knowledge as an asset that is meant to be shared.
A big part of fostering a culture like the latter is creating an environment in which people feel psychologically safe to share ideas and information, both implicitly and explicitly.
In this way, you could say the act of knowledge sharing has two purposes:
- Creating space for social learning between employees; and
- Having subject matter experts routinely teach others.
Employee knowledge sharing
This isn’t just about physical space, but rather creating an environment in which people are willing to turn to others for help—not just their “superiors”. It’s important to establish channels for collaboration everywhere, but especially when it comes to remote work. Consider:
- Lunch and learn events, where employees can present to or train their coworkers on topics relating to their role. It’s an easy way to encourage cross-team collaboration.
- Frequent team collaboration events, like weekly meetings, where employees are encouraged to discuss any learnings from the week as well as what projects they are working on. If teams are remote, make sure it’s a regular calendar invite via Microsoft Teams or Zoom.
- Create spaces where employees can congregate. Over time, they’ll start to associate social learning with a space like a meeting room.
- Re-examine onboarding. This is the first point where employees can pass key business acumen along, but it might be new hires are thrown off the deep end. Standardised documentation or buddy programs are a good place to start.
Remember that unless it’s a priority, people won’t stop to intentionally learn from one another. Recognise and reward employees who do make the effort to share their unique knowledge. It’ll go a long way towards making the concept part of your brand and culture, while motivating those who covet the same rewards as others.
Expert knowledge sharing
You’ll want senior leaders to implement and use knowledge sharing systems themselves. People are wired to follow the leader, either with the overt intention of attaining their success or the subconscious desire to take on their attributes. Either way, it’s clear that knowledge sharing starts at the top both implicitly and explicitly.
It’s also key for something called a knowledge cascade, i.e. how know how moves from one expert through multiple employees in an organisation. Subject matter experts possess deep smarts, which enables them to see the complete picture while zooming in on minute problems others may miss.
This isn’t something others can’t learn; a knowledge cascade allows this particular thought leadership attribute to be disseminated throughout your workforce. Said cascades also create knowledge trees, whereby each tier of employees becomes a teacher to the next. Sounds cool, right?
Mentorships, job shadowing and, again, lunch & learns are all easily implemented ways to encourage a top-down approach to knowledge sharing. Even in flatter organisational structures, cross-department collaboration is important for avoiding knowledge silos, particularly if individual contributors have the chance to work with other department leads or those perceived to hold more expertise.
Professional knowledge and the management of it is important to building a sustainable and competitive business. As we’re talking about a unique combination of skills, expertise, experiences and behaviours that power your culture, processes and products, it’s more than worth your time to invest in codifying it.
Effectively managed workplace knowledge offers the advantage of:
- Better efficiency in achieving business goals
- High-level decision-making skills in all employees
- Decreased employee attrition & turnover (plus ways to mitigate any knowledge loss because of these long-term)
- Industry-leading customer experiences
- Easy access to key information for remote workers
- A competitive advantage stemming from innovation and faster internal processes.
Creating a culture of free knowledge sharing comes down to how an organisation enables it. Accurately measuring the channels through which workplace knowledge flows allows you to better codify it for storage, which ultimately underpins a cascade of knowledge sharing amongst employees.
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