In a small company, something inconvenient can happen to useful information: It falls in silos. These silos are made up of human beings who hold knowledge that other people on their team need. Silos can also occur in small pools of documentation initially meant to house answers (like GitHub wikis, Google Docs, etc.). But when other people don’t know they exist or where to find them, you’re left back at square one. So, over the last 3 years at Code School, I’ve set out to devise a solution to this problem because I noticed we needed information to flow more freely.
The inefficient method to deal with information we’re missing is the one that comes most naturally to us — we ask someone who we think holds the answer. It seems like a fairly reasonable solution until this group of people (your company) starts growing.
One day, someone asks you a simple question, and you realize you’ve answered this exact same question about 10 times in the last year — or maybe even in the last month. And of course I have no problem answering it and helping my fellow Code Schoolers, but this same scenario is probably repeating all around the company. People are asking other people about the same information, over and over again.
Worse, whenever you give someone an answer, they’ll remember that answer. Should this information ever change, they won’t know about it. You could try to remember each person you gave an answer to, and one by one tell them, “Actually, this is how we do refunds right now” each time the process evolves. Or, you could send a mass email, or use a company-wide notification via instant messenger, but we all know how everyone loves those. But seriously, there has to be a better way.
My internal solution for Code School? Orientation, a simple application I’ve now open-sourced. But more importantly, it’s a concept — a way to reduce our collective time-to-answer.
The first thing you see when landing on Orientation is a search field. If you have a pointed question, there’s a good chance you can apply some of those Googling skills and find an existing article on Orientation that answers your question.
If you don’t, then there’s obviously an information gap. Your job as the information seeker is not only to make sure you find an answer, but also to help the next person who will ask the same question. Chances are that person will be you, so statistically you’re helping yourself.
Now, there’s a good chance you don’t really know the answer to that one. But when you do track down the resident polar bear expert, you’ll be able to jot down her response to your question on Orientation and solve this mystery for everyone else.
People who need to be aware when some information invariably changes can subscribe to any article on Orientation and receive email notifications when someone edits an article. This means that not only does information flow more freely, it also remains linked to the people who need it most.
There’s another problem I didn’t mention yet — information becomes stale very quickly. That’s especially true in small companies that evolve quickly. Processes are upended, and people are hired to solve problems so the documented solutions become irrelevant. This is why by default (but still configurable), Orientation will automatically mark an article as stale after 6 months. If you happen upon a stale article, a choice is presented to you:
- You can mark the article as Rotten if it’s clearly out of date, and the contributors will receive an email prompting them to update it.
- You can mark the article as Fresh, signaling it’s still up to date.
Articles only stay Fresh for 7 days — after that the staleness counter starts ticking again and will eventually help outdated information fade away if no one on the team can confirm it’s still accurate.
Some People Search, Some People Browse
What we realized eventually is that not everyone searches for information by thinking of keywords. Take someone who just joined your team. They’ve been onboarded, they filled out paperwork, they read your code of conduct, they know how to get to the secret stash of fruit snacks in case of emergency. What they don’t have is months of internalized knowledge about “how people do things here.”
So it’s hard to search for Unknown Unknowns™. And for that, Orientation has Guides®, which we’ve harnessed the ancient power of hypertext to create. Guides are just normal articles that link to other normal articles — the only difference is they’re featured on the homepage so people who want to browse for information can. A good example is our Onboarding Guide, where we’ve organized articles that you may not think of searching for, but they’ll come in handy to anyone who recently joined our team.
Orientation is a solution that, at least for us, has helped immensely with information silos. The most important takeaway is that, for any company, making information easy to find and access is crucial to long-term success. Want to use Orientation for your team? You can find it on GitHub as a free open source under the MIT license. And if you’ve experienced these issues within companies you’ve worked for, let us know what solutions worked for you in the discussion section below!