Break Down Silos and Foster Collaboration: Best Practices for Knowledge Sharing

You’ve heard it before: change is the only thing we can count on. It’s especially true in today’s volatile job market and constantly changing work landscape. With so much in flux, organizations that fail to preserve their institutional knowledge are inviting major losses in productivity and innovation.

The reality is that doing nothing to surface, preserve, and share institutional knowledge is much more expensive than building a culture of collaborative knowledge sharing that starts with the C-suite and extends to everyone at the company.

The question facing leadership today is: How can companies develop collaborative, knowledge-sharing cultures that will help them thrive in our volatile workplace landscape?

In this guide, we’ll help you answer that question by covering:

The difference between knowledge management and knowledge sharingHow organizations can address knowledge-sharing challenges by implementing best practices and embracing a culture shiftWhy it’s worth investing in a purpose-built knowledge-sharing platformWhat you can do right away to start transforming your organization’s knowledge culture and practices

Knowledge sharing matters

How does knowledge sharing differ from knowledge management? Knowledge sharing puts the employee first, not the technology.

Traditional knowledge management platforms and approaches require that organizations think about the technology first—what the content hierarchy is, what governance needs to be in place, etc. In traditional knowledge management platforms, it’s more important that the knowledge is managed than that the employee can share, discover, and reuse that knowledge.

Put people first

Knowledge-sharing platforms put the employee first by focusing on flexibility, intuitive organization, and actively bringing knowledge to the user. These platforms enable transparency and discoverability of knowledge, enabling effortless async collaboration between individuals and across teams. All of this makes the platform, and the organization, highly inclusive—an environment where everyone can contribute and benefit from day one.

Solid knowledge-sharing practices and a top-down commitment to preserving and disseminating knowledge can help organizations address challenges like:

Onboarding and retaining talent

New hires hail from different companies and programming environments, and no matter how impressive the new talent, they’ll need some time to come up to speed. Your product team may be itching to get started so they can meet their launch timelines, but your new folks are still training under more experienced team members—and taking up those experts’ time as they continue to encounter roadblocks they need help overcoming.

So much for those target launch dates.

Giving new employees access to a knowledge-sharing platform that helps them learn the ropes means they won’t have to wait for answers from more experienced colleagues before they can start delivering value. The platform will give new hires and seasoned employees alike access to common experiences, the languages and frameworks your company uses, product-specific details, and information around company processes and policies. If someone can’t find the information they need, they can ask their own questions and tag the right teams to find an answer. Because team members can easily add insights or updates to content, information stays relevant and up-to-date.

Provide a better employee experience

The right approach to knowledge sharing doesn’t just make onboarding faster and easier; it also helps you attract and retain the right people.

Expanding opportunities for learning and growth

It’s important to developers that their jobs give them plenty of chances to acquire new skills and develop existing ones. According to a Stack Overflow pulse survey, more than 50% of developers would consider leaving a job that didn’t offer sufficient learning opportunities, while about the same number would stick with a role that did offer learning opportunities. At least half of developers say learning opportunities contribute to their happiness at work.

Tech leaders, of course, want their developers to keep learning—that’s how they’ll acquire new skills, abilities, and insights that help them add more value to the organization. Once a developer is part of your team, you want them to learn continuously: to build on the skills that originally qualified them for hire while cultivating new skills.

A culture of continuous learning that encourages developers to upskill and reskill will help you retain the best employees while giving those employees every opportunity to deliver additional value to your organization.

Improving productivity and preventing knowledge loss

A central knowledge-sharing platform empowers employees to find the information they need without having to interrupt coworkers or waste time combing through chats and emails looking for a solution to a problem someone else may already have solved. Team members can post questions as they arise, and their coworkers can add updates or additional context to existing answers.

This crowdsourced model captures and preserves knowledge, but it also keeps that knowledge fresh and up-to-date by allowing users to vote on the accuracy and usefulness of others’ answers. 

Your developers can keep moving and stay agile while prioritizing knowledge sharing and preservation, and you can rest assured that employees who move on to other opportunities aren’t taking irreplaceable institutional knowledge with them.

Even short-term and temporary absences like vacation and parental leave can create headaches for developers still at their desks. “We recently had an engineer leave for an extended break during the holiday season, and Teams was instrumental in making sure we had proper coverage,” says Morgan Jones, Director of Engineering at Flex, a Stack Overflow for Teams customer. “Instead of peppering him with questions before he left, I was able to write them down and get his answers documented by him, which was really helpful for both of us.”

Accelerating innovation

When it comes to knowledge sharing, it’s crucial for teams to be able to collaborate cross-functionally in an environment where they can ask questions, hazard guesses, and share their perspectives and experiences. An employee-centric knowledge platform helps teams iterate creatively and fearlessly, and draws out a broad diversity of opinions and viewpoints from every facet of your organization.

Democratizing access to information allows every team to kick off new initiatives. Experts serve as advisors, not gatekeepers, while technical documentation and established best practices are accessible to everyone.

