What is Institutional Knowledge? Intellectual Property Worth Protecting, to Start
What is Institutional Knowledge? Intellectual Property Worth Protecting, to Start
February 27, 2023
February 27, 2023
Tango Content Marketing Lead
Hannah is a semi-recovered perfectionist and longtime subscriber to the squiggly model of success. She spent 11 years learning from the best at brands like HubSpot and Food52 and loves running, cooking, and helping people feel A++ at work. 🤗
Institutional knowledge is the foundation for a company’s capabilities and competencies. It helps individual employees do their jobs to the best of their ability—and the best of the organization’s ability.
Since institution knowledge varies from company to company, the uniqueness of that knowledge is part of what makes it so valuable. (Read: a competitive advantage.)
42%. That’s the average percentage of uniquely held institutional knowledge per person today.
Panopto's Workplace Knowledge and Productivity Report has some jaw-dropping stats, but that’s the one we keep coming back to. It suggests each of us learns almost half of what we know on the job, in our current roles, in information silos. When we move on (as people who are going places often do!), 42% of our work will be anyone’s best guess.
This isn’t entirely new news for employers. According to Deloitte, 75% of surveyed organizations say creating and preserving knowledge across evolving workforces is important or very important for their success over the next 12–18 months. But only 9% say they’re “very ready” to address knowledge transfer and retention.
Whether you’re looking for a quick definition, a surprising stat, a case for an institutional knowledge strategy, or slam dunk strategies to capture and protect your institutional knowledge—you’ve come to the right place.
Types of institutional knowledge
There are a lot of ways to think about institutional knowledge. It’s the spoken and unspoken answers to frequently asked questions. The documented and undocumented policies and procedures. The tangible and intangible skills developed over time. And the on-the-job experiences turned into key insights and best practices.
When documented well, institutional knowledge is an invaluable form of intellectual property and a competitive advantage. For these two reasons, institutional knowledge plays a major role in organizational effectiveness, efficiency, and success. There are two types to know about:
Explicit knowledge → What can be easily captured and communicated. Examples include facts, figures, training manuals, standard operating procedures, and how-to guides.
Implicit knowledge → What can’t be easily captured and communicated. Examples include experience, intuition, and unwritten rules.
Tip: Implicit knowledge may also be called “tacit knowledge.”
Why you need an institutional knowledge strategy
There’s a short and a long answer.
The Short Answer
We usually only spend 4.1 years with one company before changing jobs. When we leave, we take more with us than meets the eye. If everything in our heads doesn’t get documented and shared, it gets lost forever.
The Long Answer
Institutional knowledge is cumulative. Which means we can’t just figure out how to capture it once in a policy and procedure manual and call it a day. We need an ongoing system to document, share, preserve, and leverage all of that proprietary information.
Here are 10 reasons to create an institutional knowledge strategy:
To prevent knowledge from leaving the building. 👉 People make moves for all sorts of reasons—including career advancement, better pay, more work/life balance, layoffs, and retirement. If they don’t share what they know, it will be harder to ensure continuity and stability.
To help new hires succeed. ⭐ The way you document explicit knowledge (and transfer implicit knowledge) can make or break a new hire’s onboarding experience. You did a lot of work to bring them in. Don’t you want them to get off to the best possible start? Having a plan to share institutional knowledge can bridge the gap between your new arrivals and culture carriers/top performers.
To address information silos. 👀 If there’s one barrier to knowledge sharing, it’s this. When everyone has access to the same information, it’s easier to communicate and collaborate.
To improve efficiency and productivity. 📈 How can you ensure everyone on your team has what they need to do their best work—and help others do the same? How can you zero in on areas for operational improvement? How can you minimize time spent searching for information, learning from scratch, reinventing the wheel, asking repetitive questions, and making avoidable mistakes? All signs point to an institutional knowledge strategy.
To accelerate decision-making and reduce risk. 💪🏾 An institutional knowledge strategy can improve decision-making by giving employees access to the resources they need to make informed decisions (more autonomously!).
To adapt to business change. 📣 Wheninternal knowledge is easier to find and share, it’s also easier to evolve and redistribute. “Change is the only constant,” and all that!
