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Institutional Knowledge: What it Means and Why it's Important for Government Affairs

by Lydia Stowe, FiscalNote

Institutional knowledge can have a big effect on the success and productivity of your efforts. Read our guide on strategies to retain & transfer it.

How to retain institutional knowledge

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The knowledge employees have is a key asset to their organizations. As many Baby Boomers retire and new generations enter the workforce and take leadership positions, retaining institutional knowledge is essential. This knowledge can be easy to lose without the right procedures and tools in place, costing an organization a great deal of time and money.

When a legislator has an idea, we can pull out all the information on the topic from the past and create a summary to give them an idea of what has come before. We can take that information and walk the legislator through what has or hasn’t been successful.

Kali Wicks, manager, government relations
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana

Why is Institutional Knowledge Important to an Organization?

Over time, every organization develops tools of the trade, techniques, and best practices to perform jobs effectively. For government affairs teams, institutional knowledge refers to maintaining those tools over time to develop solutions, save resources, and pass that knowledge and history to new employees and legislators.

Institutional knowledge can save time and money, especially when onboarding new hires or when new legislators take office. Rather than reinventing the wheel, procedures that have worked (and information on what hasn’t worked) can be passed on to new employees so they can build upon the foundation already laid in an organization, or presented to new legislators with all the relevant historical information. 

“Institutional knowledge is key, especially when it comes to state government affairs,” said Sandy Guenther, manager of state government affairs and advocacy engagement at the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons (AAOMS). With government affairs, issues are often very cyclical. Issues organizations dealt with a decade ago may resurface again. “Being able to know what occurred back in the day in these various states, tactics used, and what was said is very valuable,” Guenther said.

Having access to a single repository — keeping a record of all the moving pieces associated with their work — is needed to drive alignment and increase efficiencies across team members. From policy developments to activity metrics, teams need an easy and reliable place to get the information they need. “If there is a new person that joins the team, they can get that historical perspective from the platform,” said Melodie Shrader, vice president of state affairs at the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association (PCMA).

With the “Great Resignation” we have heard about over the last year and the reputation of Congressional staffer jobs for being a revolving door, it’s important to minimize the disruption to current projects. Maintaining institutional knowledge ensures these projects are not abandoned and that new employees or legislators can pick up where others left off. 

“There are lots of [job] opportunities for people in D.C. So, from time to time, people move on to other places to work,” said David Bellaire, executive vice president and general counsel at the Financial Services Institute. Bellaire uses FiscalNote as a centralized location for all institutional knowledge to help ensure business continuity. With FiscalNote, now all the archives are in a single platform everyone can access as needed and get the information they need.

Retaining institutional knowledge is also helpful when new legislators are elected, as it can get them up to speed on projects or educate them on important topics. “When a legislator has an idea, we can pull out all the information on the topic from the past and create a summary to give them an idea of what has come before,” said Kali Wicks, manager of government relations at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana. “We can take that information and walk the legislator through what has or hasn’t been successful.”

How to Retain Institutional Knowledge

Retaining institutional knowledge takes commitment from all employees, as well as a clear procedure and some organizational skills. With these strategies, institutional knowledge retention can ensure efficiency for years. 

Develop Online Knowledge Libraries

Developing an online knowledge repository is one of the most simple and effective ways to retain institutional knowledge. A detailed file folder structure is invaluable for AAOMS, said Guenther.

“We try to keep everything,” Guenther said. “We store emails and letters in our file folder structure based on issue.” AAOMS creates folders based on policy issues with subfolders related to specific state battles. They label them by state and the year in which an issue occurred so it’s easy to find at a glance. 

Have a Central Hub for Key Projects

PCMA built a centralized hub to retain institutional knowledge using FiscalNote. The team personalized FiscalNote’s centralized policy hub to help them manage their complex policy issues. Having all the information in one place allows them to identify and prioritize developing issues, assess their impact, and take action accordingly — all while keeping the team on the same page. 

AAOMS creates central hubs for new employees, pulling together pertinent information to get them onboarded quickly. They put together an annual summary of state issues highlighting what has occurred in the last year. The organization has also created resource guides for clients, with key information in a tool kit. “If a state is facing an issue, we can send them the packet and they have everything they need to know to get up to speed and what has and hasn’t worked in other states,” Guenther explained.

How PCMA Powers its Government Affairs Strategy with FiscalNote

FiscalNote helps PCMA monitor thousands of bills across the U.S. while also providing a valuable management tool to help highlight their efforts.

Create Training Videos

Organizations should also consider creating training videos for new employees to educate them in a visual, memorable way. They can also be shared with new legislators to educate them and get them up to speed on important issues. While creating these videos can take some time and resources, as well as a bit of creativity, they can serve as a resource employees and lawmakers can refer to for years. Anything from how-to trainings to client stories can be produced in video format and stored in an internal content library. 

Document Processes When Off-Boarding Employees

Off-boarding employees is a time when institutional knowledge is often lost — but it can be a key opportunity for knowledge retention. Before an employee leaves your organization, make sure any important files and emails are saved and that other team members know where to find them. 

