The persistence of (organisational) memory

 Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory

In my late teens, living in Calcutta, I used to play a lot of duplicate bridge. Or at the very least, contract bridge, if eight players could not be found. This was in the mid 1970s, when sophisticated artificial bidding systems were all the rage. [For those who are interested, I used to play a modified Precision Club system with a strong club, four card majors, weak no-trump, Stayman asking for majors, a “splinter 2 diamonds“, weak pre-emptive 3s and Blackwood asking for aces.]

The particular system I was using is not relevant. What is relevant is that it was a complex way of collecting and signalling data: the bidding process in bridge, the conventions used, these are but tools to tell your playing partner something about the cards you hold.

There was this one time when my playing partner and I were playing against my brother and his playing partner. At the time they weren’t particularly serious about the game. Novices. So we did our Precision mumbo-jumbo rocket-science bidding. And they used an Acol-based “natural” bidding system, no frills. And they beat us. And kept beating us.

This was not good.

After all, we had the superior bidding system, the maturity, the experience, the everything. They shouldn’t be beating us.

And they weren’t just beating us. They seemed to know everything about the deal.

Because they did.

Having thrashed us comprehensively, amidst hoots of laughter, they told us what they’d been doing. Which was simple.

While we were knotted-browed in concentration using the most esoteric signalling systems to describe the cards we held, they were using a somewhat more effective one: they were showing each other their cards. Not within the rules, but done to teach us a lesson.

And the lesson was this: remember why you’re doing something, don’t get lost in the what and how.

In bridge, the purpose of bidding is to let your partner know what cards you have. The systems and conventions are meant to help you do that. But the purpose is to signal the cards you hold.

When I talk about engaging with customers, I try and draw on this analogy. Focus groups and surveys are not an end in themselves. They are way, inefficient ways, to find out what the customer wants to do, ways to discover customer preferences and intent. Today, the customer tells you what she wants, what she intends.

And so it is within the enterprise.

Which is the nub of this post: how the capacity for organisational memory has increased dramatically over the past decade or so (through tools like Chatter) and why it matters. [Disclosure: I work for, the company behind Chatter].

There was a time when it was normal for a person to spend her whole life at one firm. The contract between employee and employer was trust-based. meaningful and long-term, there was security of tenure, and staff turnover was low. Teamwork was high.

There was a reason why teamwork was high. The institution had memory.

Teamwork involves sacrifice. Sacrifice requires humility. Teams work because people allow themselves to be vulnerable in front of each other.

This sacrifice, this willingness to be humble, this acceptance of vulnerability, all this is underpinned by trust, and in turn creates trust.

Huge dollops of trust. Trust enabled by the characteristics mentioned earlier: meaningful contracts between employer and employee,  the security that comes from tenure, the familiarity that comes from low turnover. The feeling of being amongst family.

In such an environment, teamwork excels at least in part because of organisational memory. When you “took a bullet” for the team, your colleagues and your boss remembered that. When you agreed to hold on to your misgivings and go with what some of the other team members wanted to do, you did so in the knowledge that your “sacrifice” would be noted. Now this was not in some manipulative calculated fashion, it was more of the everyday give-and-take that characterises interactions between people in relationship.

The organisation remembered. Because the organisation was stable, attrition was low.

As job mobility increased, and with it attrition, the memory of the organisation began to suffer. And at least one of the incentives to collaborate, to share, weakened as a result.

As the incentives weakened, so did the reality. People worked less as teams, people worked less in teams. The willingness to sacrifice receded, as did the willingness to make oneself vulnerable. If you took a bullet for the team, but the team wasn’t going to be there to remember that taking-of-bullet, what was the point?

An I-Told-You-So culture was born, a precursor to the full-fledged Blame Culture.

Some people noticed that institutional memory was failing, and sought to prevent it by instilling the practice of recording what was discussed at meetings, what was agreed, who was meant to do what. The process of taking minutes grew as a result, but no longer to provide a record of what happened. More often than not, it became a negotiated set of statements, truths, half-truths and sometimes outright lies, as the participants in the meeting sought to reflect their disparate positions “on the record”.

