Every kind of business, not-for-profit, government office and other organization has institutional knowledge. It's the information you share with new people joining your staff about how things work. It's the decisions you make at meetings or in conversations with your co-workers or volunteers. It's the bits and pieces of shared understanding that develop through email messages, memos and other printed and electronic material that you create.
But many organizations don't take steps to preserve this institutional knowledge, or to give their staff, volunteers or other stakeholders easy access to it.
Leak in Aisle Seven
If someone conducts a particularly good training session, often the only people to benefit are the workers being trained that day; the idea of improving the overall training materials for all future trainings to benefit doesn't get the attention it needs.
When there's a lengthy email discussion about how best to approach a particular sticky issue that ends with a consensus and a sigh of relief that the matter has been decided - great! But many organizations don't take the time to preserve all the thinking that went into that process, and the specific reasoning for the final decision, leaving the conversation almost certain to be repeated in the future.
When there's a board or staff meeting where important matters are discussed and everyone's referencing a particular print-out and then someone else gets up to write some new thoughts down on the whiteboard, the group might arrive at an important conclusion, but often the pieces that led to it - the detailed discussion notes, the print-out, the white-board scribblings - will not be accessible to someone who joins the conversation months or years later.
And then people move on to other departments or jobs. Files get shuffled around, print-outs get lost or discarded. Email messages get deleted. Conversations become murky or forgotten. Institutional knowledge leaks away.
Of course, the knowledge is still important, the decisions still necessary, and so many organizations then invest the same amount of time they've already spent in reacquiring the same knowledge they already had. Training materials are re-created. Conversations are re-had. Print-outs that feel very familiar are generated anew. Email discussions induce deja vu. "I know we worked on that a year or so ago but I'm not sure what ever happened with it. Let's just do what we can with what we have now." Workers spend time, meetings take time, documents take time, and the lack of clarity or definitive answers in recurring conversations saps morale. The leaking of institutional knowledge costs your organization and slows down your work.
Wiki Leak Repair
But it doesn't have to. You can take steps to stop the leaks! You can preserve institutional knowledge so that you, your co-workers and all of your future co-workers and volunteers have access to it.
At my web development company, our internal wiki became a bit of a running joke, and I was "the wiki guy" to some of my co-workers. I pressed hard for getting as much of our company's institutional knowledge incorporated into the wiki as we could.
If we had a staff meeting where important conversations took place or decisions were made, it usually resulted in a wiki page documenting those.
If we worked on a non-trivial project for a client, it had its own wiki page (along with other internal documentation tools) that helped us access and remember the big-picture goals of the project, the methods we were going to use to meet those goals, and things we learned along the way. When we debriefed each project at the end, we recorded our reflections on that project wiki page.
If someone went to a conference or did some research that was potentially useful to the rest of us, we asked them to share their findings on the wiki.
"Put it on the wiki" or "You'll find it on the wiki" or "I guess I should search the wiki for that" became common phrases around the office. Some folks surely found it overwhelming at times, but I know that the wiki saved time, provided consistency, and preserved important institutional knowledge in support of other company goals like transparency, consensus-building and self-directed learning.
A wiki is just one kind of tool you can use to preserve institutional knowledge. It lets anyone in your organization create a page or update an existing page. It can be as simple as a bunch of text, or you can incorporate images, videos and other media. You can see who has made what changes when, and you can always revert a page to its previous version if something goes wrong. A wiki allows your team to build its "staff handbook" or its "best practices document" as the knowledge evolves, and it eliminates some of the need to have a person sitting around answering similar questions over and over.
If you want to host your wiki on internal infrastructure, MediaWiki is by far the most established and mature software for doing so. If you want to use a service, you might try Wikispaces, Wikidot, Wikispot or Wikia.
If you're a not-for-profit board or committee, you can use services like BoardDocs or BoardPaq to store and access shared documents that are referenced in your meetings, and then collect them for later searching.
If you are regularly conducting email conversations that you want others in your organization to be able to follow and access later, use a email-connected discussion group instead. Services like Google Groups make this straightforward.
For an even more useful place to coordinate your organizational conversations in a way that prevents knowledge from leaking out, you can set up an internal company blog (or multiple blogs). Your co-workers or volunteers can post updates about what they're working on or submit items for feedback, and then everyone else can join in with comments, questions and helpful resources. Later, the conversations can be searched, linked to, and otherwise referenced. Automattic, the company that makes WordPress, has released a WordPress theme called P2 that turns a standard WordPress blog into a great internal communications tool with real-time updates, inline comments, etc. (They also have a newer version of the same coming soon, called O2.)
If you want to make sure your customers have access to your institutional knowledge (or at least the parts of it that help them be better customers and help you be a better provider/vendor), there are tons of tools that facilitate this kind of knowledge preservation. Basecamp, Jira, Teamwork, Zendesk, GetSatisfaction and more.
And when blogs, wiki pages and email lists aren't fast enough for capturing real-time conversation, consider using a chat service where groups can discuss a variety of topics and have their exchanges archived for later reference and searching. At my company we used an internal Internet Relay Chat (IRC) server with different "rooms" for different topics (general office comings and goings, client projects, infrastructure/sysadmin, web hosting, water cooler talk, etc.) and anyone could join in wherever they had an internet connection. We didn't archive our IRC chats, but probably should have. Whether it's IRC, Skype, Google Hangouts or some other kind of real-time chat, many organizations could save time (and prevent knowledge leaking) by trying it out.
It's not all plumbing
To be clear, I'm not suggesting that every aspect of your organization's communications needs to be conducted through heaving documented/archived mediums. There can be value in conversations and interactions that participants know are happening without being preserved for ever and ever. There can be joy in spontaneous hallway conversations or discussions that happen "off the grid." And some kinds of organizations that work with a creative process need to make sure that they facilitate the creative environment first and worry about making the creative outcomes repeatable or well-documented later.
But I'll tell you that most organizations I've encountered don't have to worry about being too far on the "over-documenting, over-preserving" side of the spectrum. Countless small businesses and not-for-profits I've done work for over the years have little or no systems in place to preserve their institutional knowledge and make it accessible to their staffs, volunteers or leaders. They have the same conversations in cycles of 2 to 5 years, and they waste countless hours answering questions and re-training people on basic processes and practices when some simple documentation would have saved them. Perhaps most difficult to see, some of them seemed doomed to repeat past mistakes because they never took the time to build up enough institutional knowledge to refine and improve the way they do things (or all of that knowledge was stuck in one or two people's heads, never to be shared with others who could help).
How do you try to prevent your business or organization from leaking knowledge?
What tools do you use?
What's worked, and where are you still wrestling with the right approach?