Managing Institutional Knowledge in Distributed Teams


When you’re working with a distributed workforce, it can be tough to manage institutional knowledge, whether that’s dealing with the little details like why you use a specific process or how to handle a specific client, or the bigger questions like how to make the parts for specialized machinery.

In many organizations, institutional knowledge is handed down like folklore. The person originally responsible for a given piece of information is just as likely to share it over his morning coffee as he is to make sure that his successor gets it in written form. That can be a problem when your team doesn’t have coffee together every morning any more, as the information is no longer shared, which means that every time someone leaves your organization, you run the risk of losing important information.

Recording Institutional Knowledge

The difficulty with creating some sort of database or other record of institutional knowledge is that it’s hard to recognize it in the first place. You may not even know that such knowledge exists until the day you have to do without it. That means that you need to put in some effort to recognize what information is necessary for your organization to keep humming along. Each organization will likely have to do so in different ways.

Once you have a clear picture of what information is crucial, it’s important to get into a format that can be referenced. Different organizations have used different methods successfully. Depending on your organizational culture, a wiki, a database, collection of Google Docs (s goog) or some other solution may be the best fit.

Raising Awareness of Institutional Knowledge

It’s not just enough to consider institutional knowledge today. It will continue to grow over time, which means that an ongoing process to record new information is important. That means that your team members should build the habit of recognizing and recording the details of their work.

It also helps if your team can be trained to look for the institutional knowledge they need from the same tool consistently, rather than getting in the habit of asking the one individual in the whole company that happens to have the information every time they need it. Doing so can encourage the individuals holding knowledge to make a point of adding it to whatever tool you choose to record your organization’s institutional knowledge.

Maintaining institutional knowledge has to be a habit. There are organizations that can turn over their entire staff in a matter of a few years, making it difficult to pass along information to the people who need it. In a way, working with team members on a virtual basis is worse, not only because the traditional methods of passing along information don’t work, but because many organizations view such staff as easier to replace — despite any institutional knowledge they may be responsible for.

Image by Flickr user Jeremy Noble

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