Capturing institutional knowledge: do you have a plan?

Capturing institutional knowledge: do you have a plan?

Institutional knowledge is a major asset for manufacturing operations. Here’s why you need a plan to capture it.

Patricia Hume
July 6, 2023

Here’s an interesting question: Does your organization judge the value of its employees based solely on what they do, or does it also take into account what they know…?

What makes it interesting? Well, the Boomer generation is retiring. By 2025, most will be out of the industry, and they’ll be taking with them over 35 years' worth of specialist institutional knowledge.

While it's difficult to quantify exactly how much value is vested in institutional know-how, when it leaves the building, we feel it. And folks, in the next five years, the manufacturing industry is really going to feel it.

Collective company intelligence

Institutional knowledge, also known as “collective knowledge”, is the company know-how that exists only within your people – the knowledge they have earned over the course of years of work in your specific operation. From the fastest way to complete a particular task to watch-outs and good-to-knows, this is critical practical knowledge you may struggle to find in any manual, product document or work instruction.

Institutional knowledge is hard-earned, accrued by making and correcting mistakes and watching others do the same. If you’re lucky, it’s passed from employee to employee – an invisible word-of-mouth archive that reflects the collective experience of your workforce.  

Knowledge is leaving the building

But whether through retirement or other means of staff attrition, in most instances, once institutional knowledge leaves the building, it’s lost for good. This disadvantages not only the operation as a whole, but also new employees who are left to develop their own bank of institutional knowledge from scratch. Yet most manufacturers do not have a formalized process or mechanism by which to capture this bank of insight and understanding.

There are a couple of reasons for this.

The first is the conventional framework by which we assess the value of any particular employee – hence my question at the start of this blog. Most leaders will assess an employee’s ability based on what they can do. Can they carry out the duties they’re assigned successfully? Are they efficient, accurate, and skilled?

Trouble on the way

Two employees may be sufficiently trained to carry out the work required at a particular station without any issues, but only one knows that when the machine starts to vibrate at a particular frequency, trouble’s on the way. That’s the one with institutional knowledge. And you want to formalize what they know.

The second reason is that instructional content and the structures and processes surrounding it typically lack a means of capturing this knowledge. The learnings accrue, but they’re never formalized. PDF manuals, traditional work instructions and even hard copy documentation which is used to run most manufacturing operations is difficult to update and created by people who are not on the shop floor or out in the field hour after hour, day after day.

Connecting consumers and creators

A move to more dynamic solutions for product content, work instructions and training material is the answer here. It is increasingly common for us to hear customer requests about collaborative functionality that enables content consumers – as well as creators – to provide input from endpoints across the ecosystem, connecting knowledge holders with those in charge of documenting processes.

By creating the conditions and company culture that facilitate the formalization of the knowledge that’s vested in your people, you can make sure it doesn’t, quite literally, walk out the door.

It’s time we start seeing institutional knowledge for what it is: a major asset. Next, we need to develop and implement a solid strategy for capturing this knowledge, before it’s lost.

Does your operation have a formalized system for capturing institutional knowledge? If so, what’s your approach? And if not, what plans are in place?

About the author
Patricia Hume
Chief Executive Officer

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