“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana
The memory of an organisation is the sum of the memories of the people who work there and who have worked there, to the extent that those memories are used in carrying out the work of the organisation.
Corporate Memory (CM) is what the organisation “knows” – not what the people in it know.
CM is created three ways:
- By working in teams, where individuals’ knowledge is passed on to others.
- By formalised coaching and mentoring, where the “silverbacks” teach what they’ve learned in the corporate jungle.
- By some method of reporting throughout the organisation’s projects, where learning is written down or otherwise captured for future reference.
What happens when people leave?
When people retire or otherwise leave an organisation, they typically take all their corporate learning with them, which amounts to “memory loss” for the organisation – like dementia.
CM may be created, as noted above, but it also gets lost, for a matching set of reasons:
- Teams disband, and what was learned is rarely recorded.
- Most organizations fail to “institutionalise” coaching and mentoring, or to value it, as it isn’t perceived as a “billable” activity. Many senior people would prefer to continue to “own” their projects, rather than pass them on to the next generation.
- Very few firms have successfully built CM systems. Many have tried the “capture” side of the equation, but most of these fail on the “access” side.
Stored memory that isn’t accessed when needed is waste – both in resources put in to create it, and in system failures that could have been prevented if stored corporate knowledge was applied.
Creating an effective CM system
Creating an effective CM system requires actions on both the input side (collecting corporate knowledge) and the output side (applying corporate knowledge), as well as requiring “knowledge library” management:
- Setting up a storage location (such as in SharePoint) accessible to all staff;
- Creating a knowledge storage structure to keep information organised and easily accessible;
- Establishing a project completion rule that requires uploading of any “lessons learned” to this facility;
- Making “Lessons learned uploading” an overhead timesheet category; and
- Adding “contributions to corporate knowledge” to the list of things discussed in annual performance reviews,
- Include review of CM files of similar projects as part of the standard project briefing process;
- Add checklist items to Project Initiation tools to prompt a CM review;
- Add a CM review question to project design reviews, so that project leaders know they will be asked about it;
- Publicise the organisation’s CM policy and benefits in newsletters and internal documents; and
- Create a “top-down” CM awareness throughout the organisation, as some firms do with Safety, risk Management or Quality Management.
Knowledge management action: Planned periodic review of stored information to:
- Reorganise and/or provide cross-referencing to link similar learning experience; and
- Delete obsolete information.
Do not underestimate the complexity of creating and implementing a good CM system. The image below, from a research paper by Peter Demian, Stanford University, 2004, shows how intricate the structure of a CM system can be. Reference: CoMem: Design Knowledge Reuse from a Corporate Memory; CIFE [Center for Integrated Facility Engineering], Stanford. This image integrates the thinking from 20 other authorities on the topic.