Knowledge wikis, cloud knowledge storages and full-fledged knowledge portals… What would you add to this list of popular knowledge generation tools? Is there a place for corporate discussion boards?
Surprisingly, though actively used by employees, discussion boards rarely come into knowledge managers’ focus because they are primarily considered as communication mediators and not as knowledge generators. So let’s see if there are any possibilities to benefit from corporate discussion boards, namely those based on SharePoint, and use them as long-term knowledge absorbers, not only as instant communication hubs.
Why Pay Attention to Discussion Boards
So why are discussion boards worth knowledge managers’ attention? There are at least 3 reasons to consider them as alternative knowledge management tools, since they allow to:
- Accumulate unique corporate expertise. Discussion boards are literally strewed with specific knowledge that includes assessment of corporate projects, expert opinions, analysis of business issues and much more. Some pieces of this knowledge will stay relevant for many years and serve as the base for the company’s further development.
- Reduce time for knowledge acquisition. To get a new portion of knowledge, managers usually need to carry out a real investigation, diving into experts’ first-hand insights through a series of one-on-one meetings. Using corporate discussion boards, knowledge managers can simply search for the needed information, discover it immediately and use it to patch knowledge gaps on a knowledge map.
- Facilitate learning. Corporate discussion boards contain knowledge generated by employees throughout the company’s history. This way, the accumulated knowledge can serve as a tutorial base for both current employees who need to deeper understand a specific issue or to analyze a new domain, and newcomers during onboarding.
With all their great potential as knowledge aggregators, SharePoint-based corporate discussion boards may be still not so easy to deal with.
Discussion boards are discrete. Unlike centralized knowledge management systems, discussion boards are usually disconnected as they involve employees from non-overlapping activities (e.g. a separate project or a workflow). Finding valuable knowledge there would take thorough scanning of all the scattered boards.
Knowledge is heavily polluted. While collaborating, employees generate a huge amount of heterogeneous information. Corporate discussion boards may be full of side questions and case-specific details that cannot be considered as quality knowledge.
Knowledge is hard to verify. Even if a discussion board provides pure knowledge, it’s sometimes hard to assess its reliability as it’s generated by employees with different specializations, roles and expertise. Moreover, some knowledge can be too specific and inappropriate for further reuse.
So how to deal with knowledge stored on discussion boards? Leaving it unpurified without trying to sieve out irrelevant details is possible but very inefficient as users will have to sort it out by themselves.
Relying on our SharePoint consulting practice, we can suggest the following scenarios in order to boost knowledge value by improving the functionality of discussion boards:
Enabling highlights on the go. Users might be provided with handy tools to mark important information the moment they publish it. For example, every post can be accompanied with a special check box allowing users to mark a publication as ‘knowledge rich’. Another possible solution is to encourage employees to add tags to valuable pieces of information in the edit mode, so that a knowledge indexing engine could find and index them.
Creating a knowledge-purifying workflow. Admitting that users can neglect the previous scenario, a knowledge manager may initiate the creation of a dedicated workflow to regularly check existing discussion boards and sort out valuable information that can be further located in the knowledge base without any impurities.
Making Knowledge Discovery Easier
All the efforts on purifying knowledge will pay off only if that knowledge gets reused. That’s why users should be provided with relevant knowledge discovery tools as traditional search might be insufficient.
To meet the needs of employees who are used to instant and precise Google search, it’s necessary to think of advanced search solutions. Those companies that already use SharePoint as the platform for corporate discussion boards can leverage search functionality from out-of-the-box features by aligning them with the current users’ needs. Another, more complex opportunity is to add custom query rules based on users’ intentions or introduce managed metadata service that allows to change knowledge relevance and base it either on chronological attributes (the freshest knowledge will be always on top of the list) or on qualitative parameters (the most valuable items will be placed first). The latter option might be implemented taking into consideration posts’ authors, in order to make expert opinions go first in search results.
SharePoint users can also narrow their search results by language, which is extremely important for international companies with multilingual communication. This way users can filter information written exclusively in their native language while those speaking in multiple languages can switch between them easily.
Information security or user convenience?
While dealing with knowledge on discussion boards, managers have to solve the dilemma between information security and user convenience. On one hand, a knowledge manager should encourage employees to use accumulated corporate knowledge in their activities. On the other hand, the high risk of information leaks can be a great obstacle on the way to exposing knowledge publicly.
There is no single true way of sharing corporate knowledge, since every organization has its own information security policy determining the limits of users’ freedom. However, this dilemma can be solved by introducing censored search results. To hide highly confidential information under NDA, it’s reasonable to implement a customized prohibition dictionary, based on customers’ data taken from a corporate CRM or ERP. The dictionary will allow to automatically hide/exclude names from search results, so that users will not be able to see sensitive data.
Though discussion boards are rarely considered to be the source of valuable knowledge, they have a great potential as knowledge absorbers. When approached as knowledge media that are provided with relevant knowledge purification and search mechanisms, discussion boards can assist employees in their daily activities not only as communication hubs but as long-term aggregators of the unique corporate expertise.