I believe that the job we all have in life is to acquire knowledge and wisdom and then share it. I just don’t know what else there is. This is the bedrock of my belief system. - Tobias Lütke, Founder & CEO of Shopify
“What is a knowledge manager exactly?” As one myself, I get this question all the time from fellow startup employees. In fact, I've completely lost count of the number of times I've been asked what I do.
And I'm far from the only one in my position. It seems that more and more companies are realizing the value of employee learning, both to upskill their workforces and help alumni shine brighter.
So once and for all, let's set the record straight. I'll explain what a knowledge manager is and does, and how I go about the job.
The knowledge manager role & responsibilities
What does a knowledge manager do? We can divide the answer into three clear categories:
This is the opening line I’ve been pitching since day one to introduce my role: “I’m accountable for all the processes and tools to build, share and develop knowledge at Spendesk.”
That’s a hell of a scope, right? We want our employees to grow, and to learn things about themselves, their careers, and startup life along the way. So it’s my job to facilitate that.
More concretely, I’m part of the Operations tribe. And the first half of the role is common to everyone in the team. We’re accountable for processes and tools here at Spendesk. Only my processes and tools relate specifically to developing the knowledge base within the organization.
To bring that purpose to life, I obviously have to think a lot about processes and tools. Here’s how knowledge managers should approach each of these:
- Processes: Defining the ideal behaviors we want to see when our teams share information. When Spendeskers create a note on Notion, do they do so in a compelling format, store it in the appropriate place and share it with the relevant stakeholders?
Then designing the guidelines, rules, and standards of excellence that will help reach those target behaviors.
In the long term, the aim is to turn processes and formal routines into habits - informal ones. I win when I don’t have to remind all my colleagues of the processes every day!
- Tools: At Spendesk, our main knowledge stack is made up of Slack (our key channel for information sharing), Notion (the knowledge base), and 360Learning (our learning management system).
Of course, depending on everyone’s specific role, functional tools are also crucial repositories of knowledge and means to spread it, so connections with the main knowledge stack are also important. Ensuring the links between the two exist is already a good step!
Generally speaking, I divide my daily work further into three main pillars:
- Alignment: Making sure Spendeskers, on a team or company-wide basis, have access to single sources of truth regarding who we are, what we do, where we’re going, and how we operate.
This is where Notion shines the most, and where I’ve accomplished high-ROI projects. For instance: creating a clear and simple page titled “How Spendesk makes money” to ensure everyone understands our business model.
This doesn’t mean that we had no clue about how we bring the money in, but (i) there was no single view of all the drivers of our revenue and its growth, and (ii) for some of those drivers knowledge was more in the heads of a few key people, rather than clearly laid out for everyone to see.
If everyone is aligned on the basics of how the company operates, we can focus on more interesting and exciting topics.
- Learning: Making sure Spendeskers have access to the means to acquire new skills or upgrade existing ones.
This works team-by-team (for functional skills), or on a company-wide basis (for core skills such as understanding our clients’ needs and how our product solves them, or soft skills).
- Infrastructure building: Not only implementing and managing the tools, but most importantly creating and maintaining the associated processes and training.
4 steps for good knowledge management
So that’s the what. Let’s turn now to the how. We can think of knowledge management as a factory, with a set structure to go from basic ideas to sharable knowledge.
Here are the 4 steps of the knowledge transformation that I try to optimize:
- From tacit to explicit. We want to go from internalised thoughts or oral conversations to a tangible format (such as Notion notes, playbooks, and presentations).
- From explicit to organized. The end product is usually a structured note that people will want to read.
- From organized to shared. The product also needs to be a piece of content that your teammates know exists and can find easily when looking for it.
- From shared to evolving. Even better is a slide deck, note, or course that you update regularly to keep it relevant as time passes.
These formal concepts are important. Organizations often rely heavily on institutional knowledge stored mainly in people’s heads. We need information to be documented and available if we want to succeed long term.
Why it’s an important role
Particularly in modern startups and scaleups, knowledge managers are becoming increasingly important. Besides the point I made just above - that institutional knowledge is too valuable to let walk out the door, there are a couple of key reasons why you’ll only see more of us in the future.
First, everyone wants to grow. The average age at Spendesk is 28 years old, and everyone wants to excel in their role, acquire new skills and potentially move to new positions (including manager) in the medium term. We have clear career paths internally, and of course there are countless other roles to move into in the wider world.
