Addressing organizational brain drain

Don't let your agency be caught in an ineffective loop of relearning lessons and repeating preventable mistakes


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Did you know that some traffic cones are flammable? I didn't realize this until I tried to pioneer a new traffic control device by combining road flares and traffic cones. Before this, no one in my agency had ever considered whether traffic cones were flammable, but my accidental experiment illuminated an unknown unknown.

Whenever I run into new officers from my old agency and introduce myself, their face lights up as they tell me they heard of me during their in-service training on not letting incendiary objects get too close to traffic cones. Having this kind of celebrity status hurts a little. Still, I’m proud of my old agency's efforts to protect government property and preserve “institutional knowledge,” which is the information possessed by past and present members of an organization.

Along the lines of losses brought about by conflagration, an old proverb tells us that whenever an elder dies, a library burns to the ground. The saying brings to mind the knowledge toll paid by law enforcement agencies and their communities when seasoned officers leave the job, sometimes known as “brain drain.”

Agencies that do not effectively capture job-specific knowledge possessed by those departing will need to devote more resources to getting new officers up to speed.
Agencies that do not effectively capture job-specific knowledge possessed by those departing will need to devote more resources to getting new officers up to speed. (Getty Images)

The past year has seen an increase in those leaving law enforcement, and agencies that have not effectively captured the job-specific knowledge possessed by those departing will need to devote more resources to getting new officers up to speed. They will also likely see a recurrence of mistakes and inefficiencies that were previously mitigated by the knowledgeable officers who left.

Agencies should take the initiative to develop systems that help prevent the loss of institutional knowledge. And preserving institutional knowledge doesn't need to be complicated. Here are four steps agencies can take to jumpstart their institutional knowledge libraries:

1. Assign responsibility to an institutional knowledge "librarian”

Most agency administrators and members likely believe it's a good idea to have a library of institutional knowledge. But, as with any project, failing to assign responsibility for the task is a sure way to prevent its accomplishment.

Agencies need to select who they want to be responsible for gathering and disseminating institutional knowledge. This could be the agency training manager, but it could also be another agency member with the necessary skills for the assignment, such as interviewing, writing, and knowledge management. Perhaps the information could be organized and distributed using an agency repository similar to Police1's Institutional Knowledge Project.

2. Foster a culture of collective learning and knowledge retention

What seems familiar to one person may be a revelation to another. Agency leadership should encourage agency members to share important but perhaps lesser-known lessons they’ve learned with the institutional knowledge librarian. These lessons could be on any number of topics, such as tips to keep people safe, pointers to increase effectiveness or other advice for improved performance or quality of life.

Supplying the institutional knowledge library with information from sources such as news media reports of noteworthy events and agency-created critical incident debriefing materials is another way to help agencies preserve relevant institutional information.

3. Employ the convenience of agency-provided mobile communication devices

Most agency members are familiar with creating and sending texts, emails and videos using their agency-issued mobile devices. Why not utilize this technology to conveniently record lessons learned? For example, the institutional knowledge librarian can record brief interviews of members who have helpful knowledge to share. Members can also individually share knowledge that might be helpful to others by creating a video on their mobile device where they describe their experiences, tips, or lessons learned, much like Gordon Graham’s Today’s Tips. Or they can document their knowledge via text or email messages. They can then send their videos and messages to the institutional knowledge librarian for collection and dissemination as appropriate.

4. Consider converting the best information into policy or procedure

Some knowledge or lessons are so important that agencies should consider incorporating them into policies or procedures as organizational best practices going forward.

Conclusion

I once arrested a career criminal who told me that, between all the cops, we know everything about what's going on in the world of crime; we just don't talk to each other about what we know.

When someone asks why we do something a certain way, will you know the answer? How about when someone asks for the best way to do something you've never done before? You may not know, but I'll bet some past or current member of your organization does. And you can easily find those answers if your organization has a robust library of institutional knowledge. However, if your institutional knowledge library contains only the ashes of lost wisdom, your organization may be caught in an ineffective loop of relearning lessons and repeating preventable mistakes.


Participate in Police1's Institutional Knowledge Project

Participate in Police1's Institutional Knowledge Project

Police1 established the Institutional Knowledge Project to create a repository of lessons learned around the management of people, policy, training, supervision and discipline that can be applied by future generations of police supervisors and leaders when handling similar situations.


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