Institutional knowledge is the shared and applied knowledge of procedures, rules, traditions, values, history, and performances that exist among members of an organization. Knowledge management is broadly defined as any process (formal or informal) that facilitates the creation, retention, distribution, and application of knowledge for decision purposes, and involves helping individuals within an organization to share knowledge by creating ready access, context, and infrastructure. Knowledge management strategies and techniques can include succession planning, expert software systems, mentoring, organizational storytelling, e-learning, and intergovernmental agency sharing of best practices.

Using an effective knowledge strategy reduces costly learning cycles and facilitates and encourages the sharing and use of knowledge, including the exchange of tacit knowledge (internal to a person) through processes such as knowledge teams. An effective knowledge management strategy provides organizations with the resources to maintain contextual insights on future problems, avoid the repetition of past mistakes, and preserve essential core traditions and norms.

Federal Knowledge Management Working Group

The federal government continues to make steady progress in its systemic knowledge management capacity through the daily knowledge preservation and mentoring activities of veteran employees and the efforts of senior executives to employ and measure the effects of varied strategies including succession planning, organizational storytelling, and communities of practice. The efforts of other organizations such as the Federal Knowledge Management Working Groupan interagency body established by the Federal Chief Information Officers Council and comprised of knowledge management practitioners from the federal, private, and nonprofit sectorsprovide critical information and support to federal agencies in the research, development, identification, and implementation of knowledge management activities, practices, and technologies.

Nonetheless, the federal government continues to demonstrate the need to improve its knowledge management capacity and strategies. In their recent study, Elsa Rhoads and Vincent Ribiere explored the extent of knowledge management practices in federal agencies based on a Working Group-sponsored survey of knowledge management practitioners in 16 cabinet-level departments and 10 independent agencies.

Practitioners evaluated the use of 27 knowledge management practices within their agencies. According to the survey results, federal agencies usedwith greater perceived frequencythe funding support for employees educational initiatives; partnerships or strategic alliances to acquire knowledge; and informal mentoring efforts.

Practices that ranked low among perceived usage in the agencies included the development of explicit criteria to assess knowledge sharing in employee performance evaluations; capture undocumented knowledge from employees before retirement; share knowledge and information through storytelling; and create monetary and nonmonetary incentives for employees knowledge management practices.

Survey participants indicated that the two highest benefits to their agencies as a result of the implementation of knowledge management practices included improved workforce skills and improved workforce efficiency and productivity.

Best Practices Dissemination

A well-conceived and implemented knowledge management strategy can enhance both employee engagement and a well-formed sense of professional identity, particularly among veteran employees who are keenly interested in the preservation and dissemination of significant institutional knowledge. Many older employees envision their roles within agencies as maintaining and conveying a refined sense-making capability within their agencies to their younger colleagues in solving problems and making sense of their external environment.

Capturing and building upon the professional interests of career employees to act as mentors and teachers for future generations of federal employees should be a central priority of federal human capital planning at a critical stage in the history of the federal government. In fact, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has taken steps to disseminate best practices in mentoring among federal agencies.

The need for greater emphasis on systemic and effective knowledge management practices is magnified when considering demographic trends in the federal government. OPM estimates that of the 956,613 full-time permanent federal employees who will be eligible to retire through FY 2016, 61.3 percent of these individuals (more than 586,000 employees) will retire during that time period.

The departure of these employees creates the potential loss of vital knowledge, skills, and abilities within federal agencies. Without effective knowledge management practices in place and an organizational culture that fully supports a learning organizational workplace, a federal agency may not fully realize the depth of the loss of information or plan in advance to identify, retain, and disseminate critical information, values, traditions, and expert sense-making.

Maintaining and enhancing knowledge management in federal agencies depends on fostering values and reinforcing daily practices and activities that support the agencies sense-making and knowledge management capabilities. Some assert that certain core values are a prerequisite for an organizations support of the transfer of knowledge.

These values encompass the beliefs that institutional knowledge represents a primary organizational asset that must be shared and developed through the active involvement of employees in an organizations knowledge management strategies and practices. But others suggest that the preservation of values and traditions itself becomes an intrinsic value for individuals who are seeking to maintain and respect past practices, protocols, and perspectives.

One might consider human capital initiativesincluding the development of an organizations workforce talents and skillsas critical to successful knowledge management and knowledge retention. Human capital policies and programs include the development of a succession plan for critical positions of employees and frontline managers and the creation of a culture and policies that support the retention of older, experienced employees.

Further, an organization must establish or reinforce values and processes that make knowledge acquisition and knowledge sharing an ingrained daily activity among employees of the organization. It has also been observed that too many organizations focus their succession planning efforts on senior executives without creating succession plans for frontline managers and critical nonmanagement positions.

Engage veteran employees in the process of identifying skills and knowledge gaps within their agencies and collaborating with management to design training, work assignments, coaching, and mentoring opportunities, including the development of nonmanagement technical adviser and frontline manager knowledge management-related positions.

Succession Planning

Veteran employees should not only be involved in the development of the agencys succession planning, but also encouraged to apply for available frontline management and technical adviser positions through upward mobility programs that are focused on promoting experienced employees to knowledge management-related positions, based on merit selection and completion of certain approved criteria such as training and job rotation assignments.

