You may have noticed that a big theme for modern businesses is transparency. Companies - including plenty of trendy startups - prioritize openness and making employees more active in decision-making. Basecamp, Buffer, Stripe and Gitlab are just some examples of companies that value transparency.
Transparency often goes hand in hand with collaboration. Productive companies work together, across teams and job titles.
Both of these require an open flow of information. To be transparent and collaborative, team members have to know what’s going on in the company.
Which is why so many businesses use a company wiki. This knowledge center is accessible to everyone, and owned by everyone. And it puts information where everyone can find it.
The only problem: wikis are usually boring. And creating them is a major headache.
So we’re going to look at how to create a great company wiki, and what yours should contain if you’re ready to make one yourself. But first, a definition.
What is a company wiki?
You’d be forgiven if you only know the term “wiki” thanks to Wikipedia. And thinking about that site gives you a pretty good idea of what your own company wiki should look like.
In fact, a wiki is a page or site that users themselves can edit and update. Just like Wikipedia. For a company, you want a one-stop-shop knowledge center that answers the most common and pressing questions your employees may have.
And it should be everyone’s responsibility to write it and keep it up to date. That’s what makes this different from a dictated company manifesto.
Why you should have one
Documenting company processes is vital. If you have systems that only certain people understand, you’re at serious risk when those people leave.
Plus, they just make everyone’s job easier. For new people, it’s a quick way to find all the information they might need. For more established employees, they understand how the rest of the company operates, and can use this to improve their own work.
The true benefits of a wiki are that:
1. It makes information easy to find
This is the first reason most companies create a wiki. They want everyone - but especially new staff - to have access to the knowledge they need to do their jobs well.
Your company’s knowledge base contains guidance and templates for every important process in the business. Plus all the little things like setting up the printer or accessing the office after hours.
And all of this available to staff whenever they need it.
2. It makes collaboration easier
You want a collaborative workplace. It’s a cliché, but “teamwork makes the dream work.” And your wiki lets you establish this culture. Chances are, each team doesn’t truly understand how the others work, or why they do what they do. A wiki lets them explain this in their own words, for the whole company to see. Plus, it makes it easier for teams to work together when the time comes.
Who can help me with this problem?
How can I get their help without becoming a burden?
The easier it is to find out who’s in charge of what, and who has certain information within a company, the smoother it becomes to involve the right people in a project.
When should you build a wiki?
The simple answer is now. Ideally from day one. In fact, from the moment you write the first business plan, you’ve created a core document for your knowledge center.
Make it a priority to document processes from the start. As a founder or CEO, this isn’t really an option. And every new employee needs to be given this mindset too.
If you don’t currently have a company wiki, we’re going to look at what needs to be in it shortly. If you do have one, but it’s not working, there are a few reasons why this might be the case.
Why most company wikis don’t work
The benefits of a good central knowledge base are pretty obvious. And most businesses set out to build theirs with good intentions.
Unfortunately, most company wikis don’t work. In fact, the notion of wiki and handbook feels so outdated that Bonusly refers to their Employee Handbook as the Employee Un-Handbook. In the handbook’s intro they explain:
“Everyone has had the experience of receiving a weighty tome full of policies, disclosures and legalese on the first day of work. (...) At Bonusly we like to be agile (lowercase 'a') about everything we do. In that spirit, our handbook lays out our values and guiding principles (and a small number of progressive policies) -- in an open-source document that’s easy to read and understand.”
They’re actively making sure to not fall in the all too common pitfalls of the company wiki:
They’re separate from “core” tasks
You’re probably not hiring someone just to write your wiki. Instead, every team (and every team member) will be made responsible from their own sections. Which is the way it should be.
But this is a big job, and it’s going to take time - at least at the beginning. And your employees already have plenty to worry about. It’s only natural that people don’t want to do it.
That’s why it’s so important that everyone understands how a strong functioning wiki helps them. The effort they put in now reduces the amount of work they have to do later. Onboarding, launching new projects, and day-to-day admin become simple.
And if everyone contributes, it’s really not such a burden. Take a look at Gitlab’s open handbook: every single team actively contributes to it because it’s essential to make their transparent and remote culture work. Which brings us to the next pitfall.
They’re often top-down
This is the opposite of what a wiki is supposed to be. A “wiki,” by definition, is meant to be collaborative. Every user should have the ability to edit and update it.
That’s what makes Wikipedia so famous and so successful. Readers can suggest changes and introduce whole new ideas that a traditional encyclopedia might have missed. And at the same time, there’s a system of editing and oversight to make sure that the website doesn’t get out of control.
Your company wiki should have the same philosophy. Teams need to own their sections, comment and interact with other teams’ work, and one or two leaders should manage keep an eye on overall quality.
It involves everyone, helps everyone, and needs everyone to buy in.
They’re not easy to use
Some wikis, including old-fashioned intranet structures, just aren’t easy to navigate. This is either because they use outdated technology that doesn’t feel natural anymore, or because the folder structure made sense to the one person who created it, but not to anyone else.
Your wiki should
* Be intuitive to use, with an obvious navigation and good menus
* Be searchable to make answers quick to find
* Use a simple naming format - in real english words. If you have to write a guide to naming sections in the wiki, these are bad names.
Again, new hires need to be able to dive into it on day one. And if they’re going to need serious help doing this, you cost them and everyone else valuable time.
What should be in your company wiki
Now for the most important part. What should you include when building your knowledge base?
Company culture & values
These should be the first things that every new hire reads, and the basis on which every decision is made. Your values outline what your company stands for, and your culture describes what it’s like to be part of the team.
It’s not easy to create a company culture code or a set of core values. These take significant work and internal reflection.
But they’re essential. If you can’t define your company’s fundamental beliefs, it’s going to be almost impossible to build the company you want.
Important company processes
The biggest practical benefit of having a company wiki is to be able to show everyone in the company how business is done. Employees don’t need to ask how to run a meeting or how to manage the CRM - it’s all there for them to see.
Make sure that every repeated company process is clearly explained. Even better, give examples that anyone can use whenever they need. A simple meeting minutes template or script for candidate interviews means that, if it’s an employee’s first time handling these tasks, they have a massive head start.
The company roadmap
It’s easy to underestimate how much the long-term vision can mean to your staff. They’re all head-down working on their core tasks, and it’s not their job to worry about the next two, five, or ten years.
But you want to hire people who care about the future of the business. And you foster this by being transparent about the roadmap.
Put that roadmap where everyone can see it, comment, and give ideas. The more that each employee feels invested in it, the more committed they’ll be.
HR and office information
Of course, your wiki also needs to contain the day-to-day stuff that makes the office run. Administrative staff spend too much time fielding simple questions from the rest of the organization.
They shouldn’t have to remind people how to make copies, where to find soap or other bathroom supplies, and how to enter the building after hours.