I was recently perplexed when I received a request to speak to a group of senior managers about reducing complexity — mostly because I had worked with their company fifteen years earlier on the same subject; and they had since developed a reputation for being good at simplification. Why did they want to revisit what was already a core competence?
Once I met with the senior management team, the answer became very clear: Whatever institutional knowledge about simplification that had once resided in the company was now lost. Over the years, despite a number of well-meaning efforts, the focus of senior managers had shifted, the original training had been forgotten, and many of the messages on the subject had become empty rhetoric. In fact, astoundingly I was one of the main repositories of institutional memory about how to master simplification — an external consultant who had not worked with the firm for a number of years!
Although this is an extreme example, it's not unique. Organizations spend a lot of time and resources developing knowledge and capability. While some of it gets translated into procedures and policies, most of it resides in the heads, hands, and hearts of individual managers and functional experts. Over time, much of this institutional knowledge moves away as people take on new jobs, relocate, or retire. Knowledge also degrades when a new senior executive or CEO introduces a different agenda that doesn't build on earlier knowledge, or contradicts what was done previously. And knowledge disappears even more rapidly when a firm reorganizes or merges with another and there is a subsequent reshuffling of the cast of characters.
Most large organizations today regularly experience these dynamics. The result is that the informal, people-based institutional knowledge that is so critical to organizational effectiveness seems to have a shorter and shorter shelf life. As one colleague commented after visiting a long-time client that had gone through three mergers and multiple CEOs: "It feels like 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers.' The names of the department are all the same, but the people act differently."
So what can you do to overcome the rapidly accelerating loss of institutional knowledge?
First, build an explicit strategy for maintaining institutional memory, even in your own team. Don't assume that it will happen by itself. On the contrary, if you don't pay attention, the knowledge base of your team or business unit will potentially atrophy.
Second, as part of your strategy, identify the few key things that you want every member of your team to know or be able to do — and figure out how to turn this from an implicit assumption to an explicit expectation. You might for example, build the mastery of this core knowledge into the onboarding process for new team members, and have refresher sessions as part of your off sites or leadership meetings.
Finally, use technology to create a process by which your team continually captures and curates institutional knowledge — to make it a living and evolving body of useful information that is accessible to people as they come into the organization. Intel for example has an internal wiki (called Intelpedia), which gives employees a way of both capturing and accessing important terms, procedures, historical incidents, and more.
In this day and age of Alzheimer's Disease and dementia, everyone knows that an individual's memory is fragile. What we often don't recognize is that organizational memory is much the same — and if we don't actively preserve it, we put ourselves at risk.