Next to the corporate data stacking up in your server farms, institutional knowledge is probably the most under utilized asset in your company. What we know, and how we use what we know, has got to improve.
Think, for a moment, about how we promote people for example. Usually, if a person does a very good job at his or her role and grows in ability and knowledge, we move them out of that role into another role. That's good for the individual and hopefully good for the corporation, in that a strong performer has been given more responsibility. The problem lies in how we use what that person learned in his initial position to help others come up to speed quickly and leverage the investment in learning.
In business, since we are in such a hurry, we do a poor job of appreciating and capturing the experience and knowledge that people have and what they've learned from it. It seems to be that we are constantly re-inventing the wheel only to discover that someone else has struggled through the same issues we face. If we all agree that this is a problem - and we do, don't we - then what can be done to reduce or eliminate this problem?
One step we take after every project is a one to two hour meeting in which we attempt to capture what we think we did right in the project, what we could have done better and what we would or would not do again. For example, in a recent project we felt that we should have done a better job building prototypes to demonstrate functionality for clients. In another project we felt that we'd done a particularly good job running a beta test and gathering the results. In these post-project meetings we discuss these actions and decisions and try to determine what we should learn from these actions and decisions and how to apply them in our next projects. How do you use what you or others on your team or in your organization have just learned to make your team more effective next time? Do you take the time to capture the learnings - good and bad - from your internal and external projects? If you do capture that information, how is it shared with others?
We are also fortunate enough right now to be able to ask everyone in our company before we start a new project if they've ever done work with a particular technology or had any experience using a certain type of methodology or approach. In a small company (less than say 100 people), simple communication networks can get these answers quickly. In a larger company, I think to use corporate knowledge effectively a collaborative information system is required. You simply can't ask everyone about everything all the time and expect to get decent answers.
Finally, it seems to me there are fewer and fewer "wise old men" around anymore. When I first started working as a consultant, every business had a few long time employees -men and women - who knew the organization, the formal and informal networks and the corporate history. They were the keepers of the corporate knowledge and were usually very connected if not very powerful in the organization. Today there's less emphasis on connectedness and corporate knowledge across the organization. We've become increasingly specialized in our roles and overly busy. Who makes the connections and knows where the bodies are buried in your organization?
Managing corporate knowledge and using it effectively means that we have to value that knowledge, capture it and refresh it constantly. Otherwise get comfortable building that wheel. You'll be doing it again.