The knowledge base: a lifeline for your employees

The topic of employee onboarding and mentoring raises the question of passing on a certain amount of knowledge that an employee needs to acquire.

The central issue of employee integration.

Behind all this is a major issue: what makes an employee perform well? There are many things that contribute to this. This list is not exhaustive and in no order of priority.

Knowing how people work. At the level of your team, of your job, there are rules, processes, operating modes, tools…. A person with a little experience will know how to do his job, that’s one thing, but knowing how this translates operationally and concretely is another. Depending on the company or even the team, we don’t do the same things, not in the same order, not with the same tools or by providing the same information.

At a more detailed level there is the question of managers. What is expected of me as a manager? Very often we give the manager, especially on the “People” part, an obligation of result while being very evasive on the means to use and the rules to follow. There are obligations related to processes, (validating things but when, why and how), to the HR part of the job (what interviews to conduct, how often, how are they organized, what are the best practices to conduct them, how to document them, follow up on decisions etc…). This part differs a lot from one company to another in terms of obligations, rules, tools and will not be invented if it is not explained.

Knowing how the rest of the business works. Here we are not talking about the direct environment of the employee but of the others. How to interact and collaborate with other departments if you don’t know their job, their rules, their constraints. This applies to both business and support functions.

To know exactly how the administration and support functions work. How I apply for leave, how it works if I just need to be away for an hour, how we manage expense reports, how to alert general services when something goes wrong, how to make a request to the office management (and what I can ask them), how I propose a CV from one of my contacts for cooptation….

How the company is organized. There are functions, business units, teams, what is the “big picture” at the level of my site, the country, the group at the international level? Who does what? Who is responsible for what? Who reports to whom?

Who are we? A company has a past, a history, values, a culture, codes. There are key people in its history, no matter if they are still there or not, there have been key steps…understanding the company you are joining, from any point of view, if you don’t know where it comes from is an impossible mission.

Integration is all this: being ” well ” with people, with rules, with tools, with operating methods, with “codes”, values and cultures. And without knowing at least all this (and I’ve forgotten a lot of things), an employee will never be totally at ease in his job, in the company, in his human environment. So he won’t be efficient, or not as much as one could hope for.

Various transmission channels

Yes these are things to “learn” in one way or another, but not everything is learned in the same way.

In a perfect world there is a transmission of knowledge, of information, organized between people who know and those who must learn in a formal or informal way. Then the person validates and adjusts by observation. Then he practices. And if need be, he knows that he can find somewhere the “instruction manual”, the reference, concerning something that he has not been taught, that he has forgotten or that he would like to clarify. But this perfect world does not exist and it never happens like that.

In the “real” world, essential information and knowledge is conveyed orally by a mentor or manager. Then, on a daily basis, colleagues are there to remind what has been said or pass on what has been forgotten. Finally, certain rules and procedures are documented in a more or less clear, intelligible and easy to find manner.

When the real world comes closer to the ideal world, we find a real mentoring device over time (in other words: that does not end after a week) with the certainty of always having someone to answer the most diverse questions and guide on the issue of behaviors and attitudes. There are also, but even rarer, real e-learning systems dedicated to the integration of employees.

In other words, some things happen in an organized way, others by chance, some at defined moments, others as needs and opportunities arise.

In some companies, successful integration is the result of a well-oiled organization and a long-term effort. In others, it is partly or entirely the result of chance. You find yourself in the right team with the right manager and the right colleagues and everything is fine, but otherwise…

And beyond integration, one concern must remain: answering a frequent question from any employee: “how do you do it to…?”. This is a question that arises every day as soon as we get out of the usual daily tasks and which, every time it is not answered quickly, wastes a lot of time for each employee and for the organization as a whole.

One must know everything but not remember everything

Why is it that if everything is well done when the employee arrives, he or she is still looking for information on how things are done or what happens months or even years after arrival?

The first is that if too much information is given to the employee as soon as he arrives, he will forget a lot of it very quickly because he cannot assimilate it all, and another part quite quickly because he does not have the opportunity to put what he has learned into practice.

The second is that to work on a daily basis you need to know very little about the rules and functioning of the company. So, the rest, one does not need to learn it or even when one learns it, one quickly forgets it. But one must be able to find it easily when one needs it.

I will illustrate this point with the question of expense reports. For certain populations who, by nature, have professional expenses very regularly, there is no question as to how to properly declare these expenses. This is part of the indispensable daily process. On the other hand, some populations do not have this need, but when exceptionally, perhaps once a year or even less, they incur expenses that they must be reimbursed, which is obvious for some but not at all for others. There is no point in teaching the latter all the rules regarding expenses at length, they will quickly be forgotten. On the other hand, when they need it, they must find very quickly a very simple “instruction manual”.

