Company knowledge

We all seem to be deluged by information. At work, we wade through financial data, market intelligence, consumer insights, employee performance statistics and competitor gap analyses. The futurologist Alvin Toffler coined the phrase information overload back in the 1970’s. Even then he could see that excessive amounts of data could lead to detrimental computational, psychological, and social effects. I’m not sure we’ve lost anyone from this recently. But it is getting harder to decide which information actually matters. And some essential elements are falling by the wayside.

I’m frequently surprised at the paucity of organisational knowledge – the basics of how we do things around here – that is shared within modern organisations. I come across it in senior executive meetings when a despairing CEO justifiably complains ‘this is not a new situation we’re facing, so how did we deal with it before?’ I see it in attempted collaboration between departments or divisions – where neither team has the faintest idea of how the other organises itself to carry out its daily work.

This doesn’t happen in small companies because the environment is more intimate and most members have a good idea of what everyone else is supposed to be doing. But it doesn’t take a headcount of more than 50 staff to begin the process of building mutual ignorance. This is further compounded by people who like to appear ‘corporate’. They spend so much time projecting themselves as subject experts that they lose interest in what colleagues from other teams contribute to the mix.

Building institutional knowledge isn’t about investing in more training.  It’s about deciding how to consolidate and curate the company’s story, and the employee behaviours that make it successful.

With modern technology it’s relatively easy to create spaces for sharing this, but it’s another matter to decide what should be lodged there. Recently I was helping a cross-disciplinary team to design their organisation’s onboarding programme. Being a committee, they could not help but complicate matters for themselves.

Every idea offered was added to the content agenda, without being critically challenged or filtered. Before they knew it, a simple and motivating audio-visual piece had been turned into a multi-levelled bureaucratic monster. Encrusted with layers of policy modules, compliance documents and ‘further reading downloads’. Frankly the last thing any prospective employee would want to spend time on. A tiresome obligation for creators and users alike.

We solved the problem by insisting that the team focus on a specific target audience. The simple question ‘but who is this intended for?‘ asked repeatedly and relentlessly, finally enabling them to pare things down to something that would motivate the intended recipient.