Organizational Amnesia and Knowledge Management

Note: this post is fully inspired by a series of tweets, which started here regarding knowledge management and later led to a major question regarding organizational memory.

Organizational Memory

Let’s start by articulating what makes an organization’s memory. After all “memory” is kind of a metaphor rather than something literal.

A memory mechanism needs to be able to meet some basic needs:

  • Recall: It can be recalled, ideally easily
  • Store: It can be stored, ideally effortlessly and safely
  • Search: It can be searched, ideally easily
  • Integrity: It doesn’t get leaky or lost, and can be used as evidence
  • Capability: It captures all the essential information and knowledge we need

In the pre-digital world, employees used to nimble across offices and stairs to get a dozen decision makers sign on a piece of paper, just in order to become able to do something.

In that pre-digital world, paper documents were the only organizational memory. A huge amount of effort went into cataloging and curating paper documents. There were even dedicated employees hired to specifically work on each of the many steps in that cataloging and curating process.

Paper Documentation

So for paper documentation:

  • Recall: not so easy but totally feasible
  • Store: has low physical limit
  • Search: time consuming and not easy
  • Integrity: as good as physicality affords
  • Capability: as much as humanly possible (read: not very capable)
Figure 1: How paper documentation meets the basic needs of an organizational memory.

Anyone who’s old enough to remember that pre-digital era knows that it’s neither sustainable nor feasible in the now fast-changing world.

Digital Documentation

Nowadays, as paper documents are digitized, the organizational memory has extended to, yes you’ve already guessed it, the email system.

Compared to the good old all-paper approach, email system makes it far easier to mediate information throughout the organization. Instead of holding a bunch of file folders and running up and down the office building, the assistants simply use and trace the email threads to get approvals from and consult with key stakeholders. And those key stakeholders sometimes even do it themselves, freeing their assistants to do other more important stuff.

For digital documentation:

  • Recall: relatively easy but it gets harder quickly with high 3Vs (volume, variety, velocity)
  • Store: virtually has no limit
  • Search: as easy as meta data allows, but few really does this well enough, especially with high 3Vs
  • Integrity: almost perfect
  • Capability: as much as humanly possible (because it still relies on human to collect information)
Figure 2: How digital documentation meets the basic needs of an organizational memory.

Email

For email:

  • Recall: not exactly easy in more cases but still feasible
  • Store: virtually no limit
  • Search: much easier than digital documentation system in many cases, but it quickly gets harder with high 3Vs
  • Integrity: much less than perfect due to lack of curation skill among users
  • Capability: quite capable but flawed, because not all information resides in it
Figure 3: How email meets the basic needs of an organizational memory.

No wonder, then, many (if not most) mid-size to large organizatons, and especially people in management, hold on to email as their primary communication and information mediation channel.

You see, when the old physical paper approach becomes less and less manageable and/or less and less convenient, email system has become the ONLY working mechanism of organizational memory. Albeit a really really bad one.

What about messaging? And wiki? You might ask.

Well —

Messaging

For messaging:

  • Recall: not easy at all in more cases but still feasible
  • Store: virtually no limit
  • Search: harder than email, and it quickly gets way harder with high 3Vs
  • Integrity: much less than perfect due to lack of curation skill among users
  • Capability: quite capable but flawed, because not all information resides in it
Figure 4: How messaging meets the basic needs of an organizational memory.

Wiki

For wiki:

  • Recall: super easy when properly curated
  • Store: virtually no limit
  • Search: much easier than all other approaches in many cases, but it quickly gets harder with high 3Vs
  • Integrity: much less than perfect due to lack of curation skill among users
  • Capability: quite capable but time consuming, and not all information resides in it
Figure 5: How wiki meets the basic needs of an organizational memory.

Let’s just say it’s not easy to do organizational memory.

In fact, it’s pretty hard.

Organizational Amnesia

Retrograde amnesia (RA) is a loss of memory-access to events that occurred or information that was learned in the past.
Source: Wikipedia

Almost everyone has heard at least one bittersweet account of how someone, when freshly coming into a new position in an organization, was frustrated by the poor onboarding experience plagued by knowledge gaps and know-how lapses.

Somehow, organizational memories couldn’t be retrieved and used when it’s most needed.

Anterograde amnesia is a loss of the ability to create new memories after the event that caused amnesia…
Source: Wikipedia

Almost everyone has heard at least one bittersweet account of how, when a well-respected, veteran employee quit, the organization lost an immeasurable amount of knowledge, expertise and operational know-how.

Somehow, new organizational memories couldn’t be formed, and long-lasting organizational memories couldn’t be sustained.

Onboarding exposes your organization’s retrograde amnesia.

Offboarding exposes your organization’s anterograde amnesia.

If you really want to know the challenges your organization is facing in terms of knowledge management, look no further than your organization’s onboarding and offboarding design and experience. They should immediately expose the cultural, architectural, operational, managerial, and technical problems about your organizational memory.

And by the way, offboarding is as important as onboarding. Everyone deserves to read Joe MacLeod’s Ends and Endineering to learn more about it.

Knowledge Management

Linking all the above back to knowledge management — your intranet social strategy largely dictates the behaviour patterns and acceptable conventions of how employees mediate information and knowledge, as well as how teams and larger units do so.

The challenge of scale is that, many knowledge management approaches work pretty well when things are small.

But when things scale up, sufficient digital boundaries are often not in place to make sure:

  • Each unit has a digital “membrane” that filter the information input/output, and
  • The whole organization can mediate information fluently in a network of units big and small.

For example, what rules determine how knowledge / information is “absorbed” by a unit or individual via its “membrane”. Is it an event-driven, subscription model? Or something else?

Those are enterprise architecture issues.

I once did a research in a large org, where a pretty “comprehensive” intranet platform was deployed. Forum, community, messaging, storage, you name it, whatever you need. It’s virtually very powerful. The only problem? Very low employee engagement.

The problem, it turned out, was a mix of poor usability (in some of what appeared to be the core features) and social (instead of technical) risks.

Basically, even when the tool has everything you ever dream of, there are still a thousand ways to fail.

So how do we scale up knowledge management?

There’s no easy answer.

It could potentially be a mix of several approaches:

  • Properly designed intranet social strategy, enabled and supported by the infrastructure (EA).
  • Adopt “network of small units with membranes” topology to structure the whole digital space.
  • Manage both economic (usability) and social (culture) risks in social interactions by properly define digital boundaries, just as we carefully define our physical and social boundaries.
  • A storage solution that prioritizes certain things over others, according to the overarching principles in your social strategy. For example, do we do search-first or catalogue-driven? And to what extent the cultural/learning activities compensate for that?
  • Build capability and capacity for organizational memory. Where are RAM? ROM? How many access points? Is it more procedure driven or more convention driven? What’s the onboarding and offboarding strategy? And how do they utilize and contribute to the org memory?

A major inspiration to me is this book called “A Social Strategy”, where it offers a useful framework to look at “social failures”, which is quite coupled with knowledge management, because curation is still largely done by humans for now.

No tools can solve human issues if humans are not ready.

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