In other words one does not have to remember everything all the time but at some point one must find out what one needs to know.

This also translates into: there is information and knowledge to be transmitted dynamically and there is knowledge to be made available (passively) for the employee to find if he or she needs it.

In practice, there is a tendency to overdose the transmission of dynamic information, both formally and informally, and to overlook the provision of information. If you want proof of this, make a list of about twenty “what I have to do for” type questions that employees in different jobs, with different levels of seniority and different hierarchical levels may ask and try to see if this information can be easily found in a minute without having to ask a colleague. The result may make you desperate.

Companies only see what they control…employees mostly use the rest…

The transmission of knowledge is organized in three ways.

Formal and synchronous: moments are organized when one person transmits information and knowledge to one or more others. This can be called training, mentoring…

Informal and synchronous: a person is brought to help another person by explaining, teaching him or her something. It is not organized, not planned, but it happens. It’s simply mutual help between colleagues when you ask your open space neighbor for information. It can also happen by chat or even by throwing a message in a bottle in a corporate social network (you will tell me that these two cases are asynchronous but not really…the need for an answer is almost immediate and if it doesn’t arrive the employee gives up and looks for another way).

I would like to point out a limitation of this practice: when there is a rapid renewal of the work force, a high turnover, the ability of the employee to rely on informal networks of knowledgeable people diminishes considerably, as the number of knowledgeable people is diluted.

Formal and asynchronous: information has been made available “somewhere” (understand: on the intranet or in some other tool), in digital form (in 2020 I hope…) so that the employee can fetch it and consult it when he needs it.

From experience I would say that companies focus a lot on the first because it is visible and controllable, underestimate the second which is the most important in volume in reality and totally neglect the third.

Remote Work makes old (good) practices obsolete

In terms of integration and, generally speaking, knowledge sharing and transmission, there will be a before and after COVID, or more precisely a before and after remote work for companies that did not have a practice old enough to realize all its consequences.

In a company that practices remote working at high doses or even exclusively (voluntarily or under health constraints), the landscape is changing radically.

Formal and synchronous transmission: it continues to work but at a distance it is more complicated. Above all, people realize that it is undersized. Before, we didn’t realize it because the informal compensated, but now the informal almost doesn’t exist anymore and we find ourselves with an obvious lack.

Informal and synchronous transmission: it largely disappears, at least for newcomers. Someone who is “settled” in the company will chat with a colleague or a group of colleagues. This works even if it is less spontaneous than when you are in an open space and you can talk to each other. You have to put yourself in the shoes of the “newbie” who doesn’t know anyone and gradually discovers your colleagues only through remote interactions. Many will never dare , by chat, email or any other means, to solicit a person they don’t know or know very little to ask for explanations. This implies both bothering someone you don’t know and admitting a shortcoming, even if this shortcoming is normal. For many people this is too much.

I’ll add that in an open space a glance is enough to see if a person seems to be in trouble, blocked, looking for something. You can see it in his face, his expression, his attitude. At a distance you can’t see the colleague who is drowning and who could be helped.

Formal and asynchronous transmission: this is where we realize that it is, depending on the case, non-existent, insufficient, not easy to find, not easy to use.

To put it another way, there are two rules to keep in mind:

  1. As far as the transmission of information and knowledge in a company at a distance is concerned, what is not organized and planned does not happen by chance anymore.
  2. A remote company requires extreme formalism, i.e. shared documentation of all operating modes. To anticipate a remark that is often made to me, I would like to make it clear that formalism does not mean heaviness. Formalism means describing how things are done, no more than that. It does not mean heavy or complicated.

If things are not formalized, it is impossible to provide employees with a knowledge base that is their main lifeline in a normal organization and their only lifeline in a remote organization.

What the world of customer relationship management teaches us about the transmission of knowledge

This is not a new issue in the world of customer relations. Anything that is not explained to the customer during the sale of the product and service will not happen by chance afterwards. Then in case of misunderstanding or problem there is the customer service.

But customer service, provided by humans, has its limits. It is not scalable and in case of high demand we can’t respond to everyone, or at least not immediately. In addition, human time is expensive, so increasing the number of agents may be a good idea in terms of service quality, but it is an economic suicide.

As a result, many brands have provided the customer with freely accessible online knowledge bases that range from simple FAQs to detailed instructions for use. The goal: to ensure that the customer is able to help himself as much as possible before soliciting a human being! Or even replace any contact with a human being. This is one of the most common practices for all products and services related to digital but that we find more and more in other sectors.

There are so many examples of such devices that I will mention only one of the best known: that of Amazon.

But building a comprehensive knowledge base takes time, so it still comes at a price. And for some companies this price, infinitely lower than mobilizing an army of agents, is still too high. So they decided to let the client do the work by hosting community support platforms (a polite way of talking about forums), leaving the client to do both the questions and the answers with minimal intervention from the company.

