6 min read

Don't "Notion" your entire organization

My strong, controversial opinion against using Notion for storing organizational knowledge

April 6, 2022

Notion's Mission

Our mission is to make toolmaking ubiquitous. We want everyone everywhere to feel empowered to customize the software they use every day to their exact needs.
- Notion

This can be interpreted as, Notion believes software should be customizable enough to meet the needs of anyone, and their aim is to be the ultimate malleable software used for toolmaking.

Put simply, Notion wants you to make Notion what you want it to be.

Though, I appreciate the “why” and see a lot of value in using Notion for collaboration or to fill software need gaps in a pinch, I believe Notion spreads a poison that can lead to an organization’s death spiral.

Collaborative Context vs. Knowledge

As members of your organization collaborate using a mashup of Microsoft Office, G Suite, Slack, Email, meeting notes, etc., collaborative context is generated leading up to the delivery of a solution to a problem faced by team members internally or by customers externally.

This collaborative context can be useful to understand how a solution got to its current state, but it isn’t a source of truth for the current state itself.

With collaborative context being scattered across many different tools and synchronous Zoom meetings with no paper trail, this information is simply too noisy and incomplete to parse through in pursuit of any reliable knowledge of your organization’s current state-of-the-art.

However, when a solution is delivered and ready to be used by its target end-users, the solution is no longer a speculative idea. There are meaningful aspects of it that have stabilized and need to be captured as documentation.

What details need documented differs by solution, but a rule of thumb is to anticipate and satisfy the most common needs your end-users and future solution providers will have before they need to use, maintain, build, or improve the solution.

It is your organization’s library of reliable documentation that become your knowledge and organizational memory.

When knowledge is appropriately managed, collaborative context becomes less valuable and rarely relied upon.

This is the path to convert your organization from one poisoned by the false security of relying on collaborative context, to one empowered through a true knowledge-driven culture.

What customization by everyone truly means

When trying to store and grow an organization's knowledge, this sentence in Notion’s mission statement is poisonous.

We want everyone everywhere to feel empowered to customize the software they use every day to their exact needs.
- Notion

Everyone everywhere means everyone in your organization.

Notion simply makes it too easy to mix collaborative context and knowledge, and your users will do just that with little you can do to stop them.

Any attempts by your organization to apply strategy to use Notion in any way other than a collaborative free-for-all will fail because Notion’s mission is to always undermine your efforts.

You will be forced to waste valuable human energy forming internal Notion advocacy groups to onboard unsuspecting new hires into an eternally burning dumpster fire.

This relentless grind will lead to passionate team members, who house context themselves, to leave your organization, taking valuable, largely undocumented knowledge with them.

The Seeker, Creator, and Curator

Everyday, at any time, each team member of your organization is acting as either a knowledge Seeker, Creator, or Curator, and while they are acting in each of these personas, they have basic needs that must be met.

The common Seeker looks for knowledge to solve a problem on their own. At minimum, they need this information to be discoverable and trustworthy, and if it is isn’t, they will defer to asking another team member. This is poison.

The less common Creator generates stable documentation for future Seekers. At minimum, they need information to be discoverable, but they also need to know where to put what they are creating. If they can’t find existing documentation, they will unintentionally create a duplicate source-of-truth that harms overall trustworthiness, and if they don’t know where to put their documentation, they may not write it at all. This is poison.

The rare Curator improves discoverability, consolidates sources-of-truth, and ultimately, fights for the reputation of your organization’s knowledge. At minimum, they need the tool used to manage information to help them win the battle instead of fighting for the other side. If this is not the case, Curators will burnout and may never return. This is poison.

Drinking the poison

Remember, Notion wants your organization to determine what you want Notion to be, and it is up to you to bare the cost of ensuring Notion is just that.

However, Notion is not going to and will never help you.

So once your Curators are ran off and your Creators don’t write, all you will have left is a sea of Seekers desperately in search of anyone that may have a shred of organizational memory in their head.

But unfortunately, those people will be gone because they could only take 537 rounds of knowledge transfer hell before giving up.

How to avoid this chaos

  1. Understand at your core that all of your organization's Notion pains are going to get worse. If you haven't fixed it by now, you won't as you scale.
  2. Understand what Knowledge Management is. Agreeing to stick words in a single application is not enough.
  3. Use Notion for collaboration and stop-gap solutions. Teams should be empowered to customize it as they see fit to collaborate more effectively.
  4. Reject all attempts to store knowledge in Notion. If it can't be found, it doesn't exist.
  5. Adopt a tool designed for true Knowledge Management. Check out Guru. (This is not sponsored.)

Quotes from colleagues after reading this

"Notion feels like when I give my kid a blank piece of construction paper and say draw a monster when what he needs is a monster coloring book. He can choose what colors to make the monster, but he needs guidelines. Notion gives us no guidelines and lets us vomit all over a confined digital space."

"When trying to onboard someone new to the company, it becomes incredibly difficult with Notion because there is no separation between stable documentation and prior/ongoing discussions around that topic. This limits the new hire's ability to search for the documentation that is relevant to them: leaving them frustrated, confused, and needing to seek assistance from a teammate."

"I really want to find the information I need in Notion… but where did we put it again? … Where do I need to update the documentation? … Is this the right place?… Will someone else find this when they need it? … What was I looking for again? … I just wish I could find what I need, and not update what I don’t need to update. Why is this so difficult?! It should not be this hard."

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