For the newcomer to an organization, institutional knowledge (aka ‘fact’) is almost immediately recognized. As you meet with people, you are frequently exposed to ‘facts.’ Institutional knowledge, or ‘memory,’ is formed of those tidbits of foundational knowledge on which decisions are based, often pre-dating the individual(s) providing them.
Institutional knowledge is something that, the older it gets, is increasingly subject to becoming a factoid. A ‘factoid,’ in an original definition was simply considered a snippet of a fact. Over time, the definition has evolved to be, "something which becomes accepted as fact, although it may not be true." (Oxford English Dictionary)
Some time ago, I started a new role in an organization that seemed to be run on institutional fact. Meeting with people throughout the organization conflicting versions of facts began to make their selves visible. As this became more common, I began probing the source of the information, questioning the veracity of the data. Not surprisingly, the responses were often vague; questions were met with puzzlement; or, simply attributed to a predecessor. No one questioned the validity of these ‘commonly known facts.’
Here are a couple examples, which I’m sure you have likely encountered yourself at some point (‘unit’ used for generic application):
a) A ‘big’ customer is one that does 2,000,000 units/monthly.
b) We have 2/4/5 billion units in storage (supposedly as of ‘years’ ago).
c) It costs $X to produce Y.
At some point, these ‘facts’ may well have been correct. They become factoids in at least two different ways. One, is that certain numbers or details tend to stick with people. For instance, there may be a new phone number someone gives you that you can memorize ‘instantly.’ You won’t be able to easily recite your own cell phone number when asked, but darn, you can remember the value of, say, Pi out 8 places past the decimal. The problem is, data ages and people do not tend to update themselves.
A second common area comes from Sales, Marketing, or Execs. Sorry (Sales), but yes, I’ve traced more ‘facts’ back to salespeople ‘massaging’ data, sticking it in a PowerPoint, and finding it weaved back into the company, than any other source. There’s something about PowerPoint. For some reason, people will trust data in some PowerPoint slide deck they find ‘somewhere’ as fact and without question. Sound like a factoid?
So let’s look at what the reality behind our examples turned out to be:
Institutional Knowledge (IK)
a) IK: Big Customer=2M+/mo | Reality: Big was > 200K/mo
b) IK: We have 2/4/5 ‘billion’ units | Reality: 1.97B, another few months needed to ‘truly’ hit 2B
c) IK: It costs $X to produce Y (took an 11 pg. spreadsheet to calculate) |
Reality: Spreadsheet broken, new costing model built, first time in 4 years ‘true’ costs were known
Ok, so this makes for a nice business drama in the Who Cares Department. The problem is these are real-world examples existing in almost every business. Not knowing the cost to run a business, misrepresenting facts to customers, or not knowing how to truly categorize your customers, means your business will be making very real, very wrong, decisions. At the very least, the customer will have been unwittingly lied to.
The odds are, you feel very comfortable in the facts you carry around in your own head. Ask yourself, do you remember when the facts were generated; who provided them; what the conditions were at the time (and do they still apply)? Have you personally (re)validated your own knowledge?
Challenge Institutional Knowledge. Challenge memory, including your own. And, don’t assume that what was true 3 years ago (let alone 5 or 10) remains true today.