#AskFinch: Creating a self-sustaining knowledge sharing process

Like any company, the whole of Shepley Bulfinch knows significantly more than any single member of the firm. Buildings are complicated, and we need to be able to leverage our collective experience on every project. In 2015, we identified that we had a problem: “We have no system for sharing questions and answers firm-wide.” We needed to create a repeatable process with clear expectations for transferring the right knowledge at the right time. Welcome #AskFinch.

Finch is what we call our company intranet, and #AskFinch became the moniker for a new knowledge sharing process. Initially, we identified that we were already using three main methods for asking questions and getting answers:

  1. Find someone you know that might have an answer, and asked them directly.
  2. Email a group of identified experts in the firm, and ask them to weigh in.
  3. Post the question to our fledgling intranet, and hope someone responds.

However, each of these approaches had disadvantages—from limited visibility and perspective, to being disruptive—and a lack of opportunity to benefit from the knowledge of our collective Bulfinches. So, we designed a new process…

Shepley Bulfinch replaced several siloed knowledge sharing efforts with a new single, streamlined process to pose questions and collect (or provide) answers across the firm.

Setting cultural expectations with a SLA

The key to the entire process was setting an expectation of a service level. We modeled this off our IT help-desk system, and committed to providing an answer within 24 hours—with no orphaned questions. This guaranteed that an answer would not arrive too late, and incentivized repeat questioners to utilize and advocate for #AskFinch.

 

Setting rules for #AskFinch

Your best opportunity to influence how people will use a new process is when you roll it out. Setting clear expectations describing how to use the process. We had a few positive examples of questions being asked and answered in Finch’s early days, so we extrapolated some rules from there to help set expectations for early adopters:

  • Anyone can ask any question.
  • Anyone can contribute an answer.
  • All questions will receive at least one answer within 24 hours.
  • If you pose a question, close the loop by identifying what you ended up doing with the answers you received.

Facing new-system hurdles head on

As with any new practice, there were challenges to overcome with #AskFinch:

  1. What if someone gives a bad answer?
  2. What if you’re intimidated to ask or answer a question in a public forum?

To clear the first hurdle, we explained that just as building technology advances quickly, our means to share the tacit knowledge attached to these developments needs to be swift. Creating a live Q&A process in full view of our entire firm allows for best practices to be established, and the validity of answers to be debated or updated when necessary. After all, getting five good answers and one bad answer is much better than just getting one bad answer!

Overcoming the sense of vulnerability was ultimately mitigated by reinforcing the culture of stewardship Shepley Bulfinch has always cultivated. By encouraging people to think from a broader perspective and ask questions for the benefit of all the Bulfinches that will come, we changed people’s perspectives, helping them see asking and answering as an act of sharing and helping the firm—current and future—not just themselves.

"If people don't feel like they're getting what they need, they won't come back."

Measuring success… and learning from failure

Since we rolled it out in 2015, the #AskFinch process has been a resounding success. It’s become a core part of firm culture and the “Killer App” of our intranet. Since launch, we’ve had 342 #AskFinch posts—on a variety of topics—with 1,351 answers identified. Overall, 109 people have asked at least one question, and 189 Bulfinches have contributed at least one answer. One of the most satisfying outcomes, however, has been that more than 70 percent of the answers given are sourced by people we hadn’t identified as “internal experts” on that topic. Undoubtedly, the process is hitting one of our core goals: to highlight expertise wherever it is, not just in the people who have been around long enough to be recognized.

Since its debut in 2015 #AskFinch has positively impacted the firm in many ways, including;
  • Newer members of the firm can contribute knowledge much earlier than before, and immediately begin growing their personal brand with peers.
  • Answers can be shared and quality controlled in real time.
  • Questions and answers are both find-able and searchable.
  • A knowledge base is created based on actual needs rather than anticipated needs.

Shepley Bulfinch is all about continuous improvement, so we’ve identified a few parts of the process that are not working as well as we would like. Occasionally, back-channeling is necessary to bring an #AskFinch question waiting for an answer to the attention of people who may have one—Bulfinches are busy folks, and posts get missed sometimes.

Closing the loop has also been difficult. While we set the expectation for questioners to update the firm with a resolution, oftentimes outcomes are not known for several months meaning, unfortunately, more than half of posters forget to circle back.

Regardless of minor ongoing tweaks to the system, the overall success of #AskFinch is undeniable. To initiate a similar process at your firm, keep the following in mind:

  1. Start by setting an expectation about performance.
  2. Find a way to measure results.
  3. Tie new behaviors back to a larger goal.

And remember, if people don’t feel like they’re getting what they need, they won’t come back.