Institutional Knowledge: Why It Matters and How to Tap Into It
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Instructional Design
min read

Institutional Knowledge: Why It Matters and How to Tap Into It

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Institutional knowledge is a massive resource that many companies can’t figure out how to tap into. According to the Panopto Workplace Knowledge and Productivity Report, large businesses lose $47 million annually to inefficient knowledge sharing.

Companies that proactively manage institutional knowledge are not only more efficient but also more profitable.

What Is Institutional Knowledge?

Institutional knowledge is the collective information an organization and its people possess. The term refers specifically to knowledge about the organization or institution in question, including the organizations values, processes, data, and operational techniques. So while an individual in an institution may have deep knowledge of their personal hobby, for example, this wouldn't count as institutional knowledge.

Informational knowledge can be documented for the organization as a whole, or it can be held within teams or even individuals.

Institutional knowledge takes many forms. Some of it is intentionally developed while other information is learned on the job and possibly even intuitive. The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions offers the following categories for institutional knowledge:

  • Explicit/tangible: documents, records, reports, etc. that can be viewed, stored, and transferred
  • Implicit/intangible: personal anecdotes and context, skills, and intuition that can be transferred person to person through mentorship or training

Both forms of institutional knowledge provide value, so the most successful companies find a way to manage both.

Institutional Knowledge Vs Domain Knowledge

While institutional knowledge is about the workings of an organization, domain knowledge pertains to information about a particular discipline. In an organization it's possible to find individuals with deep domain knowledge, but little institutional knowledge. That might happen when a highly skilled employee joins a new organization and needs time to familiarize themselves with institutional practices.

Institutional Knowledge Vs "Tribal" Knowledge

You'll sometimes hear institutional knowledge compared to so-called tribal knowledge, or information held by a certain group within an organization and siloed away from others. This latter type of information is often undocumented, and at the risk of being lost when team members leave.

While tribal knowledge is an often-used term, we recommend replacing it with a term such as 'group' knowledge. The term can be considered an indicator of cultural appropriation, and may be offensive to some team members.

Why Institutional Knowledge Matters

Institutional knowledge makes teams better informed and equipped to do their job, translating into financial and efficiency benefits for organizations. And 81% of people believe that knowledge from hands-on experience is the hardest to replace, so organizations need to adopt a proactive approach to documenting and disseminating this information. When you manage institutional knowledge effectively, you positively impact employee morale and retention, productivity, and your bottom line.

Knowledge Sharing improves Employee Retention

Inadequate training and information sharing leads to unmotivated employees. As they spend time searching for information instead of focusing on how to perform well in their role, they become uninspired. Rather than focusing on the task at hand, they’re weighed down by simply getting the information they need to begin the task.

This has negative implications on employee retention. For companies with high turnover rates, workers were 65% more likely to find it “very difficult” or “nearly impossible” to get the information they need to do their job well, according to Panopto.

When staff members become unmotivated, this translates to their job performance and engagement. Motivated employees stick around, boosting retention and performance.

Preserving Information Saves Time and Money

Losing staff wastes time and money, but mismanaged institutional knowledge threatens those resources for several other reasons, too.

Per the Panopto study, American workers waste 5.3 hours each week waiting for information from colleagues or recreating existing information. 60% find it “difficult,” “very difficult,” or “nearly impossible” to get important information from colleagues, and 81% feel frustrated when they can’t get the info they need.

Lack of information sharing harms productivity, which means business tasks take longer, too. 85% of employees believe that “preserving and sharing unique knowledge in the workplace is critical to increasing productivity.”

When productivity is threatened, delays happen. Delays cost money - but delays due to lack of knowledge sharing can be more costly than the typical hold-up. As many as 66% of delays due to unshared knowledge will last up to a week, while 12% go a month or more. When information is shared and accessible, organizations can mitigate bottlenecks and keep projects on schedule and on budget.

Types of Institutional Knowledge

We briefly touched on two types of institutional knowledge—implicit and explicit—at the start of this article. It's worth digging in to those types a little deeper, and adding a third generally accepted type of institutional knowledge:

Implicit knowledge

Implicit knowledge is the know-how we gain from putting theory into practice. Think about when you buy a new laptop or mobile phone—you can read the manual, but you'll only gain implicit knowledge of how the device works when you start interacting with it. Transferrable skills learned on the job and applicable in different contexts are a good example of implicit knowledge in the workplace.

