KM for small businesses: more than just email

CafecilloI've been involved in knowledge management for a long time.  Knowledge management discussions usually assume that the organization is large.  Said another way: these discussions assume that it's not necessary in small organizations.  The people involved are sitting next to each other - asking a question involves turning around in their chair or walking to the office next door.  As organizations grow, there is an innate need to be able to continue connecting with people, even when they aren't a shout away.  Not only that, but we also generate lots and lots of information that we'd like to share with our colleagues, no matter where they are.  For these organizations, KM has taken on many forms, almost always supported by some technology or another. 

But what about small groups of people?  Maybe it's a small business (or nonprofit) just getting off the ground, or a small business that is growing and adding people who don't see each other all the time.  Maybe it's a business with no central office because "the office" is where the customers are.  How do they keep in touch and continue conversations and ideas?  They don't need special software do they? 

The stand-by answer is email along with the phone and live meetings (coffee!).  The primary "technology" is email and the personal computer of each individual contributor.  Email discussions between a few people.  Email documents back and forth.  Emails to organize meetings.  Email follow-ups to discussions.  This all leads to very little coordination or useful historical recall when it comes to bringing more people into the discussion.  Granted, most email interchanges can be happily forgotten once they are complete.  But shouldn't there be better ways for people to actually communicate and get things done than via email?

This line of thinking came about in response to a recent question on a KM mailing list, where someone had been asked about options for a small consultancy.  They are looking primarily for technology, but some of the things they want to support sound a lot like what KM has been talking about: finding and sharing information; tagging and categorizing the stuff; bounce ideas around (share and get comments); accessible from anywhere and any device. 

So, what is out there that is easily accessible to small businesses?   

[Photo: "Cafecillo" by Felipe De las Heras]

7 Comment(s)

Stuart French Author Profile Page said:

Hi Jack,

Often with people coming across KM, their first question is "What tools do we need?". You and I know there are a bunch of more important guiding questions that should be asked before tech even comes in to view. This short-cut mentality occurs at both ends of the business spectrum, and can have similar results if not handled correctly.

However. The answer to that question IS quite different when large and small businesses are compared.

Small business often don't have large amounts of capital to invest and more importantly, they often do KM naturally through simple face-to-face conversations and a little mentoring.

I believe the key to KM in SMEs is to monitor knowledge gaps as they appear - maybe you start a new office, maybe two SMEs merge, or the boss is about to retire - and then try some solutions for that need. Fail fast, Fail cheap and Learn well.

Now for the technology question. It is quite common to hear the question from a user or manager "We need a wiki". Actually it's not even a question really, just a statement of fact and IT and KM departments should rightly push back and do a bit of business analysis before deciding if a wiki is the answer.

In the case of an SME though, I am more and more convinced that enterprise wikis, such as Atlassian's Confluence product, are flexible enough to be used for a myriad of knowledge functions. Their relative low price means they can be adopted quicker, their ease of use means IT support is minimal and their flexibility (which in a large corporation can be their downfall) is actually a huge bonus in the small business environment. Company culture still plays a part in their success, particularly when transitioning from one part of the business to a corporate wide tool, but this too can be managed with executive support behind solving the issues at hand.

Anybody else had good experiences with wikis in SMEs?

Karl Vogel Author Profile Page said:

Unfortunately email has the "first-mover" advantage of being thoroughly entrenched. Instead of trying to pry people loose from a comfortable tool, how about doing something in the Windows world to aid historical recall?
Asking "what would I do if I had to fix this in 20 minutes?" was the best development advice I ever got, because I tend to over-engineer things. I'm always hearing about how much knowledge is locked up in people's mailboxes, so let's start with something we could do: set up email archiving in such a way that it's automatic, but the user has complete control over it.
What if a "Bcc: some-local-archive" line was added to each outgoing message/reply in Microsoft Outhouse or whatever the user has for an email client? If the message is trivial ("Wanna do lunch?") or private, just delete the line. Making it visible and ensuring that the user has complete control is good for several reasons:

  • I am not a rice paddy, the contents of my head are not something to be "harvested", and I resent people who don't get this.  
  • Saving mail isn't enough; people need to know it's easily searchable and viewable, and the local intranet would be an ideal place for this.  
  • The knee-jerk response to this suggestion is "just copy the mailboxes or DB or whatever", but there's no guarantee that the people who'd benefit from this have any control over the mailserver.

In the Unix world, web archives of mailing lists are one of the best sources for troubleshooting. For example, holds the available lists for the FreeBSD operating system; each list is organized by discussion thread, subject, author and date. The best part is that the web archives do sp*m-filtering, handle file-attachments properly, and are updated automatically with no additional effort on the part of users or admins.
There's a political side here that no tech fix can handle; pack-rat behavior will not go away until incentives change. My site has a user with an 11-Gbyte email archive, and there's a good reason for this. One of my friends who worked in contracting sent an email and left his desk. In the time it took him to visit the john and the pop-machine, a co-worker had read his message and started a grievance against him, claiming he hadn't used the proper procedures. Fortunately, he kept his own email-archive and was able to demonstrate otherwise, or it would have been his job.

Jack Vinson Author Profile Page said:

Thanks, Karl. And thanks for being patient with my website.

I like your direction of "make it easy." That's one of my biggest concerns with Luis Suarez' push to put discussions into more open places, like an Enterprise 2.0 setup that they have at IBM. (Sorry, Luis!) It seems - even to me - that this would take a lot more effort on the part of people who participate. At least until that something new becomes the norm.

Jordan Frank said:

I vote, rather I state, that its the small businesses that can't afford to live without KM. Without legacy structures, they are also the best positioned to leverage it well.

Working at Traction Software ( - we are far from the size of GE but over the years we've accumulated around 350,000 entries in our TeamPage deployment over the years. There's an array of critical information ranging from customer feedback to engineering notes. Your information problems don't feel big until you realize what you could have forgotten.

Another example: I run the Dartmouth Alumni Club in RI. When I first joined we spent a good part of meetings trying to remember details that I later started to add to a TeamPage space on my personal server. We have crucial information ranging from our member list to how we run an annual dinner and who are our key contacts at the college. We also retain discussions on key policy questions as well as a history of all events we've done. That's all the tip of the ice berg.

Without this resource, we'd be flying totally blind. Consider this: if you work for a big company and are unable to locate a particular piece of information, it's no big deal. You are a small cog in a big wheel. But if you work for a small company or even a small team, you look clueless if you can't put a finger on key information in 2 minutes or less. So, KM is vital at this level.

arvind said:

We are a small company of 25 and we use wiki. Problem for us is cultural than anything else. Not everyone uses wiki. People are happy walking across the floor and asking for answers. While it is good for personal interaction, existing knowledge is not being used.

Thanks, Arvind. I think it is important to realize that people's first choice is to talk to one another, and that "capturing" that exchange is going to be difficult or impossible. What the organization needs in those cases is to be flexible. Be open to the in-person exchanges, but also acknowledge that repeated discussions of the same material can be a drag on everyone.

How are you guys using the wiki? Is it helpful in getting work done?

Martin H Author Profile Page said:

Hi Jack,

I run small (around 30 employees) software company. In the past we a had problem with KM. I tried couple of solutions starting from mailing lists and wikis. Unfortunately non of them were good, flexible enough and easy to maintain. I've already spent many hours on research, three months ago I've found The Black Tome service ( which is exactly KM solution for small business. It seems that it is the best solution I've used by far. We were able to define our data structure and keep different assests in it (company documents, employees data, customers contacts and whole R&D related stuff). It's pretty cheep and has mobile interface, our employees really like it.


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