Many people think that in the federal government space, information is already structured and ready to go. They believe that some huge bureaucracy is churning in the background, making sure every scrap of paper and bit of information is properly filed away and ready to be found at some citizen’s or congressman’s request.

That’s simply not true.

In the federal government space, perhaps even more than in many other areas, people come and go. New people get elected. New leadership takes over. And turnover can be quick and unpredictable at all levels of the government.

While turnover has leveled off a bit more recently, in 2017 federal employees were leaving their jobs at the highest rate in years, up by more than 10,000 from 2016. When you add to that an aging federal workforce (statistics from the Office of Personnel Management indicate more than 45% of federal employees are over 50), the potential for a sudden outflux of employees – particularly those with the greatest historical knowledge of their departments – is a concern as well.

Agency turnover means lost institutional knowledge

Federal agencies (and most organizations in general) often run smoothly based on an “institutional knowledge” that lives in the memories and experiences of staff and leadership. This innate knowledge instinctively recalls details of previous initiatives, efforts and even documents or files that, when pulled up and used, help guide or prepare a new effort for success.

Sadly, the institutional knowledge inside of a federal agency is frequently lost when staff leaves, personnel changes, or when the leadership changes. Loss of information and knowledge is a travesty. New people coming into a role have a difficult time figuring out what’s going on and there is often no established approach to bringing new people on board.

Imagine going to a new city without any maps, and you can only find your way around by driving down various streets and building up a mental image of a map as you make each turn. You might get to your destination eventually, but you will have taken many wrong turns getting there or may have found yourself detoured by construction zones or accidents. What would have been an easy trip becomes that much more stressful – and potentially dangerous.

Navigating a new organization can be exactly like that.

This knowledge loss isn’t just hypothetical. It can have real world implications (and consequences).

The military has a great expression: “We’re not fighting a 17-year war; we’re fighting 17, one-year wars.” In other words, everything is lost every time there’s a crew change. In these life and death situations not knowing what a team went through during previous tours can have dire consequences. For our clients for whom workforce rotation is a normal fact of life, our work in preserving their institutional knowledge and helping the new crew learn from what the previous crew did has been called a godsend.

Information and institutional knowledge — when not properly handled — can be just like driving blind, but it shouldn’t have to be.

Knowledge management preserves an agency’s institutional memory

At Tesla Government we know that an institutional memory holds together all those bits and pieces of information that are individually stored in an agency’s data repository somewhere. But we also know that most of those repositories are not mapped out very well.

Along the way, we’ve found that a multifaceted approach – a combination of knowledge management, open-source research, data visualization, and community building – helps agencies and organizations store and curate their knowledge so that the right people get the right information at the right time. With the right information in hand they can make smarter decisions and avoid making the same mistakes over and over again.

This sensible, proactive approach works best with a centralized information repository that is actively managed and curated, so that the agency’s information is collected, stored properly, and accessible when needed. Additionally, active management and curation means there is a dedicated process for adding, cleaning up, and categorizing content and information rather than leaving the process to chance or a “when I have time” task on someone’s list.

Information continuity and knowledge management protects the mission

An agency is only as effective as the work it completes and goals it accomplishes. And information is a critical building block for reaching those goals.

When institutional knowledge is lost, missions are put at risk – there’s simply no way around it. Making a commitment to collecting and preserving that institutional knowledge ensures your agency’s future success.

Ready to preserve your agency's institutional knowledge?

We can build that roadmap for you.