Corporate Alzheimers

I was taken by this throwaway line from David Weinberger’s tongue in cheek post on the Netherlands monarchy, The ROI of Le Roi:

“Her involvement in politics for the last 28 years has given the government a ‘collective memory’ for our democracy.”

This reminded me of a conversation I had with Graham Durant-Law a few years ago, here he pointed out that his firm effectively works as the outsourced memory for one of their major clients, because the staff turnover there is so rapid. We have found ourselves in a similar position with multi-year KM projects – in one organisation we are working with the third generation of the client’s internal KM team.

This is obviously a widespread risk. Lim Soo Hoon, the Permanent Secretary of Singapore’s Public Service Division recently made a speech where she reported that she had been at an ASEAN gathering that had last taken place ten years’ before. Her team had been very reliant on the public servants who had been involved in the last gathering a decade before – but the worry she expressed is that it’s no longer possible to rely on public servants being around for decades. There’s increasing mobility in and out of the public service.

In our work we come across the same thing all the time with government agencies that manage slow moving policies or infrastructures – such as tax policies, public infrastructure such as dams, or large processing plants. When major changes are required, it’s again on the scale of decades, and there’s never enough documented context to recall the rationales for why particular decisions were made in particular ways. And this can have important consequences, if changes are made blindly. When NASA wanted to reuse the technology for the Saturn rockets it had developed for the Moon missions in the 1960s, they found they didn’t have any engineers who could interpret the assumptions and the science behind the documented drawings and specifications. The engineers of the 1980s and 1990s had lost their common ground with the previous generation a quarter of a century before – their engineering education and experience was radically different.

This memory loss has always happened of course – but it starts to matter when two things happen: when generations of workers get shorter, and when decisions are revisited at intervals of several generations. Each factor amplifies the effect of the other. Not all memory needs to be protected on a scale of worker-generations, but in most organisations some things do. And it matters that we identify and protect those areas of critical long term memory. How do we do that? Relying on consultants is risky. What would serve the function of the Netherlands monarchy? Do we need an officially recognised function of corporate memorialist?


8 Comments so far

Matt Moore

Human beings hope to live 70+ years. Hence we make the effort to remember things beyond next week or even next year. Organisations will only make the effort to remember things if they care that they will exist in 50 years.

What happens if the corporate memorialist leaves? Presumably we need something a little more distributed & resilient.

Posted on February 04, 2008 at 01:55 PM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

Such as?

Posted on February 04, 2008 at 01:57 PM | Comment permalink

Matt Moore

I’m not sure Patrick to be honest. Memory isn’t stored in one place in the brain. And there are different kinds of memory (long-term vs. working).

Multiple memorialists? Short-term vs. long-term observers?

Posted on February 05, 2008 at 07:41 AM | Comment permalink

Leon Stander


I’ve found your metaphor useful under current South African circumstances and posted about it on my blog Occam’s Donkey.

Matt, I think that the metaphor applies more to long-term memory. I have a link on my post about others that have extended the metaphor to episodic, semantic and procedural memory, concepts that are commonly used in clinical neuropsychology related to dementia.

Posted on February 08, 2008 at 03:57 PM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

I love the extension to Parkinsons, and the way you’ve linked the idea to South Africa’s infrastructure.

I’m not convinced the narrative approach represents the whole solution though it’s a useful place to start and represents one powerful way of capturing contexts. But narrative doesn’t capture lost technical knowledge, heuristics and special meanings that collectively make up the common ground we maintain in order to maintain shared knowledge over time.

To me the more puzzling prior questions are “how do we figure out in advance which knowledge is going to be prone to loss, and how do we preserve enough of its ecosystem to provide some form of knowledge assurance”?

This would I suppose help to identify the mechanisms of preservation or continuity - whether narrative, people-based, or planned migration to new people/new formats.

Posted on February 08, 2008 at 04:13 PM | Comment permalink

Leon Stander

I take your point that narrative is not the whole answer.

Yes, I can see that to predict which knowledge / memories may become vulnerable, will be a challenge.

I spent a limited time in the military as a conscript junior officer many years ago. A lot of information was transferred to us in the form of aide memoires, rules of thumb (I did’t know of heuristics then) and immediate action drills. These were clearly the result of the filter of years’ (if not decades and even centuries) of experience by thousands of soldiers before us. These techniques served the military well then, but I don’t know how well they’ve stood the test of time and accelerated technological and social change.

I wonder whether such aide memoires, heuristics and immediate actions drills (adapted to the environment and context) may not be able to preserve some of the lower level critical knowledge in organisations?

I suppose, however, that as society and organistions become ever more complex, such simple solutions may no longer work.

Posted on February 08, 2008 at 08:26 PM | Comment permalink

Kelvin Quee

Very interesting discussion. This is a out of my domain but -

I suppose one of the most “longlasting” way of retaining organisational knowledge is a strong culture.

While culture on its own does not encode any knowledge, it does give the keys to making knowledge more accessible. Perhaps more importantly, it gives context to information and, in effect, gives clues to decision making heuristics.

All these can only be effective is there’s already some form of active information collection going on already in the organisation.

I do think that a strong culture helps to combat problems of the kind that Patrick illustrated in the NASA example above.

What do you think?

Posted on February 11, 2008 at 02:29 PM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

I think culture is in the right direction but the common sense of culture doesn’t go far enough to provide assurance, in the sense that culture can’t be managed (only influenced and even then it has a mind of its own) - so it tends to forget and remember what it likes.

Also, even a strong culture doesn’t solve all the problems of memory loss in large organisations: NASA has an extremely strong culture, and a very persistent one at that, if you look at the same cultural factors at play in Diane Vaughn’s study of the 1986 Challenger disaster (covering the decade leading up to the disaster) and the Starbuck+Farjoun study of the Columbia disaster in 2003.

So while the culture idea is a good one in the sense that it plays the role of a distributed memory as in Matt’s response, it’s not intentional enough or manageable enough to satisfy our need for assurance. Or so I think!

Posted on February 11, 2008 at 03:13 PM | Comment permalink

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