Institutional memory (or corporate memory) is made up of a collective set of facts, concepts, experiences, and know-how held within an organization. For most companies, that knowledge is held in a variety of locations. From workstations to veteran employees, file shares to physical manuals. That information is often difficult to replace. This is especially true when it comes to experience-based best practices and know-how.
Finding out how to value know-how is a difficult and ongoing question. Yet, the idea of intangible information offering value is hard to argue against. As such, companies often seek to incorporate such knowledge into their institutional memory. Today, more and more members of the baby boomer generation are retiring. These employees often carry a wealth of experience and know-how. As a result, companies are looking for ways to preserve that experience for future use by the next generation of employees.
All this leads to two challenges: preservation and utilization. Preservation is answering the set-up questions of institutional memory: what has to be preserved and how to preserve it? Utilization is the follow-up: once the information is preserved, how to make use of it, how to effectively search it. Having a huge amount of know-how is great, but pointless if none of it is useful or if you can’t access it. In this article, we’ll look at both challenges.
What is institutional memory?
The challenges of memory:
4 steps to preserve institutional memory
1. Playbooks and checklists
2. Protocols and policies
3. Dedicated external individuals and/or teams
4. Technology and tools
The selection process of what is or is not part of institutional memory is a process that differs per organization. For all businesses, it holds true that this memory will contain both tangible and intangible information.
Tangible information is the straightforward part. Maintaining a database is the standard operating procedure. Tangible assets are oftentimes the most obvious of materials: legal agreements, technical or administrative documents, certificates, and so on. In some cases, companies are required by law to keep such information around. Other tangible assets represent obvious value, like intellectual property or product specifications. Beyond that are existing policies, and manuals. In short, any existing document that provides direct value to the organization falls under this category.
Intangible information is a bit trickier. This is where knowledge and experience begin to creep into the discussion. The idea that veteran employees are of great value to a company is hardly revolutionary. Retaining those employees is key to keeping that knowledge and experience around. Not every business does this as well as they should. For instance, in this article, author Udo Braedle notes: “Organizations all too often fail to see the worth of attempting to keep an employee after an initial contract has been completed. Nor do they create and operate a central apparatus or office to maintain and record data throughout tasks. (...) This shortsightedness may colloquially be referred to as penny-wise and pound-foolish.”
In a similar vein, the Institutional Memory guidelines of the WHO state: “... intangible assets which, although not physically evident, add value to the intellectual capital of the institution thus being of incalculable value.”
Of course, 100% employee retention is impossible. Some intangible knowledge is bound to leave an organization at times. What should be clear is it’s important for a company to have a pipeline set up to nail down intangible knowledge where possible. That pipeline could include best practice manuals, or debriefing veteran employees. The pipeline aims to transform the intangible into tangible. It includes anything that retains the knowledge of a veteran employee, even if they leave.
The ‘goal’ of institutional memory is to reduce the gap between an experienced and a new employee. The only difference being the fact a non-veteran needs to look things up more often. That avoids every newcomer from having to reinvent the wheel from scratch.
In a non-digitized environment, there is a very real limit to the size of an archive. With paper not being weightless, there’s only so much you can store before it becomes a hazard. With most information generated and kept nowadays being digital, weight is no longer a problem. There are other risks, of course. The challenges of memory are plentiful. They fall into two major categories; preservation issues and recall issues.
Preservation issues are challenges related to the keeping of information. This could be anything from loss of a data carrier to accidental or mistaken discarding of data. Data carriers can be anything: from a 3.5” floppy disk being lost, to an individual workstation being lost, corrupted or damaged. In this regard, cloud storage is much safer, but only 50% of corporate data worldwide is kept in the cloud.
In an earlier blog on information governance, I noted that data preservation protocols need to be selective. Storage isn’t free, after all. Holding on to any and all data generated on a daily basis is a recipe for disaster. For starters, a good chunk of that data is (or will soon be) digital debris, which is a nice alliterative way to say ‘useless’.
Finally, decentralized storage of institutional memory can cause issues. Decentralized storage inevitably leads to unnecessarily storing duplicates, and a loss of oversight. This makes finding the right information more difficult. Losing oversight is a problem for both preservation and recall. For both legal and cost-related reasons, most organizations have some form of data retention policy in place. For institutional memory, it is important to ensure that data, which is part of the memory, is not lost due to retention policies.
