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Learning from failure to achieve success at KMWorld 2019

At KMWorld 2019, Kathleen Cauley, projects lead, KM, at Shopify, presented an engaging and entertaining session describing her experiences working in KM and the lessons learned.

In May 2019, Shopify launched an internally built wiki for the whole company, which replaced an out-of-date tool that contained stale information and had lost the trust of the company. Despite having a highly engaged workforce, healthy culture, and crack project team, this project overcame many hurdles and made plenty of mistakes along the way, she said, showing success is just the culmination of failures we learn from.

Cauley discussed the importance of identifying engaged stakeholders; experimenting using your own team; knowing your current state; gathering metrics; designing with end stakeholders; tailored, simple, and sustainable; importance of small wins; how to keep KM from becoming "a tragedy of the commons"; and speaking the right language. 

Videos of KMWorld 2019 awards presentations,  keynotes, and sessions can be found here.

According to Cauley, Shopify which released its ecommerce platform in 2006, now has more than 4,000 employees, more than one million merchants in roughly 175 countries, more than 135 billion sales on Shopify, more than 3,200 apps in its app store, and more than 780 experts in its network.

Throughout the presentation, Cauley emphasized the importance of trust, stating that knowledge management is a service, built on foundation of trust; and Shopify's mission as an organization is to make commerce better for everyone and is built on trust.

All companies are very different and, while her solutions may not be the right solutions for others, Cauley said, "100% of my mistakes can be your mistakes," and attendees that can learn from them.

Success is the end result of many failures, said Cauley. With knowledge management projects, the goal is to deliver tailored, simple, and sustainable knowledge solutions to enhance Shopify's ability to be impactful.

Shopyify wants its KM solutions and projects to be:

  • Tailored
    Build with the end user in mind—focus on their needs;
  • Simple
    Reduce friction through accessible and elegant solutions;
  • Sustainable
    Reusable and scalable—built for the future we can articulate and the one we cannot.

Cauley showcased Shopify's knowledge management triangle with a large base at the bottom for the identification and capture of knowledge and everything built on top. Identification is followed by storing knowledge in the right formats, knowledge sharing to get it to users, knowledge use, then organizational learning at the very top.

Cauley identified the four KM project phases consisting of Think, Explore, Build, and Launch. The "Think" phase is when you should get a diverse range of opinions about what you pan to do, and "Explore" is when you try new approaches and risk failure. You can "Build" when you think you have a good start, and then "Launch." Shopify is growing rapidly, said Cauley, noting that she and her team embrace a philosophy of the MVP or "minimal viable product," and from there, it iterates and fine-tunes, since to wait for perfection in a rapidly changing environment would mean never having what is needed.

Key KM project phases:


  • Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed? In collaboration it is also important to avoid "ruinous empathy," said Cauley, citing Kim Scott's term for not speaking up and confronting issues.
  • Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
  • Structure and clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
  • Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  • Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?


  • Have a growth mindset not a fixed mindset
  • Say no or yes thoughtfully, not quickly


  • Don't try to be perfect; instead, build and then refine and improve
  • Ask for feedback from a variety of users and not just a vocal minority to avoid a "tragedy of the commons," and address targeted feedback


  • Communicate strategically
  • Celebrate small and quick wins, small parts of the project

The big takeaways, she said, are that project leaders should fail often, build trust, and communicate throughout.

KMWorld 2019 is a part of a unique program of five co-located conferences, which also includes Enterprise Search & Discovery, Office 365 Symposium, Taxonomy Boot Camp, and Text Analytics Forum.

Many speakers at KMWorld 2019 are making their presentations available at www.kmworld.com/Conference/2019/Presentations.aspx.


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