Corporate and Personal Amnesia

From the BBC Business News site:

Britons today change job more frequently than workers in much of the rest of Europe and, as the economy improves, that churn rate increases. Young workers move jobs much often than older workers did.

But there’s a hidden cost.

Each time someone leaves their job, a chunk of the organisation’s memory leaves too. How, then, do you run complex systems, see through long-term projects, or avoid past mistakes?

Short-term contracts and outsourcing reduce the appetite for learning company or product history. And when job losses land, even more knowledge is lost.

This is a problem that has always existed of course but perhaps, with higher churn rates, it’s more serious than previously or perhaps the consequences are potentially more far reaching (global). I remember there was much talk on this subject over 15 years ago, when I was involved the the relatively new field of ‘knowledge management’.

The article gives some interesting and quite varied examples, including:

  • City firms – in 20012 the churn rate for one was 28%, higher than McDonalds.
  • Her Majesty’s Treasury – “the vast majority of Treasury staff had never been through even a recession, let alone a banking crisis.”
  • Nuclear weapons – “for years after the end of the Cold War, policy and expertise became less of a priority; collective memory leeched away as more and more people retired.”

Then there’s the problem of “preserving the institutional memory in the age of email and texts”.

Last year an official review of government digital records concluded that existing systems had not worked well. Most departments, it said, “have a mass of digital data stored on shared drives that is poorly organised and indexed”.

Historian Prof Sir David Cannadine, who was involved in the 2009 review of the “30-year rule” on the release of official papers, goes further.

Speaking at the British Academy in March, he said poor preservation of electronic records from the late 1980s to the early 2000s meant that often, when you looked for documents, “there’s nothing there”.

This latter point applies to my personal information as well. It’s dotted around in emails (in addition, I don’t always systematically save attachments), various databases (Evernote, Devonthink etc) as well as different types of notes/documents (Scrivener, Tinderbox etc) and mind maps (iThoughtsX etc). I could always try to interconnect them but you have to be careful that the time taken to do this (and keep things updated) may easily outweigh any advantages.

I think I’ll try and get back into the habit of writing one page monthly personal reviews. These won’t obviously capture everything (sometimes small events turn out to lead to bigger than anticipated consequences) and lots will remain in my head but the very process of just thinking about things is likely worth the time invested and hopefully provide a helpful and useful ‘memory’.

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