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Opinion: Undervalue Institutional Knowledge at Your Own Risk

Higher education has not been immune to the impacts of remote work and employee turnover, and many in the IT industry say now is a good time to think about how to preserve institutional knowledge.

An employee walking out a door.
The job market in information technology continues to evolve into a wide variety of models, both for employees and employers. Some corporations and institutions have planned for permanent remote work, while others have transitioned to hybrid or face-to-face models. The “Great Resignation” has totally reshaped the workforce of today and likely into the near future. Whatever shape your IT environment and workforce takes, it has never been more important for IT leaders to ensure they have a solid plan to maintain institutional knowledge.

Think of it as more than just a library full of how-to-do-it books. Institutional knowledge is best defined as a collection of experiences, processes, policies and procedures which employees possess. In the IT work environment, these elements can be distilled into computer and software deployment and collection, daily operational processes, data collection and retention, cybersecurity protocols, disaster recovery and communication distribution.

In 2022, employees will likely continue to look for higher wages, more job flexibility and the option to work entirely or partially via telework. Hiring and retaining employees will still be a challenge, particularly for higher education. As the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reported last month, “The Great Resignation may taper off later this year, but turnover is expected to remain elevated, providing talent acquisition professionals with a stellar opportunity to lure talent to the organization and to play a more critical part in retaining that talent.”

One of an employer’s most important challenges is to ensure their institutional knowledge has been carefully documented when an employee leaves. Capturing this knowledge can maintain and increase existing employee productivity. It also minimizes disruption to operational services when an employee leaves.

Helen Patton, an advisory CISO for Cisco, stressed the importance of preserving and documenting institutional knowledge.

“There are formal operational processes, which are often well-documented,” she said. “But much of the ‘why’ behind these are just part of institutional knowledge: Why this software? Why this process? Who thought of this in the first place? What influences were occurring when this was first proposed? The ‘what’ is documented, the ‘why’ is often overlooked — but it is the ‘why’ that is important for long-term improvement in an organization.”

In a column last year on HR Daily Advisor, a news website for human resources professionals, Contributing Editor Bridget Miller pointed out, “Employees gain more and more institutional knowledge the longer they remain in an organization, and with increasing responsibilities and an increasing number of things to manage 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 work in the organization or what has been done in the past.”

The longer a productive and well-respected employee stays at an institution, the more critical institutional knowledge they can potentially gather. Unfortunately for many institutions, the thought of capturing this knowledge is an afterthought. In many situations, the idea of this knowledge occurs just days before an employee leaves.

In the IT environment, there are many practices and procedures which require careful documentation. Mark Koxlien, who handles strategic vendor relations for the Wisconsin technology company Heartland Business Systems, was purposely offered the flexibility to stay in his position to transfer his institutional knowledge to the company. Koxlien named “semi-retirement for an aging population with an eye on knowledge transfer, creating equity offers or career paths that head off employees seeking better opportunities, and an employee engagement strategy that identifies problems early” as important strategies for many companies.

“Most organizations have a handle on the cost to acquire and train new talent for a growth opportunity in the organization,” he said. “Yet very few do an analysis of the ‘soft’ cost of acquiring and training to replace lost talent that might be retained with some creative employment ideas.”

Investing modest salary dollars to retain employees who are potentially leaving, as well as offering extended contracts to senior employees headed for retirement, 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 chief technology officer for the 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 any one employee’s brain without having it captured in a shared knowledge management system,” he said. “Planned or unplanned time off or employee separation 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 across the board right now, and the IT security market is particularly prone to this, as companies have realized how important these functions are. Sometimes projects and initiatives were scrapped,” said Helen Patton from Cisco. “The leaders did not know the ‘why’ of the project. Sometimes projects were restarted, with a different direction or emphasis. It causes organizational churn and discontent.”

Panopto, a company specializing in video content management, emphasizes the need to document what employees do in the daily jobs. In their report on workplace knowledge and productivity, they found “60 percent of employees find it difficult, very difficult, or nearly impossible to obtain information from their colleagues needed to do their job.” This can lead to extreme employee frustration in their job, as their report uncovered: “81 percent of employees are frustrated when they cannot access the information they need to properly do their job.”

There are several strategies IT departments can employ to ensure their organizations are capturing institutional knowledge.

1) Develop specific tools and procedures to document operational services. The process of documentation should be communicated to all new employees.

2) Create and document detailed onboarding and exiting processes for employees and ensure they work.

3) Conduct an audit of your service operations and make necessary updates and modifications annually.

4) Work diligently to ensure there is consistent and precise cross-training of employees.

5) When an employee plans to leave, quickly ascertain what institutional knowledge has and has not been documented and fill in the gaps before they separate from their job. Carefully weigh offering a salary increase to retain existing employees to maintain continuity of institutional knowledge.

Helen Patton emphasized the importance of institutional knowledge by “capturing the reasons behind decisions, not just the decisions. Make it an operational habit to do so.” Each organization should value institutional knowledge. If they don’t, they will be at the risk of losing it, which could turn out to be a very costly proposition, both in time and money.
Jim Jorstad is Senior Fellow for the Center for Digital Education and the Center for Digital Government. He is a retired emeritus interim CIO and Cyber Security Designee for the Chancellor’s Office at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He served in leadership roles as director of IT client services, academic technologies and media services, providing services to over 1,500 staff and 10,000 students. Jim has experience in IT operations, teaching and learning, and social media strategy. His work has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Forbes and NPR, and he is a recipient of the 2013 CNN iReport Spirit Award. Jim is an EDUCAUSE Leading Change Fellow and was chosen as one of the Top 30 Media Producers in the U.S.