The Value of Retaining Institutional Knowledge

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There's significant nutritional value in a fruit or vegetable that's ripened just as there's also significant value in the individual who has been cultivated, trained, nurtured, mentored and blossomed in your organization. Photo A.J. Heightman

Human resource experts have shown that employees who leave an organization take a substantial amount of invaluable business and operational knowledge, as well as organizational and political contacts and connections, with them. This large bundle of knowledge that a person acquires over time is known as "institutional knowledge." It's difficult to replace or duplicate by organizations, especially when internal systems to retain, replace or document it are nonexistent.

Very few metrics or measures exist to quantify the loss-or value-of institutional knowledge, continuity and history. The loss typically is manifested as turnover, recruitment, replacement and training costs that many organizations face.1

I've recently witnessed several people in our industry either pushed out of key positons or who quit after their experience and value to their organization was overlooked or dismissed.

In one case, a new fire chief moved an inexperienced fire officer into the position of EMS battalion chief position and transferred the seasoned 25-year EMS veteran to head up another division. The new EMS chief knew nothing about this experienced employee's EMS history, advances or projects underway.

Their program has since spiraled backward; it will take years to recover from this loss of institutional knowledge in that position.

In another instance, an industry colleague who did the work of four people stated her case to a new owner and requested more assistance. It fell on deaf ears and resulted in her resignation. They lost more than 20 years of solid institutional knowledge which may take them years to recover.

I don't have firm solutions to stop inept, political or budget-blind managers from making stupid moves that cost them to lose employees with extensive institutional knowledge, but I want to present a few points to make you more aware of the problem and help you avoid creating a black hole that will damage or slow the progress of your organization.

A Personal Example

My father's knowledge, ability and drive for serving the citizens of Scranton, Pa., as the captain-in-charge of the fire department's ambulance division was legendary. I was in awe of how much he knew and, more importantly, the people and connections he had made throughout his long career.

I was also amazed at how many times he "saved" the fire department ambulance division because of his institutional knowledge, respect and political aptitude.

Every time the city council or mayor threatened to eliminate the ambulance service to reduce the city budget, my dad would reach out to reporters-who he kept well informed on a daily basis-and give them accurate facts and reasons why eliminating the ambulance service would be detrimental to city residents.

His well-established media sources would then editorialize why the city should maintain its "valuable and highly respected ambulance service."

He also wisely mirrored the professional appearance of the respected medical community, requiring his personnel to wear a uniform hat and white, starched coveralls or a starched white shirt and navy blue pants. In addition to looking professional, he made sure his crews understood that bright white ensured they could be easily seen in traffic and large crowds.

When I was 18 years old and heading out the front door to return to college, a man approached and asked me to get my father. I did and he made my father sign for a certified letter from the city of Scranton informing him that, because of severe budget problems, a decision had been made to terminate the employment of six firefighters. The city made the crazy decision to eliminate the top three highest in seniority and three newest firefighters.

My dad was then number two in department seniority. I was crushed, but the cruel action offered valuable imprint to my young mind, and because of what I saw occur after my father was summarily terminated after his 30 years of experience, I became committed to never ignore a person's institutional knowledge.

My father attempted to move on, but, even though he'd mentored each of his lieutenants, his staff hadn't been able to absorb the depth of his institutional knowledge.

Torn between the emotional pain and anger of his abrupt dismissal and his dedication to the city ambulance service, my father continued to counsel his beloved crews behind the scenes. I listened intently to him during many of those calls, each one a learning experience for me. It was both educational and heartbreaking as I watched the unraveling of the service he worked for decades to build.

The fire union fought in court for two years to have the top seniority employees reinstated and finally prevailed with the state's supreme court overruling the city's action, forcing them to honor their seniority practices and rehire my dad and the two other senior officers.

My father returned to his position after the two-year hiatus, but he was never the same because, during his departure, the culture and work ethic of the ambulance division dramatically changed. The person put in charge during his absence didn't possess the same institutional knowledge or passion for the position and immediately made changes that degraded much of what my father had put into place.

He did away with the invaluable daily ledger each lieutenant had to read, contribute to, and sign off on, when they started and ended their shift. It was a treasure trove of institutional information. He also changed the color of uniforms from white to navy blue.

Although these may seem like small changes, they took away an encyclopedia of valuable knowledge and not only changed professional look of the ambulance crews, but cost a young EMT firefighter his life-the young EMT who served as my father's partner for years was killed when he was struck by a vehicle whose driver saw the ambulance warning lights but couldn't see the young firefighter dressed in his dark navy blue uniform as he treated a patient on a highway.

My dad retired a few years later, and the political appointee promoted to head up the ambulance division lacked not just his institutional knowledge, but also his devotion to duty. This appointee was ultimately demoted because he delayed response to an emergency call for 10 minutes as he awaited his cross-shifter/relief who was a few minutes late.

The call turned out to be a response to one of my father's most respected and experienced lieutenants who had collapsed into cardiac arrest in his home. He died and the family threatened to sue the city.

The city settled out of court by giving up the ambulance service to a hospital that wanted to run it. That transfer of service lasted only a few years before the hospital tired of subsidizing a "loss leader" and turned it over to the private sector.

Retaining Institutional Knowledge

Throughout my career, I've watched more EMS organizations than I can count disregard institutional leadership in favor of politics or budgets.

