When planning the implementation of a new product or technology tool, training is always part of the project and has a place on the schedule. As the project goes on and the time to completion gets shorter, however, training can end up being reduced or eliminated entirely.

Unfortunately, I am often asked to develop training for technology that has already been implemented, which leaves little time to prepare a long-term program. Often, I recommend training solutions that can be quickly put into place in the short term while we work on developing a more solid training program. One training tool I use in these situations is a knowledge base, which can be implemented quickly, with little budget, and often with existing technology tools, and it is also very useful for informal and on-the-job training needs.

Knowledge bases
A knowledge base is a central repository that holds information and documents useful to specific audiences, allowing users to learn new topics or refresh their understanding of familiar topics.

When I mention a knowledge base, clients often imagine a large-scale project that will take several months and many dollars to implement. While that may be a long-term goal, a knowledge base can be implemented in as little as a few hours, as long as you have the tools. Before you choose a tool with which to build your knowledge base, make sure it has the following attributes:

  • Searchable: Readers should be able to locate documents based on categories, keywords, or phrases.
  • Compatible: The tool should handle documents in standard file formats, such as Word, WordPerfect, Excel, PowerPoint, and HTML. You should not have to spend extra time reformatting documents that have already been produced.
  • Accessible: Users should be able to access the information wherever or whenever they need to.
  • Protected: Depending on the content, you may need to monitor and control who can access the information.

Several readily available technology tools, a few of which I’ll discuss below, provide these features.

Messaging servers
Products like Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange have built-in capabilities to allow the development and maintenance of custom knowledge bases by non-MIS staff members. Both Notes and Exchange include templates you can use to set up your knowledge base very easily. Your staff can learn how to work with the features required for this kind of project in about four hours. Staff members also will need the appropriate network access and privileges in order to create or add to the knowledge base.

Windows NT/2000 Web services
Both NT and 2000 provide Web services that allow your staff to construct a knowledge base that can be viewed through a Web browser via an intranet, extranet, or the Internet. For NT, your staff will need to install Internet Information Server 4. For 2000, however, Web services are built in. It is better to use Web services instead of an ftp site to build a knowledge base because the Index Service provided with the Web services allows you to search for documents, including full-text searches.

Microsoft Office extensions
Coupled with Web services, Microsoft Office extensions can also prove useful. With these additional features, users can collaborate and make comments on documents asynchronously and can receive notification when documents are updated. Do note, however, that these features are part of the Microsoft Office 2000 Premium edition and must be installed on a Windows NT/2000/XP platform, and users must have legal copies of Microsoft Office 2000 in order for the features to work.

Third-party intranets
Companies such as Intranets.com can not only help you put a knowledge base in place, but they can also provide threaded discussion boards, calendaring, a contact list, and e-mail accounts for users. Because these services are Web-based, they work with most platforms as long as users have a recent version of Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator. These providers charge a monthly fee, and you should go through the information in your knowledge base thoroughly to make sure it is suitable for release to be stored on a third party’s systems.

Implementation considerations
Even though implementing a knowledge base can be a relatively easy procedure, ongoing administration creates additional requirements.

Make sure the knowledge base resides on a platform that is regularly backed up—at least once a week. Also, always keep copies of the original documents in a separate location.

For the initial launch of a knowledge base, it is best to include only information that is not confidential. If your knowledge base is outside the corporate firewall, the information should be suitable for public consumption, which may mean excluding company policies and procedures. Even though the platforms can be secured, systems or applications set up quickly are not always properly configured for security.

Consider how much time it will take on a weekly or monthly basis to update the knowledge base. If your staff would normally update these documents, storing these documents in a knowledge base generates little additional work. If this is not the case, you will need to help your staff build this time into their normal workload.

To make sure that users know about your knowledge base early on in the implementation, create user interest by placing documents in the knowledge base that help resolve “hot” issues or include information that most of your users need or would want to learn, such as product updates and technical documentation, standard operating procedures in customer service, and specific approaches to take regarding unique client or user requests.

A weekly note to users announcing changes, additions, and deletions from the knowledge base goes a long way to prompt employees to use it. I’ve found that notes sent early Monday morning before work hours generate a huge spike of activity on the knowledge base. Users also appreciate a direct link to each document listed in the message.

The overall administration for the knowledge base should be minimal. Once it is up and running, there is little to do on a regular basis other than setting up new users or adding new documents. Allowing others to add documents will also reduce the workload for your knowledge base administrator.

Ensuring continued ROI on your knowledge base
A knowledge base is a great training tool, but it will become stagnant if it’s not maintained and updated regularly. Keep use of the knowledge base high by maintaining up-to-date documents that are highly relevant to your audience and by listening and reacting to their changing needs. Adding a new feature or a new content channel every three months is also a great way to create a sense that the knowledge base is “new and improved.”

In the next few installments, I will present a case study on implementing a knowledge base, and I will introduce you to a tool that will make planning and putting your knowledge base in place faster and easier on your staff.

How does your staff share best practices?

Do you have a formal practice for this kind of collaboration, or does this happen most frequently in the lunchroom? Tell us how you get your employees to share information.