Scaling peer-to-peer learning with Jennifer Smith, founder of Scribe


Welcome to this edition of our Tools for Thought series, where we interview founders on a mission to help make the most of our minds. Jennifer Smith is the founder of Scribe, a tool to help knowledge workers share their specialized know-how. Her goal is to make it as easy as possible for teams to increase their collective intelligence.

In this interview, we talked about enabling everyday experts to scale their knowledge, the power of peer-to-peer learning, the biggest productivity sink for knowledge workers, how knowledge-sharing results in big efficiency gains, how staying agile is crucial in our rapidly changing world, and much more. Enjoy the read!

Scribe Record Workflow

Hi Jennifer, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. One of your mottos is that “everyone is an expert” — what do you mean by that?

I truly believe everyone is an expert. Everyone knows how to do something special, something that adds value in some way. 

Work is now more specialized than ever before. There are more software tools at this moment than at any point in history; digital workflows are the most complex they’ve ever been, and no one person can ever know everything. Rather, you’ve now got a phenomenon where, with specialization, everyone is now an expert in something more specific. Whether that’s how to generate a report in QuickBooks, or configure a Shopify account, or track prospects in Salesforce — everyone has some kind of special know-how.

With Scribe, we think about how to make it really easy for anyone to share what they know how to do. We always say: “You’ve done the hard part already. You know how to do something special, valuable, and unique. We’re just here to make it easy and automatic for you to share what you know how to do.”

Scribe will just watch you work and automatically generate step-by-step tutorials that you can share with others to show them what you know how to do. Our hope is that this enables “everyday experts” to scale their knowledge — and to get recognized for the cool things they already know how to do!

Knowledge workers spend thousands of hours documenting their work and sharing what they know with others. What makes Scribe different from other approaches to sharing a process or workflow?

You’re a knowledge worker and you have some specialized know-how. If you want to share that with someone else right now — a colleague, a customer, or your community — you only have two options: either take precious time away from doing actual work to write down what you know how to do, maybe in a Google Doc, or an email, or copy-pasting screenshots, or explain it to someone else who does the first option for you. Both are really manual and time-intensive, and the information you create can become outdated pretty quickly.

With Scribe, all you have to do is hit the “start” button, and do the work you would normally do.  Let’s say you want to explain to someone how to generate an invoice in your CRM. You would hit start, and just generate the invoice. When you’re done, you hit “stop.” Scribe will immediately and automatically generate a step-by-step, written tutorial with screenshots showing exactly how to generate an invoice. You can share that Scribe with someone who can now replicate that process themselves; or save it for later whenever someone has a similar question in the future.

You’ve magically created documentation without actually doing any additional work. You didn’t have to take time away from doing productive output to explain to someone else how to do something.

We really focused on how to make it as simple, easy, and fast as possible. We look at the time it takes someone from the moment they first land on our website to when they’ve created and shared their first Scribe, and it’s under four minutes.

We’re focused on how to help people get time back in their day, so we didn’t want to design a product that had a learning curve. We all have too many tools where we have to invest time to learn how to use them. With Scribe, we’re constantly trying to push the time-to-value to be nearly instantaneous.

Four minutes from signing up to creating their first Scribe is impressive. Was there an “aha” moment that inspired you to build Scribe?

I have been obsessed with processes and efficiency for pretty much my whole life. I’m always trying to see if there’s a better, faster way to do something.

I spent seven years as a consultant at McKinsey & Company, mostly in the Org & Operations practices, which meant eight hours a day in ops centers documenting processes. I quickly learned the name of the game was to find the best agent, sit next to them, and just ask them what they did differently. And they would tell me! “Oh, I was trained to do it this way but I found these thirty shortcuts.” And we would dutifully write that up in powerpoint and sell that back to our clients.

But I always thought to myself — if these people had just had a platform to share what they had figured out how to do, they could have a really big impact on their ops center. They didn’t need me and my team saying it for them. This always kind of nagged at me, but I figured it was a problem for someone else to solve some day.

Fast forward a decade and I’m working at Greylock Partners on Sand Hill Road. I talked to 1200 CXOs of Fortune 500 companies to understand what they wanted and where they saw gaps. And to my surprise, I realized that the state-of-the-art hadn’t really evolved.

If you wanted to improve your operations, you still had some version of a 28-year-old Jennifer with her Lenovo ThinkPad running around manually documenting processes to find best practices. Sure, maybe it’s someone in the company and they’re using a wiki instead, but the task is just the same: highly manual and not scalable.

And that was crazy to me. So much technological advancement in the world, and we still had not solved something that is so core, so fundamental, to how millions of people work every day.

So you decided to solve that problem. How does Scribe work exactly?

