By Jennifer Rossi, Manager

A headshot of a Caucasian woman with long brown hair sitting in a white desk chair“Where is that file?”

“Who was on that project? “

“What is the official procedure or process for…?”

These kinds of questions come up all the time in organizations. Not having this information organized and readily available can cause major problems. It can also translate into monetary losses or missed opportunities. For this reason, leaders must consider how they manage organizational memory.

Organizational memory is institutional or collective knowledge that can be both written and un-written and which grows bigger over time.

You can also think of it this way –it’s like your kid’s growing pile of Halloween candy. As they go from one house to the next, they build candy wealth. However, as their pile grows, they start forgetting what they have; what’s worse, they can’t find what they really want (e.g., a Snicker’s Bar).

Every team within an organization holds candy bags full of informational sweets. They have knowledge of what has worked and what has not worked, and this collective memory is intellectual property that can inform future actions, products, and services.

However, too much information can be a problem too.

Leaders must consider how they manage organizational memory.

Carelessly Letting the Memory Pile Grow Creates Major Issues

The three biggest areas of concern when it comes to organizational memory are information capture, retention, and retrieval. Ultimately, the risks outweigh the costs of spending time to document and organize.

Information Capture

Recently, one of our non-profit clients struggled with the first problem, information capture. Over the organization’s 30-year history, they have conducted countless educational events, yet they still have a challenging time understanding who attends these events and why. As a result, they lack an understanding of how to approach future events, especially how to market them.

Information Retention

The same non-profit organization also grappled with information retention. Due to the current COVID-19 crisis, they recently had to downsize, leading to a loss of knowledge. One affected employee held key information about how to use a tool the organization purchased to run virtual events – in their absence, other employees scrambled to get up to speed on their own, because the information had not been documented.

Information Retrieval

An Oil and Gas client experienced trouble with information capture and retrieval. The client used a manual approval process for land acquisitions, forcing management to wait days as their employees searched for and compiled information about approval amounts, remaining budgets, etc. As banal and trite as it may sound, time is money – or at least the two are quite interconnected. Our client needed a way to quickly and easily pull information from their systems.

Finding and synthesizing information was also a constant problem at a non-profit I worked with for many years as a board member. With high turnover, common at many non-profits, important information walked out the door on a regular basis. Employees often did not know how to find information, nor did they know what information existed. Throughout the year, board members would request data about programs and how much they cost per kid (which was not straightforward due to scholarships, variable pricing, variable costs, etc.). Time and time again, new employees would spend days looking for answers only to come back with “well, I think this is what it costs us.” How can you price your goods and services if you do not know what they cost you?

The Risks Outweigh the Costs of Spending the Time to Document and Organize

Not spending the time to ensure that employees know what information exists and where to find it is dangerous. There is a risk of history repeating itself, spending valuable time and resources on rework, and losing business if employees fail to realize that the organization has relevance in a particular area.

In other words, if leadership fails to address how to manage their organizational memory, they may find that they have no bags for trick or treating (information capture), they have a hole in their bag (information retention), or they have twenty bags for trick or treating and can’t find their favorite candy (information retrieval).

Determining how to manage your information does take time and may be a daunting task, but it is worth it. It is worth knowing what you have so you can compete in an increasingly competitive world.

A notebook with a yellow sticky note

How Technology Can Help

Capturing and protecting organizational memory can be difficult, but a myriad of tools can help.

At a basic level, Microsoft tools, such as Microsoft Teams, can improve file organization and access. Multiple non-profit clients have asked us to help improve documentation as well as data access and retrieval. The easiest solution has often been a broader adoption of Teams, allowing for real-time collaboration, clear file organization, and generally, better communication about existing knowledge.

Other tools can help with documentation and information retrieval. The previously mentioned Oil and Gas client needed a better process for obtaining acquisition and divestiture approvals. The first step was to update documentation about the process so that it could be improved. Many process mapping tools exist, such as Microsoft Visio and iGrafx Flowcharter, that can help an organization visualize their current and desired future states. Other tools can even automate processes. Ultimately, our Oil and Gas client decided to implement an automated process using Bizagi to improve efficiency and facilitate the capture of new and existing data. Another tool, Spotfire, was then used to visualize this data so management could easily access information and track department progress throughout the year.

Train and Maintain

Implementing new technologies will not help with the documentation and retrieval of information without training. Employees must understand how to use the tools that facilitate the management of organizational memory; thus, training is essential. When we recommend a new solution to any client, we strongly suggest including training and communication plans. It may seem obvious, but new tools will not do an organization any good if users do not know how to use them.

Organizations should also make the maintenance of their memory a habit. If the tools managing your memory pile become mismanaged or outdated, then you are back at square one, a state where people do not know what information exists or where to find it.

On the flip side, organizations should know when organizational forgetting is necessary for innovation. As discussed in a 2013 HBR article, not all memories are Snickers bars (information you should cherish). However, every organization has valuable Snicker’s bars and Skittles. Don’t let yours fall to the bottom of the information pile.

Need more information about tools you can use to manage organizational memory? Reach out to one of our consultants using the form below.

Every organization has valuable Snicker's bars and Skittles. Don't let yours fall to the bottom of the information pile.

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