Moving Up the Down Escalator: Tackling Corporate Memory
“We’re losing all our corporate memory,” wailed Meredith the CEO as she cabbed back to the office with her executive assistant, having attended her third retirement dinner in as many weeks. Her assistant shrugged, not really seeing what the boss was getting all worked up about. “There’s always somebody that can take their place,” he thought.
The next morning Meredith took a coffee break with Phil, who had been her assistant for almost a year. He could tell Meredith was still upset about that “corporate memory” thing when she asked him to drop everything and look into what could be done to reduce the firm’s “vulnerability” – as she called it.
“Sure thing boss,” he said, “but what’s the big deal? That guy that retired yesterday was in charge of shipping and receiving – and had done that for over thirty years – but so what? Anybody with that training could do that job.”
Meredith sighed. Her assistant was like a lot of people who thought that organizations were simple, inanimate things – bricks and mortar, org charts, job descriptions and the whole paraphernalia of bureaucracy. And they believed that just about everything you needed to know existed in a document somewhere, with the only real task finding out where the document you needed was buried. And if a gap should be found somewhere, well it was just a matter of writing up a procedure, or policy or form, and all would flow smoothly one again.
“Phil, it’s not as simple as you think. Organizations are living, breathing organisms. They are like people – with their own histories, dreams, desires, jealousies, traditions and habits. And they are made up of people, no two of whom are alike, while at the same time they share certain beliefs, values and behaviours. That all wraps up into what we call our “corporate culture,” and it’s worth more to us than a thousand desktop computers or a million mission statements. It’s what makes us a cohesive whole, a team-based organization that is not tripping over itself every second of every day.”
Phil wasn’t convinced.
“With all due respect Meredith, I think any competent person should be able to ramp up to a new job in a week or less. We’re operating in a globalized, fast-paced world today and if they can’t cut it, they shouldn’t be running it.”
Meredith realized that what she was hearing was probably the view of a lot of her employees. They might like someone who was retiring, but they didn’t see it as a huge loss to the company because, as Phil said, there’s always somebody waiting in the wings. An accomplished story-teller, she tried a different tack.
“Phil, every competent organization has characters – people playing roles that are quite apart from who they are as people. And this is not something that just emerged yesterday. Back in primitive times, tribes had witch doctors or shamen who were walking repositories of both fact and fiction.
“Whether true or not, what the shaman knew was closely tied in with the tribe’s survival. It concerned the weather, the movement of game, competing tribes, a little bit of medicine, and superstition. The witch doctor provided experience, an historical and environmental context, and a rationale for action. The chief wouldn’t move without consulting this person.
“In much later times, cities in Europe had monks who toiled away in monasteries, translating and transcribing important texts. They were like information hunter-gatherers. They knew what was important, and they knew they had a crucial task: to collect all that was known and preserve it for the future. From their work came what we now call “libraries” – and progress would have been impossible without their work, and the work of their successors.
“Then, there have always been “warriors.” They’re the ones who, driven by passion, want to remake the world, or at least their part of it. They are the folks we call “leaders” and “visionaries.” But warriors are also the taskmasters, change artists and opinion leaders who are part of moving things forward. If it weren’t for them, we’d be running around in circles most of the time. To succeed, warriors need to know what motivates their employees, colleagues and competitors. They need to know what works in getting things done and what is almost guaranteed to fail. They need to know the culture and they know what they have to do to make that culture work.
“The warriors, monks and shamen are some of the characters in this little play we’re putting on here. Without them, there wouldn’t be anyone sitting in the theatre. Our very large risk here is that we’re seeing these players leave the theatre, and there are neither understudies ready to take on their roles, or even fresh young faces coming in the door who have the capability of taking over where these people have left off.
“We do have access to high competent candidates for our vacancies, it’s just that what these new people need to know can’t be gotten from textbooks. Some of it can be learned from previous experiences, and some of it can be picked up in the new job. But in my experience there is no such thing as a “running start” – and until we do things differently, there never will be.
“Consider this thought. And I’d like you to keep it in mind as you work on this project. There has never been a society in history that did not have people in it who were responsible for nurturing – what some sociologists call “acculturating.” It’s their job to pass on what is known by the society, and what is required to be a fully paid of member of that society.
“Think of what we put children through so they can be part of their families. Think about what an immigrant needs to do to get citizenship papers. But we here don’t even have a new employee orientation program – we expect people to simply know who we are, what we are all about. And even though we say that we are open to everyone’s input, we really don’t do a good job of seeking views and making collaboration real. Consider how our retiring employees must feel when we sit them down – finally – and ask them to share their knowledge.
“And when I speak of “knowledge,” I’m not taking about “information,” though many people imagine them to be the same thing.
“Look Phil – that’s the employee phone book over there on my desk. You can see at a glance who works here, where they work and how they can be reached. But you won’t see there who needs to be called for a particular issue, and what other people need to be brought into the discussion. That situation is even more challenging when the issue is unprecedented or very urgent. Then, our calls might have to be very creative. And you can’t be creative if you don’t have a high level of knowledge about our organization, the people who work here and what it is that we do and can do.
“Knowledge is not about having the information you need. It’s about knowing what needs to be done in a particular situation. We don’t pay our people because they have lots of information. We pay them because they have knowledge, or know where to get it, and then know what to do with it. That’s what’s going out the door and that’s what has me worried.”
“But,” Phil said, “if it’s decisions that knowledge is concerned with, then we’ve got a mountain here, not a mole hill. Every person makes millions of decisions every day – including for example where to put their foot down next.”
Meredith agreed. “That’s why we just can’t ask our employees, and those retiring to, ‘Tell us everything you know’ – because people don’t know what they know until they need to know it. And for us to collect people’s knowledge, we have to know what we need to know from them. We need to know what questions to ask, or perhaps we need to know how to position the conversation so people will tell us what they know we need to know.”
Phil was getting the picture. At least he was developing a sense of how big an issue this was, and clearly this was not some passing whim of the boss. But Phil was inexperienced and one of those “fresh faces” Meredith had talked about. He hadn’t a clue where to start.
Phil decided to do a walk-around and try to get some ideas from his colleagues. HR told him that all he had to do was get an exit interview process in place and with proper recording, all that knowledge and experience could be captured and available for anyone who wanted it.
The information and technology folks said that if employees would only use the document system then everything they did would be set down for all time, and that such “business intelligence” could be mined for generations to come.
Communications said that if only we could develop standard song sheets and have everyone singing from them then there wouldn’t be a problem.
The business process people said that if only employees would stop acting independently and doing more work though committees then the ways and means of work would be shared and everyone would be both doing and learning at the same time. “Eventually,” Phil was told, “everyone will be able to do everything.”
The more people Phil talked to, the more worried he became. All he was hearing was that the solutions were simple, and that what was needed was already in place or could be easily done.
But Phil wasn’t that fresh. He had been around enough to know that when everyone claimed to have a solution, oftentimes they hadn’t really figured out the whole problem, and sometimes even what the real problem was.
He had seen mistakes made time after time where money was thrown at so-called “solutions” which often turned out to be band-aids administered to symptoms. Other times, organizations had even exacerbated problems by hiring “experts” or building complex structures or processes that created even more pigeon holes, reduced morale or even contributed to employee turnover!
Phil had reached the first stage of full appreciation of the complexity and magnitude of the corporate brain drain issue. He was coming to understand that his firm’s monks and warriors were leaving, and aside from what he was hearing from Meredith, there didn’t seem to be all that much concern about it. Having conferred with colleagues, he was becoming more and more convinced that getting to the roots of this issue, and really doing something about it, was going to take more than just the design and implementation of a new set of forms. He returned to the boss’ office.
“Meredith, I did like you asked. I’ve dropped everything and gotten into this whole corporate memory business. I now know two things. I know what I don’t know about this – and it’s a lot. And secondly, I know that I have to go outside our organization and step out of traditional trains of thought if I am going to nail down the issues here, and how we might address them.
“I’m going to take a couple of weeks and go talk to some recent retirees. And I’m going to ask them what they left with, and what they wish they could have left behind. And I’m going to visit some of our colleague and competitor organizations and see what they are doing. Somebody has to have something going in this area.”
“Phil, take all the time you need. But make darn sure that what you see and learn becomes part of our corporate memory so we don’t have to do all this over again.”