Institutional Knowledge: Who Knows How to Get Things Done Around Here?

The Reality of Institutional Knowledge

After 16 years at my last company, an important part of my job was to serve as a connector: a walking and talking directory of whom to go to, where to look, and what to try in different situations. I liked playing this role as it allowed me to help managers spot talent for internal promotions, enabled sales people to find the support they needed to close deals, and empowered everyone to save a little of their precious time and get more done.

Many organizations have a person, or many people, who serve this role. They are the people to ask when your colleague says “ask around” when you’re looking to solve a problem or pursue a new opportunity. They find the hidden talent, the elusive files, and the quick answers. When people talk about institutional knowledge “walking out the door,” this is who they are talking about.

In a recent global survey, nearly half (45%) of respondents cited a lack of collaboration as the main obstacle to better troubleshooting; tribal (institutional) knowledge is locked away in the minds of a few and presents both operational challenges and serious business risks. 

- Larry Lien, Forbes

With the complexity of work and the changing dynamics of the workplace (more remote work, shorter tenure, geographically dispersed teams, and more), this model of relying on tenure and individual connectors is broken, and your organization is paying a high price. According to a report by McKinsey, the average knowledge worker wastes the equivalent of a day a week just looking around for the person or the right information to get the job done.

To make things “better,” organizations pour money into chat tools, video conferencing, file sharing, and more even as email, text message, and intranets aren’t going away. There is even a fantasy that the HR database is going to help here though anyone who has actually tried to make that work knows that the best case scenario is that your high-level workforce planning gets more strategic.

There is a lot of noise and there are many places to “post and pray” that someone will step up to help you if asking around doesn’t work.

Over-Reliance on Institutional Knowledge is Hurting your Organization

Within the organization, the losses are real:

  • Highly talented workers feel less loyalty and leave when they feel disconnected
  • Newer employees feel isolated and stuck when it takes years to “get to know” your organization
  • Increasing numbers of geographically dispersed team members get pigeon-holed into limiting roles that they are known to serve and become little more than gig workers that happen to get a paycheck from your organization.

Here are a couple of recent quotes I’ve heard from organizations struggling to scale their tribal knowledge:

“Our field team feels completely disconnected from our office staff. People don’t know who to call especially when something urgent or unique pops up. We are losing deals and wasting time daily.”

“I spent the morning just looking for someone who has experience in online ordering because we are making a pitch where we need this expertise. I know we’ve done this work, but at this point, I just have a bunch of emails out and am hoping for response so I can find the right person.”

“We know that our ability to find the right specific expertise to put forward helps us win deals, but our ability to do this quickly is contingent on who knows whom.”

“I’m a newbie here so just figuring out the organization.” (This person was 13 months into the job!)

In marketing, we have figured out how to use data to go from generic mass marketing and billboards to messages that are highly personalized and perfectly timed in their delivery. For our job search, we use Linkedin to inform our networks and make the right connections. How do we put these concepts to use inside organizations?

1) Clear the way

Disconnected organizations tell employees to “go through the chain of command”.

Connected organizations empower people and teams to “move fast” and go directly to colleagues from around the organization. Moreover, they trust people to manage their workload and calendar so they may be available to others without abandoning priorities.

2) Support transparent and evergreen communications

Disconnected organizations rely only on email and closed groups for communication

Connected organizations promote open and organized communication where most ongoing topic and project communications are bundled in channels using Slack, Microsoft Teams, or other tools and open for others to see or join.

3) Encourage communities

Disconnected organizations create most initiatives and teams from the top down.

Connected organizations encourage their people to organically organize, anything from communities of practice and learning groups, to exercise clubs, and employee resource groups. However, it's important to note, connected organizations also shut things down when they don’t gain momentum.

4) Use data to get work done not just to make big decisions

Disconnected organizations often invest resources to assemble data and “track” employees from the top down for big project and organizational decisions.

Connected organizations invest in making it easy to navigate the organization for people and teams at all levels. This is the work we do here at Structural, and it replaces the daily reliance on tribal knowledge with a powerful, all-in-one, people directory. The key component that we have found is having data-rich profiles that are flexible to the organization, can be put together seamlessly, and are easy to use in real-time when and where work is getting done.

When you get this right, the answer to the question, “Who knows how to get things done around here?”  Should be, “Everyone!”



About the Author

Scott Burns is the co-founder and CEO of Structural. Previously, he co-founded GovDelivery; which grew to 250 people and had two successful exits. It has been Scott's personal and professional mission to inspire and enable organizations and unleash the potential of people and teams.

Twitter: @smburns


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