Organizational Memory and Knowledge Repositories

Traditional memory is associated with the individual's ability to acquire, retain, and retrieve knowledge. Within business this concept is extended beyond the individual, and organizational memory therefore refers to the collective ability to store and retrieve knowledge and information.

So how does one define organizational memory? Any definition would need to span all the different repositories in which a company may store knowledge. This includes the more formal records, as well as tacit and embedded knowledge located in people, organizational culture, and processes.

Walsh and Ungson (1991) offer some deeper insight into the workings of organizational memory. They look at how and organization's history can influence current decision making. They examine how shared understandings evolve, becoming part of an organizational whole which may remain constant even after key individuals have left the firm. This is done through the formation of collective interpretations regarding the outcome of decision making. The information defining the decision's stimulus and response is stored in information, and it affects present decisions when it is retrieved.

Walsh and Ungson (1991) define a number of stages in the organizational memory process and outline five retention facilities:

  • Acquisition: Organizational memory consists of the accumulated information regarding past decisions. This information is not centrally stored, but rather it is split across different retention facilities. Each time a decision is made and the consequences are evaluated, some information is added to the organizational memory.
  • Retention: Past experiences can be retained in any of the five different repositories:
    • Individuals
    • Culture: The language and frameworks that exist within an organization and form shared interpretations.
    • Transformations: The procedures and formalized systems that the organization employs. These systems reflect the firm's past experiences and are repositories for embedded knowledge.
    • Structures: These link the individual to other individuals and to the environment. Social interaction is conditioned by mutual expectations between individuals based on their roles within the organization. The interaction sequences for a pattern over time and begin to extend to an organizational level. This can take place both through formal and informal structure and it constitutes a social memory which stores information about an organization's perception of the environment.
    • External activities: The surroundings of the organization where knowledge and information can be stored. E.g. former employees, government bodies, competitors, etc.
  • Retrieval: This can either be controlled or automatic. The latter refers to the intuitive and essentially effortless process of accessing organizational memory, usually as part of an established sequence of action. Controlled refers to the deliberate attempt to access stored knowledge.

As one can see, the three stages presented here are essential to the learning process of the firm. Much like an individual, the firm must be able to access and use past experiences so as to avoid repeating mistakes and to exploit valuable knowledge. Unlike an individual however, OM is not centrally stored and resides throughout the firm and even beyond it. The process of retrieving knowledge/information will inevitably vary depending on the retention facility that one is trying to access. For example, written documentation may be accessed through IT while cultural memory is accessed through the understanding and/or application of the norms and procedures of the working environment.

A further distinction regarding the type of knowledge retained in the organization is offered by Ramage and Reif (1996). They separate the documented aspects from the more subtle knowledge that belongs to individuals as a result of their role as members of the organization:

  • Artifacts of Cooperation: These are the hard indicators which are visible and examinable. The include products, records of collaboration, and ideas. The latter refers to minutes of meetings, reports, FAQs, and other items that record common knowledge. These are easily storable and presumably also more easily accessible.
  • Knowledge of the Organization Qua Entity: This type of knowledge cannot be stored in the same way as the artifacts of cooperation. It includes knowledge of the political system, of the culture, and of how things are normally done within the firm. It can include the knowledge of who is an expert, of where a particular person is, and on who to contact for a specific problem.

This definition is useful as a way of understanding the knowledge categories and the potential management challenge that organizational memory, and ultimately knowledge management (KM) would pose.

Furthermore, as is the case with many KM related disciplines, one finds a distinct difference in the way organizational memory is perceived between IT practitioners and business theoreticians. In the words of Wellman (2009): "The IT path emphasizes the acquisition and storage of organizational knowledge including data warehousing, document management, and search tools. The organization development (OD) path emphasizes tacit knowledge, coaching, social interactions, and encouraging ad hoc knowledge exchange."

IT based models thus tend to focus on more concrete, definable memory and less on people, culture, and informal structures. Essentially, they focus more on artifacts of cooperation.

Since this site deals with organizational memory within the context of KM, it is not necessary to arrive at a specific definition or model. Instead it is important to understand the scope of organizational memory, its varied and often complex retention facilities, and the types of knowledge available. In later sections, I will investigate more closely the specific role that IT can have in supporting, promoting, and enhancing organizational memory.

Alan Frost M.Sc., 2010

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