Recall issues are challenges that are related to the finding of information. Once the information has been kept a hold of, how to ensure that it can be used when needed? The goal of institutional memory is to prevent time loss (and by extension, money loss) due to inefficiency. Poor preservation causes every new employee to reinvent the wheel by necessity. Poor recall issues make that reinvention necessary due to lack of availability. Recall issues are a form of data loss: if the information is unavailable when needed, it might as well not be there at all.
I discussed similar issues in my blog about information governance. In a legal context, an inability to search the corporate datastore can lead to a wide array of negative consequences. Outside a legal context, the same consequences apply, although there isn’t a court or opposing party to ‘punish’ mistakes. For recall, organization and searchability are key. It’s why institutional memory guidelines (for example this one for the WHO) usually focus a lot of attention on retention. Their goal is to create policies that retain and organize both tangible and intangible information.
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An early obstacle to preserving institutional memory is a mindset issue. Transforming the intangible knowledge of experienced employees into tangible, searchable data for future use takes time away from those employees. Of course, this time spent is an investment that saves time in the long run. Shortsightedness in this case makes the organization pennywise, but pound-foolish.
Experienced employees should be encouraged to create playbooks and checklists using their know-how. This ensures that new employees can stand on the shoulders of giants when they start working. Today, this passing of the torch already occurs between individual employees. The aim is to share and make this accumulated knowledge accessible, not just to whomever they happen to work with directly, but to all of whom it is relevant to.
The notion of knowledge preservation should be enshrined in company-wide protocols and policies. The existing retention and preservation policies should accommodate the institutional memory. These policies should also govern training and access. After all, keeping the memory is one thing, making sure it's accessible and useful is another.
Corporations can take advantage of the experience of others here. The restaurant industry has more or less mastered the art of knowledge microtransactions. This is by necessity, due to the industry's high turnover and shift-based employment strategy. HR Departments can also be of help. They may pass on the institutional memory to new employees in the orientation period.
External sources of information can also add to the institutional memory. When making use of external resources (consultants, outside counsel, etc.) aim for consistency. Information retention agreements are more and more common in requests for proposals. These require the external party to develop their own knowledge repository for the services they provide. This safeguards against inefficiencies that may occur due to turnover on their side.
If external teams change often, bringing them up to speed quickly can be invaluable. If this is the case, consider creating a ‘starter pack’ of relevant information to hand over as part of the briefing for an external party. Standardizing the information will allow for a more effective onboarding of external teams. This helps them get up to speed faster, and saves you time in doing so.
Properly organizing large amounts of information is a challenge without proper tools. In most cases, storage itself is not the problem. Centralized storage, cloud-based or not, is widely available and in use. Being able to search those datastores, however, can be an issue. Not all the formats in which data is kept are readily searchable. They include non-searchable PDF files, scanned archive documentation, compressed files, and so on. Underpowered search methodologies may lead to information being overlooked.
When it comes to transferring knowledge from the experienced to the (relatively) new, ensuring easy access is an obvious step. Be it’s through the company intranet or a cloud repository. For everything else, legal teams may want to look towards more advanced tools, however.
In situations where time is of the essence (think of regulatory requests or privacy compliance, for example), being able to perform fast and comprehensive searches of the corporate memory banks is of critical importance. For such issues, legal teams need more powerful search capabilities. One solution is to keep data with potential legal relevance in a separate repository. This may include employee contracts, emails of key personnel, and so on. If such a repository can be searched in a more effective way, it can enable the legal department to make quick work of time-sensitive challenges.
At ZyLAB, we call such a specialized repository a Corporate Legal Memory. With this solution, legal departments can investigate the institutional memory much faster. They can search by using keywords, entities, or even use AI-assisted means.
Establishing an institutional memory is, by nature, an investment in the future. It requires consistent effort, especially from those with experience and know-how. By retaining institutional knowledge, corporations can build on that knowledge and continue to grow. Policies and protocols that translate experience into building blocks enable this process.
For legal teams, leveraging technology to preserve and recall institutional memory, will allow them to not only manage their corporate legal data but also make finding relevant information, in case of an incident, faster and easier.