Why am I bothering with a Knowledge Base?

Put simply because I am passionate about the value in sharing knowledge and the value it can bring to you, to your team and to the wider community or company. I believe in “what comes around goes around” and I have taken benefit from the things those before me have shared and so I should pay it forward to the next one who needs it. I also believe that your willingness to share what you know and learn can significantly impact both your personal and professional lives. Let me explain…

OK! So, why should I (and you) share knowledge?

So! You’re the one with some knowledge, why would you want to share it?

The most obvious answer to this is; so that you don’t have to keep answering the same question. Most of us hate repeating ourselves; many of us also have designs on some form of progression in our career. In both cases being “the one who knows” can be initially a way to stand out but can quickly become really frustrating. Answering the same question time after time is really boring, not to mention a waste of your time. It also can interrupt your own workflow and prevent you doing the things you need or want to do if you repeatedly need to break off and answer that question, or do the thing, yet again.

To give you another answer in the form of a question; how good is your memory? I don’t know about you but mine is OK, pretty good even, but day by day more and more comes into my brain to be processed and inevitably things I should remember get pushed out by these new things and forgotten. So while you might remember how to do the thing today and tomorrow what about next week, or month, or year? If you didn’t write it down then you’ve not only caused yourself an issue due to my first reason, above, but now you’ve also caught yourself out and you have to go and figure it out all over again; frustrating right? If you write it down, ideally somewhere safe and searchable, then you can save yourself doing it all again. While you’re at it, once you have written it down why keep it to yourself? You may as well solve both this issue and the first at the same time and share what you know with those who may also need to know.

Lastly, for now, many companies don’t just care about what you know when considering the criteria for what is required for a promotion or other career advancement. Many companies also look at how effective and efficient you are in your current role and whether they think that you’re able to handle the extra responsibilities a promotion will bring. They likely also consider your contribution to the team and the wider company. Knowing a thing covers criteria 1 here (what you know), writing it down so you can use it again covers criteria 2 (helping you to maximise your effectiveness and efficiency by reducing the need to learn it all again) and sharing it with others covers criteria 3 (helping to make the whole team and by extension the company more effective and efficient by letting others learn from what you know or have learnt). So having a process for capturing, and sharing knowledge is good for your career.

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What is KCS?

While working at Vocera I was introduced to Knowledge Centred Support (KCS) and it has become a cornerstone of how Vocera Technical Support operates. If you’ve not come across KCS before it is a process that focuses on capturing the experiences of a single engineer in such a way that it can be shared with the wider team and reused without every member of the team needing to learn from scratch. I am deeply passionate about the benefits of a KCS style approach not just to Support but to many other roles in both technical and non-technical fields. I know my own DevOps team can benefit and am working to introduce it right now!

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“But I still don’t get ‘it’” 😕

OK! That’s understandable, it may not be immediately obvious what I am getting at. Have you ever searched either the internet or your company intranet for things you need or how to complete a task. Or, how many times have you had to search through a number of pages, maybe take snippets from several pages, and probably go through some trial and error before you get to an answer? In all likelihood you’ve even had to go through several iterations even before you come to a solution. Now imagine you’re part of a team who all do a similar job, if your colleague has already figured out how to do something you’d want to ask them and hope they share the answer wouldn’t you? But what if that colleague works in India and you’re in the US (time zones really suck!), or they left 6 months ago, now what? If they didn’t write it down then you’re going back through that same process and hoping that you come up with the same answer. This is where some form of knowledge sharing comes in.

As an example, imagine that you are working in a customer support role and you come across a problem where a change made to ome system results in an unexpected change in behaviour in a linked system. As the first engineer to see this reported issue you need to identify the symptoms of the problem, probably work through a number of logs or other data points to identify where the issue originates, (hopefully, but not always) identify the original change, take corrective actions or make changes in response to the error, and then test and validate if the corrective action has resolved the issue. Now, let’s be honest at this point and accept that often this requires a number of trial and error steps before the correct issue is identified and the best corrective steps determined. If these data points and steps are not captured then the next time a similar change and resulting error is encountered then you, or the next engineer, need to work through the full issue again from first principles. This takes time and effort which could be avoided and better used elsewhere. So, KCS seeks to capture the experience after it first occurs such that the next time around anyone with access to the knowledge material captured can simply match the symptoms, perform the actions steps required and validate the resolution without needing to go through the whole exploration process.

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If it’s good for my job then why am I bothering with starting a public knowledge base?

This is a good question, at Vocera the Technical Support team do have an extensive, active and growing knowledge base and it truly is a fantastic resource. I could just add things there and get all the benefits I just described couldn’t I? Infact I have, over the years there are hundreds of articles in the knowledge base that have been authored or edited by me.

There are two main reasons therefore why I started my own knowledge base.

  1. Having changed both company and internal team recently I learnt that I was spoilt with the quality of extensiveness of the knowledge base I had when working with the Vocera Technical Support team. When I left for Microsoft I found myself time and again knowing an article existed in a place I couldn’t access (aka Vocera’s knowledge base). So I feel that for non-company specific skills having a repository of knowledge that is accessible wherever I am can only be a good thing.
  2. Many of the things I learnt, and sometimes documented in that internal knowledge base, came from resources on the internet. Where those learnings were pieced together from several sources, or where I found a better way to write down what someone else has shared, I feel there’s a responsibility to both pay it forward and allow others to benefit where I benefitted from the generosity of others who shared before me, and to hopefully save someone the need to search all the same sources I had to before getting to the final answer. Hopefully some future person will find my knowledge article early and get the answer straight away and carry on with their life having saved the time I spent.

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What makes a good knowledge base?

The real answer to this is to answer what makes a good knowledge article? A good knowledge base is made up of one or more good knowledge articles. Having an extensive collection is good, but if the quality is poor then the usefulness of the knowledge base will inevitably be low.

So what makes a good knowledge article?

  • Accessible and useful at the time that it is needed
    • You could also describe this as searchable
    • If you can’t quickly find what you need then you will go elsewhere after all
    • For me this rules out blanket recorded training or transfer of information (TOI) sessions
      • Unless it’s fully indexed and timestamped a nugget of information at minute 22 of a 59 minute recording is lost and likely will never be found to be useful.
  • A good description
    • This could be symptoms of a problem, or description of the task that needs to be performed
      • Focus on the task or issue and not the cause or solution at this stage
      • What errors are seen?
      • What task needs to be completed?
    • It should be immediately clear if this article is going to be the one you need for the task that needs to be done
  • Clear steps
    • This should be clear and easy to follow
    • Bullet points and numbers steps are best
    • Keep the word count down - get to the point
    • Supporting images or video demonstrating the steps can be a help but should be additional to a description of the action to be performed
      • Consider that you are working on the issue now and you, or the customer, cannot wait for you to watch a video to find out the answer
  • Include confirmation or validation of success
    • What does the right result look like?
    • Are there any common errors or incorrect results to watch out for?
    • Imagine that the reader is doing this for the first time - how to they know it worked?
  • Summary or root cause
    • Why was this needed or what was the cause of the issue

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Summing it all up

Hopefully the above gives you a flavour of my opinion on the value of knowledge, sharing knowledge and how to do it well. If you have any questions or comments please get in touch using my social and contact links.

Over time I’ll build out my knowledge base on this site and talk more about the value of knowledge and my processes for working with it.

UPDATE: You can now find my knowledge base here on this site! Or you can still find the source code over on GitHub here.

Thanks for reading, and of course, click the share links below to share what you just learned 😉

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