Who Knows?

The Paradox Of Technology

"Recruiting and getting employees up to speed in terms of company culture-our vision and mission-is one of the things I worry about the most," says Joel Maske, 32, CEO of Isyndicate, a San Francisco-based Web content syndication company that has grown from 12 to 85 employees in 1999 alone. Maske says that even though his company gathers and spreads information electronically to over 175 corporate customers, nothing beats face-to-face communication within the office. "It's the big paradox of high tech: You think e-mail is the answer. But I'm a big believer in face-to-face interaction." Isyndicate's office has no walls, and employees work in "pods," groupings of four to six desks. The nature of the market makes this necessary. "It's fast moving, and we need to be on top and share readily," he says.

When it comes to training new employees, Maske prefers the old-fashioned approach: He seeks out team leaders who can not only train, but can tell new employees stories about how the company started. There's a written history as well-a weekly intranet newsletter called The Jackalope! that contains details of projects as well as staff photos. "I want everyone to understand the company and where we're heading," Maske says. "I want people to know that we're committed to the long term."

Creating Your Own Strategy

Whether you have one employee or one hundred, you should have a knowledge management strategy with a good balance of face-to-face and online communication. The tangible end of your business-project rundowns, product details, costs-can be stored easily on a database. It's such intangibles as brainstorming sessions and individual expertise that young companies need to figure out how to document. Newman suggests CEOs start by answering three questions: What is our competitive advantage? What is the most important knowledge our company needs to own and retain? What are our priorities for retaining and building the knowledge that differentiates us in the marketplace?

Next, decide how employees can contribute to the knowledge base and draw from it. "Entrepreneurs must make sure that employees are developing a rich way of discourse," Hansen says. "and they should devote resources to it."

One way to ensure that employees are continuously learning from each other is to ask experienced employees to speak openly about their experiences in the company-for example, how they have handled difficult client situations, Newman says. Having an informal proundtable discussion links the present to the past and reveals how employees feel about their work and the company itself. You might find, too, that your workers are sticking around longer.

Hesketh says that interviewees often reveal that they aren't being given their current employer's big picture, and there's no real opportunity to share knowledge. "They tell me they think they'll learn more if they have an opportunity to interact with others in my company. They'd rather have that than formal training or classes."

Be aware that things will change as your company expands. "As you grow, you must think hard about the best way of sharing knowledge, and that depends on the type of business you have," Hansen says.

For Hesketh, who is hiring a new employee every two months, face-to-face communication is increasingly a challenge, especially since some of her employees work flexible schedules and the nature of the job requires a lot of conversation. Between in-person strategy sessions, the employees use an internal mailing list to share ideas and industry trends. "Virtual communication is logical for us, and I don't see it as replacing face-to-face contact. I'm encouraging communication, whether it's virtual or in-person. I don't want to build walls."

Deciding how to document your workers' knowledge will make life easier as you grow and help your staff adjust as employees come and go.

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 April 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Who Knows?.

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