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The Persistence of Memory

Posted by Steve Hughes on May 6, 2011


I recently completed reading “Moonwalking with Einstein” by Joshua Foer, an entertaining and thought provoking book that mixes a history of memory with an adventure story. Foer sets out to discover if he can improve his poor memory, and embarks on a journey that leads him to compete in the 2006 US Memory Championship. Along the way he discusses the “art and science” of remembering.

And whilst I don’t entirely agree with his assertion that if you “strip away the emotions, the philosophising, the neuroses and the dreams” then our brains “are fundamentally prediction and planning machines”, it represents a good description of an organisation’s “brain” , tasked with predicting, planning and deciding what and how to do or not do business.

And a reliable “organisational memory” is vital to avoid continually repeating the same mistakes and relearning “know how”. Remembering enables past practices and solutions to be used in new situations for competitive advantage and reduces the dependency of an organisation on individual “stars”.

Organisational memory is a generic concept that has been around for 20 years or so. Walsh and Ungson defined it in 1991 as “stored information from an organisation’s history that can be brought to bear on present decisions”.  It is the ability of an organisation to acquire, retain, and retrieve knowledge and, crucially, to be able to reflect on and re-contextualise that knowledge to meet current challenges. Retention of tacit knowledge or “know how”  -  the intuitive, hard to define knowledge that is acquired through experience over time – is crucial. “Know how” is a most valuable “in firm” source of competitive advantage as it provides experiential advantage over new rivals. If it can be retained and retrieved.

Unfortunately an organisation’s memory can be as bad as an individual’s, particularly for “know how” as this is commonly stored in individuals heads (collectively the firm’s transactive memory) rather than in knowledge management systems. Every time an individual leaves “know how” melts away from the organisation’s memory like the camembert of time in Dali’s painting.

Are there equivalent techniques to those Joshua Foer uses that can be used to improve an organisation’s memory? Certainly and too many for a single blog – so more on this topic in future. For now, I think knowledge retention is an interesting lens through which to view talent management practice. And a refocussing on the corporate rather than the individual, on “grow your own” rather than “buy and bribe”, and on experiential learning and reflection may be timely.

I’d be interested to hear any thoughts on the implications of social networking and learning on tacit knowledge retention and welcome any suggestions for further reading (Arnold Kransdorff currently has my attention).

6 Responses to “The Persistence of Memory”

  1. Excellent post, Steve! And thank you for recommending “Moonwalking” to me a couple of weeks back. What a terrific personal story, combined with interesting tidbits on the history of memory. Foer’s writing touches on really important topics like identity and our “externalization” of memory and its impact on ourselves and society.

    Your thinking on organisational memory and the problem of retaining “know-how” is spot-on. And of course, once you mentioned the implications of social networking, I am in. :-)

    • Thanks Mark. Coincidentally, James Gleick in “The Information”, which I started reading today, has a chapter called “The Persistence of the Word, which covers Joshua Foer’s discussion of the effect of writing on memory and the way we think

  2. Meg Bear said

    If only I could remember what I wanted to say about this blog…

    -M

  3. In the latest issue of Fortune magazine an article on Apple – “How Apple Works: Inside the world’s biggest startup” http://tech.fortune.cnn.com/2011/05/09/inside-apple/.
    Of the many fascinating pieces of information in the article, this is interesting in relation to organisational memory – “At Jobs’ instruction, Podolny hired a team of business professors, including the renowned Harvard veteran and Andy Grove biographer Richard Tedlow. This band of eggheads is writing a series of internal case studies about significant decisions in Apple’s recent history …. The goal is to expose the next layer of management to the executive team’s thought process.”

  4. [...] owe a big thanks to my colleague and co-blogger Steve Hughes, who recommended this fascinating book about how we remember things and how that affects who we are and how we [...]

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