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 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:

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:

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.

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