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Retaining Institutional Knowledge

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
March 31, 2023

Employees depart daily. Some never return due to retirement, new employment or termination. Some may return after a lengthy absence as in the case of family medical leave or military deployment. When these employees leave, they take with them their knowledge, experience and individual talents. These might be of great value to the organization, and without them the agency might falter. Individually, this might be likened to a dripping faucet. Individual leaks go unnoticed, but over time they collectively create a flood. What can public sector organizations do to stem these leaks, retaining institutional knowledge instead of allowing it to drain away?

Audit: The first step is to conduct an organizational audit concerning what institutional knowledge is needed, where it is located and how it provides value to the organization. This is not always as simple as it might seem. Depending on the level of specialization within the workforce, it might be difficult to determine where this knowledge lies and how it is used. It is also important to consider how individual positions might have evolved over the years. If an individual has been the incumbent in a position for an extended time, their role has undoubtedly evolved dramatically, requiring knowledge not identified in existing job descriptions. Agencies must also consider “mission creep,” where an individual has undertaken functions that are not normally associated with their position, but which they assumed over time. Conducting an audit of institutional knowledge can be a timely, complex and ongoing process, but it is impossible to determine how to keep information in the organization if it is unknown what organizational knowledge exists, where it is and how it is used.

Capture: Once it is determined what institutional knowledge is needed, it is important that this information is captured and archived in some manner. There is no one best way to achieve this. Some organizations elect to take this institutional knowledge, transforming it into formal policy or procedural documents, providing step-by-step guidance on how to achieve desired outcomes. Doing so provides anyone with the basic information necessary to complete a task. Agencies might integrate some elements of institutional knowledge into revised job descriptions. While this may illuminate how the position has evolved over time, it fails to provide the specifics needed to carry out these tasks. One of the more prosaic but effective means of capturing institutional knowledge is to have incumbents develop a “hand-off” document, to be used in transitions, as necessary, updating it periodically. In this document, the incumbent lists and explains the specific steps necessary to complete certain tasks, including contact information for those with whom it is necessary to collaborate to achieve success. This hand-off document is typically more informal than a policy or procedure, including tips and advice garnered from actual experience to aid those new to a task in how to handle unusual or unique situations. Even if the agency does exceptionally well in auditing institutional knowledge, if they do not effectively capture and archive it, their efforts shall have been in vain.

Share: Once the institutional knowledge has been audited and captured, it must be shared. This does not necessarily mean it must be shared immediately, but it is incredibly vital that it is communicated to others what knowledge has been captured and where it is archived, including information on how to access it when needed. This information should be disseminated not only to those who might be moving into the position, but those who will be overseeing the position. Ideally, the agency will find means to integrate this institutional knowledge into training programs, coaching efforts or mentoring relationships, ensuring others are prepared to assume these tasks, but this is sometimes unfeasible. If nothing else, those assuming a task should have access to sufficient guidance to conduct their new roles effectively.  

Sadly, some agencies fail to audit, capture and share this knowledge. They do so under the faulty presumption that those assuming a task will have sufficient experience, education, judgement or guidance to move into a new position seamlessly. This is an overly optimistic presumption, and experience has shown innumerable examples of how this created a vacuum of chaos during personnel transitions. An effort to ensure this institutional knowledge is retained and communicated to new generations within the workforce can do nothing but provide value to any public sector agency.

A small water leak in your home can amount to thousands of gallons over time, costing a great deal if not found and stopped. The continuous leakage of institutional knowledge from your organization might go unnoticed at first, but over time might create a massive gap in the institutional knowledge, experience and talent required to succeed. To continue providing quality services, it is imperative these leaks be identified and addressed before the void becomes too great and the cost of the missing knowledge becomes too massive to bear.

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, IPMA-CP is a training and development consultant and serves as Senior Doctoral Adjunct Faculty at Grand Canyon University. He is Past President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. Prior to this, he served over 30 years in local government and 10 years as a university professor. He may be reached at [email protected]

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