The proliferation of Slack into the work place has been just amazing. While the jury is still out whether Slack can replace emails, however there is no questioning the important place it has come to occupy when it comes to communication and collaboration in several businesses. While Slack has many advantages as compared to previous enterprise messaging and collaboration tools, however managing knowledge on Slack is still a challenge. This article explores the importance of knowledge management on Slack, some of the challenges and why we need a tool that has been specifically built for Slack to actually enable knowledge management on Slack.
We are all in love with Slack. Slack has over 4 million users now and continues to grow at a rapid pace, turning the enterprise communication industry on its head. A survey conducted by Hiten Shah of CrazyEgg in 2015 reveals the reasons why people use Slack – the significant ones being reduction in email volume, better interface and lots of Integrations.
Slack has a few unusual features that make it perfectly suited for work, including automatic archiving of all your interactions, a good search engine and the ability to work across just about every device you use. Another reason is that Slack is fun to use. Part of this is the helpful Slackbot that guides users and provides assistance with a playful, yet helpful personality as well as the myriad of other bots that are available to add in. Besides Slack also brings a feeling of intimacy with co-workers on the other side of the country.
When email just started out it was still a luxury; not many organizations had email. Over time, it has become an indispensable means of communication. Team messaging is heading in the same direction, and as they take the center stage in business communication, other enterprise tools too need to adjust and build on the new workplace normal. One such tool is knowledge management: how we capture, organize and share knowledge within teams.
Should We Care About Knowledge Management in a Slack Setting?
As a recent report from the Society of Marketing Professionals (SMPS) notes, as we “transition from the Information Age to the Knowledge Era . . . continued training of both marketing and technical staff is vital to a firm’s longevity. So while ignorance may be bliss, knowledge is indeed power.”
Knowledge sharing is probably the most common type of interruption at any company. Team members frequently have to share their knowledge with other team members. This is where it can become quite costly, certainly in terms of employee productivity. A lot of companies don’t have a robust enough process and lose knowledge when employees move on or change roles. They lose their team’s deep smarts: the skills and know-how that have taken a lot of time and effort to cultivate. The cost of this loss is high.
Email, by design, has an inherent filter built into it. To put something down in an email and send it out to people (and have it stay in their inboxes), it had to be sufficiently important. By contrast, chat-based tools such as Slack simply do away with this filter. While this may result in more noise, but it also results in higher conversations, more sharing of data and files. With a more intimate team more conversations can happen in channels, which anyone on the team can join. Those conversations in Slack are what create that magical sense of “ambient awareness” of what’s happening, as well as an archive of organizational knowledge over time. Hence an increasing need to better capture, organize and share all this knowledge.
Challenges of managing knowledge in Slack
Slack uses a product architecture that is based on streams of data ordered by time. That means, by essence, things will get lost as new stuff comes up in an endless waterfall of information. For group chatting and social networking, this is extremely useful. But, for managing knowledge and making it accessible, could become a nightmare
Here are some of the reasons why managing knowledge on Slack can be a challenge:
New knowledge is organically created and shared everyday on Slack, but it quickly moves out of sight in the constant stream of new updates. This sometimes makes it challenging to find, record and share that fleeting knowledge.
Take one look at any team’s Slack channel, and you’ll find people having casual conversations, sharing everything that they would share in an email, including pieces of information that they want their co-workers to have easy access to (like in an email where you bolden or italicize parts that need their attention) – An important link, a piece of code that needs feedback, a file that needs to be viewed, a process document, an important topic that needs discussion. Since Slack is moving fast, most of these pieces of information or knowledge, are lost in the thread.
Users shouldn’t have to always be there just so that they don’t miss out on the important things shared. The chat history becomes way too big for users to mine all the important things they’ve missed out on.
A challenge that several teams face with Slack is repetitive questions that clutter Slack channels. For team members, repetitive questions are annoying and reduce their productivity. Slack is great to preserve conversations but not so for finding answers.
Search in Slack is actually pretty good. Not only is Slack good at retrieving past messages and conversations, but anything that is linked to in Slack or attached as shared objects (text related or with text metadata) in Slack all become searchable. The challenge here is not the search engine itself but the fact since the platform generates so much conversation, getting to the right knowledge actually takes a lot of time. Also, finding related threads and discussions across channels can be cumbersome in search when different terms (synonyms / fungible technical terms) are being used, even if search is good.
There are also situations where you know a specific person uploaded a file but you can’t remember what it was called, or someone talked about a particular subject but you can’t remember who. This makes the information particularly hard to find using Slack’s existing search, and the information gets lost in the ‘noise’ of the channel. This problem is compounded by the high numbers of messages that Slack processes.
It’s often hard to find specific things (documents especially) and even harder to aggregate bits of information to make sense of what’s going on in the environment. Slack way to unlock what’s going on at a “higher level”, aggregating conversational data to find trends that would go unnoticed at a lower level and remain lost in the noise of the conversation.
An important feature of knowledge management is to elicit not just the explicit knowledge shared by people but also the tacit knowledge that can be built by analyzing user behavior and actions. This can be immensely beneficial for organizations to improve their productivity.
Knowledge Management framework
We can apply the model of knowledge activities based on Probst’s building blocks of knowledge management (Probst 2002) to understand how Slack plays a role with respect to a knowledge management framework.
