Applying Agile to engineering knowledge management: practical tips and takeaways

Regardless of the industry, almost every company or organization these days operates with some level of in-house development or IT support. Ensuring that these technologists are supported to perform their best is a must.

Skilled developers are high in demand as some of the most passionate, creative, and educated professionals in the knowledge economy. It’s unfortunate that many are reporting that they are feeling burned out. According to one study, based on a sample of developers in the U.K., more than 80% of developers reported experiencing burnout — and not just because of the pandemic. Respondents cited inefficient processes (55%) and increasing workloads (40%) as the primary causes for concern.

As an industry, we can and should do better. There is a broad toolkit of solutions, but for this piece, we’ll focus on one way to address challenges related to burnout: improving knowledge management workflows. In particular, the application of Agile can reduce the gridlock and points of friction that developers encounter.

The connection between knowledge work and burnout — and what it takes to get ahead of the problem

Working with their minds for a living, technologists are accustomed to continuously learning, synthesizing information, and producing output. Writing code requires the ability to internalize new insights and take action to translate those thoughts into concrete outputs.

This practice engages multiple parts of the brain and is cognitively intensive. The human mind wasn’t meant to juggle simultaneous activities, according to decades of neuroscience research. Switching between tasks can adversely affect productivity by making people more error-prone and less efficient.

“That switching comes with a biological cost that ends up making us feel tired much more quickly than if we sustain attention on one thing,” says Daniel Levitin, professor of behavioral neuroscience at McGill University, in an interview with Quartz.

Developers, who spend their workdays searching for information, learning about technical processes, writing code, and troubleshooting problems, are particularly prone to mental fatigue. Wikis, instant messaging, and docs have the potential to exacerbate this exhaustion, contributing to the epidemic of burnout in the tech industry.

Here’s how Cal Newport, a contributing writer for The New Yorker and an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, explains the problem:

“The problem is not productivity, per se, but the manner in which we seek to increase it,” Newport writes. “I’m convinced that the solution to the justified exhaustion felt by so many in modern knowledge work can be found in part by relocating the obligation to optimize production away from the individual and back toward systems.”

Cal Newport, associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University

That’s where an engineering team’s knowledge management strategy enters the equation.

Building an Agile knowledge management system

In engineering cultures, many brains come together to tackle a set of unified challenges. People need efficient ways to collaborate and share information.

There are two project management methodologies familiar to software development teams to help these many minds come together: Waterfall and Agile. Waterfall is a linear process for sequential development in which teams complete a part of a process before moving onto the next. Agile, on the other hand, incorporates a continuous process of planning, managing, and executing work.

From a strategic standpoint, many organizations have established knowledge management as a rigid process that documents completed projects and requires extensive effort to keep up to date . This approach creates a fractionalized, waterfall-like approach to sharing and distributing knowledge. A common pattern is that information becomes outdated, which results in the need to build up and tear down knowledge-sharing applications in a perpetual cycle. Programs become outdated due to continually needing to start over.

Agile knowledge management, on the other hand, is about harnessing the creative flow of information between teams. That means adopting an iterative approach based on experimentation, collaboration, and lessons learned. Rather than forcing rigid structures of perfection in knowledge management, an agile approach will support working together, trust, and self-organizing teams.

Consider the scenario of a sales engineer coming in with a question from a customer and not knowing who to ask — maybe they check the wiki only to find the answer has gone stale. They try to find an updated solution, but the subject matter expert who wrote the original has left the company. Soon someone is assigned to refresh documentation, which solves the problem for now, but allows the cycle to repeat again in six months. This scenario can help you see why waterfall knowledge management runs the risk of being too rigid and cumbersome — dissuading the adoption and maintenance of knowledge content as a result.

With an Agile knowledge management system in place, developers can more optimally reach flow state, which is about focus, concentration, and immersion in a problem-solving process. Flow state is continually being studied due to the impact on productivity. It’s about full task immersion, with low-levels of self-referential thinking — the antithesis of friction-induced workflows that lead to burnout.

Forrester: The Agile Knolwedge Management Flow

Envision a dynamic operating model, rather than a series of static courses or workshops, that better integrates with the natural flow of knowledge work.

Taking tactical action

The evolution of project management offers lessons for companies that need to effectively manage knowledge updates and proactively address organizational health, overall.

The key is for leadership and management teams to build more flexible and adaptive knowledge management practices in which learning and sharing are prioritized over governance and control. That means transitioning from a mindset where “knowledge is power” to creating connective tissue for thought partnership. For instance, an agile team would move to a knowledge base that is updated frequently and empowers anyone to point out areas where there are information gaps or call on subject matter experts across silos to contribute critical context.

The following tactical steps are critical to helping developers increase their productivity while reducing the cognitive effort required to solve problems.

  • Eliminate barriers that get in the way of knowledge-sharing, so that information can flow freely to support collaboration and trust
  • Co-create knowledge based on input from customers, to ensure that developers spend their time on the right objectives
  • Extend knowledge-sharing beyond silos of IT support, human resources, and customer-facing call centers to encompass collaboration with sales teams, vendors, partners, and development teams
  • Build a cross functional stakeholder team to steer the knowledge-sharing operation
  • Prioritize cohesion above perfection — encourage people to work together rather than conform to an overarching standard
  • Implement technology that supports agile knowledge-sharing. Capabilities include AI-driven search, embeds into CRMs, integrations with enterprise service management, and workflows that connect with chat and messenger platforms

The big picture and bottom line

Knowledge management isn’t just a vehicle to push information. It’s about facilitating learning experiences that integrate into workflows — so developers can stay “in the zone” so to speak, without taking on excess cognitive load that leads to burnout.

If you’re interested in learning more about Agile vs. Waterfall knowledge management, Stack Overflow was recently interviewed for a report published in Forrester, Stop Starting Over with Knowledge Management (requires subscription to view). The article goes deeper into the topic of implementing agile principles to support continuous delivery of information and iteratively adapt to change.

You can also learn more about why Stack Overflow for Teams is a trusted knowledge-sharing and collaboration platform, built for agile knowledge management.

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