“Real Artists Ship”

Colin Johnson’s blog

Known Unknowns (1)

The problem of keeping track of institutional wisdom is well known. It is very easy for knowledge about how an organisation works, tips and tricks of solving common problems, or just basic knowledge about people and resources to be “stored” in the head of a single individual or small group. Many years ago I worked at a university where one person, and only that person, knew everything about how the university timetable worked. He was about to retire, and it was a great effort for him to formalise 40 years of informal rules and casual knowledge to pass onto his successors.

Nonetheless, there are ways of eliciting this information. A hard problem, perhaps, is that of recording institutional ignorance. What don’t we know? What issues are disputed? What issues are handled in different ways? Clearly, if such issues can be resolved quickly, then they can be put onto agendas of meetings, and ways found to resolve them. But, what about the longer-term issues? Those that don’t have a quick fix, or where there is deep-seated disagreement about them, or where there is just no resource to sort them out.

It isn’t easy to record this sort of thing. Some people like to think that everything is clean and well-run within an organisation, and that even the act of recording these issues is an admission of failure. In other organisations, there is a lack of willingness to accept that the “official line” isn’t being kept, that people are running shadow systems because the official system isn’t working for the task at hand, or that the only reason for the dispute is lack of knowledge about the “proper” way of doing things. Other organisations are “solution focused”, and believe that anything that is problematic should be sorted out as soon as possible, in ignorance of the constraints of time and resources. All of these belie the complexity of large organisations. It would be shocking to find an organisation in which at least a few issues were unresolved or disputed.

One technology which has a lot of potential for this are shared wiki-style documents. These have the flexibility to act as a repository for information of this kind, without the commitment to “sort it out” that a meeting agenda has. Furthermore, different people can contribute, and, if the organisation is confident enough, different approaches included and discussed, putative solutions recorded, etc. Another advantage is that things are grouped by topic rather than by time.

More generally, there is a need for a repository in-between meeting minutes and policies. A place to store the casual wisdom and notes on practice that are not important or authoritative enough to be recorded in institutional regulations and policies.

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