If we focus on the application of knowledge within the activities of business process, we see that:
Knowledge generation can happen:
- Internally i.e. knowledge is created within the organization by employees or
- Externally i.e. knowledge is created together with partners or customers
And knowledge generation includes both creation of new knowledge as well as construction of existing knowledge. Slack does really well in generating knowledge, especially given the collaborative processes of knowledge building.
Knowledge Transfer is basically sharing of knowledge which also happens on Slack but with its own limitations. E.g. although knowledge in Slack channels can be searched but those in Direct Messages can get lost. Similarly sharing knowledge with external audience, e.g. with customers or channel partners, can be a challenge.
The organization of knowledge is building the relevant metadata and taxonomies so that its categorization and access can be improved and secured. The only knowledge organization we can do in Slack is associating it with different channels.
Although Slack maintains a log of all conversations but the possibility to distribute this or refine or perform any intelligent operations on it is not possible.
Does this mean Knowledge Management Cannot Happen on Slack?
Absolutely not. Slack cannot do everything for everyone. And this is why they have created an app marketplace to allow others to build applications that plugs these gaps. Slack’s API’s are also very well documented and they actively support the community in developing helpful extensions to the Slack environment.
The early adopters of Slack were developers, and we can take some cue from them on how they managed their knowledge. The organization of conversation into channels combined with integration of tools such as Trello, GitHub, SVN etc. really helped to efficiently access the needed information and reduce redundancies.
These tools helped users to identify relevant or needed knowledge, follow the progress of a task or project and being aware of dependencies or responsibilities by providing notifications for the tool itself. In fact integration of these tools increased awareness about what the other is doing and what is expected from one, because there is more synchronization and each time for example a card moves in Trello, users get a notification. At KnoBis, we use Trello a lot and the Trello integration has been incredibly useful to us. It automatically posts to our #engineering channel every time a team member adds an update to product backlog board.
This way, Slack included the identification of knowledge, which was stored elsewhere. Slack is used as a central contact point to summarize knowledge that existed on other platforms.
As Slack extends usage to other cross functional teams, there becomes a need for a broader knowledge management system to enable similar knowledge sharing and capturing
Knowledge Management for Slack needs to be thought differently
Slack’s features and uniqueness, which of course makes it more popular, also means that knowledge management for Slack needs to be thought differently. Most existing knowledge base softwares were developed before the era of enterprise messaging and aren’t able to latch on to the uniqueness provided by these platforms, such as:
Conversations as Knowledge
More often than not, knowledge in Slack gets built as casual conversations and not necessarily long form rich text articles or documents. With conversations, the context and history is there to be seen and can be incredibly valuable for someone to understand the background. This is very different from traditional systems, which approached knowledge mostly as rich text articles.
Introduction of Bots
While bots have long lived in the quieter corners of the Internet, Slack is pushing it into the mainstream. Bots are great at making sense out of lots of different types of information (schedules, meeting notes, documents, notifications from other business applications), and making all of that data more useful by allowing people to interact with it like they would in a conversation with a person.
Slack bots range from the obvious—bots for recognizing good work, posting photos, translating text—to the utterly inane, like playing poker. Another tells you who’s talking too much, seemingly to shut them up. There’s one to notify you each time your startup is mentioned somewhere online, streamlining that whole wasting time on the Internet thing. They absolutely can save you time.
This of course presents a very exciting opportunity for knowledge management as a “knowledgeable bot” can answer a lot of questions for team members without them now needing to disturb their team mates.
Most traditional knowledge management systems tend to support WSYWIG editors that do not support Markdown, while Slack uses Markdown. This can create challenges when either capturing content from Slack or posting it to a Slack channel.
Slack doesn’t allow integrations to create any custom views, instead limiting apps to plain or lightly formatted text. As a result, complex integrations generally have a pseudo-command-line interface, requiring one command to display information and yet another to act upon it. This can make it a bit of challenge for knowledge bases that often depend on a lot of multimedia and metadata for each knowledge content.
It is important to note that Slack doesn’t replace everything. Dave Teare, founder of Agile Bits (developers of 1Password), recently wrote that his company’s “Slack Addiction” led to “using it over all the other tools at our disposal,” which meant that employees posted support issues and development issues into Slack instead of ticketing systems and knowledge bases. This is a classic example of what happens when we try to substitute Slack for everything.
Slack does well to sit alongside those services for conversational interactions and sharing results out of them. It isn’t going to replace a social search or a document management service or a collective aggregation service like KnoBis. Slack not only integrates things into itself, but also can have what is in it as fodder to integrate out, so conversations and things shared in Slack can be honed and more deeply framed and considered in other services and then have results and outcomes of those considerations shared back into Slack. It is a good partner for it to add context and easily drop documents that are relevant from the service into Slack. But, Slack isn’t going to replace document management, even if its search is good, the versioning, permissions, and access controls for compliance and other valid needs aren’t there in Slack. Your document management service could become more pleasurable to use though. And therefore Slack users need a “Knowledge Network” – A place where Slack users can post things that others “need to know”, preferably integrated with Slack so that you can post-once-show-everywhere.
Rajat is the founder of KnoBis. KnoBis is a knowledge base software for Slack and Google Apps teams. Powered by a strong search, KnoBis makes it easy to capture and share knowledge in any format: conversations, rich text articles, multimedia documents etc. Use cases of KnoBis include sales enablement, customer support enablement, intranet/internal team knowledge base and self support module for customers.
Rajat has close to 12 years of experience in the computer software industry in engineering, product management and marketing roles. Rajat is a graduate from IIT BHU.