Confluence is the place all good ideas go to die

For those who don’t know, Confluence is a essentially a private wiki, with areas for different projects and other shared areas. It’s a commonly used tool but doesn’t seem effective at its job, the sharing of information.

Givers and Askers

There are two sides in the knowledge sharing game:

  • The knowledge givers (especially fascinating are project oracles, who seem to know everything there is to know).
  • The people asking for the knowledge.

Both sides have different goals and objects when sharing of information.

The givers (especially oracles) want details documented, to allow people find commonly requested information themselves, allowing the giver to focus on their own tasks. If they notice a common line of questions, they can create a page for that topic, allowing them to refer to it in future when someone asks a question.

The askers normally have come up against a specific problem that they can’t figure out, or are missing a certain piece of knowledge. They want to find the specific answer quickly to their problem so they can continue with their task.

The mismatch

As a giver it feels great to write a confluence page, you imagine askers reading it and gaining an understanding the information that you wish to share. However, by including answers to many common questions it causes it to be difficult for the asker to easily find the specific knowledge they are after.

Long form documentation is great for certain types of information, such as overviews of projects. For other information types they are not optimal, they are especially bad for quick questions as they are prone to having too much irrelevant (for the asker) information in them (see post on JIT knowledge). There are many document formats, each with their specific advantages. Checklists are great for allowing people to go through a process, in a repeatable manner. Q&A is great because it frames the question from the askers point of view.

These mismatches tease out the different use cases for the different sides. These can compound on themselves leading for the documents to become dead.

Why do askers not read the wiki?

It’s pretty common for askers to not read a wiki, and i’ve been guilty of this myself. The list below contains some of the reasons why they don’t/why it’s a poor form of information sharing:

  • Long form documents take a large amount of time to parse, and internalise before working out if it’s relevant to your task. This means it tends to have a large barrier to entry.
  • Often pages don’t answer your specific question, the page covers that general area but not the specific knowledge needed. After this happens a few times people are less likey check the wiki, as they start to assume the knowledge isn’t there.
  • Searching is difficult – often when pages are written they are not written with the question an asker would ask. Meaning when an asker searches they may be using different terms.
  • Often pages contain lots of irrelevant facts that just distract from that task at hand.
  • Pages can be out of date, describing process that is no longer correct.
  • The page can change after you have read it (I know you can receive notifications on changes but that normally ends up as a bombardment).

All of the reasons above means it tends to be cheaper (for the asker) to message a giver directly at worst they could receive a link to a confluence page, meaning they avoided the search problem.

What can we do?

I’m not sure if there is a good solution at the moment to complex information sharing, when many types of information is being shared. The solution requires it to be as easy as asking the question to another human, with our (currently) superior language processing abilities.

I’m not sure if some sort of Q&A bot would allow for this, it would need to sort of learn the answers to questions and then be able to repeat back what it has seen. In a way that makes the information easy to parse. Providing links when longer form documentation is relevant.

If you have any ideas please make it!