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Legs And Memory August 21, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
Tags: , , , ,

My grandfather had a saying: “A weak memory makes strong legs.”  This seems to be coming to mind more often these days, as my short-term memory seems to expire faster than I can get the items I set out to retrieve.  Multiple trips ensue, helping my legs and overall cardiovascular health, but wasting time and energy.

Forgotten items create more work, both at home and on the job.  While personal memory problems may be inevitable as we become more, ahem, mature, organizational memory loss should be completely avoidable.  Unfortunately, almost everyone is terrible at capturing and using our organizational memory.

Everyone you work with has huge amounts of useful information stored in their heads.  From the moment you begin employment, you are gathering information about what you do, why you do it, for whom you do it, and how you do it.  When you start out, everything is new and you spend lots of time gathering data that everyone else long ago internalized.  Simple questions confront you all the time: who is in charge of that?  Which form do I need?  Why does this work that way?  Your coworkers patiently explain all this, bringing you up to speed in your new role.  After a while, you internalize this information as well, to the point that you stop thinking about it.

When the next new person arrives, they begin the same process.  It is highly unlikely that you documented everything you learned when you started (who has the time for that when you are just getting started?) so this poor soul goes through the same process.  Time is wasted as the weak organizational memory forces them to do a lot of walking.

I have been on teams that set out to solve this problem.  We created formal guides and detailed documentation for our organization in the hope that new hires would get up to speed faster and waste less time.  We tried to create an organizational memory but in the end, failed.  Why? Continuous change.

Capturing most of this information results in a snapshot of a continually evolving process.  That snapshot works for a short time, but eventually fades.  Even after a few weeks or months, there are enough blurry spots in that snapshot that people will once again have to manually fill in the blanks.  As soon as people lose faith in the documentation, they abandon it and go back to the manual process.

Like real memories, captured organizational memories fade rapidly over time.  To reinforce real memories, you must replay them in your mind.  To reinforce organizational memories, you must constantly revisit and update them.  This is time-consuming and expensive, and ultimately not cost effective.  Except for the most important processes that require rigid definition and oversight, most of our business rules exist in the (very) fluid minds of the participants.

The idea of easy, effective knowledge capture has been an ongoing goal for the past thirty years or more.  It has yet to become a reality.  Our collection tools are simply not capable of collecting all that we do and learn in real time.  Currently, people are looking to social media as the next magic bullet that will make this a reality.  As tempting as this sounds, I don’t think it will pan out from a data collection perspective.

The real answer, I think, is to accept that organizational memory is best retained in the heads of the people in the organization.  It may be that these social networking tools will allow us to find the person who knows what we need better than any previous tool.  It may be that capture has never been the problem, but that the connection network has been deficient.  Social networking may let us connect the perfect capture tools (our brains) in better ways than ever before.  As I’ve pointed out before, knowing who knows is the key to success in any field.  We may be on the verge of solving the problem of finding who knows better than ever before.  Memories may continue to fade, but the walking will be greatly reduced.  We can only hope.

Until then, I’ve got other problems.  Where did I put my keys?  Time to start walking…

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1. Richard Veryard - August 21, 2009

What is needed for organizational intelligence is the ability to use organizational memory without being controlled by the past. Surely there are tools to support this?


2. Wally Bock - August 24, 2009

Wonderful post, Chuck. “Knowing who knows” is as important as the knowing itself. Samuel Johnson said as much quite some time ago.

When people leave an organization, they don’t just take their knowledge with them, they also take their relationships. Social network tools can help us find the people with knowledge, but also give us an idea of who they connect with.

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