But what if they … Overcoming common fears of user-generated content in the workplace

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JD Dillon, Kaplan Higher and Professional Education

What percentage of your organization’s internal knowledge is documented? By “documented,” I mean the information can be …

  • Searched easily to support performance in the moment of need
  • Shared between employees without help from a specialist
  • Sourced to support communication and training initiatives

When you take into account the true scope of internal organizational knowledge, this percentage is often staggeringly low. This situation creates considerable productivity challenges for employees, as people waste valuable time repeatedly hunting for information rather than serving customers. The problem is worsened by resulting employee disengagement and (ultimately) turnover, at which point years of accumulated, undocumented knowledge walks out the door.

How do we capture more shared knowledge? After all, we only have so many people on our teams focused on documentation, right? Well, that’s the problem! It’s impossible for a dedicated documentation team to keep up with a modern organization. Therefore, there’s only one way to solve our problem: enable the users. By not only allowing employees to contribute to our knowledge repositories but also expecting and motivating them to do so, we can incrementally close the gap between what our people know as individuals and what we have shared for collective organizational benefit.

For many organizations (and lawyers), user-generated content is scary. Most content management systems are built like vaults for a reason—to keep the legally approved documents under lock and key until they’re really needed and only to be edited by the anointed few. Unfortunately, that does little to support ongoing performance and operational flexibility. We must get past our organizational fears of user-generated content and adopt knowledge curation and sharing models similar to those that are commonplace in everyday resources like Wikipedia and YouTube.

How do we get past the fear? We must address it with organizational stakeholders as part of our effort to close the shared workplace knowledge gap. To get you started, let’s quickly explore the five most common arguments I tend to hear regarding user-generated content.

But they don’t have the skills!

That’s true! Most employees haven’t spent years training to become skilled documentation specialists. So what? Does every piece of information have to be perfectly composed to be useful? While doing their everyday tasks, which information do your employees tend to value more—the stuff they built/share out of need or the formal materials saved in your CMS? For most, it’s the former! Value utility over form and save the specialized skills for materials that require that level of attention. Even better—refocus your specialists on continuously developing your employees’ writing, curation, and sharing abilities.

But they don’t know what people need!

Spoiler alert: neither do you! Due to their limited reach, documentation teams are focused on high-level organizational priorities and don’t have the operational understanding to really know what people need to do their jobs. Furthermore, performance support needs are increasingly specific to the employee and moment in time. Who better to understand this and help overcome this limitation than the people who REALLY know what it’s like to do the job?

But they’ll share bad things!

Accountability! Who are you hiring? Are you ensuring what is shared is directly connected to their identity? Have you set expectations about what’s appropriate/relevant/useful when it comes to sharing information? This concern is more about fear of losing control and less about reality, and it’s on us along with management to address it up front. When people are held accountable for the information they share, they just don’t do bad things. Yes, they will make mistakes, and we must be there to help fix them.

But that’s too much content!

Has anyone ever really complained about having too many resources at work? The volume of content is more a question of effective information architecture than scale. As of 2014, Google has indexed 200 Terabytes (TB) of data, and yet people still manage to make effective use of the Internet. As information specialists, we must implement tools and processes to help people effectively organize and manage shared knowledge for maximum organizational benefit.

But how will we get all that stuff approved?

Are you approving every email, breakroom conversation, and manager/employee coaching session? I didn’t think so. Employees are constantly using “unapproved” information that helps them do their jobs. What sounds more palatable—the current state or making that “unapproved” information visible in the organization so we can step in when needed? There will always be lines that must be drawn when it comes to who shares information on sensitive subjects, such as compliance topics. We must again deploy our special skills in new ways to both handle the information that requires greater scrutiny and increase awareness of the “other” content that’s in use already so we can help improve it and truly protect our customers, employees, and organizations.

It will take time to overcome cultural fear of user-generated content. We’re already years behind the Internet in our ability to leverage real-world information-sharing behaviors in the workplace. We must begin the conversation with our stakeholders and employees so we can find ways to help people take advantage of these behaviors as a means of creating a strategic advantage in our organizations through shared knowledge.