Institutional Knowledge—Recognizing, Valuing, and Preserving It
“Listen to clients, employees, and peers and stay open to their ideas, feedback, and answers. Doing so is vital to the success of any leader.”
When Debbie walked out the door on her final day, she recently had celebrated 40 years with her agency. After working her way through the ranks, Debbie retired as a well-known and -respected supervisor. She knew the answers to almost all the questions colleagues asked her regarding administrative matters, policies, procedures, and local and state laws. Debbie was only one of a few people still employed with the agency who knew the reasons certain measures and programs were implemented years ago. Unfortunately, before she retired, no one in executive management met with her to secure valuable knowledge or to capture connections she made during her four decades of service.
What happens when employees with such institutional knowledge retire or leave the agency? Is the lack of capturing it representative of the organization’s culture? Although often difficult to define and measure, such information is an important asset in any organization, and leaders should take specific action to preserve it.
Many people work with someone like Debbie—a coworker, subordinate, or supervisor who serves as that go-to person. These veteran employees recognize organizational culture, know the background of programs, can explain when and why specific policies were put in place, and have mutually beneficial relationships both internally and externally. They have observed agency transformations, are aware of failures as well as successes, have seen projects go awry, and witnessed plans morph into productive ventures.
Top executives likely are not expected to know all the history surrounding every agency process and practice and, often, may not be aware of details surrounding organizational culture. Rather, they depend on leaders and managers to guide them. Key factors to garnering institutional knowledge come into play.
- What motivates employees to share their knowledge and expertise?
- Have former and current leaders created a culture in which employees feel comfortable sharing? If the answer is yes, how can leaders be sure? If no, what steps will they take to build this type of safe environment? How will they incentivize employees to share? While answering these questions, leaders should change what may have prohibited a supportive culture in the past (e.g., lack of communication or collaboration, mistrust, cumbersome processes), and take appropriate steps to mitigate issues.
- Is the organization structured to capture data and processes as well as monitor changes to policies and procedures? How does it collect, organize, and share information? What is the strategy to produce future knowledge (e.g., collaborating and brainstorming)?
- Does the agency have a mentoring program for employees to pass along information and lessons learned? Are employees thoroughly cross-trained in projects for primary and secondary points of contact? Do training courses based on institutional knowledge exist, and do they share best practices and address cultural nuances?
- Do leaders have a resource list with internal and external contacts? Is it up-to-date, and does it include prior inquiries and results?
Long-term employees have valuable knowledge, experience, and perspectives, and leaders must prepare for when those personnel leave their position. Without proper planning, agencies may be left with employees who know fundamental tasks but not the institutional knowledge that could steer leaders to better informed decisions.
Employees should document standard operating procedures and consider them living documents as processes change and employees promote, transfer, or retire. Procedures may include complicated tasks or daily activities taken for granted that other employees may not know who assumes the responsibility for.
Even more important, leaders should provide employees a safe opportunity to communicate with them regarding the values and norms that shape the culture, including the culture of smaller components, such as the agency’s divisions, squads, and units. It is critical for leaders to obtain institutional knowledge by securing and deliberating on how employees’ perspectives and opinions affect and mold the department’s culture.
“These veteran employees recognize organizational culture, know the background of programs, can explain when and why specific policies were put in place, and have mutually beneficial relationships both internally and externally.”
The way employees interpret culture may not coincide with how leaders and managers do so. Personnel should have an opportunity to share their expertise through in-depth discussions with leaders at various levels. Such data can provide additional background for understanding organizational culture, leading to innovative techniques and options to successfully move forward.
Too many employees feel or are told they are easily replaced. While this may hold true, institutional knowledge takes time to develop, and organizational culture proves complicated. Leaders can encourage information sharing by building a trusting environment, fostering collaboration, and staying connected through regular team meetings at all levels. Effective communication is key to transferring information and ensuring agencies are resilient, especially during a crisis.
Preserving knowledge and expertise and obtaining perspectives can prevent leaders from repeating mistakes they may not know occurred prior to their assignment. Institutional knowledge helps ensure leaders make informed decisions and continue in the most effective direction to meet the mission.
While written policies and procedures include critical knowledge, leaders also should ensure they take the necessary steps to capture valuable experiences of long-term employees. Waiting until their last day on the job or, even worse, after they are gone, can lead to a pattern of poor decision-making, rather than successful outcomes for the agency, leaders, and employees.
Dr. Cynthia L. Lewis, an instructor in the Leadership Education Unit at the FBI Academy, prepared this Leadership Spotlight. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 “Adena Friedman,” BrainyQuote, accessed March 22, 2021, https://images.brainyquote.com/quotes/adena_friedman_847832?src=t_doing.