Customer spotlight: How Intersect for Ability uses KnowledgeOwl for resource sharing

Kate Mueller and Deborah Barnard | December 2, 2021


This post is the first in a series of customer spotlights, showing how different customers take advantage of KnowledgeOwl’s features and work with our knowledge base software to meet their needs. It includes advice and lessons learned, as well as providing an example of one way KnowledgeOwl can be used.

In this post, we learn how Intersect for Ability uses their knowledge base, ‘The Current’, to share activity lesson plans and materials among staff who schedule and lead activities for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. They’ve made some smart choices to support activity authors and help teach their readers how to use The Current.

At a glance summary:

  • Knowledge base access: Private
  • Primary purpose: Database of activities for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, shared across 15 agencies; content created by writers at multiple agencies for use by all
  • Login type used (if any): KnowledgeOwl reader logins

  • User workflow: Small group of super admins create templates and set category structure and publish activities; larger group of contributors with a custom user role create individual articles/activities using the activity template and submit for review
  • Key features: Template articles, custom user roles, related articles, subscriptions and callouts, glossary with auto-highlighting, versions, reader groups

About Intersect for Ability and their project, "The Current"

Background

In 2020, Intersect for Ability, a collaborative network of fifteen non-profit agencies serving individuals with developmental disabilities, received a grant from the Coleman Foundation to create an online curriculum that would digitize and codify existing resources, generate new ones, and train staff to use them effectively. The network’s vision was a database of instructive, engaging, and fun activities, which they named The Current.

For thousands of adults with developmental disabilities served by the provider organizations that make up the Intersect for Ability network in the Chicago and northern Illinois area, "meaningful days filled with intentional activities" are the number one request. Historically, quality activities have been a high priority that is frequently targeted yet rarely met. 

After selecting KnowledgeOwl for the curriculum platform, the team developed a 3-page template for staff at all fifteen agencies to write activities. They took advantage of KO editing capabilities to ensure all activities met the same high standards. 

The project team set an ambitious goal of writing 500 activities in Phase 1 of the project between October 2020 and March 2021. The knowledge base needs to have a rich assortment of activities that partner agencies can choose from to plan and schedule throughout the year. If it does not contain enough variety, agencies will not use it. As of October 26, 2021, there are 604 activities in The Current. 

Project impact

"We rise together and we fall together"

The Current allows staff at the agencies' individual facilities and programs to access a range of activities, specially designed to meet the needs of their users. It reduces prep time for supervisors and activity managers.

It has also come at a crucial time: as COVID forced people to more remote interactions, and people needed resources at home, having a digital library of activities provided key support, especially since each activity includes instructions for how to adapt and facilitate it virtually.

Software requirements and KnowledgeOwl fit

Initial tool evaluation was completed by a single team member, who narrowed the list down to two final candidates. These two tools were then fully tested by a core group of the project team, who spent time directly using each tool to determine the best fit.

The nature of the project and the users meant whatever software was used to build The Current had to meet a few key requirements:

  • There needed to be a templating system, so that the designers and editors could define content formats that would support writers in producing useful activities. (KnowledgeOwl support owls helped with a little bit of custom styling to make this template have the exact look and feel the project team was going for, too!)
  • As the project drew in contributions from many writers, the tooling needed to support a review cycle.
  • The setup had to allow for, and make discoverable, a wide range of activity types. So there needed to be ways to categorize and sort content for browsability, as well as good search functionality.
  • The software had to be accessible to users with varying levels of confidence using computers. There needed to be a low technical barrier to entry.
  • There had to be a way to print content, as many schedulers or activity managers rely on printed binders of activities.

Confident that KnowledgeOwl provided this, the team set to work creating The Current. They were able to create a template article for creating new activities, which can be used by any writer. The flexible structure of categories, and permissive approach to content nesting, means they’ve been able to create a highly browsable structure that maps exactly to their content architecture. (And which is already evolving as new content is created!) While there has been some learning curve to the software, most users have not found it overly challenging to get to grips with. The PDF option makes it possible to download and print content.

Other aspects of KnowledgeOwl have proved beneficial. In particular:

  • The glossary has proven useful to help provide guidance around terms used in the Activity Template. The Current defines these terms in the glossary and leverages the glossary auto-highlighting feature, too.
  • New and updated callouts are used to highlight newly-added or updated activities or guides, and the subscriptions feature is enabled so readers can sign up to receive weekly email notifications of these changes.
  • With 15 participating agencies, flexible login options were also needed, since each agency has their own setup. The Current uses KnowledgeOwl reader logins, with reader groups to identify which agency a reader belongs to.
  • Related articles are used to help direct readers to similar activities they may be interested in.
  • Being able to lock down author permissions using custom user roles is helpful when working with a very large number of contributors. It ensures that authors have a clearly defined path through the software, and there’s little risk of them making destructive mistakes.
  • KnowledgeOwl’s progress towards B Corp certification is also a bonus - not a requirement they were looking for, but something it feels good to see.

