ELTM14: Corporate History or Digital Amnesia?

Are you a fan of Pixar movies? I am (except for “Cars”). One of my favourites was “Finding Nemo” a story of a journey home. Along the way, the main character is accompanied by his friend “Dory” a friendly Paracanthurus Hepatus, whose primary character trait, it seems, is that of an extremely short memory.

Last August I retired from the k-12 public school system in my province. Along with personal belongings I left, not only with skills learned through long practice but, more importantly, with the only complete set of memories of the entire k-12 distance education program. Of course that’s not unusual. After all everyone retires at some point, and with all of them goes a piece of the overall history of the various organizations they have belonged to.

While that’s not necessarily a big problem, it can be, especially when you consider all of the decisions that have been made along the way. Each one received the proper amount of diligence and that has meant that, over time, a reasonably cogent set of guidelines and theory has been built up. In short, “oldsters” have a good idea of what to do and how to do it. They also have a good idea of what not to do. But, now it’s to no avail as they’re no longer around to lend a hand where they can.

So what? People move in, out of, and through organizations all the time and, on balance (a) the ability to intelligently match skills with jobs and (b) the spread of new and innovative ideas that results from this far outweighs the small losses that occur with the departure of a colleague. That said, this concern, which we can term “digital amnesia” still is something to be considered. Valuable employees possess not only the skills needed in the moment, but, more importantly, a clearer sense of purpose. This broader vision tends to keep the organization on the best track and, more importantly away from the small pitfalls and dead ends because, in all likelihood, they’ve experienced them before.

Perhaps, with that in mind, it is a useful suggestion for eLearning institutions to follow the lead of others and maybe establish a volunteer panel of advisers of all ages who can meet—virtually, of course—periodically and offer whatever wisdom and advice that may be needed at the time.

Next: technology–the rapture.

8 thoughts on “ELTM14: Corporate History or Digital Amnesia?

  1. Maurice, I couldn’t agree more about the use of advisors (or advisers). My son has his own business and has a panel of advisers, made up of staff and clients, which meets with him, quarterly. Here, pros and cons of how the the business is being run, how can improvements be made and how new plans can be implemented, are heard and decisions made accordingly. I believe it to be a great idea to surround oneself with wise counsel. Best wishes. Martin

    1. Thanks, Martin. Today, it seems, too many choose to instead surround themselves with like-minded others; supporters. There’s always wisdom in encouraging debate as dissenters–even if they are fundamentally wrong–tend to ask the right questions; the ones that lead to further improvements.

  2. Sounds reasonable to me. What is unreasonable is putting retirees ‘out-to-pasture’ when, as you have so correctly pointed out, they embody a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge which, if not downloaded on a regular basis, will need to be reinvented over, and over, and over again. D

    1. One of the benefits of experience is having ready access to relevant data that’s been gathered in various ways along the way. Some of it through personal experience and the rest through the formal research process.
      The other thing about this is the ability to bring on board a variety of perspectives and skills. Many organizations are populated by people of a single mind and value and, when times are good, that’s just fine. When change is needed, though, the “oneness of mind” has the same effect on the organization as would over-specialization on any biological population.

  3. If I recall correctly the estimates of the percentage of so-called “tacit” knowledge in organizations – not explicitly documented but only existing in employees’ brains – is 30%-40%. I am actually pessimistic about any approach – technical, organizational, psychological – that experts say will reduce it.

    I have seen the same pattern repeating over and over:

    1) Even really critical (and very technical, thus “on principle” easy to document) know-how leaves the company with an exployee. People are often “single points of skills”.
    2) Organizations setup initiviatives, projects, wikis,… whatever is fashionable (incl. “story-telling” in project management or quite new agey approaches…) again and again. Not much changes though I feel the informal “democratic” methods work better.

    The main problem is in my point of view that people are never given time for know-how transfer as there is always something more critical to tackle in day-to-day operations.

    1. Yes, and we are left with the old, familiar tug of war between what is urgent and what is important. This, in turn, refocuses the discussion on the need to effectively balance leadership with operations management. Too often, it seems, the majority of the effort is instantiated through management–responses to things that have to get done in the here and now. Frequently, then, what gets lost is a view toward the “big picture” and the broader goals for the organization.
      Of course there is no simple solution to this. There is, though, one great bit “do not”, specifically, do not focus on one of the two exclusively but, instead work on a dynamic balance of focus on what needs to get done in the here and now and what needs to get done, on a larger scale and in a larger time frame. It is in re-establishing that balance periodically where one sees the benefit of bringing in the differentiated skills and experiences of volunteer-based steering committees.

  4. Teachers reinventing the wheel over and over again you might say. I think some mentorship with young teachers would help the problem somewhat. In my experience I don’t get a lot of chances to learn from what other teachers are doing or to see it in action.

    Not related to the education field but what you written reminds me of another article I’ve read about corporate amnesia where the retired workers had to smuggle information into a company that had overtime misplaced it called: Institutional Memory and Reverse smuggling. You can read it here if you are so inclined http://wrttn.in/04af1a

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