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Keeping a Project Archive

What was that awesome thing you did for that one project last year? Don't know? You need to start keeping a project archive.

Things are hopping in the loft studio of UVPhactory, a New York City design and production firm. The company recently updated the BET Network's look, revamped AT&T's logo, and created last month's branding and teasers for VH1.

UVPhactory has taken on hundreds of projects in its brief six-year history--a daunting challenge for the company's 12 employees, who need quick access to past projects if a client wants to reuse an obscure design element. "We deal with insane deadlines," says co-founder Damijan Saccio, 35.

To make life easier, Saccio and co-founder Scott Sindorf, 41 developed a system for tracking UVPhactory's project history. Projects are organized by client name and job number, and finished projects are archived digitally and on tape, creating a live digital library. Without managing the company's history, "we would not be able to run," Saccio says.

Too many companies, however, spend valuable time reinventing the wheel each day. "Every time you treat a known problem as a new problem that has to be solved again, you're wasting time and money," says David Kay, founder of DB Kay & Associates, a Los Gatos, California, knowledge management consulting firm. In fact, Kay says, it's four to 10 times more expensive to relearn how to solve a problem than to have a solution ready to go.

Capturing knowledge starts by thinking about your business in small pieces, from IT to marketing, and then deciding where the core knowledge lies and which information is most likely to be reused, says Nabil Nasr, director of the Center for Integrated Manufacturing Studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York. Also determine which information is most at risk. If you lost every employee tomorrow, where would it hurt the most?

It's easy to think software will solve the problem, but don't build a database until you've decided which knowledge needs managing. The last thing you want is a dusty database no one uses. "Throwing tech at broken processes is a waste of time," says Kay, co-author of Collective Wisdom: Transforming Support With Knowledge.

Saccio has considered various software packages, but feels installation and training would cause too much disruption. Instead, the company uses off-the-shelf software such as FileMaker Pro and Retrospect. "I haven't found one 'magic' software solution," Saccio says. "And even if you do find something like that, there's still a lot of human interaction and motivation needed."

In fact, human nature is the biggest challenge companies face in managing knowledge. Some employees resist sharing knowledge as a means of job security, or they see documentation as too much work. They might hate writing or not know how to explain things well. Keep your system as simple as possible so employees can pick it up. For example, employees can use brief summaries, such as bullet points, to describe how they solved a problem. Ultimately, capturing knowledge requires a cultural shift. "Capturing and reusing knowledge has to be seen as a part of the job," says Kay.

Use your size to your advantage, too. At UVPhactory, the layout is open, so employees are always talking--a collaborative approach Saccio thinks is critical to increasing the company's knowledge base and making sure knowledge lingers as employees come and go.

This is a smart move. "You've got to ask, 'Where is the knowledge that we need to make redundant?'" says David DeLong, adjunct professor at Babson College and author of Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce. "[And] what are the opportunities you're missing by not capturing knowledge?" Thinking ahead certainly hasn't hurt UVPhactory's bottom line: 2005 sales surpassed $2 million.

Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.

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This article was originally published in the June 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Total Recall.

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