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Organizational Forgetting

One of the very few downsides to becoming a homeowner is that people (ok, your parents), don’t want to store your things (ok, junk) anymore: “You have your own basement now.” Fair enough. That is how I found myself sorting through half a dozen boxes of books, notes and random items that I had not seen since 2002, when I packed them away after University.

I’ve always had pack-rat tendencies, which at least partially explains why my inventory of these boxes turned up one (practically fossilized) high-school geometry notebook (the only math I ever truly enjoyed), my Forensic Anthropology Training Manual (with margin annotations about the intertrochanteric crest), the outline for my 4th year Social Theory thesis paper on postmodernism, ethnography and Ludwig Wittengenstein’s ideas about language and meaning (duck rabbit), and a stack of other random university papers I authored.

Reading these papers was unpleasantly disorienting. It wasn’t just that I didn’t remember writing them; it was as though they were written by a completely different human being, someone who was not me. I have frequent occasion to think “I wish I knew then what I know now”, but never before “I wish I knew now what I knew then”.

Individual and Group Memory

People forget things. When we don’t need to know something day to day it often just evaporates like mist, as though it was never there to begin with. After my Physical Anthropology final I have never needed to know that I have a greater and lesser trochanter, and so I don’t. I have spent the 12 years after that final exam shoveling other information (both useful and irrelevant) into my brain at an increasingly rapid pace, and the human brain is no packrat, so the trochanter (greater and lesser) was placed by the proverbial curb-side for pick up.

Groups of people are better at remembering. Even before we developed writing to record our histories and debts we repeated important stories and knowledge to each other and new generations. Knowledge that is shared reduces the risk that it might be forgotten or otherwise obliterated; oral history was no Evernote, but we got by. Today, organizations (which are only groups of people, after all) develop ever-better ways to capture and store the vast amount of data and information they increasingly deem relevant to their enterprise. It’s fair to say that storing data is not the problem. The challenge is in using that data, knowing it, translating it into something meaningful, and applying it to our work in the appropriate contexts. Like my boxes of old papers, simply storing information does not mean we will remember it, or use it effectively.

Organizational Memory

Organizations can and do forget things. Knowledge management thinkers call this ‘corporate amnesia’, and suggest that it can be caused or exacerbated by excessive turnover, organizational crises, and an over reliance on temporary workers (something that I’ve done some writing about in the past). Current trends towards a more contingent workforce, higher rates of turnover, shortened tenures, increased reliance on interim executive leaders, and the explosive proliferation of data and information all suggest that preserving organizational knowledge should be a much higher priority for many companies than it is.

What about social and digital technologies? Proponents of their integration into organizations suggest that they have the potential to enhance enterprise collaboration and interaction. Could they become our modern version of oral history, allowing us to create distributed knowledge and remind each other of what we know? Or does the sheer volume of information exchange these technologies enable (e-mail alone has become a constant, gushing fire hose for most of us) prevent us from deciding what is truly important enough to remember? Could social and digital technologies merely add to that onslaught, and further obscure what is imperative organizational knowledge to retain and apply?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I sincerely hope that others do, because it seems clear that not knowing presents a tremendous risk to the ability of our organizations to advance and succeed.

Where do you see the challenges and opportunities when it comes to retaining and applying organizational knowledge and wisdom?

Image Credit: Bacteriano via Flickr Creative Commons

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. “I wish I knew now what I knew then” So true, Jane! I actually majored in Physical Anthropology and I still had to Google “trochanter” to remind myself what it was. For shame!

    You raise excellent questions about organizational knowledge. Organizations and individuals share a common problem these days…how to actually synthesize and make use of the vast amounts of information we have access to. As you say, storing data is relatively easy. But how do we call it up when we need it? I’m sure all that info on the trochanter is actually still stored in my brain somewhere, if I only had a system for retrieving it. But then, even if I could, does it serve any purpose without context?

    Lots to think about. Thanks for a great post!

    February 17, 2014

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