To provide consistent customer experiences. 🧡 Want to know what causes disconnected customer experiences? Employee turnover—without a source of truth to guide how you show up as a brand, solve customer problems, and celebrate their wins.
To increase employee engagement and retention. 🤗 Givingemployees chances to learn, grow, and share their knowledge and expertise gets a thumbs up on multiple levels. Top talent is hard to come by—and expensive to replace. According to Gallup, the cost of replacing an individual employee can range from half to 2X the employee's annual salary.
To support organizational learning and innovation. 💡 Nothing encourages a culture of learning and innovation like a strong culture of collaboration. What’s working? What’s not? What’s the same? What’s changed? A company-wide commitment to capturing institutional knowledge will speed up the way smart ideas spread.
To create a competitive advantage. ⚡ Employee knowledge is a competitive advantage for growing revenue, building product, and delighting customers. And the best way to protect and manage that knowledge is by documenting it. What do first movers, household names, and category kings all have in common? They’ve codified how to create, store, share, and use everything they’re learning. If documentation is a differentiator, institutional knowledge is your competitive edge.
The impact of knowledge loss
Not convinced you need a strategy to manage your institutional knowledge?
Here are four stats to change your mind:
Knowledge workers waste 5.3 hours every week waiting for vital information or working to recreate existing institutional knowledge (source).
60% of employees find it difficult, very difficult, or nearly impossible to get mission-critical information from their teammates (source).
The average new hire will spend 200 hours trying to find missing data by recreating lost processes and procedures (source).
Inefficient knowledge sharing costs the average large business $47 million in productivity each year (source).
Knowledge loss manifests in multiple ways, not just through inefficiencies and blows to the bottom line. Here are six more to watch for:
If you’re still skeptical, how’s this for added urgency?
From now until 2030, 10,000 baby boomers will reach retirement age each day (source). By 2030, all baby boomers will be 65 or older (source). We don’t know about you, but that sounds a bit like a mass exodus—and potential for *a lot* of lost knowledge.
How to capture and protect your institutional knowledge
If you’re sold on the importance of institutional knowledge, you may be interested in how to secure and safeguard it. If your shared success depends on it, you may be motivated to capture and protect your knowledge ASAP.
Here are 16 better ways to capture institutional knowledge:
The Old Way
The New Way
Take your institutional knowledge casually.
Treat your institutional knowledge as intellectual property (as important as your trademarks and patents!).
Think of documentation as a “nice to have.”
Consider documentation as a leading indicator of operational excellence.
Value all documentation equally (if you value it at all).
Recognize high quality documentation for the differentiator it is.
Manage documentation as a quarterly project.
Operationalize the act of documentation into day-to-day practices. Embrace documentation as a lifestyle. 🕺
Leave documentation up to chance. Believe everyone will take the time to contribute to organizational learning.
Develop documentation goals, KPIs, and rewards. Did someone host a knowledge-sharing session or workshop? Create a company-wide wiki? Put together a quick FAQ? Give them a reason to do it again—and motivate their teammates to do the same.
Assume everyone knows who does what—and who knows what.
Create a team directory to help new hires understand roles and responsibilities.
Ignore the gap between new arrivals and tenured employees.
Pair long-time employees with new hires to share knowledge on an ongoing basis.
Wish people good luck getting time with subject matter experts.
Help training, knowledge, and IT professionals get in front of experts to create documentation.
Allow every team to structure, store, and share their knowledge as they see fit.
Standardize style and formatting. Create a centralized knowledge management system for employees to access and share information—and contribute their own. Socialize a company-wide knowledge transfer pipeline.
Document key processes and procedures, usually from memory.
Capture process in real-time, as you work. 🎉
Take a manual approach to documentation, with hours devoted to creating a single tutorial.
What’s even trickier than capturing institutional knowledge? Preserving it over the long haul. If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that sustaining shared intellectual capital is a learning process (no pun intended). Here are 11 ways to come out on top:
Treat knowledge sharing as a practice, not a project. 💡 Documentation lives on the neverending to-do list, next to doing laundry and deciding what to have for dinner. Luckily there are ways to make process documentation fast, easy, and fun. (Here are four tips to get everyone enthused.)
Make capturing knowledge as low-lift as possible. 🤩 Does documentation need to be an extra task? Or can it be baked into processes as they’re being performed?
