Don’t Let Your Organization’s Institutional Knowledge Walk out the Door

In January 2022, nearly 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs. That’s a slight improvement over November 2021, when a record 4.5 million employees said goodbye to their employers. Regardless, that doesn’t change the fact that just a few short months ago 4.3 million people took their experience and expertise with them.

Unfortunately, much of the knowledge and experience vital to an organization’s success is not documented but lives in the minds of the employees. And it’s not just operational competencies at stake. Employees store vast amounts of the muscle memory of processes that we all carry as we go through our workdays. People — and their institutional knowledge — are the glue that keeps an organization running and when they leave, that glue is significantly weakened.

What’s At Stake

When departing employees take their institutional knowledge with them, the effect on the organization can be far-reaching and devastating. Productivity decreases as remaining employees are left to figure processes out as they go, which demotivates teams and causes stress, ultimately leading to errors.

But more than that, and the bigger danger, is that the slowdown and errors trickle down to your customers, whether it’s your internal or external stakeholders. Once your company starts to have low customer satisfaction because your processes aren’t buttoned up, that starts to affect revenue and reputation — and it’s a cycle that can quickly snowball downhill.

The shift to remote work in the past couple of years has given us a glimpse of what we lose when we don’t protect knowledge and muscle memory. I’m talking about those organic conversations that occur as we go through our workday in the office. Small talk can evolve into a question about a process or discussion about a client’s particular needs. Because these conversations typically happen spontaneously and evolve from one subject to the next, they’re difficult to replicate in a remote environment. It’s the case of not knowing what you don’t know. You miss out on that when you’re remote because you don’t run into anyone, and you’re probably not scheduling random meetings to call people up and have water cooler talk.

This loss is particularly acute when new hires are onboarded remotely and miss out on the socialization and imparting of company culture, along with institutional knowledge.

Traditionally, for less established organizations, institutional knowledge is intertwined with that muscle memory. They rely on key individuals and managers to know the processes, hold the institutional knowledge and keep things flowing.

Let’s say I’m a new salesperson at a fledgling sales organization and in order to process a sale, I need to have a signed contract. How do I get that contract created? How do I get it approved? Once it’s signed who do I send it to, to place the order? An experienced salesperson would know exactly what steps need to be taken, but since they take that knowledge with them when they go, I’m left stumbling and floundering trying to figure out the process.

Protect Your Assets

The obvious solution is to capture institutional knowledge in a central, online repository that is available to everyone, but it goes beyond that. You need to treat that knowledge like the asset it is. If your organization owned a valuable building, you’d develop controls around how to maintain and protect it. Protecting institutional knowledge is no different.

Effective process management is key, but you also have to get your employees on board. Leaders need to convey why it’s important to capture those processes because if I’m an individual that really understands the process and it’s a part of my job, I’m probably sitting there thinking, “Why should I document this? I do it all the time, it’s easy …”

Let’s go back to the example of processing a sale. If I’m onboarding an employee and I’ve got the sales process captured, the new employee can access that asset and see what the process is. As they build their muscle memory, that one source of the truth empowers them to be more self-sufficient, which frees me up to focus on doing more creative work.

The transferring of institutional knowledge is complicated by the post-pandemic return to offices or transition to hybrid work environments. Not only will organizations need to protect their original institutional knowledge, but the new processes will need to evolve to reflect the fact that many tasks will need to be done differently to accommodate the new work environment. Mapped processes that result in automation and workflows will be instrumental in protecting both current and future knowledge.

But what about the institutional knowledge that’s already walked out the door?

If the employees have gone to another company, there’s not much you can do. But, if we’re talking about retired employees or those that have not yet been hired elsewhere, one novel though simple solution is to invite them back as contractors and get those processes mapped.

But that’s the second-best solution. The ideal is to get it all “in writing” in the first place.

Terry Simpson
Terry Simpson, Nintex
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Terry Simpson, Senior Solutions Engineer at Nintex, has been working with SharePoint and Nintex tools for the last 13 years. Prior to joining Nintex, he spent the majority his career on the consulting services side of the business, implementing a wide variety of SharePoint and Nintex solutions. Terry’s unique, technical-yet-business-focused background gives him the ability to help users leverage technology to drive value to their businesses.