Preserving Institutional Memory

In several organizations I’ve belonged to, a lack of institutional memory has been an issue.

“Where did this policy originate?” “Who decided this, and why?” “Someone must have dealt with this issue before; what did they do?” “Why do we do the things we do?” These and other questions crop up daily, and the maddening inability to access the answers keeps everyone running around in circles, reanalyzing, reconsidering, re-deciding.

The Challenge of the Volunteer Organization

Retention of institutional memory can be particularly challenging in volunteer organizations, where people come and go and most are fulfilling their roles from the side of their desks.

In a committee I serve on for the Editors’ Association of Canada, we’ve recently realized how useful it would be to have a log of major policy decisions that have been made over the years. Putting the log together will necessitate a fairly laborious slog through boxes of old files, network drives, and emails, as well as interviews with our predecessor volunteers on the committee, but we think the project is long overdue and will better enable us to focus our scarce resources on advancing, not rehashing.

Corporate Storytelling as a Form of Institutional Memory-Keeping

Despite the fact that corporations tend to have more resources than non-profits do to implement knowledge-sharing and records-retention systems, they also suffer from amnesia when it comes to non-document-based institutional memory—the kind lodged in “personal recollections and experiences that provide an understanding of the history and culture of an organization, especially the stories that explain the reasons behind certain decisions or procedures,” to borrow the definition of institutional memory from the American Society of Archivists.

I agree that stories are very powerful vessels for preserving institutional memory. One of my favourite corporate history book projects, You Got That Right, brings the culture of BC Bearing Engineers alive through the stories of how its indefatigable and charismatic leader, the late Wendy McDonald, took over the reins of the company as a young widowed mother and, despite having no business experience, built it into a much-admired industrial powerhouse.

Now that Mrs. Mac (as she was affectionately known) is gone, the book persists as an important source of institutional memory, not just for those who still work at the company, but also for students of business more generally. The book serves as a kind of master’s class on business authenticity and tenaciousness given by Mrs. Mac herself.

Institutional Memory as a Living Thing

Capturing institutional memory in book form, on a website, through knowledge management systems, or via other means is important work, but it too often stops there. Even as memory-preservation projects are underway, new stories are forming and new memories are being made. Organizations need to take the long view if preserving institutional memory is to become a lasting habit.

Along these lines, there is a great suggestion here that volunteer organizations assign someone the role of Continuity Officer. This person would be responsible for ensuring that board members, committees, and members know about any relevant background that should be considered in new decisions. “This can . . . become a valued volunteer position,” says the author of this idea.

This same idea is applicable in a corporate setting, and indeed many organizations have dedicated knowledge managers who have this responsibility among others. But I’ve seldom encountered an organization that regularly updates its corporate history or follows any sort of formal archival process for collecting stories, photos, and other memory-bearing ephemera. This is something I’ll come back to in a future post. 

For now, if you have any ideas to share about how institutional memory-collecting and -sharing can be kept up over time, please share.

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