Urgent: save those emails

Do we need to preserve Vice-Chancellors’ emails?

A diverting essay in Inside Higher Ed has a call for the preservation of presidential email:

…boards of trustees should act – with a sense of urgency. They might begin by appointing a task force, composed of professional historians, lawyers, board members, and administrators, to recommend procedures for an independent review of the correspondence of presidents and provosts. Although a mandate that all communications should reside in library archives might have a chilling effect on email exchanges and boost the telephone bills of academic leaders, it should be considered as well. Equally important, boards of trustees should set aside funds for the review – and for cataloging presidential and provostial papers having just completed a history of Cornell from 1940 to the present, co-authored with my colleague Isaac Kramnick, I can attest to the massive challenges posed by uncataloged collections, which contain millions of documents.

In addition to making possible more accurate institutional histories, complete and accessible presidential “papers” might well help sitting presidents facing tough decisions, by allowing them to understand what their predecessors considered, said and did in similar situations.

So should universities do this? And is it really as urgent as this essay suggests? I don’t think so. There is a strong case to be made for better records retention in universities but to focus exclusively on vice-chancellors’ or presidents’ emails would seem to me to be too narrow a take. And surely they get as much nonsense and spam as everyone else?


Retaining institutional knowledge


Inside Higher Ed has an interesting article on avoiding the loss of valuable institutional knowledge which occurs when employees move on.

Previous An earlier post commented on the importance of institutional history but this is more about the efficient retention of business critical information. It’s an thought provoking commentary:

There are steps organizations can take to reduce the level of institutional knowledge that they lose with the loss of skilled employees. Specialized training, documentation of processes, and job sharing are a few of the ways to combat this loss. One of the more effective methods of lessening the loss of institutional knowledge is having the older and more experienced workers serve as mentors and trainers, allowing them to pass on their knowledge to others within the organization. In order to prepare for the loss of institutional knowledge and plan for knowledge transfer, organizations must develop strategies to ensure business continuity. This is something that many organizations, I believe, are not doing enough.

files pile

My 2012 survey of our Gen-X and millennial employees were asked a number of questions dealing with institutional knowledge. They were asked them about the value of their institutional knowledge and perception of the loss that the institution would suffer if they left. They were also asked about the business process and continuity, and other skills that they had acquired while working at the institution, and what outcomes (including gains or losses) would the institution realize, if they left. The results of the survey from these questions were not as surprising.

The majority of both generational groups believed that what they have learned at the institution was very important and had value. Furthermore, they maintained that this value, or institutional knowledge, would be a critical issue if not addressed by management. Both generational groups believed that their supervisors and managers would be hard-pressed to find replacement employees with similar skills or knowledge. The institution did not have either a tacit or explicit formal plan to transfer knowledge. Though the responses were not surprising and had a bit of humility tied into their responses, it did bring up the question of what we’re doing to retain, acquire, or transfer this knowledge before they leave.

card index

Additional research or studies may be necessary to really understand the importance of institutional knowledge and the methodologies by which to retain or acquire it. Aside from several articles on the subject, there’s not much published on this topic.

On a larger scale, I believe that if efforts aren’t made to address the retention of Gen. X and millennial employees, we could possibly see a large gap in the loss of institutional knowledge, continuity and history that the earlier generational groups had or made available. This knowledge may be difficult to replace. Hopefully, additional work on this subject will bring this issue to the forefront and lead to effective implementation of plans to preserve institutional knowledge.

I’m not sure that the target group of Generation X and millennial staff is the key grouping here but the general point about the need to develop plans to retain institutional knowledge is well made. Part of the solution is systemic, i.e. having the document management systems and processes which encourage and require knowledge retention, and the other element is cultural, everyone has to recognise the importance and value of preserving this kind of information in the long term interest of the institution. This does however require a really serious strategic focus on the issue and probably not insignificant investment of resource.