It's common in organizations to hear people say, "this is how we've always done it,". Or "I don't know why they do that, but this is what we've always done." In many cases, these statements reflect a need for more understanding of your organization's internal operations and history.
In other cases, there are no good reasons for doing things one way versus another. And no one knows any better. However, if you're like most companies and have employees who have been around for longer than five years or so. Which is pretty much all of us by now. There's probably some institutional knowledge that hasn't been shared with others.
What Is Institutional Knowledge
- Institutional knowledge is an organization's collective know-how, wisdom, and experience. It is the sum of all the knowledge, skills, and abilities people gain in their work. It includes acquired intellectual capital that others can use within the organization or outside of it.
- By definition, institutional knowledge is intangible—it's not something you can hold in your hand or see with your eyes. However, you can feel it when you walk into an organization for the first time. There's something different about this place than other places where you've worked. The difference may not be immediately apparent. But over time, you'll notice patterns emerging from how people behave at work. How they communicate with one another through memos or emails. What hours do they arrive at work each day and leave at night? How often do meetings occur during certain seasons (for example, spring cleaning)? All these things add over time to create a culture representing the company's values and traditions. And its methods for accomplishing tasks through shared processes across departments within an organization rather than individuals within each department.
When Institutional Knowledge walks out the door
Suppose you've ever worked somewhere where your boss was retiring. And suddenly, everything you know about the company's strategy is gone.
In that case, you know what it feels like to lose institutional knowledge. It's hard for an organization to replace this kind of experience. Especially when it comes from someone who has been there for years or even decades.
When people leave an organization (whether willingly or not), they take their institutional knowledge with them. And it can't easily be replicated by simply hiring new employees.
In fact, according to research from RSM International LLC (an audit firm), replacing 20% of an employee base would require spending 20% more money than before on training costs alone!
Store and share Institutional Knowledge with others
If you've ever worked in an organization, you've probably experienced the frustration of explaining how something works. You can't adequately describe it with words alone. So instead, you must show someone else and let them experience it themselves.
Institutional knowledge is similar in this way: It's difficult to capture and share through written or spoken word alone. It would be best to have visual aids—PowerPoint presentations, screenshots, and videos. To help others visualize what you're describing so, they can better understand it on their terms.
Organizations should prioritize institutional knowledge when developing new processes and systems or redesigning old ones.
Things hard to communicate or replicate
In learning, some people are better at communicating than others. Some people are better at explaining than others. Some people are better at teaching than others. Identifying these natural strengths and developing them to become more effective learners and teachers is essential.
It's helpful to understand yourself and others when trying to learn new things or teach someone else how something works—and this can help you gain insight into why certain practices work for some people but not others.
Here's the thing: people are going to disagree with you. And that's okay because you don't have to be right all the time (in fact, it's impossible). If someone disagrees with what you say, they're not necessarily a bad person—they may come from a different perspective or background than yours.
It's important to recognize where other people are coming from and how their experience has shaped their opinions. It can help inform how you approach working with them in the future, as well as help shift your thinking about specific topics.
Involve people in sharing Institutional Knowledge
One of the most important ways to ensure that institutional knowledge is passed on is to get people involved in sharing it. This may be easier said than done, but there are several things you can do to get started.
There are a lot of ways organizations can share institutional knowledge with others. Here are some examples:
- Video tutorials
- Articles and blog posts that explain how the company does things in more detail than would be appropriate in a general guide or handbook
- Tutorials that walk you through the steps needed to complete a task or meet certain requirements in your specific environment, such as your software, hardware, or operating system configuration
Sharing Institutional Knowledge benefits the company and individuals
When you share your organization's institutional knowledge, you provide a valuable resource to your employees. This is especially true as they work together to solve problems.
Sharing institutional knowledge also helps with succession planning, which is essential for companies that have long-term goals or need to keep key employees on board during times of uncertainty (e.g., mergers and acquisitions).
To share institutional knowledge effectively, it should be captured and stored in a way that makes it easy for others in your organization—and outside of it—to access.
The best way to share institutional knowledge is through written documentation and visual aids. This can include:
-How-to guides for common tasks or processes your organization performs
-The names, descriptions, and contact information of other employees who may be able to help with specific issues (e.g., IT support)
-A list of important contacts and other information that people may need to contact your organization (e.g., customer service representatives)
-Your company's mission statement, goals, values, and culture
As we've seen, sharing institutional knowledge is a powerful tool to help your organization grow. It can also help individuals by giving them more opportunities to learn and gain new skills.
Although it may not be easy at first, once you get into the habit of sharing information with others (and being open to feedback), you'll find that the benefits far outweigh any initial discomfort or frustration.