Institutional Knowledge: Gift or Threat?

If I had a pound for every new manager who said to me “you must be an invaluable source of institutional knowledge” I’d have… well, about seven pounds.

Institutional knowledge: it is the curse of working for the same organisation for a long period of time.

Institutional knowledge: it creeps up on you, slowly and uncalled for, like tax returns, and no longer being able to drink three pints at lunchtime, and incontinence.

Institutional knowledge: it is the commodity, which every new manager claims to value, but which they privately loathe.  And fear.

In a well-run organisation, institutional knowledge should be invaluable.  It is the collective expertise of a place, combined with the stored memory of past experience.  It should prevent organisations from constantly reinventing the wheel, and allow progress to advance, rather than repeat old cycles.

However, what new manager, or director, or consultant wants that?

Reinventing the wheel is most manager’s greatest achievement.  They want to be able to roll it out as though it is an entirely new concept, which only they could have made possible.  The last thing they want to hear is institutional knowledge’s stock phrase: “…we did that last year”.  And the year before that.  And the year before that.

And it can be true that institutional knowledge can have a negative influence.  It is not just new managers, no one wants to be told “…we did that last year”.  Similarly, no one wants to hear the refrains: “I remember when …” or “It was better back then…”

However, I believe that the proper management of institutional knowledge is one of any organisation’s greatest challenges, and the best managers make as much use of, and take the most advantage of, institutional knowledge as they are able. 

Don’t see institutional knowledge as a threat; treat it as a gift.  Any blueprint for successfully negotiating the future needs to draw heavily on the past.

© Simon Turner-Tree

Simon Turner-Tree has one foot in the future and one foot in the past.

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