Undervaluing institutional knowledge at your peril
The information technology labor market continues to evolve into a wide variety of models for both employees and employers. Some companies and institutions have planned permanent remote working, while others have moved to hybrid or face-to-face models. The “big quit” has totally reshaped the workforce of today and probably in the near future. Regardless of the shape of your IT environment and workforce, it’s never been more important for IT leaders to ensure they have a solid plan in place to maintain institutional knowledge.
Think of it as more than just a library full of how-to books. Institutional knowledge is best defined as a set of experiences, processes, policies, and procedures that employees possess. In the IT work environment, these elements can be distilled into the deployment and collection of computers and software, day-to-day operational processes, data collection and retention, cybersecurity protocols, disaster recovery, and communication distribution.
In 2022, employees will likely continue to seek higher wages, greater job flexibility, and the ability to work fully or partially via telecommuting. Hiring and retaining employees will remain a challenge, especially for higher education. As the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reported last month, “The Big Resignation may decline later this year, but revenue is expected to remain strong, providing talent acquisition professionals with an excellent opportunity to attract talent to the organization and play a more critical role in retaining that talent.
One of the biggest challenges for an employer is ensuring that their institutional knowledge has been carefully documented when an employee leaves. Capturing this knowledge can maintain and increase the productivity of existing employees. It also minimizes the disruption of operational services when an employee leaves.
Helen Patton, CISO Advisor at Cisco, emphasized the importance of preserving and documenting institutional knowledge.
“There are formal operational processes, which are often well documented,” she said. “But a lot of the ‘why’ behind it all is just part of institutional knowledge: Why this software? Why this process? Who thought of this in the first place? What influences were happening when this was first proposed? The “what” is documented, the “why” is often overlooked, but it is the “why” that is important for the long-term improvement of an organization. »
In a column last year on Daily HR Advisor, a news website for human resource professionals, editor Bridget Miller noted, “Employees gain more and more institutional knowledge the longer they stay in an organization, and with increasing responsibilities and an increasing number of things to manage with each passing week and month. Employees use this institutional knowledge every day, and it influences their behavior and helps them navigate situations based on how things are working in the organization or what has been done in the past.
The longer a productive and respected employee stays at an institution, the more essential institutional knowledge they can acquire. Unfortunately for many institutions, the idea of capturing this knowledge is an afterthought. In many situations, the idea of this acquaintance comes just days before an employee leaves.
In the IT environment, there are many practices and procedures that require careful documentation. Mark Koxlien, who manages strategic supplier relationships for Wisconsin technology company Heartland Business Systems, was purposefully offered the flexibility to stay on in order to transfer his institutional knowledge to the company. Koxlien named “semi-retirement for an aging population with an eye on knowledge transfer, creating equity offerings or career paths that discourage employees seeking better opportunities, and a strategy of employee engagement that identifies problems early” as important strategies for many companies.
“Most organizations have the cost of acquiring and nurturing new talent for a growth opportunity in the organization under control,” he said. “Yet very few do an analysis of the ‘soft’ costs of acquiring and training to replace lost talent that might be retained by creative job ideas.”
Investing modest salaries to retain employees who are likely to leave, as well as offering extended contracts to senior employees who are retiring, can help companies and institutions minimize disruption when staff leave. Attempting to capture institutional knowledge after the fact can be an extremely costly exercise.
Brandon Harris, virtual CTO of software company Dependable Solutions, emphasized the need to document core processes.
“There is significant operational risk in allowing critical process and procedural knowledge to live in an employee’s brain without having captured it in a shared knowledge management system,” he said. “Planned or unplanned leaves or separation of employees are the scenarios where it is most important to have this documentation. But even positive scenarios like a promotion require documentation of the work done by someone in that role, so the work can be delegated to someone new.
The risks of not capturing this institutional knowledge can be significant and go well beyond IT.
“It’s not just in IT, it’s in all areas right now, and the IT security market is particularly prone to it, as companies have realized how important these functions are. Sometimes projects and initiatives have been abandoned,” said Cisco’s Helen Patton. “The leaders did not know the ‘why’ of the project. Sometimes projects have been restarted, with a different direction or emphasis. This causes organizational disarray and discontent.
Panopto, a company specializing in video content management, stresses the need to document what employees do on a daily basis. In their Workplace Knowledge and Productivity report, they found that “60% of employees find it difficult, very difficult, or almost impossible to get the information they need to do their job from their co-workers.” This can lead to extreme employee frustration in their jobs, as their report revealed: “81% of employees are frustrated when they cannot access the information they need to do their job properly.”
There are several strategies that IT departments can use to ensure that their organizations capture institutional knowledge.
1) Develop specific tools and procedures to document operational services. The documentation process should be communicated to all new employees.
2) Create and document detailed onboarding and departure processes for employees and ensure they work.
3) Audit your service operations and make necessary updates and changes annually.
4) Work diligently to ensure consistent and accurate cross-training of employees.
5) When an employee is considering leaving, quickly verify what institutional knowledge has and has not been documented and fill in the gaps before they leave their job. Carefully weigh the offer of a salary increase to retain existing employees to maintain continuity of institutional knowledge.
Helen Patton emphasized the importance of institutional knowledge in “grabbing the reasons behind decisions, not just decisions. Make it an operational habit. Every organization should value institutional knowledge. If they don’t, they risk losing it, which could prove very costly, both in time and money.