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Corporate Memory: The Curse of the 21st Century
Is corporate history bunk?
Corporate memory is collective memory of things the organisation has got right or wrong in the past, encapsulating the things it is good or bad at is a very efficient way of remembering and sharing the values of the organisation.
- We can never sell in China – look what happened in 1998
- We should focus on current markets – look at the success of ‘Snibbo’
- We work better in a divisional structure – remember the disastrous reorganisation of ’07
All of these are examples of stories of the past, avidly swallowed up by new starters, to explain how and why the company behaves as it does and the behavioural characteristic one needs to adopt to succeed. A corporate memory can be very valuable – when I managed a large part of ICI’s collection of scientific reports, the average age of ones being taken out and read was ten years.
But how long should it be? And does it matter? Do we now have to take decisions so quickly that corporate history is bunk? Timescales are getting shorter. Decisions have to be taken faster and faster.
TV news has shorter and shorter interviews and has a visual look which more and more resembles an internet page. Concentration spans are plummeting and there is no time to read a book before making an important decision. A common accusation against military top brass from time immemorial is that they are all fighting the last war. But nowadays, would we even consider what happened in the last war – would we assume that technology has changed the world so much as to make it irrelevant?
On the same day, I received two communications from my company. One congratulated me on thirty years service, the other from my company said that to face the future we had to forget much we had learned over the last thirty years in the light of the possibilities opened up by new technology.
How can I rationalise these apparently conflicting messages?
I chose as my long service gifts a digital camera to represent the future and a chainsaw to represent gardening jobs of the past left undone. But it raises the question: does experience matter? And how much is the understanding of the past relevant – and how far back? Or is corporate history bunk?
A terrible personal confession
I have a terrible personal confession. It’s something I have been doing for over fifty years. My wife knows now but I didn’t confess it for the first five years I knew her. No, I am not a secret streaker but it’s almost as bad in terms of the reaction you get at dinner parties – I am interested in model railways.
A Radio critic once described Shula Archer’s first husband as someone ‘so boring he would read Railway Modeller in bed’ and this magazine, now celebrating its sixtieth birthday, demonstrates just how long corporate memory is in this unique ‘community of practice’. This month they publish a top twenty of the (UK) model railway layouts of all time. What is absolutely gobsmacking is that almost all of the top ten date back to the 1950s, a time long before the current generation was shunting its trucks.
It is clear from the editorial that this top ten represents a genuine attempt to reflect the communal mulling over at countless exhibitions and enthusiast meets around the country rather that the geriatric memories of one or two aged practitioners. Each layout’s role in the development of the ‘craft’ is understood. This was the one that first put the railway in the landscape, this was the one that first had ‘cab control’. What is clear, apart from the fact that Vicars seem to build a lot of model railways, is that the community has an extremely long corporate memory and an appreciably common set of values.
How many corporations have a corporate memory this long, and is it useful? Or is the future all about new technology?
The shadow of the past
Long ago in the 1990s when I worked in Industry we developed a competitor intelligence process with one of the business units in my corporation. It involved customer facing staff globally collecting information from customers, and processes to merge this with news feeds and patents. The results were editorialised to meet the needs of different stakeholders, and kept in searchable green screen technology available globally. The collaboration and teamworking needed was not easy to achieve, but not impossible.
When we tried to get this solution adopted by another business, which shared a lot of technology with the first, we completely failed. Individuals tried to work separately and competitively on the problem, and not together.
Pondering why this was, I realised that the first business was in a unit formed after the war in the plastics division. This was about fast changing markets and new technologies, and working together to get the job done (very much a wartime characteristic) was part of the culture. There was only one canteen on the site and everyone ate together. But the second business was pre war. A much more hierarchical culture and command and control ethos prevailed. Teamworking was not natural, and there were two canteens on the site – one for plant workers and one for management.
Touching your cap to the works manager when he came in in the morning was still practiced in the 1960s and within living memory. I was working with these businesses over thirty years after they had been set up. Yet elements of the culture and values had lasted all this time. Clearly – the shadow of the past can be very long indeed, and can radically affect how easy it is to adopt solutions based on new technology, even if it is green screen at the time.
Lack of corporate memory is a big risk for strategic decisions
Corporate memory, whether held in the minds of senior executives or a formal system, is still rather important to the more strategic processes of an organisation.
If you are taken to court about an employee who has developed lung disease you need to know whether or not he did work in a particular factory clearing out the lagging 25 years ago. If you are subject to a class action on one of your products in the united states arising from new knowledge about the affects of the chemicals in it, you need to know about the details of the decisions to launch it 30 years ago.
The march of human knowledge is unstoppable and long past decisions can look very different when, to quote Winnie the Pooh, they are ‘out in the open and have others looking at them’. The challenge is to manage the balance between the formal and informal, and the short and the long term, in a way which allows freedom but still captures, in these times of fast change and turnover, the essential knowledge on which to base future decisions.
This requires subtle processes and systems which encourage the informal but ensure the appropriate nuggets are captured appropriately. And as professional records managers will tell you, the growth of technology has made generating a corporate memory more difficult. In the past it took a positive decision to throw records away. Now it is easy to discard an old database on the ground that ‘no-one has looked at it in the last year’, and futureproofing the information in an old system is rarely part of the business case for a new one.
Pretending to forget is not an option
Elephants never forget, and this is one of the things which make them invaluable. The Elephant which Flanders and Swann sang about had worked out that by pretending to forget, he could avoid work and be pampered… … ….
“I tell them I’m Napoleon, and all that sort of bunk
And they never know that all the time I’m laughing up me trunk
I’m an introspective elliphacentric hypochondriac
..and I’ll stay in the Elephant’s nursing home… till I get my memory back!” – Flanders and Swann
…but corporations do not have this luxury. There is no nursing home for the forgetful company. Even in the days of the Internet and Web 2.0, a company still needs a corporate memory. And to have one it needs to have the right balance of processes and values as well as technology to capture the key elements of knowledge needed to protect the company from wrong decisions in the future.