The fact is that the loss of institutional knowledge can take the wind out of an EMS organization or division's sails and result in a significant setback in the programs and progress. In some cases, it can lead to the organization's demise, particularly those that are small and lack leadership depth and financial reserves.

I've witnessed medical directors who dedicated their every waking hour to build their agency's capabilities and image get cast away like a dead fish when a new administration came in, or when they made decisions or instituted changes or improvements that city officials or union leadership didn't like.

I've also watched as high-quality leaders transferred out of EMS or moved to another agency because top leadership or staff failed to accept or respect their knowledge or recommendations for changes and improvements.

It's not something that I think will ever go away, but it's something that you as readers and leaders can pay attention to and be conscious of so that you can avoid a loss of institutional knowledge in your own organization.

You must pay close attention to not just the inner workings of your department, but also its separate divisions and the various generations your employees come from when working to maintain institutional knowledge.

Today's workforce is very different from the workforce we had a few decades ago.

By the year 2018, many employers may see as many as five generations working side-by-side, which not only affects the organizational makeup, but also how the organization addresses engagement, values, sustainment, tenure, and how it retains and transfers institutional knowledge.

As baby boomers prepare to retire, some Generation Xers and many millennials won't remain employed with your organization long enough to learn from their older colleagues. Because of this generational shift, the institutional knowledge, history and business continuity that veteran employees possessed might disappear and could result in a steady increase in employee turnover and further loss of institutional knowledge, translating into higher costs and lower institutional efficiency.1

This will be a rude awakening for agencies that ignore this issue and fail to work to retain institutional knowledge and proven processes.

Identify Future Leaders

Your organization must have plans in place in order to ensure continuity. To address the loss of institutional knowledge, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) recommends that governmental agencies focus on identifying leadership competencies among existing employees in an effort to create a pipeline of new leaders.1 In fact, all organizations should implement a plan of knowledge transfer in order to survive the loss of older generational employees.

As Ray Barishansky pointed out in a 2013 EMS Insider article on the importance of mentoring, EMS is a field that's ripe for good mentors-people who have been around the proverbial block, who understand EMS and know how to share their knowledge with others in a communicative, non-confrontational manner that can inspire.2

Barishansky wisely cautioned that when selecting mentors in EMS, you have to remember that age and seniority aren't always the same thing. Individuals start their EMS careers at different points in their lives, so you have to select a mentor based on what they know and not just based on their age. He also recommends you consider choosing a mentor who's worked in a variety of systems or held a number of differing positions.2

It's wise advice, and in studying the value of and ability to capture institutional knowledge, I've found other ways to address the loss of institutional knowledge and transfer it to others:1-6

  • Do a workforce assessment, documenting and identifying critical knowledge held by existing employees;
  • Have tenured employees write their work processes down in the form of standard operating procedures;
  • Enlist the assistance of existing and departing retirees to serve as mentors;
  • Closely observe work units, functions and processes;
  • Institute better employee communications;
  • Review and document processes;
  • Continually conduct specialized training;
  • Institute job-sharing between veteran employees and newer employees;
  • Find other ways to get a lost employee's work completed;
  • Have a succession plan for your most tenured, valued and talented employees;
  • Have a succession plan for the information your key personnel possess;
  • Have staff learn the base knowledge that a departing individual used to do their job, whether it was from a manual, company policy, etc.;
  • Adopt technology to help personnel enhance and remember processes; and
  • Don't assume that time means knowledge. Make sure the knowledge being passed along is true, accurate and updated when it is passed down. You could be doing something wrong the whole time and never know about it, the correct information could be getting "watered down" or changed as it moves from employee to employee when it isn't written down or if written down with no version control. This could lead to the remaining staff doing thing differently leading to chaos and confusion among the rest of the organization, and when the group remaining leaves, you're left with no institutional knowledge at all.

Conclusion

It's difficult to quantify and replace employees, particularly where technical skills are essential. Do everything you can to retain valued employees, synthesize and capture their institutional knowledge and develop strategies to ensure business continuity. It can be tragic for your organization if you don't have a plan in place to retain or capture the institutional knowledge of your seasoned employees.

References

1. Peña AM. (Aug. 10, 2013.) Institutional knowledge: When employees leave, what do we lose? HigherEdJobs. Retrieved June 5, 2017, from www.higheredjobs.com/articles/articleDisplay.cfm?ID=468.

2. Barishansky RM, Idler M. The importance of mentoring leadership: Developing an effective mentoring relationship. EMS Insider. 2013;40(10):4.

3. Ashworth MJ. Preserving knowledge legacies: Workforce aging, turnover and human resource issues in the US electric power industry. International Journal of Human Resource Management. 2006:17(9):1659-1688.

4. Carter C. When your Gurus walk out the door. KM Review. 2004;7(3):16-19.

5. Stiller I. (Oct. 21, 2015.) Institutional knowledge: When it works and when it doesn't. LinkedIn. Retrieved June 5, 2017, from www.linkedin.com/pulse/institutional-knowledge-when-works-doesnt-ivy-stubbs.

6. Ashkenas R. (March 5, 2013.) How to preserve institutional knowledge. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved June 5, 2017, from www.hbr.org/2013/03/how-to-preserve-institutional.

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