Friday, September 18, 2009

Retaining Institutional Knowledge for the Long Term

By Jeff Stump, Easement Program Director
Marin Agricultural Land Trust

Land trusts are unique in that there are few, if any, other organizations - public, private, not-for profit, or otherwise - which involve themselves in activities spanning time horizons that can last in perpetuity. When most organizations talk about "long term" planning, the implication is that they are looking 5 to 10 years (maybe even 20) into the future, in contrast with the nearly infinite amount of time that land trusts, like Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), are required to monitor and enforce easements that they hold. Databases and records systems can provide a good tomb for the legal documents and quantitative information associated with an easement property. But how does a land trust plan to retain the essential, yet ephemeral knowledge that can be critical to maintaining good relationships with the people, community, and business interests on and around the land? Initially, computers and systems were built to manage data, but increasingly - as the tools advance and progress - they are starting to manage real knowledge. ConservationTrack® (a web-based tool developed for supporting land trusts' activities) is a new tool designed to capture and retain institutional knowledge for the long term.

MALT is in the process of capturing key knowledge from its long-time Executive Director’s head and from deep within dusty file cabinets, and storing it in an accessible yet secure fashion. We are using ConservationTrack to document and store knowledge and information regarding agricultural conservation easements acquired over the past 29 years in a secure online environment. We recognize that staff will come and go, but that knowledge, once captured in a system, goes from being tribal (i.e. information that is passed by word of mouth) to being institutional (held and managed in a way that it stays with the institution, as opposed to inside people's heads). The process for capturing knowledge is not an easy or a trivial endeavor - and it starts with a foundation of key data, such as contracts, dates, figures, and reports. Without preserving such baseline information, knowledge has no context. Once a system (even if it is a file cabinet) contains the complete core data, the fun can begin.

Storing knowledge at a given point in time can be relatively easy, in that it can be gathered through conversation and recorded in a document, diary, or even on a napkin. The challenge is to develop a process by which knowledge is captured automatically and through the course of performing day to day activities. Let’s take the easement negotiation process as an example: ConservationTrack’s real estate module allows you to copy the system as a recipient on any email. Then every conversation, easement revision, or attachment send via email will be captured and retained by the system. So, not only do we retain the proposed changes to an easement, w also retain the conversations and thus the context of the changes. This is an example where a simple change in the normal process (such as adding a ConservationTrack email address) can automatically capture the intent and history of an easement and retain it long beyond any individual’s tenure. In example like this, where technology facilitates capturing knowledge into systems, a legacy of knowledge and information can be accumulated and live on as part of the institutional memory.

Another powerful example by which technology can build strong institutional knowledge is the search. Assume that an organization has successfully captured every email, document, conversation, and thought related to a particular property and stored it in an appropriate off-site archive. If future staff is not made aware of this information, or given ready access to it, then the information essentially does not exist as there is no awareness of it. New search technologies built into ConservationTrack allow users to type in a property name or certain property attributes, and immediately receive all the relevant information about that property. Better yet, instead of having to search through boxes of files and make copies of previously copied documents, the information is delivered electronically to your desktop or even to your laptop while traveling or working at a home office.

These examples demonstrate the capabilities and functions of ConservationTrack that MALT is using to retain institutional knowledge and to make it available to staff for the long term.