Project rollout: beyond the docs

Ultimately, the activities in The Current will be written by contributors across all participating agencies, so having a streamlined content creation process and a plan to onboard new writers and contributors was crucial. Without a lot of content, reader usage wouldn’t take off and the project wouldn't meet its designated goals.

Rollout was one of the most essential pieces of this project. It's also one of the places we see customers struggle. The team behind The Current did a phenomenal job here, so we wanted to share some non-writing details on what they did!

Rolling out a brand new project is always a challenge, and the project leaders had to be aware of the range of tech ability and enthusiasm among their users. More tech-savvy authors and readers were quicker to get on board. KnowledgeOwl’s user-friendliness helped smooth the process, and the project leaders put effort into supporting the new users. This included:

Providing a defined activity template to support writers

By creating a clear structure, this template ensured that authors provided everything needed for an activity. For instance, the template has defined sections for things like the activity’s purpose, supplies needed, and prep steps. This has two layers of benefits:

  • It makes writers’ lives easier, since they don’t have to think about the structure and can focus on the activity’s structure and content instead.
  • It makes readers’ lives easier, since all activities are consistently formatted and structured.

Running introductory Zoom sessions

These sessions were part of the initial onboarding phase and served to introduce people both to the project and the software. New writers had a Zoom-based human introduction to the project, KnowledgeOwl, the templates being used, and so on.

In other words: the knowledge base was introduced by people, who provided context for its purpose, structure, and goals.

Recording onboarding sessions

This might seem like a small thing, but the team recorded several onboarding sessions and saved them, making them available as a long-term resource.

Onboarding managers at each agency

These managers became content contributors and in turn help roll The Current out to their staff and support their staff's usage of it.

They also provide a feedback loop back to the core team about layout, structure, functionality, and so on.

Scheduled writing lessons

This is well beyond the initial onboarding session, and something we haven’t seen customers do often (we love this concept!). These lessons are basically facilitated sessions to help writers become comfortable with the activity template and establish a kind of community of practice to discuss and enforce writing standards. These were run bi-weekly.

One lesson learned from this: get the writers writing! People were very slow to get started producing activities. If the project team was doing the exercise again, they’d allow more time in the writing lessons to actually start writing.

Clever use of content formats: Using the blog format for 'streams'

While the majority of The Current is basically a database of individual activities, there are two sections more "meta" in nature. The first of these is a blog-style category called "Activity Streams." A single blog post (or 'Stream') pulls together curated activities into a single curriculum, with some guidance on how to use them, how much time they’ll take, what materials are needed, and so on. It provides pre-packaged curricula, further decreasing the prep time and effort required of the activity manager.

These streams also help model how content in The Current can be used, which further helps reinforce the content organization and may help introduce end-users to types of activities they hadn’t yet found through search or browsing. (Not to mention, there’s also an activity stream blog post template, to make it easier to generate these streams in the future!)

Best practice: Providing an author guide

The second "meta" section is a series of guides around how to use The Current. Notable here is the Author Guide, which provides a number of resources for the many content creators who are helping to create activities. These resources:

  • include step-by-step documentation on creating content using the activity template
  • explain curricular best practices
  • describe certain terms or concepts used in the activity template, and
  • provide examples and best practices for certain sections of the template

Even better, this Guide is essentially the documentation form of the Writing Lessons the project team facilitated. Too often, we see customers only use one of these approaches (writing lessons or a written guide), and we loved seeing that this project team used them together in a highly complementary way!

Here’s a sample of the documentation portion:

Wrap up

Intersect for Ability used KnowledgeOwl to create their resource-sharing project, The Current, and empower their users to provide a more varied and meaningful set of activities to the adult population they serve. KnowledgeOwl's rich feature set and gentle learning curve made it especially suited to their needs.

This project is a great example of using a knowledge base to both create and store documentation as well as to facilitate learning and cultural norms, and we were blown away at the team’s thoughtfulness and approach. We’re so excited to see how The Current grows, and we’re proud to be playing even a small part in facilitating such worthwhile work.

Intersect for Ability is a collaboration of fifteen 501(c)(3) agencies, so if you’re also interested in supporting the work of The Current, please contact Sheila Lullo at slullo@clearbrook.org.

If you’re a current KnowledgeOwl customer interested in being featured in a spotlight like this one, we’d love to hear from you! Contact us at blog@knowledgeowl.com and we can get things rolling.


About the author
Kate Mueller
Kate Mueller

is our Product & Customer Champion, and Resident Cheesemonger. She has led a checkered past, including teaching college-level English and being the head of product for another small software company. She eats cheese. And in 2018 she hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, (which inspired her to eat more cheese). She scopes features, tests releases, writes our release notes and documentation, advises on writing and documentation architecture best practices, and tries to think of creative ways to solve customer problems. Connect with her on LinkedIn.


About the author
Deborah Barnard
Deborah Barnard

Deborah is a consultant tech writer who is passionate about readability, accessibility, and all things API-related. When she isn't writing documentation, she can generally be found trying out a new static site generator.

You can find out more about Deborah at Starfall Projects, or connect on Twitter.


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