It struck me the other day when I was speaking with a colleague that institutional knowledge and memory is really retained in people. With institutional knowledge and memory I mean the knowledge about who does what, how things really work, who you need to talk to to get access to particular information.

It is the informal rules that everybody just knows, or most people know, in that department or institution about how decisions are really made.

The trick is that much of this is informal knowledge, as it is both distributed and held by people, and it also changes over time when particular individuals leave their positions within the hierarchy.

New people always bring new ways of thinking and doing things, and each of us shape our role the way that we think it is best done. Such personal knowledge and preferences in particular are often not necessarily communicated in official terms as we find our way around a new institution or a new position.

Others must learn to understand how we like things to be done, while we must also exercise same kind of understanding of how others conduct their roles and what their values and aspirations are that drive their behaviour.

So it is no wonder why learning a new job or role is stressful especially since there are so many informal rules that exist in a parallel universe to those official norms, rules and practices that we read in institutional policies and strategic plans.

Knowledge-based memory loss

But this is just one aspect of institutional knowledge and memory. Another has to do with the knowledge people hold about their specific area of expertise and the networks of people and ideas that they have built over time.

When these people leave an institution, a clear gap emerges. Yet, this gap often goes unnoticed until something goes wrong or that specific expertise or contacts are needed.

Many organisations are worried about this trend because they understand the value of expertise and the time and cost associated with filling that void.

But many do not understand or recognise that institutional memory is broader: it is about which assessments have already been done, how did the institution tackle a particular issue ten years ago, which partnerships have been most effective in achieving particular outcomes, and so on.

New people move into positions who do not know that ten years ago a similar risk assessment was already conducted for the exact same reason but the report was never fully utilised.

Yet, sometimes you get same people asking for the same solution and analysis who commissioned the same approach ten years ago.

So how do you tap into this knowledge, maintain it and make it accessible so that institutions and individuals can learn from past processes and develop new strategies that build on what we already know but add new value?

For many institutions this is a crucial void because without documentation of past decisions, assessments, and outcomes, many keep doing the same things over and over again.

Effective learning becomes harder.

But both kinds of knowledges, the broader what has been done before, and the more individual informal principles, need to be clarified and made more accessible.

Principles need to be written down

I am a big fan of information and knowledge management and I believe that here this can play a crucial role in enabling us to make better decisions.

If we know and understand what has been discovered and done before in the organisation, we can more easily ask more specific and helpful questions and find ways to innovate.

So having an institutional repository of knowledge is a key step for any organisation that allows people to access knowledge, and also contribute to maintaining such institutional memory of which ideas were supported, when, and how they were used or not used in decision-making.

Documenting such knowledge can be helpful also at a more personal level.

We all use a range of principles in our lives that determine how we make decisions. But most often we would not know what these actually are until we undertake some deeper level analysis as to why we made a particular decision.

Ray Dalio, as interviewed in the Freakonomics podcast, describes how being clear about our personal principles is crucial not only for our personal understanding of ourselves and how we operate but also how others think and behave:

Writing principles also helps, of course, because it makes clear what you’re making decisions on. In other words, if I know your principles, and you know my principles, and we agree on principles of how we’re going to operate with each other, it becomes fantastic, and you have that idea-meritocratic decision making”

Ray has made a habit of writing down the exact principles that he uses in making a particular decision, and then after learning what the outcome of that decision is, he goes back and revisits his decision-making principles to learn where he can improve.

This kind of reflection helps to build a personal decision-making principles repository that is highly useful also in understanding our own minds and ways of behaviour.

For institutions, and for those in particular working in climate change adaptation, identifying current decision principles in use, and re-examining those over time as climate change impacts increase, could offer significant windows into how to make better decisions under uncertainty.

If we can better understand the organisational and institutional memory and knowledge, and our own principles and that of others, we stand in a better position to argue better but also observing how such principles are used in practice.

I am yet to do this exercise but this could be a fun game: have a decision principle diary and dedicate pages for writing down notes on a particular decision you made, track how that turned out, and evaluate those principles that you used.
There is lot of research already around this, something that I will be sharing in a blog in the next few weeks.

But for now, my takeaway message at least is that if we want to make better decisions, we need to understand and document the past, talk to others who “know” how things work at our institution, and construct then our own decision principles as to how we can best operate in that environment.

And please, before people leave your organisation who have been there for years, invite them for a cup of coffee or lunch, and learn as much as you can whatever knowledge they hold. Because once they leave, that knowledge is gone as well.