Build a culture of documentation. 🏆 Champion your Knowledge Champions. Recognize efforts to codify implicit and explicit knowledge—and teach it to others.
Use the latest technology to store and manage information. ✅ You’ve made huge strides capturing institutional knowledge. Now you need to corral it into a cloud-based system or tool that can preserve it long-term and be accessible from anywhere.
Audit your knowledge management system regularly. 🔍 And give the person—or people—owning this task your heartfelt thanks. They’re doing the unglamorous work of making sure nothing that sets your company apart is slipping through the cracks.
Offer phased retirement. 🏌🏿 Give your long-time top performers the opportunity to ease into retirement in stages. The longer you can retain them in a reduced or contracted capacity, the longer you can leverage their expertise and give them a chance to transfer their knowledge.
Prioritize succession planning. 🔭 Identify and prepare future leaders to take over key roles—and ensure that no important knowledge and skills are lost when people move on.
Take a proactive approach and focus on retention. Most institutional knowledge loss stems from one thing: employee turnover. Can you offer more competitive compensation? Give people opportunities to job-craft their roles to better suit their strengths? Provide clearer career progression? Help people have better work/life balance?
Encourage continuous learning. 📚 People with growth mindsets want to grow. Give them employee development opportunities to level up their skills with microlearning or learn new ones with a cross-training program. Model behavior from the top and create your own personal knowledge management system. Consider adding knowledge sharing metrics to performance reviews.
Track (and talk about!) positive impacts to efficiency and revenue. 💰 There’s usually a ripple effect when internal knowledge is easier to find and share, and teams can move faster with better information.
Why your institutional knowledge is just as important as your intellectual property
Knowledge management used to be seen as a way of capturing and distributing information.
But that’s just the first step.
Step two involves using that documented and shared knowledge to:
Develop new products, services, and solutions
Support all other operations and teams (Marketing, Sales, Finance, Human Resources, Legal etc.).
Delight customers and turn a profit
Step three involves doing all of the above, faster.
There’s a reason why phrases like “the war for talent” take hold. Employee knowledge is a competitive advantage. Collective employee knowledge (read: institutional knowledge, accumulated over time) is even more valuable.
"Knowledge management has become knowledge operations. How are you doing at managing the end-to-end lifecycle of your best ideas and best practices? How effectively are you capturing—and transferring and applying—your institutional knowledge? The most progressive companies are unlocking new levels of operational excellence because they’re thinking critically about their knowledge operations efforts. The faster you can transfer knowledge, the faster you can produce real business change and results."
Institutional knowledge is a revenue driver. And a form of intellectual property, right up there in importance with your patents and code bases.
The bottom line
Institutional knowledge is all well and great—but knowledge is only valuable if it’s shared.
Finish those how-to guides you’ve been putting off
Capture and preserve more institutional knowledge in way less time
Delight people with how much documentation you deliver
Get the gratification of helping everyone around you succeed
Why is it important to preserve institutional knowledge?
It’s important for companies to preserve institutional knowledge because collective intellectual capital is a form of intellectual property. Experiences, insights, and skills accumulated on the job and over time are just as valuable as patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets. If you preserve institutional knowledge, you can prevent knowledge from leaving the building, help new hires succeed, address information silos, improve efficiency and productivity, accelerate decision-making and reduce risk, adapt to business change, provide consistent customer experiences, increase employee engagement and retention, support organizational learning and innovation, and create a competitive advantage.
How can I speed up institutional knowledge transfer?
There are lots of ways to accelerate knowledge transfer. Taking the pain out of process documentation is a good place to start. What can be automated, and captured while you work? Creating training manuals people actually want to use is equally important. Cutting down dense text, using visuals when possible, and making your documentation easy to access are table stakes. Avoiding long videos—and leaning into perfectly cropped, annotated screenshots—can also go a long way. Other tips: Guide people step-by-step. Anticipate common questions (and answer them proactively). Break complex processes into smaller, more manageable pieces. Group tutorials for related tasks together to help people learn more efficiently. Leverage online learning platforms to make information faster to find. Codify knowledge-sharing expectations in job descriptions and ladders. Last but not least? Celebrate your Knowledge Champions. By empowering others to learn and evolve key business processes, they’re unlocking your next phase of growth.
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