Institutional Knowledge

hhibner —  May 13, 2013 — 5 Comments

pencilThe staff at my library is made up of a significant number of “long-timers.” If there’s one thing we have, it’s longevity. That speaks well of working here: no one wants to leave! Institutional knowledge is that information and experience held by those who have been a part of the organization for a long time. They know why things are the way they are, the history of how things got to be and how they were before, and they have had years (decades!) to learn each others’ work and communication styles. It is a well-oiled machine.

A large percentage of our staff is nearing, and even beyond, retirement age. There is a real danger of losing a vast amount of institutional knowledge all at once. We must find a way to formalize things (procedures, tips, strategies, methods) that these long-time employees just know. We need to harness their knowledge and somehow make it available to future staff.

But how do you save information that these long-timers don’t even know they hold? We have formal procedure manuals, but these staff members do certain things without even realizing it. We don’t know they do it or know it, and they’ve done it or known it for so long that they don’t even think about it. They just do it.  Suddenly, when they leave or retire, you realize little duties need to be re-assigned.  You hear staff saying things like, “So-and-so would have known…” or “So-and-so must have done that.” It’s not that the remaining staff can’t figure it out and carry on; the idea here is to save everyone’s time and keep the work flowing.

Here are some tips for retaining some of that useful information:

1. Cross-training helps.  When someone goes on vacation or has a long-term illness, someone needs to be aware of what work isn’t being done and pick up the slack. When someone who has worked here for decades retires, anyone cross-trained in their area can help to smooth the transition.  It also helps with succession planning.

2. Documenting workflows, and updating them annually, also helps.  Having very detailed, step-by-step instructions for staff duties gives the next person something to work with.  It seems ridiculous to detail how to buy pencils, but when you’re out of pencils and no one knows where to buy them or how to place the order, you’ve wasted time and stopped the workflow.  Of course you can figure out where to buy pencils, but wouldn’t be easier to have a detailed account of where office supplies come from, where to get a purchase order for them, and what vendor has the best price for bulk orders – especially if you have to requisition the city for something like this?

3. Once a year or so, ask staff to keep track of what they spend their time on throughout the day for a week.  They will be more likely to include the little things they do that we all take for granted.  Of course, managers always need to be aware of who does what, but it’s these little, overlooked activities that no one thinks of until they are not being handled anymore.  Managers need to do this exercise too.  In fact, in the interest of transparency, managers could even share theirs with the rest of the staff at the end of the week.

For another perspective on institutional knowledge, read this blog post by Library Lost and Found contributor Mary Kelly!



Adult Services Coordinator at the Plymouth District Library with a mild obsession for collection quality. Ok, maybe not so mild. Find me on Twitter at @hhibner and over at Awful Library Books (!

5 responses to Institutional Knowledge


    Our library Circ department is in much the same situation with many employees who have been here many years. Thanks for the tips on getting started with capturing their knowledge before they retire (some of them again!) and take that info with them.


    Maybe. But it may also be that some of that lost knowledge winds up being an opportunity to find new and better ways to do things.


      Yes! It’s good to know what to hold on to and what to start over from scratch with new staff and new ideas.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Found: May 13 – 17, 2013 | Library Lost & Found - May 18, 2013

    […] We celebrated Institutional Knowledge. […]

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