The good and bad of institutional memory

I recently listened to an excellent interview of the retiring Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust on NPR. Faust is notable because she is the first woman president of Harvard, a designation that she resists. When asked about being the first woman president, her response was something like “I am the president of Harvard and I happen to be a woman.” Her actual reply to this is much more nuanced than I convey, but that wasn’t what got my attention.

Dr. Faust is an historian, and the interviewer asked her how being a historian helped or hindered her role. She commented that many people were skeptical of having a historian be president of Harvard, but that it was a tremendous benefit in leading the University through many of the conflicts during her 11-year tenure.

In particular, she said (and I am summarizing here) that debates about topics such as institutional racism benefited from a good understanding of the historical context including discussing historical situations like Harvard’s past participation in slavery. Her perspective was that institutional and historical memory produced more thoughtful discussion, problem resolution and action. This brought to mind two situations in which I am currently engaged that have a very different perspective on institutional memory.

In the first case, I am working with a large corporation where institutional memory is blocking progress. Every time someone tries to propose an innovation, the keepers of the institutional memory say some variation of “We tried that before and it didn’t work.” These people use institutional memory as a means of defeating progress, which is well described by Jeff Pfeffer in the Knowing Doing Gap.

Conversely, I am involved with an organization where the leadership team has excluded everyone with institutional memory in favor of people who have minimal tenure and experience with an organization. This occurred in part because the people with the institutional memory have been the leaders for a long time, are burned out and didn’t really want to participate anymore. In part, this is because the senior leadership of the organization pushed them out because it wanted fresh, contemporary perspectives. As a result, leaderships’ perspectives and decisions are very tactical, almost completely missing the connection to the strong historical purpose of the organization. Lacking historical context, this has resulted in disjointed, unrealistic initiatives decoupled from functional reality and with minimal effectiveness and impact. It is all about the trend of the week and not much more.

So, what is the sweet spot for institutional memory – not too much nor too little?

The structure of expert knowledge provides insight into the sweet spot of institutional memory. Institutional memory of the Purpose of an organization is critical and of the general structure of how to think about a change in the organization (our Big Steps).

But the Tips for how to achieve that Purpose and the Actions required to achieve that purpose can and should take advantage of contemporary capabilities and reflect contemporary requirements. So, the sweet spot is a blend of adherence to the past and embracing of the future – which isn’t easy to do.

How does your organization handle institutional memory?


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