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When institutional knowledge blinds us

4 min read


This post is part of the series “Communication,” a weeklong effort co-hosted by SmartBrief’s SmartBlog on Leadership and the folks at Switch & ShiftKeep track of the series here and check out our daily e-mail newsletter, SmartBrief on Leadership. Don’t subscribe? Sign up.

The best part about working at a place for a few years, especially when you’re in operations and at least somewhat outgoing, is that you get to know everything. You know how systems work, how personalities work, whom to go to for this or that. You know about legacy systems, clients, people and those weird shortcuts that don’t make any sense so they have to be memorized.

It’s a great feeling. But you now have no idea what you don’t know, and if you’re not willing to listen, you can quickly become a force preventing needed change and nimble creativity.

This danger is something I have thought about as I mark 4.5 years at SmartBrief next week. Much of what I know and do is practiced by rote. My efficiency means I’m not thinking about what I’m doing, and often not thinking about whether others know what I know, or what we could do better.

There were a few incidents in recent months that reminded me that I need to do better — in recognizing the blind spots I’ve developed and communicating what I do and don’t know more effectively. Here are some dangers to thinking you know everything that goes on:

  • The bug you work around but never remember to fix: A co-worker mentioned to me on a December call how a function we use could be more efficient. I agreed — but I had also agreed three years ago, gotten used to the slightly inefficient design and never thought about it again. This co-worker, being fairly new, saw this as a more glaring flaw. Worth declaring a crisis over? No, but certainly not worth shrugging at, like I’d inadvertently done.
  • Assuming something can’t be fixed or that it’s too difficult: That same week, I was using a tool in need of an updated design to match what we currently do. It’s a somewhat unique function that’s mostly for our own use, not the public’s viewing, so I thought some combination of “It wasn’t a priority” or “It must be a real pain.” Another person on the project, who doesn’t work directly with the tool, immediately wrote, “Can’t we fix this?” The quick answer: “Yes!” And that’s in the works because someone who didn’t know better thought, “Hey, what’s up with that?”
  • Too much disorganized knowledge lying around: We publish more than 200 e-mail newsletters, so it’s really important to have internal guidelines on how to best create each one, as well as to have outlines of our best practices. Many companies will have their own version of this. But do we need every document with stuff from 2009 that has wildly out of date info? On the flip side, remember that awesome guide to best practices you sent out eight months ago? Well, seven people have been hired since then who have no idea that document exists. In both cases, it’s critical to schedule time to reorganize, re-evaluate, and update.
  • Your brain is the sole keeper: Related to the last point, aren’t we all proud of all our knowledge? We are the kings and queens of the office! But how useful is all that knowledge if you don’t share it with others — to educate, to improve, to work smarter, faster and better, to bring teams and departments together, to find areas of shared expertise and interest where you would have least suspected? Don’t give out your nuggets like God giving Moses the commandments, but look wherever possible to make sure what you know is living knowledge, driving and enriching the organization’s efforts.

Is this you? If so, congratulate yourself for your knowledge, and then use this as motivation. Imagine how much better you could be if your curiosity, generosity and imagination matched your institutional knowledge?

James daSilva is a senior editor at SmartBrief and manages SmartBlog on Leadership. He edits SmartBrief’s newsletters on leadership, entrepreneurship and sustainability, among others. Before joining SmartBrief, he was copy desk chief at a daily newspaper in New York. You can find him on Twitter discussing leadership and management issues @SBLeaders.