Engaging Corporate Heritage: Struggling to Cultivate Institutional Memory

Almost everyone has at least one memory of working with a ‘lifer’ or ‘old-timer.’  In some cases these employees have been at the organization since its inception, in other cases they have worked there for their entire career or as long as anyone can remember. The phrase “can remember” is often at the heart of discussions about institutional memory.

The Society of American Archivists’ glossary of archival and records terminology defines institutional memory as:

“The information in records and in individuals’ personal knowledge that provide an understanding of an organization’s or group’s history and culture, especially the stories that explain the reasons behind certain decisions or procedures.”

All too often memories of an organization’s past projects, milestones, and failures are kept only in the minds of employees.  When an employee moves on, retires, or simply ceases to remember, details these memories are lost to the organization.  Without establishing a culture and practices which foster institutional memory the tangible past of an organization can quickly become non-existent.

Why should organizations care about institutional memory?

On the most basic level institutional memory can help prevent the repetition of past mistakes.  Often the biggest gaps in institutional memory occur during a change in administration or management.  For example, a newly hired administrator implements new methods without being aware of what has worked or failed in the past, and he makes the same mistake that was made six months ago.  Institutional memory isn’t designed to stall innovation (though it can be misused that way).  Rather, it can help organizations avoid reinventing the wheel. Having records which highlight past work allow for informed decisions to be made in the present.

Given the rise of short term contracts and people having multiple careers over their working lifespan, institutional memory can be linked to the sustainability of organizations.   Institutional memory (and good records) can be used to compensate for a lack of continuity in staffing.  For example, within universities in colleges the number of adjunct professors is on the rise.  Adjuncts may work at multiple institutions throughout their career and may not feel the need to contribute to the documentary history of institution.   Knowledge, departmental history, and university cultural heritage can easily be lost when an adjunct professor leaves the institution.   Institutional memory and record keeping practices can help avoid this loss of information.

Additionally, Institutional memory can help cultivate institutional culture and pride.  Remembering past triumphs and projects can help employees see the long term impact of their work and the institution at large.  Celebrating anniversaries and other important dates in the organization’s history can further instill pride and a sense of longevity.

How can organizations cultivate institutional memory? 

Most organizations are legally or ethically required to practice some degree of record keeping.  These records have the potential to be not merely paper memories but also resources to cultivate knowledge management within an institution.  The implementation of a record management system can help make these records accessible to employees and assist in the transfer of knowledge between generations.

In addition to mandatory record keeping encouraging a policy of documentation at all levels can help curb institutional forgetting.  When a new procedure, policy, or task is implemented the creation of documentation can help assist later employees learn these tasks.  The use of internal wiki can be used to collect this information, allow changes to be tracked, and make information accessible to all employees.

Creating strategies for outgoing employees to share information with new employees is essential to institutional memory.  Without this passing on of knowledge whenever an employee leaves part of the organization’s memory also leaves.  This may include having a retiring employee train a new employee, having an exit interview process, or creating a documentation plan.

Institutional memory is important to both public and private institutions across many fields of employment.  Human memory is by its very nature fallible.   Reinforcing oral history and employee memories with record creation processes helps retain knowledge, can inspire organizational pride, and can make new ventures easier.

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