Minute-taking became an art form; in many enterprises, she who takes the minutes rules the crown. Because the minutes defined reality. An alternate reality, sometimes a false reality, but nevertheless what was perceived as reality.

And the Blame Culture was in full swing.

Dark days.

Days we can leave behind. Because of the power of streams of information at work. Now, it is possible for the “record” to show everything that was discussed, not just one person’s summary of a set of negotiations as to what to put down on the record.

Activity streams capture the flow, the conversations, the commentaries and the comments around the digital social objects in the enterprise: proposals, orders, bills, complaints, whatever: presentations and documents and tables of one form or other.

Collaboration is not what happens in the presentation, document or spreadsheet; it is what happens around these objects.

Collaboration does not happen because of a presentation, document or spreadsheet; it is what happens despite these objects.

Collaboration is not in what is captured in static documents, but in the flow of conversation around those documents. A flow that is dynamic, live and continuing.

This flow, represented by the conversations and comments, in conjunction with the “enterprise social objects”, is what is persisted in activity streams by services like Chatter.

And it is in this flow that the organisation recovers its ability to remember.

And it is in this ability to remember that the organisation recovers its ability to trust; it is in this trust that teamwork proliferates. The work of teams characterised by a vulnerability, an openness, a humility, a willingness to sacrifice for the good of the collective.

There are many other aspects of knowledge management that are made possible by enterprise activity streams, as we learn to move from past-tense analysis to present- and future-tense approaches. Aspects to do with discovery, with Rumsfeldian (or more correctly Polanyi-like) unknown unknowns, with the capacity of the organisation to record, replay and learn from the replays. Aspects to do with serendipity and with providing avenues to soak up the Shirkyist cognitive surplus inherent in knowledge work. Aspects to do with understanding the actors and their roles within the organisation, in Gladwellian salesmen/connector/maven ways. Aspects to do with nonlinear work and asynchronous work. Aspects to do with induction and training and coaching and mentoring.

I’ve written about all these before, and I will write about all of them again.

Because we live in exciting times.

The organisation can find its memory again.


When you build and implement systems of collaboration, ask yourself whether you’re investing enough in persisting and understanding the flow. The documents and spreadsheets and presentations are necessary but not sufficient.


8 thoughts on “The persistence of (organisational) memory”

  1. It took a minute for me to understand what you were writing about. But then it hit me and kept hitting me, very nice post. Thought provoking, I hope more people get to read it. Thanks to @cherylmcKinnon and @piewords for sharing

  2. (Warning, it looks like I’m trolling, but I’m not)

    “Hahaha, you cheeky bastard!”

    That looks terrible, sat there in your comments stream for eternity, an affront to an individual as well as to language, but it is an integral part of verbal human interaction during collaboration. The text streams that (will) surround output are either going to be just as well self-edited as emails, or will be a damning and misrepresentable legacy of the author in the future.

    People will learn how to communicate in this medium (I hope somewhere between the raucous Facebook and rather dead LinkedIn), but it will still be a tricky one to manage, maintaining the company memory in a more complex way than minutes.

    I am, however, inexperienced in this matter, as we rarely use similar media in our company. Have you ever tried doing a social survey of Chatter? How do people truly interact on there? Would such a thing be possible without affecting privacy and security?

    Thanks as always for your thoughts and nucleating some of my own!

  3. I’m looking at digital storytelling skills as digital literacies necessary for work. Quite depressing how little these appear in education systems. I’m thinking that I can create a business that would teach these techniques to people to increase employability.

    Thanks for the post, this will help me make my business case.

  4. Spot on.
    The ‘why’ is forgotten, and we have to bring back ‘why’. Its crucial.
    We also shouldn’t be afraid of showing our hand, but trust seems to be very lacking these days too.

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