CoolData blog

24 January 2011

Institutional memory is made of this

Filed under: Best practices — Tags: — kevinmacdonell @ 7:02 am

The term “institutional memory” crops up a lot. We hear it when a veteran employee leaves, taking all kinds of history with him or her. As in, “Oh dear, there goes our institutional memory. What shall we do?”

I take a different view of institutional memory. I picture well-maintained records and filing systems, up-to-date documentation on shared servers, easily-retrievable annual reports, backups of historical data and, of course, robust databases. I don’t picture human beings.

People who have a long history with an organization are valuable. Show them your data, your findings, and they’ll be able to tell you what they mean. They can provide insights you could never discover on your own. They’ll save you from making embarrassing mistakes and false conclusions based on your ignorance of the past.

But use your resident veterans wisely — as wayfinders to knowledge, not necessarily the knowledge itself. If human memory was remotely adequate on its own, we wouldn’t write anything down, we wouldn’t keep records and we wouldn’t have databases.

Respect the humans, but trust the data.

If you’re constantly relying on someone’s memory for guidance, it’s probably time for a cultural shift in your organization in the direction of externalizing that knowledge in the form of proper documentation. True institutional memory is deep, accessible and accurate; human memory is none of those things.



  1. It’s easier said than done. I wish it wasn’t so!

    Comment by Janine — 25 January 2011 @ 5:10 pm

    • Yeah. I had another person tell me, “Dream on.” I’m just suggesting we move in that direction, i.e. toward thinking just a little longer-term. The gains to be had are not ALL in the distant future, and when people see that, it starts to make sense.

      Comment by kevinmacdonell — 25 January 2011 @ 5:46 pm

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