I am into my second month as an entrepreneur building a startup with my awesome co-founder. It’s early days, but it has been quite a ride learning and building the company one brick at a time. As we think about solving any hard problems and making it serendipitous for the users, it always comes down to making it consumable with easy discoverability first. For example, one of the problems we noticed very early on: how to make information easily available to everyone, both current and future colleagues.
In the beginning, it was pretty easy for two of us to create and share information. But as we’ve started adding more people and creating more information, the difficulties have multiplied.
And it’s not getting easier. Every new person has an increasingly tough time finding the right information. Documents, messages, texts and other information is usually shared in various forums — internal wiki, Slack, Google Docs, Email, tech talks, presentations, various meetings, etc. Documents get created based on certain discussions, which leads to more discussions and more new documents. Anybody who hasn’t been part of all the discussions faces daunting challenges when they need to find and consume the right documents.
A lot of organizations often solve this problem for their external customers by creating a dedicated technical publication department. But what about their internal stakeholders? Why not do the same for them?
As we’ve pondered how to untangle this challenge, I’ve found myself looking back to my formative years in a small village in rural India, some 30-plus years ago.
I was an eighth-grader who wanted to read more books, but I didn’t have any money to buy or rent them. I wondered: Could I have a library and become a librarian?
So, I went around to my neighbors and asked them if they had any spare books they’d like to donate to a library I was starting. It wasn’t much, just one open-air room available for a couple of hours a day. Still, I had to gather, organize, curate, and update large volumes of knowledge.
I can’t stop thinking about that microcosm of a library as we build our new company. Every day, more than a dozen of us share ideas and suggest strategies. One collaborator writes up a list of policies in a text document. Another colleague crunches data in a spreadsheet. Then there are the email chains, Google docs, slide decks and Slack chats.
*We’ve come to realize we need a simple, seamless way to handle all this information — to access it, to prioritize it, to organize it, to publish it, to archive it and to make it easy to discover for all the stakeholders.
That is, we need the skill of a librarian. Don’t they also do the same thing?*
Celebrating the unique skills of Librarians Professional librarians have more duties than I can possibly list here, but their primary responsibility is to curate information — deciding what belongs in the library and making it easy for people to find it. Librarians don’t put every book ever published in the library. They make judgement calls about the best books for their users.
Librarians also organize information, using card catalogs and systems like Dewey Decimals and the Library of Congress to guide people to the content they want. Obsolete books go to an archive while newer, more relevant books remain on the shelves.
Why can’t the information we use every day be organized like a library?
I think it can be. Indeed, I suspect it will become mandatory as technologies become more complex, organizations become more global, and employees become more remote from their home offices.
How would we create a business Library? Start with empathy I remember once at a previous job when I needed to see the company’s vision and mission statement. For some reason, tracking down the correct information was an exercise in frustration. A well-thought-out library of business information would’ve solved this problem in a few seconds.
OK, so we all need librarians and libraries. That’s obvious. But how should businesses — and especially startups — make this happen? How do we make sure everybody gets what they need, when they need it, without friction or frustration?
As I wrote in a previous LinkedIn article, we have to start with empathy: taking time to understand the needs and expectations of everybody who consumes information. I like to think of empathy as my North Star, the founding principle that guides the building of my business. My empathy-driven library would have four core qualities.
- Curation. Library operations would be prioritized to ensure that users get the quickest access to the most important information without digging through a pile of irrelevant content.
- Classification. Content would be indexed and separated into easily recognized categories and subcategories to help people browse for similar information.
- Timeliness. The newest information would be the easiest to find, through previous versions or iterations would also be readily available.
- Personalization. The library would recognize the user and reorient itself in real time to anticipate each user’s individual needs, fetching the information they need quickly and efficiently.
Celebrating our inner Librarian When I started my volunteer library back in my home village, I soon realized books had to be organized — by topic, by title, by author. I had to be able to curate the collection, make recommendations and help readers find books that might interest them.
I moved away after a couple of years for higher studies, ending my foray into library science. But all these decades later, I can’t help thinking how people inside our new company amass enough knowledge to fill a library — but we never seem to have a librarian around when we need one.
We would like to do something about that.
As we build our startup, we’ll be thinking a lot about how to organize information and make it easy to build upon existing knowledge. Can we use machine learning to bring additional serendipity to users? Sure, over time. But we must solve for easy discoverability of information first. We’ll build on a foundation of empathy, applying human skills to solve real people’s problems.
Part of me will always be that 12-year-old boy hungry for knowledge in a village hundreds of miles from the nearest metropolis.
What I learned back then remains true to this day: knowledge has to be organized and optimized to serve people’s needs.
And here I am — looking for a modern librarian who will have deep empathy and curiosity to curate documents, organize information, make knowledge discoverable, and bring joy to all stakeholders with elegant design, near real-time updates, and serendipity on a daily basis! Notion has made it very easy to create and update information, but making it discoverable and serendipitous is a whole new world.
Do you know of someone, perhaps a technical program manager, who will bring their childhood librarian out?