Cultivating an organisation's knowledge base
April 26, 2014 5:29 AM   Subscribe

I am part of a large distributed community that voluntarily runs a major but low-budget yearly event. We usually have 100% main organiser turnover year to year, because the job is hard and unpaid. There's a lot of organising info that is hard to retain year to year, and a consensus that information retention is currently poor. Do you belong to a community that has successfully solved this kind of problem? What works for you? What doesn't work?

Things that currently happen that don't work well enough include

- Informally asking previous organisers for help and support. Previous organisers are often available and willing but current organisers are afraid to seem ignorant and often don't know what they don't know.
- Maintaining information on a wiki. The barrier to entry for wikis is apparently too high and most organisers are reluctant to edit.

I'm not interested in speculation here as the community has quite enough of that. I'm looking for interesting stories (both IT based and organisation / people based) about things that have actually worked in practice for other volunteer communities. Or for that matter, other things that did NOT work.
posted by emilyw to Human Relations (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
You're asking about knowledge management, for which topic there is a broad array of resources.

Wikis are certainly a type of knowledge management software. So are intranets that host documents explaining policies and procedures, etc.

Perhaps the simplest solution for you is to collect all of the relevant knowledge and put it into a google docs document that is available to all volunteers.
posted by dfriedman at 5:37 AM on April 26, 2014

to clarify, I am specifically looking for solutions that have worked in practice for other communities. By "worked" I mean that the information is successfully found and used, and is kept up to date.
posted by emilyw at 5:43 AM on April 26, 2014

Put the previous organizers and current ones in the same room for an afternoon. Let the previous talk, the current listen and then get'em to mingle. This should encourage more interaction and passing of info.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:02 AM on April 26, 2014

Have meetings with agendas and minutes. Break down goals into discrete tasks with deadlines and include them in the minutes. Have a meeting where past organizers meet to discuss successes/pitfalls and minute it. Start paying people if you valid their work.
posted by saucysault at 6:17 AM on April 26, 2014

The way this is done by well-established volunteer organizations is with 2-year staggered appointments. Year one you are President-elect of the Convention Committee, and year two you are President, with a new President-elect by your side. This maintains the continuity of institutional knowledge, gives the President lots of experience AND a motivated helper, and in rare instances avoids total incompetence, when someone's work as President-elect reveals his complete unsuitability to run the big event, and he can be graciously eased out, with either the incumbent President doing a second year or someone with experience in the event stepping in.
posted by MattD at 6:34 AM on April 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

By the way, I use "President" quite advisably. Nothing like a big title both to confer the real hierarchical authority needed to execute something complex, and to give a nice little honor to someone who is doing a lot of work for no money and probably plenty of agita.
posted by MattD at 6:37 AM on April 26, 2014

You need a person like you to encourage your colleagues to communicate, to ask for help, and to better understand their unknown unkonowns. Take control of the process yourself, through delegation, through explicitly stating to others how they can make the their job less burdensome and more efficient by taking advice from those who have discovered the known unknowns already. Regular meetings with minutes and followups are a good start for this. I've dealt with similar in open source software comminuties and associated commercial endevours, and spelling things out to others, continually asking for feedback no matter how harsh (aka eating the shit sandwich with a smile) and trying to establish a culture of open communication and being able to ask questions no matter how stupid have worked well for me and my associates.
posted by singingfish at 6:38 AM on April 26, 2014

I am potentially organising a larger event next year and when I asked for more info from the established community they pointed me to this conference organiser's handbook. This is basically the knowledge base of what these guys learned organising their event for years. A similar website/guide could maybe help your org.
posted by wolfr at 8:32 AM on April 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am a knowledge manager for a large company, and you are definitely looking for a small-scale knowledge management solution. It doesn't have to be terribly formalized...a notebook with all this stuff inside of it works just as well, given what you're talking about.

However, I would encourage you to look into a social tool (a forum, a participative wiki) where people can join and hold discussions, ask questions, and add to the general knowledge base in an asynchronous manner, so that you can go back and refer to it and make changes/updates as necessary.

If nothing else, plan on being the one who captures all this information as a formal "librarian" of sorts. Generally, the most used knowledge management resource is people, and people will tell someone what they know before they'll take the time to add to a formalized system.
posted by xingcat at 9:09 AM on April 26, 2014

I am involved in community organization that somewhat fits your description. I have found that people are WAY more likely to use Google Documents to edit and store information in. We have tried wikis, Google Docs and Dropbox for information storage and currently still use all three, but by default Google Docs is just easier and people tend to add more information there. There is something about its user interface that just is more accessible than a wiki style structure.

One to two people should be in charge of making sure the information is well organized.

We also use google mailing lists to make sure that everyone involved is able to communicate with each other as a group over email. These lists automatically create forums that are easy to browse.
posted by telomere at 3:20 PM on April 26, 2014

As an all-volunteer group, we had to acknowledge broad range of technical skills. Wiki was too hard. The long quote strings in Google Groups email lists confuse some people. We found Basecamp worth every penny. (Especially helpful for managing publications and files thereof.) General info about a task is "pinned" at the head, with discussions flowing underneath. Of particular niceness is it's easy to choose who receives a particular email. If you're just curious, you can also browse any discussion for which you have access, and BaseCamp provides fine grained access controls.

We don't have formal overlapping like MattD suggests, but we always choose our following year's chair in this year, so they have a chance to watch & learn as things unfold. The current chair knows that explaining things to next year's chair is part of the job.

Identify a couple "intern historians." Task them with interviewing the most experienced volunteers (and thus the ones most likely to burn out next). Use tape if needed, then transcribe into Basecamp.
posted by Jesse the K at 5:40 PM on April 26, 2014

« Older Unnecessary marital counselling from a...   |   How can I convince my VoIP router (PAP2T) to... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.