Our technology team been forever searching for a good way to capture knowledge (things like discussions, ideas, tips & tricks, technical documentation, etc). Seems simple, yet a good tool for this proved to be surprisingly elusive.

What’s Wrong With Just Using ____?

We’ve tried many solutions over the years: SharePoint, wikis, blogs, even source control. Unfortunately, we found all of these tools to be varying degrees of useful and frustrating.

Take SharePoint. The user experience is optimized to let you create, manage, and track documents. This is great if all you want to do is deal with documents. But what if you don’t want to fire up Word (or another Office application) just to write a simple post? It can be done, but it’s not easy or obvious.

What about wikis? Well contributing to one is easy: just fire up a browser and start typing. The problem (as we found out the hard way) is in managing it. Unless you spend significant time organizing the content being entered into a wiki, it’ll soon devolve into a big pile of data.

And then there are blogs. With blogs, it reasonably easy to create and organize content (just tag or categorize a post and you’re set). It’s also straightforward to contribute since most blog engines have nice commenting features. On the other hand, there is a rather involved workflow required to create posts, which can be a source of friction.

If You Build It…

Probably the biggest issue with all these tools is adoption and continued usage. What inevitably happens is that utilization falls off shortly after “launch” and only a small group of diehards continues to contribute.

Eventually, the tool turns into a ghost town, with nary a tumble-post rolling through. Once that happens, it’s time to move on to the next one.

What Would a Good Tool Look Like?

Here are a few things a good tool should do:

It’s debatable whether every one of these is absolutely necessary. That said, I do think that all of these features should be at least decent (and some should be great) in order for any tool for be worthwhile.

And What About All That “Social” Stuff?

Another thing worth considering is whether such a tool should have a “social” aspect to it. You know, support for status updates, “likes”, easy comments, pictures of things going on around the office, group outings, etc. It may sound like a big waste of time (and it certainly could be), but there is value to it.

First, social features act as a lubricant to adoption. They’re typically quite easy to do and they give people a reason to be there (“I wonder if anyone liked my post yet”). Having a reason to use the tool, especially in the early days, is important to adoption.

I actually think that social features are even more important for technical teams. After all, geeks aren’t the most social of humans. In fact, some geeks have trouble communicating verbally with others. Furthermore, these same geeks find it more comfortable to communicate with others via the warm, welcoming embrace of a computer. Shocking, I know.

Second, The degree to which your team embraces social features is a reflection of your culture. A vibrant culture will manifest itself online. People sharing ideas, interacting, organizing, and so on. It’s infectious.

I would guess that a bad culture will also find a way to manifest itself. Often, it’s through non-participation (obviously provided that you have decent tools). It could also be through minimal and/or passive aggressive communication (snarky, cynical comments are a typical smell).

Bottom Line

We’ve recently adopted and have been quite happy with Jive. It does everything we want, it’s easy, and people are actually using it. It’s true that it hasn’t yet stood the test of time, but I’m quite hopeful that we’ve finally found what we were looking for.

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