A frequently undervalued resource in a mission critical operation is what is commonly referred to as “institutional knowledge.” This is a term describing the staff’s intangible understanding and proficiency to manage, operate, and maintain a site and associated infrastructure via knowledge gained through site specific experience. In general, it cannot be taught or acquired from outside. It is acquired through the staff’s history with the site and accumulated knowledge gained through experiences and associated lessons learned.

One example of where the value of institutional knowledge becomes obvious is when management decides to outsource facilities staff and associated duties and responsibilities, or even to change outsourced contracting firms. In most cases, many of the existing employees are retained by the new firm to prevent the loss of institutional knowledge. An extreme example is when one employee becomes a “single-point-of-failure” because he and he alone possesses some critical skill or knowledge required to maintain the site’s reliability or to perform a necessary task or activity. This can apply to both in-house employees,  vendors, or contractors.

One aspect of critical facilities, which are more susceptible to developing a staff single-point-of-failure is the monitoring and control systems. These systems include building management systems (BMS), electric power monitoring systems (EPMS), system control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, and especially the programmable logic controllers (PLCs) that control the automated operations of switchgear and emergency power generation systems. These computerized systems are basically “black boxes” to most facilities operators. The operations staff may know what the programmed sequences-of-operations are but have no ability to probe into the actual code and logic within the controllers much less perform troubleshooting or repairs. And yet these are perhaps the most critical systems within a facility where failure has the greatest potential to result in mission impact.

A humorous skit from an old Saturday Night Live show was set in the control room of a nuclear power plant. The staff was having a retirement party for the most senior operator whose parting words of advice were something like “remember, you can never put too much water in the reactor.” Just after he leaves someone spills a drink on a control panel initiating an emergency condition. One operator interprets the parting senior operator’s advice to mean you should put as much water in the reactor as possible. Another operator interprets the advice to mean the opposite; that you should never put too much water in the reactor. The ensuing chaos was funny, but when a site loses critical site specific skills and knowledge, the potential impact is at a minimum a difficult task to recover what has been lost, and in worse cases, a direct impact to the site’s reliability and performance. So how can institutional knowledge be developed, and perhaps more importantly, how can it be captured, spread throughout an organization, archived, and kept accessible to all staff, including future employees?

First, the organization needs to develop a culture that values, encourages, and rewards knowledge sharing. Individuals should never feel that hoarding knowledge to increase their personal value is the path to promotions and job security. Instead, the culture should encourage and reward those who share their knowledge and experiences with peers and who develop new hires and less experienced staff. The organization should provide cross-training and mentoring and avoid developing single “specialists” who are the only employees capable (or at least allowed) to perform a critical task or activity.

The culture should also encourage and reward staff who take the initiative and expend the effort to learn the details and intricacies associated with the site systems, equipment, and controls. This includes witnessing vendor and contractor work, reading equipment manuals and site specific as-built documents, participating in available training opportunities including webinars, online classes, and other venues that apply to site conditions. “Train-the-trainer” programs can be especially useful as it encourages the site staff to approach training as a team effort.

Second, the organization must implement and maintain formal document management systems that capture, compile, organize, and archive critical information and documents that become accessible to all authorized staff. These documents should include site specific procedures that are tested and proven, but are also updated and improved by the staff with the best institutional knowledge. This should also include site-specific training materials (and as a best practice, training videos) that capture actual site operations and maintenance tasks and techniques. In other words, there should be a formal means to transfer institutional knowledge from employees’ memories to something that the organization owns and manages.

This also applies to the contractors and vendors who support the site. In more than one case, I know of sites that found out after replacing the outsourced facilities management firm that the departing firm actually owned the site procedures, reports, and other critical documents developed during their tenure. The costs associated with redeveloping these procedures and other processes and documents greatly exceeded the savings of hiring a new management firm, but also left the site extremely vulnerable to human error.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the organization must provide an environment and working conditions that result in keeping the best staff and minimizing attrition. This not only means good pay and benefits, but a work environment where staff likes what they do, where they do it, and who they do it for. They need to feel that their contributions are meaningful and appreciated, and that they are valued as individuals, as team members, and as essential resources. They should feel ownership and pride in their work and in the site, and they should be proud to demonstrate their skills and knowledge to their peers. This also means that there needs to be a culture where asking questions and seeking advice and understanding is recognized as a personal continuous process improvement and not something to be ridiculed for or considered a sign of weakness.

Remember, the best employees are also those who can most easily find other opportunities and move to other positions, leaving those who otherwise feel stuck behind. The inherent risks of having excellent staff with institutional knowledge depart is far less than the risks associated with keeping mediocre staff without site specific knowledge. By capturing and enshrining as much institutional knowledge as possible, you hedge your bets both ways. n