How to Gain Institutional Knowledge—Fast

Do you feel like it takes years at a job to really know what’s going on? There’s a better way.

Published: May 2, 2023

Keenan set an ambitious goal to be promoted within his first three years at a new company. To achieve it, he knew he needed to start contributing meaningfully right away — he couldn’t spend the first year getting up to speed. As soon as onboarding began, he started trying to build his institutional knowledge.

Institutional knowledge is an understanding of the organization, industry, and department, including where it started, where it is today, and where it’s going. “It gives you context for the organizational strategy and vision so you can align your goals and actions with that and contribute better, sooner in your tenure with the company,” says Sunny Levitt, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. 

But institutional knowledge — and building up the strong network who can help you gain it — typically takes a long time. Here are our tips for fast-tracking this valuable asset.

Institutional knowledge gives you context for the organizational strategy and vision so you can align your goals and actions with that and contribute better, sooner in your tenure with the company.

Learn what's already been tried.

While there’s certainly value to coming into a team with fresh eyes and ideas, a lot of time gets wasted when a new person tries something that has already been ruled out as an option for good reasons.  

As you get to know your new role, career experts say to spend time finding out what people who have been there longer than you have tried and what happened as a result. Dig deeper and learn why the experiment failed or the team decided to go in a different direction, and attempt to learn some pitfalls and organizational bottlenecks you can avoid. Conversely, try to get to the heart of what made the successes successful so you can emulate that.

Ask people how to do things.  

It’s common — and frustrating — to take on a new role and learn that various processes central to doing your job well aren’t documented. “Figuring out how to work through an issue yourself can take forever, but when you ask a colleague to show you how to do it, it takes half the time,” Levitt says. 

Then, take the initiative to document the processes in an internal database. A big part of the point of institutional knowledge is building up a foundation of organizational information that benefits everyone, not just yourself.  

Get a wider view than your team. 

Asking your colleagues and manager how to do things is important, but networking beyond your team is extremely valuable, too. Whenever you talk to someone to get up to speed, ask them who else you need to know and politely request an introduction.  

Also, take advantage of remote working technology to sit in on other meetings around the organization — when appropriate and with permission, of course. The fastest way to gain broader context is to observe what your peers are doing and what projects are happening in parallel to what your team is working on. Then, share insights back to your team so everyone can benefit.

Do independent research. 

"You'll have more credibility in present and future leadership roles if you understand the history of the organization, its highs and lows, products and services that have been launched and retired, mergers and acquisitions, etc.,” Levitt says. Read media, shareholder reports, press releases, and even use the Wayback Machine to see previous versions of the company website.

Not only will this awareness help you more accurately estimate how long it will take to complete projects and enact change, but it will help you keep your contributions in line with the organizational goals and culture. You may be eager to change some things about the culture, but unless you were hired as an executive, you’ll have the best chance of rising to a place where you can change the rules if you learn how to play by them for a period of time.  

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