Not being able to find information and answers can be a major time sink in your team's productivity. Research shows we spend on average a day per week looking for the information we need to get our job done.
It feels great when information is right there where you expect it and there when you need it. The best is when you're on a roll, checking off things from your to-do list, answering questions, solving problems and you are just flying through it all with ease. As a team leader, you can greatly help your team by finding ways to reduce information drag.
So what does it take to make information and knowledge accessible on your team?
Share it: when information is stuck in people's heads, it's hard to get to it. Create the habit of sharing.
Share it in the right place: when information is in multiple places, it's still hard to find. Centralize it in one place.
Keep it organized: once information is in a central place, keep it organized by creating multiple path to the content and let people self-organize.
Keep it up to date: automate rules to help you keep information fresh
Keep it accurate: let the team self-correct information that isn't accurate and share better ways to do something
A lot of information simply never gets shared in your team. It's stuck in people's heads. That means people need to pick up the phone, walk over to their desk or fire off a chat or email to get the information they need. And that's if they even know who has the right information in the first place! Getting people in the habit of sharing their information is a team mindset you need to encourage until it's second nature.
The good news is - people like sharing, or at least a good percentage of your team does. It's in our nature to give advice, share recommendations, demonstrate our knowledge and bring news. The first step is to remove any friction that stops people from sharing. You have to make it incredibly easy. Second, you'll want to get the snowball rolling with your share-happy people on the team and openly reward them consistently. Third, you can get pro-active by identifying the information needs in the team and start directly asking for it. Asking questions is a great way to kick start information and knowledge sharing.
That should do it. If the leader makes it easy to share, consistently rewards sharing and asks questions - sharing will increase. And that means people have easier access to information.
Share it in the right place
Having your team share the information isn't enough to reduce information drag. The reality for many teams may actually be information overload. Too much sharing? Could be, but more likely it is not effective sharing that causes information overload. Information is scattered across many places - email, drives, chat, task apps - so nobody can find anything anymore. Todays tools aren't necessarily well equipped to keep large amounts of information organized and streamlined enough.
To overcome this, you need to centralize the information in one place and give any place where information is shared clear boundaries around the type of information it is used for. If it's in many different places it will be chaos.
To get the team to share where you want them to share, you will need to get them on board. That shouldn't be hard to achieve. Most people would love nothing more than to stop the 300 daily emails, 100 chat interruptions and plowing through the folder jungle of some shared file drive. People have strong habits though, so even once they are on board, you will need to consistently reinforce and correct sharing habits until it becomes automatic. When you receive an email from a team member that you want shared elsewhere, you'll have to correct the behaviour. Someone interrupts you with a chat about information that isn't urgent and should be added to your knowledge hub? Check that behaviour right away. If you are consistent in your feedback, behaviour will change quickly.
Keep it organized
Having it all in one place significantly reduces information drag. It can still become a jungle though - so you'll need to keep your new workplace organized. The meaning of 'keeping something organized' isn't the same for everyone. When it comes to organizing information, we all seem to have our own logic.
When asking two people to organize the same set of information, lets say by creating a folder structure, generally the structure will be different. We tend to choose different words when labeling information. This is driven by our own context, purpose and experience that creates a network of associations between information chunks. This network of associations is actually a fixed psychical neural network in our brain and it is unique to every person.
This explains why one structure is completely logical to one person, while someone else gets lost in it. Where did she put that file? Where can I find that answer?
You can certainly work on making the single structure as clear as possible, but it won't be water proof. The best way to overcome this is to offer multiple paths to the same information. To take it a step further, to let team members personalize the information structure.
Won't this create complete chaos? Not if done well.
There is a great architecture example that illustrates this reality. An architect was asked to design a university campus wit multiple buildings. When asked where the paths would be between the buildings, the architect said: 'We will see'. Instead of assuming where the paths should be, he made everything grass. As the students moved from building to building, they took the shortest path, and by walking over the grass, it marked where the paths should be.
In architecture this is called the Desire Path. It's a beautiful illustration of how we look for the path of least resistance.
So the idea is to let people tell you where they expect information to be and afterwards solidify those paths. You can do this by giving your team members to option to 'link' the information to multiple topics (or tags, categories, folders) so that there are multiple paths to the same information. You can even let users create personal spaces where they can personalize the organization, without interfering with the overall team structure. It will simply be in multiple places, of which some places most team member wouldn't even see as it's kept personally.
This will give every team members a personalized view on the information.
One more discussion point here is flat or not flat. With flat we refer to a tagging system without hierarchy versus the non-flat traditional hierarchal structure we all know from folder systems. Without hierarchy we're going to have to rely mostly on search to find information, since there is little context and ways to navigate to the content. In our research we have learned that people don't always know what to search for and in about 50% of the cases they need some navigation path to bring them toward the information. Without hierarchy it is also difficult to know the context of certain information, for instance whether something is related to customer feedback and sales situation or whatever it may be. The downside of the hierarchy is that you can be send down a rabbit hole. Since the content can be several levels deep down a path and the content doesn't appear on the higher levels, you may need to go in and out of the levels to find what you need.
The nice thing about the flat approach is that it's quick and easy. You don't have to think too much about the structure and can just tag keywords to it and you are not send down the rabbit hole.
So why not combine both? How? Here is how we have approached it on TipHive
Cards with information are organized with Topics
Topics can have many levels of subtopics
Cards be be linked to many Topics and Subtopics, creating multiple paths to the same content
Team members can create their own Topics and link content relevant to them in their personalized structure, only they need to see
Topics can show Cards from child subtopics (or lower levels), so that you can see all content at the top level, without having to go down a rabbit hole
Team members follow topics and can create starred list of topics to focus on what's relevant to them
So it's as easy and quick as tags, yet has the advantage of hierarchal organization when needed, and lets people personalize their structure.
Keep it up-to-date
Once you have gotten this far, your information drag will be significantly reduced. It works. You'll find information quickly. To reach black belt level information organization, you'll need to ensure information doesn't get old and dated. Things change, and increasingly so, so it will get old. This isn't hard to keep up with if you some tools to help you.
One simple tool is to be able to set an expiration date on the content. You can add rules to automatically archive on the expiration date or add a 'Review' label and notify the content owner to review the content.
Keep it accurate
A final thought is no ensuring information is correct. Team members may be sharing information that isn't accurate. You can take a preventive approach to this where you require approval of content before it gets shared. This puts friction in the sharing process and will reduce sharing - but for some topics that may be required. For other topics you may take a reactive approach, and have everyone on the team participate in spotting inaccuracies and let them comment on the content to notify content owners and admins. This reactive feedback loop also works for information your thought was accurate, but in practice isn't. For instance, after speaking to a customer, a call center agent learns some information is wrong, and can directly comment on the information to let everyone on the team know. Or a team members learn a better way of doing something and can quickly spread the new best practice.
Once you get these 5 things right, you're team will gain lots of speed and work will be more fun too!