Whether you’ve misplaced a doc with all your passwords or a note you took down on a passing whim, it sucks how easy it is to lose information.
We can’t help but wonder: How do big organizations do it? How do they manage to document and pass down knowledge safely for years, rather decades together?
Tens of thousands of people in hundreds of teams retain context, know what they are working on, and are able to contribute to a larger goal effectively.
It is a no-brainer that a well-organized information culture triggers a more relaxed working environment, as opposed to a cluttered or disorganized office where you are constantly searching for information everywhere. And the big firms have got that sorted. But how?
We did our research and figured that it is both an art and a science. And in this article, we’ll explore how Google and other Silicon Valley giants combine the two to organize information in the workplace, an absolute prerequisite for any enterprise to make a dent in the world.
1. Having leaders that demonstrate quality writing
On 9 June 2004, Jeff Bezos sent out an email that changed the way meetings were conducted in Amazon forever.
From that day forth, Bezos banned the use of PowerPoint presentations in meetings in favor of a “well structured, narrative text.”
Prior to starting a meeting, Bezos prefers to have everyone in the room silently go through a six-page memo written by the person leading the meeting. It helps everyone concentrate on the finer points of the idea mentioned there instead of wasting time deliberating on hypotheticals.
By imposing a rigorous, standardized template on all executives, he was making a statement that taking down quality notes is not a luxury at Amazon but an absolute necessity.
It is a cliche because it is true that a company’s culture gets trickled down from the founders.
If the leaders place a lot of emphasis on writing well and lead by example, the rest of the team is sure to follow suit.
Every year, much like Warren Buffet, Bezos sends an annual letter to all the shareholders. His advocacy for long-form writing has shaped how people think and work at Amazon for the last two decades. It has shaped how the company visualizes new ideas, evaluates them, and shares them with the team.
The first step to organizing all information is for the company to write it down. This should be a habit that percolates to the bottom from the founders themselves.
2. Making documentation an expectation
One of the key ways of organizing information in a company is to encourage everyone who is a stakeholder to write it down. Whether it is a prelude to making key decisions, an idea that needs to be discussed, or feedback received from users and team members alike.
To create a culture of writing, Stripe makes sure that documentation is an expectation. They don’t accept important decisions unless they are written down.
One of the key ways to build this culture is to ensure that writing important documents is tied to every candidate’s performance evaluation. This is what Uber has done well. While engineers would always have a bias towards action, it is up to the company to set the norm by making sure every team member knows how their evaluation would be impacted if they were to not contribute equally to documentation.
It is also advisable to take the candidates through a training process during their onboarding to set the expectation right from the start.
Not every employee however would be well versed with the art of writing well. To aid them in structuring their information better, create standard templates and provide samples for important documents that employees can refer to for creating PRDs, TRDs, memos, etc. It would help everyone know the expectations, reuse a provided structure, and just focus on the matter at hand.
3. Creating a handbook and reducing tooling friction
The art of organizing information lies a lot on what tooling is used within a company. In all the successful corporations of the world, each department consolidates the important documentation with a common tool. It can be Confluence, GitHub, Monday.com, Notion, Google Docs, or Slab. The information should be easily searchable and retrievable, these are two important features to look for aside from the usual ones.
Having a central tool for a department reduces fiction and allows everyone in the organization to know where to search for information when the need arises.
4. Creating comprehensive docs and common sources of truth
According to Darren Murph, the Head of Remote at GitLab, the first thing to know is that companies need a single source of truth to operate effectively.
What they do and how they do it must be written down, and it can't be stale or stagnant. Company documentation should be a living, breathing thing, something that employees are motivated to actively invest in, beyond just looking up information when they have questions. "It can't be just this reference thing," Murph says. "It has to be the heartbeat of where work happens."
A common example would be to observe how user feedback is jotted down in organized companies vs the unorganized.
In successful organizations, all the user feedback for every feature is written down in a common document. Whether it is the Sales team speaking to prospective customers or customer support teams interacting with disgruntled users, if the feedback is for improvements or requests for new features, it is all jotted down in one sheet everyone in the company can refer to.
Having single sources of truth for every piece of information is a must-have. It encourages everyone to collaborate, chime in with better ideas, and track progress. Create comprehensive sheets with how-to guides, onboarding & training material, user feedback, bug tracker, compensation policy & benefits, etc.
5. Using an internal URL management solution to manage all the important links
The advent of new data storage solutions, the cloud, killed the file. It was much easier to organize and search for information within an enterprise using folders, files, and informational hierarchies. The case is not so much with applications.
In big companies, employees manage around 70-175 applications in a day.
All the big Silicon Valley giants have spent a lot of time and money on making sure that they provide a structure to their links. That employees don’t have to waste a significant portion of the day searching for files, asking for links, or unearthing them in a sea of emails, Slack messages, and emails.
They all use shortcuts or simple human-readable words to access links in place of long URLs. So your insurance policy can be accessed by using x/insurance instead of something this complicated —
What started as a way of work in Google soon proliferated in all the major Silicon Valley companies in a few years to become their system of work.
Link shorteners that could provide a way to manage and name all the URLs in an enterprise allow for single sources of truth to thrive.
A doc that can be accessed using o/user-feedback allows everyone in the company to access it intuitively without needing to create duplicate sheets in the absence of the previous URL.
The real-time collaborative era of workplace productivity has introduced new challenges that require new solutions for navigation, search, and discovery. State-of-the-art tools such as OSlash that enable new ways of working have generated important changes in information management. These have also allowed companies to adapt to modern working models, including remote resources or work from home.