How not to cripple your organization by losing institutional knowledge
Updated: Nov 10, 2021
By Alex Code
Are there people in your organization who are irreplaceable because of what they know about how your organization runs? Would losing them cripple your organization for days, weeks or months? If your answer is ‘Yes’ then your organization needs to prepare.
It’s a vulnerability that many small and even some very large organizations share. Every organization has someone who has either been around so long that the business has built up around them or has started a program or project that nobody else really understands. When that knowledge becomes essential for smooth business operations, your organization should be asking: “If this person gets hit by a bus tomorrow, how do we keep going?”
Having a solid system in place for capturing knowledge, making it available to the team and transferring it to others will ensure the hardship of staff turnover doesn’t become a destabilizing force for the company as a whole.
Step 1: Identify Critical Information
If your company has assets in the field that one person knows about and others would have trouble finding, that is critical information.
If your organization is managing key relationships with partners and only one person knows who those partners are, that is critical information.
If your organization runs complex systems or processes and only one person knows what switches to flip and when, that is critical information.
These are all examples of at-risk critical information. This is information that might be lost or very costly to restore if someone were to leave your organization. List all of the information your company needs to keep running smoothly in a document or spreadsheet and rate the importance of that information.
Step 2: Select Systems to Maintain Knowledge
Before books and libraries, people had to tell stories to maintain knowledge through generations. With the advent of written language, humankind found ways to pass knowledge from one generation to the next and to build on that knowledge with time. Now with an array of digital systems, many different types of information can be stored in many different ways.
Look at your options, the level of complexity of the information and what medium might be most useful. Some guiding questions include:
Is the information best told as a narrative?
Is the information you need to retain relative to locations?
Is the information a process?
Is the information best described through images or video?
What depth of knowledge will you need to get someone else up-to-speed on the topic?
Are you keeping track of one big thing or many little things?
Once you think about these questions, you’ll be able to start sorting out whether the information is best put in one of the following formats:
An employee manual
Flowcharts or diagrams
Repositories of images
Documents and files
Organizations dealing with anything but the simplest subject will likely need to employ multiple formats stored in one or more systems. For example, an electric utilities company might have a geographic information system for storing information related to electric poles, transformers, and right-of-ways. That might connect to a document management system which allows them to store photos of their infrastructure as well as information on electricity suppliers and customers. They might also have additional systems for storing training information and work tickets. Staff would access all of these systems through a centralized dashboard and knowledge center.
Step 3: Implement your System
Not every organization is as big or complicated as an electric utilities company. Depending on the maturity of your company and the complexity of your mission, you may have a system as simple as a filing cabinet or Dropbox or you may have a multi-tiered system of integrated applications and remote monitoring equipment. The key is to take it one step at a time, identify your highest priority items and implement a system that takes care of those needs.
If your work is simple and you don’t need to have multiple teams of coordinated experts, then a simple shared storage with documents, checklists and spreadsheets might work. If you handle lots of data, large budgets and projects that carry risk, then you should consider hiring someone to help you design and implement your information systems.
An expert can help you identify what types of information are stored best in which formats and how to make sure that information is accessible to the people that need it, when and where they need it.
Step 4: Use the System
The last step is to have people actually use the system. Train people on what the system is, why it is important to use it and how to use it. It’s extremely important for the critical information holders to start using the system and to pass along their knowledge. You’ll need to prepare for tasks to take a little longer for the first few months as people get used to the system and populate it with the information you wish to retain. However, as people get used to the system, the company should regain and exceed previous efficiency levels.
Once the system is fully implemented, your organization will be ready for turnover and new hires and be prepared to scale up as you see opportunities to do more and better work.
Have more questions?
This is a high-level guide to help you get started. If you have complex systems and want some help analyzing your critical information, let us know. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or give us a call at 833-254-6345.