The involvement of veteran employees in knowledge management roles requires federal agencies to establish tasks, assignments, and responsibilities through revised position descriptions, performance appraisals, and reward systems that encourage employees to formulate and implement knowledge management projects, including educating younger colleagues about significant institutional knowledge, its meaning, and application.

In an expanded formal succession planning process, veteran employees can also serve as mentors, instructors, coaches, and advisors to convey core values, stories, and critical insights to less experienced employees. A more robust planning and implementation role of veteran employees in agency succession planning would enhance the identity of these employees as valued partners in the stewardship of their agencies.


By playing an active role in imparting institutional knowledge through a well-considered succession plan, veteran employees would gain trust in their agency and indicate a respect for them.

Federal Supervisory Training

Frontline managers play a vital role in helping to build and maintain values that underly an effective knowledge management culture by empowering employees to

  • be innovative
  • assume leadership roles of knowledge management projects
  • possess a sense of stewardship over the direction of the work of their agency.

Recently proposed federal legislation introduced by Senator Daniel Akakathe Federal Supervisor Training Act (S. 674)would provide an excellent first step to develop the talents of frontline supervisors to help their agencies enhance their learning cultures by training supervisors in mentoring and motivating employees and fostering a more respectful work environment.

Greater efforts must also be focused on providing frontline supervisors with formal, varied management experiences through job details, rotations, and stretch assignments that involve the development of diverse knowledge management skills, including organizational needs assessments, succession planning, coaching, and e-learning, as part of agency-supported individual management development plans.

Interagency assignments would be particularly helpful to provide supervisors with valuable perspective and enrichment on best practices in knowledge management throughout the federal government. All of these efforts would help foster a federal workplace in which veteran employees more readily offer better and more innovative ways to develop and to convey sense-making capabilities and vital institutional knowledge to succeeding generations of employees.

Values and Respect

In Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce, David W. DeLong asserts that consistency in values and respect for the contributions of employees within an organization represents a fundamental part of a social environment that fosters effective knowledge retention practices:

Asking professionals and managers to share the intellectual capital, which is a primary source of their value to the organization, requires considerable trust on the part of the employee. Decisions to share what they have learned will be determined by whether the organization has earned that trust by demonstrating respect for its employeesIn addition to trust, a culture should also be assessed for the degree to which it encourages individual development

In fact, the most critical characteristic of a culture supporting retention is that its norms and practices be completely aligned with the performance values needed to inspire knowledge sharing...When employees see a disconnect between the values touted by leadership and the values actually reflected in management practices, they conclude that the espoused values of knowledge sharing and learning are not taken seriously by the organization, and managements credibility is undermined.

As suggested by DeLong, a fundamental impediment to effective retention of institutional knowledge begins with perceived inconsistencies in performance values between veteran employees and senior management. Such inconsistencies impair trust and foster doubts about managements willingness to develop meaningful knowledge-retention strategies.

Other researchers find that social context within an organization affects the perception of success that employees experience in the accumulation and sharing of knowledge. A supportive culture that provides clear messages and rewards for effective knowledge maintenance and dissemination fosters employee expectations to share information and to learn from others.

A knowledge management culture must be supported by clear senior executive performance goals that are tied to the achievement of measurable outcomes such as succession planning, mentoring programs, expert systems, and communities of practice. Such a performance management system would be materially aided by annual employee assessment and evaluation of senior executive performance to accomplish knowledge management objectives on behalf of the agency.

OPM Employee Viewpoint Survey

It is important for an agency to objectively comprehend its strengths and weaknesses concerning knowledge management and employee engagement, and that is why OPM created an employee survey instrument. Both the 2008 OPM Human Capital Survey and the reconstituted and renamed 2010 OPM Employee Viewpoint Survey will help federal employees to assess the actual knowledge management practices of senior management.

This includes the existence and success of succession planning programs and the degree to which employees are actively involved and engaged in the transfer of institutional knowledge through programs such as formal mentoring, organizational storytelling, and communities of practice. A more specific focus on measuring best practices would help bring improvement to an agencys knowledge management capabilities and the fuller engagement of career employees.

Refinements to future OPM Employee Viewpoint Surveys that more fully consider employees assessments of existing knowledge management practices, processes, and values with the workplace, federal agencies, and OPM would put federal agencies in a better informed position to understand agency strengths and limitations and to model successful knowledge transfer programs that could include incentives such as enhanced funding for agencies that ranked highest in knowledge management effectiveness in accordance with established criteria.

These criteria could include creating succession planning for nonmanagement and frontline manager positions, innovation awards for employees ideas on knowledge transfer, and consistent and effective employee-management collaboration in implementing best practices in knowledge retention and transfer. As a consequence of true assessment and valid recognition with federal agencies for their knowledge management practices, veteran employees would be far more challenged, respected, and engaged in the greater collective mission of preserving institutional knowledge and in creating more effective knowledge management systems.

Collectively, these suggested measures emphasize the necessity for agencies to be mindful of the social context that support employees in learning, teaching, and applying the lessons of the past to future challenges. Organizational cultural support for a learning environment and sound knowledgemanagement practices require the need for a multilevel agency approach to integrating career employees, first-line supervisors, and senior executives in a collaborative learning process.

This can greatly assist federal agencies to maintain and enhance the values of continual learning, effective knowledge retention, and knowledge management and to gain a passion for imparting an enhanced sense-making capability for future generations of federal employees for the benefit of their agencies missions.