Create an innovative company culture that scales

Organizations that invest in systems to enable open discussion and knowledge sharing across teams are able to create an innovative company culture that scales with the business. It’s comparatively easy to create this kind of environment at a small startup—but how do you maintain that sense of rapid, transparent innovation as you scale?

Stack Overflow for Teams customer Runtastic went from a tiny team to a 250-person-strong organization spanning Salzburg, Pasching, and Vienna. With many of the core team members still around, Runtastic’s challenge was adjusting from a chaotic, ad hoc system in which everyone caught up with everyone else on a daily or as-needed basis to one where information flowed through static documentation.

David Österreicher, Runtastic’s Head of Engineering, broke down the problem: “You sit down to write a piece of documentation in a wiki, in our case Atlassian Confluence, but the person writing documentation never knows how many details to include. You then need all these smaller clarifications around it, so you ping someone on Slack, and get more context.”

That context, instead of being discoverable by the next person who needs the same information, is gone if it’s not recorded. As a result, Runtastic’s engineers were repeating themselves constantly, answering the same question over and over again. Runtastic knew they needed a knowledge-sharing platform to capture and preserve information in its full context so that future engineers could self-serve, finding the answers to their own questions.

Inaction is expensive

At this juncture, you might be wondering about the cost (or the risk) of doing nothing to implement sustainable knowledge sharing.

What do you have to lose?

One of the most critical functions of knowledge sharing is preserving institutional knowledge as people move into new departments or leave your organization. Without a system in place to capture, preserve, and maintain this information, you risk costly knowledge loss with every turnover.

Individual experts leave (or forget), and productivity and innovation suffer as those employees left behind struggle to reinvent the wheel. This becomes a vicious cycle, as your remaining developers can suffer frustration and burnout that may nudge them out the door, too.

Matt Madson, Senior Software Engineer at Intuit, explains the cost—in both productivity and morale—when developers are too beset by repeat questions and other distractions to focus. “Our support staff was expressing frustration that they couldn’t focus on their core tasks,” explains Madson, describing the pain points that led Intuit to adopt Stack Overflow for Teams. “They were getting constant interruptions in Slack, people were always pinging them with issues they considered urgent, and they didn’t have time left to actually work on addressing the underlying problem areas that these questions and issues arose from.”

“Engineers should help solve the hardest questions, the unknowns, where being familiar with how the product was built is essential,” explains Suyog Rao, Director of Engineering at Elastic, another Stack Overflow for Teams customer. “But we don’t want to keep answering solved problems over and over again. That’s where Stack Overflow really helps.”

Engineers should help solve the hardest questions, the unknowns, where being familiar with how the product was built is essential…but we don’t want to keep answering solved problems over and over again.

Suyog Rao, Director of Engineering, Elastic

Best practices for knowledge sharing

Based on our experiences, especially our work with customers like MicrosoftIntuit, and Dropbox, we’ve landed on some knowledge-sharing best practices to shape your strategy and help you choose the best knowledge platform for your organization.

Be proactive in documenting knowledge

Make it fast and seamless for employees to document knowledge without distraction or excessive context switching. Employees should be able to communicate their questions to colleagues and subject matter experts without resorting to email or chat—mediums that don’t preserve knowledge for the future or disseminate it throughout the organization so that everyone can benefit. That endless email or Slack thread is where knowledge goes to die, and you want your knowledge to be fresh, accurate, and widely accessible.

Make knowledge sharing a dynamic platform

To cultivate a company culture that prioritizes knowledge sharing and preservation, focus on making knowledge sharing a dynamic platform, rather than a destination or document library. This means that leaders and managers should:

Avoid set-it-and-forget-it documentation practicesEnsure knowledge sharing works with your developers’ preferred tools and within their existing environmentsMake knowledge searchable so that finding the information they need is fast, simple, and intuitive for developersBuild a system to surface insights that will benefit leadership, such as discovering what tech your developers are using or illuminating the most persistent roadblocks they encounter

For their Stack Overflow for Teams instance, Box used the Slack integration and created tags specific to their team and expertise. “It’s great because in our team Slack channel, we’ll see when someone posts a question. If someone is able to answer the question off the top of their head, great, they’ll go ahead and answer it,” says Aiko Krishna, Product Manager on the File System team at Box. “But if not, during our stand-ups, we’ll all look at the questions together and someone will volunteer to answer the questions. So we have a process in place now.”

Transform your culture from knowing to learning

Establishing knowledge-sharing practices is crucial, but it’s not enough.

Create a culture of learning

Knowledge sharing requires creating a collaborative culture that prioritizes knowledge sharing and preservation, evolving your company culture from one that emphasizes knowing to one focused on learning.

Often, organizations start this transformation with a business catalyst (like a hiring push) or an evangelist who leads the charge, as with Stack Overflow for Teams customer IMC.

Of course, it helps if developers already know how to use your knowledge platform and already rely on it for guidance at work. That familiarity makes them more likely to engage early and often. “When we launched our internal Stack Overflow instance at Microsoft, it took off like wildfire,” explains Laura MacLeod, a Senior Program Manager in the Developer Program at Microsoft. “When new users join, they come in, and from day one they know how to use this tool.”

