Monday 22 September 2014

Knowledge Management for start-ups

If a start-up is successful, it needs to think about Knowledge Management from the beginning - not because KM is important at the beginning, but because without KM it could really struggle to scale up.

At the beginning of it's life, a start-up company is built on the insight, creativity, hard work and determination of a small number of people.

The knowledge of the product they create, the market they serve and the business model that fuels their dream is held tacitly and collectively; forged in coffee-fuelled conversations and only ever sketched on napkins.

The start-up becomes successful - more staff join the company and join in the conversations, and the vision and working approach is still shared and held tacitly. All is working well. Knowledge flows informally, tacitly and richly.

Then staff numbers hit the Dunbar limit; 150 people. This number is "a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships" - a limit to the number of people you can know well, and therefore share closely and tacitly with. Beyond this point, informal Knowledge Management begins to fail.  Sales staff go slightly off message, support staff no longer intuitively "get" the product design rationale, and the boss is increasingly called in to fix things.

The start-up opens it's first branch office overseas, and things take a sharper downward turn. People in different countries receive different levels of service, the success in one country is not replicated in another, clients begin to grumble, employees increasingly "don't know the answers", and the boss is continually on a plane "fighting fires". Knowledge Management is now overdue. It can be brought in to stop the rot, but should have been introduced earlier.

What does start-up KM look like? 

Start-up KM should start simply and grow with the organisation, but should start on day one. the founders of the company should be performing their After Action Reviews, and documenting their lessons from the earliest stage. They should be discussing, agreeing and noting down their knowledge and experience on:

  • How the product works;
  • Why its designed the way it is;
  • How to market and sell;
  • Who to sell and market to;
  • What the customers want;
  • How to explain and demonstrate the virtues of the product;
  • How to support the product;
  • What the customer FAQs are, and how best to answer these;
  • How the company works;
  • Why the company works that way;
  • What the company believes in;
And so on. 

Initially this can be documented on a wiki (for ease of editing), with all conversations happening in the coffee shop.  The documentation can be in the form of lessons and "best" artefacts (best sales presentation, best answer to customer etc).

As the company grows, especially as it grows beyond the Dunbar limit, the wiki will need to be supported by online discussion - Yammer perhaps, or Jive, or the Agora Knowledge Hub.  Many of the working methods will need to be proceduralised into "current best marketing approach, current best sales presentation, current best demonstration, top 10 tips for sales, standard customer FAQ" and so on. You even appoint someone to keep an eye on Knowledge Management within the organisation, and you can draft your own internal KM policy. You now have all the elements of a Knowledge Management Framework - Connect and Collect, Roles, processes, technologies and governance.

Then once you hit the big time and your company is definitely on the way to the top, you need to bring in a full scale Knowledge Management Framework, with process owners, lesson-learning, collaboration and communities of practice, and dedicated software for community interaction and for lesson management.

The point is that Knowledge Management should begin at the beginning of the start-up and then scale up as the company scales up. Otherwise - look out for problems as you pass the Dunbar limit.

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