Institutional Intelligence

Institutional Intelligence:   the capacity to work effectively within organizations.  It involves understanding how institutions work and knowing how best to foster the capacity of the institution to fulfil its organizational purpose. 

It means recognizing that institutions are essential for human flourishing without sentimentalizing them.  Institutions have a hard edge; no doubt.   But institutional intelligence means knowing that we can and must “tend” them, to use James K.A.Smith’s term – attend to how they work, how they flourish and how we, as individuals, can recognize our contribution to their flourishing. 

It also means recognizing that none of us will fulfill our individuals vocations or callings without attending to the place that we have in partnership with others in and through institutions.   An artist learns to work with a local art gallery.  A pastor comes to an appreciation of the institutional character of congregational life.   A doctor learns comes to an understanding of how hospitals work.   That is, they develop institutional intelligence – the kind of intelligence that is essential to the stewardship of their work. 

 Seven Different Capacities

What is proposed here is that institutional intelligence involves seven different capacities – intellectual capacities that translate into effective behavior within organizations. 

  • The capacity to think and function in light of institutional Mission
  • The capacity to know how Governance works within a particular institution.
  • The Human Resource capacity:  knowing for themselves and others how people are appointed or hired, how they develop and flourish within the organization and how they transition well when they complete their time with the organization. 
  • The capacity to read institutional culture and play a part in fostering a dynamic and generative Organizational Culture.
  • The appreciation of the key role that money and Finance plays in an organization – the economic factor.
  • The capacity to see and appreciate that all organizations are “housed” – they thrive only as they are properly located in Built Space, whether that is in buildings or in the virtual space of the internet. 

Each of these is crucial.   Failure or underperformance on any one of these will create institutional drag or, even worse, actually cripple the organization.   A bridge constructor is never satisfied to have most of the elements working well in the building of a bridge.  They all have to work for the bridge to be safe.  The same applies with an institution:  good location but poor governance structures?   Plenty of economic resources but a dysfunctional institutional culture?   The potential for several strategic partnerships but lack of clarity on institutional purpose?   In each case, the missing element an unfortunate lack; it means that the institution does not flourish and achieve its purpose or its potential. 

Each of the seven is critical; those with institutional intelligence know how to attend to all seven even if they have particular responsibility for one of them [i.e. the CFO].  

Board members monitor all seven as a way to attend to their work as trustees; this provides them with a way of gauging or auditing the effectiveness of the institution.


Essential Reading:  

Gordon T. Smith.  Institutional Intelligence Chapter 1.

Hugh Heclo. On Thinking Institutionally. Paradigm Publishers, 2008