On a similar note, Expensify wants programmers to feel empowered to work on any project. 

Stack Overflow for Teams has made that easier. “Everyone has a certain amount of code base that they are familiar with, but sometimes you might know about an issue much more deeply than the so-called subject matter expert,” said software engineer Ira Praharaj. “It gives an open opportunity to everyone who has the knowledge to share it, and there is no bias.”

It gives an open opportunity to everyone who has the knowledge to share it, and there is no bias.

Ira Praharaj, Software Engineer, Expensify

Invest in a purpose-built knowledge solution

You know you need a better knowledge-sharing solution. But should you task your engineers with building one from scratch or implement a purpose-built solution?

For several reasons, it makes more sense to invest in a purpose-built knowledge-sharing solution, rather than cobbling together a homegrown solution. Here’s why:

Knowledge sharing is more than documentation.

The right knowledge-sharing solution does more than simply document information. Employees need a way to access and use information that they can be confident is accurate and up-to-date. That’s why elements like crowdsourced rankings that spotlight top-voted answers and a searchable, transparent format that encourages collaboration and surfaces the best expertise are important.

DIY solutions don’t address the whole picture.

DIY solutions usually involve multiple disconnected systems that each address one or two aspects of knowledge sharing and collaboration without grappling with the problem as a whole. This approach introduces its own problems: lagging or inconsistent adoption rates, unclear or inconsistently followed processes, and ineffective knowledge capture all cause people to lose trust in the quality and relevance of your answers.

When they first realized they needed a new, more scalable approach to knowledge sharing, the Elastic team turned to the internal tools they were already familiar with. “We already use GitHub for our code,” explains Marty Messer, VP of Customer Care. “We also use it anytime that we need to escalate an issue to our dev teams from our customers. We figured we would try using that, because that’s where our engineers spend their days.” The support team began to put questions and answers into a GitHub repo created specifically to store this kind of knowledge. 

Unfortunately, that solution made it difficult to search for answers later on, and there was no way to identify the best answer if multiple people had contributed ideas for possible solutions.

This experience showed Elastic that they needed a searchable knowledge-sharing platform that prioritized knowledge quality and automatically directed users to the most valuable, relevant answers.

What can you do now?

Like any foundational shift in culture, fostering an environment of continual learning and knowledge sharing takes time. But you can set things in motion now.

Here are some tactics to get your knowledge-sharing solution off the ground:

Start with leadership.

For your whole company to embrace knowledge sharing, leadership needs to model the importance of capturing, preserving, and sharing knowledge. Leadership can share their knowledge with employees through fireside chats and AMAs (ask me anything) to signal the importance of this culture shift. Encourage managers to do the same with their teams.

Create spaces and occasions for learning.

Create spaces for internal thought leaders to share their experience and expertise, whether through content on your knowledge platform or events like lunch-and-learns.

Identify and dismantle roadblocks.

As your knowledge-sharing practices coalesce, you’ll be able to identify the points of friction that tend to block progress and stall momentum. In overhauling your knowledge practices, start by eliminating barriers that keep teams from working together effectively.

Have fun with it.

Embrace elements of gamification like upvotes and awards or badges that recognize excellent solutions and valuable questions. Gamification encourages engagement and stokes good-natured competition, which further drives engagement.

Work with what you’ve got.

If your knowledge-sharing platform doesn’t integrate effortlessly with the tools and resources your developers are already using, employees will be much less likely to engage with those platforms. And for knowledge sharing to work properly, engagement needs to be high.

Select a purpose-built platform that facilitates and promotes knowledge sharing.

Choosing a platform your developers already know, use, and rely on increases adoption speed, encourages high engagement rates, and reduces friction for users.

Doctolib developers wanted to create a place for internal thought leaders to share their expertise and for teams to discuss new technology trends. In their Stack Overflow for Teams instance, developers began sharing bite-sized knowledge under tags like “hot tips.” They engaged in friendly competition to see whose contributions would receive the most votes and comments.

As an engineer, you work towards targets, but you also work for recognition from your co-workers. This tool helps me get both.

Fábio Guerreiro, Full-stack Engineer, Doctolib

Fábio Guerreiro, a full-stack engineer at Doctolib, said this approach to knowledge sharing made him a contributor from day one. “On the public Stack Overflow [site], I was just a reader, but on Doctolib’s instance, I began writing questions and answers right as I started.” Gamification works for Guerreiro and his colleagues. He admits, “Personally, what I would miss with a different solution is the points, achievements, and medals. As an engineer, you work towards targets, but you also work for recognition from your co-workers. This tool helps me get both.”

Plan for change

Ironically, change is one of the few factors that developers, managers, and company leadership can count on. Capturing and preserving invaluable institutional knowledge helps companies manage rapid, unpredictable change without sacrificing productivity, innovation, or developer happiness. Building a collaborative, cross-functional culture that values learning and prioritizes knowledge sharing is a necessity.

See how other businesses use knowledge-sharing

See how organizations around the globe use Stack Overflow for Teams to help break down silos, foster collaboration, and build a knowledge-sharing culture. Read the case studies.

IT Leadership