Sunday, September 06, 2009

Institutional Memory

Recently I was watching an episode of the West Wing, where they deal with the 'institutional memory' of the Bartlett administration and the Santos transition. There is indeed a White House Transition Project for this very purpose, since the US Federal government does not have a permanent civil service in the same was as the UK. New US administrations have always faced the problem of inheriting policies, problems and agendas from the previous incumbents without always knowing the full 'ins and outs' and reasons why certain decisions were made. The government can therefore be handicapped in its approach to these issues.

The importance of the 'institutional memory' was further highlighted to me the other day listening to Robert Peston interviewing the head of Barclays Bank, John Varley. Varley, in response to Peston's question as to why Barclays didn't suffer as much as its rivals in the recent financial meltdown, explicitly referenced the bank's 'institutional memory' of the near catastrophic over exposure to the property market in the early 1990s.

So how do you capture, nurture and learn from your company's 'institutional memory'? For small or family owned businesses, this may not be a problem, but for larger organisations, with higher staff turnover, this can be a problem. After all, when somebody leaves the company, they may take with them 30 years experience and knowledge with them, and the incumbent, especially if an outsider, may be hamstrung without this knowledge and experience.

One method to institutionalise that knowledge is via the exit interview. This has always struck me as too little, too late. Any manager will tell you that the personnel, the human capital, are the most important part of the company, but very little is done to capture and institutionalise their knowledge as part of an ongoing and rationalised process.

Another method is via documentation of decision meeting - minute books, and the like. As a one-time historian, I am very aware how quickly the informational context is lost. I've read many minute books, the context and meaning clear to all who attended but vague and often illusive to readers a generation later.

So, how do we capture the meaning, context and lessons of daily working practice, experience, knowledge and the rationale behind the decisions made? This is something I'll be turning my attention to later.