By Regina Dyerly
VP, HR & Operations
At every company there is the human Swiss Army knife: the one person that everyone seeks out to troubleshoot a wide range of issues. So, what happens when Sally goes on her much-deserved extended vacation or even more frightening, puts in her two-week notice? Is her knowledge maintained anywhere? Does she have a backup? This is where the saying “everyone is replaceable” is challenged because while that may be true, it is not a 1:1 ratio. It is critical for every business to have a system to regularly capture critical company-specific institutional knowledge.
What is Institutional Knowledge?
Institutional knowledge is defined as the combination of experiences, processes, data, expertise, values, and information possessed by company employees. In some cases, it can span decades and comprise crucial trends, projects, and perspectives that define a company's history.
How do you keep and maintain institutional knowledge?
A comprehensive strategy should be designed that encompasses every level of your business, down to the smallest of teams, and some crucial individuals. Your strategy should include the following:
A first step would be to perform a workforce assessment that identifies critical knowledge held by existing employees. Get your employees involved and survey them to see what they feel are your critical business processes, so nothing is missed.
This may seem obvious, but many companies, due to size and/or workloads, do not have a plan in place for critical roles. In some cases, they fail to identify that a role is critical. A solid succession plan will not only acknowledge who may be promoted, transferred, or retiring, but it also creates a plan to retain and share the knowledge that’s needed to keep an organization running smoothly through leadership and staffing changes.
Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s)
While succession planning will pinpoint the keepers of valuable institutional knowledge, maintaining up-to-date standard operating procedures will be your means of capturing and formalizing that knowledge.
SOP’s are evolving, ideally electronic, documents that describe the systems and workflows your employees use to do their jobs. They ensure you never have to “reinvent the wheel”. This is not an easy feat, as it takes great collaboration and dedication to document and maintain standard operating procedures. A structured process with a quarterly review is recommended, with adequate time scheduled, so employees and managers can keep them up to date. Ideally, you would maintain these processes for every role/process at your company to put you in a good position regardless of who leaves the company.
How an employee starts their employment with a company is a strong indicator of future performance. So, it is surprising how many companies do not invest the time and resources to onboard employees properly. Onboarding is the ideal time to pass on institution knowledge, as you teach new employees how to do their job well, and how it’s been done well before them.
Mentoring is a great way to support new employees and pass on institutional knowledge. Have new employees shadow current employees. When possible, have employees train their successor. It is the quickest way for a new employee to understand everything their new job entails.
Have short, easy-to-digest materials and videos to train on processes. This will allow new employees to quickly be able to access them as needed and get a quick refresher. Do not hand them a manual and expect them to absorb the information. Also always ask an employee leaving a position to write an overview about important aspects of their job. That way the new employee will have current, valuable info to reference.
Have “lunch and learns” or other casual meetings with current employees where new employees can ask questions. Be deliberate about immersing the new employee in the company’s culture. Knowing they have numerous resources and people available to them to support their success, ensures a strong start and future.
Technology has made it simple to facilitate collaboration on projects. It is easier than ever to design a go-to location to house SOP’s, data, workflows, and policies. First, you will need to choose where you would like to store this data and there are a lot of great options. With the multitude of CRM software, document management software, and file hosting services available, you should store your data in a way that is easy to categorize and for employees to access. Most important, you will have a system to guarantee that employee knowledge and critical documents do not just sit on one employee’s desktop.
Unfortunately, your company will lose skilled, valuable employees at some point. You can mitigate that damage by investing time in the steps above. This also allows you to be proactive and foster a company culture where knowledge share is rewarded and is not seen as a threat.