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A plea for institutional knowledge

Team members come and go. When they leave, so does information that enables the company to run and thrive. Here's how to minimize that brain drain.

This could be you: Your team is executing well, and its performance is on the uptick. Then, your vice president receives an in-house promotion and is gone the next day. Or the project manager for that big project is suddenly hired away. Or the executive assistant takes early retirement. Everything comes to a screeching halt because no one really knows what the VP’s priorities were, or the status of that major project, or how to reserve and pay for next month’s conference.

What do you do now?

Friction and uncertainty are normal factors in today’s complex business environment, but a lack of planning doesn’t excuse an inability to operate during unforeseen circumstances. One way to limit the amount of friction endured by teams is to have a healthy respect for institutional knowledge.

Institutional knowledge is the processes, frameworks, and relationships that facilitate an organization's effective and efficient execution. It is best understood by providing a brief overview of its traits and some examples of how it might be demonstrated (or not) by contemporary business teams.

First, institutional knowledge is shared knowledge. Unfortunately, too much contemporary business information is compartmentalized. Sometimes, a frenetic pace and the absence of a cultural emphasis on collaboration combine and reinforce each other. In a competitive environment in which information must flow freely and quickly to be useful, such a combination can be debilitating. In other cases, as McKinsey & Co. notes, “ownership of processes and information is fragmented and zealously guarded, roles are designed around parochial requirements, and the resulting internal complexity hinders sorely needed cross-business collaboration.”

Detrimental schemes of “I’ve got a secret” inhibit a company’s profitability and productivity. They also undermine morale and collaboration by elevating intraorganizational competition at the expense of the company’s competition in its markets.

Second, institutional knowledge is captured and commonly accessible knowledge. Much like the old cliché regarding whether a falling tree in a lonely forest makes any sound, a leader should ask whether gained knowledge is being used for optimal effectiveness inside and outside the leader’s team. Can the information be readily exploited by others in the organization? “Readily” refers to a quick-turn timeliness with which anyone in the organization can find the right information. “Exploited” means accessing information that is in a consumable and usable format. Both criteria are essential. If a critical analysis is buried on an individual’s laptop with an indecipherable file name, can others find the information?

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Third, institutional knowledge is process. Too often, every new situation, plan, or presentation is treated as a unique entity started from the ground up. The reality is that, while a situation may have some unique aspects, the overwhelming number of requirements faced by a team are recurring requirements. Those requirements usually can be addressed by adopting, implementing, and enforcing established processes and formats. As an example from my former profession, U.S. Army units have a “battle book” of planning considerations and formats used for a variety of circumstances: hasty planning, deliberate planning, offense planning, defense planning, and others. Such frameworks are of particular value when a leader is absent, and can be especially helpful in preventing a “What do we do now?” mentality from reigning supreme.

Finally, and most important, institutional knowledge is planned prioritization that governs the team’s activities. Effective systems continue to function (albeit less efficiently) when one of their critical parts are missing or damaged. Likewise, effective teams continue to function when a member is missing—even if the missing member is the leader. The only way to keep things going is if everyone firmly understands what needs to be done and what objectives are more important than others. Without the institutional knowledge of planned prioritization, priorities are relegated to the eye of the beholder or whatever bauble shines the brightest at a particular moment. Unfortunately, what is shiny may be perceived differently by different people.

First steps for institutional knowledge

Institutional knowledge has both cultural and practical roots. Therefore, for its benefits to take hold, leaders must strongly and consistently emphasize both elements. Some critical steps to take include the following:

Reinforce collaboration as culture. Contemporary business provides nauseating levels of lip service to collaboration. However, few incentive and disincentive programs are built to reward and reinforce true cultures of collaboration inside modern organizations. Collaboration must be more than communication, and it is certainly more than sending a reactive email in response to a request for information or purchasing the newest workforce collaboration application.

Instead, leaders must build and reinforce cultures in which proactive sharing of information, openness, and follow-up are the norm. Taking it a step further: Are team members guided to think in terms of not only “This is what I did,” but in terms of “This is what I did, and this is how it is relevant to what John Doe or Team Europe is working on”? Are managers constantly reinforcing this culture in their individual and group meetings with the team? Are they including standards of collaboration as evaluation metrics of professional performance?

Develop standard operating procedures. When I initiate a preliminary evaluation of client firms, one of the first things I consider is the presence and use of standard operating procedures (SOPs). “Standard operating procedure” is a rather ambiguous term, but it generally applies to those processes and procedures an organization habitually implements when conducting recurring tasks to function more efficiently. Some SOPs include things as simple as common naming formats for files and folders, rules for the filing and dissemination of information using shared databases, and similar constructs. More advanced SOPs include detailed planning frameworks for undertaking new operations or quickly exploiting new sales opportunities. The most important aspects of SOPs are 1) their shared understanding and 2) their use.

If your team doesn’t have any working SOPs, start small. Solicit team members’ input to build the team’s sense of ownership. A leader should not want a sense of “his or her” SOPs, but “the team’s” SOPs. Something as simple as a naming format for all files (perhaps something like TEAM NAME_PROJECT NAME_FILE NAME_WORKER’S NAME_DATE) can get everyone rowing in the same direction. Moreover, it can help team members adopt the mentality that what they are building is meant for a larger community's access and use. As a next step, develop (again with input) a hierarchy of team folders where folks know to store and retrieve information. Then—and this is when a leader’s responsibility becomes apparent—rigorously enforce the use of the SOPs. After all, there’s nothing “standard” about an operating procedure that members are electing to follow or not follow.

Lead from the front and prioritize. One of the most pernicious notions of the past decade is the ridiculousness of “leading from behind.” Leaders lead from the front. They not only need to inspire teams to do that which might not otherwise be done, but leaders must decide and communicate priorities. Responsibility for decision-making is both the privilege and burden of leadership. Prioritization as an element of decision-making is an intrinsic component of institutional knowledge and is essential for a team’s effectiveness. If a leader is not rigorously prioritizing a team’s efforts, he or she is hoping for success, not planning for the same.

Take the long view. Successful teams and organizations take the long view. One way to reinforce that focus is by building institutional knowledge. Doing so provides the tools that smooth operations, improve efficiency, and build effectiveness. More important, a healthy reliance on institutional knowledge reinforces your employees’ cultural understanding and confidence that they are part of something larger than themselves and their individual efforts. In the end, the best teams and the best leaders seek to not only fill the wallet, but feed the sense of meaning that drive most of us.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.