The concept behind Scribe is simple: what if software could watch you do a task, and automatically generate a step-by-step guide on how to do that task? It’s almost like the documentation is just digital exhaust — a by-product of you doing your normal course of work. 

As I said, when you go to do a task, you hit “start” and just do the task. When you are done, you click “stop.” And Scribe will immediately and automatically generate a step-by-step, written guide with screenshots showing exactly how to do that task.

You have a bunch of advanced options for how to edit the Scribe, but the point is, you don’t really need to — all the info someone would need to replicate that task is automatically contained in that Scribe.

And then you have several options for how to share that Scribe — whether it’s one-click sharing a persistent link, downloading a PDF, or embedding the Scribe in any of hundreds of your favorite tools.

The average Scribe takes 54 seconds to create.  It’s designed to have nearly no learning curve at all. Anyone can just get started and create their first Scribe in a matter of seconds. We really focused on how we can take the friction down to nearly zero, for nearly anyone, regardless of digital literacy.

This seems like an amazing way to encourage peer-to-peer learning. What are some of the benefits teams have experienced?

When you think of learning in companies traditionally, people often think of formal training programs —  maybe one you attended when you first onboarded or as part of ongoing professional development.

But most of what you need to know to actually be productive every day is learned on the job, mainly by observing your peers and asking them questions about how things are done. This happens very informally today. You shadow a colleague when you first start, you pop your head over the proverbial cubicle to ask a question, or you call a teammate to ask them to walk you through how to do something. This is often the most effective kind of learning, but it is not very scalable.

With Scribe, you can capture what your best people know how to do — once — and share it with anyone, in perpetuity. If a colleague has learned a new tool, or found a better way to do something, they can Scribe it and share it with their team; it scales their knowledge and up-levels their team, but in a way that takes no additional time for them.

In this way, you’re able to tap into the best knowledge within your organization and surface it to anyone who needs it, at any time — with big productivity and efficiency gains that cost little to no time to generate.

Staying agile is crucial in our rapidly changing world. How does Scribe help teams quickly adapt to change?

Research from McKinsey estimates knowledge workers spend about 20% of their time searching for information they need to do their job. This is a huge productivity sink. Layer on to this the Great Resignation, more people changing jobs, companies switching to a remote environment, and you’ve got a lot of wasted time — not to mention frustration — trying to find out how work gets done.

With Scribe, you now have all of the process knowledge for how work gets done captured in a central repository.  Now, rather than having to track down the right person who has the info you need, ask them to explain it to you, and wait for them to write it up or call you back — you can simply find what you need in a matter of seconds. New practices, or best practices, can spread much more quickly within a team.

Scribe Custom Guide

That makes sense. What kind of people use Scribe?

Anyone who has to explain “how-to” — to a colleague, a customer, a friend, or a community.  So, in short, a lot of different kinds of people. Pretty commonly, this looks like customer-facing teams, be they sales, support, or customer success, who want to show customers how to use a product or complete a process; technology teams who are rolling out a new tool to colleagues; or operations teams who are scaling their processes.

We often hear users say that, while they mostly use Scribe at work, they found it helpful at home too — something as simple as, say, sending a family member a Scribe showing how to configure their Wi-Fi!

What about you… How do you personally use Scribe?

Not surprisingly, we use Scribe to power our company internally and externally. We’ve grown really rapidly over the last year. We use Scribe to document our process to on-board new colleagues; whether it’s showing our sales team how to invoice a new customer, or our engineering team how to configure something on the back-end, or our support team how to respond to customer tickets — our shared workspaces contain all of the knowledge our company needs to function on a day-to-day operational basis. We’ve built our own help center entirely on Scribe and Notion, you can check that out here

When we develop a new process or implement a new tool, we use Scribe to communicate the new way to “how-to”.  And of course, when our customers have questions on how to use Scribe or interact with us, we send them a Scribe. Instead of eating our own dog food- we call it “drinking our own champagne” ?

There’s still so much work to do to increase our collective intelligence. Where would you like Scribe to be in the next few years?

We are on a mission to enable everyone to be able to do and share their best work. We imagine a world where the best of what anyone knows how to do is available to everyone.  Instantly and automatically.  So every person, company, and community can do their best work, every day.  With a little more ease and joy.

Right now, when someone asks “How do I XYZ?” there is no common standard response. I might send an email, or a Word document, or hop on a call. We want Scribe to be the standard by which people share “how-to.” So when someone asks: “How do I do XYZ?”, someone can reply: “Don’t worry, I’ll send you a Scribe!”

Thank you so much for your time, Jennifer! Where can people learn more about Scribe and give it a try?

The best way is to try the product directly. The basic version is always free to use, and it takes less than four minutes to get started.

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