Preserving Institutional Knowledge

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by Granville Triumph

All organizations have a body of information about their history, processes, successes and failures, ways of doing business — collectively known as “institutional knowledge.” Many times this information is passed along like folklore. Those who possess the knowledge convey it verbally and through actions to new members of the team.

The problem is that today’s organizations are increasingly agile and dynamic, with highly mobile workers and geographically dispersed teams. Conveying that institutional knowledge becomes challenging when the water cooler becomes a text chat.

But if the information is no longer shared it is lost every time someone leaves the organization. Mergers and acquisitions and a change in executive leadership can erode institutional knowledge even more quickly.

It might sound trivial but it isn’t. Institutional knowledge is the oil that keeps the machinery of your organization humming along. A great deal of time and effort is spent developing the capabilities that set your organization apart. Some of that information is captured in policies and procedures but much of it — perhaps even most — resides in people’s heads.

Therefore it is important to establish a formal strategy for preserving institutional knowledge. The first step is to determine what elements of your organizational folklore are important to your culture and day-to-day operations. Then devise a means of capturing that information so that it can be referenced. Employees should be encouraged to look for institutional knowledge in this central repository rather than asking that one individual within the organization who happens to have all the information.

You also need processes for passing that information along to new team members. Identify the key things that each member of your team should be able to know or do, and build training programs and leadership sessions around those core skills.

It’s important to remember that institutional knowledge isn’t static — it will continue to grow and change over time. So your strategy should include processes for adding new information to the central repository. Before long, maintaining institutional knowledge will become a part of your organization’s culture, and you won’t have to start over each time a new person joins your team.

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