Memory and Infantilism

Jed Cawthorne has an excellent post following up on my July 20 post on NASA’s latest organisational memory failure. He links much better than I did the role of KM in preserving organisational memory, and he shows quite clearly how information management (and metadata management) processes connect to this critical KM role. I wish the purists would think contextually and concretely when they sniffily claim that IM and KM are different things. They might have distinct foci, but they cannot be treated as separate. It’s like trying to separate bones from flesh – you can do it, but the body won’t work any more.

Meanwhile UK police have been embarrassed by the loss of a critical case file. New evidence has emerged to implicate a suspect in a twelve-year-old rape case. Unfortunately the police have lost the original case file which contains the victim’s statement and details of supporting evidence. Without the file, the case cannot proceed. Memory loss in the form of tangible records can have big consequences.

But back to Jed Cawthorne. Towards the end of his post, he poses some pointed questions that have been turning over in my head:

“I often wonder why, if I could watch Neil step down from the Lunar Lander at Tranquility Base as a 3 year old perched on my fathers knee watching a tiny black and white tv, after they navigated themselves to the moon using a navigation computer that had a 1mhz CPU and 200K of memory, programmed using punch cards, over 40 years ago, why indeed are we not on Mars yet considering our current levels of technology ??

In an enterprise context, you might ask why do we keep repeating the same mistakes when we have powerful collaboration technology, the theories behind metadata, taxonomies and information management in general are well known and understood, various levels of legislation have produced reams of records management guidelines etc. Is it a vicious circle ? Because we don’t have good KM including organizational memory, we ‘forget’ on an institutional level how to do these things well and successfully ?”

GREAT … and uncomfortable … questions, very sharply put. Now I’m not sure that knowledge management as we know it today is equipped to provide the answer, though it is certainly a problem that KM tries to deal with. There’s something about organisational stupidity in the mix there somewhere as well (and I think there is a technical meaning to “stupidity” to be unravelled, I’m not just using it emotively).

Unfortunately, the practice of KM itself is a victim of the same forgetfulness – something I have come to think of as a perpetual infantilism. Some research we did a couple of years ago found that knowledge managers, KM teams and organisations themselves rarely get the chance to maintain enough continuity in KM to learn how to do it well. KM takes long periods to bed down and become sustainable (I’m beginning to think 8-10 years of sustained, focused effort gets you into the right sort of ballpark), and yet we found that teams and managers rarely stay the course that long. The feedback loops are just too long to enable us to learn before change comes along and disrupts the cycle. So the organisation lapses back into its original infantile and incompetent (in this domain) state.

Is this a memory problem or a learning problem or something in between?


3 Comments so far

Jed Cawthorne


Many thanks for the mention ! I love your comment in the first para about the ‘purists’. Indeed what we need is some contextually based ‘practical’ KM.

Interestingly I have seen the issue you mention in the final paragraph first hand on many occasions, again an organizational memory issue, but in a particular and rather different context.

In the UK armed forces an officer will be posted to a unit for maybe 2 to 3 years. When I was in the reserves (Territorial Army) I worked in the Psychological Operations unit for 6 years building considerable domain specific knowledge, but the officers, including the Commanding Officer, would just manage to build some understanding of their role and the discipline of Psyops (maybe even some expertise !) and promptly get moved on to the next job.

The U.S. government has recently realized it was doing the same with Cyber security, so it has set up a whole new organization so that a ‘career path’ can be managed, experience gained, and knowledge not drain away when individuals are moved.

Corporate IT and HR can be similar, so how do we make IM and KM “exciting” enough to ensure the development of expertise and experience, while not screwing up professional progression along the ‘career ladder’ ?

Let’s take that as a rhetorical question, as I have no answers !!  grin

Posted on July 30, 2009 at 09:15 PM | Comment permalink

Stephen Bounds

Hi Patrick & Jed,

I fully agree with your concerns — you inspired me to document how I think about managing these issues during my day-to-day work.

I’d be interested to know what you think about the merits of this approach.

Posted on July 31, 2009 at 10:37 AM | Comment permalink


Great post and question.  I suspect we are facing something between memory and learning, something that falls into the inevitable seams in organizations.

IM is about managing information systems, first and formost, and managing information architectures secondarily.  Day to day operations, especially in large operations, are about keeping the lights on. And lights-on is more important than getting the architectures right.

KM is about managing some domain in an organization where valuable knowledge is presumed to exist.  I say presumed because it requires much work to discover and catalog the knowledge artifacts before they are known, recognizable, distributable and reusable. The form of the catalog, the taxonomy, is mostly secondary to the drudgery of cataloging, leading to common failures of many KM initiatives.

Both IM and KM have full time jobs to do, as do RM, and EA if you have a large IT shop. Perhaps the failure rests with upper management in organizations for not fostering a community to bring the people together.

If I were to present this to my management, I can already hear the answer: What is the value proposition?

This may be an area where 5, or even 10 Whys? may be needed to uncover the problems and bureaucratic obstacles to cooperation. And another 5 or 10 to progress from cooperation to collaboration.

regards, tony

Posted on July 31, 2009 at 11:29 PM | Comment permalink

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