Installing Knowledge on the Team

By Josh Hone, COO · May 20, 2021

Here at Column, one of our operating principles is to "never stop learning." On an individual level, we know that continual growth is essential to building the kind of company we know is possible. As a company, we believe that increasing our cumulative knowledge enhances our ability to build better products, solve harder problems and serve our partners well.

Unofficially, we operate under another, related principle: when it comes to learning, take shortcuts.

Like any startup team, we all have a lot on our plates. Many of us are doing an additional two or three jobs alongside our stated roles. We simply won't live long enough to learn every lesson the hard way, whether by making mistakes or deliberately experimenting with solutions to complex problems.

That's why we spent our first year instituting a set of habits and rituals designed to improve the installed knowledge base of our team. By encouraging — and sponsoring — educational opportunities, we make it engaging and fun for members of the Column team to never stop learning.

Here are some of the ways that Column lives out our operating principle:

Reading Rainbow. Instead of every member of the team reading the same book, each member of the team reads a different book and presents over lunch about what's worth learning and applying to our work. Reading Rainbows can cover that book everyone says they've read, or the books that most people in tech have probably read, ranging from product design to systems thinking. Most business books can boil down to a deliberate and applied summary, so that's what we share with the team. Thanks to a recent Reading Rainbow by Jake, we discovered more members of the team have read "The Outsiders" by William Thorndike than "The Outsiders" by SE Hinton. After Reading Rainbows, we store the reader's notes in the company library, available to current and future team members.

Off-the-Record Lunches. It's easy to get tunnel-vision at work — especially when you work with a small team focused initially on a narrow problem. To broaden our lens on occasion, we invite speakers from other organizations to present on their area of expertise at a series of conversations that we call "Off the Record." OTRs give Column employees the opportunity to meet and chat with folks outside our immediate circle, and to learn about fields parallel, adjacent or completely distant from software startups, local government or the business of news.

Kitchen Cabinets. We know that talking to real people who have done what we have done is often the most effective way to learn, but we don't want those conversations to be limited to just an Off-the-Record lunch. Column employees come from different backgrounds, and our networks extend into different industries and regions. Together, we work to create unique "Kitchen Cabinets" for each team member, connecting coworkers to folks in our networks who can serve as informal mentors. Former bosses, college classmates, that acquaintance someone met at a conference that one time — anyone working on similar problems at other organizations can provide valuable information about how to tackle our work at Column. We make a conscious effort to develop and maintain strong relationships with members of our Kitchen Cabinets, and these people often end up referring great future Columnists — or, in one case already, joining the team themselves.

Column Ventures. For longer-term growth experiences, Column offers a perk to employees we call "Column Ventures." From virtual conferences to online courses, these experiences can help team members develop marketing, product management, corporate finance or other skills. Column sets aside meaningful resources to growth opportunities, as long as employees share with the team both what they learned and how they plan to continue growing and applying what they learned to their work. Like any learning opportunity, we believe Column Ventures are well worth the investment.

Updates & Decisions. While getting stronger in our individual roles is important, we prioritize learning about the challenges other members of our team are solving. Column is still small enough that we can keep track of what other teams are working on. We all benefit from staying informed about projects on the product roadmap, recent press coverage, engineering sprints or customer experience. In order to effectively share internal knowledge, to not reinvent the wheel when it can be avoided, and to asynchronously lean into being a remote-first team, we dedicate a section of our Notion workspace to "Updates & Decisions" — a dynamic database of items shared with the team that often include a memo or a Loom. Any topic that might have gotten a snippet of coverage in an All Hands meeting, on our team has room to be engaged and digested (and is stored to add institutional knowledge to the onboarding of new members of the team!). With one centralized place for posting and storing updates and information, as well as roadmaps and project plans, we are able to decentralize the ownership and execution of the work ahead.

The Column team is growing quickly: in the past few months, we've hired new employees across Engineering, Customer Experience and Operations, and we have additional roles still open. As we scale, we believe that living out our operating principles is imperative to accomplishing Column's mission of improving the utility of public interest information and supporting the distribution of that information by journalists that serve their communities. By building a culture of growth and learning, we won't just get better at our daily work — we will be best positioned to have a lasting impact on our stakeholders.

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