5 Ways to Gain Institutional Knowledge Swiftly

People are shifting jobs more often than ever—which makes it critical for them to understand your organization’s operations.

So you’ve got a big new job. Congratulations! And now you need to learn everything about the company—starting yesterday. Experts say that the crash course begins not on Day 0, but ideally a month before you take the role. 

Once upon a time, employees would stay at a firm for years, but today they might change jobs three times in a decade—especially those between the ages of 25 and 34, whose average tenure at roles is only 2.8 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This makes it absolutely essential to acquire institutional knowledge quickly.

Experts say that boning up is not just a matter of getting up to speed on your firm’s current activities. “You’ll have more credibility in leadership roles if you understand the history of the organization,” says Sunny Levitt, an executive career and leadership coach with Korn Ferry Advance. Your curriculum should include a broad list of topics: highs and lows, products and services (historical and current), mergers and acquisitions—the list goes on. And many of these details aren’t formally documented anywhere. Yes, of course you can read news articles and press releases and shareholder reports, but the company’s internal goings-on over time are rarely recorded coherently in writing, let alone easy to find, especially for a new employee. We gathered our hiring experts’ best advice on how to acquire institutional knowledge rapidly.

Create a curriculum. 

Consider it a mini master’s degree in the operations of your new company, including strategy, customers, products, and finance, as well as teams and current key projects. “Read and consume as much information on the organization as possible,” says Seth Steinberg, senior client partner at Korn Ferry.

Go to work. 

Even if your role mandates only one or two in-office days a week, prepare to spend the next six months there more or less full-time. Many pearls of wisdom are only stored in people’s minds, and the best way to access them is in person.

Eat at the company cafeteria. 

If there are corporate lunch facilities, this is your new spot—not just at midday but also at any other time when shift workers may appear. “Be there every day,” says David Vied, global sector leader for medical devices and diagnostics, because it’s often the best place to take the temperature of employee sentiment and meet people beyond your team and department. 

Talk to people in functional roles. 

When you’re looking for raw information, the people who get things done every week are a vast repository of helpful information. This includes administrative staffers (executive assistants, receptionists, support positions, etc.), as well as junior-level finance people who “have the most level-headed understanding of the history of the business,” says Vied. 

Get involved. 

One way to learn fast is to participate in teams and projects—but do so early. “Offer your time before you get bogged down with day-to-day responsibilities,” says Steinberg.


For more expert career advice, connect with a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance.