Modern musings on a KM evergreen: institutional memory


Go on, try to Google ‘Institutional memory, KM’ and see what comes up

In the past generations of Knowledge Management, especially the first one, when all companies seemed to build the vastest database of lessons learnt and ‘best practices’ (double errrrr), ‘institutional memory’ was the holy grail.

Institutional memory, the Matroschka-like cascade of memories and assets...

Institutional memory, the Matroschka-like cascade of memories and assets…

The discourse of that KM era was all about learning organisations, as magically alive entities. Naturally, preserving the memory of those entities was just as understandable as making sure they would learn…

Let’s take a step back here : organisations themselves don’t learn. One doesn’t call organisations; and an organisation does not respond to challenges. Its people do. Similarly, organisations don’t have a memory, so much for institutional memory… But it is possible to keep traces of the past work involving members of that organisation to avoid reinventing the wheel… And that’s worth looking at more closely, something that a former KM4Dev conversation did in the past though not in a very user-friendly way for once.

Whenever a project ends, it leaves behind a certain legacy. Ditto with organisations: whether they die or not they have some assets, a legacy. What is that legacy made of?

  • Information and outputs produced
  • Expertise (knowledge and know-how)
  • A network of connections

…And of course some other resources (financial resources, physical assets etc.) which I’m not bothering about on this blog…

For each of these assets, institutional memory can be pursued by intentionally connecting personal asset bases (those of the staff) with the collective asset bases (those of the organisation).

So what makes us keep track of these resources for the benefit of all? And what are modern options re: institutional memory, given social media and other developments of the social age?

Regarding information and outputs produced:

An organisation keeps track of a rich and wide trail of information both for internal or external consumption, from legal statutes and strategies to annual reports, content publications etc. All this information ought to be well curated in a central repository, well tagged, well organised (with distributed ownership among various functions [not people], well described in internal processes and manuals, well explained at the induction or during job handover.

At ILRI we keep track of all finalised outputs using a D-Space repository for all final outputs. All internal documents are kept track of on the intranet if they are sensitive, or on the ILRI website if not. Certain teams entertain a wiki to keep track of their collective work, such as our ILRI comms and KM wiki.

At a meta level, the organisation should keep a clear description of the logic behind the information architecture and systems chosen (using open standards for easier sharing), but ultimately individuals should also play a key role in this, perhaps joining hands in mixing, where appropriate, their personal collections (e.g. of bookmarks using Del.icio.us or Diigo, of pictures using FlickR groups etc.).

Regarding expertise:

This is perhaps the most difficult of all to keep a link with in a way or another: information can be shared and stored easily; network connections can be developed jointly and expanded to other colleagues without too much trouble. But developing capacities, know-how, the business knowledge and savoir-faire of well-oiled relations and mastering the tricks of the trade don’t come by easily.

Some conventional methods remain extremely useful: Coaching and mentoring, on-the-job training and on-the-job rotation… Even simple after-action-reviews and exit interviews are great methods to build a collective track-record of ‘how things are done here’ or how they ought to be. Though as explained in my definition of KM, these conversations need to be documented and learning-focused in order for a collective memory to withstand.

Documenting work processes and tasks at hand is helpful to let new staff find their way through the maze of procedures, protocols, tools and other options available.

A personal learning network to keep our expertise sharp

A personal learning network to keep our expertise sharp

What is new here is the plethora of conversation-documentation methods where people learn and share expertise together, such as LinkedIn or Facebook groups, of wikis (see above) and even using Twitter as a personal learning network (PLN). The trick is to ensure that the organisation allows hosting connections with its staff’ PLNs.

Regarding networks:

Networks here are understood as the personal networks of the staff members and the institutional partnerships established, and they combine the above two, mingling information and expertise. Ensuring solid memory and legacy requires working on both scales:

  • From the personal network perspective, the new grail is to focus on trimming one’s personal learning network, on expanding that network and the practices that come with it via e.g. communities of practice to nurture a very solid network that is recognised for its different layers and circles of interests (hence the interesting ‘circles’ approach of Google+).
  • From the institutional network perspective, the challenge is to cross the institutional partnerships with a curiosity for PLNs and for possible linkages across the two, by means of institutionally recognised communities of practice, of institutional participation (i.e. participation that is done formally on behalf of the organisation) in more informal networks etc. Cultivating networks of former staff such as alumni networks for universities, is another way to ensure that some connections are maintained between previous and current staff.

This primarily and most deeply happens through joint work, long term interactions, multi-faceted conversations that slowly lead to building trust. When those processes are in place, institutional memory is built up naturally, provided that there is a conscious intention to developing relations and a sort of memory base at a higher scale than the individuals alone…

In summary, essentially…

Institutional memory feeds off:

  1. Strong personal knowledge management among individual staff members,
  2. Open and loose spaces of interaction in personal learning networks, where staff can easily connect their understanding and expand the knowledge fields that they are cultivating,
  3. Deep connections and capacity development experiences where staff work together and have time to transfer to each other key clues and
  4. A will, supported by the management and all staff (by the ‘culture’ of the organisation) to make this happen and to go beyond individual interest and selfishness, team pride and even projects’ arrogance.

Though of course, in a rapidly changing world, the most important is not necessarily to keep track of the past but to predict the future, and luckily PKM, PLN and all that also prove useful…

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6 thoughts on “Modern musings on a KM evergreen: institutional memory

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  4. Thank you @Kasa for your reflections and your engagement. I hope you join us at the next KM4Dev Ethiopia meeting in early October…
    Thank you also Carmen for re-blogging!

  5. This a very useful blog.Everyone of us need the knowledge and experience in ‘keeping track of the past and equally-if not more importantly-to predict the past.I believe one does not rule out the other,Thanks Ewen!

  6. Reblogged this on Learning for Change and commented:
    Insightful blogpost by Ewen Leborgne on the main principles supporting institutional memory and some useful tools to support knowledge sharing and information management.

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