To be a great company, we need people to leave us smarter than when they joined. And contributing to this is very rewarding.
And from a business sense, capitalizing on knowledge is often what makes the difference between a good and a great company. Scaling up is much faster and easier if you’re not reinventing the wheel every two weeks, but rather sharing the best practices and ways of working across the ranks.
This article is a neat primer on this.
Why it’s a great position
Not every business has its own knowledge manager, and many people have no idea what the role even is. So why would people want to actually do the job? I have three good reasons.
First, knowledge managers are at the center of the company: I’m one of the rare Spendeskers serving literally everyone, no matter their role or their tribe. This is a great way to understand what everyone does and what growing pains we have to solve right now and in the future.
It’s also both big picture and hands-on. I get to weave the thread between abstract principles and the user experience in the field.
Case in point: in one year, I went from crafting Spendesk’s learning vision with the People Managers to launching 360Learning for 270 teammates, with all the onboarding journeys and announcements that go along with it.
And finally, the work is project-oriented. I strive to solve one growing pain after the next, ensuring that at the end of a project an owner is appointed to maintain it in the long run.
For me, no quarter looks like another!
What makes a great knowledge manager?
Suppose I’ve now convinced you that either your business needs a knowledge manager, or you yourself may enjoy the role. How do you know what to highlight in the job description?
Here are the most important character traits, in my view:
You’ll meet and work with teammates with different roles, personalities, levels of experience, and workflows. Which brings up a broad range of issues.
Not only is empathy key to correctly identify and scope out problems to work on (which is the first step to designing efficient solutions), it may also help you identify new problems that colleagues themselves are not yet aware of.
Given your central position in the company and the number of interactions you’ll have, you not only need to understand others well, but want to understand them better.
Did I mention you’ll be working on a lot of different issues? They’ll all feel important, and naturally you’ll want to get through them all in good time. But some will obviously need to come before others.
You have to establish the criteria and identify the stakeholders that will help you rank them and set appropriate timeframes.
Project management and coordination
Timeframes in this role can be complicated. The projects I work on are longer than the average - usually spanning several months - and involve different types of stakeholders.
So you’d better divide and plan each project efficiently, and have the right rituals or routines to follow up on everyone’s progress. This position definitely suits those with an innate sense of structure.
Case in point: we selected our Learning Management System (360Learning) in mid-October, and launched it company-wide in mid-March. We needed the support of DevOps to set the domain name and SSO experience, brand designers to customize our interface, and above all seven content creators.
Even with great people and tools, projects can take awhile.
Soft management skills
There’s an asymmetry in the time dedicated to the projects I drive – they make up 90% of my time, but no more than 10% of my contributors’. And I don’t have any hierarchical authority over them. I manage knowledge rather than people.
So there’s a delicate balance: I need to communicate the importance of the knowledge-sharing or learning projects we do to motivate them on the one hand. On the other, I have to be firm when needed to push progress or get better quality from collaborators. All without demotivating them.
This runs through everything you do. Enlisting fellow team members as project contributors or drivers, creating pieces of content yourself to lead by example, and crafting internal announcements to stoke interest.
There’s a lot of writing involved, and of course lots of presentations and 1:1 conversations along the way.
A willingness to do the dirty work
Infrastructure builders need to really get into their tools, configure them, and make them work to their full potential. I often have to do the same for colleagues too.
What a knowledge manager is not
I want to close with a few common misconceptions. I answer the same questions and encounter the same misunderstandings all the time. So here’s what I’m not:
- A 21st-century archivist. If you spend your time chasing nuggets of knowledge to classify them, doing the grunt work in place of your teammates, you’re not working on the higher-level processes that truly matter!
- A corporate-style teacher. My role is to facilitate learning, but it's up to the subject matter experts (internal and external) to craft the lessons.
- A walking encyclopedia. Even if I’m a proud member of the “great freemasonry of useless erudition”, as French philosopher Michel Foucault said, and colleagues created a custom “Wikitom” emoji, I don’t actually know everything about the company. And I’m not supposed to.
At the most basic level, knowledge managers should make important information easy to find for everyone else. That means identifying information that’s actually important, and then building systems everyone can use on their own.
If my teammates can answer their own questions - with minimal searching - I’ve done what I’m supposed to do.