Friday, August 21, 2009

Organizational Memory

Are social networking tools the solution to improving organizational memory (asks @EffectiveCIO Chuck Musciano)? Chuck's blog Legs and Memory suggests a link between memory and efficiency: "Forgotten items create more work, both at home and on the job."

Now that would be easy enough if nothing ever changed, and if last year's best practices still worked. But as Chuck points out, formal guides and detailed documentation fail because of continuous change. There is a tension between efficient adaptation and effective adaptability.

So Chuck argues that organizational memory is best retained in the heads of the people in the organization. And because captured organizational memories fade rapidly over time, you must reinforce your organizational memories, by constantly revisiting and updating them.

What's the role of social networking tools here then? Chuck doesn't believe that these tools are yet up to the job of real-time knowledge capture, and falls back on the old favourite - finding the person who knows what we need. Better than nothing perhaps, but way short of what is needed.

What is needed for organizational intelligence is the ability to use organizational memory without being controlled by the past. In his post (some) rules are meant to be broken, Brett Miller makes this point very well.

You can see this in the way many organizations apply the idea of “best practices”: capture past practices that worked and apply those practices, as is, to future situations that are similar. While this works fine for what I call “information” processes - and is a critical step in helping any organization improve - it is not appropriate for “knowledge” processes. ...

... This is not to say that past experiences should not be exploited in creating/acquiring new knowledge. Except for the rarest of occasions, most new knowledge created today is derivative of something past. It is important to know what has come before and learn from the successes and failures of others. The rules that come from those past lessons then become the framework for the future.
But of course organizational memory does not only consist of rules (best practices), but all sorts of other knowledge (including evidence, interpretation and stories) that may be relevant to developing next practice. A lot of this knowledge will surely be maintained in electronic form, not just in people's heads, some structured or semi-structured, using a broad range of social software.

Furthermore, evolving practices (organizational learning) will typically require collaboration between different people across the enterprise, and we may reasonably hope for software tools to support this learning.

Once upon a time, information systems maintained a clear distinction between highly structured data (in old-fashioned databases) and loosely structured information (in a wide range of formats, including Office). But we now need to find new ways of integrating this information to support the intelligent organization.

1 comment:

David Sprott said...

It’s easy to believe social networking tools enable a fast, fluid environment in which past practices can be dynamically modified and improved. But as Brett says rules are required. I suggest that social networking tools need to implement a model that recognizes policy as a way of bringing some order to an otherwise chaotic process of change. Policy can be instantiated in various ways – reference architecture, reference process, templates, key governance decisions, process etc. Social networking tools facilitate development and crucially communication of policy. Organizational memory is an attractive concept, but it needs a search mechanism that includes the key meta data that informs whether the discovered item is current, redundant, optional or mandatory. The policy model would be a good starting point.