Safeguarding a Precious Extension Asset: Institutional Knowledge

I ended 2008 with two indelible impressions that helped me gain a clearer perspective on how we, as an organization with a long, venerable history, should be passing along our institutional torch from generation to generation.

The first impression stemmed from the inspiring “last lecture” of Dr. Randy Pausch, the creatively brilliant, doggedly optimistic Carnegie Mellon University professor who lost his courageous struggle with pancreatic cancer in 2008.

The last lecture concept, which is used widely at many leading universities throughout the United States, was initially envisioned as a kind of dramatic device:  Faculty members are invited to reflect on their lifetime insights and professional achievements as if they were delivering the last lecture of their lives.  In Pausch’s case, the presentation turned out to be not only a literal last lecture but also one of the most memorable valedictory addresses in history.

A Viral Sensation

Recorded and posted on Carnegie-Mellon’s youtube site, the lecture soon went viral, transforming Pausch in the last months of his life into a media celebrity, a national spokesperson for pancreatic cancer and, ultimately, a best-selling author.

I’ve watched the youtube lecture and read the book several times.  Many of Pausch’s insights will stay with me for the rest of my life.

The Ethereal Nature of Institutional Knowledge

That was my first deep impression. The second one originated from a series of conversations with a handful of friends and coworkers about the ethereal nature of institutional knowledge.

Ethereal, defined as “extremely delicate and refined,” is an especially useful adjective within this context, because institutional knowledge, despite the valuable role it serves in organizations, is precisely that — extremely delicate and refined — and fleeting.

Institutional knowledge is the agglomeration of facts, concepts and experiences that have been generated and refined over years, decades, even centuries, in some cases, within an organization.  Despite the long periods of time required to grow and refine this knowledge, much of it cannot be fully articulated — which is perhaps one reason why it is so ethereal.

Of course, other types of knowledge are also indispensable to organizational success, such as how an organization employs its formal knowledge base — the hard, empirical type of knowledge generated by research and recorded in books and other media.

But the value of institutional knowledge should never be discounted.

NASA’s Experience

A close friend of mine who works as an industrial engineering professor at my university has observed that both kinds of knowledge, formal and institutional knowledge, propelled men to the moon and back in the late 60’s and 70’s.

Likewise, a combination of the two was critical to the success of the Apollo 13 mission in 1970.  Drawing on both knowledge bases, an eclectic array of rocket scientists, flight specialists and engineers collaborated effectively to fling three men in a badly injured spacecraft around the dark side of the moon and, ultimately, back to safety on earth.

As I said, though, institutional knowledge is fleeting: Any NASA engineer will readily attest that the body of institutional knowledge that propelled men to the moon and that safeguarded the Apollo 13 astronauts has been lost through a host of factors, including reduced funding, downsizing and retirement.

While most, if not all, of the formal knowledge associated with the Apollo moon mission could be retrieved from troves of archival materials, much of the institutional knowledge has been irretrievably lost. And without this institutional knowledge, some of the formal knowledge isn’t much good.

A retired Extension colleague of mine rightfully has pointed out that Cooperative Extension is undergoing a similar kind institutional knowledge loss in the midst of funding reductions and steady retirements.

Even in cases in which funding is available to replace retired Extension faculty members, the successors  often turn out to be  young tenure-track professionals who struggle to balance Extension work against a heavy load of teaching and research responsibilities.

Lessons from Randy Pausch and the Last Lecture Concept

Consequently, many of these young Extension professionals, despite a genuine affinity for Extension work, fail to develop the same levels of refined institutional knowledge that characterized earlier generations of Extension professionals.

This brings me back to my first impression: Randy Pausch and the last lecture concept.  To be sure, reversing the loss of institutional knowledge within Cooperative Extension is not something that can be readily addressed.

But the last lecture concept is a start.  Ponder this sobering fact: We are allowing hundreds, if not thousands, of Extension educators who collectively represent hundreds of years of institutional knowledge to leave each year without sharing their insights with the rising generations of young educators who are taking their places.

Last lectures are no panacea, but they are a start.  They should become a revered tradition within the Extension mission as well as an integral part of a comprehensive strategy to preserve our invaluable, but nonetheless ethereal, institutional knowledge base.

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