Explicit knowledge

Explicit knowledge is the information that is recorded and codified in documents. You don't need to do anything yourself to gain explicit knowledge; you could read a book, report, or manual, and effectively acquire explicit knowledge.

Tacit Knowledge

Tacit knowledge is the know-how gained from personal experience that we often don't realize we have. The unusual thing about tacit knowledge is that those who have it don't know how to explain or transmit it. Tacit knowledge is often expressed as a feeling or a sensation by those who have already acquired it, and is resistant to transfer between people.

In an organization, tacit knowledge is hard to capture, but there are training approaches than can try to accelerate the acquisition of tacit knowledge among workers. Check out our webinar with Julie Dirksen to find out more about this.

3. Tacit knowledge

Similar to implicit knowledge, it’s obtained through experience, but can hardly be codified and transmitted. Example: You can explain how to create content that sells, but learners won’t be able to follow the process without months or years of real-life experience.

How to Tap Into Institutional Knowledge at Your Organization

Because institutional knowledge is informal and often unique to an individual, it’s also the easiest to lose track of. Many times, organizations fail to recognize the value of this information before it’s too late.

On average, workers spend just over four years with an organization before taking their talents - and knowledge - elsewhere. The second someone leaves your organization, so does all the information they possess.

When companies make learning and sharing part of the day-to-day experience, it’s easier to preserve institutional knowledge. Pair this collaborative culture with advanced tech and tools, and you have a winning combination.

Leverage Employees as Subject Matter Experts

Instead of automatically going to outside resources, find the internal experts in your company, and use their knowledge to build courses. They have the context from working with your customers and within your organization that external experts lack.

If you need to build a course on a specific topic, for example, first ask your own team of experts before consulting outside help. You might have all the expertise you need in-house, and this information comes with the background of being at your company. Using internal SMEs to create course content is also more cost-effective as you don’t need to search for, hire, and manage outsourced help.

When people have to teach concepts, it also helps them develop a deeper understanding of the topic themselves. This helps distribute the information to the wider team.

Create a Culture of Learning and Sharing

There are two key prongs here: learning and sharing. Workers should feel comfortable doing both. Independent learning is effective, but collaborative learning makes for more impactful and engaging training. Organizations with a collaborative, continuous learning environment are likely to have an easier time protecting institutional knowledge.

Trello’s Coffee Talks are a great example of a way to facilitate knowledge sharing. The “low-pressure” discussions provide a way for workers to share their work and learn about others’. The weekly event’s attendance rate hovers at around 40%. It also provides a way for people to practice their presentation and public speaking skills.

There are a few key Eduflow features that facilitate collaborative learning and knowledge sharing. Groups can use discussion boards to have public conversations about various subjects. Others can jump in and share, while silent observers can simply digest the info. Another feature, peer reviews, allows people to review others’ work and give extended assessments and feedback. They can impart and reinforce individual institutional knowledge this way.

Establish Clear Documentation Processes

It’s not always easy to get people to share. Processes encourage employees to contribute their institutional knowledge. When you have processes in place, it creates accountability and gives employees clear direction on documenting and maintaining their own institutional knowledge. This makes it easier to protect along the way, rather than doing a mad dash at the end of someone’s tenure.

If you’re overwhelmed by all the processes you need, start small. Launch a shared Tettra resource or another form of internal wiki that employees can access and contribute to on their own time. Outline step-by-step instructions for how to find or add information, as well as guidelines on when employees should take it upon themselves to do so.

If you use Eduflow, you can also utilize learning flows as part of your documentation process. We have templates for all sorts of things, from teaching you about a subject to facilitating a hiring challenge or onboarding training. This streamlines the process and makes it easier for people to know what and how to contribute.

Collaborative Learning Encourages Institutional Knowledge

Collaborative learning is more effective than traditional methods of education and training. It provides a culture of community and information sharing. Institutional knowledge can grow and expand in an environment where collaborative learning is encouraged.

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