“People come and go — if you don’t have those files saved, and a good structure for saving information, it’s lost,” Guenther said. “You waste valuable time trying to regather all that information.” 

When an employee does leave, try to keep in touch and maintain a connection with them. “Keep good relationships with folks who leave your organization,” advised Wicks. “That way if you do have a question, you can take them out for coffee and ask.”

If you’re the employee offboarding, remember that keeping track of all interactions with your key stakeholders and progress on your legislative priorities is important to ensure your efforts carry on even if you are the person moving away to a different position.

“As you're doing your job, think about what you can do to make the person who follows’ job as easy and effective as possible,” said Chris Schoenherr, chief external affairs officer at Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency. “We all know that this continuity, this body of knowledge is so easily lost. We're all busy but what can you do to try to at least capture some of it so that the next person doesn't have to start over from scratch. I think we all appreciate that so I think it's just being mindful of who's going to have to follow you. How would you want them to be treated?”

You can know how to deal with legislation, how the process works, the players. But if you don’t know what’s happened in the past and how the actions have built upon each other, you’re only seeing half of the picture.

Sandy Guenther, manager of state government affairs and advocacy engagement
American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons

How to Encourage the Transfer of Institutional Knowledge

Once you have a system in place to retain institutional knowledge, being able to transfer it between employees should also be taken into consideration. 

“Institutional knowledge is half the game,” Guenther said. “You can know how to deal with legislation, how the process works, the players. But if you don’t know what’s happened in the past and how the actions have built upon each other, you’re only seeing half of the picture.” That’s why transferring institutional knowledge is so important for every government affairs team.

Promote Knowledge Sharing From the Start 

Don’t wait until an employee gives their notice before they start sharing their institutional knowledge. Promote knowledge sharing when employees onboard, with training videos and clear explanations of processes and why your organization relies on them.  

Keeping track of all the relevant information has to be a team-wide effort with regular enforcement and an accountability strategy, so it’s important to enforce this to new hires early on.

“We keep copies of all of our correspondence: when we meet with folks, what we talked to them about, etc.,” said Brett Wilkinson, managing director for Dallas’ Office of Strategic Partnerships and Government Affairs. “I've been doing this for 20 years but for somebody who comes on board, I've got to bring them up to speed on everything we're doing and get them to try to get those relationships established on their own with different offices so everybody knows everybody.”

Wicks relies on FiscalNote to quickly find notes and resources on a particular topic that her organization has covered in the past. “It’s really important that we as lobbyists and government affairs folks really paint a picture for new legislators when they may not have the full background.” 

Having this knowledge at your organization’s fingertips also builds trust and credibility with new legislators. “Part of our job is educating,” Wicks said. “When you show up with a folder full of information, it’s really helping to build that relationship and gain trust.” 

How to Educate & Influence New Stakeholders

The right tools can help your organization make your voice heard, educate new stakeholders, and be a top priority for them.

Stimulate of Culture of Collaboration

Keep a good archive of articles published, issues, and processes used that stimulates a culture of collaboration. Having a simple, easy-to-follow procedure in place can motivate employees to stick with it. Make sure to document successes and wins, too. 

Creating a mentorship program that includes shadowing other employees and learning from them can be another strategy to retain institutional knowledge and foster a collaborative environment. “Mentor and buddy programs are important to provide the opportunity to share something with someone in a different area of your organization,” Wicks said. “It’s great to have someone you can freely ask questions of.” 

Creating a culture of collaborative professionals who care about transparency can benefit many aspects of the organization, not just when it comes to retaining institutional knowledge.“One of the best things that can be done to retain institutional knowledge is to have cross-functional teams that can work in several different sectors,” Wicks said. “A company should have a culture that fosters communication and makes a welcoming environment for folks to ask and be willing to share.” 

A culture of collaboration means institutional knowledge can be retained externally as well as internally. When new legislators and staffers arrive in Washington, D.C., you must find ways to educate these new members and their staff and look for common ground to advance your public policy agenda. To do this, you’re going to need a collaborative culture to seamlessly transfer knowledge and put you at the front of the line.

Consider Offering Phased Retirements

Phased retirement refers to an arrangement that allows an employee who is nearing retirement to continue working for a time with a reduced workload, transitioning to part-time work and then to full-time retirement. Phased retirements can have many benefits, and they can certainly help transfer institutional knowledge. Rather than an employee abruptly leaving, phasing out gradually gives them more time to transfer knowledge to other employees, whether it’s through creating training videos, archiving documents, or making introductions to maintain stakeholder relationships. 

Easily Collaborate with FiscalNote’s Workflow Management Tools

FiscalNote’s collaboration tools help organizations keep team members aligned and on the same track, facilitating institutional knowledge gathering and transfer. Leverage these tools so your team can easily share policy updates, strategy developments, and issue status changes in one platform for everyone to see. And you can monitor progress and results by zooming out to see the big picture, or by focusing on a single individual's engagement with a stakeholder. 

“FiscalNote is so important for institutional knowledge,” Wicks said. “In order to access information and refresh our executive team’s memory on issues, we gather up our notes from FiscalNote and print out the report. We’re able to utilize that information and not reinvent the wheel.”

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