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Sarim Khan (Co-founder & CEO)December 17 20193 min read

The Corporate Memory Elephant in the room

It’s there. It’s huge. It has already trampled on corporations in the 1990s that ran ill-considered downsizing initiatives. Corporate memory loss is a growing danger for organizations dealing with the rapidly changing working environment. It is vital for organizations to capture and retain critical knowledge. 

One in four UK employers expect to make permanent redundancies because of the coronavirus crisis, while more than half will furlough staff, according to a People Management and CIPD survey. Firms could also be at risk if their workforce's fall sick at the same time. 

Corporations don’t know how to handle it, so simply ignore it. However, the evaporating corporate memory elephant is not going away. In fact, it’s the opposite. And it will take more than the peanuts of Post-Its and PDF documents to keep the value of corporate knowledge within an organization, instead of watching it disappear at the next leaving party. 

Forced to Reinvent the Wheel

‘Let’s not reinvent the wheel’ is a common expression in business. Indeed, why recreate objects, processes or principles that already exist and that do their job well? Such activity would be wasteful and unproductive – unless of course those things happened to disappear overnight and you were obliged to recreate them in order to stay competitive.

This is what happens with corporate memory and knowledge. The problem afflicts project-based organizations in particular, but remains a risk for all. For instance, health sector research by D. Lahaie shows that recruiting new senior managers on the basis of competence does not compensate for the negative effects of corporate memory loss due to departing executives.

What increases and decreases Corporate Memory lost?

Corporate memory evaporation is increased by excessive and thoughtless downsizing, recurrent layoffs, unmanaged employee churn, and catastrophes. It is decreased by (naturally enough) retaining the knowledge for reuse. Experience, insights, knowledge and skills must be reliably and durably documented to allow them to be shared. Useful corporate memory only exists through sharing. Without sharing, employees are doomed to reinvent a corporate memory all over again.

Five Categories of Organizational Memory to Be Safeguarded

The list below is based on one produced by researchers James P. Walsh and Gerardo Rivera Ungson. Back in 1991, they were already pointing out how important it was for organisations to better manage these memory sources:

  • Individuals. Each one does work, learns, and turns data into information, knowledge and wisdom.
  • Culture. ‘The way we do things around here’ and a shared framework of knowledge.
  • Processes. Not just the what and the how, but the why and the margins for adjustment as well.
  • Interactions. People interact together and interact with formal and informal structures. Memory includes knowledge about human behaviour, mistakes to be avoided, and crisis management.
  • Environment. Knowledge stored by or about former employees, business partners, competitors, customer, government agencies, and more.

 

Making It Easy to Acquire, Retain and Use Corporate Memory

Ease of use is critical. The knowledgeable must be able to input their knowledge without hindrance, so that the rest of the corporation can access it intuitively. The right tool for optimising corporate memory uses IT resources to make sure that it is collected in one place, while offering engaging interactivity and collaboration.

Users are able to ‘tell their story’ naturally and link immediately to relevant sources of information, be they documents, images, video clips or applications. Other viewers can explore the elements of these stories and their relationships to add value, feedback or questions. In this way, corporate memory and knowledge become a continually growing source of strategic advantage, and the elephant can finally leave the room.

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