Asset or Untapped Resource? The Value of Institutional Knowledge in IT

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Image of three human heads equal to one head signifying the need to pass on institutional knowledge.

When it comes to the value of institutional knowledge in IT management, you have two options.  One -- take action to make institutional knowledge a valuable asset, or two -- let it sit there as an untapped resource.  Which one sounds like the smart move? 

What is Institutional Knowledge in IT?

Here's the short answer - it's the collective wisdom, insight, expertise, judgment and awareness gained from actual "in the field" experience.  Institutional knowledge is derived knowledge, and as such it bears certain distinct characteristics:

  1. Institutional knowledge is unique knowledge, driven by collective experience and individual perception.
  2. The "raw ingredients" of institutional knowledge exist in the minds of staff members and as part of the global documented record created by multiple work initiatives.
  3. Institutional knowledge has to be captured (more so than acquired).
  4. Uncaptured institutional knowledge can be easily lost with staff transition and turnover.
  5. Institutional knowledge is subject to political circumstances and employee motivations.

Whenever a plan is executed, a project is completed, a system is installed, or a technical problem is solved, institutional knowledge is the natural by-product.  Within the IT management context, institutional knowledge (also referred to as institutional memory)  is made up of multiple formative components, to include technology facts and information, operational procedures, organizational awareness, actual results of work initiatives, beliefs and perceptions of staff members, stakeholder interests, and defined "lessons learned" (from standardized reviews and evaluations).


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Recognize.  Capture.  Integrate.

The work effort required to activate institutional knowledge plays out in three (3) primary phases.  But, before the process begins, the first (and perhaps most important) step is to set appropriate and realistic goals.  The key question is simple - what are you looking to accomplish and why?  The sample "goals" listed below illustrate the possibilities (demonstrating the value of institutional knowledge and justifying the work effort involved):

Start with a Clear Set of Goals and Planned Purpose

  • Goal #1 - To provide an informational basis to guide continuous improvement initiatives.
  • Goal #2 - To avoid repetitive mistakes (minimizing risks, costs, and lost opportunity).
  • Goal #3 - To avoid a loss of valuable knowledge associated with staff turnover, transfer and transition.
  • Goal #4 - To reduce the wasted effort and lost productivity associated with "reinventing the wheel".  You can't always start at square one.
  • Goal #5 - To ensure that critical knowledge is shared in a consistent, timely manner (and always readily available).
  • Goal #6 - To shorten the learning curve for new staff members.
  • Goal #7 - To provide the perspective that can only come with the passage of time (i.e. Why did we do that What were we thinking?)
  • Goal #8 - To provide a factual basis (based on actual events) to guide future plans, actions and decisions, and to support innovative, critical thinking.  Informed decision making is confident decision making (with less risk).

Phase 1:  Institutional Knowledge Must Be Recognized.

As part of this first phase, "experiences" (projects, problems, plans, actions, decisions, etc.) are evaluated to determine knowledge potential (the scope and extent of available institutional knowledge).  This is accomplished through a series of investigative questions:

  1. What did we do and why did we do it?
  2. What were the results?
  3. Did all go as planned and expected?
  4. How do we all feel about it?
  5. What did we learn from the experience?
  6. What would we like to see repeated?
  7. What would we like to see changed?

Phase 2:  Institutional Knowledge Must Be Captured.

Once knowledge potential is determined, it's time to capture the results as part of the IT-IKC (IT Institutional Knowledge Catalog).  This is the primary deliverable of the knowledge activation process (further detailed below).  To realize all of the intended benefits, this cataloging effort must be conducted in a consistent, standardized mannner:

  1. Catalog contributors should be identified and assigned to required tasks.
  2. Deadlines should be established to set expectations and ensure timely results.
  3. Entries should be reviewed and approved by designated decision makers.

Phase 3:  Institutional Knowledge Must Be Integrated.

As part of this third phase, the knowledge derived is applied to other initiatives in order achieve one or more of the intended goals (as set out before the process began).  In practical terms, integration is ongoing as new circumstances arise and institutional knowledge is continually updated and applied.

Creating Your IT-Institutional Knowledge Catalog

The IT-IKC is the primary deliverable of the knowledge activation process, turning intangible concepts into executable roadmaps.  Once created, the "catalog" becomes a reference point for future action.  The catalog can be produced in multiple formats (from simple fill-in forms to comprehensive databases), but it should always be easy to use, readily accessible and quickly searchable.  The goal is simple - to record institutional knowledge in a manner that supports compliance, participation, access and usability. 


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ITtoolkit.com staff writers have experience working for some of the largest corporations, in various positions including marketing, systems engineering, help desk support, web and application development, and IT management.

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