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Human Resources

Connecting old and new: How to capture institutional knowledge

Preserving institutional knowledge and making it accessible to faculty, staff, and students is critical
University Business, August 2013

HR professionals at colleges or universities readily admit that institutional history is important. But not every school is taking steps to capture it.

This is especially important now as more baby boomers retire, walking out the front door with 30 or more years of institutional knowledge and experience. Preserving that knowledge and making it accessible to faculty, staff, and students is critical. After all, how can officials know where the institution is headed if they don’t know where it’s been?

“Universities don’t seem to have a real great formal process,” says Joyce LeMay, an HR consultant and associate professor in the business and economics department at Bethel University (Minn). “It’s something I believe that HR departments need to start paying attention to.”

Like many schools, Bethel supports roughly 20 different administrative and faculty committees that make decisions covering a wide variety of topics ranging from academic policies to IT issues.

Bethel captures institutional history through these committees, which, by design, include younger faculty and staff as well as those who are tenured or have been employed there for decades. This mix ensures a constant flow of information between old and new so campus knowledge, personal stories, and memories of key processes and events are passed on to the next generation workforce.

As an example, LeMay points to one of the committees she served on that was reviewing promotion and tenure processes. “We had not updated them for a long time,” she says. “We wanted to know what happened, how did these original processes get put into place. So we went to someone who had been here for 30-plus years. He said he could pull out old documents and remembered conversations about what went on. It was so helpful.”

Video scrapbook

Visitors to Kalamazoo College’s (Mich.) Story Zoo can watch videos of staff and students telling how Kalamazoo helped shape their lives. For example, one graduate explains how his experiences there led him to join the Peace Corps. Another describes how liberal arts passions can be profitable, and two alumni from the early 1980s talk about their ongoing friendship that started during their freshman orientation.

The site was launched last year, and the college plans to expand the videos beyond personal experiences. Officials hope that some videos will explain the origin of the school’s processes and systems—including tenure, faculty committees, or selecting department chairs—and how they have changed over the years, explains Jeffrey Palmer, spokesperson for the college.

Palmer says the school is especially interested in the evolution of its K-Plan, which is the school’s brand of liberal arts. It combines rigorous scholarship, career and scholarly internships, leadership development, international travel, and intercultural development. Next year, he says the school will encourage retired and emeriti faculty and staff to have their stories captured by the college’s media services department.

Capture and store

When changing long-established policies, it’s helpful for stakeholders to understand the initial thought process on which a policy is based. Without that history, LeMay says faculty and staff could unnecessarily travel down “different rabbit trails” because they lack a full understanding of the school’s culture.

Collecting historical information is a worthless endeavor unless it’s stored in an accessible central database or repository. LeMay says individual departments often keep their own documents, but are protective of them, and staff can be suspicious of those who want to review them. She believes HR needs to develop stronger ties between the academic and staff sides of their school to avoid an “us versus them mentality.”

What information should be collected? LeMay suggests conducting exit interviews with all faculty and staff, regardless of rank or position, asking:

  • What projects have you worked on? 
  • What key documents can you share? 
  • What was the context or intent behind important school processes, policies, and decisions? 
  • What did the original policies or documents state or require? How did they evolve?
  • Who was initially involved in establishing those policies or processes?

Listening to staff or faculty stories also honors people’s previous accomplishments. In academia, she says people’s egos are often involved so it’s important for HR to respect their past efforts and contributions. HR needs to “decide what to capture, how to store it, and how to retrieve it. [But] the common response from HR is, ‘We just don’t do this, we don’t address this. It’s not on our radar.’ ”

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer.