Past Knowledge,

Fast Forward

Using institutional memory
to shape the organizational future

To better understand the past, and to create a better future, many of us often turn to collective human wisdom of eons gone by. That provides us the context, continuity, and often the connection that we can relate to, something we are comfortable with. Institutional Memory (IM) performs the same critical function in a business environment.

Why did we do that? This question is frequently posed in organizations that have been in existence for a few years. Not many organizations can answer that question because they did not continually gather the context around their decisions: Why certain decisions were made, why one path was chosen over another, and indeed, why the organization operates the way it does? In other words, such organizations did not develop an Institutional Memory (IM).

IM performs a critical function of providing collected wisdom to the members of the organization: It sets them up for success through an unbroken chain of organizational familiarity and conformity, fostering a long term organizational culture.

In addition to knowledge, IM also helps share organizational values — does an organization put profits above people? Does the organization recognize its social mission? — and provides concrete examples of how it was done. This not only fosters conformity and buy-in of core values that an organization strives for, but also provides a sense of continuity, organizational pride, and team cohesion as members share the same beliefs. It also helps avoid frequent ideological conflict by providing a stable value platform. All of this contributes to a business’s competitiveness.

Indeed, several organizations such as the Hewlett Packard Company and Johnson & Johnson have leveraged IM as their business compass, market telescope, and decision filter to survive and thrive for several decades. They bring to life important events and decisions by sharing case studies, notes, and vignettes. And their top management have likely put in place structured, easy to use process and tools to gather today’s stories for tomorrow.

IM, especially if shared in an anecdotal and traditional manner is easy to follow, understand and digest. For example, a lot of wisdom in cultures around the world has traditionally passed on by storytelling. In our time, there are tools available that can help collect and sharing of institutional memory even more effective and easier. For example use of multimedia tools (audio, video, social media) help organizations preserve the knowledge and context of important events in the organization’s life for posterity. After all, only those who remember the past are not condemned to repeat it.


Learn more. Reach out to Pranay Kohli.

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