This approach can be found at Sosh as a replacement for a conventional customer service device and at Apple as a complement.

When customer service inspires employee service

If we understand that we cannot leave a customer without an answer but that we cannot answer him at any cost, the thing is far from being so obvious when it comes to employees. Ask yourself, once again, if all your employees are able to find answers to all their questions by themselves and you will get an idea of the extent of the damage.

I have always been impressed by the ability of companies to organize the waste of their employees’ time on time they pay for. An employee who doesn’t find out how to do something, how to use a tool that he only uses once a year…it’s 1 or 2 hours of lost time. It is an irritant that generates frustration. If he goes in search of information, it’s a waste of time for all the colleagues he will ask for information, knowing that from a distance it’s done in a much less fluid way than in the open space.

I was confronted with the subject several years ago. An essentially oral corporate culture that ensured an uneven distribution of information. A growth and renewal of the workforce that diluted the “knowers”. Questions that went up the chain of command too quickly, provoking the grumbling of all those involved and a time-consuming game between the transmission of questions in one direction and that of answers in the other.

Hence the idea of building this knowledge base, thinking that the (heavy) time initially invested would be largely repaid over time.

How to build a knowledge base for your employees?

The idea is to build a kind of Wikipedia or Giant FAQ with the ambition to gather in one place the answers to all the questions an employee may have. It does not replace what you can do in mentoring or learning but complements it.

The structure

I quickly “delivered” a spine that was supposed to be comprehensive enough to leave nothing to chance and flexible enough to accommodate new subjects as needed.

  1. Who we are: identity, history, values, culture…
  2. How we are organized: departments, organization charts, who does what, with a complete section dedicated to HR issues.
  3. How we work: process support, business processes, tools…. with a user’s view on one side and a performer’s view on the other.
  4. How we live: rules for living together, ranging from dress code to meeting organization, including the use of meeting rooms and “common” areas.
  5. Abécédaire: a dictionary of the house “jargon”.

At the end from ” how do I apply for leave” to “what are the deliverables at which stage of a project” through “how do I set up a printer” I don’t think I forgot much.


The tone must be intelligible to everyone. Pedagogical. Illustrated. Giving useful information is useless if the collaborator needs a text explanation.

In principle, the form is very textual, but one can integrate short videos (what we have done on elements of speech and method in commercial negotiation), links to e-learning or even documents found elsewhere. The idea is to have a single point of entry that can, if necessary, refer to other sources.

Key features

At first glance I see two of them. First of all a powerful search engine that is vital to find the right information. Then a perfect accessibility on mobile phones because not all your employees are in offices in front of a computer. You have production sites, stores…and the people who work there need answers to their questions as much as anyone else.

Which tool

I’m tempted to say that, at least to start with, any tool that allows to publish and organize content will do the trick. I think everyone has a Google Site or a Sharepoint at hand. That’s how I started my project.

But we can do much better. I often talk about the consumerization of organizations, a way of saying that the tools and practices that we implement on the client side arrive sooner or later on the employee’s side. This is what is happening here and we are no longer obliged to tinker with internal tools and say to ourselves that we will never be able to do as well as with tools designed for customers.

Zendesk, a well-known solution in the world of customer service, now also offers a version for HR and employees. It allows the creation of a knowledge base and a ticketing system to respond to requests.

Workplace by Facebook now has a module called “Knowledge Library”.

An HRIS leader such as Workday announced a Knowledge Management module in spring.

Proof that we are facing a strong trend but what worries me so far, as far as I can see, is that vendors have identified the need and that many HR and employee experience managers have not understood what this could be used for.

Is a knowledge base for employees really useful?

Of course, building and maintaining such a knowledge base takes time and is therefore not free. It’s worth the effort.

Some elements of answer :

  1. When I embarked on such a project I had clearly identified the need, yet after the adoption by users remained a gamble.
  2. The knowledge base was quickly identified by everyone as “the place to look”. The corollary being less solicitation of the knowledgeable who appreciated it.
  3. A constant increase in traffic, with accelerations when new employees join us.
  4. An explosion of traffic during the confinement.
  5. A real challenge in terms of maintenance and updates, which requires the collaboration of all the departments and process owners.
  6. Its implementation required an effort to formalize our operations, which was beneficial during the containment phase.

In conclusion, this construction site was indeed a bet but we were sure of the return on investment on the long term. One of the main efforts focused on the formalization of certain things that were little or not updated. If we wondered about the usefulness of going so deep into the organization at that time, we were pleased to have done so when the confinement was declared because this device has certainly helped the organization to stand firm without any problem and integrate new employees in a 100% remote organization.

Image : knowledge base by Black Jack via Shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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