Scenario One

You're informed by your manager that the bean counters, in their infinite wisdom, have decided to downsize your half. Knowing this would be bad for your team and bad for the company, you play the institutional knowledge card (and justifiably so) as a central rationale for arguing against the layoffs.

You explain to your boss who explains to her boss that all the knowledge the targeted staff possesses on the nuances of corporate and product branding, internal marketing strategies, product and services insights, consumer demographics, internal policies and procedures, and client and vendor relationships will walk right out the door with them erasing any potential cost savings from reducing head count.

The bean counters back down and you only end up losing a quarter of your group.

Scenario Two

Right on the heels of your lead designer going on maternity leave, your second gives two weeks notice. All that institutional knowledge you leveraged to save your team is vanishing and you're left with a big hole in your operations that you're terrified will wash all your hard won efficiencies down the drain. You want to counteroffer, but you already went to the well to save your team. You're at a loss on what to do.

Clearly the assumption in both situations is that institutional knowledge resides in one place only--the heads of the designers, writers, project managers, proofreaders etc., etc. In scenario one you were able to use this assumption to your and your team's benefit. In scenario two the assumption put the fear of failure front and center for you.

That institutional knowledge is valuable is not debatable. That it can only reside in the members of your team is, and the problem arises when you and your company make business decisions based on that half-truth.

Certainly, when a valued individual in your group departs, your team loses the working relationships, grasp of subtle branding preferences and knowledge of how to grease some of the corporate wheels that he or she possessed. But there are many insights, processes, procedures (both obscure and obvious) and lists of key information that can be retained if you and your team make the time and put forth the effort to document that information. So, shame on you if you don't take the necessary steps to bake institutional knowledge into your infrastructure rather than relying on individuals to fulfill that necessary function.

Do Documentation

Everything that is only in your and your team's heads must be committed to paper (digital and pulp). By going through this exercise you ensure that when a team member leaves their knowledge doesn't.

Listomania--Create lists of EVERYTHING! Hardware, software, clients, supporting department contacts (IT, HR, Facilities etc.), tech and design website URLs, vendors, job folders, freelance talent, operational documents locations, staff, studio services, etc.

Ops Opportunities--Do you have robust documented Standard Operating Procedures, position descriptions, policies, reporting structures, guidelines, process maps, archive and server maps, naming conventions, performance reviews, development plans, project initiation forms, change order forms, invoices, creative brief templates, SLAs, and SOWs? Special attention should be paid to branding guidelines. If your company hasn't invested in corporate and product guides then make up your own.

The Detail Detail--Even with carefully captured high-level and obvious lists and operational information there are subtle and less visible facts that can and should be captured. Client profiles, procedural footnotes, branding idiosyncrasies and bureaucratic back doors fall into this category.

Succession Success

Everyone on your team, including you, must be replaceable and this includes the institutional knowledge that they possess. This means that everyone, including you, must have a second. Seconds should shadow their partners, take on their responsibilities in their partner's absence and have contact with their partner's clients and colleagues. Even if the second doesn't move into their partner's role should they leave, they should be responsible for training up a new hire.

Got an on-boarding manual? If not, create one this week.

None of the practices noted above are rocket science but they are, admittedly, very labor intensive and painful to implement. Too bad. Institutional knowledge is as valuable as your team members, equipment and the deliverables and services you provide to your clients. Tending to them is absolutely a critical responsibility of your role as a creative team leader and fundamental to the success of your team and the company your team serves.