Institutional knowledge

Under what circumstances can we correctly attribute knowledge to an institution? The question is interesting not only because it can assist us in attributing responsibility, but also because it can illuminate what information structures and lines of communication should look like in institutions. This post by Säde Hormio is based on her forthcoming article “Institutional knowledge and its normative implications”.

Written by Säde Hormio

We attribute knowledge to institutions on a daily basis, saying things like “the government knew about the threat” or “the university did not act upon the knowledge it had about the harassment”. Institutions also regularly attribute knowledge to themselves.

My question is, under what circumstances can we correctly attribute knowledge to an institution? The question is interesting not only because it can assist us in attributing responsibility, but also because it can illuminate what information structures and lines of communication should look like in institutions.

For an institution to be said to have knowledge about an issue, not every member needs to have knowledge about it. It is not even necessary for the knowledge to be widely distributed within the institution, or for it to be readily available to interested members, or so I will argue. It is economical for an institution to consist of groups of experts that can work together when needed, as this allows for a wide range of skills and expertise to be employed. In fact, the capacity for an institution to have broad and deep knowledge is based on their ability to pool together knowledge from various individuals and sources. It would be totally implausible to demand that for an institution to have knowledge about an issue, all of its members should duly have knowledge about it.

Consider an educational institution like a university. It is composed of several specialised faculties and departments consisting of experts in a given field. Only a fraction of the knowledge found within the institution is acquired by the university’s top management, or shared among the faculties. This does not mean that the information cannot be accessed when necessary, for instance when a journalist or a government agency contacts the university to obtain information about the latest research on some issue.

In general, highly fragmented information within institutions is fine as long as groups of experts are willing to share their knowledge if and when needed. They should also share with others information that affects the institution as a whole, unless there is a policy by the upper levels of the institution to suppress this knowledge. For an institution to be said to have knowledge about something, not every member of it – or indeed even the majority – need to have knowledge about it. Nor does the availability of the information need to be widespread. It is enough that those who are working in areas requiring this knowledge possess it (or, at least, that they could possess it if the executives so wished).

It is important to distinguish between when an institution has knowledge about something through its members, and when members have knowledge that cannot be attributed to the institution. In order to count as institutional knowledge, the knowledge must be attached to the relevant roles and communication lines. Therefore, in an institution with 500 members, the institution does not know X even if 300 of its members know X as individuals, that is, without having an awareness of each other’s knowledge or sharing their knowledge with the executive members. However, the same institution can be said to have knowledge of Y even with only one member knowing Y, as long as it is known to the executives (or the relevant manager in the communication line) that the member has this knowledge. An example of the latter could be a lone researcher within a university biology department focusing on some obscure species of frog. No-one else in the university knows anything about these frogs, but as long as the expertise is known to the relevant people along the lines of communication, then this knowledge is available within the institution.

Often, institutional knowledge is distributed knowledge, meaning that the individuals who possess the institutional knowledge do not have to be gathered together into a task force or a panel of specialists; rather, they do what they do and the institution has the knowledge because of this. The frog specialist is just such an example. Much institutional knowledge is of course documented in different texts or encompassed in files, software programs and so on. This knowledge can be part of institutional knowledge as long as it is accessible to the executives, senior managers or the people working in areas that need it. (If the files are buried in a basement somewhere, they are lost institutional knowledge). Hence, not all of the building blocks of institutional knowledge are traceable back to the knowledge that the individual members currently have.

Recall the lone researcher. The knowledge that the university has on these obscure frogs is highly fragmented and dependent on one person (at least until the researcher writes their knowledge down in a research paper, or teaches students a course on the frogs, and so on). I refer to knowing how to do something as operating knowledge, and the knowledge that allows the individual members to pool what they know and reflect upon it as shared knowledge. For operating knowledge to be ascribed to an institution, it must fall in line with the institution’s structure regarding institutional roles and lines of communication. Institutional statements, such as principles, codes of conduct or mission statements will help to distinguish rogue behaviour from institutional behaviour within roles.

The people directing the institution have to decide what type of knowledge can be fragmented or compartmentalised operating knowledge, and what type of knowledge needs to be shared knowledge, that is, more robust knowledge within the institution. With knowledge about obscure frogs, for instance, it seems acceptable that the institutional knowledge is not robust, and that operating knowledge is sufficient and economical. Sometimes institutional knowledge should also be fragmented, for example when there are concerns about privacy. With other types of knowledge, it might be the case that steps need to be taken to make the institutional knowledge more robust, so that it is widely shared among members.

Although attributions of institutional knowledge are for the most part context-specific, we can still say that institutions have knowledge about something when the members tasked with dealing with knowledge in this area possess it, and the knowledge is attached to the appropriate lines of communication. This knowledge comes in degrees, depending not only on how well the lines of communication work and how fragmented the information is, but also on what the knowledge is used for. Sometimes operative knowledge is preferable to shared knowledge.

What is clear is that ignorance on its own rarely excuses institutions, as their collective capacity to process information far exceeds any individual’s capacities. Institutions can rarely say that they did not know and be done with it. Often, they did have knowledge in the relevant sense, or at least they should have. They can pool knowledge and skills, fund research or have a group of experts dedicate their working hours to thinking through an issue from the institution’s point of view. If the required expertise cannot be found among their existing members, they can hire new staff or employ consultants. Of course, the more complex an institution is, the more it is prone to errors. There might even be a system failure due to a design fault in the institution, resulting in ignorance. Systemic errors should be addressed at the earliest opportunity once they become apparent. Not only that, but they should also be actively looked for and tested for at least in core areas of the institution.


Hormio, Säde (forthcoming) “Institutional knowledge and its normative implications”, in García and Mellin (eds.) Social Ontology, Normativity and Law. De Gruyter, Berlin.


Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash.