Three Keys to Keeping Institutional Knowledge Where It Belongs: In-House and in Circulation

What happens to institutional knowledge when one leadership generation within an organization yields to the next, or when one company is purchased by another?

senior talking to employees
Minerva Studio/

For a wide variety of businesses, from the family-owned bakery to the fast-rising software company to the multi-disciplinary architecture and engineering firm, institutional knowledge is their greatest — and often, most at-risk — asset.

Now, amid a wave of employee attrition so large, it's being called The Great Resignation, the pressure to preserve that asset is mounting. What happens to institutional knowledge when one leadership generation within an organization yields to the next, or when one company is purchased by another? How to ensure an organization has the means to capture, store and readily access its institutional knowledge, in order to preserve the legacy of the people who built and nurtured the business, and protect the unique competitive value of that asset into the future?

How a company and its leaders answer these existential questions could well have a massive impact on an organization's culture and competitiveness going forward. The stakes are higher than one might imagine. A company with 1,000 employees can expect to lose $2.7 million in annual productivity due to the inefficiencies caused by knowledge loss, according to research by Panopto (registration required). There also are negative cultural ramifications to consider, as institutional knowledge is vital to reinforcing cultural continuity within an organization.

Rather than let tribal knowledge slip away irretrievably as leaders retire, employees depart, contractors move on and companies merge, here are three tips to help keep it in-house, at hand and in play.

1. Prioritize the Knowledge and the People

Where, and with whom, does knowledge reside within your organization? How important is that knowledge to the present and future of your business? Who within your organization holds the most valuable institutional knowledge? What knowledge is siloed, and how can it be freed so it's readily shareable? Here's where you take stock of every level of your organization, from the top down, to identify and evaluate the knowledge that your people and systems hold, a process called a 'knowledge audit' or 'knowledge mapping.' Once you have the results in front of you, then you can establish priorities for the knowledge you want to capture.

2. Embrace and Encourage

Having identified and prioritized the knowledge you want to capture, it's time to develop a coordinated strategy for how your organization will go about capturing it. Typically this involves a combination of digital tools and other practices.

On the technology side, investing in an integrated digital foundation (an enterprise resource planning system, for example, or a customer relationship management solution) for your business is fundamental to knowledge transfer and legacy preservation. Having that foundation in place enables an organization to liberate siloed data so it can flow freely within and across teams, from the C-suite down.

Decades worth of at-risk institutional knowledge could well be trapped within the disparate systems and manual processes on which a company may be relying. By providing tools to capture and share information, insight and experience from past projects, technology helps connect the dots between the past, present and future of a business. Replacing siloed, disparate systems with an integrated digital ecosystem enables a company to establish channels and mechanisms that encourage the capture and sharing of institutional knowledge. Ultimately, that knowledge feeds a readily accessible, consistently growing library.

In my experience, if you provide people with easy-to-use digital knowledge-capture tools that meet them at key points in their work, they will use them. Just be sure to educate your workforce about the rationale for using them, train them on how they're used, create metrics and incentives around knowledge-sharing practices, then keep tabs to ensure people are consistently using them.

Because a wealth of critical knowledge also likely resides in the brains of the people within your organization, be sure to establish additional conduits for knowledge transfer — things like lunch-and-learn opportunities where senior-level staff can mix with younger workers, mentorship programs, etc. Also start diligently (and digitally) documenting and recording practices, processes, workflows, business relationship information and really any pieces of critical knowledge that you deem worth preserving and sharing.

3. Put a Formal Transition Plan in Place

I'm always struck when I come across a company without a true plan for institutionalizing and perpetuating the knowledge, values, business processes and relationships that have made them successful in the first place. The less a company's leadership leaves these critical elements of a competitive advantage and company identity to chance when contemplating a changing of the guard (via a leadership handover, merger, sale, etc.), the likelier that the important institutional knowledge, business relationships and organizational values that they worked so hard to build will carry forward to the next generation of leaders when a change occurs. Along with all the legal and financial details of such a change, a succession plan also should detail the processes, technology, channels and practices for preserving institutional "memory."

Institutional knowledge is among a company's most important competitive assets. Each of these approaches is designed to foster and reinforce a knowledge-sharing culture that can thrive even amid leadership changes, employee turnover or a merger or acquisition — preserving that critical asset so it can empower employees and strengthen the connection between a company's past, present and future successes.

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